Berlin learns from sad past

July 24, 2009 - Ray Pennings

This was the intellectual epicentre of events that has led to 89-year-old John Demjanjuk being charged as an accessory to 27,900 of the murders committed at the Sobibor death camp more than 65 years ago.

The native of Ukraine who spent most of his life as a U. S. autoworker will likely be tried in a society that remains in the process of confessing and asking forgiveness for that horrific period of its life.

The images of those horrors linger openly in Berlin's Topography of Terror where visitors view graphic photos of executions that took place before nonchalant crowds of onlookers--some with unexplainable smirks on their faces. It is testament to carefully planned and meticulously choreographed evil.

There is something profound about being on the sites where these things happened and seeing where the bullets of Hitler's Third Reich still mark the stones.

The Holocaust Memorial overwhelms the senses. The stones, by design, seem to go on forever and give meaning to the enormity of the Holocaust's body count of six million. Here, over the course of a single generation, a culture went mad and unleashed the largest, most costly war in human history. Here, one culture proudly and efficiently tried to eradicate another.

Here, we see the consequences of ideas. It is neither the only nor the most recent place where one culture, race or tribe has launched a genocidal attack against another. Germany's lessons were forgotten in Bosnia and have been repeated elsewhere, most notably Rwanda.

As a Christian I have a theological category to assist me in understanding what happened here. But I remain challenged. The depth of the depravity among the masses that participated in it is inescapable. For this was not--and could not have been--the outcome of a conspiracy of a few. What happened here revealed, and continues to illustrate, the depths to which the human project can sink. Rationally, we can separate ourselves from Hitler and his henchmen. But no one can reasonably believe that the bulk of the people involved were made of anything different than the rest of us.

Or, as the late political philosopher Hannah Arendt put it: "The trouble with (Adolph) Eichmann (architect of the "final solution") was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together."

Redemption is a huge topic, with lots attached to it. A brief visit to this city does not give one the right to judge it. The apparent absence of enthusiastic places of worship is troubling, but on a macro level Germans lead the world in their honesty in confronting their past by telling their stories to others and, in the process, constantly reminding themselves. The Demjanjuk trial may be necessary for justice; it is not required as a reminder. The stones and memorials here confess a communal sin and seek forgiveness.

Because if a city can, to use the sort of evangelical terminology that makes so many uncomfortable, be "born again," this is it. Seven Jewish synagogues are now active here. The boulevards and cafes seem vibrant and there is an excitement connected with Berlin's determination to move on and rather than being known as the epicentre of evil be a model instead for the lesson that Hitler denied--our humanity is not based on racial heritage. That, at least, is the Christian point of view: that all people are created in the image of God and all are equal. That also means that the same capacity for evil that was revealed here in Berlin lives inside of each of us.

This is the truth, brilliantly articulated by Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, that in the "freedom" humans seek, we are capable of things of which we would prefer not to speak. But Berlin, as the rest of the world, still exists. The unspeakable has been overcome, and the only seemingly rational explanation comes not from within, but without. To find hope in such a place, one must look beyond the monuments and place this story in the context of a larger one.

History has a purpose, a truth which seems spoken very loudly amid the haunting silence of the monuments of Berlin.

Posted in Cities, Religion.

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Originally Published

date: July 24, 2009
publisher: Calgary Herald