Adolf Hitler sought to cloak his brutal regime in a warm and rosy aura when he mounted the 1936 Olympics.
This event took place in an athletic park he’d ordered special-built to the west of Berlin. As swastika banners rippled in breezes off lakes to the south, and Der Führer exulted in his skybox above his spanking new stadium, and the great zeppelin Hindenburg did a flyover with a giant Olympic flag under tow—at that exact same moment—a slave labor force of the tyrant’s early political prisoners had been deployed to clear a forest and build Sachsenhausen concentration camp, just over twenty miles to the northeast.
That dictator’s method—distract the public with spectacle and bright promises whilst laying the groundwork for conquest, betrayal, and cruel mayhem—has survived handily to be reiterated in various contexts by more than a few unscrupulous imitators in our present day.
Sachsenhausen also survives. It’s no longer an active prison camp, though it was still utilized as one by the Soviets for a number of years into the Cold War. Nowadays the place endures as a chilling monument to the brutality and sadism that ordinary people can fall prey to, once all restraint, decency, empathy, and civility are excised from human discourse.
And last month, I interred myself in Sachsenhausen for a while. To learn.
A MOLE FOR GROUNDPROOFING
You see, I’m plagued by a research fetish that I call “groundproofing.” Guess it’s a hangover from my many years in journalism: a strong yen to see, scout, survey, sniff out those places where events I’m writing about actually occur. This habit operates in stern tandem with my other durable tendency, to over-research relevant history, the backgrounds of prime actors, cultural contexts, the lay of the land, what was being read, how the weather was way back when, etc.
From this surfeit of activity, I find I manage to score a pair of remarkably useful harvests. Number one, I wind up with a bushel of realistic details that I can then cherry-pick to illuminate my tale. And my second benefit springs from the first: once I begin to tell a story, I’m able to proceed in a confident manner instead of a timid one.
My resulting text combines both verifiable fact and vivid imaginings. Thus, I like to say, “I’m not writing fiction, but ‘faction.’” Perhaps some events I relate did not truly happen. However! They very well might have. This summarizes my overall approach to storytelling.
THE REEK OF THE REICH
In the last few years, I’ve found myself artistically focused on the World War Two era and the dark rise of Nazism. I’m driven by several motives. One is that I think we still suffer from a sort of global PTSD, due to that long, hard, fraught struggle for the heart and soul of humanity. The other is that certain current trends—not least a rising fascination for authoritarian modes of governance—lead me to suspect that far from leaving such evils far behind in our wake, we may very well confront them face-to-face once again, and soon. Even in those parts of the world that flatter themselves as ultimately developed and cultured. Such a prospect certainly won’t astonish the Uighurs of China, the Ukrainians of Crimea and the Donbas, or the citizens of Myanmar or Syria, to cite a few areas of modern parallel.
Amid such a milieu, it behooves us to insist on becoming more clear-eyed. Also, to preemptively arm ourselves with practical cultural antidotes. And we should probably administer them before the pox pustules of fascism truly start to bulge out all over the body politic.
CARVING OUT A SPLINTER
I launched my storytelling on these themes four years ago by researching and writing “Splinter,” a WWII adventure/romance set in Norway at the start of the Nazi occupation. That novel is scheduled for release by Bronzeville Books of L.A. this fall. Putin in 2022 chose to invade Ukraine in much the same way and for the same reasons that Hitler invaded Norway, which more than underscores my story’s relevance. As does the development of two of my main characters, Kristian Thorsen, 17, a fisherman’s son, and Helene Berg, 19, an orphan who seeks to become a school teacher. They observe the start of that invasion from shores of Oslo Fjord, and go on to join the Resistance by radically different paths.
The tale of “Splinter” covers events from April to December of 1940. In addition to events in Norway, it describes a climax of the London Blitz and the main phase of the Battle of Britain. Both my young heroes have roles to play in providing vital intelligence for countermeasures to the Luftwaffe’s terror-bombing of England—based on a genuine, secret set of dispatches that have been dubbed The Oslo Papers by history.
ON THE ROAD TO SEGUE
I visited Sachsenhausen in Germany to research “Splinter II,” its sequel. In my first book, Kristian’s mom was arrested by the Gestapo for attempting to halt a police operation in the Norwegian town of Stavanger. She’s next sent to Sachsenhausen near Berlin, where most Norwegian captives and political prisoners were initially processed. “Splinter II” will relate events from December of 1941 through the following year. By then, Kristian is a highly trained spy and commando for Churchill’s covert warfare arm, the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Needless to say, he takes a keen interest in his mother’s fate, and tries to concoct measures that might work to ensure her survival.
