Sunday, June 10, 2007

Dachau and the American Weltanschauung

My perspective on American worldviews is being pushed into a more radical direction. Americans travel abroad to far away places, without much respect for distant cultures, distant tongues, or distant politics. I visited Dachau, the first regular concentration camp established by the National Socialist government, with a small group of American students.

The whole experience at Dachau was ironic. A sign in the memorial sites reads "Never Again" in five languages. Yet as I write this genocides are occurring in Darfur, where over 400,000 mostly Muslims have been killed in the past five years. The birds around the camp acted as if there were something worthwhile to chirp about. The American girls in short skirts and pink blouses walked around pompously chewing bumble gum and slapping their flipflops against their heels. As if Americans had no blood on their hands. We, too, have illegal camps that have been condemned by the world community. The Americans who liberated the camp shot Nazi SS and then encouraged the prisoners of the camp to beat and murder an estimated 400 German soldiers with shovels and other tools. The Seventh US Army battalion washes over this massacre as a firefight with German soldiers, when in fact, the camp had surrendered and white flags were hung on all the towers. The Germans stationed at Dachau during the liberation had actually just arrived two days before from the Eastern German front. Executing them without a proper trial is not justice, and yet the liberation of the camp is hailed as a testament to American justice and Patton's success. I suppose it would be unpatriotic to mention this in any other context.

Walking out of the crematorium, one of the students, Jared, raised his voice and said naively but honestly, "I don't understand how people die."

Abi from California responded in a declaratory tone, "I don't think anyone really can. It's just one of those things." We all remained silent together for longer than we had during the entire trip.

Perhaps at this moment, life was truly meaningless for us. As we walked slowly back to the entrance gate, I could not speak to them. I could not tell them how meaningless I felt their lives and mine truly are. They wanted the world to remain happy for them and their uninteresting families, to be a place where she can continue conspicuously shopping and live without any moral obligation to the world, where he can continue living for shallow relationships and spoiled suburban pleasures. I could not find the words to break the spell.

"See, America actually gets shit done," Jared said in response to our taxi-driver who compared Dachau to Guantanamo. Granted Dachau is far worse, but the principle that our country is greater than the world community's judgment on human rights and our military's ability to hold and punish prisoners in foreign and secretive prisons is the same principle National Socialists worked on. We believe we operate on an elevated juridical status: our nation does not need to follow the same conventions we expect other nations to follow.

Part of it has to do with the fact that we are ignorant of the rest of the planet. "I don't know that much about Romania so I'm just assuming there's nothing there," a student said a few days ago during class. The relativism of American worldviews and politics astonishes me. How can a group of people be led to believe everything their country does is right?

We took the train back to Munich, and I mentioned how pointless it seemed to put religious symbolism all over the camp in remembrance of those who died. Religionists capitalize on the fact the Christians and Jews were executed at this camp, and so only they are allowed to erect tall steeples and monuments on the site. But Himmler, in his capacity as police president of Munich, officially described the camp as "the first concentration camp for political prisoners." Thus why aren't the thousands of communists who were tortured and pole-hung in the prison area or experimented on in the medical rooms have a gigantic memorial for their deaths? Abigail responded, naturally, that communism has killed many people too, so it would be replacing Nazi symbols with Communist symbols. But as a Christian nation, Americans apparently don't know that Christian and Jewish symbols have meant "genocide" in the past as well--for example, when ethnic Jews committed genocidal slaughter against everyone in Judea once YWHW had granted them lebensraum after the first exile. The native Judeans was one of the first recorded examples of mass ethnic genocide.

In Munich we met up with another study abroad student who chose to stay alone in the city for the day instead of visiting Dachau with us. She decided she did not want to see Dachau, and I decided she was the most superficial person I had met on the trip. She's a sorority girl who came to Munich only for the Hofbrauhaus and the nightclubs. The same shallowness that keeps her from wanting to visit Dachau is the same shallowness that keeps Americans from caring about Darfur. I told her that she was shutting her eyes to the ugliness of the world, and she shrugged her shoulders at me.

"I just don't want to see it. It's too sad and it's such a nice day." I didn't say anything in response at first because I wanted to draw out the absurdity of her statement. She had been speaking all morning about superficialities like her interest in expensive cars, expensive fur coats, and famous people she had met with her parents. She and the others had been laughing to themselves about their feigned elitism and class status, and in fact complained about poor people in Africa as pests!! If the Germans feel a renewed responsibility toward the world, I felt a responsibility to make her squirm at this moment.

"So you'd rather get drunk by yourself than for three hours see one of the most important sites in Germany? A site that has taught the world one of the most important lessons of history?"

She mumbled to herself, but she never answered the question. The message was simple, yes, she would like to ignore her powerful position as a wealthy, elitist American, who does not have the time or the interest in any of these matters. We spoke few words to each other for the rest of the trip in Munich. It was awkward, but it was my responsibility to express such a concern. If other people had been in my place they might have felt like strangling her long before that moment.

This trip has perverted my view towards America. I believed I would have developed stronger views about who Germans are, and what German culture is. Especially in Bavaria, a German cultural hot spot. Instead I have developed stronger views about Americans and American culture. Our culture is for swine. And we have so many lessons to learn.


lrosen said...

what a bitch jesus why do these people even study abroad in the first place

Ortho said...

Nice post.