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Last Statue at Dachau

Updated: Nov 18, 2023


Dachau Statue

Once I created documentary films in partnership with the Soviet Union. Perhaps this was in part because I grew up beneath yellow air-raid sirens that sent my grade school classmates and me diving under our desks…safe from the nuclear bombs that were sure to come. I did this, too, because I grew to be a soldier, and trained to close the hatch on my tank and pray for safety from the missiles that were sure to come. But 35 years ago I created documentaries primarily because my oldest boy was not far from nearing draft age, and I asked myself just what I could do besides hide my head.


These old films are another story, it’s enough now to know that I went to the Soviet Union and proposed that we create films together: one crew composed equally of Americans and Soviets, filming in both countries, edited by only the two producers, and broadcast in the identical version worldwide on the same day. Films that went to understanding each other enough to seek solutions other than war. From 1988 through 1990 we did just this. The programs were aired on The Discovery Channel and PBS here in the U.S. and on Soviet Channel #1 throughout the Soviet Union. We received three Emmy nominations. With this effort, I considered my work complete. I was wrong.


Some months ago I came to sense something was amiss here in our country, but I could not put a face to this unease. I puzzled, too, over what was behind this disharmony, and whether a precedent existed for this, but the answer to these questions also evaded me. What was certain was that day by day I felt the steady approach of a growing danger. Yet without accurate answers to these two principle questions, it was impossible to address a final and most critical one: “What am I, as an individual, going to do about it?” I could hear the sirens once again, and once again knew there would be much work to do. I knew the path to discovery would not be a straight one, but if I began and did not stop, I would arrive. Such was my resolve.


Earlier this year I was asked to officiate the July wedding of the daughter of some close friends. They all live in the Alps of Southern Switzerland. I extended my visit for an extra week to travel to Germany. My wish was to visit Munich and the nearby Dachau Concentration Camp. I wanted to come face-to-face with the birthplace of the National Socialist Worker’s Party, and to stand within the concentration camp that became the model for the thousands of such sites that would grow to infect so much of Europe. Yet there was another, perhaps more intimate motive. Though I could not see how such experiences could address my questions about what’s happening in my country, something told me this is where I may find answers. With these thoughts securely in place beside my notebook and camera, I departed for a wedding…and all that was to follow.


_________________


With the marriage ceremony complete, I departed for Munich. This journey included five trains, with one transfer allowing me an interesting six minutes to navigate a major station. Arriving in Munich I avoided taking a taxi in order to spend some time walking the old streets of this storied city. I often wondered where I might end up. The search for my hotel ended well, with a tiny second-floor room and a stunning view of the kitchen’s exhaust fan. The door did not lock. I asked about restaurants and was directed to a local Bavarian kitchen: “Not fancy, but original food” the desk clerk said. She was right.


Early the following morning I set out to find the tour I had booked. The German guide, Josh, welcomed about 20 of us and we set out for the four-hour walk through the older parts of the city. Munich is, more than any other German city, the birthplace of the National Socialist Workers Party; The Nazi Party. It was here that Hitler grew from the charismatic and persuasive face of a tiny group of disgruntled and angry men, to the absolute soul of a modern, industrialized, and obedient European nation. I had long pictured this moment, and we were now departing for many of the pivotal locations of this profound phenomenon. It has been nearly a century since some 85 million people lost their lives in the global inferno that had been ignited by those who walked these streets. Following in their footsteps, I wondered if something yet remained.


The buildings and sites once associated with National Socialist Germany do not stand out. Some have either been replaced by new structures or smartened up with fresh names and faces. Besides our guide’s ample knowledge and detailed explanation, little speaks to what once grew here. On this gray and damp day, no banners hang, no plaques adorn, no flags fly. Only memory lingers, and you have to focus with your mind to see it. But it is here. Through this door the Gestapo entered for their day’s work; here stood two SS soldiers guarding the honor of those who fell in the Putch that was a turning point in Hitler’s rise to power (here Josh produces yet another old photo from the heavy album he carries); and here are building after building where great bureaucratic engines labored and drove the Nazi regime.


Through all this our group remains quiet, and respectful. We listen to Josh as he continues on about the enduring guilt Germany faces, and what constitutional safeguards are in place to prevent a recurrence of this disaster. We continue past the halls where Chamberlin, Daladier, and Mussolini joined the Germans in signing the 1938 Munich Agreement. We walk through the Konigsplatz where in 1933 books deemed politically undesirable were heaped before the great and once proud buildings and burned. We are directed toward a high balcony where Adolph Hitler stood and watched the death of democracy and the birthing in fire of his Regime.


