I’m writing this in the September of 2017, the day after my visit to Buchenwald Memorial with my friend Joe. I have deliberately delayed publishing this review until today, Remembrance Day, the day that we remember the great wars and all the people who have fallen over the years through various conflicts.
Because as I wrote this review, and even as I visited the memorial site and listened to their story, three words kept going over and over in my mind, and for the first time I truly realised their importance, and why we need to have these days of remembrance, and these memorials to horrific times gone past.
Lest we forget.
I have to confess, I like many others of my generation probably know little about the Second World War. Like many others I know certain events – the exploits of the Dambusters and the 633 squadron; Henry Fonda taught me about the Battle of the Bulge, Michael Caine about the Battle of Britain, Charlton Heston filled me in on the battle of Medway and I think it was my cousin Robert Mitchum and the great Kurt Jurgens who explained the relentless cat and mouse battle between the US destroyers and German U-boats.
But in reality I know very little of the history, chronology and politics of the times leading up to, and following the conflict.
My friend Joe, whose home is in the Czech Republic, has driven past Buchenwald many times on the way to the UK and he had expressed a desire to visit, so as we were passing on our way from our primary goal of Colditz Castle to the Bach Museum in Eisenach to the west it was the perfect opportunity to tick off one from his bucket list.
This is not the first time Joe has taken me to a concentration camp; many years ago he we visited a well known Soviet ‘Vojna’ (labour camp) in the Czech town of Příbram, where Czech nationals were forced during the Soviet occupation (not so many years ago) to mine for Uranium for the USSR nuclear weapons project – work that was hard and laborious, and also short lived. Individuals finding themselves at this camp knew their life expectancy was minimal due to radiation poisoning.
Back to Buchenwald. Our first glimpse of the tower that stands at the site was from miles away, and clearly it was huge, standing out over the surrounding hills and valleys. It is no less impressive when you stand in front of it and the sheer size of the memorial makes you realise that the reason for its existence must be equally enormous.
In fact the story of Buchenwald starts before the war, back to the early days when Hitler was rising to power and the notion of his master race of Germans was starting to build momentum. The then National Socialist party (or “NS” – later pronounced Nazi – had decided that certain people and races would never fit into this vision, the so called ‘Asocials’ – mainly consisting of the Jews, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, the ill and frail, and it was decided that these people should be rounded up like cattle and concentrated in small camps where they could be effectively isolated from the larger community.
After the war commenced, many more ‘Asocials’ were rounded up and sent to Buchenwald by the Nazi’s, and altogether nearly 280,000 people from fifty different countries were eventually held at the camp.
The inmates were not prisoners of war and therefore were not subject to the protection of the Geneva convention. Over the next few years they would be exploited as free labour, forced to construct roads and buildings on their camp while being tortured, abused and humiliated by the SS in charge. Many thousands died from random killings, executions (to keep the other inmates terrorised), starvation and malnutrition, illness or victims of various medical experiments designed to improve the genetic characteristics of the ‘master race’, or to perfect biological/chemical weapons.
After the Germans broke their agreement with the Soviets (See my Colditz post) and invaded the USSR, some 8000 soviet prisoners of war were shipped to the camp and systematically murdered by the SS.
Buchenwald camp became one of the main ‘sorting’ facilities for selecting which inmates would be deported to extermination camps such as Auschwitz, especially the deportation of children and sick inmates for ‘routine’ extermination. Although never reaching the numbers liquidated at Auschwitz, Buchenwald’s own body count was not insignificant.
This policy carried on up until the end of the war and in 1945, on realising that their days were numbered, the SS attempted to massacre the remaining inmates in what became known as “death marches”, while burning all documents and records to destroy all evidence of the facility; but they could not hide the tonnes of ashes and remains of over 238,000 people who had cremated on site.
After the SS fled and the US army liberated the camp, it was handed on to the Soviets who reopened the camp to hold members of the Nazi party – an ironic outcome for the sinister establishment. In the following five years, many more atrocities would occur at the hands of the Soviets, illegally interning over 28,500 men and women. The conditions at the Soviet “Special” camp were equally inhumane, and some 7,100 people died and were buried in mass graves hidden in the forests outside the camp.
The camp was finally closed in 1950 and the Russians demolished most of it to try to hide the evidence. But again, they could not hide the undeniable remains of their inhuman activities.
Over the next eight years different political bodies would agree the need for a memorial on the site, but would strongly disagree on the meaning of it – would it be a memorial to the victims or those who liberated them? No one wanted to be shown in a bad light.
Apart from the memorial tower there is an exhibition on the grounds of the old camp, but there is little to see from those early days.
And yet I was brought to tears by the exhibition’s contents. The first time was due to a life sized photo filling an entire wall of the exhibition depicting the scene the US soldiers were met with when they first arrived in camp – a sea of bodies stacks ten high, naked and emancipated. No one could surely deny the abuse and neglect that preceded their death?
And yet people continue to deny it ever happened.
The second moment was a 30 minute film with real footage taken during the war, showing the conditions the inmates faced, and the atrocities being inflicted there, while their SS guards stood proudly smiling in the background.
The US army insisted that the local residents of nearby Weimer, who claimed ignorance of the activities of the camp, visit and witness the piles of dead bodies. The film shows them walking in single file through the camp, handkerchiefs over their mouth and nose due to the stench, obviously distressed and unable to look at the work of their so called “master race”. I would suggest that there was a look of shame and disbelief on their faces, horrified at the actual reality of their country’s ‘cleansing’ program.
Lest we forget.
We cannot fix this, and we cannot compensate the people who lost their lives at this and other camps during the war. But we CAN vow never to allow our leaders to fall back into such horrific practices and justify them as being in the long term common good of the people who remain.
At Buchenwald, inmates were made to wear different coloured triangles to denote why they were imprisoned; Jew, homosexual etc. Jews had more than one triangle, displayed like a star on their overalls depicting their dual ‘crimes’ against humanity. Some were lifestyle or political choices, but mostly for being born in the wrong place or to the wrong religion.
On remembrance day we wear a poppy to remind ourselves of the blood spilt on the poppy fields of France during the First World War, and conflicts since that time.
There is an argument currently that poppy wearers ‘Glorify’ war. How absurd. If the people who claimed this spent just ten minutes at places like Buchenwald, then they would understand there is and can never be any glory in war. The days of the Roman tribunes boasting about their campaigns have long gone. War today is a senseless pointless waste of life. And memorials like Buchenwald serve to remind us of how easy it has been for demented individuals to justify the cruelest atrocities imaginable, and how the commoner must always stand up and say “NO” to such policies in the future.
Although not a typical tourist attraction, if you are in the area I urge you to visit this memorial and exhibition and relive the horrific lives of the camps’ inmates.
Maybe one year we should change the poppy to the wearing of a coloured triangle to remind ourselves of the other terrible loss of life that also occurred off of the battlefield?
Lest we forget that too.