The city of Berlin, much like Warsaw, has been reconstructed almost in totality since the end of the Second World War. There are, however, several key buildings and monuments that remain, like the iconic and highly symbolic Brandenburg Gate. One such massive building that was, curiously, never bombed by Allied forces was the menacing Nazi Ministry for Aviation building, (now the Treasury and Finances Office building in Berlin). During the height of the Cold War, this building was used by the East German government, and the Berlin Wall (most of which is still visible today) was built on the opposite side of the road, running parallel to the sidewalk.
Next to the remains of the Wall is one of the most incredible museums dedicated to World War II and the Holocaust that I’ve ever seen. The “Topography of Terror” Museum gives special attention to the creation of Hitler’s regime in the years leading up to the outbreak of war as well as the other groups of people (the vagrants, homosexuals, mentally and physically ill) who were marginalized and targeted by the National Socialist State.
The Topography of Terror Museum also helped me connect two very important points in a historical moment.
At the German Historical Museum (a massive collection on Museum Row that traces the history of the German nation from the end of the Roman Empire to the present) in an exhibit case documenting the immediate events at the end of World War II, I found a photograph titled, in English: “An SS Officer abused by vengeful former prisoners.”
This photograph really made an impression on me. It illustrates the historical fact that many former Nazi soldiers, officers, and party members were held as prisoners of war in internment camps by the Soviets (in an ironic twist of fate) following the Axis defeat, but it’s also a much more personal photograph than that. I can’t decide whether I think it depicts an image of justice or injustice. On the one hand, I find it superficially easy to write this photograph off as a “man who got what he deserved.”
But that’s almost too basic, too assuming of a one-sided nature of humanity. There are many other questions that arise in almost direct opposition to that assumption: how easy is it to be “brainwashed” or “indoctrinated,” even if you have a firm conviction in what you believe?
Are single victims of indoctrinating groupthink autonomously responsible? I certainly don’t think so. Guilt determination is a slippery slope and can be dangerous when the anger at the collective guilt of a group is taken out on a few individuals. And to what degree were these men — these leaders — truly evil, and to what degree were they mentally hazed into submission?
The fact that the officer is staring directly at you brings up another question that tests the agility of your empathy: what is the line between man and monster? Are we ever truly one or the other?
That line is made even more blurred by the second photograph I found in the Topography of Terror Museum. I was searching for a document that might have identified the officer in the photograph, but I found another picture instead:
I believe that this photograph contains the same officer from 15 years earlier. There are two particularly poignant things about this image. The first is that it is dated from 1931, two years before Hitler is appointed Chancellor and seizes political control of Germany. At this point, the Nazi Party has a growing, but still very limited, political influence.
This is a rare artifact from that time in the history of the Nazi’s rise to power. The second is that this photograph is also strikingly familiar — like the photograph of the football banquet you might stumble across in your grandfather’s college yearbook. Many of these men are well-documented later, in uniforms standing beside Goebbels at the Rally Grounds in Nuremberg or Hitler at the Eiffel Tower in Paris. But seeing this image in context feels almost too human, and we are reluctant, as viewers today, to give this photograph that life that it invites because we’re afraid of what that encourages.
I personally maintain, however, that it is acceptable, perhaps even encouraged, to approach these bookending images of arguably the darkest time in modern history with a humanistic empathy for everyone, known and unknown, who was and continues to be affected by it. It is worth noting here that, despite continuing research, I have not been able to find the name of this officer, and that troubles me greatly. Perhaps he’s easier to blame with a name and a list of specific crimes against humanity. Or perhaps he’s easier to forgive.