Karlskirche. The thing about this view for me is that I remember taking this picture in 1997. It’s very strange to be here again 21 years later.

Petra and her urban garden.

With Rainier and Christian.

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When I was a kid my parents had the American Heritage photographic history of WW II on a bookshelf in our living room. I remember poring over the thick blue volume with my dad, asking questions. Where is Ploesti? Who are those people? What are they doing? Why? How could that happen?

There was a photograph of the quarry steps at the Mauthausen concentration camp, with the caption stating that the men carrying large blocks of stone up the long staircase were American PoWs. Prisoners at the camp, the book said, were worked to death, trudging up the stairs again and again.

As a child the adult world is a mysterious place, full of wonders and horrors. There were any number of things I didn’t understand, but trusted that one day, when I grew up, I’d know. This generally proved the case, with geography, math, Vietnam. Some truths, however, remain elusive. The mass murder of the Third Reich continues to prompt American adults to ask “how could that happen? How could people do this? How could people let this happen?”

I visit KGB prisons, Nazi and Soviet concentration camps for a number of reasons. One meaningful role for me is that of witness to the experiences, the suffering, of those like me. My heritage is not Jewish but lapsed Catholicism. I am not especially drawn to the Jewish memorials at camps, but to those remembering political prisoners. The Nazi concentration camps were, after all, built first and foremost to imprison the politically suspect, long years before Kristallnacht. I see the cells which held members of the Red Front, the SPD, pacifists, dissidents of one sort or another, and I think, these were my brothers. In that time, in that place, I might very well have lain bruised on the cot in that cell. It could easily have been me strangling to death suspended from that beam. Alone in the dark icy water of this dungeon, I would have wanted someone to know I was here. Today, in the sunshine of a pleasant Austrian summer day I feel the responsibility to bear some kind of witness for those who are now silent.

I’m curious about these places. The Nazis, Stalin’s men, the Ustashi, are the fiends of American nightmares. The camps are a circle of hell only whispered about. I remember in elementary school on the way to the library I saw a strange symbol drawn on the sidewalk and curious asked my mother what it was. “That’s called a swastika,” my mother said (what a strange word to a gradeschooler), and her face changed. “That’s a horrible thing.” I maintain some of the childhood curiosity that just asks what was it? What happened? What was it like? How could that happen?

How could that happen? How could people do that? How could people let that happen? Into my 50s along with others I’ve continued to ask what seemed unanswerable questions. It occurred to me very recently that I finally have an understanding of how the Third Reich could come to be. I hear it in the naive statements of faith in an obviously bankrupt political system. I hear it in the expressions of fealty to the armed forces of an imperial power. I hear it in the voices of coworkers who speak of the safe mundane while privately they fear. I hear it in the location of corruption elsewhere, the finger-pointing at The Russians. I hear it in the despair of family, coworkers, friends, who see nothing to be done. I look at these quarry steps and I finally feel like I understand.

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Prague Castle from the Charles Bridge

Karel Boromějský Orthodox Church

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Uniqueness and Exceptionalism

This [US] is a unique, exceptional country. Russia is unique, but not exceptional.

—Mike Pompeo, Senate confirmation hearing

A few minutes ago I was in the Markgräfliches Opernhaus in Bayreuth, one of the last all-wood 18th Century opera houses in Europe. The ornate decor, the feel of a place where operas were performed decades before the French Revolution was sublime.

At Wahnfried, a few blocks away from where I sit drinking coffee, there was a bust of Nietzsche, and of course in texts there were several mentions of him and his relationship to Wagner. I enjoy reading and thinking about Nietzsche so much more than I do thinking about 21st Century Americans. I just can’t sustain the incredulity, or outrage.

Money in the Parkschein Automat and then off to the Neues Schloss.

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I find myself wondering how much of my attitude towards high culture was shaped by Bugs Bunny cartoons. Surely the American culture I was exposed to disdained opera as foreign, effeminate, pretentious, suspect.

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Goethe’s Wohnhaus

Goethe’s house is quite large and very sensual. Wooden floors creak in every room, which are filled with paintings, drawings, busts, decorative plates. Outside the garden is filled with herbs and flowers. Birds chirp, an owl hoo-hoos.

Visitors are offered either a booklet or an audio guide. Perhaps half of us walk about with a handheld guide to our ears, intently listening to a recording which describes what we see. On the groundfloor, off the entryway to the house is a tiny theater, where a few visitors listen to an announcer’s sonorous voice describe the house and its furnishings.

I took the booklet, which is very nicely done. A number of rooms also have cards with the English translation of that room’s description.

The audio devices prompted me to think about McLuhan’s conception of hot and cool media. Goethe’s house is such a feast for the senses, while we visitors walk about with electronic devices in our hands, focused on voices which are elsewhere. I sit here in the garden with a cellphone in my hands. A man wanders the garden before me with a digital camera. He tells a woman he’s taking photos for ideas for his own garden.

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Eine andere Welt ist möglich

I loaded a washer and took a stroll this morning.

This house is directly across the street from the Fürstengruft, with Goethe and Schiller’s sarcophagi.

The other graffiti was all tagging, “fickt euch” and such.

News sites report the Obamas have signed with Netflix to produce “content”. The White House released a coin to commemorate the upcoming summit where Kim Jong Un is titled “Supreme Leader”, which does not seem to be a title normally used to refer to him.

I’m fairly confident the world which interests me involves reading Goethe.

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Jedem das seine. Arbeit macht frei. Coercion of the imprisoned into self-torture causes its own unique agony, as Mitchell and Jessen made millions proselytizing. I reflect on agency at places such as this.

“But what can I do about Guantánamo? Here, will you hold my triple decaff non-fat soy carmel macchiato? I’ve got to call my trainer – I’m late for the gym.”

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Wo ist das Konzentrationslager?

I can’t really remember, but it was somewhere along this road in 1997 that I asked a resident that. Petra was really embarrassed – “you just don’t ask people such things.” That’s kind of my life in a nutshell. The tower right in the center on the horizon is Buchenwald.

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Die Drachenschlucht

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