Our time was almost up, and our guide led us out of the park to the backside of the building. Here he pointed out some slight shell damage to the walls, brought about by American liberators. He used that surprising word: “liberators.” Josh went on to explain that the German people themselves were held hostage—to a Regime that had held them in something of a spell. In the early hours of the coming morning, this concept would trigger a profound awareness, but at that moment it struck me simply as the avoidance of personal responsibility.


Time was indeed up, and we walked the short distance back to the office. Here we said our goodbyes, and then our guide suggested that he would take those who were interested to one last place. As eight of us set off with him, he made no mention of our destination.


I had enjoyed our tour to this point but was a bit disappointed that we had not visited the site of the infamous 1923 Munich Putsch, the Nazi Party’s attempt to by force take control of Germany’s government. So it was with some shock that when we next stopped, I suddenly began to recognize my surroundings. Josh had led us to a vast open square. The many black and white photos I had seen of this event, now nearly a hundred years ago, began to come to life. Here is where the Nazis marched into the city center, here is where the police rushed out to confront them, on this exact spot is where Hitler stood. With my camera to my eye, I searched for ghosts.


After the others had left, I managed to have a private talk with our guide. I told him where I was from, some of my history with communication, and why I had come to Munich. He had a good deal to say, yet it was what he said last that mattered. “It’s important that you understand that the Nazis did not just happen, they were created. Methodically created.” He went on to say that to understand National Socialism, I had to meet the party’s propagandist, Joesph Goebbels. “Read his journals,” Josh told me, “and you’ll understand what you are sensing at home. ” In a quieter voice, he went on, “Hitler was the leader, but Goebbels created him—he was the mother. Read his journals…” I thanked him, found a taxi, and with the driver’s help located a bookstore. I bought an English translation of the Journals of Joseph Goebbels, and later that night sat to read. I read through the evening and into the quiet of early morning, finally closing the book. But the ideology remained, lingering in the air like something spoiled—a heavy smell, both foreign, yet somehow familiar. I sat with these thoughts for a time, staring at my door.


_________________



Dachau concentration camp is a 25-minute train, and then bus ride, from Munich. Again the day was cool and damp, and our new guide, Mat, led us briskly to our destination. Once within the grounds of this first concentration camp—which was to become a model for the thousands of camps the Germans created during the war—Mat’s demeanor changed. From professionally friendly and all business, he becomes our leader, teacher, and keeper of our emotional compass. We will soon need this support, for many of us will not know how to act; it’s all just too much to process. There is no model for it. Shaking your head is not enough, not when you want to scream. Or cry, or shout. You even may come to understand why some of the American soldiers who liberated this camp lined many of the SS guards up against a wall and executed them.


It is beyond me to express what a visitor goes through visiting Dachau. I can, however, tell you how it begins. You enter through gates topped with a rainbowed message in black iron, words that will soon adorn the camps to follow, “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work sets you free). All about you are photos of prisoners standing at attention, listening to the Comendant’s welcoming speech. You read what he told them, right where you’re standing, “Here there is no hope, no future, only work. Here there is no laughter. Only the Devil laughs here…and I am the Devil.” He then selects a prisoner at random from the hundreds, and has him beaten to death on the spot. This is your welcome to a place where the Devil did in fact walk. The rest of your tour is but coming face-to-face with his laughter.


Still, I will mention how even simple, everyday items can be turned into reflections of horror. We’ve all seen the gas chambers, but look above them to the almost overlooked silver eye bolts in the overhead wooden beams. What are these for? They were used to suspend people from their wrists, hands tied behind their backs, for a period of time, or until they died from suffocation. And a quaint brick chimney, silhouetted against gently swaying trees where you watch a bird as it sings. Look down and you notice a photograph of that same chimney, at work expressing dark gray smoke from the crematoria below. And then there are the galvanized, metal-handled shutes on the sides of a building. They look like old mailboxes, but of course they’re not. Their only purpose here was the delivery of pale blue Zyklon B crystals. To this day the walls of some of the more heavily used gas chambers are stained with this silent, blue tint.


This goes on and on, and I find myself sitting on a bench beneath a tree. We are almost done, and the group moves along. I realize I am soon going to have to catch up. But in the quiet reverence of the moment, I remain seated and listen as the words from this morning’s readings of Joseph Goebbels’ journal return, “If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it, and you will even come to believe it yourself.” Then, “A lie told once remains a lie, but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.” And, “We enter parliament in order to supply ourselves…If democracy is so stupid as to give us free tickets and salaries for this bear’s work, that is its affair. We do not come as friends, nor even as neutrals. We come as enemies. As the wolf bursts into the flock, so we come.” And finally, the most telling, “We have made the Reich by propaganda.”


