For the past several years, I’ve had the opportunity to visit Berlin almost annually as I’ve taught at the Free University of Berlin. Those who have had a chance to visit the city know that it is compact and accessible, so a visitor can see quite a bit during a short stay, but it is also nearly impossible to exhaust the city’s cultural riches and historical lessons. Few places have been so deeply scarred by tyranny, conflict, and atrocity, and few have taken so seriously the obligation to educate and warn the world against the various dangers that led to or accompanied the rise of Nazi rule in the country.
When I visited Berlin in February and March of this year, I was accompanied by my oldest son, which gave me an excuse to visit for a second time some sites that I had only seen once, but which I thought he should see. At the same time, we were still able to visit a few memorials and museums that I had not seen before, including Topography of Terror (a museum of the systematic state terror organized by the Gestaop, SS, and Reich Security) and Gleis 17 (a memorial to more than 50,000 Jews deported to concentration camps from Berlin’s Grunewald train station) — each of which left an impression that returns to me now in the midst of the present crisis at the United States’ southern border.
Of course, care must be taken with analogies, not least — and perhaps especially — with analogies to Nazi atrocities. They come very easily in part because, when it comes to state terror and the corruption of an entire nation’s self-conception, Nazism rightly occupies a prominent place in our imaginations. We should be grateful that it does, lest we slip too easily into similar darkness.
At the same time, we should be take care because overstated or less-than-careful analogies to Nazi rule can numb us to their lessons, blunt their intended effects, and turn counterproductive- — not unlike the way that calling Mitt Romney a misogynist or John McCain a tyrant might have paved the way to take the charges less seriously when they were finally aimed at President Trump, who truly deserved them.
So while we shouldn’t be too shy to make analogies to Nazi Germany, we should simply be careful to bring into sharper relief what we mean to be our focus. Painting with a broad brush — “this is like Nazi Germany” or “[so and so] is like Hitler” or “[such and such agency] is like the SS” — can unhelpful. But pointing to specific observations, questions, or lessons can be more helpful. I’d like to point out three that hit me with special force during this year’s visits.
Rule-breaking is used to justify atrocities
Many memorials and museums to the Holocaust and to other forms of Nazi state terror go out of their way to emphasize how much of the atrocity was actually documented by the perpetrators. The museum at which this stands out most clearly is the Topography of Terror, a museum that documents the systematic terror organized by the Gestapo, SS, and Reich Security. Among other things, the displays repeatedly emphasize the way in which minor offenses were documented in order to justify injustices and atrocities. When it could, the regime went to great lengths to document rule-breaking in order to legitimize deportation, family separation, forced labor, and killing.
Are we doing the same thing? Do we think we can justify our atrocity as long as we can document some rule-breaking, regardless of the proportion?
Dehumanization happens at many scales at once
The Topography of Terror reinforces another theme that is common at memorials and museums in Berlin — that much of the evil perpetrated by the Nazi regime was up-close and personal. Berlin’s best-known memorial to the Holocaust, The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, makes this point repeatedly. Its designers were clearly worried that textbooks would emphasize only the policies of the regime and the industrial-scale violence of gas chambers, thus losing sight of so much of the smaller-scale, more personal violence — the sometimes cheerful inspectors who separated those fit for work and those fit for the gas chamber upon arrival at concentration camps or the people who murdered Jews and others not by the hundreds or thousands, but a few or a dozen at at time at close range.
The same is true of the dehumanization that preceded and accompanied these atrocities. Topography of Terror exhibits show how, alongside the policies, there were individuals at work to dehumanize Jews, Sinti, Roma, homosexuals, the disabled, and others — calling them unworthy, mocking and humiliating them publicly, laughing at them, forcing small-scale labor (like cleaning up graffiti), spreading damaging lies — in up close and personal fashion.
When the president repeatedly dehumanizes immigrants in various ways, are we engaging in this dehumanization at a mass scale? When a guard jokes that the cries of traumatized children unexpectedly separated from their parents are like an orchestra — children he is supposed to care for — are we doing this up close?
Injustice happens in plain sight
During my last trip to Berlin, I also had a chance to visit Gleis 17, a memorial to the deportation of more than 50,000 Jews from Berlin, who began their journeys to death camps from the city’s Grunewald train station. Hundreds of metal markers line the reconstructed platform, noting that a certain number of Jews was deported to a specific location on a certain date (all of which was information gathered from the perpetrators’ own paperwork, to return to the “documentation” theme from above).
The astounding thing about the Grunewald train station is the fact that it was next to a neighborhood and, while it was being used to deport Jews, was still in use as a train station for civilian purposes. As I understand it, the Grunewald station was a place where a family might board a train to get out of the city for a weekend while, at the same time, Jews were herded to their deaths in relatively plain sight. It is not only that the Gestapo, the SS, the Reich Security, the Hitler Youth, the military committed atrocities during the Nazi regime, but that many simply stood by, conducting their daily business and leisure activities while they watched the events unfold.
Are we watching the injustices in plain sight while simply going about our business? If so, what does that say about us?