The critical few at “Track 17” and the House of the Wannsee Conference

By Laura Smith

At FASPE, we often discuss how small, committed groups of people can orchestrate events—for good or ill. On Thursday, May 28, the FASPEans saw a positive example of this. While visiting the Deportation Memorial, “Track 17,” in Berlin, Thorsten Wagner, the European director of FASPE, told the fellows that lobbying for remembrance “was coming mainly from grassroots, left-of-center groups,” rather than majority groups. The resulting memorial commemorates the deportation of Jews from the Grunewalde S-bahn station to various concentration camps. Dates and locations where victims were deported run along the track’s edge. As Deutsche Bahn, the present-day incarnation of Deutsche Reichsbahn, writes on its website, “without the railway, and in particular without Deutsche Reichsbahn, the deportation of the European Jews to the extermination camps would not have been possible.”

Though Deutsche Bahn today acknowledges the company’s role in the deportation of Jews to death camps, it has a murky history regarding the memorial. After the reunification of Germany, the company originally planned to install cleaning facilities for its high-speed trains on “Track 17”—until there was public outcry. Now, the end of the track is broken and overrun by trees. “The trees are here as if to say we don’t ever want to see trains here again,” said Wagner.

Laura Track 17 photo

The “Track 17” memorial. Thousands of Jews were deported to ghettos and camps from this station. (Laura Smith/FASPE)

The FASPEans next traveled to the House of the Wannsee Conference, where we learned of a more sinister example of the power of a critical few. At the conference, 15 high-ranking SS and ministry members met on January 20, 1942, to discuss plans for the deportation and murder of Europe’s Jews. The conference is a stunning example of the devastating power of individuals to shape the fates of six million people.

Being journalists, we often discuss whether there were opportunities for a group of journalists to resist becoming mouthpieces of Nazi propaganda. Yet by 1943, even anti-Nazi publications such as Frankfurter Zeitung were publishing Nazi rhetoric. In February of that year, Rudolph Kircher, the paper’s editor, wrote, “Total war … is indeed the only way that can lead us to this success.” After examining articles Kircher wrote in 1934, it seems clear that his later pro-Nazi rhetoric was coerced—or at least not reflective of what he had wrote less than a decade before.

What was Kircher’s personal responsibility, and did he have alternatives? Did his newspaper have any kind of marginal, but critical power to challenge the status quo that went unused? When we discussed these questions with Dr. Wolf Kaiser, a historian at the House of the Wannsee Conference museum, he explained that there were essentially four options for journalists: emigrate and write against the regime from abroad, stay in Germany and write explicitly, stay in Germany but write obliquely in the hopes of having your message escape the notice of Nazi censors, or spout Nazi rhetoric and do nothing. Dr. Kaiser explained that the second option—writing critically about the Nazis from within Germany— “was an enormous risk. You would end up in a concentration camp.”

Laura Wannsee photo

The House of the Wannsee Conference, where Nazi leaders agreed on the Final Solution on January 20, 1942. (Laura Smith/FASPE)

Naturally, the lunchtime conversation turned to what we believed we would have done in the German journalists’ positions. Considering the danger of directly opposing the Nazis while remaining in Germany, we were in nearly universal agreement that we would emigrate. However one honest FASPEan, Parker Yesko, pointed out that this is easier said than done; she said she could imagine thinking the situation in Germany could not get worse, and that she wouldn’t want to leave home. Her dissent recast the group’s original assertion as perhaps wishful thinking.

This debate about emigration reminded me of Thomas Chatterton Williams’ recent opinion piece, “The Next Great Migration” in The New York Times, urging black Americans to consider leaving the United States. Looking at a current spate of Jewish emigrants fleeing anti-Semitism in France and police killings of black Americans, Chatterton Williams wrote, “Why shouldn’t more of us weigh expatriation, even if only temporary, as a viable means of securing those lofty yet elusive ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?”

The parable of the frog in a slowly heating pot comes up often in FASPE conversations. We, like Chatterton Williams, are wondering: When is enough, enough? If faced with a modern ethical dilemma will we see the lines that shine so brightly only in retrospect?




Leave a Reply