Beyond the barbed wire, those who survive face new barriers

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The Independent Online
The Natzweiler concentration camp is a horrible place in a beautiful place. The Germans built it on a high forested ridge of the Vosges mountains in Alsace, on a slope far from any town or village. Nobody could see it; nobody was meant to know about it.

Only if you stood on the ridge on the other side of the valley, looking across many miles of empty air, you might have seen among the dark green of the pines a rectangular clearing. If the morning was clear, you might have seen a pattern of tiny dark objects in that rectangle, and a plume of black smoke rising from one corner. The pattern was made by the roofs of wooden barrack huts; the smoke came from the crematorium.

Many thousands of men and women died here. Perhaps 20,000, which is a relatively small total by the standards of Heinrich Himmler. He ordered this camp to be built in 1940, almost immediately after the conquest of France and the reannexation of Alsace to the German Reich. Those who were murdered at Natzweiler included French members of the Resistance, Polish slave workers, Belgians and Luxembourgers, Jews and gypsies, Russian prisoners of war, intellectuals and homosexuals, British agents dropped into France by the Special Operations Executive. On a plaque beside the iron crematorium furnace I found the names of two British women, Vera Leigh and Diana Rowden, parachuted into occupied Europe and shot with their French comrades.

Most were killed by starvation and overwork. Some were hanged on the gallows that still stands by the parade square. Many were tortured before they died, thrashed on the wooden flogging block or shut into dark recesses where they could neither stand nor sit until the winter cold killed them.

There was even a gas chamber. Normally Himmler built gas chambers only in the vast camps of eastern Poland. But Natzweiler lies only 20 miles from Strasbourg, and at the University of Strasbourg the eminent Dr Hirt was conducting his experiments into racial biology and physical types. Joseph Kramer, the camp commandant (the man who ended up as commandant of Belsen and was hanged by the British), was contracted to supply corpses of interesting racial types for this research. Kramer did the gassing in person. After the war, when they asked him how he could do such things, he replied: "Such was my training".

The gas chamber was a mile from the main camp, next to the large granite villa erected for the SS staff. It was built to look like a traditional Alsatian barn, with a tall pitched roof and fancy wrought-iron decoration on the doors. Today, the villa is a hotel, and you can sit at a table in the sun, under a gaudy umbrella, and drink beer only ten yards from the anonymous building with the tall iron chimney where these things were done.

But this is not the only thing that is wrong about the museum which Natzweiler has become. The whole site, and its treatment by the French, has gone wrong. This is not only because so much time has passed, so that the barbed wire is rusting thin and the photographs and diagrams inside the barrack- hut museum have faded and discoloured. It is because the museum itself, the way it presents these horrors, is an anachronism.

Natzweiler is displayed as a supreme national shrine, a monument to those who gave their lives for France. Everywhere there are French flags and accounts of the martyrdom of the French Resistance. The place is dominated by a towering white obelisk inaugurated by General de Gaulle, above a meadow of white crosses honouring those who died for France - "morts pour la Patrie". It is not that victims from other nations are ignored. The museum walls carry elaborate exhibits about other camps, and takes care to relate Natzweiler to the continental empire of barbed wire and mass murder. But now, more than 50 years on, it is not possible to understand a place like this in terms of patriotic martyrdom.

It was not only French people who perished here, and the French dead may not even be the largest single group of victims. Neither, while it stood, was this concentration camp on French soil. It was built on what was then Reich territory, and its "trade routes" - the web of economic connections through which it supplied slave labour to factories, mines and construction firms - reached far eastwards into central Germany. What died here, with all these men and women from so many countries, was the faith in automatic progress. That is what now seems to matter most. The human race, in its European species, suddenly revealed a capacity for cruelty and evil that none had expected. This discovery makes our view of life basically different from that of our grandparents. Our confidence in the improving power of education, high culture or technical achievement is far more fragile. Bosnia only reminded Europeans of what Natzweiler had revealed.

Standing there in the clean mountain air, watching French schoolchildren trudging up empty terraces where the huts once stood, it seemed important to remember not only the dead but the survivors. As they stumbled into the darkness and stench of their huts, they did not expect to enter again the world beyond the wire. But some of them knew that they must live against all the odds, because the most important thing in the world now was to make a new Europe in which this could never happen again. They felt that they had become a sort of priesthood, possessing the terrible secret of what men could do to other men. Those who had political beliefs, especially, came to think that they alone had the moral power - even the moral right - to lead their fellow human beings after Hitler had been overthrown.

All over the Continent, after victory, the survivors emerged from the camps and sought to enter this inheritance. They were the "concentrationnaires" - those who had been behind the wire, and who had imagined a just, clean, disciplined freedom which would be worthy of their dead comrades. But they did not inherit. They were respected and given medals and pensions, but everyone was a little frightened of their austere intensity and a little repelled by their messianic claim to have earned authority through suffering.

A few, as individuals, became great. Kurt Schumacher, terribly disabled by his torments, became the leader of the Social Democrat Party in Germany but was defeated by Konrad Adenauer who had never spent a night in prison. In Poland, Jozef Cyrankiewicz survived Auschwitz and became prime minister, but sold his soul to the Communists. In France, many politicians in post- war governments had endured deportation and torture. And yet, as a group, the concentrationnaires were never effective. Their experience isolated them from ordinary people, who preferred leaders who seemed to be confident about human nature. Natzweiler, like all the other camps, turned out to be a place from which one never entirely returned.

Prison is the other side of the moon. But in that place which everyone prefers to forget people also grow up and change. Those who are locked up for politics or even for political violence sometimes begin to think deeply for the first time in their lives. Much of post-colonial Africa was built by "prison graduates" who used their years behind bars to study and discuss together and to work out the politics of independence. Last week, I listened to a man who had once been an IRA bomber; he described how the 1989 release of "lifers" from British jails confronted the IRA Army Council with young "volunteers" who had read and argued their way out of a blind commitment to terrorism. The track to peace often begins behind the barbed wire.