It was the philosopher George Santayana who was credited with the saying: those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
That sobering thought haunted me as we spent a day in Nuremberg. This city's name is now associated with the aftermath of World War II, and the Allies' efforts to hold the Nazis responsible for their horrific "crimes against humanity." It was here that the Nuremberg trials were held--the first time that the conduct of a war was put on trial. Twenty four major leaders of the Nazi war effort were tried, with many of them being convicted and some being sentenced to death by hanging. Some, such as Field Marshall Göring, the most prominent Nazi to be tried and convicted, requested the honorable death by firing squad. That request was denied, so Göring cheated the Allies anyway when he procured an ampule of cyanide which he bit into and died.
The windows of Court Room 600 where the Nuremberg Trials were held
Nuremberg was chosen as the site for these trials precisely because of Hitler's having used the city as a staging location for his huge Nazi rallies. We visited two sites where these rallies took place--Zeppelin Field and Congress Hall.
The interior of Zeppelin Field
A photo of the projected appearance of Congress Hall
The interior of Congress Hall today, a deteriorating shell of a building that was never completed
These two huge structures were planned for construction. Hitler had designed an 11 acre site with a wide sweeping avenue, a huge field (Zeppelin Field) for assembling the thousands of Nazi party faithful and Hitler Youth along with members of the SS, and Congress Hall where rallies would be held. Zeppelin Field is the site made famous in Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will". For these Nazi rallies, the field was decorated with Nazi flags, and featured row upon row of gathered Nazi faithfuls, all held in the thrall of Adolph Hitler who emerged from the center of the stage. Congress Hall was designed and building was begun but never fully completed. The architect for this grand project was Albert Speer, one of those also tried and convicted during the Nuremberg Trials.
What is so sobering about this visit to Nuremberg? Well, I kept having two thoughts: first, what happened in Germany that led up to the atrocities committed? and how could an entire nation be pulled into seemingly blind compliance. Second, can it happen again?
Historians have written tomes pondering the first question. Germany too has begun to come to grips with this question. For a time, immediately following the war, a kind of national shame gripped the country and people did not want to talk about what happened. Denial was in surplus supply. Now, Germany has begun serious efforts to face its own past. Now housed within the Congress Hall is a museum called the Documentation Center Nazi Party Rally Grounds. We spent a portion of one morning there--and could really have spent much more time there. It is an overwhelming experience. The rise, expansion, domination and eventual fall of the Nazi party is the central focus of this museum.
As we moved from one display to the next, we could barely absorb the enormity and horror of all the information. Frankly, it becomes mind-numbing. And, the temptation is great to just turn away. But we kept moving along, reading the descriptions, looking at the video clips, trying to take it all in.
It is, of course, the second question that really troubles me. Because, I think those of us who are citizens of the United States have been honing our forgetting skills. We repeat our own mistakes, and we also seem to repeat other nations' mistakes.
I was particularly troubled to read in the Documentation Center how the press was used to distort the truth. Please understand--this is not a screed against the so-called liberal media. Frankly, I think the touted image of the media as liberal is completely bogus. What I am most frightened by is the way in which media is used today to convey a pre-determined point of view. The fact that a national news channel would use as its slogan "fair and balanced" and then do anything BUT report in such a manner should scare us all.
Of late, during political campaigns, comparisons to Nazis are liberally applied. You may hear some politician or some pundit opine that doing something--oh, such as passing the health reform act--is just like what the Nazis did. Well, no--my friends. What the Nazis did was to target almost every group of people that was outside the proclaimed norm of the white so-called Aryan race. So who did that include? We know it included Jews--but it also included gypsies, labor union members, epileptics, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, pastors both Catholic and Protestant.
While our river cruise trip was lovely, relaxing, and refreshing, it was also sobering. We need to remember the ugly truths of history, and not just enjoy the beauty of a reborn nation. If we remember the past, perhaps we are not condemned to repeat it.