Notes From Berlin (Part II)

Our visit to Berlin started with a bus tour, led by the aforementioned and remarkable Boris Abel, who over the course of our stay would reveal himself to be a true Renaissance man and one of the most knowledgeable guides I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet. Boris left no question unanswered on all topics from German history to art criticism to philosophy, architecture and beyond.

Whether for scheduling geographic or dramaturgical reasons I cannot say, but the first stop on our introductory bus tour of Berlin was The Berlin Wall Memorial and the Topography of Terror Exhibit:


I often gently chide my parents for their obsession with The Holocaust. They are observant Jews and, as I mentioned earlier, The Holocaust has always loomed large in our household. When my mother goes on a tear about IBM’s complicity in the Holocaust by providing the Hollerith Punch Card and other state-of-the-art technology to the Nazis, I tend to take it with a grain of salt. When she rails on about how the Nazis funded The Holocaust and the war effort by murdering Jews and stealing their wealth (to the tune of 120 billion Reich marks or over £12 billion at the time) I just take a deep breath and let it go, because the past is the past and it is time to move on.

In March 2013, Eric Lichtblau published an article in the New York Times titled, “The Holocaust Just Got More Shocking” where he wrote:

When the research began in 2000, Dr. Megargee said he expected to find perhaps 7,000 Nazi camps and ghettos, based on postwar estimates. But the numbers kept climbing — first to 11,500, then 20,000, then 30,000, and now 42,500.

The numbers astound: 30,000 slave labor camps; 1,150 Jewish ghettos; 980 concentration camps; 1,000 prisoner-of-war camps; 500 brothels filled with sex slaves; and thousands of other camps used for euthanizing the elderly and infirm, performing forced abortions, “Germanizing” prisoners or transporting victims to killing centers.

In Berlin alone, researchers have documented some 3,000 camps and so-called Jew houses, while Hamburg held 1,300 sites.

Walking through the Topography of Terror exhibit I came across a display showing the non-official sites in Berlin where political targets of the Nazis were imprisoned, tortured or killed and where the SS and SA held meetings as of 1933-1934:

Nazi Party Detention Sites in Berlin 1933-1934

Map of Nazi Party Detention Sites in Berlin 1933-1934

I began to feel the true enormity of the Nazi enterprise.

Hitler saw a nation in financial distress with rampant unemployment, a dysfunctional government and a deeply wounded sense of national pride and sensed his opportunity. He employed populist, chauvinistic messaging while aligning himself with corporate interests. In 1933 Hitler used the opportunity of the Reichstag Fire to convince German President Paul von Hindenberg to suspend civil liberties and arrest Hitler’s political opponents (The Communists) allowing the Nazi Party to form a majority in Parliament, which led to the passage of The Enabling Act which essentially ended democracy in Germany and replaced it with a dictatorship.

Hitler needed money to finance his government, so he accelerated his campaign against the Jews as much to expropriate their wealth as to provide jobs, thus reducing unemployment and increasing GDP. Once you have the capital you can embark on the economic development necessary to build a world-class genocidal-industrial complex. The construction of death camps and railway lines creates an increased demand for labor; the manufacture of munitions, planes, tanks, guns and poison gases requires factories, labs and even more workers.

The administration of such an endeavor, given the meticulous documentation and data aggregation demands of the Reich, certainly created even more demand for skilled middle managers and executives.

Reluctantly and to my mounting horror, I began to appreciate the enormous logistical challenges of such an undertaking.  In some macabre way, the Nazi apparatus can be seen as one of the greatest triumphs of corporate efficiency in the history of mankind. It can be viewed as a startling testament to effective corporate enterprise disguised as government.

By turning Germany into a dictatorship with Hitler as CEO, the Nazis created a vertically integrated multinational corporation that was constantly acquiring new territories, creating new markets and creating value for its shareholders – the German people. All they had to do was give up all their civil liberties and embrace genocide as a business practice. And who can resist the siren song of a successful business?

I kept staring at that display in the Topography of Terror exhibit, all those red dots like blemishes on the map of Berlin, and I started to ask myself, “How is it possible that a political minority can game the system to achieve and maintain power, to hold a country hostage and transform it? Does it start with disabling the existing system to the point where it appears broken beyond repair and then stepping in? How much groundwork would they need to do?”

And for some reason I started to think about gerrymandering in the United States. There is something called the Redistricting Majority Project which is an initiative of the Republican State Leadership Committee (a 527 Organization that was the 4th largest SuperPAC in the 2010 election cycle) that is dedicated to redistricting. According to their website:

At the conclusion of the 2010 national census, congressional seats will be reapportioned to each state.  The states with a shrinking population will lose congressional seats and states with a population boom will gain seats.  A massive effort to redraw state legislative and congressional lines will take place according to each state’s laws. The party controlling that effort controls the drawing of the maps – shaping the political landscape for the next 10 years.  In 38 states, governors and state legislators play a determining role in the redistricting process.

They self-identify as a grassroots effort, but one imagines they are about as grassroots as The Tea Party, an insidious movement largely funded by Rupert Murdoch and the Koch brothers.

Why does this matter? Because in the wake of the repeal of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a host of states including Texas and Florida have hastened to enact laws specifically designed to disenfranchise the poor and people of color. Because it is not merely fanciful to imagine a coalition of ruthless corporations and far right political extremists using sophisticated media strategies to disseminate populist, chauvinistic messages that foment racial animosity and xenophobia, aggravate existing tensions, and create a climate of fear and perpetual war.

In such a climate, one where the economy is weak, employment is low and the government seems broken beyond repair, people might be willing to give up their civil liberties in exchange for the promise of material prosperity and a newly strong country. People might be willing to do unspeakably racist, hateful things to their neighbors in the name of national security and blind patriotism. Just ask Edward Snowden or Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning; ask Lavabit and Silent Circle.

But certainly there is no comparison between the rise of Nazi power in Germany and the rise of the extreme political right in the contemporary United States? Surely this is hyperbolic and unfounded? Perhaps. We are different countries with different heritages and different ways. And this is a different world. But perhaps, at the very least, we can look backwards from the beginning of the 21st Century to the middle of the 20th century and be instructed by the German experience. Surely 70 years, barely two generations, is not too long ago.

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