Epitaph for the Millennium In the Dachau Guest Book

Greetings from Munich, the Black Hole of the Millennium. The perfect place to celebrate, to consummate, the dead end of a low, dark, dishonest century; the place that gave birth to the century’s (the millennium’s?) darkest, most destructive phenomenon, the city that nurtured the Nazi movement. Munich was Adolf Hitler’s adoptive hometown, home of the populace whose frenzied adulation launched the Führer on the path to mass murder. The city whose most notable suburb is named Dachau, site of the first concentration camp, the last crematorium to close down.

Cheerful place, then, Munich, but I’m not here just for the good old-fashioned fun. I’m here with the director Jim Sheridan ( My Left Foot , In the Name of the Father ), who has acquired the rights to my book Explaining Hitler , for a projected film that will focus on a forgotten aspect of Hitler’s Munich, on some forgotten heroes of the 20th century, the anti-Hitler journalists at the Munich Post , the reporters and editors of the chief anti-Nazi opposition paper in Hitler’s hometown. The ones whose terrible Cassandra-like fate it was to try to tell the truth about Hitler to a city, a nation, a world that didn’t want to hear about it.

They didn’t stop Hitler, but they did succeed in tormenting him. Hitler had a name for his newspaper nemesis: “the Poison Kitchen.” As in a place that cooked up poisonous slanders-when in fact it was because the truth was poison to his ears. They drove him crazy; once they nearly drove him to suicide. To call them the Woodward and Bernsteins of Hitler’s Munich is more than a bit unfair to Richard Nixon, who was no Hitler, but they were investigative reporters par excellence, and against far greater odds, they succeeded in exposing a series of Hitler-party scandals: financial scandals, sexual scandals, murder scandals (the way the Nazi Party was using the systematic assassination of its political opponents to murder its way to power). And the most sensational scandal of them all: the Final Solution, the secret Nazi Party plan for the Jews. On Dec. 9, 1931, the Munich Post published chilling excerpts from a secret Hitler-party document that used the euphemism for genocide, “Final Solution” ( Endlösung ), for the first time.

But nobody cared. Nobody cared in Germany then, and nobody cares now. German political culture doesn’t want to be reminded that it could have known about Hitler’s mass-murder intentions so early, 14 months before he took power in Berlin. They would prefer to go on believing no one could have known until Hitler took power and it was too late to resist the police state he created. The story of the Poison Kitchen gives the lie to that alibi.

One of the things I wanted to accomplish with my book was to rescue those brave journalists and their vision of the Munich Hitler-ultimate evil in embryo-from the oblivion of forgetfulness. In the preface to the German edition of my book, I called on the German nation to create a monument to the Anti-Hitler journalists. So far, no response. Perhaps a film would give the Poison Kitchen the posthumous monument those heroic reporters deserve.

And so here we are at Ground Zero. The hotel we’re staying in, the Kempinski Vier Jahreszeiten (“Four Seasons” long before a Four Seasons chain) was the place where the Nazi Party was conceived, just half a year before Hitler became its most famous convert. The Vier Jahreszeiten was the headquarters of a strange, sinister, secret organization known as the Thule Society, an elite group of powerful and wealthy occult-minded anti-Semitic nationalists organized by a strange impostor and con-man count named Rudolf Sebottendorff.

In the aftermath of the German defeat in 1918 and the apparent victory of left-social democratic governments, the Thule Society schemed-right here in the private rooms of the Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten-for revenge. And they came up with an all-too-clever strategy: to create a counterfeit workers party to lure the proles away from the left, a party that would combine socialist with nationalist and racist rhetoric. They called it the German Workers’ Party (later changed to National Socialists), and despite their secret subsidy it wasn’t doing much business until one day in September 1919 when Adolf Hitler walked into one of their meetings (as an army undercover spy) and within months took over as Führer , soon succeeding beyond the Thule Society’s wildest dreams of blood-drenched vengeance.

Late one night in the dark bar of the Vier Jahreszeiten, Jim Sheridan and I are watching an elegant black-gloved Fräulein engage in delicate negotiations with the well-heeled clientele-while we try to exorcise a strange encounter we had earlier that day. An encounter with a 90-year-old man who’d played choo-choo trains as a child with Hitler.

“I loved Adolf Hitler,” he told us unapologetically. Loved him as a child of 2 when Hitler came to hide in his family’s attic after the failed 1923 Beer Hall Putsch. (His father, Ernst Hanfstängl, was an early Hitler confidant-the man who brought the hatemonger off the streets and into the polite salons of Munich’s upper crust.) He loved Hitler even more, this fellow told us, after he emerged from jail a year after the putsch, and he was old enough to remember the choo-choo train game.

