Even in a city famed for places steeped in the darkest chapters of history, Plötzensee Prison is a distinctly sinister spot on the map of Berlin. The mid-19th-century red-and-yellow brick facility, tucked away in the western part of town near the now-abandoned Tegel Airport, gained notoriety under the Nazis as one of the main execution sites of the scheme. Nearly 3,000 people, mostly opponents of the Third Reich, were put to death there.
Perhaps surprisingly, Plötzensee still functions as a prison – albeit for juvenile offenders. Just outside one of its walls stand the remains of the old “execution block”, now part of a memorial for the victims of Nazism.
A few weeks ago, this chilling story took on dark current significance thanks to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who brought to life the daily acts that underlie the reality of resistance. The Belarusian opposition leader came to Plötzensee as the guest of honor at the annual official commemoration of resistance to Nazism, held on July 20, the date of the failed bomb plot to to assassinate Hitler.
A few meters from the execution chamber, Tsikhanouskaya was quick to describe a link from one prison yard to another, from Plötzensee to Belarus. “Walking through the prison today, I felt so small. My heart started beating faster. I thought my husband, Sergei, must have felt something similar when he walked in to the first time in the courtyard of Zhodino prison.
Activist and opposition leader Sergei had wanted to run for president against Alexander Lukashenko – Europe’s ‘last dictator’ (although that title may now be disputed). Instead, he was jailed, prompting Sviatlana to stand in his place in the August 2020 election (the anniversary is Tuesday) which saw Lukashenko triumph but was widely deemed fraudulent. Tsikhanouskaya was forced into exile in Lithuania with her children. Thus, the 39-year-old language teacher who considered returning to work after years of raising children has become an international symbol of opposition living under the threat of reprisals.
In Plötzensee she spoke calmly about life in Belarus – the fear, the brutality, the uplifting successes and crushing defeats. “We were hoping to get Belarusians out of prisons,” she said. “But instead, our whole country has become a prison” from which compatriots are trying to “flee through forests and swamps”. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought further oppression: the 20-year-old student sentenced to six and a half years for publishing a message condemning the war; a 60-year-old woman detained for organizing a party for Ukrainian refugee children.
His presence and his words certainly set a different tone for the annual commemoration. The treatment, inside and outside, of the German resistance was often complicated. At times it was largely ignored; to others the subject of questions about the extent, consistency and actual effectiveness of the resistance and whether, in the case of the bomb plot, it was too little, too late undertaken by members of the aristocracy, the army and the bureaucracy. elites, some of whom had previously supported the Nazi regime.
More recently, however, there has also been an emphasis on less filibuster and more civil acts of resistance – often carried out at immense personal cost by ordinary citizens with little access to levers of power or weaponry.
While Tsikhanouskaya was also careful to refer to “smaller and quieter acts of bravery” against oppression, then and now, her presence in Berlin offered both complement and counterpoint to the discussions. wider that were now raging in the German capital. Russia’s war against Ukraine has upset Germany‘s security, foreign and energy policy. Politicians dither and bicker over the delivery of weapons systems or the legalistic formalities of extending the operation of nuclear power plants, selfish intellectuals and cultural types write anguished open letters calling for peace – and all the while there is a daily discussion about gas supplies and what to do when winter comes and ordinary citizens begin to feel the effects of war.
Tsikhanouskaya recalled what it is like to already live with these effects. Ukraine and Belarus are part of a larger phenomenon that Western Europe has been only too happy to ignore. Dictatorships thrive when democracies ignore them; dictators cannot be appeased or re-educated.
Changing that is a long process, the product of “millions of small acts of courage”. This, as she made clear to her audience in Berlin, can take many forms, from chancery to living room, including paying higher gas bills.
Frederick Studemann is the literary editor of the FT
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