Visiting Natzwiller, France: sober remembrance of World War Two inhumanity
Horrors from which to recoil but also to remember
This concentration camp on French soil, functioning between 1941 and 1944, has been estimated to have been responsible for the deaths of at least 25,000 people. Inmates of this camp included slave labourers, Jews, people referred to as Gypsies, and captured members of resistance movements in countries which Nazi Germany had invaded.
Situated in the village of Natzwiller, near Molsheim in Alsace, eastern France, the concentration camp was considered by the Nazi invaders, who annexed Alsace, as being in Germany itself, and they would refer to the camp as 'Struthof-Natzweiler', which accounts for the spelling difference from 'Natzwiller', used in France today in reference to the village where it is situated.
I saw an oven, formerly used in the cremation of human victims. I saw a gas chamber. The visitor will find a striking contrast between the beautiful, surrounding Alsatian countryside and the memory of the inhuman acts perpetrated here at Struthof-Natzweiler, which was adminstered by the feared SS. A tall, simple and understated memorial has been built at the camp in memory of its many victims.
The camp was liberated by American troops in November 1944. It is grimly noteworthy for having been the first Nazi concentration camp to be liberated by Allies toward the end of World War Two, when the full horrors of the nature of the Nazi régime — already very much in evidence — were revealed to an incredulous world. French writer Jean-Paul Sartre — not known for an overtly religious outlook in his works — memorably said that the revelations about Nazi concentration camps signified evidence of the reappearance of the devil on earth.
There was a visitors' book at Natzweiler-Struthof, now a museum for the sombre but rational education of posterity. In the book, as I signed, I also happened to notice the signature of a previous visitor: François Mitterrand, French President 1981-1995.
As would have done the many other visitors to this stark and sobering site, and amidst a deep sense of revulsion, I resolved not to forget.
Words, in the face of evidence and memories of such gross inhumanity, can be difficult.
Interestingly, the inception of the Natzweiler camp owed something to a survey of the local area in 1940 by Albert Speer (1905-1981), Hitler's preferred architect and later War Production Minister; Speer wished to exploit local granite mining resources; and the camp was later used to supply labour for this enterprise, carried out in grim and harrowing circumstances. After World War Two, at the Nuremberg War Trials, Albert Speer managed successfully to argue that his role in planning for concentration camps did not extend to their day to day management; although documents later emerged that the extent of his knowledge of events at concentration camps was in fact greater than had been apparent at the War Trials, where his life was spared and where Speer was handed a 20 year prison sentence, which, unlike not a few Nazi criminals, he served in full. After World War Two, Speer proved willing to acknowledge general responsibility for the crimes of the Nazi régime, to donate substantially to Jewish charities after his release from Spandau Prison, to forego past friendships with many Germans of his generation by his copious writings and interviews detailing his and other former Nazis' responsibility for their crimes, and indeed to develop a friendship with renowned Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal, to whom he wrote: "Every man carries his life's burden on his shoulders, no one can take it off for him, but since we met my own burden has been lightened. God's grace has touched me through you." (1) However, many observers find Speer's numerous post-war acts of contrition unsatisfactory and insincere, given the enormity of the events and crimes which his responsibilities encompassed.
(1) Qu. in: Tom Segev, Simon Wiesenthal: the Life and Legends, New York: Schoken Books, 2010, p. 393.
(Such things should not be relativized or diminished, even by unwitting implication, and this particular article will depart from the usual practice, in these articles, of mentioning other sights worth seeing in the district. Only general comments about transportation will be made, below.)
How to get there
United Airlines flies from New York Newark to Paris (Aéroport Paris-Charles de Gaulle ), from where car rental is available (distance from Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport to Natzwiller: 457 kilometres). In addition, via stopovers, Air France, Delta and KLM, which have a code-sharing agreement, operate flights from New York to EuroAirport Basel Mulhouse Freiburg, from where car rental is available (distance from EuroAirport Basel Mulhouse Freiburg to Natzwiller: 129 kilometres). Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information.
MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.
Agonizing over guilt and responsibility
This play - 'Outside the door' - by Wolfgang Borchert is a fictional representation of some of the highly acute dilemmas and agonized thinking of Germans who in one way or another served the Nazi régime in World War Two. Truth, memory, responsibility, evasion, opportunism, the tension between honesty and self-deception: all these conditions and states of mind must have been felt acutely by the author who was himself to die of a war-related illness in 1947. On the surface, I did not 'like' the somewhat stark, raw discourse of the work; but it is hard for the discerning reader not to acknowledge that those who lived through World War Two as part of Nazi Germany's war machine must have gone through immense inner turmoil if their consciences challenged them. Even as I felt in some ways repulsed reading this raw work, I think it is also in a sense morally instructive. It reminds me of a quote from Aeschylus - beloved of Robert Kennedy: "And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despite, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God".