Willed ignorance

The sign outside the building Crematorium says...

The sign outside the building Crematorium says in German: “Think about how we died here” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Riding the subway, I was surprised to find a stop at Dachau. In my mind, concentration camps existed in deep forests, far from urban centers. But there it was, accessible by the commuter railroad, not far from downtown Munich.


I was in this southern German city for a few days, staying at a mutual friend’s house. When I mentioned that I taken aback by the infamous prison being so close by, my host explained that during the Nazi period that area was considered a distant suburb. He was a teenager at the time and knew a special prison had been built on the site of an old munitions factory but he paid scant attention to the rumors about what was taking place there. “There were rumors,” he said. “Only rumors.”


“Was the camp secret?” I asked. “No,” he said. “People were afraid to ask. So I didn’t know.” Not until after the war.


In effect, my host and those around him chose ignorance.


The Nazis kept meticulous records at this camp, unlike at others where history was to consign the activities to the maw of forgetfulness forever. Here, at Dachau, however, they noted their procedures in detail and photographed their experiments, so that these advancements in torture and murder could be duplicated more systematically and efficiently in yet more horrible places.


At this, the first concentration camp, they designed poison gas shower rooms, more efficient gallows, and ovens for human burning. It was here they engaged in medical experiments so hideous in their design that the results were sealed after the war by the Allies, to make clear that human beings are not to be used in such vile ways, even when the results could possibly lead to cures for intractable diseases.


What remains in my mind from my visit to Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site is the photograph not of children and mothers but of one political prisoner wearing a pilot’s helmet. This man, neither Gypsy or Jew but a Socialist, served as an experimental subject to determine the amount of pressure the skull could withstand, presumably to design better military headgear. The picture shows him wide eyed and terrified just moments before his head exploded.


My host drove me to the concentration camp. He said that he had never gone in and wouldn’t this time either. He chose to sit in the car to wait for me as I walked through the ghostly grounds alone.


“What’s the point of visiting the past?” he asked. “Why stir up bad feelings?”


I often think about the visit to Munich, the camp at Dachau, the photo of the man in the helmet. And I think about my host who chose ignorance then and later couldn’t face his own cowardice. This makes me wonder what it is today that I refuse to see as I go about my business, not wanting to know, not wanting my life disturbed. I ask myself how much I am like those who lived near Dachau and preferred their daily routines to acknowledging the barbarities carried out around them.


The late German sociologist Theodor Adorno may have had my Munich host in mind when he wrote, “The highest form of immorality is to be comfortable in our own home.”


Being responsible requires a degree of discomfort; being moral requires a dose of courage. The price they paid for their comfort was incalculable.



12 thoughts on “Willed ignorance

  1. On the one hand, I can understand your host’s comment about not wanting to “stir up bad feelings,” because life goes on despite the horrors of the past and the “bad feelings” could stick inside us in an unhealthy way. “Know thyself” seems to be the best I can do when it comes to making decisions of facing society’s ills, . Hopefully, like yourself, I would bite-the-bullet and visit Dachau should I have the opportunity. (I currently subscribe to Indian Country which I have difficulty reading because of the sorrow, blame and shame it reveals.) As Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh states in “Being Peace” – “suffering is not enough.” I find it to be suffering to acknowledge what society & I ignore just to get by – or worse, to consume as much as we do. Call it “willed ignorance” but I think we have to set aside hard truths, to some appreciable degree, to truly experience all of life which includes civic engagement.

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  3. One thing that needs to not go unnoticed is that you described your host’s ” we were too afraid to ask” as cowardice and complacency; but he had just been described as being a teen in the Nazi days( a young teen who was not old enough to have gone to war) …..What about our teens now…do we expect our 13,14 and 15 year olds to take on and stand up against authority, do we expect them to step up and face fear and be brave? No we expect them to keep
    themselves safe and be respectful of authority. And if you were a teen who saw people dragged away…would you volunteer for the privilege?

