“We as an Earth civilization have not, as yet come to understand ourselves.” (Edgar Mitchell, Astronaut)
“Barbarism is not the inheritance of our prehistory. It is the companion that dogs our every step”. (Alain Finkielkraut, Philosopher )
“The opposite of love is not hate – its indifference. Where there is hate there still may be love”. (Elie Wiesel, Holocaust Survivor)
While time has been described as movement from one point to another, as I move deeper into a systemic understanding of collective trauma, it is becoming increasingly clear that, in various non-linear ways, we still embody our past. Recent events in Germany have confirmed, for me at least, that this is indeed the case and that elements from unresolved events will continue to represent in some form or another, in search of resolution. Earlier this year, it was Spring in beautiful Bavaria, lilacs in full bloom as their scent carried throughout the air of this historic region. I spent a day in and around the small Baroque town of Bad Tölz at the invitation offered by my German co-creative partner, Dr. Karl-Heinz Rauscher. History is always with us, in our international; Men, Women, War and Peace events, given the reality of our family systems involvement in the events from World War II. On this day, we had an opportunity to walk together along some of the historical places that had impacted us both and our families in different and also inter-related ways.
While Karl-Heinz was born in Bavaria and lives in Bad Tölz, my experience of this region has been quite different and inextricably bound within specific events of World War II. My father’s 45th Infantry Division of the U.S. Seventh Army was active in this locale and also involved in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp toward the final days of the WW II. On this day, just prior to our upcoming seminar on Men, Women, War and Peace, we followed a portion of the path of a death march evacuation of prisoners from the infamous forced labor camp located just outside of Dachau, which also had 123 sub-camps and factories in this vicinity. On the last roll-call before liberation there were some 30,442 inmates in the main camp and another 37,223 incarcerated in nearby satellite-institutions. Established in 1933 Dachau was one of the earliest camps and the only one to have existed throughout the 12 year reign of Nazi terror.
With allied troops fast approaching, nearly 15,000 prisoners were force-marched southward toward the Austrian border, along the eastern shore of the Starnberger See, headed toward the Tegernsee. The reasons for this cruel maneuver are unclear, and possibly had something to do with an effort to launch a last-ditch resistance to build fortifications in the Tyrol. By May of 1945 barely 6,000 of those prisoners had survived, since those in failing health and stamina were shot as they fell along the way. Months later, a mass grave containing 1,071 inmate bodies were found along the route. (NY Times, August 18,1945, p.5). As they passed through Bad Tölz, and more than a dozen other Bavarian towns, they were seen and surreptitiously photographed by “ordinary Germans”, “who didn’t know”. Passing through, they would have seen or at least heard reports of thousands of tormented figures with shaven heads, sunken eyes, hollow cheeks, weighing less than 80 lbs, shivering in tattered, striped prison uniforms forced to march some 10 to 15 hours a day while suffering from starvation and exposure. (Daniel Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and The Holocaust, 1997)
In the face of such historical horror, Americans would do well to keep in mind the fact that our very own, über-patriotic, “silent majority”, has displayed a similar reaction to oppression and atrocity against “others”. While this inconvenient truth has been evident throughout our history, in recent years, I remember a time when the state-sponsored violence of racial segregation was law, illegal wars declared and, even now, genocidal policies continue to be legislated against our indigenous populations.
We began our day with a walk along the main street in Bad Tölz, as Karl-Heinz’s cell phone rang with a message from someone who questioned his choice to work with an American on issues of war. “They were the victors”, he said,” they don’t know anything”. Continuing on we stopped at times to read the messages on the Stolpersteine (stumbling blocks) set within the cobblestones. These metal plaques, which measure approximately 10 x10 cm, are a product of a public art project and work of German conceptual artist and sculptor Gunter Demnig. In contrast to most memorials designed to command attention, his understated Stolpersteine reside quite literally underfoot. Each plaque is carefully handcrafted in order to commemorate all Jews, Roma, Blacks Sinti, dissidents, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Free-Masons, military deserters, resistance-fighters and communists who were deported and exterminated. These small plaques also commemorate the mentally and physically disabled victims of euthanasia, as well as those who survived incarceration, sterilization-clinics. Those forced to immigrate or commit suicide as a result of Nazi persecution. Each has one name, date of birth, date taken away and date and manner of death, if known, and placed in the pavement outside this individual’s last known address or workplace. In Bad Tölz, there were many.
