Death camp visit spurs questions about present-day war economies
By Bob Berwyn
As I sat on a cool granite stone wall after touring the museum at the Mauthausen concentration camp, I wondered if the person who chiseled the rock from the nearby quarry was buried in the peaceful hilltop cemetery nearby.
He — or she — might have been a Jew or a Gypsy, a Russian, Hungarian, Romanian, Turk, American, Chinese, a Jehovah’s Witness, a homosexual, or even one of the 7,000 Spanish and Cuban anti-fascist fighters who were executed here at the Nazi-run extermination site. All were victims of the National Socialist nightmare of ethnic purity.
Traveling in this part of Austria isn’t all schnitzel and soccer. Adolph Hitler, the pathological mastermind of the Third Reich, was born just a few miles away, and even now, several generations later, you can still hear the faint echo of jackboots goose-stepping across some the broad plazas that were designed for displays of totalitarian might.
Mauthausen was the last of the major camps to be discovered and liberated by Allied forces. In May 1945, just a few weeks before the end of WWII an American scout unit, based in Linz, reported back to headquarters, noting that there were thousands of prisoners near death in the rows of cellblocks.
I visited the Mauthausen camp with my parents when I was about 10, and last summer, I took my son, who was the same age. I wanted to try and pass on what, to me, is one of the most important lessons in recent history. The Nazi era signifies humanity at its absolute worst, showing what we are all capable of with only a little encouragement from overly zealous and nationalistic politicians who base their leadership on lies, hypocrisy, xenophobia and fear-mongering.
The museum was featuring a special exhibit: “The Technicians of the Final Solution.” The displays focused on an Erfurt-based company called Topf & Sons, manufacturers of the crematoriums that were used to incinerate millions of victims after they were shot, hung, gassed, beaten or simply worked to death in the European slave labor and death camps between 1939 and 1945.
Just in case there was the slightest bit of doubt in anyone’s mind about what went on in the camps, historians compiled a meticulous record: Page by typed page of order forms, invoices, letters of commendation, company officials asking for a raise after explaining how hard they were working, original blueprints for the ovens.
There was money to be made from genocidal death and destruction, and some patriotic German industrialist was going to profit, ethics and morals be damned, They were just serving the best interests of their country.
The “just-following-orders, my-country, right-or-wrong” mentality hits close enough to home to be scary. As I rested on the cool stone wall, this bleak chapter of human history drew me toward a comparison between then and now. With deep family roots in this part of the world, I tried to imagine what it was like to live under a true reign of terror, reflected in the ghost-like faces and skeletal bodies I’ve just seen in the old photos from liberation day at Mauthausen.
I wonder if future historians will do the same legwork that’s on display at the Mauthausen museum to tell the story of the war in Iraq? I can’t help feel a small spark of curiosity about what a look at defense contractor invoices and memos between those contractors and the U.S. Government would show?
Could it be that economic imperatives and the profit motive are the true drivers behind our current Mid-eastern entanglement? Only time, and a careful examination of the historical record, will tell the real story.
But one thing is for sure. Citizens of every country, especially where we enjoy freedom and democracy, must constantly be on guard against deception, manipulation and distortion.
Among the many memorial plaques to victims at Mauthausen, one side of a wall dedicated to ordinary citizens who resisted the Nazi regime, offering comfort and help to victims of ideological oppression, food for women and children who were forced into slave labor, and to those harbored fugitives and stood up to speak out against tyranny and evil.
We all need to make sure we’re on the right side of that wall when the story of our time is told.