The End Of An Era: After Wiesenthal
The End Of An Era: After Wiesenthal
By Donald McIntyre
I never met Simon Wiesenthal but I have had a glimpse at what made him so hungry for justice. A few years ago I visited Dachau former concentration camp near Munich, where Wiesenthal had been imprisoned.
It was a haunting place and the cruelty caught in the photos on display at the camp museum made me feel sick. Disgusting!
Emotionally it was very weird. I felt extremely angry and very sad. These emotions seemed to be competing at times. Sadness seemed so pointless and anger, I told myself, was something you can act on. Anyway, the emotions swirled around inside me like I am sure they do for most visitors to these camps. The thing that made me cry was a photo of a young guy, about my age, who had been repeatedly pushed under in a tub full of freezing water, to test out a prototype life jacket or similar for Luftwaffe pilots who ejected from their planes into the sea. The plaintive look on this young man’s face….unforgivable. And Dachau was far from the most murderous of the camps.
While visiting Dachau, my companion and I spoke with a former inmate of the camp who was talking with tour groups. This man had survived Dachau and Auschwitz camps among other things.
Perhaps one of the most poignant things he said was that it wasn’t the death, the fear of death or the deprivation that he found hardest: it was the constant fear. You were even scared while you slept, in your dreams.
Wiesenthal was criticised for announcing there were no more Nazis to hunt when he retired in 2003. He has been called an egotist and portrayed by critics as ‘vengeful’ and ‘angry’-the ‘avenging angel’ was a moniker attached to him.
Well, when anger is put to good use and channelled it can shake the world. About 90 of his relatives were murdered by the Nazis and whatever his personal shortcomings Simon Wiesenthal was an amazing man who insisted on bringing some of the 20th Century’s worst brutes to justice. I say this even though for some people like me the death penalty was inappropriate from an ethical perspective and in terms of the lost opportunity to try and understand the minds of such criminals. Thank God for people like Wiesenthal and let’s not forget Margaret Meads: ‘Never doubt that a small, group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has’.
Wiesenthal’s insistence on ‘digging up the past’ was to get people to account for their part in one of the ugliest events this planet has seen. His contribution to Adolf Eichman’s capture is legendary. Eichmann had worked at Dachau as a corporal. He contributed to bringing about 1000 Nazi war criminals to book and we should keep the memory of this man alive. There is a lesson for all us in the bravery he showed in his Nazi hunting. This bravery contrasts starkly with that generation of Nazi apologist Austrians and Germans post war, who just wanted to ‘get on with the future’. It contrasts starkly with the lack of bravery shown by Heinrich Himmler, SS leader, who apparently was physically shaken when he witnessed shootings at first hand.
The Nietzschen Nazi ideas about the Germanic superman are a distorted view of virility and strength. The deeply disturbing photos of guards holding whips, their faces contorted with rage, standing over emaciated broken down people in Dachau shows how at least some of these self proclaimed Ubermenschen were in some ways pathetic and had lost all idea of fighting for their Fatherland except in the most deranged sense. What real soldiers ‘fight’ by whipping, shooting and starving innocent, unarmed people?
There is a lesson for all of us in Simon Wiesenthal’s relentless search for uncovering the truth and his commitment to humanity and equality.