It is August and the parking lots are full. Throngs course through the barracks, stroll the once-electrified perimeter, view huge photos of horror and, inevitably, drift over to the crematorium. There, a father places his son — about 6, I’d guess — in front of the oven and poses him for a picture. Speaking in German, he has the boy tilt a bit so that the open oven is over his shoulder. As the boy holds the pose, I sneak a glance at the camera’s display screen: the boy, the oven. Click. I don’t know if the Holocaust has been further trivialized or further memorialized.
At least 32,000 people were killed at Dachau. It was the first of the concentration camps and, considering what was to follow, almost anodyne. The extermination camps came later, the most famous of them being Auschwitz, where about 1 million Jews were murdered. This is not that place. This, in some sense, is worse.
In his forthcoming book, “Black Earth,” Holocaust historian Timothy Snyder titles one chapter “The Auschwitz Paradox.” That camp has become synonymous with the Holocaust itself, obscuring not only other camps (where the survival rate was nonexistent) but also the fact that most of Europe’s Jews were not killed in some industrialized, virtually robotic, fashion. They were shot close up.
“When the mass murder of Jews is limited to an exceptional place and treated as the result of impersonal procedures, then we need not confront the fact that people not very different than us murdered other people not very different than us at close quarters for no reason,” he writes. “This we generally prefer not to see.”
But I see the father who has come with his son to Dachau, and I don’t know what to make of him. I know he is not the murderer pictured in the displays, and I do not hold him accountable for what happened here. But I have known for some time that Snyder is right, that the Holocaust was an immense national effort, that much of the killing was done by men (and some women) who, on leave, went home to cuddle their kids and pet their dogs. They were “Ordinary Men” — the title of Christopher R. Browning’s haunting book about the killers. Ordinary men can do extraordinary things, evil included.
As I tour Dachau, I think of Iran. I do not endorse the tasteless rhetoric of Mike Huckabee, who said an agreement with Iran “will take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven.” Nor do I endorse the apocalypse-soon warnings of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The deal is acceptable and, besides, there is no turning back. The United States cannot now stand alone. Sanctions will dissolve. Europeans and others are salivating over deals to be made. Capitalism, like lust, is amoral.
But I recoil at the treacly descriptions of Iran. We are told of its unexpressed love for America, its vast and deprived middle class, its desire only to live life as we do — a chicken in every pot and, with a bit of luck, a Maserati GranTurismo in every garage. I do not doubt the essential truthfulness of these accounts. I do not doubt either their total irrelevance. What matters is not the bourgeois yearnings of everyday people but the mad dreams of their leaders.
Germany proved that. Yes, the Germans have their peculiarities. No one jaywalks. There is no litter. The culture hums like a Mercedes on the Autobahn, and it has come off the mat after World War II to become Europe’s most formidable economy. The Germans have something, but nothing that by itself accounts for mass murder. They are indeed, as Snyder wrote, “not very different than us.”
But their leadership was. And so is Iran’s. It consists of dense theocrats who vow the destruction of Israel. A recent Iranian president was a Holocaust denier and he gathered imbeciles such as himself to a grand meeting devoted to Jew-hatred. The current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, may not be quite as buffoonish, but he is forthright in his hatred: “This barbaric, wolf-like, and infanticidal regime of Israel which spares no crime has no cure but to be annihilated.” Oh.
The lessons of history are clear. The Iranian people are irrelevant; only the country’s leadership matters. The United States should make the deal with Iran but be prepared — belligerently so — to enforce it and to keep Israel safe. I don’t believe a second Holocaust is in the cards. But in 1933, when this camp was opened, few saw the first one was coming.
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