Only 21 years had elapsed since the end of the 1st World War, when the German invasion of Poland led to the outbreak of the 2nd World War on 1st of September 1939. It was the deadliest conflict in the history of mankind with 80 million dead, culminating in the use of the nuclear bomb and its attendant horrors. These wars brought an end to the European domination of the world that had begun in the late 15th century with the discovery of sea routes, the concomitant increase of trade, and the eventual spread of colonialism to Africa, Asia, and the Americas.
European subjugation of the “natives” was underpinned by an ideology of racism evident in the colonies, and used to justify slavery. Kipling’s poem, “The White Man’s Burden” is an ironic justification of colonialism. Racism was not just practiced overseas in far off lands, it was endemic to European society, manifest in the treatment of the only significant ethnic minority in their midst, the Jews: kept in ghettoes, not given the rights of citizens, discriminated against and intermittently made victims of pogroms.
A recent trip to Warsaw and to Hitler’s retreat, the Eagle’s Nest, were a reminder of the dark forces unleashed by Nazism. The rationalism of the Enlightenment pushed these tendencies into the background, but they surfaced under Hitler with a cold ferocity as millions of Jews were sent to gas chambers under a premeditated scheme. The Nazi ideology, based on racism, met with little resistance from appeasers, and found collaborators in Vichy France as well as amongst the Fascists of Italy and Spain.
It was a half-day’s tour from Salzburg to the Eagle’s Nest, Hitler’s retreat in the Bavarian Alps with beautiful vistas of the countryside. The Eagle's Nest is perched above the town of Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps at a height of over 1600 feet. Martin Bormann, Hitler’s powerful personal secretary, commissioned the construction of the retreat as a 50th birthday gift for Hitler from the Nazi party. It is a marvel of German ingenuity and engineering: three thousand men worked on the project round the clock, and it took 13 months to complete, but not before twelve had died during its construction.
The road going up the hill is narrow and only one-way traffic operates on it. A short walk through a well-lit tunnel takes you to the original brass and Venetian glass elevator that zooms up the visitor 131m to the Eagles Nest. Hitler's retreat is well preserved with a historic fireplace gifted by Mussolini (Italian marble), original windows and beams in the main conference room, as well as in the adjacent wood paneled tearoom, where Eva Braun socialized. Hitler took a number of major decisions here, and visited the place seventeen times, but not for overnight stay. Tourists wander around this rather simple retreat with panoramic views, where the Nazi leadership once plotted world conquest.
Hitler had expressed the need for lebensraum, or living space, in the areas inhabited by Slavs as far back as 1925 in his autobiography, Mein Kampf. The Slavic territories were to be the source of raw material and food for the superior Aryan Germanic race, thus preventing food shortages that Germany had experienced during World War I.
The rising against German occupation of Poland began on August 1, 1944, when the Germans were retreating from the eastern front, and the Russians had reached the outskirts of the city. In a typical Stalinist move, the Soviet army held back and did not cross the river Vistula, allowing the Germans to regroup and destroy the Polish resistance that fought for 63 heroic days, without suitable equipment to counter the well-armed Germans.
A museum dedicated to the Warsaw Uprising was opened in 2004. Considered one of the best museums of Warsaw, it is interactive with old photographs, videos, posters, uniforms and some equipment, and a replica of an old B24 bomber suspended in one of the large halls. A portrait of Father Jozef Stanek or “Rudy” stares back at you; the young man was hanged by the Germans for participating in the resistance, as the Nazis had also targeted the Catholic Church in Poland. The resistance was so widespread and popular that even children played a role in it, carrying messages, mail and helping fight fires. The Little Insurgent Monument has been put up in Old Warsaw in recognition of their contribution. Brave attempt has been made to reconstruct the old town of Warsaw, which was destroyed during the struggle.
As Islamophobia sweeps through Europe and the USA, with the French reactions particularly reprehensible, and Donald Trump the Republican nominee for the Presidency, the deeply entrenched racism in the Western Civilisation is once again rearing its ugly head.
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