Learning from Europe’s Dark Past

The incredibly brave White Rose movement resisted Nazi tyranny

The incredibly brave White Rose movement resisted Nazi tyranny

b. traven

On a trip to Berlin my son and I spent some of our time looking into the crannies that elude most visitors.  In Europe I have researched how some countries memorialize (if at all) their resistance to fascist occupation during World War II.  The French Resistance Museum is a disgrace!  It’s poorly lit, in a remote and undistinguished location, and only fragmentally put together.  I have my theories but won’t go into that.

Another one of the nooks and crannies that I discovered in Berlin was the “Center for German Resistance” located in the Mitte district of the old Ost Berlin.  The other was also in Ost Berlin and was the shop in which a German citizen employed Jewish workers to repair military uniforms with the approval of Nazi authorities.  By labeling these Jews as essential to the war effort, this German helped to save their lives, an unusual and dangerous step, much like Schindler’s List.  I also ran across a book written by an American sociologist commissioned by the U.S. to study in detail exactly how the Nazi party took over control of a small German town prior to the war. The author chronicles step by well thought out step how the Nazis destroyed workers’ unions and educated the people to hate.

In Berlin we found quite the opposite to the inadequate French treatment of the “resistance” and therein lies an analogy to our current political situation in the U.S.  There are two quite different aspects to the small resistance movement in Germany between 1939 and 1945. It should be remembered that in that period the Nazi government’s murderous suppression of dissent was absolute and horrifying.

The most astounding monument to German resistance is the official German Resistance Memorial Center located, in of all places, the Bundeswehr Ministry, the very center of the current government’s military.  In this museum one can see copies of all of the original correspondence of Hitler, Himmler, General Beck, Claus von Stauffenberg, etc. relating to the attempt by some in the general staff to eliminate Hitler and cut a separate deal with the Allies (as depicted in the movie Valkyrie).  What we found most fascinating though was that while we were there they brought a group of young army recruits into a small room with pictures of the officers (600 arrested, 100 executed) as well as the White Rose movement who were tortured, executed, with some of their bodies hung on meat hooks.  We saw officers lecturing this group of soldiers on personal responsibility.  The Germans have learned from their dark past!

The other very small museum was dedicated to an individual who took it upon himself to protect Jews. The museum is located in the building in which he maintained a small shop that repaired military equipment under contract to the Wehrmacht. He only employed Jews and through sheer chutzpah was able to get the military to authorize this by claiming that only Jews had the ability to do the intricate work required.

The rise of fascism in Germany, and the lack of resistance to the same, put me to mind of the current political situation in the U.S.  The state of our country today increasingly points toward the continuation of a corporate authoritarian state that has echoes with the rise of fascism in the 1930s.  Fear, as in the never-ending “war on terror,” and intimidation by police forces that are increasingly militarized are major enforcers of state and corporate privilege.

There are those in government who see this as the “control” factor as the civil population begins to rebel against the unjust aspects of corporate rule (inadequate and expensive health care, perpetual war, unemployment, destitution, etc.).  Since the end of the Vietnam War, the growth of our large “all volunteer,” i.e. mercenary army is not a chance decision by our government.  The so-called Patriot Act, the consolidation of internal policing in the Homeland Security Dept., and the recent Bush- and Obama-approved invasion of privacy by continuing and expanding the wiretapping and internet monitoring of all citizens mirror the German Nazi Party’s control over the German population prior to their launching of WW II.

Consider as well the privatization and expansion of our prisons and the analogous use of concentration camps by the Nazis to intimidate political dissenters and control the people.

It is long past time for public discussion about militarized police forces, mercenary armies, and all of the controls over patriotic dissent under the guise of “national security.” Our founders conceived of our military as civilian based, not mercenary, and that ‘due process’ and privacy were protected civil rights.

