The bureaucracy of genocide

The typical image of a Nazi is a jackbooted thug gunning down innocent people. While there were all too many killers like that in the Third Reich, the majority of Nazis were civilians. It takes a lot of people to run a government and an army, and many Nazis never personally killed anyone. They were educated, middle-class bureaucrats who loved their children, were kind to their neighbors, and spent their workday running one of the most brutal regimes the world has ever seen.

A new museum in Berlin examines the role of these mild-mannered perpetrators of genocide. The Topography of Terror Documentation Center opens today, the day before the 65th anniversary of the Third Reich’s surrender to Allied forces. The museum is built over the site of the former SS and Gestapo headquarters.

Exhibits explain how the bureaucracy worked, planning oppression and genocide with the same meticulous care and red tape that other governments plan road expansion schemes and educational policy. One of the most arresting exhibits is a wall covered with 7,000 index cards containing employee information. Sixteen of these stick out a bit, marking those employees who were brought to trial after the war. Of these, only three were convicted. The museum goes on to explain what happened to the rest of the 7,000. The vast majority of them simply faded back into civilian life, some even becoming prominent in the regimes of West and East Germany.

Some of the building’s victims became prominent too. Erich Honecker, the last leader of East Germany, spent time in a cell here for his Communist activities. Another inmate was Kurt Schumacher, who led a socialist militia in street fights against the Nazis and later spent ten years in concentration camps. After the war he led the Social Democratic Party, still one of the major parties in Germany today.

As the horrors of the Second World War fade from living memory into history, European countries are struggling to reassess their past. Controversial moves such as converting a Nazi hotel into a youth hostel and painting Stalin’s picture on a bus often overshadow thoughtful exhibits such as this one.