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Would you swim in Hitler’s pool?

A friend of mine recently returned from a visit to a beautiful and imposing villa, now the British ambassador’s residence in Rome. During World War II it housed the German embassy, and prisoners were tortured in the cellars.

The swimming pool was built for Adolf Hitler, and this information, said my friend, would put her off from using it. 

In fact, Hitler never used the pool, but I was intrigued by her disgust, because I shared it.  I don’t think I could swim in the pool where Hitler had swum (yes, yes, I know how irrational these yuk responses usually are, but sometimes they’re also too powerful to overcome).

Similar disgust responses explain why buildings where atrocities have occurred are often demolished.  Fred West’s house has been knocked down – for who would ever agree to live there?

But I was also interested in how nuanced (euphemism for irrational) the disgust antennae are.  I would go and visit Hitler sites of historical significance: where he addressed the rallies at Nuremberg for example.   But attempting to enjoy myself in the same place and in the same way that Hitler also relaxed…yuk.

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10 Comment on this post

  1. Interesting and kind of weird… is there a component in there that has to do with benefitting from Hitler's actions? As in – "a monster built this pool and now here I am having fun in it"? Seems kind of in line with arguments that beneficiaries of injustice can be held responsible even if they did not perpetrate the injustice.

  2. In Israel there is a part of the population that refuses to visit Germany or buy any products from Germany (like Volkswagen) till this day.

  3. Is the disgust only with the person, or also with the events that took place in that building? I had something similar in Rome's coliseum, as well as in every monument that had Mussolini's name on in (there aren't many). A friend of mine told me that in Latvia many student dormitories were former hospitals in the war, and it creeped people out to know that they were sleeping in a room where several other people died.

    My university campus in Germany was the former CIA headquarters in the BRD and even suffered a terrorist attack because of that. Before that, it was the main lab of IG Farben, the pharmaceutical concern that created and produced the gas used in concentration camps. And before that, it was an asylum for demented people. Surprisingly enough, this doesn't make anyone uncomfortable.

    What about Nazi medical research? (now I thread a topic that I don't know much about, please correct me). As far as I know, our only data on human resistance to extreme temperatures and gas poisoning comes from Nazi science, since this kind of reserach is now forbidden in nearly every coutry. Now, as far as I know, this information is crucial to some common medical procedures. Being disgusted by Hitle's pool is a far milder reaction than the one we should expect from someone who undergoes these procedures.

    I suppose this discrepancy has something to do with our inclination of praising and blaming one personality (Obama, Hitler, Bin Laden, Einstein, Jesus) for the deeds of many, instead of seeing the bigger picture and feeling emotional repulse or attraction accordingly. I find it easier to hate (or love) a single personality than a whole culture.

  4. Interesting question.

    When I was in the US Army in the 80's, I was stationed in Fulda, Germany. The barracks that I lived in had formerly been Waffen SS barracks. They still had the racks for the K98 Mauser rifles set in the bricks in the hallways, and occasionally someone a little too eager scrapping paint would come across the odd swastika. The locked off and off limits sub-basement had held US POWs, the apparent reason the buildings had not been bombed to rubble during the war.

    For the most part, nothing much was thought of it, and many of us thought it kind of cool. But sometimes late at night it would get kind of creepy, at least for those of us with more imagination than might have been good for us. And I suspect the sub-basement was off limits for no other reason than that US POWs had been held there…it isn't like we couldn't have used extra storage space or something.

    What this means, I don't know.

  5. There's a bunch of research on this sort of thing, some of it meant to convince us that we're irrational.

    I say horse hockey. I know that there's no magical contagion in Hitler's pool, nor magical charm on a room where Washington slept. But we're critters who give things symbolic significance, and I'm glad we are; would a mean, dull life otherwise.

  6. Beliefs, desires, attitudes, reactions, and behaviors such as these arguably serve important psychological and social functions. (They could be socially conditioned in ongoing forms of cultural evolution, or phenotypic development of culturally mediated forms of biological evolution. In any case…) Arguably the disgust antennae cluster with (what might not at first appear to be but actually are) related and arguably desirable beliefs, desires, attitudes, reactions, and behaviors. Isn't there a growing literature on these matters? Perhaps others would like to report on relevant empirical data, theoretical calculations/speculation, and/or potential candidates…

  7. I can imagine a few reasons why you would be reluctant to swim in Hitler's pool.

    One psychological reason would be a reluctance to draw similarities between yourself and Hitler. He is the archetypal demon of our times that we do not need to examine or understand. He is simply Evil. Indulging oneself in the same pasttimes in the same places as he might have done, could cause you to feel uncomfortable if you felt it was acknolowedging parrellels with Hitler.

    A second, and I would guess more common, social reason, would be the fear of being seen to not think strongly enought that Hitler was evil. By either being seen as treating Hitler lightly, or worse, being thought to enjoy his legacy or condone him in some way, one would feel exposed to ostracism, criticism, disapproval, etc. By swimming in Hitler's pool, one might feel the risk of not being seen to distance oneself from him strongly enough.

