The American worldview, until now I hadn’t realized it so boldly. Americans travel abroad to far away places, without much respect for distant cultures, distant tongues, or distant politics. Recently I visited Dachau, the first concentration camp established by the National Socialist government in Germany, along with a small group of American students.
The whole experience at Dachau was ironic. A sign on gate entrance to the memorial site reads “Never Again” in five languages. Yet it did happen again. As I write this genocide is occurring in Darfur, where over 400,000 mostly Muslims have been killed in the past five years. The birds around the Dachau camp act as if there were something worthwhile to chirp about.
I do not understand wealthy Americans. Or perhaps I do not understand wealthiness in general. I had not thought about this before this way, exactly how wealth or the ambitions for wealth taint a person’s persona. They see the world in an entirely different way than people who do not have those ambitions. The American troupe I was with represented everything I cannot stand about wealthy snobs, and they were from the same country as me.
I saw other young American girls in short skirts and pink blouses walking around the camp, casually looking at pictures of thousands of dead Jews and communists, while chewing bumble gum and slapping their flipflops against their heels. At the very least, it’s distracting when someone shows that little respect in a place like Dachau. Perhaps they don’t realize the irony that Americans do not question the illegal US torture camps and are condemned by most Germans, would walk into a Nazi concentration camp and be so absentminded.
The US soldiers who liberated the camp shot Nazi SS and then encouraged the prisoners of the camp to beat and murder an estimated 400 German soldiers with shovels and other tools. Call it immediate retribution. The Seventh US Army battalion washes over this massacre as a firefight with German soldiers, when in fact, the camp had surrendered and white flags were hung on all the towers. The Germans stationed at Dachau during the liberation had actually just arrived two days before from the Eastern German front. Executing them without a proper trial was not exactly justice, and yet the liberation of the camp is hailed as a testament to American justice and Patton’s success. This is what America has inherited, and why US police can get away with practically anything on street corners. I suppose it would be unpatriotic to mention this historical blunder in any other context.
Walking out of the crematorium, one of the students, Jared, raised his voice and said naively but honestly, “I don’t understand how people die.”
Perhaps at this moment, life was truly meaningless for us. As we walked slowly back to the entrance gate, I could not speak to them. I could not tell them how meaningless I felt their lives and mine truly are. Up until that point they had been some of the most superficial people I had ever gotten to know. They only talked about cars, their wealthy family connections, and ridiculed other people behind their backs. For them, wealth equals truth. I have no other way of saying this, wealth equals truth. It’s a strange perversion of might equals right, but this is something they believe so firmly that it is hard for them to even recognize the fact.
And now they wanted to talk sincerely about death? But they actually didn’t want that. They wanted the world to remain a happy place for them, to be a place where Abi can continue conspicuously shopping and live without any moral obligation to the world, where Jared can continue living for shallow relationships and spoiled suburban pleasures. I could not find the words to break the spell.
“See, America actually gets shit done,” Jared said in response to our taxi-driver who compared Dachau to Guantanamo. The taxi driver was getting sick of their nonstop superficial blabber, and had to tell us he basically hated everything we stood for. Granted Dachau is far, far worse than Guantanamo, but the principle and ideology that made them both possible are exactly the same: that one’s country is greater than the world community’s judgment on human rights and our military’s ability to hold and punish prisoners in foreign and secretive prisons is just because we are protecting our interests. We believe we operate on an elevated juridical status: our nation does not need to follow the same conventions we expect other nations to follow.
Part of it has to do with the fact that we are ignorant of the rest of the planet. “I don’t know that much about Romania so I’m just assuming there’s nothing there,” a student said a few days ago during class. I hesitate to call this relativism, because this is not the precise word I want to use. But this is a kind of provincial relativism which says the politics of another place do not matter if I do not know anything about it already. All I needed to know about Romania I learned in Kindergarten, which, obviously for her, was nothing. How can a group of people be led to believe everything their country does is right? Is it because we are the wealthiest country in the world, which would be just an extension of the belief they already hold about their own self-worth?
We took the train back to Munich. I mentioned to Abi and Jared how pointless it seemed to put religious symbolism all over the camp in remembrance of those who died. Everywhere you look around the encampment you see symbols of Catholicism, Protestantism, Eastern Orthodox, and Judaism. Religious followers capitalized on the fact the Christians and Jews were executed at this camp, and only religious groups are allowed to erect tall steeples and monuments on the site. But Himmler, in his capacity as police president of Munich, officially described the camp as “the first concentration camp for political prisoners.” That is why thousands of communists were tortured and “pole-hung” in the prison area, and experimented on in the medical rooms. The documentation is horrific. But there is no sickle and hammer around the camp. No red flag. Nothing.
