• Dachau Does Not Believe in Tears

    September 3, 2019 // 20 Comments »


     

    Right now someone in the media is finding another excuse to proclaim Trump is Hitler, America is Germany 1933, and something about concentration camps on the southern border. So I went to Dachau, just outside of Munich, to see a real concentration camp.

    You deal with the irony first. The people who in too loud voices mill around the station entrance asking “Is this the train to Dachau?” then the conductor’s announcement calling out the name as the next stop as if it was just another. The mediocre station has a McDonald’s. The bus stop sign for the shuttle you need to take has “Concentration Camp” written in English. Everyone around you is on vacation, dressed for it and chattering like it. You arrive at a visitor’s center, and there’s a rush for the toilets and the snack bar. Which way to the camp, Dad? Can we see the crematorium? Can we?
     
    A hundred steps outside the snack bar the world changes. The road turns gray even though the light playing through the poplars is from a postcard. They’ve changed the entrance location from a few years ago, and now you enter through the former SS barracks and come to the gate; it really says Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Will Set You Free) on the iron bars and you walk through just like they did. The gate only swings one way; you will leave, today, but it wasn’t originally designed that way and you can tell. There may be a hundred people with you but it is finally silent as you enter Dachau.

    It is too small. You see the administrative buildings to the right, the reconstructed prisoner barracks to the left, the assembly ground in front of you. You see the fences and walls on all four sides, walkable in a few minutes at an easy pace on a gorgeous day. It is too small to have held all those people, too small for all that happened, too small to be the symbol of Nazi power it was then. You expect something more substantial, with the distant site lines obscured, like at Disneyworld, where tricks of the eye make it seem more grand.

    It is too familiar. It takes just a few moments to get your bearings. You’ve seen photos before, and there are many posted, populating the place with buildings and people once here and forever gone. It is unlike say an art museum on the scale of the Met or the Uffizi where hours of circling corridors later you have no idea where you’ve been. You know Dachau.

    The museum unfolds in the order new prisoners were processed in. The early days of National Socialism are explained where the prisoners were first assigned numbers, the seizure of power by Hitler is documented in the room where people were stripped and deloused (subtlety is missing when the unit of measurement is Nazism) and you exit onto the campgrounds awkwardly after reading about their liberation by the 45th Infantry Division.

    You think, after all that reading and those museum exhibits (and it is a thorough education, much more than an Instagram collection of artifacts, and oh look, a real prisoner’s uniform, honey!) you understand something. But not yet. You have really just arrived and in front of you is Dachau itself, the ground, the air — the same ground they saw and air they breathed — and you have a choice. Many visitors turn back toward the snack bar, falsely satiated after an hour thinking they saw Dachau and anxiously trying to remember if the shuttle bus runs back to the station on the hour or the half-hour.

    But if you wait for them to leave, now you can see Dachau.
     
    Most of the place is empty, acres of crushed stone with flat markers showing where the now-missing barracks where. The trees lining the central road bisecting the camp are old. They were here when Dachau was working. You can match up an individual tree from a 1942 photo with the one in front of you and touch it. The sun is warm this day, a beautiful late summer afternoon with those wonderful tickles of early fall around it. A day to be alive grandpa would have called it. There must have been days just like this in 1942 here. Were there afternoon moments when for the length of time one could close one’s eyes the prisoners left the camp?

    There is some minor archaeological excavation work going on. The archaeologist stands over a hole about three feet deep and explains he is looking for evidence of the original fence line, the border of the camp before it was expanded in 1937. He found some wooden post fragments and some barbed wire. So the bottom of that hole is 1937 I ask? Yes, he says, the dirt and stones piled here haven’t seen sunlight since then. I ask if I can take one of the stones with me as a keepsake, and he explains that is not allowed, even as he looks away just long enough. Doing the right thing is hard enough elsewhere, never mind in Dachau.

    A sign simply states the area in front of you is where the barracks used for medical experiments on live humans stood. Another denotes the punishment barracks, where the SS found darker ways for those already living inside a camp designed only to punish. You see where the bodies were stacked like cordwood but you know wood is strong and straight and the images you are recreating show corpses floppy and tangled in their piles quite unlike cordwood. Now you are seeing Dachau, here in the deeper waters.
     
    Dachau does not believe in your tears. This is not a sentimental place. It is not clean. A universe of victims died here but this is not a place that acknowledges victimhood, or raises awareness, or gives voice, or traffics in the shallowness of hashtags. Dachau is here to declare what happened and to charge you with doing something with that information on the scale and with the accuracy Dachau requires.

