So last week I was on holiday with my lovely Dutchman in Cologne on the Rhine in Germany, a city steeped in history and now chiefly famous for its Gothic cathedral, widely reputed to be pretty much the last building left standing in the city at the end of WW2. Easily resisting both this religious hotspot and, with slightly more difficulty, the siren calls of the brauerei, we decided on a bit of culture, some museums and a stroll along the river.
However, it turns out that not one but two buildings had survived WW2 in their entirety. Tucked away on a backstreet, we found the second survivor: the Gestapo HQ, which had been preserved as it was found at the end of the war to serve as a ghastly warning to history.
Well, as someone who regularly speaks at conferences across the world about human rights, totalitarianism and encroaching police states, I felt I had to have a look. The building is a nondescript office block that looks perfectly innocent from the outside. Three floors are open to the public. On the first is the museum, with the history of the rise to power of the Nazis. It was hideously fascinating to read how freedoms and rights were incrementally eroded as the state slipped ever more from democracy. The majority of the German people went sleep-walking into national socialism. As soon as Hitler had any sort of political power his attack-dogs, the SS, used disproportionate, sudden, and shocking violence against Germany’s own citizens to crush any nascent resistance. So from 1933 onwards the population was terrorised, as “undesirables” were routinely snatched from their homes for questioning, torture and imprisonment.
And the propaganda in the media that was on display.…. Shall I just say, even more unsubtle than that which is used against us today. I suppose these dark arts have developed over the intervening years.
But it was the lower floors that packed the strongest punch. The basement, just below street level, held the cells — tiny, dank spaces where as many as 30 people had been herded together. And the walls are covered in graffiti in all the languages of Europe — sad, desperate messages to the future from people who were “disappeared”. They seemed to want to leave a record of the fact simply that they had existed: they had loved, they missed their families, they were trying to hold their heads high despite the agonies inflicted daily, they were innocent, they were about to die.…..
There was one more level — the reinforced rat hole deep underground, which served both as the air-raid shelter for the Gestapo officers (the prisoners were left upstairs in their cells during the raids), and as the torture rooms. Considerately, the Gestapo carried out their most brutal interrogations underground, so that the screams could not be heard at street level.
As we emerged, somewhat silent, from this museum, I noticed that we, and many other visitors, all turned to stare at this building: it looked so bland and innocuous from the outside. But then people would inspect the basement windows that hid the cells. The smokers in the group all sparked up as soon as they were outside, dragging hard on their cigarettes. Others just stood silently.
So the museum does its job. It is a powerful warning from the grave. Homo homini lupus: man is wolf to man, ever has been and ever will be, absent adequate legal restraint. This is why the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was put in place in 1948, to prevent such atrocities from happening again.
Yet, at the risk of sounding sententious, such abuse is going on around the world right now, particularly in the cause of the endless, nebulous “war on terror”. We have been lazy, blind and foolish, letting our basic rights slide away. People are disappeared, extraordinarily rendered, to foreign prisons and tortured for years. Assassination lists have been drawn up by US intelligence agencies; suspects face kangaroo, military-style courtrooms, where they face the death penalty but are not allowed to know the full case against them; our governments aggressively, illegally, invade other countries, and yet the politicians who lie to take us into these wars, thereby causing the needless death, poisoning, maiming and displacement of millions of people, are not called to account for their crimes, as they should be under the Nuremberg Principles, the Rome Statute, and the International Criminal Court.
We, the citizens of still just-about-functioning democracies, should be ashamed. We need to re-remember our history and take a stand — before it’s too late.