Dachau and John Tyler Morgan

Posted on September 29, 2020


Years ago, or to be more exact, in August of 1966, I was separated from my ship, the USS Donner (LSD 20) after completing my two years of active duty. We were in Naples, Italy, a nice enough place especially with stunningly beautiful women it seemed to me after a few weeks at sea, on the isle of Capri in Naples Harbor. I managed to separate myself from the girls and Capri and bought a Europail pass and headed north to Rome then to Florence and across the Alps on the night train into Bavaria, southern Germany.

Going to Bavaria might have been like coming to Alabama in the 1960s for a young man who grew up in Lima, Peru and later Plainfield, New Jersey. It was a different part of the world from greater Germany or in the case of Alabama the greater United States. Bavaria, and Alabama were apart with their own traditions but still part of the larger nation.

While in Munich, the capital of Bavaria, I did the obligatory beer drinking in the historic Hofbräuhaus beer garden and one day took a bus or cab out to Dachau to see for myself the ovens used by the Nazis to massacre thousands, and then millions, of Jews. I had read a bit about the Holocaust and wanted to see for myself. It turns out that the concentration camp of Dachau was the last one of the many concentration camps dotting conquered Europe that survived in Germany, or exactly, was preserved by the Germans. You can still visit places like Auschwitz in Poland.

Modern Germans would rather forget Dachau or Auschwitz, just as modern Alabamians would rather forget their segregationist, racist past. This difference, however, between Alabama’s past and the past of a Dachau or Auschwitz is measured in millions of souls. Six million perished in the Holocaust. Later, I saw documentaries ordered by General Dwight Eisenhower, then commanding the allied armies bringing Nazi Germany down to its knees and surrender. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing and almost immediately ordered in his photographers and film makers for Ike knew that the truth had to be preserved.

Years later in a Ph.D. oral examination in the Department of History, five of us sat there astonished as our candidate denied the historical accuracy of the Holocaust.

“It didn’t happen,” he claimed. “It is just a Jewish conspiracy to make the Germans look bad.” I remember Forrest McDonald and I were two members of the committee and Forrest took the lead. “You’re not going anywhere until you deal with the truth.”

Today I still read about anti-Semitic scum who rant and rave against Jews, right here in Alabama. How can we forget so soon what the Nazis tried to do in Germany: The Final Solution or the extermination of all European Jews? That modern Israel emerged in 1948 is one of the shining examples of God’s providential work in the world but that for another day, another story.

George Santayana, a philosopher, and historian observed that “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” It is one of the most famous “truths” about history and was repeated by Winston Churchill in a speech before Parliament in 1948: “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”

Will Dachau eventually be closed and bulldozed into oblivion in the next hundred years to finally get that sordid chapter in German history behind them? As we deal in Alabama and throughout the South with our history, like changing names of buildings and pulling down statues of old Confederate heroes, are we like modern Germans attempting to remodel their history by forgetting and/or destroying it?

We like to remember our heroes, not the wrecks of humanity (like the Nazi architects of the Final Solution) when we write/right our history. But they are ALL part of it. When we write about the beginnings of African slavery in the West and reparations we tend to forget or bury, the fact that African kings and tribal chiefs themselves were the ones who perpetuated slavery in Africa, slaves who were then sold to European traders like the Portuguese.

Does this ameliorate the African slave experience in North America among English settlers and colonizers? No, of course not. And while we are at it, since African slavery in North America only represented a small percentage of African slavery in the Western Hemisphere, why not examine it across the whole of the Americas from Brazil to Cuba? Are we so parochial that we limit ourselves to our own narrow history?

We all need our Dachau moment. I went to the Holocaust Museum in Washington a few years ago and the haunting image that stayed with me was the room filled with the shoes of the victims. Lest we forget and allow history to repeat itself.

Published as “We forget the past at our own peril” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday September 27 2020