Friday, September 26, 2008

Berchtesgaden and the "Eagle's Nest" exhibit on National Socialism

I visited Obersalzburg in southern Germany (Bavaria) on Thursday and went to the "Eagele's Nest" site for the first time, the site Hitler used as his official retreat, though he mostly used the house high on the mountain for receiving official visitors. He and his generals planned some major military campaigns there, including the biggest of all, Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union.

I didn't actually go up to the mountain house. The main attraction of doing so would be to see the spectacular view. But the day was rainy, overcast and very foggy. Plus the bus trip up there costs 15 euros, hardly worth the time or money for an eagle's view of more fog.

But fortunately, the museum-style exhibition is directly accessible from the road. It's and is called the Dokumentation Obersalzberg. It was set up in 1999, and I found it to be one of most informative and impressive of such historical exhibits I've seen.

The exhibit focuses on the National Socialist (Nazi) dictatorship itself. It's organized chronologically, beginning with some background on Hitler himself, e.g., the 1923 "Beer Hall putsch" in Munich. It then proceeds to the process of Hitler and the NSDAP (Nazis) taking power in January, 1933, proceeding to the events of 1933-1939 and then dealing with the Second World War and the internal wartime resistance to the regime.

The war actually occupies a small part of the exhibit, and that's intentional. The Dokumentation center describes itself as providing the history "├╝ber die Geschichte des Obersalzbergs und die NS-Diktatur" (about the history of Obersalzburg and the National Socialist dictatorship), so the focus is intended to be on the dictatorship itself and its functioning.

It's actually a relatively long exhibit, taking about three hours if you listen to the audio guide and read all or most of the exhibit's narrative. Several points struck me as particularly impressive. One is that it showed a good bit of the material that historians use as their raw material, without tormenting the average vistor with "historiography" as such. For example, it shows a copy of an SD report. The SD was a section of the SS which was devoted to providing political intelligence on the attitude of the German public. Even dictatorships have to have some basis of public support. And in the absence of elections, reliable opinion polls, independent "civil society" organizations, or an independent press, the SD reports were a main source of information for the Nazi leadership on public opinion.

Similarly, historians research the SD reports for the same purpose, though they take a more critical attitude about the biases of the source matertial. All governments like to be told what they want to hear, and dictatorships are particularly subject to being blinded by their own propaganda.

The exhibit also addresses the issue of Holocaust denial which became considerably more visible in the 1990s, though I didn't notice a specific mention of that despicable pseudohistorical trend. But it nevertheless provides an answer to the question on which Holocaust-deniers exploit to bamboozle their suckers: how do we know about the Holocaust?

This exhibit shows us. We know about it from official records, from specific written reports, from films, from an enormous number of photographs, from eyewitness accounts, from written contemporary accounts of eyewitnesses and participants, from mass graves, from the physical evidence at the death camps, and from demographics. The exhibit includes, for instance, a letter written by a soldier home to his wife describing his participation in the systematic murder of large numbers of Jews.

I use "soldier" generically there, because I don't recall if that particular letter was from a Wehrmacht soldier. A great deal of the killing in the east was done by SS Einsatzgruppen and Ordnungspolizei (order police). Christopher Browning decribes some of the latter in his book Ordinary Men, as does Danny Goldhagen in his much inferior Hitler's Willing Executioners. Many of the Ordnungspolizei wrote letters to their families and sent photos describing scenes from the mass killing.

The exhibit also does a good job of showing how the regime suppressed independent political parties and civil society organizations, not least independent labor unions. The Hitler regime celebrated International Workers Day on May 1, 1933. On May 2, they banned all labor unions and set up the Deutsche Arbeiters Front (DAF) as a giant, nationwide company union. Churches were the largest legitimate civil society organizations which offered some kind of independent pressure and/or resistance to the dictatorship. Organizations like the Hitler Youth and Kraft durch Freude (KdF, "strength through joy") offered recreational opportunities to the general population. But they were also thoroughly politicized and utilized for regime and NSDAP propaganda.

Surprisingly, very little of the exhibition material is available in English. Which is too bad, because the catalogue that seems on a quick examination to include most of the pictures and text of the exhibition itself is really quite good. It's considerably more informative than the typical documentary on the period from the History Channel, aka, the "Hitler Channel" because of the volume of Second World War material it provides.

Still, even for non-German speakers, the Dokumentation Obersalzberg is well worth visiting.

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