When you first walk into the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp in Oranienburg, Germany, you immediately notice that you are standing underneath a watchtower with a clear panoptic view of the entire camp. Unlike other Nazi concentration camps that had either a square or rectangular shape, the barracks at Sachsenhausen compose a semi-circle with the main watchtower at its base. This design set the standard for Nazi concentration camps and–thanks to its close proximity to the German government in Berlin–the camp was soon touted by the National Socialists as a symbol of humane treatment towards political dissidents, homosexuals, criminals, “undesirables,” and, later, Jewish people. Politicians and dignitaries from other countries were often taken on tours of this camp by the Nazis before the outbreak of World War II. Prisoners were rounded up beforehand and forced to sign songs of loyalty to the Fuhrer for the gazing, sometimes admiring tourists to prove that things weren’t so bad. And this musical charade, which probably took place right at the watchtower you first walked through upon arriving at the camp, marked one of the first of many instances in which the victims of the Nazi Holocaust were forced to contribute their own part in the process of their very destruction.
Roughly 200,000 prisoners were housed at Sachsenhausen from 1936-1945, about 30,000 of which died from disease or murderous extermination. And you must reckon with this suffering on your own. There are no first- or third-person actors wearing period clothing and doing living history to “make history come alive” for you. There are no weapons demonstrations or candle-making tables or any other “hands-on” activities to speak of. There are no kitschy gift shops nearby for buying replica weapons, hats, t-shirts, magnets or other memorabilia. And there are definitely no evening “historic ghost tours” run by actors who make up their own scripts and tales of mystery for high-paying audiences.
Sure, there are museum exhibits at the camp (perhaps too many, actually) with text, videos, and artifacts, but this desire for fun, entertainment, and “engagement” that pervades so much discussion about public history in the United States is noticeably absent. Those desires, in fact, come off as distinctly inappropriate and out of place at a site like Sachsenhausen where reflection, reconciliation, and closure are integral to the entire experience.
And so it is that my own experience at Sachsenhausen has challenged me to think about the ways public historians commemorate difficult histories in the United States and how paradoxical these practices can be sometimes. On the one hand we are encouraged to create active learning experiences in which visitors engage in hands-on activities, contribute comments through talk back boards, dress up for historical reenactments, and participate in other related programs. But on the other hand we are told that public history has the potential to help individuals and societies heal from past wrongdoings while offering a framework for constructive dialogue about the future. One idea doesn’t necessarily mesh with the other. You don’t come to terms with the past or even begin to understand it by learning how to make candles at a Southern plantation or buying a kepi at a Civil War battlefield.
Make no mistake about it: I’m not interested in comparing the suffering of Holocaust victims with the victims of racism, slavery, Indian removal, or any other sort of oppression in the United States, nor do I think all public history sites in the U.S. should take a one-size-fits-all approach for interpreting the past. And I’m certainly not opposed to entertainment in the right context. The question is how to appropriately interpret difficult histories in a public history setting. I do find it interesting how a place like Gettysburg–where there were roughly 50,000 casualties in three days of fighting in 1863–sometimes creates programs and experiences that turn a event of brutal warfare and massive suffering into a place of entertainment and profit while the same sort of mechanisms at Sachsenhausen would be considered disrespectful by most visitors and professionals. Ghost tours have been taking place at Gettysburg for more than twenty years. Will we see the same sorts of activities at Holocaust sites someday?
I can think of two circumstances for possibly explaining these discrepancies at public history sites where difficult history is interpreted. One lies in the passage of time. Gettysburg happened more than 150 years ago and no one today has a living ancestor from that war. The fact that we don’t have a personal connection to the Civil War probably influences how we approach this history. Meanwhile, the victims of the Holocaust (although they are now rapidly disappearing from living memory) continue to play a role in the shaping of our collective memory about this tragic event. Perhaps our distance from World War II and the Holocaust is still too short and too fragile to interpret it in a way that runs the risk of offending its victims. The same concerns could apply to U.S. sites of suffering in recent memory like the 9/11 Memorial and the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City.
The other circumstance lies in economics. Towns like Gettysburg in the United States that have never completely recovered from the loss of manufacturing jobs in the late twentieth century have necessarily turned to history to provide jobs and profits for its local residents, so much so that local history becomes a form of glorified boosterism and “heritage” promotion. It seems to me, then, that we cannot divorce public history practices from the economic contexts in which such practices are put into play.
These thoughts are all very tentative at the moment and I don’t propose to make any claims about the rightness or wrongness of any one interpretive approach. I’d like to hear what readers have to say about the need for hands-on activities and “engagement” at public history sites where tough history is the focus of interpretation.