I walked to Sachsenhausen from a hotel in nearby Orianenberg by early morning light, arriving before the site’s museum and preserved grounds opened to the public. It was a good choice. I approached on a road with rough cobbles that the police vans and army trucks would have rumbled across to deliver their prisoners. Slowly I neared the long high walls of the camp, topped by strands of rusting barbed wire, the row of looming but long-shuttered guard towers. All this infrastructure stood eerily mute, still and untenanted… Yet somehow, a chorus of shrieks and groans, a stomp of jackboots, cracks of whips, dull thumps from truncheons, blasts of gunfire, all these seemed to echo up out of the broad expanse of the camp’s ash-strewn earth. And it also was as though a stench of unseen vapors still wafted from this camp’s long-vanished crematory chimneys.
As soon as those vans and trucks dumped off their hapless human cargo at these exact gates—times may have spiraled on, while spatial coordinates remained intact—the clump of fresh victims was instantly set upon by SS guards of the Totenkopfverbände, or Death’s Head Units, accompanied by their snarling, barking, snapping Alsatian attack dogs. Fresh arrivals were thoroughly cursed, clubbed and bitten in vicious displays of intimidation to ensure they’d be much easier to handle once interred. At times, inmates were forced to lie down and roll on toward the portal of their doom through hot sand or freezing slush, depending on the month. Upon reaching the main entry station, they swiftly got stripped bare of all possessions, as well as being robbed of signs of identity. Every hair of their bodies was shorn off, they were soaked in toxic delousing fluid, next clad in striped uniforms—a flimsy mufti for the newly damned. IDs were colored triangles and strings of numbers sewn onto jacket fronts and pantlegs (not those infamous, Auschwitz-style forearm tattoos).
Finally, they were shoved out into the compound.
“PRAY YOU, LOVE, REMEMBER.” – Ophelia in ‘Hamlet’
The Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum and its grounds constitute one special project of the Brandenburg Memorials Foundation. This group was launched after the reunion of East and West Germany in 1990. Now, in equal partnership with the Federal Republic of Germany, the organization preserves and operates six sites, including Sachsenhausen. Its stated goal is, “… to commemorate terror, war and tyranny and to promote public debate on these issues. The foundation wants to enable victims and their families to commemorate them with dignity.”
One must give the Germans credit—perhaps we’ve never given them quite enough—for a willingness to confront their past. Besides the excellent and informative displays at Sachsenhausen, I’d cite: the Sinti/Roma genocide memorial site, almost under the shadow of the restored Reichstag; a row of embossed slabs that commemorate the politicians who opposed the rise of Hitler at serious risk of their own lives, a monument that actually does lie in the shadow of the Reichstag; and the Topography of Terror Museum, just a few hundred meters to the south, that now completely occupies the old footprint of the Gestapo headquarters in central Berlin.
Should our willingness to confront a possible future not strive to match such an unblinking regard of the past?
THE SPEARTIP OF DESPAIR
The core camp at Sachsenhausen is a precise triangle, more than 600 yards on a side, that originally enclosed 44 acres and was guarded by multiple guard towers equipped with double machine guns, a 300-volt electric barrier, and a perimeter alley where SS teams continually patrolled with their dogs. Walls and towers, especially Tower A which was the main gate, endure. So do quite a few of the other historic structures, with any of the buildings removed, such as prisoner barracks, now marked by curbs and oblongs of colored gravel.
Once through the Tower A entry and past a gate bearing its notorious, “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work shall make you free”) motto, you’re in a pit of suffering that endured for a decade. Turn right, and you come upon the restored Jewish barracks of the Small Camp, where the geometric triangle first broke up its strict lines to include new captive facilities. Plus, a remnant arm of the Zellenbau, a T-shaped prison complex of isolation cells designed to hold the Reich’s most feared political enemies. Such as Pastor Neimöller—a decorated U-boat skipper from WWI.
Neimöller went on to resist Nazis on religious grounds, and was author of a short yet profound screed: “First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Outdoors, near that prison where Neimöller got jammed into a solitary cell for years before finding himself shipped off to Dachau, one can find three posts with iron hooks at their high ends. They stand side-by-side like the trio of crosses atop Golgatha. Here, prisoners were disciplined with the “strappado,” a classic torture wherein a man, after his arms have been bent up behind his back, gets hoisted aloft by his bound wrists. It induces dislocation of both shoulders. This form of crucifixion can provoke death if it continues longer than half an hour. At Sachsenhausen, it often did.
Go straight ahead from Tower A, and you come to a plot where two metal sockets remain, set into a masonry platform. These holes were drilled to hold the uprights of a set of portable gallows. Prisoners murdered here were not dropped from a height to break their necks and thus pass in an instant. Instead, after a drop of just a few inches, their bodies convulsed in macabre, prolonged, mid-air jigs. All inmates were obliged to observe the proceedings, with punishment inflicted for averting their eyes. After the first executions, prisoners were even commanded to themselves put nooses around the necks of their fellow inmates, then kick out or tug away the foot stands.
