In some ways, Sachsenhausen, if you saw only the barracks, long wooden camp houses arranged in a semi-circle, could almost be your child's summer camp--except for the high walls, the barbed wire, and the machine guns in watchtowers. Even without those physical reminders of imprisonment and violence, more subtle absences--again it's the absences--on the ground clue you in that something is not right. What kind of summer camp is this without a tree or a bush, without a picnic table? The sense of evil quickly oppresses you, even without the prior knowledge we all bring with us to the camps.
Sachsenhausen is a geography of evil (I'm sure I'm borrowing that term), meant to subdue and destroy human life rather than enhance it. As I left with my group, the rain started to retreat to a drizzle, I felt a dissatisfaction, again a sense of something lacking. I had seen much but was missing the crucial piece of the puzzle that would explain all of this. What is it? Why would anybody want to create such an excessively cruel culture?
I walked out of the camp with my new friend from Edinburgh. We went past a street named for Bonhoeffer's brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi. As we made our way back past the roads surrounding the camp, with their rows of quaint houses, I wondered, could I live in a home next to a concentration camp, a house built expressly for an SS officer and his family? Not easily. But somebody does. After all, these are shelters and people must live somewhere. But here? Ingrid, our tour guide, told us that the owners of theses houses sometimes get annoyed at all the tourists who stop and take pictures of their homes. I wish I had taken a picture of one of them. When I got back to my host family in Berlin, they told me that neo-Nazis live--or are suspected to live-- in some of those houses.
We all chatted on the tram ride back to Berlin. Ingrid and I share an interest in literature; she had even thought she might specialize in 18th-century British literature until she tried to read Clarissa. We discussed Bonhoeffer's literary tastes. We exchanged e-mails.
Back in downtown Berlin, my Edinburgh friend and I clung together. We toured a wall that had been part of the Prinz Albrechtstrasse gestapo prison, and now has been turned into an exhibit about the excesses of Nazi and Communist rule. Larson, in his book In The Garden of the Beasts, characterizes this wall as a place where he could feel evil. All things being comparative, having just come from a concentration camp, the wall felt bright and benign to me.
A day or so later, when I arrived in the Harz mountains, a place on the edge of the former East Germany, the delayed reaction to Sachsenhausen set in. While Berlin is a highly international city, Thale, where I stayed, and Friedsrichbrunn, site of the Bonhoeffer summer home, are strictly German backwaters. Few people speak English. The resorts are too faded to attract an international clientele. A place that sold gelato was popular, despite the cold weather. Otherwise, I saw many German beer gardens, the kind of places with round tables in the courtyard covered in dusty metal yellow and white striped umbrellas that serve a meat-based diet not amenable to a vegetarian. The 19th century Gothic church made of stone in the large town green was forbidding. On the green, I looked at the many chain-sawed wooden sculptures of folkluric creatures, as the Harz mountains are the home of legends of witches and Wotan. As I strolled about, I started to see blond haired, blue eyed people everywhere. (There literally were quite a few blond-haired, blue eyed people in Germany.) I started to see the grandchildren of Nazis everywhere! I started to see the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of SS officers everywhere! You have to get a grip, I thought. (Though not German, I too have blue eyes and was once a natural blond.) These are just people.
This world of Aryans, which seems so archaic and even creepy to us now, would have been what Bonhoeffer knew. These were his people; this, especially the Harz mountains, his beloved homeland. He was cosmopolitan, well traveled and had lived in other cultures, but this culture of his youth drew him back, over and over, even to Nazi Germany, because his heart was tied to this place. He was an Aryan, much as that distinction distressed him. I keep thinking of how confusing it would have been to have been someone like Bonhoeffer, alive at the period and watching your culture, your tradition, even, to an extent, your values, twisted and hijacked in support of unprecedented evil and barbarism. Fortunately for Bonhoeffer, he was grounded not in nationalism, but in an international and ecumenical Christianity that allowed him to see clearly what was going on. Yet he continued to live and reap the benefits of his culture. He looked backwards at the end of his life, finding a sense of identity and continuity in 19th century bourgeois (ie, wealthy) German culture. Why did he (at least in some ways)--and we too today-- look back and cling to periods that have come and gone, when it would make sense to let the past go and look towards the future?