The past couple of weeks in Austria, Slovakia, and Germany have left me grateful for the opportunity to gain a new understanding of WWII as I interact with material remains of its history. A few days ago, we visited a bunker which had been constructed for Hitler’s use, and was never completed. It has now been transformed into a museum called Dokumentationszentrum Obersalzberg, which focuses on Hitler’s regime and rise to power. Much of the information offered at the museum spoke in detail about how Hitler was able to gain such widespread support for his ideology.
For one, National Socialism made a habit of using propaganda to influence the masses. What really put the nail in the coffin, though, was a concept called ‘volksgemeinschaft’. ‘Volksgemeinschaft’ spoke of a shared “language, history [and] blood” passed on from one Germanic generation to another. This identity, according to Hitler, was superior to all others, and needed to be preserved. This vein of thinking insisted that ‘others’ who did not share this identity be excluded or eliminated in order to preserve and protect its purity.
The call to exclusion, however, was hidden behind the hope and promise of unity. In one speech, Hitler addressed himself to German workers, promising a united people free from the separation of class. His regime proposed programs that made vehicles and vacations accessible to lower income families, for example. The problem with the unity that Hitler offered, besides the glaring issue of violent exclusion and genocide, was that it was a unity that insisted on sameness.
It was interesting for me to connect some of the teachings we have learned in class on difference to what had played out in this dark moment in history. On the surface, playing off differences between people, offering a “we’re all the same in the end,” is a great way to avoid conflict and live in harmony. The reality, however, is that this mindset can actually be quite harmful. Rather than building bridges, this way of interaction does not acknowledge the reality of differences – and sometimes big ones – between people. Yet differences make up our identities. They are, in some ways, who we are. Rather than ignoring them, we can, and must, embrace differences, remembering that they create space for authenticity, dialogue, beauty, and a truer kind of love for one another.