    See, by coming here, it is now handed to you, that obligation. Hitler and his Dachau did not emerge from an election which frowned on a favored candidate. Following WWI Germany was purposefully humiliated and saddled with war reparations which were unpayable. An economic crisis unrolled. Inflation drove the nation to starvation. With no history of democracy, Germany was willed into a republic as unprepared as two virgins in an arranged marriage. Across the border the new Soviet Union and at home a powerful domestic Communist party threatened. Hungry people weren’t tricked into a strongman because of Facebook or some Electoral College fluke, they demanded one.

    Within three months of taking office Hitler gave himself the right to amend the Constitution, ended representative government, created special political courts, made criticism of the government a capital crime, and established Dachau. Two months after that Jews were fired from government positions, political parties and unions prohibited, opponents murdered, and books burned on government orders. There was no slippery slope, it was not incremental. It was inevitable.
     
    So there is obviously more to this story than a travelogue about an interesting day trip out to Dachau by train from nearby Munich. To say Trump is Hitler, America is Germany in 1933, or a grimy detention facility is a concentration camp means you have never been to Dachau.

    The presentation at Dachau is very un-2019, where everyone vies for adopted victimhood and chosen trauma. Dachau is cold, because only its facts matter. Tweets childishly mocking political opponents and regulations preventing a small number of self-declared trans people from joining the Army have nothing to do with Dachau. To stretch 2019 border facilities or exaggerate the historical impact of a march in Charlottesville is to turn Dachau relative, the dial jiggered to magnify some other event. It makes people numb, it dumbs down discussion, it is cheap, inaccurate, and exploitative. It demands mighty outrage from a partial set of facts. Both butterflies and elephants have legs, but no one should claim a butterfly is an elephant.

    Propagandists have always used ignorance to manipulate. Yet while CNN works to convince viewers silver mylar blankets instead of comfy quilts for migrants means there are concentration camps in America, Dachau reminds physicians here dissected human beings alive as part of medical experiments. Just as is taught in beginning writing courses, truth comes from showing not just telling. For those who think there is little significant difference between Germany 1933 and America today, there is Dachau to visit.
      

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    Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

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    How Did Donald Trump Win?

    November 9, 2016 // 22 Comments »

    unemployment

    It’s not about left and right anymore, not about Black and White. It is all about up and down. And it elected Donald Trump via a bumpy road. The next candidate to really figure it out will sweep into power.


    And what it is is stated succiently by former McCain campaign chief strategist Steve Schmidt: jobs, specifically the loss of jobs to technology and globalization, and the changes to our society that that is causing.

    The defining issue of our times, says Schmidt, is the displacement of workers, particularly those who traditionally held working class roles. America is watching a leveling down unprecedented in its history, a form of societal and economic devolution.

    “I think that’s going to be the new fault line in American politics,” Schmidt said. “And the voters, the Bernie Sanders voter and the Trump voter — like fish netting, the fish can swing through the netting from left to right very, very easily.”

    Schmidt focuses on Silicon Valley. “Let’s look at the Silicon Valley wing of the Democratic party and be clear about the partisan nature of all of these companies. We have these arguments about minimum wage — $12, $15. We’re 18 months away in this country from a robot in the window at the McDonald’s handing you your cheeseburger.”

    “The number one job for not-college educated men in America is driving something somewhere. So when we talk about an era now of driverless trucks, driverless cars, where do those jobs go? Where’s that displacement?” Schmidt continued.

    In essence, the growing irrelevance of American workers.

    What started with the globalization of the 1980s, the literal export of jobs to places abroad chasing cheaper labor, is transitioning into its next phase, the “export” of jobs into the hands of automation. Traditional employment once considered secure (albeit low paying) that cannot be physically exported because it needs to happen at a specific geographic location, such as with service tasks, is doomed as sure as those jobs that used to be done by steelworkers in Ohio but now are performed in Shenyang.

    Of course someone reading this will be mumbling something about to hell with those workers, let them get an education, retrain, whatever Darwinian crossed with dystopian curse they can conjure. The problem is long after you take away the jobs the people are still going to be there.

    And while no one in Washington really cares about what happens to those workers per se, as long as they can vote they will matter to politicians.

    It takes a special kind of demagogue, one with even more cynicism than usual, to fully exploit those workers’ literal fears for their lives, but s/he will emerge. Think of Trump as version 1.0, a kind of beta test. Trump likely never knew what he had within grasp, and spoke to this displaced group largely cluelessly and without the sophistication of a proper strategy.

    But the next Trump will have the “advantage” of another four years of economic displacement, a slicker media profile undistracted by Trump’s crude buffoonery, as well as advisors like McCain campaign chief strategist Steve Schmidt, whispering lines in his or her ear that sound like bastardized versions of Springsteen lyrics. The hate mongering, racism, and name calling will be toned down for wider appeal.

    Now there’s something to be afraid of.



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