I remember riding the train from Munich to the town of Dachau. The purpose for this train ride was to visit the Dachau concentration camp that stood there during the Hitler regime. It has been converted into a museum. The belief is that we must never forgot it to prevent it from happening again. It is good to try to tweak the consciences of humans but many remain unwilling to learn the lessons of history.
You can tour the barracks where the prisoners were held. They slept on hard wooden bunks and the sanitary conditions were horrid. The prison was originally designed to hold communists, Reichsbanner and social democrats. These were considered to pose a threat to the regime. It would later hold citizens from Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland among other countries. The ovens used to cremate dead prisoners is also standing.
The factory has been converted into a museum. This provides a lot of photographic evidence of the horror that took place. There was one black and white photograph that leaped out at me and haunted me for months. An American soldier is walking toward a mass grave. The photograph is so clear, you can see the look of horror on his face as he approaches these decrepit corpses. You could almost feel him trembling; feel his hands sweating as he tightens the grip on his gun.
I was overwhelmed by this photo. Eyes welling up, I needed to rush out of the building to recompose myself. I was in a daze riding the train back to Munich. And, of course, once back in Munich, I was hanging out and drinking with Germans at the Hofbrauhaus. Everyone was drinking and laughing. The oompah band did a ripping cover of “Hotel California.” I was still shaken up. I was looking around at friendly, accommodating folk and wondering “How?”
The reality is that we all have dark impulses and we all have frailty that can be exploited by morally bankrupt leaders. After victory over evil, there is still the need for reconciliation. Redemption is possible. The Germans have worked for decades to ensure that this horror not be repeated.
This is something that we should always keep in mind when we confronted political and partisan divisions. Eventually, you do need to negotiate and find ways to come to peace. Most people have both good and bad impulses. We are all capable of great acts of kindness or great acts of evil. John Lennon once stated that we all have a little Hitler and a little Jesus inside of us. We really want Jesus to win out. The Germans were not and are not all evil. However, great evil was perpetuated in the name of nationalism and patriotism.
We may view our political opponents as evil—and it may be that the dark impulses are prominent for them. But there is still humanity within them. We need to reach for that compassion and decency. If we are ever to achieve lasting peace and justice and fairness to everyone, we have to find common ground and we have to find that decency within ourselves.
We do need to reach out to adversaries. What’s interesting is when I went to Germany in 2011, I learned that Germany is the only country in Europe with a growing Jewish population. The German people did have to confront and own that horror. Steps needed to be taken for reconciliation. To their credit, they made that effort. Now Germany is arguably one of the greatest proponents for democracy and human rights on the planet.
We need to start viewing our political adversaries as flawed human beings and not as monstrous demons. It is a long shot but the human race does still have a chance. We don’t have to be the perpetual fuck-ups that we are now. It requires tenacity, courage and vision. A small does of forgiveness might go a long way as well. Why not keep striving to become something better? We do have a lot of choices. That is one that should be easy enough to make.
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