    • You ask if we expect our teens to stand against authority. Yes, if that authority isn’t morally legitimate. Respect for authority is fine is authority is worthy of respect. To be able to distinguish between respect for respect’s sake and respect which is warranted is the role of critical thinking.
      While deference to authority is good most of the time, it isn’t always good. Adults who can make changes in society that lead to greater freedom and justice are those who were brought up to think for themselves while at that same time being respectful of everyone. This is a hard balance to find, but no one ever said that being an ethical person was easy.

      • This is not how we ACTUALLY are with our teens though. Our priority for them is safety. Again you are projecting post war post 60s standards onto wartime children and present day children.
        It is our insistence to hold ordinary German people to standards that we do not keep ourselves which concerns me. It leaves us without an accurate reference point to be able to judge our own present circumstances and vulnerabilities in our own society.

      • I agree that it is likely that most of us would act like most of the Germans acted. That’s what I’m trying to get at. It takes extraordinary people to do the right thing under extraordinary circumstances. It would be better for everyone if we raised all our children to act like the rescuers during the Holocaust, not like the by-standers.
        I am not holding the German people to any higher standard than anyone else. But not to hold them to a standard of decency (not turn away when innocent people are murdered) is to hold them to a lesser standard. And to do that is to patronize them all.

      • If it may be indulged, another excerpt that says it better than I seem able to today:

        “We want to be nice people, we cannot imagine ourselves participating in events or attitudes that would result in something so despicable as a Nazi society. Yet Hans Fallada describes people just like you and me: people worried about being nice, about being fed, about being loved, about being safe, who have been stripped of their dignity and trust, in the name of trusting and dignifying a system that claims to want to ennoble them. “Trust Me, there is a glorious future for the German people if you would only stop thinking, and do what we say”. I can’t help feeling that the antidote to the possibility of our society falling into the same trap is for ordinary people to come to terms with their not so nice sides.
        I wonder if that is why there is so much condemnation of ordinary Germans who lived in that time. Are we mad at them because they remind us of ourselves and our vulnerability? We would like to think that our best is better than their normal. But when are we ever at our best?”

      • My reason for bringing up the past is not to condemn the ordinary German. They have their own conscience to deal with. My point is that everyone of us are must as capable of being indifferent, unaware or afraid.
        Many psychological studies support your point, for example, the Zimbardo prison experiment, the Asch study of perception, and the Milgram study of obedience to authority. When I point out to my students that those in the experiments were just ordinary students like themselves, they have a hard time thinking that the odds are that they would act like subjects.
        So I’m not finger-pointing. I am saying look at what people are capable of doing and be aware of the traps that everyone of us is capable of falling into.

      • I have resisted writing what I have been thinking about your PoV not wanting to be rude, and then I realised it is kinda rude to have accused your host of cowardice, without asking him what life must have been like for him. That you didn’t is telling. You seemed satisfied to stick to a view that judges the German people harshly without wishing to hear from them themselves. ” They have their own conscience to deal with.” Not much condemnation in that statement is there….
        The thing is those Germans are the ones maintaining those Historical sites, and allowing people like you to walk through them and draw their half-baked conclusions, as apparent lessons for the present. The reality is, your conclusions, your insights will only ever remain the insights of a tourist.

  4. ” But not to hold them to a standard of decency (not turn away when innocent people are murdered) is to hold them to a lesser standard. And to do that is to patronize them all.”

    I am curious about this. you are assuming that there was immediate knowledge and ability to do something. Just the fact alone that there were only 500, 000 Germans identified as Jewish in 1933, half of which immigrated from the country, means that a country of 60 million had to be aware of 1/2 percent of it’s population disappearing. 3 million non Jewish Germans were but into concentration camps, the majority of the inmates at Dachau were not Jewish in fact. Who exactly were the German people supposed to be more aware of being persecuted and murdered: their Jewish neighbours or ‘themselves’ for standing up to a regime that was hell bent on control?

  5. Pingback: excuses | from broken stones

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