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Looking Back at Mittelbau-Dora: Commemorating Hell

Photo of Gretchen Schafft by Kaitie O'Hare.

“Who really decides what will be memorialized and allowed to be remembered?” asks anthropology professor Gretchen Schafft. This question has been bothering her for the past 20 years while she’s researched the history and memorials of former Nazi labor camp Mittelbau-Dora in east-central Germany for her recently published book Commemorating Hell: The Public Memory of Mittelbau-Dora.

Commemorating Hell
outlines how individual experiences of victims in the camp and in the surrounding community of Nordhausen compare to what has been portrayed over the years at the site’s memorial, a historical walk-through of the camp’s remaining ruins and new exhibit space.

Schafft and coauthor Gerhard Zeidler explore the memory of the Third Reich and how the history of the camp has been skewed from its beginnings to post Liberation to match the transitions of political powers in Germany. Schafft and Zeidler also cover other areas of interest surrounding the camp, including everything from the influence that perspective has on history to rocket science.

In its prime from 1943 and 1945, Mittelbau-Dora predominantly served as a labor facility for prisoners contributing to the makings of the V-1 and V-2 rockets. Some prisoners worked directly or indirectly under acclaimed engineer-scientists Wernher von Braun and Arthur Rudolph, both of whom later surrendered to the United States. Their records were ignored by the US and their Nazi Party and SS memberships expunged when they become employed with NASA.  Later, they were credited with the development of the country’s pioneer space program and the first exploration of the moon.

It’s estimated that only two thirds of the tens of thousands of prisoners survived the extreme conditions in which they worked in the camp. “For the first six months [of the camp’s existence], they lived underground like rats in a hole,” says Schafft.  Unlike large death camps like Auschwitz, Mittelbau-Dora was a secret labor camp, hidden from the Allies during the war. “The standing temperature there was about 55 degrees, they had no exposure to sunshine, no exposure to fresh air, no sanitation to speak of, and they were dying terribly,” says Schafft.

She stresses that while Mittelbau-Dora was a place of terrible suffering for the prisoners, residents in the surrounding community of Nordhausen also experienced an overwhelming amount of tragedy in the last days of the war as well.  According to Schafft, it was the seventh most impacted city in World War II by the Allies’ strategic bombing, with only 60 percent of Nordhausen’s population surviving the attacks that occurred only days before the war came to an end.

These Nordhausen residents play a crucial role in understanding how an individual’s private memories can differ from the community’s larger public memory. “With individual opinions and beliefs, one of the things that came out [of this research] was that people who lived in proximity [to Mittelbau-Dora] had very different experiences with a single event,” she says. “It makes a difference if your children were bombed and killed, or if the house down the street was bombed and the water system was destroyed. It makes a difference if you planned ahead in the concentration camp and hid a pair shoes so that you could survive the forced march and fought off others who wanted those shoes.”

What Schafft’s research has shown is that these individual memories aren’t always represented in public memorials. For example, when the war ended and Nordhausen was left under American and then Russian occupancy, Schafft says that neither country wanted to commemorate the fallen Nordhausen residents, victims of the Allied attacks, but only camp victims.  The memorial was not built to give credence to the Allies’ strategic bombing campaign, which targeted civilians and caused so many residential deaths.

“The Americans and the Russians had been involved in the bombing, so they thought it would stir up unwelcomed resentment and feelings.  The bombing of Nordhausen was absolutely repressed for many years,” she says.

At the end of the day, Schafft says what public memory really boils down to are the experiences that governments want the public to remember. “It’s a political process. What’s commemorated is what’s approved by mainstream thought and political leaders, and it doesn’t always match personal memory, but people live with that, and they mesh their personal memory with the public display of memory”

These inconsistencies in private versus public memory are what motivated Schafft to continue her research for years as she and Zeidler uncovered more and more individual stories of oppression and forgiveness in the town of Nordhausen. “Their stories would never be told if I didn’t tell them. I began putting a different narrative in each chapter, talking about how people had responded. The book came out to be a reflection of how variable a community is,” she says.

Since the release in March of Commemorating Hell, Schafft and coauthor have given book talks in various countries and are currently in the midst of finding a German publisher.  Schafft feels passionately that it should be available in Germany. “Giving the book context to people who were involved will be a wonderful experience,” she says. “I believe it will happen, it’s the only book like it.”