Berchtesgaden

Trip Start Aug 02, 2012
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Trip End Aug 02, 2013


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Flag of Germany  , Bavaria,
Tuesday, October 23, 2012

We were back in Germany, near the Königsee, now having driven north from Forni di Sopra. We pulled into the campsite in the dark the previous night so we had no idea of what our surroundings looked like. We woke up to the campsite being enveloped in fog but I could see some of the surrounding mountains. I went over to the reception to pay for our camping and checked out the weather forecast for the day. It was the funniest weather forecast I've read: "We can raise our expectations of the weather today as the sun will clear the fog in the late morning". Raise our expectations, eh? Well, I would do that then. So we packed up camp and then went for a stroll along the river from our campsite out to Königsee (King’s Lake). It was a beautiful day out and the fog was indeed clearing as we had been led to believe. We walked around the lake for a bit to a viewpoint and decided against a boat cruise as most of the lake was still socked in with fog.

After returning to the campsite along the same path, we drove off to our next site, the nearby Nazi Documentation center in Berchtesgaden. They had built a documentation center here because it was the site of Hitler’s retreat, the infamous, “Eagle’s Nest”. Hitler was Austrian by birth and had selected this region in Austria for its scenic beauty to be his personal retreat and also where he hosted numerous diplomats. It also served as part of his propaganda machine to show him as a humble, down to earth person, connected with nature – one of the people. It was here that he met the little blond Austrian girl which he is featured with in numerous propaganda pieces that portray him not just as führer, but a father to the nation. Hitler later found out that the girl was of Jewish descent but he conveniently chose to ignore this (and probably fortunately for the girl) as his portrayal with the little girl in various media from postcards to posters was so successful.

It was a steep road up to the documentation center and we were afforded with a sweeping view of the surrounding valley. The Eagle’s Nest, coined by a visiting dignitary, is up a private toll road and is now just a café as opposed to a museum so we decided to spend more time visiting the documentation center instead. It was at the Eagle’s Nest that Hitler is believed to have finished writing his book, “Mein Kampf”. It is one of the surviving icons of Nazi-ism and Hitler owning to the fact that it was too difficult to bomb aerially because it is literally perched on a mountain top. The center occupies a small fraction of the bunkers that Hitler had built as his last line of defense. Since it is perched at an excellent vantage point, it was also ideal to defend against an attack. The bunker was fully equipped at the time of the war and also included airlocks, a state of the art plumbing and heating system and fully stocked pantries – I guess even a megalomaniac prepares for the eventuality of defeat. This was the first Nazi related site either of us had visited on this trip and we weren’t sure what to expect. It was a very well laid out museum and you got to walk through sections of the bunker. The bunkers were never actually used in the end. Half of the museum was mainly focused on how Hitler transformed Oberamergau for his own purposes and how the region was affected. The other half of the museum gave an overview about the propaganda machine, Hitler youth, the rise of the party, the Munich agreement (which without representation from the affected parties, left Austria and the Czech Republic to be annexed) and about the progression of the war. The museum had excellent English pamphlets with translations of the major displays which really helped us to get a better understanding.

There was a special exhibition in the bunkers that had been shown for the first time at the World Congress for Psychiatry in Hamburg in 1999. It was not until the 1980s that the psychiatric profession in Germany really began to take accountability for the atrocities committed by its members. As they began the process of reforming the neglected psychiatric hospitals, it was decided that an essential pre-requisite for planning the future was to first understand the past, namely the events of WWII. Many psychiatrists in Germany were still opposed to confronting the truth – in fact, only as of 2010, did the President of the DGPPN (Germany Society for Psychiatry, Psychotherapy, and Neurology) make a public apology for the crimes committed by its members during the Nazi reign. During the period of 1939-1945, over 200,000 mentally ill persons were murdered as part of the national socialist party’s 'Euthanasia Program’. 

The exhibit was put together by psychiatrists as one way to begin understanding and dealing with the gruesome reality. It was a really chilling exhibit for me personally and it still haunts me as I write about it today.  I didn’t take any close-up pictures of the display panels partly out of respect for the solemnity of the exhibit and also partly because it is the stuff of nightmares that is engrained in my memory.  I think what struck home the hardest was the casualness with this which innocent, and in most cases, helpless, people were murdered (either outright or as a result of experiments gone sideways) by so-called intelligent and respected medical professionals whose mission should have been to aid, not destroy. This was followed by the fact that their deaths were then subsequently covered up just as casually and the victims’ relatives lied to. The exhibit wasn’t mean to answer the question of “why?” or “how?” – it aimed to simply present the findings without bias. It definitely left me with lots of questions occupying my mind.
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