What can we learn from a Concentration Camp?

From the moment my feet touched the cold grey cement in Oranienburg, I could feel something was different. There was something in the air, a heavy feeling. I couldn’t figure out if it was my mind playing tricks on me but the eeriness was impossible to ignore. It was a real contrast to cheerful Berlin, where I had spent the previous 8 days.

Oranienburg is a town located at the very last stop on the Berlin subway (about an hour away outside the city) and I had come out all this way for only one reason. I had come to visit a concentration camp.

The atrocities committed during World War 2 are well documented and stand as historic reminders about what humanity can do to itself when it latches dogmatically onto a bad set of ideas. You can (and should) read some of the thousands of first-hand accounts of the evil that manifested itself during that time – but the effect of physically visiting one of the camps is in another league altogether. The books don’t do it justice.

The camp, called Sachsenhausen, was a 20-minute walk from the Oranienburg subway station and as I ventured out through the town - thin, stringy raindrops began to fall from the sky. The weather was certainly playing its part in setting the scene. It was miserable.

I stopped at a small grocery store to grab a bottle of water and something to eat, because I planned to spend the whole day at the camp before heading back to Berlin to catch my flight home later that evening. After exchanging some rudimentary German with the storekeeper, I emerged, sandwich in hand, and started to walk towards the camp. As I got closer and closer, I could feel a marked difference in the atmosphere. The streets get quieter, the air gets a bit thinner and your mind starts to flash through old black and white pictures from history books. You can almost taste the death in the air.

Arriving at the visitors centre, I weaved through a few groups of children on school tours and headed straight to the front desk. I didn’t quite know what to expect when I got there. All I knew is that I wanted to go on my own and take as much time as I needed to soak it all in.

There are plenty of guided tours that you can pay for where you would join a small group of tourists and follow a tour guide around the camp – hearing their canned repertoire loudly and sharply, trying to compete with the other guides. In my opinion, these types of tours can often be quite disappointing as they are catered for the tourists with the shortest attention spans and the least stamina. They have to please everyone and so I don’t think you get the full experience that you could get. What you gain in a trained guide’s knowledge, you lose in autonomy.

So, determined to do it alone, I rented an English audio guide for 3 euros and sauntered in. The camp had 37 stops on the tour and I intended to make the most of every single one of them.

As I sit here writing this, I’m aware of how weird that sounds. The idea of wanting to make the most out of a concentration camp visit is bizarre - but I don’t know how else to describe it. I’ve been a keen student (albeit not in any formal sense) of human psychology and history for much of my life and this represented an opportunity to try and understand some of humanity’s darkest impulses. Where does our tribal nature come from? Why do we make it ‘us and them’? Why would people do that to other humans? How did they live with themselves? Why did no-one stand up against it?

What the exhibits at the camp did exceptionally well was to contextualise the propaganda, social pressure and deep insecurities that could transform a society of civilised people into the type of people who could manifest unspeakable evil on their fellow man. One of the most chilling questions that consumed me when I was there was whether I would have had the mental fortitude and ethical convictions to stand against the Nazi regime at that time if I was in their shoes. And of course, I will tell you - dear reader - that I would have. Of course - I would have.

But I simply don’t know if that’s the truth. Tribalism and the mob mentality that emanates from it is by its very nature in the blindspot of those people in the mob. Those psychological draws are evolutionarily engineered and are incredibly powerful. We simply don’t see it when we are in the weeds. It takes objective third parties and hindsight to see what happened and piece together the string of events that led to the concentration camps in Nazi Germany.

I believe that the Enlightenment ideals of reason, science, humanism and specifically progress are making a better world slowly but surely, and one can only hope that we will never find ourselves in that sort of situation again. But as any historian will tell you - history is really good at repeating itself. We have to stay vigilant and aware of our worst impulses that flare up when our backs are against the wall.

Returning to an image of me sitting on a bench outside the camp, clutching my empty water bottle and shivering from the cold and from the emotional journey I had been on. The challenge that a camp like that sets in front of me, and the challenge that I’d like to set in front of you now - is what are the ethical atrocities that we are perpetuating right now that future generations will scoff at us about? What is in your blindspot? What is in mine?

It’s a scary question with even scarier answers - if you take it seriously.