Later that morning, we drove out of town along the death-march route to Waakirchen, the site of the death-march memorial created by Hubertus von Pilgrim (b.1931) set just a few steps up from the side of the roadway. Around and behind this cast of his bronze depiction of a huddled line of skeletal figures, we could see open, gently rolling wildflower meadows, which have long swallowed, as Nature often does, innumerable traces of massive human suffering. And still, the fact remains that this idyllic country meadow, once held a campsite where thousands of nearly-dead prisoners were camped, and then discovered by American troops, after their SS guards had fled. Many were fallen and covered with snow in that unseasonably cold year which had freezing temperatures and flurries ongoing into the last weeks of May.
Strong winds came up as we slowly circled the gaunt silhouettes with each figure expressing a range of expressions of indescribable suffering, pain, confusion, despair and exhaustion; barely able to stand there together, in stark testimony to man’s inhumanity to man. Their somber shades of gray, in our changing, late morning light, served to evoke the complicated middle-ground complicity, all around the vast and varied edges of the Holocaust era. On closer inspection, we could see that the sculptor had delicately etched and textured the surface of each figure’s exposed flesh, bearing witness to whips, canes and other torturous abuses, along with open sores and other evident ravages of disease and malnutrition.
Standing there together, with no words, I suddenly felt a stab of fear as we were startled by a low growl rising into a thunderous roar. Turning toward this ominous sound, we saw that a leather clad motorcyclist had arrived and was in the process of parking his bike; probably from a need to relieve himself, and disappeared into a nearby wood.
In his rush, the biker paid us no notice and upon his reappearance, seemed to have remained completely oblivious or indifferent to us as well as to the memorial. During his brief absence, we noted his impeccably shined, silver and black machine, and matching black leather outfit complete with a death’s-head insignia clearly visible on his black helmet, so evocative of the Third Reich’s motorcycle troops. In a way we were surprised (and also not), since we have been working with systemic approaches to collective trauma long enough to understand that perpetrators and victims belong to the same system within individual, family and social fields. (sheldrake .org). It has also been our experience that synchronous events often manifest during the course of our systemic approach to all levels and manifestations of unresolved trauma, within our workshops and also when we are simply out and around within our daily lives.
The death’s head on the biker’s black helmet was especially chilling since the totenkopf was used by elite SS (Schützenstaffel) on their on their uniforms and visor caps. The SS ran extermination and labor camps in Germany and throughout Nazi occupied Europe. In 1935, Dachau became a training camp for administrators and other personnel where recruits were conditioned to adapt an attitude of inflexible hardness, and create an atmosphere of controlled, disciplined cruelty. As the dark figure returned to his machine and prepared to depart, still oblivious to our nearby presence, he turned toward the road, revealing an iron cross symbol, clearly visible on the back of his black leather jacket. Beginning in 1939, Adolf Hitler employed the Iron Cross as a German decoration. Post-World War II neo-Nazis and other white supremacists subsequently adopted it as an internationally-recognized hate symbol, and it is frequently seen in that context here in our increasingly authoritarian USA; whose belligerent patriotism knows no shame.
At present, more than a few of us are concerned that escalating and cascading crises, apparently generating a hostility-based political climate within regions of our country, increasingly resembles the 1930s in Germany. Citizenship here now demands a silencing of dissent, blind loyal respect for authority, militarism, universal surveillance, media-moguls and the corporate-brand. For now, it seems that we have not yet learned the fallacy that blind loyal trust in a powerful leader relieves us of our responsibility to understand. Here in dystopian, Trumplandia we are once again seeing the seductive power of a leader who promises simple answers which will saves us from complicated challenges.
While the European Holocaust is over, the practice of genocide and mass murder has continued on, unabated since the end of that war in 1945. The age-old, warped ideology of Fascist philosophy did not originate with the Third Reich, and history is clear that there has always been an ongoing need for the few to rule over the many; as well as groups seeking to oppress, control or even eliminate other groups. Nevertheless, there is still something hellish about it. Even powerful memorials, such as those created by Gunter Demnig and Hubertus von Pilgrim, along with innumerable written and photo documentations, together with thousands of official documents and testimonials, have failed to banish the false narratives of Holocaust denial. And so, we are left with a reality, which is that, for now at least, a primal need for hatred of the “other” remains at least as strong as our need for truth.
Perhaps I am not alone in my feeling that the hour is late and our situation is dire. Here, Pulitzer Prize journalist, activist and prolific author, Chris Hedges offers some well tempered advice for those of us struggling here through these late stages of our over-extended empire: “Once we no longer acknowledge our own capacity for evil, we no longer know ourselves, and we become monsters who devour others and eventually ourselves”. These destructions have happened before and will no doubt happen again, until all of humanity learns the value of making healthier and more inclusive, life- positive choices.
(Photos courtesy of Dr. Karl-Heinz Rauscher)