What’s the difference between a Scottish three-star hotel and a German youth hostel?
In a German youth hostel the shower has hot water.
That’s not particularly funny but neither is most of what follows today.
I check out of the youth hostel in Werningerode and head for the railway station. I am not looking forward to reaching my destination.
The weather has lifted and from the platform I have a clear view of the Brocken mountain as I wait for my train back west. I am going the long route home and it will not be scenic.
I am headed back across the Lower Saxon Plains to the town of Celle, just north of Hanover. It’s a lovely old place, built around a fairytale castle.
When I originally had the idea to go there I was going to tell you the story of an English princess who was locked within its walls by her jealous husband, the king of Denmark. It is a dark story tinged with insanity but it is nowhere near as chilling as Celle’s other claim to infamy.
Celle is the traditional jumping off point for the nearby village of Bergen and onwards to the hamlet of Bergen-Belsen. The name probably needs no introduction and neither does its most famous inmate. Bergen-Belsen concentration camp is the last resting place of Anne Frank.
The detour may not be scenic but it cannot be avoided. However you define it, and there are several definitions, the Holocaust looms so large among the founding principles of modern Germany that no discussion of the subject can get around it.
This is the elephant in the room. Previous chapters of this blog have discussed Germany’s suffering during and after the war at length: the starvation, the destruction, the agonies of displaced Germans after the armistice. I would not blame you if on some level you are thinking: “yes, but…”
It would be unwise to discuss any of these topics with a German person unless you know them very well. To do so might be seen as an attempt to mitigate the evils of the National Socialist regime and to offer Germany’s suffering as an excuse. Even today, millions of Germans believe that no excuses should ever be made.
Yes, you will be told, Germans suffered terribly during the Second World War — but that in no way excuses the atrocities committed on their behalf. Similarly it would be unwise to suggest that “it could have happened anywhere”. That, you will be told in no uncertain terms, is of no consequence: the fact is that it happened here.
I read Anne’s diary before I came here. She would have wanted you to read it. The book may be the only friend and confidante of a teenage girl locked away from the outside world but it was by no means a secret. She dreamed of becoming a famous author once the war was over and redrafted large parts of her work to this end.
This was one of many misgivings I had about picking up a copy. There was much that I feared about reading it and for the most part I was mistaken.
I thought it would be boring for example. We might as well be honest here. After all, it is about eight people who are imprisoned in the same small apartment for two years and the ending is known to most. I can assure you that nothing could be further from the truth.
In her hands the monotony of the lives of Otto Frank, his family, and the family of his business partner becomes a gripping series of intrigues and subplots. The intensity is carefully controlled, the detail is engaging without ever being bewildering. She holds the tension impeccably and as with many translated works it reads so smoothly that it is difficult to put down.
Neither is it particularly depressing. There is an element of dark adaption to the whole ordeal, one which was mirrored by many people in a similar situation. Once the immediate danger (in this case her sister Margot’s call-up to a labour camp) has subsided, the adrenaline is replaced with an unreal serenity. You could even call it cozy –and yet all the while you sense the menace simmering on the back burner.
Though the influence of her famous mood swings is clear, she retains her stoicism and sense of optimism throughout. It is also not without humour. In one passage she describes the group listening to the radio. They listen to broadcasts in English and Dutch but usually not in “the forbidden tongue”, German. Ironic, comments Anne, considering she used to be one.
Though she will forever be associated with Amsterdam she was born in Germany and would have remained there had Hitler not revoked the citizenship of German Jews. Ironically enough this is one of the reasons why if I am made a German citizen it can never be taken away from me.
In tone it is far from consistent. Anne displays maturity beyond her years but the pages are punctuated with passages that would grace the diaries of less famous teenagers and cause them blushes in later years. Her mood swings have an obvious effect on her writing and for many it will be too self-indulgent.
For these reasons literary critics are divided as to the book’s artistic measures. Criticism has also come from another corner. Holocaust deniers have repeatedly claimed that it is a fake. Their claims have been more easily rebuked.
For me, it is the imperfections that make the work so instantly memorable. Many have suggested that both Anne’s maturity and her self-preoccupation are products of her environment. She was, after all, cut off with nobody to confide in and with nothing to do to pass the time except develop her intellect.
It is clear from the early passages that she is no child genius and has the school marks to prove it. She is reassuringly normal. If the book is not perfect, it is at least a perfect product if its time and so for what it’s worth, I think it deserves to be a bestseller.
On 4 August 1944 Anne and her diary parted company for the last time. That it survived at all is due entirely to the incompetence of the arresting officer, who emptied out the bag it was hidden in onto the floor so that he could fill it with any valuables he found in the flat.
It lay there for a couple of days before one of the family helpers recognised it, picked it up and hid it. By that time the family were on a long journey which in Anne’s case would ultimately end here.
My own journey to Belsen has been unspectacular but there are two points to mention about my ride to the camp. Firstly, I think it’s about the longest local bus ride I’ve taken anywhere. We roll on through flat fields and forests for over an hour, a reminder to me about how far away from civilization these places tended to be.
The second thing I should draw attention to is the rows and rows of election billboards fastened to the trees and lampposts. Parliamentary elections are coming up and the faces of the candidates line the roadside, an auburn-haired lady in her sixties being the most familiar.
All of the parties are here but in recent weeks one in particular has attracted particular criticism for its advertising strategy. The anti-Islam, anti-immigration Alternatives for Germany have gone for an advertising campaign that is eerily reminiscent of the 1930s.
One one billboard, three women in burkas are seeing going shopping alongside the slogan: “Integration doesn’t look like this!”. This is one of the milder ones. Another shows a closeup of the three veiled faces and the phrase: “Stop Islamisation!” Yet another shows three young black men alongside a demand to step up deportations.
