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July 1, 2011 10:03 pm
At Berchtesgaden, near the Austrian-German border, a tall blond man wearing Bavarian folk costume invites us into a large conference room. He appears uneasy, a concerned expression on his face. Neither he, nor we, are sure what is about to happen, what this meeting is really about.
No drinks are offered – not even a glass of water – so we find our seats and settle down. After a moment the man, the mayor of this small Alpine community, sits at a table opposite, looks at us closely, then puts his fingertips together and smiles.
“Well, I can see you’re not a bunch of neo-Nazis.”
There is a titter of relief from our largely grey-haired group of retirees, then we all begin to laugh. We have been officially vetted – and passed the test.
It is a curious interlude but a crucial one in a trip billed as the first of its kind: a holiday run by a British company that tours sites where Hitler and the Nazi party rose and fell. Though the second world war ended 66 years ago, sensibilities remain very delicate.
Indeed, our trip, and this meeting, nearly didn’t happen. Problems began when a critical article in the British press, later edited and syndicated in Germany and around the world, caused controversy. The tour, called the Face of Evil, was labelled a “Hitler holiday” by the Sunday Times after it was first announced this year.
“There is a danger of sensationalism,” historian David Cesarani was quoted as saying. He argued that, whereas tours of sites connected with the suffering of war, such as cemeteries and concentration camps, had gone on for years, this was different. “If you focus on the sites most pertinent to Hitler, you are concentrating on the cult of that personality. The trip, in effect, becomes a perverse pilgrimage.”
The Bavarian authorities were quick to react. In Berchtesgaden, the playground of the Nazi party, an edict was given for local people and officials not to co-operate and a tour of the Eagle’s Nest, Hitler’s private tea house in the Alps, was cancelled. Eventually, however, after some discussion, a seal of approval came from the German Institute of Contemporary History (IFZ) and the green light was given.
“I’m sorry,” the mayor says at our meeting, smiling but clearly embarrassed by the way this has been handled. Strangely, he alone in the room appears blind to the irony that he “was only obeying orders” from the local government.
One of our number points out that the numerous other tourists at Eagle’s Nest are not going there purely for the views (in fact, it’s heavily clouded over when we eventually reach this bizarre Nazi folly, now a restaurant), but because of who it was built for. We’ve seen the special buses transporting the curious up the exceptionally steep track in their thousands, while T-shirts and baseball caps with Eagle’s Nest written on them are on sale everywhere. The infrastructure for large-scale tourism exists but it’s best not to say openly why one is going.
“Holidaymakers come here for the beautiful countryside,” the mayor insists. But none of us believes him.
Our trip began in Munich, the city Hitler called the “cradle of the Nazi movement”. In the week that follows, we visit Dachau, the former ammunition factory that became the prototype for all Nazi concentration camps; eat a Bavarian dinner at the Hofbräuhaus, the cavernous beer hall where in 1921 Hitler unveiled the 25-point Nazi party programme; then travel on to Berchtesgaden. Later, in Nuremberg, we see the remains of the rally grounds and the court room where the International Military Tribunal tried 24 senior Nazis in 1946. Finishing in Berlin, we visit the Wannsee Villa, the elegant lakeside residence where the planning for the Holocaust, the Wannsee Conference of 1942, was carried out.
It’s not hard to see the sensitivity of putting all this into a holiday brochure (especially amid mentions of the luxury coach and the introductory drinks reception) but, as the journey progresses, so the criticism of the tour appears ever more misplaced. Any sane, sentient being struggles with the feelings of rage, incomprehension, disgust and sheer dread induced by seeing in situ the concentration camps, the beer halls where Hitler made his first speeches, the vast party congress hall and rally grounds, or the birthplace of the Final Solution. And our group is anything but a group of Hitler fans, being an international collection, mostly retirees but with a handful of younger people. All have a healthy fascination for the subject matter.
Which of course is entirely understandable. Even those of us who didn’t live through the war ourselves have been brought up on a heavy diet of films, books and television documentaries about the Nazis. Is there anything more to say about the subject? Do we need a tour of its sites? The answer is a simple yes. When one visits these places for oneself, this most crucial period of recent history makes much more sense.
How the Nazi period should be remembered is an over-arching theme that develops as we travel around the country.
When I lived in Germany as a child, in the late 1970s, any mention of the war was taboo. Today, however, many venues have recently-opened excellent museums – the visitor centre at the Nuremberg party rally grounds being a particularly good example – suggesting that Germans themselves are coming to terms with their past and are more at ease with the idea of others coming to learn about it, our encounter with the Mayor of Berchtesgaden notwithstanding.
Wherever we go, it is curious, even surprising, to see the large number of other visitors at these sites. German school-children, soldiers and policemen are regularly taken to see the concentration camps but other travellers from abroad also pass regularly through the infamous gates declaring Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Sets You Free). Other tours concentrate on the Holocaust or on specific battles. What this one does is to join up the dots, organising a trip around what are already well-visited sites, taking in the whole phenomenon of Nazism and giving the horror much greater context.
The point is that a guided visit around Nazi Germany could never be classified merely as “tourism”. Perhaps a new vocabulary is needed to describe it. Even “an educational tour” is too bland a phrase to express the powerful and haunting experiences that visiting places such as Dachau can invoke.
“In our gilded lives today, we owe it to the previous generation to come and see this,” says one of the younger travellers in the group of 24 while we are visiting Nuremberg Court Room 600, where senior Nazis were tried at the end of the war. We are watching horrific footage in the adjacent museum taken at concentration camps as part of the prosecution case and shown during the trial.
“How could this have happened?” we ask ourselves. “Why wasn’t it stopped earlier? Has anything truly changed? Could it happen again?”
It’s important not only to see these places but to do so in the company of experts on the subject. Everywhere we go, we are accompanied by the historians Nigel Jones, author of Countdown to Valkyrie and The Birth of the Nazis, and Roger Moorhouse (Killing Hitler and Berlin at War).
While they give evening lectures on all manner of subjects (the importance of Munich to Hitler, the Nuremberg rallies, Berlin under the Nazis, or the German resistance, to name but a few), during the walks, on the bus, moving between venues, or over dinner, practically any question may be asked, any detail or uncertainty about the period clarified.
Some on the tour learn a lot. For others, it serves to bring added focus to a period they have read widely on for years. But, for everyone, the sense of place, the atmosphere, the gut-wrenching awfulness of seeing gas chambers and crematoria for the first time come as new and very real experiences that words alone are inadequate to express.
Eight days of this feels like a long time. Towards the end of the trip, in Berlin visiting the Wannsee Villa, and the bleakly grubby remains of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, one starts to remember one’s life back home and even the first few days of the tour as though through an inverted telescope: distant and shrunken in size. One cannot fail but to have a sense of change, profound and meaningful, that will leave a mark for the rest of one’s life.
In earlier centuries it was fashionable to take the Grand Tour, to complete one’s education by travelling to Italy and Greece to learn about Classical civilisation. Today’s equivalent may turn out to be this – to witness the relics of one of the greatest horrors of man: a grandeur not to be emulated but to grapple with, to question, to struggle to comprehend.
Jason Webster is author of ‘Or the Bull Kills You’ (Chatto & Windus), as well as ‘Sacred Sierra’ and ‘Duende’
Jason Webster travelled with Historical Trips (www.historicaltrips.com). The Face of Evil tour costs from £1,950 per person, with the next tour taking place in 2012.
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