In the choo-choo train game, Hitler, then in his late 30’s, would form himself into a tunnel-arch by bending his arms down to the ground, and little Egon would crawl through the tunnel like a choo-choo while Adolf would do remarkably lifelike imitations of train whistles approaching and steam pistons chugging.

Well, what do you do when you hear a story like that? How do you respond to some 80-year-old guy telling you about playing choo-choo with Hitler? Jim Sheridan and I have been struggling with that all day. It just didn’t occur to the fellow, Jim keeps saying, the sinister significance trains took on in the Hitler saga.

The thing about the story that gets to me is the paradox of response. It brings you close to Hitler-up close and personal, tunneling right through him-and yet it mocks the idea of getting close, of finding any response at all proportional to the icon of ultimate evil, the black hole of human nature he represented. It brings you closer and leaves you still a million miles away. You want to believe there was something perverse going on with the little boy tunneling between Hitler’s legs, but the even more horrifying likelihood is that it was “innocent”-that it wasn’t “abnormal” in any way. The truly frightening thing about Hitler, the choo-choo story reminds us, is the many ways in which he was “normal,” like us-the ways in which what Hitler became implicates “normal” human nature, shows us the Hitler potential in human potential.

I don’t necessarily want to blame Munich alone, but there’s something about this city, a lingering miasma of sorts. Is it any accident this seems to me to be the most cologne-intensive city on the planet? Everyone, man and woman, seems to walk around in a private cloud, a virtual private cosmos, of powerful, expensive fragrance.

I don’t know why: to cover up the stench of the history made here? Is that why the Fräulein , shimmering in her elegant silk sheath, negoitiates while wearing black gloves? Even the transaction of love is touched, gloved with the color of mourning, with the funereal darkness of death in this town.

We didn’t figure it out that night, but we stayed there in the bar, at ground zero, the place of conception, and closed the place down, perhaps postponing the brief, troubled sleep that would precede our visit to Dachau the next morning.

I’m not going to talk about the trip to Dachau. Only about the guest book. I’d been there before; it’s not the worst concentration camp, but it was the first. They were still doing the killing by hand at Dachau up until the end. It remained more personal: At Dachau, they hung prisoners from the rafters they’d fixed up right in front of the crematoria that turned them to smoke and ash. So convenient and one-to-one; the other camps were so impersonal, so industrial by contrast.

No, like I said, I’m not going to get into Dachau, I’m just going to talk about the guest book. They have it there near the exit from the Dachau Museum, right after the blown-up photographs of the victims of the medical experiments they did here.

While Jim Sheridan was making his way more slowly through the exhibits, I was leafing through the guest book because it epitomized for me that problem of response. Epitomized it in a comic way sometimes: the visiting soccer team from Australia who made sure they added, after their signatures in the Dachau guest book, “LEAGUE CHAMPIONS!” How thoughtful of them to remind us of their stirring triumph.

And the guest book also epitomized the problem of response in a tragic way-the flight into consolation in the face of tragedy. There was the American family from the Midwest who felt compelled to make a big statement in the Dachau guest book. And so they wrote this, in big block capitals:

UNBELIEVABLE!

UNFORGETTABLE!

UNFORGIVABLE!

I’m sure they meant well; I’m sure they thought their inscription, well, built , in an impressive way. But it gave off the feeling of a blurb for a bad Broadway musical from a quote-whore hack. I found its showy pretense to comprehensiveness unbelievable and (almost) unforgivable.

But the guest book entry that irked me the most was from some pious pontificator from Boston who felt the need to wax philosophical in what he obviously thought was an extremely profound way. He’d figured out the lesson for us all. This is what the Boston philosophe wrote:

“Without truth there is no peace of mind.”

It made me want to give him a piece of my mind. Something to this effect: No, you smug, pious idiot, if the most important thing you came out of Dachau with was some little mantra of consolation-the truth makes everything nice -then you’re a coward, a moron or both. Don’t you get it? That’s precisely the problem with Dachau, with Munich, with Hitler, with this century: The truth doesn’t bring peace of mind. The truth, if you stare into its face, drives you mad.

But perhaps, in a way, our little philosophe in the guest book has bequeathed us a kind of truth about this century: Here in this black hole-an epitaph, when properly inverted, for the entire benighted millennium:

With truth there is no peace of mind.

Epitaph for the Millennium In the Dachau Guest Book