As Benjamin Franklin noted two centuries ago, those who would give up essential liberties to gain a measure of temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.  It’s not government and corporate power that keeps us “safe”; rather, it’s we ourselves, acting as free citizens, who keep ourselves safe.  The French and German resisters had to learn this lesson the hard way, and we remember them (however imperfectly) for their courage in doing so.

Americans need some of that same courage and spirit today.

b. traven

5 thoughts on “Learning from Europe’s Dark Past

  1. Despite my six years studying French (toward the end I was bored to tears!), I have yet to visit France. The popular lore in the US is that “Every Frenchman/woman claims to have been in the Resistance”!! This (if the French really claim it) IS, of course, risible–witness Ophuls’s documentary “The Sorrow And The Pity,” with Hitler riding triumphantly into Paris, his troops having met only token opposition en route, and the good citizens saluting him along the parade route. So it seems odd a Resistance Museum would be shabby…unless it reflects the reality of the matter! (Shabby resistance produces shabby museum.) Hitler came into office (note that I didn’t say “power,” since he was merely the frontman for the ruling class) in the wake of the failed German revolution, discussed recently on this blog site. The German progressives failed, but at least they tried to address the social ills in their war-ruined country. In the US, we are so far from a revolutionary consciousness among the masses it’s pitiful. It seems Americans are quite convinced that “Slavery is Freedom,” to borrow from Mr. Orwell.

    • greg.. The French Resistance started with a handful of Polish Jews living in France. All were executed by the Germans. the French Resistance fought very hard, not shabby at all. It all boils down to politics. As I recall there were several leading cells.The Communists seemed to be the most aggressive. There was a center Gaullist group and several others probably also including moderate Socialist groups. . I believe all of them helped downed flyers to safety. In my opinion the French resistance museum is so underserved is that the ruling elite of France is ashamed of the early collapse of the French army under Gen. Petain and his shameful deal deal with the Germans to form a government in Vichy under German tuteledge. the resisitance movement as a whole was the only pride they could command but that also plys up the failure of their government. b traven

      • And then there’s the convenient post-war myth for the French that “we all resisted in our own way.” If everyone resisted, you don’t need much of a museum. And if it’s a convenient myth, why expose it with lots and lots of detailed museums to the true resistance? And if the most courageous resisters were leftists, and government was rightist … well, you follow the logic.

    • It may well be popular lore in the US that “Every Frenchman/woman claims to have been in the Resistance”. I suspect that the distance between this assertion and reality is as wide as the atlantic, so it is indeed risible.

      The occupation of France is a painful memory for the French so it is surprising that the Resistance Museum found by b. traven did not impress.

      It is worth noting that there are 7 musées de la Résistance scattered throughout France. This wider distribution of the resistance story is interesting, because it perhaps illustrates that it is better to reach a wider national audience, than have a single museum (inevitably in Paris) for the benefit of tourists.

      This is after all, their history and by having multiple centres accessible to a large percentage of the French population, they ensure that the story will live on.

      • Alex.. Thank you for bringing out that information. I did not know that there were other regional resistance museums. That’s good info. I hope those museums are more accessible, better lighted, and have more complete historical exhibits than the musee in the capital, Paris, the city which probably gets the most visitors.
        I must admit that as a veteran of WW II I feel that the French do owe homage to the Resistance to more than their own populace, Those French men and women who gave their lives in the active Resistance, did this, not just for their country, but for their Allies who are the visitors to France today..
        The French Resistance was their only bright light in the early stages of the war. While the Resistance was sabotaging German transport and helping downed Allied air men the French government in Vichy was militarily allied with Germany. The British had to sink the French Mediterranean fleet to prevent it from supporting the German fleet during our landings in North Africa and they still resisted our landings on the beaches (for a short time).
        I guess that I would agree with Lt. Col. Astore that politics has influenced the treatment of the Musee de la Resistance in the capital city of Paris.

        Note. As a high note though the neighborhoods in Paris did not forget the Resistance and one can still see plaques on the walls of buildings commemorating the names of Resistance fighters who had been killed there.

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