The group has stopped at a last bronze casting. From where I stand I cannot identify what the tall and thin figure represents, but I hurry on not, wanting to miss something. On the way, I hear Mat begin and quicken my pace. I recall in hurried shorthand all that has brought me to this moment: leaving my home in Washington State packing a dread that had been growing for months; the democracy I felt as a birthright—a pillar of truth, justice, and human rights to lean against no matter what—was under assault, assault from within. I had questioned the possibility of this. How could we lose something so precious—something so fundamental? It was easier to look away. Yet institutions begin to quake—then crumble, insanity becomes commonplace, and a sticky paralysis moves to take hold. In the eyes of those I turn to I see only the reflection of my own doubt. Soon there is no other way to look but at the truth. “Fine,” I speak aloud, “This is happening, I get it. But still, who is behind it, and what do they want?”


I’ve caught up with the group, and realize this is the end of today’s experience. Mat has a special mood for this, and it is both provocative and sincere. He tells us why he saved this quiet, unassuming bronze statue for last. I will recall this moment later while looking from the windows of my train as it returns to Switzerland. For now, as we begin the long walk to the waiting bus, answers begin to appear.


I have now seen the birthing sites of the National Socialist German Workers Party, and they are here with me at this moment. I have heard the bold and outspoken words of the man who made his boss into an icon. And I now recognize why all this sounds so familiar. Our Democracy is indeed imperiled. If you look at what is going on with our government—especially the sad events of 6 January 2023—it is not too difficult to reach such a consensus. Who is behind this and what they are after are questions I will leave for the Reader to answer. Yet I will suggest that the hopelessness, anger, blame, and sense of impotence we have been sold may all be just a big lie, told over and over. It probably is. As for the purpose, I say just look at the disruption our democracy is experiencing today and where we seem to be headed. If you look hard—with open eyes—in that direction, a purpose may reveal itself. As for the Who behind all this, just listen to those who preach lies, big lies, and repeat them over and over, as if they themselves believe what they say. They do. Finally, and with no little remorse, may I add that there seems to be a historical precedent for the power of propaganda—and the application of its methodology. Others, too, have studied history.


After today’s visit—here where we witness the consequence of inaction—I am left with only what it is that I, a single individual, am going to do.


_________________


This question settled heavily into my seat with me as I boarded the train for my return to Switzerland. Two side-by-side seats face an identical pair, often bringing four strangers intimately together. I feel answers often arrive on their own; the haystack looking for the needle. So when two middle-aged German women politely took the two window seats next to me, I felt the first tiny, yet familiar, twinge of coincidence


The scenery passed and we became more friendly. I went for coffee and returned with some small treats and shared them out. The women grew short with the behavior of some young passengers and I listened to their reasons. Soon we began to laugh together, exchanging small stories about our homelands. They explained they work together in management positions with some large German company, and that they were going to attend a concert. They were clearly excited about their holiday, but as I explained my purpose for visiting and my discoveries, they grew serious and their voices quieted. “We are tired of being punished for what happened in the war,” one lady said. “Enough is enough.” We know what happened, and we have taken positive steps to prevent such from happening again. You can’t punish a people, especially not a culture like Germany’s, forever.” Her friend added that this can produce anger and resentment—dangerous resentment. The two ladies looked at each other and something passed between them. I asked what this may lead to and the second woman said, “The same thing as before. Right now—mostly in the East of our country—people want to see Germany proud again, strong again.” The other lady agreed, adding that they want another Hitler. …a little Hitler.” To this, both women nodded in unison. At this moment I recalled the words of our Munich guide, Josh, “If you don’t want a swastika on your town hall, pay attention now! They don’t come at you with claws, they come with bow ties and smiles.”


We were approaching their station and the train began to slow. With my question concerning the part the individual person plays in all this, the conversation turned. The ladies agreed that we needed this or that, but that the problems were global and simply far beyond the capabilities of any single person to address. In short, there is nothing anyone can do. With little thought, I offered there is something we can do, and we are in fact doing it right now. To their puzzled faces, I went on, “We are talking; Germans and an American. We are speaking with civility and respect, sharing ideas, and seeking answers to problems that affect us all. Equally as important, we are not blaming, hating, or listening to those who would say and do anything to further their own personal needs. I think that the idea that there is something each of us can do, can do easily, and in fact are doing all the time, caught us all off guard. When one of the ladies smiled and said that she’d never seen it like that, we all laughed. “The question now,” I suggested, “is, What do we do next?”


The ladies are gone, and I have three empty seats as companions. But something happened here. I crawled out from beneath my desk, stood up, and accepted responsibility for all that is around me. I asked myself what’s next; you are reading my answer. I will add only the final words from the last statue at Dachau, copied for me by Mat during our train ride back to Munich, “Each of us is shaping the history of tomorrow.” What we pen is up to each of us.


Stanley W. Odle


18 October 2023


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