Go to the left from Tower A, and you come to Station Z, just outside the triangular walls, where in 1941 some 10,000 Soviet P.O.W.s were systematically led through a deceptive maze, then shot individually through the backs of their necks and fed into four crematoria that were burning 24/7. This produced a pall of oily smoke and flakes of black ash that could rain upon camp inmates or the German townfolk of Orianenberg alike, depending on the whim of the wind. Those all-consuming fires were somewhat curtailed at night, to keep Allied bombers from keying in on bright flames that spouted from the chimneys.
WINNING THROUGH SADISM
These are only a small sample of the horrors recorded and presented by a succinct yet vivid array of exhibits at Sachsenhausen. Still, they prove sufficient to suggest the depths of depravity to which human beings can sink once all social and individual moral restraints are removed.
Let us not forget the developments leading to creation of this hellhole got underway with the politically expedient demonization of both opponents and cultural scapegoats in Weimar Germany. And let us recognize that winning through “divide-and-conquer” techniques, the arbitrary yet unrelenting indictment of opponents as criminal foils, and the seeding of confusion or delusion through disinformation campaigns, are all opening moves in the playbook of a wannabe dictator from any era—including our own. Such tyrants first recruit grievance, then proceed to unleash atavism in order to reduce any impediments to their rule.
Let us also remember that a social compact which fosters civil discourse and fair play is far more fragile than most of us prefer to think. And this is excruciatingly true of any country or population, including one that likes to push the honor of “American exceptionalism” as a sort of secular faith. I recall quite clearly seeing how fast the rule-of-law crumbled in South Florida in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew. Its utter demolition was only forestalled via a rapid intervention by the National Guard.
In more recent revelations of our joint vulnerability, who can forget the sheer viciousness of the assault on the uniformed Capitol Police by self-styled “patriots” on January 6th? Or the ways in which our own armed forces so swiftly imitated the excesses of Saddam Hussein’s guards when they took control of his prison at Abu Ghraib in 2004?
INTO THE MOUTH OF THE WOLF
Indeed, “Homo homini lupus,” as the ancient Romans used to say. “Man can be a wolf to man.” And no amount of jingoism or self-aggrandizement should permit us to go whistling past this historic graveyard of our highest hopes for our offspring and our fellows and ourselves.
Eternal vigilance is not just the price of liberty, it’s the price tag suspended from every noble and fair-minded practice that sustains our civilization. And such vigilance must then also be backed up by sustained and relentless action.
It’s worth quoting in full this principle, uttered in 1852 by abolitionist Wendell Phillips:
“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty; power is ever stealing from the many to the few. The manna of popular liberty must be gathered each day or it is rotten. The living sap of today outgrows the dead rind of yesterday. The hand entrusted with power becomes, either from human depravity or esprit de corps, the necessary enemy of the people. Only by continued oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot; only by unintermitted agitation can a people be sufficiently awake to principle not to let liberty be smothered in material prosperity.”
The stakes, only a few decades into the 21st Century, seem arguably higher for us now than ever before. Once the autocratic or fascistic impulse becomes empowered by modern surveillance technology—and boosted by artificial intelligence—humanity might well enter a dark night for our souls that shall render Orwell’s bleakest vision a mere picnic in the park by comparison.
“NOW, THESE WILL ABIDE: FAITH, HOPE, AND LOVE” – Paul, 1 Corinthians
And yet… Even at Sachsenhausen, the attentive visitor may detect a presence of countercurrents. It would seem that a drive to keep the best of human nature alight and alive can be induced by heroic effort to reappear, even amid the most trying of circumstances.
For example, after sunset, members of an outlawed string quartet would often sneak into the camp pathology lab, where SS doctors by day would dissect the victims of their most horrid medical experiments to evaluate results. Upon those same tiled tables where tortured corpses had earlier been sliced apart, the covert musicians would lay out their sheets of classical music, then rehearse. Once the pieces had been thoroughly learned, the group would proceed to provide a concert for inmates in the camp’s delousing station, where guards were also reluctant to go at night.
I visited and proofed these grounds enough to reproduce them in my writing, I think.
Now I’m back home, and it’s getting close to the time when I must send my characters from “Splinter II” out into and through those same gates of hell. They’ll appear there during a period when those portals gaped at their very widest. Then, we’ll see how my people manage to perform. What they learn, how they can respond to an ultimate test. I expect this shall inform me not only about their personal qualities or lack thereof, but my own as well.
You may recall that less than a year after its triumphant flyover at the 1936 Olympics, the awe-inspiring zeppelin Hindenburg burst into flames and exploded at an airfield in New Jersey. It took less than another decade for Hitler’s “thousand year” Reich to skid into a quite similar blazing finale back in Europe.
May a highly perverse project like that never manage to take flight again—ever—in any nation on Earth.