    A third reason, could be magical thinking. It was Hitler's pool, you are using it, that creates some sort of magical link between you. This sort of thinking, that one might become 'tainted' in some way is common.

    A fourth reason, psychological again, could simply be disgust at his crimes against humanity. The knowledge that one is in Hitler's pool, may be sufficient to trigger the unpleasant memories or facts one knows about him, and that is the simple cause of revulsion.

    I think this last one is far less common today than it would have been in decades past. With each decade that passes, Hitler becomes paradoxically more of a caricature of evil that we simply demonise as ineffably and inexplicably mesmeric and murderous, whilst at the same time, the immediacy of the horrors he was responsible for recedes in people's minds. Fewer people have a genuine horror at his crimes because they seem more and more distant, whilst at the same time the fear of being labelled by society as NAZI, fascist, etc. takes it place. The fear of the name "Hitler" is moving away from his actual crimes and becoming more an analogue of "Emmanual Goldstein". Which is blackly ironic. Or maybe it isn't. But I do dislike the demonisation of Hitler. Not because he didn't conduct Suffering on a massive scale, but because the more we see him as someone outside of humanity, not like us, the rarer reactions such as yours (based on not liking to be like him) become and the more simply wanting to avoid being socially or ideologically associated with him takes its place. And that is a bad thing because the latter does far less to stop such events happening again than the former. Hitler was just a person like the rest of us. He was in the "right time and right place" to do what he did. You meet people every year who, if placed in the same circumstances, could do the same things.

    The real horror isn't that Hitler was a monster. The real horror is that he wasn't. He was a person, not that disimilar to a lot of other people. Perhaps one element of your horror at swimming in his pool is that it highlights that Hitler was actually one of us. And if Hitler was one of us – a person who swam, had friends, relaxed, then there's really nothing stopping it happening again. Not as long as we tell ourselves he is Evil and examine things no further.

    1. Let me just comment this:

      "The real horror isn’t that Hitler was a monster. The real horror is that he wasn’t. He was a person, not that disimilar to a lot of other people. Perhaps one element of your horror at swimming in his pool is that it highlights that Hitler was actually one of us. And if Hitler was one of us – a person who swam, had friends, relaxed, then there’s really nothing stopping it happening again. Not as long as we tell ourselves he is Evil and examine things no further."

      I'm not German, but I've been living here for some time and I think am able to see parts of their culture with some perspective. It seems that there is a strong undeclared wish of distancing "Hitler" from the "general German population". History WWII documentaries (they run every day on TV) usually focus on the man, with very little attention to the fact the German people supported him and thus share the guilt – as my Polish and Dutch friends so often remind me. The media tends to see that period as an aberration: not a part of German history, but a black stain that will never happen again, because, after all, it wasn't the Germans that did it, it was Hitler.

      Oh, I recall that the movie "The downfall" (Der Untergang) was strongly criticized by some segments of the population, and one phrase that was repeatedly popping up was "it made him look like a human". Right to the point.

      1. Indeed. But I disagree that you can fairly say the German people share the guilt (blame, is perhaps the appropriate word here rather than guilt). Few of them were alive during Hitler's years of power and most of those children at the time. No-one should be held responsible for things that took place before they were born. I'd also like to say that it is a repetition of the distancing principle to say it was "the Germans", not us, as if such scenarios do not repeat themselves tragically in other countries and peoples. I know that this wasn't what you meant in your post. It's just something else I see from time to time.. It could have happened here. Worse, could happen here. Anywhere really, with the right circumstances. We should never take for granted that it couldn't.

        1. Yes, I should have made that clearer. I did mean "the German people that were alive at that time and had the choice of resisting or complying". However, I think that, just as the people had a part in stopping the war against Vietnam in the US, they also has a part in not stopping the Nazi ascension in Germany. What makes the former feel pride should also make latter feel shame. Besides, I don't really care about nationalities; if I sounded like I tried to dissociate myself from Germans, it was unintentional.

          My countrymates also did bad things, and although I don't feel responsible for that, I acknowledge that my people should have some sort of awareness about their past and the choices their ancestors had to make. I'm half-Italian and half-Brazilian. We all know about Italy; but Brazil, qualitatively, did worse things than Hitler: we killed 85% of Paraguay's men, 30% of their women, and raped the rest. 300 years before that, the Portuguese had come and destroyed an entire civilization. In both cases no one (probably) thought it was the wrong thing to do.

          My points are: a) yes, given the circumstances, it could happend anywhere; and: b) the key to avoid it, in my opinion, would be the awareness and honest, critical analysis I mentioned above, since this is what makes people think why things are (and were) right or wrong, and gives them an ethical apparatus to better evaluate the events currently taking place around them. With this, I suppose, an enlightened population would have more reasons and be more motivated to resist further genocides and similar atrocities.

          But this is already way off the main topic.

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