On a recent drive from Berlin to the Netherlands I found myself on an 80 km arrow-straight stretch of two lane highway next to a shipping canal. There was nothing much to see for the whole distance. A few farmhouses, a junction with traffic lights and a bridge across the canal every 10 km or so, and one town, Esterwegen, where there’s another traffic light.
But at Esterwegen, there were two road signs, Esterwegen Memorial and Esterwegen Cemetery, printed in the font Germany reserves for Official Places of Significance. I’d never heard of either, and the signs also didn’t say what the memorials were for, but with a sense of foreboding and curious as to what might be so important in the middle of nowhere, I followed the signs.
Walking from the impeccably maintained (and empty) parking lot to the memorial itself, I soon found out from the displays that Esterwegen was the Nazi concentration camp most famously associated with the song of the Peat Bog Soldiers – or Die Moorsoldaten in German, a tune I’ve known for years. Here is the short version of the lyrics, in German and English.
Wohin auch das Auge blicket.
Auf und nieder geh´n die Posten,
Doch für uns gibt es kein Klagen,
|Peat Bog Soldiers
Far and wide as the eye can wander,
Up and down the guards are marching,
But for us there is no complaining,
Here’s a version sung by American folk music hero Pete Seeger, performed in 1967 at the East Berlin Oktoberklub folk club (that’s another interesting story!), in German as well as in English.
The buildings of the memorial look like what you’d find on any industrial estate, but once inside I found myself in a stark museum-like space. I later found out that the memorial for Esterwegen Concentration Camp has only been created as recently as 2011 – when the Bundeswehr (German army) vacated the site. Hence the industrial look – the buildings originally were military barracks.
Inside, there’s an exhibition that again drives home the chilling message of the horrors of nazism. This part of the current state of Lower Saxony has always been dirt poor, with very bad soil and no industry to speak of. During the depression of the 1930s, the Weimar government had already started New Deal-like employment projects in the area, using the unemployed’s cheap labour to dig peat and reclaim farm land from the marshy soil.
As soon as the Nazis came to power in 1933, they started using the existing workers’ camps as prisons for their political enemies. These were mainly socialists and communists, but also liberals and centrals – anyone who would speak up against the regime.
One of the very earliest concentration camps, the inmates were not treated quite as inhumanely as at the destruction camps the Nazis later built further east, but deaths among prisoners were frequent and the treatment of the inmates was completely at the mercy of the fascist prison guards. Many took personal revenge on political prisoners from their old home towns.
But the prisoners were granted one favour – on Saturday nights, they were allowed to organise entertainment, ghoulishly calling themselves the Zirkus Konzentrazani (a play on the many travelling circuses of those days with Italian sounding names). This is where the famous Peat Bog Soldier song was first performed – as early as August 1933, when the Nazis had been in power for just over six months! It soon became known outside the camp and even became a battle hymn of sorts for the Republicans fighting Franco’s forces in Spain from 1936 onwards.
Ironically, even the prison guards liked the song – they possibly also viewed themselves as Peat Bog Soldiers, being stuck in the middle of nowhere with their charges.
What keeps surprising me when looking at the exemplary German culture of remembrance as it exists today (with memorials for the murdered Jews, homosexuals, and Sinti and Roma all within a stone’s throw from Brandenburg Gate, the country’s most cherished symbol, and television programmes about the horrors of World War II almost every night), is that much of it is relatively recent. The memorial at Esterwegen was only created in 2006, when the Bundeswehr saw fit to leave the site. The House of the Wannsee Conference was only turned into a memorial in the 1990s, when the building was released by the city of Berlin from its former use as a children’s home. And many of these memorials would not even exist if it hadn’t been for ‘citizens initiatives’ that collected the necessary signatures. It just goes to show how much time is needed for any nation to truly come to terms with the negatives in its past – usually until all active participants in the era concerned have either died or at least are old enough to have lost their political influence.
Speaking of political influence: at 2016’s annual holocaust memorial ceremony on 27 January in the Bundestag, the German parliament, this beautiful version of the Peat Bog Soldiers was sung (in German of course) by RIAS Kammerchor, one of my favourite classical choirs.
Which version do you prefer? Pete Seeger’s emotional song accompanied on the banjo performed at a GDR state sponsored concert, or the mathematical precision of the arrangement by RIAS Kammerchor in the heart of modern German democracy, the Bundestag? Let me know in the comments!
Hinterm Busch 1
D-26897 Esterwegen, Germany
Tel.: 00 49 (59 55) 98 89 50
From April to October Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
From November to March Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
On Easter Monday and on Whit Monday open
Closed from 15 December to 15 January