As the bus pulls into Bergen centre I see the most notorious of the lot. The belly of a (white) pregnant woman poking out between jeans and t-shirt and the slogan: “New Germans — we’ll make our own!”
Thanks very much, I think to myself. I’ll do the same for you some time.
There’s not much left of the original concentration camp except for graves. A visitor centre has been built and monuments erected but the original camp had to be burned down by the occupying forces to stop a typhus epidemic from spreading.
A small memorial stone has been placed to Anne and her sister but we have no way of knowing which of the 50,000 bodies heaped up in the mass burial grounds are theirs. Perhaps nothing is more symbolic of the descent into madness that characterised their last weeks and months than the information blackout which enveloped them.
Coming from a well-established Frankfurt family, we know a lot about their early lives and, of course, we have a unique insight into their life in hiding. After that, we are reduced very quickly to eyewitness accounts and supposition.
We know that after the arrest the family were transported to Westerbork, a holding centre in eastern Holland. According to Otto, who died in 1980, the work was hard but they could at least be together in the evenings. The girls felt a sense of relief at being outdoors.
It was not to last. As criminals in the eyes of the authorities they were given priority transportation to Auschwitz. Ironically, and there are many ironies in what follows, it was the last train ever to make this journey.
The train journey took three days and was hell on earth. Transport wagons were packed full of people and then rolled across Germany. Sanitation was non-existent and many passengers did not survive.
At the gates of Auschwitz, the men and women were split up and Anne saw her father for the last time. Our last direct link to her ends here.
Further divisions were made between those who were fit for work and those who were not. Those who were too old, too sick or who were aged under fifteen were sent straight to the gas chambers. One of the cruellest aspects of the Nazi regime was the way that it specifically targeted children.
At fifteen years and three months, Anne was spared execution by the narrowest of margins. Slightly over half of the thousand or so passengers were executed on arrival and the survivors would have been well aware of this. Anne was convinced that her father, in his mid-fifties and with health problems, had not made it.
From there, the three Frank women would have been stripped naked, disinfected and had their heads shaved to avoid lice. They would have been tattooed with identification numbers, given prison robes and set to work on construction projects.
Eyewitness accounts of her time in Auschwitz are conflicting. Some witnesses talk of her brightness, at other times she is described as deeply depressed. What we know for sure is that all three women were seriously ill and spent time in the infirmary.
In the world around them, things were moving fast. Soviet troops were pressing hard into Poland and so the decision was taking to move prisoners back westwards. Margot and Anne were fit enough to travel; Edith, their mother was not. She died before the camp was liberated.
The journey took the sisters westwards to Bergen-Belsen, a mixed-purpose camp that would normally been a much more preferable option to where they had just been. One of the first things that new arrivals noticed was the absence of gas chambers. Unfortunately the arrival of 8,000 new mouths to feed at a time when a typhus epidemic was breaking out tipped the balance for the worst.
There was at least one bit of good news for Anne: a couple of chance meetings with two old school friends through the wire fence. They describe her as bald, skeletal, dressed in a blanket because her clothes were full of lice.
It is from these meetings that we know that she believed both her parents to be dead. We also know that she was begging for food because on the other side of the fence there was none to be had. With the Wehrmacht in retreat they had effectively been left to their fate.
We are not sure exactly when the end came, or what exactly the cause of death was. Typhus is the obvious explanation — 17,000 of the camp’s inmates lost their lives to the disease during the winter of 1945 — with starvation as a contributing factor. We know that her sister died first and it is safe to suppose that she followed a few days later.
Photographs of Anne fit her words like a glove. She is instantly photogenic. The long arms and legs, the source of much amusement and frustration during her stay in the “secret annexe” are the first thing you notice when she is shown seated at her desk. The angular face, the dark round eyes and beaming smile radiate the alertness and vivacity for which she will always be remembered.
Her story is an ideal prism through which to view the descent into madness that characterises the experience of millions of victims, but it comes with one essential caveat.
For all of the horrors she faced, she was in many ways comparatively fortunate. She came from a well-off family who were able to hide in relative comfort. Many others were forced to hide in cellars or under floorboards. Children were often separated from their families whilst in hiding. Anne’s is not the only diary.
Perhaps most chillingly of all, Anne has a name and a face. Many of the victims of the Holocaust do not. Of the 50,000 people who lie here, only 10,000 have ever been identified. The identities of around 1.5 million Jewish victims are still unknown.
The horrors of Bergen-Belsen and elsewhere still dominate the agenda in modern Germany. To foreigners and also to many Germans it comes across as self-flagellation. Must Germans forever beat themselves up for crimes committed before they were born?
The answer is of course “no” but it is never that simple. The self-loathing may be counterproductive but the core belief that this can never happen again is indisputable.
Perhaps the key lies in evolution. It would be wrong to suggest that the Holocaust “could have happened anywhere”. In class-conscious 1930s Britain for example, where social identity and political affiliation went hand-in-hand, extremism never stood a chance. But it is worth remembering that such horrors happened before the Third Reich and they have happened since.
If Anne’s story is a prism then so is that of the Holocaust, a graphic and well-documented example through which we can begin to understand what drives us to turn on each other like this.
If Germany’s sense of guilt is misplaced, its unwillingness to accept excuses is admirable. As our living links to the past fade away we cannot allow the horror of what happened to be eroded at the edges.
Next week, if the predictions are right, the Alternatives For Germany will become the first far-right party to enter the German parliament since the war. Their share of the vote is comparable to UKIP’s and Nigel Farage has been over here to lend them his support.
They claim to have changed their spots. They claim there is no connection between their beliefs and the tragic consequences of Europe’s last experiment with far-right extremism. Just right now I find that very hard to believe.
We must watch them like hawks.