Editor’s note: This is the third and last post in a series of reports from Sweet Briar associate professor of history John Ashbrook. He led a course this summer, “Industrialized Killing — The World Wars, the Holocaust, and Memory,” that took participants through the battlefields and war memorials of Europe.
We began our final leg of the journey at Mt. Lagazuoi in the Dolomites of northern Italy. The trench and tunnel systems of this World War I battlefield were the last of that war’s places visited. During the war, a skeleton crew of Austrian soldiers held off a superior Italian force intent on capturing this mountain’s heights. The capture of it, along with the small fortress below the mountain, would have secured the Falzarego Pass. What made this battle so unusual was the extensive tunneling and mining system (still preserved) of the Italian army. The Italians hoped to blow up the Austrian fortifications that stymied their capture of the mountaintop. They drilled into solid rock, packed the tunnels with high explosive, and waited for the right opportunity to detonate the huge mine. However, the Austrians dug a counterscarp, set their own mine, and detonated the Italian one. About one tenth of the mountain face slid down the mountain, killing hundreds of Italian soldiers. A brave few of us explored some of the chambers dug by the Italian soldiers and marveled at the energy taken to drill into this solid rock.
Apart from exploring the Austrian defense lines on the edge of the mountain, most of the crew hiked the Italian path from the foot of the mountain to the Rifugio at the crest. This gave us a little taste of what the Italian soldier had to endure in the struggle for the mountaintop. I was very proud that almost all our participants made the hours-long hike, even having to crawl up snow banks (in late June!) to reach the summit near the very end.
Next we began our exploration of the Holocaust. We took a guided tour of the Nazi concentration camp, Dachau. Originally a camp for political opponents, it quickly morphed into the now infamous camp, interring Jews and other “enemies” of the Third Reich. We saw the preserved and reconstructed interrogation areas, the workshop and registration buildings, and the prisoner barracks. The most disturbing part of the camp was the crematoria and connected gas chamber at the very back of the camp.
After a long drive, we arrived in Krakow, Poland. We secured the services of a very cool and thorough guide, Anna, who gave us a tour of the Jewish quarter and ghetto, as well as Oskar Schindler’s factory, which has recently been retrofitted as a modern Holocaust museum. Anna showed us the areas of the Jewish quarter that was once the spiritual and social center of Krakow’s significant Jewish population. That afternoon, she enlightened us on the realities of Schindler’s activities during the war, disabusing us of the “artistic license” taken by Spielberg in his hagiographic account of the German businessman.
As a decompression activity, the group visited the extensive salt mine of Wieliczka. In this tour, we saw the magnificent salt carvings of the miners over the last four centuries, including a life-like statue of Pope John Paul II and an underground cathedral, all creations of the mine’s workers.
While in Krakow, we visited a couple of museums dedicated to World War II and, to some extent, the industrialization of killing. First was the very off-the-beaten-track museum of the Armia Krajowa (AK), the largest, and arguably one of the most effective, partisan groups resisting the Nazis during World War II. The museum was amazingly well done in explaining the activities of the AK. However, the political was mixed in with the historical. The creators of the museum highlighted the terror and atrocities of the Polish and USSR communists, especially in the immediate aftermath of the war, as communists destroyed the anticommunist survivors of the war who actively resisted the creation of a red Poland. It was also disturbing to see the whitewash of the AK’s anti-Jewish activities during the war.
The second, the Polish Aviation Museum, was a gem in the raw. It is situated on a large piece of land on the outskirts of the city. Beyond the rusting collections of military planes outside the museum hangers (including a number of various MIG aircraft), there was a collection of aviation engines from World War I to the end of the 20th century. While not solely dedicated to warplanes, the museum allowed us to explore how technology and industrial capacity contributed in a direct way to the industrialized killing of the 20th century, as human beings took to the air to defeat military opponents.
The Auschwitz work and death camp was the most moving of the sites visited in the Krakow region. We had a guided tour of Auschwitz I and the Birkenau facility. Unfortunately, the number of visitors to Auschwitz forces the staff to provide tours that seem rushed (industrial, one might say, in its coordination and slavishness to time). Our guide was awesome and conveyed as much information as she could in the 3.5 hours we were allotted. For me, what left the most powerful impact were the pictures of the children selected for immediate liquidation by the Nazis and the hastily destroyed gas chambers and crematoria at Birkenau.
We ended our journey in the eastern Polish city of Lublin. Before the Second World War, this city hosted very large and active Orthodox and Hassidic communities. After the war, less than a tenth of it survived. And after 1968, the communist government forced the remaining Jews into permanent exile. Under the guidance of Joanna, an extremely knowledgeable guide of Lublin’s historical Jewish community, we toured the infamous Lublin Ghetto (oddly enough an “open ghetto” in that it wasn’t walled off from the surrounding community) and the Majdanek death camp.
Not much remains of the ghetto, and the Jewish quarter is not really recognizable without a guide, however, Majdanek is perhaps the best preserved of the six death camps of Poland. Some of the original buildings, including the carbon monoxide gas chambers near the camp entrance and the crematoria building, remain standing. There is a small, but very well done museum in the middle of the camp in a former barracks, which is completely dedicated to the victims who lived and died here. The final stop of the Majdanek camp is a kind of concrete bunker that houses a huge mound of preserved ashes and soil from around the camp. We all came away from this site both moved and disturbed.
In all, this challenging program opened our eyes to the industrial nature of war and ethnic cleansing in the 20th century. In my study of modern history, I find that the history of Europe is one of war and ethnic cleansing. Since the 30 Years’ War (1618-1648), war and the politicization of mass identity have, to some extent, focused on simplifying the political and ethnic borders of the continent.
The 20th century was the culmination of this process, as nation-states ultimately became the norm for the European populations. For the first time in history, most European states achieved a kind of ethnic homogeneity during the 20th century. The supposed “Jewish problem” was “solved,” ethnic borders more or less conform to political ones, and multiethnic empires — the norm for pre-19th century Europe — have been replaced by nation-states. Without man’s ability to kill quickly, and in significant numbers, this reality could not have occurred.
I hope the participants of this program have developed a deeper understanding of the historical disasters and dangers that the marriage of industry and war in the name of political expediency and identity had on the people of Europe.