Gestapo Past and Present

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.  

Gestapo_HQ2Well, 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. 

Gestapo_HQ_Annie_2And 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.

MischaBut 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.…..

Hold_your_head_highThere 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.

Protest_and Resist

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