In my travels throughout Europe, I had my share of enlightening moments and scary ones as well. The moments I remember the most are those where the light bulb turned on in my head and I said to myself â€œWow, things are really bad over hereâ€ and â€œYou know, where I grew up wasnâ€™t really that bad.â€ Certainly, living in and travelling to several former Communist countries was an amazing experience, as was the DDR Museum in Berlin but I also had runs ins with Neo-Nazis in Poland, Denmark and Hungary that made me reconsider many of the beliefs I held about Europe being a place where people get along.
In one such instance, I was on a train heading from Berlin to Prague and something happened which I donâ€™t think Iâ€™ll ever forget. Now, if you ever get a chance, I would say that the Sudetenland is one of Europeâ€™s best kept secrets. Itâ€™s beautiful to say the least and full of history as the area was given to Czechoslovakia after the First World War, which was one of many causes that lead to the Second War World.
So on my way down to Berlin there was a stop in Dresden. During the Napoleonic Wars, Dresden was the sight of a battle between the French Empire and Austria, Prussia and Russia in 1813. The French would win the battle in just one day. It was also the center of the May Uprising where Dresdener revolutionaries rose up against the Kingdom of Saxony in 1849. Dresden also played a large role in German Revolution of 1918-1919, which resulted in a victory for the newly established Weimar Republic against the Communist Party of Germany, not to mention the allied bombing of the city during World War II. So, needless to say, the city has tons of history.
After arriving at the Hauptbahnhoff in Dresden, an old man walked into my cabin. He said hello in a thick Saxonian accent and sat across from me. He spoke to me in German at first but we later switched to English when I told him that I only spoke a bit of German. The man asked me how old I was, what I was doing in Germany, why I didnâ€™t speak German yet and so on. I asked the man a few questions as well, one of which was his age. At the time, 2005, the man said that he was 80 years old. I figured that meant he was a young man during the war and I flat out asked him what he did during the war. The man smiled from ear to ear and become very happy. Without saying anything he reached into his pocket and pulled out an old black and white photograph. I took it from the man and even before I could lock eyes on the picture the man said â€œI was a Nazi.â€ I looked at the photograph and my jaw dropped. The picture was of the man, who looked like a teenager, with a Lugar drawn and pointed at the temple of another man. This other man wore stripped pajamas with a 6-pointed star over his left breast. I suddenly realized that the man who sat next to me was wearing an SS uniform and was pointing his gun at the head of a Jewish inmate in a concentration camp. For those who donâ€™t know me, my grandfather is a holocaust survivor, my great-grandparents both died during the war and my fatherâ€™s side of my family is of Ashkenazi Jewish linage from Budapest, Hungary and possibly the Puchov district in Slovakia, via either Austria or Germany.
The man showed me a few more photos and told me he served in Romania, the Ukraine, Belarus and Latvia. He was a part of an SS unit early in the war and showed me pictures of him surrounded by frozen dead Red Army regulars and partisan fighters. I asked the man if he regretted his actions in the war and he told me something I never thought I would ever hear from a fellow human being. The man said that at that time the Germans people were united under a righteous cause, that life was much better under the Hitler because everyone worked and had public health care (I kid you not) and that immigrants werenâ€™t talking jobs away from the German people who deserved them first. The racist nature of the manâ€™s speech shocked me as I was told growing up that no one liked living under Hitler but according to this man what we are taught in North America about National Socialism is mostly a lie. The man also wished that Germany had another â€œFÃ¼hrerâ€ and a recent poll found that 13% of Germans surveyed want another Hitler-like â€œFÃ¼hrerâ€ in todayâ€™s modern German state.
This man wasnâ€™t the only former Nazi I ran into in Europe. I met a few other people who were former Hitler Youth members. I also ran into a former freedom fighter that I sat next to on a train who said that he was in the Dutch Resistance. I got a chance to tell him about the man from Dresden and he told me that there are still many Nazi sympathizers not only living in Germany but also Bulgaria, Croatia and Sweden. Yes, even Sweden has racists.
Sadly, racism is a harsh reality in Europe, a continent that desperately needs a Civil Rights movement as it seems true that the continent is the most openly racist continent on the planet.Â It is a fact I wish I knew before I left Canada.