Abigail responded, naturally, that communism has killed many people too, so it would be replacing Nazi symbols with Communist symbols. As if the religious symbols of the world had never meant genocide to another group of people? The Crusades, conflicts in the Balkans, the crisis in the Sudan — hell, the occupation of Iraq which is to many people a religious mission. Jews committed genocidal slaughter against everyone in Judea when God granted them lebensraum when they left from Egypt to the Promise Land. The native Judeans were some of the first recorded examples of mass ethnic genocide.
From the Book of Joshua:
…That day Joshua took Makkedah. He put the city and its king to the sword and totally destroyed everyone in it. He left no survivors. And he did to the king of Makkedah as he had done to the king of Jericho. Then Joshua and all Israel with him moved on from Makkedah to Libnah and attacked it. The LORD also gave that city and its king into Israel’s hand. The city and everyone in it Joshua put to the sword. He left no survivors there. And he did to its king as he had done to the king of Jericho. Then Joshua and all Israel with him moved on from Libnah to Lachish; he took up positions against it and attacked it. The LORD handed Lachish over to Israel, and Joshua took it on the second day. The city and everyone in it he put to the sword, just as he had done to Libnah. Meanwhile, Horam king of Gezer had come up to help Lachish, but Joshua defeated him and his army—until no survivors were left. Then Joshua and all Israel with him moved on from Lachish to Eglon; they took up positions against it and attacked it. They captured it that same day and put it to the sword and totally destroyed everyone in it, just as they had done to Lachish. Then Joshua and all Israel with him went up from Eglon to Hebron and attacked it. They took the city and put it to the sword, together with its king, its villages and everyone in it. They left no survivors. Just as at Eglon, they totally destroyed it and everyone in it. Then Joshua and all Israel with him turned around and attacked Debir. They took the city, its king and its villages, and put them to the sword. Everyone in it they totally destroyed. They left no survivors.
In Munich we met up with another study abroad student who chose to stay alone in the city for the day instead of visiting Dachau with us. She decided she did not want to see Dachau because it was too depressing. We found her wandering around in a clothing boutique. She’s a sorority girl who pretty muched tagged along when some of us decided to take the train to Munich for the weekend. She only wanted to visit the Hofbrauhaus and the nightclubs, a symptom of the same shallowness that prevents many from caring about Darfur. I told her that she was shutting her eyes to the ugliness of the world, and she shrugged her shoulders at me.
“I just don’t want to see it. It’s such a nice day.” I didn’t say anything in response at first because I wanted to draw out the absurdity of her statement. She had been speaking all morning in the hostel and all day before on the train about her interest in expensive cars, expensive fur coats, and famous people she had met with her parents. She was only trying to impress Abigail, who was the most popular of the girls on the study abroad trip. In the hostel lobby I overheard Abi and her laughing to themselves about people lower than themselves, which essentially meant people without as much wealth. They even complained, and I couldn’t believe it when I heard it, about poor people in Africa as pests who can’t take care of themselves!! If the Germans felt a renewed responsibility toward the world after World War II, I felt a responsibility to make her squirm at this moment.
“So you’d rather get drunk by yourself than for three hours see one of the most important sites in Germany? A site that has taught the world one of the most important lessons of history?”
She mumbled to herself, but never answered the question. The message was simple, yes, she would like to ignore her position as a wealthy, well-to-do elitist snob, who does not have the time nor the interest in anybody but herself. We spoke few words to each other for the rest of the trip in Munich. It was awkward, but it was my responsibility to express such a concern. She had to be shamed in whatever way possible. If other people had been in my place they might have strangled her by then.
This trip has perverted my view towards America. Actually I take that back. It corrected my views. On the one hand, I had originally believed I would have developed stronger views about Germany, and what German culture is. Especially in Bavaria, a German cultural hot spot. Instead I have developed stronger views about Americans and American culture. On the other hand, I took for granted that American people who I know back home, people who are my friends and neighbors, were representative of most Americans my age. It turns out I don’t really know very many wealthy Americans. Not too many people I know are from wealthy backgrounds, like these students are.
All I can say is that our culture is for swine. And we have many lessons to learn.