Monday, October 24, 2011

The Nuremberg Trials (Germany #9)

NUREMBERG--This city held great symbolic significance for the Nazis, which is why the Allies chose it as the site for war crimes trials.
Today, the Documentation Center Nazi Party Rallying Grounds is a fantastic museum whose permanent exhibition attempts to explain the fascination the Nazis exercised upon rally participants, as well as dealing with the causes, connections, and consequences of Nazi terror. Topics that have a direct reference to Nuremberg are especially taken into account.
During my tour, I was deeply impressed by the frankness with which all this was treated. Clearly, the purpose is educational--to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.
          A little background:
From 1927 to 1938, huge Nazi conventions called “the Nuremberg rallies” were held here annually. After Hitler's rise to power in 1933, they became monumental propaganda events. The 1934 rally, for example, was turned by director Leni Riefenstahl into the infamous propaganda film “Triumph of the Will.”
At the 1935 rally, Hitler ordered the Reichstag to convene here to pass the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws, which revoked German citizenship for all Jews. A number of premises were constructed solely for these assemblies and many examples of Nazi architecture can still be seen in the city. A concentration camp also was constructed here and extensive use was made of slave labor.
From 1943–45, Allied bombing severely damaged the city, which was a military production headquarters for aircraft, submarines, and tank engines. On January 2, 1945, the medieval city centre was systematically bombed and 90 percent of it destroyed in only one hour. Some 1,800 residents were killed and roughly 100,000 displaced.
Despite the intense degree of destruction, Nuremberg was rebuilt after the war and somewhat restored to its pre-war appearance, including some medieval buildings. However, the biggest part of the old Imperial Free City was lost forever.
The museum is in the north wing of the unfinished remains of the Congress Hall of the former Nazi rallies. Austrian architect Günther Domenig won an international competition to design the museum with his proposal to spear through the northern head of the building with a diagonal glass and steel passageway.          
The exhibition is in chronological order and size ranges from corridors of just a few square meters to large halls. It’s presented in narrative form with easy-to-use electronic display stations and filmed eyewitness interviews.
Between 1945 and 1946, German officials involved in the Holocaust and other war crimes were brought before an international tribunal in the Nuremberg Trials. The Soviet Union had wanted these trials to take place in Berlin. However, Nuremberg was chosen as the site for the trials because it had been the location of the Nuremberg rallies and included undamaged space for a secure courtroom and prison complex. Although many Nazi leaders like Hitler himself were already dead, others were brought to justice in the trials.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m curious about how today’s Germans feel about the Nazis and the destruction of their country during WWII. So when I got a  chance to ask our museum guide questions, I took it.
He was a thin, dark-haired, very down to earth type of person, the son of a historian who ironically didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps. He told me that after WWII, the older generation of Germans--the ones who’d been Nazis, whether by choice or not--tried to sweep the whole thing under the carpet. They wouldn’t even talk about it to their children. As a teenager, our guide said he and his brothers demanded that their father come clean about his role. He answered by banging his fist and saying, “Don’t ever ask me about this again or I’ll throw you out of my house forever.”
          This was during the 1960s. The world youth movement, fueled by American and British popular music and American movies, was having a profound impact on younger Germans, who began insisting that their questions about the Nazi era be answered. Today, now that his generation occupies adult positions of responsibility and power, he says they’re determined to tell the true story in an effort to keep it from ever happening again.
          When asked directly, he said there are some 40,000 neo-Nazis in Germany today, but that is out of a population of 80 million. He said they’re dangerous, violent people who must be watched, but who have little appeal to German youth, who like young people everywhere are more interested in life’s pleasures.
          I left the museum heartened again by what seems a very genuine similarity in outlook between myself and the Germans I’ve met so far.        

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