It was mere minutes before closing time. We needed to get a jump on the crowd to get back to the hostel before lockup time. Given my beer consumption and the long train trip back to the hostel, I made my companions wait for a time while I went to relieve myself.
Then time stopped. The ground shook. The air roared. The walls rattled.
Then came the screams. I stumbled out into a war zone. Tens of thousands of people were running and shouting, while hundreds were on the ground, crying and screaming. Some were silent.
After regrouping with my college friends and collecting my things, we starting running for the park exit. A sea of blue flashing lights from emergency vehicles washed toward us from every direction as we left the beer tent. Given my lack of military experience and level of inebriation – I had downed 8 liter beers that day, about 2 gallons – my mind couldn’t put together what had happened. Had a plane crashed or the ferris wheel toppled?
In mere moments our little group became separated in the chaos. I found myself fighting against the rush of people and jostled by the crowd, but I was determined to get to the train station by the shortest route. After rounding a corner there was a visible break in the melee that I pushed toward. Finally breaking into the relative clear and focused on the exit, I dodged one more person and started running, only to slip and fall almost immediately.
Oddly, someone else seemed to have fallen right next to me. I looked over toward him and my 37-year nightmare began. A hand, severed a couple of inches above the wrist. A mass barely recognizable as a head, with a body whose upper chest was effectively gone. I scrambled to get up, but fell again in a pool of greasy blood, with my face on top of that hand.
Panic and nausea overwhelmed me. I had to get away but was frozen with vomit and fear. All around me were bodies, body parts, rivulets of blood and chunks of tissue. Hundreds were on the ground, and hundreds more hunched over them. The air was a stew of sirens, shouts, moans and acrid odor, and I was covered in blood and what I think was brain tissue.
This was Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany in September of 1980. The biggest folk festival in the world was rocked by the biggest bomb seen in Germany since World War II, detonated in a trash can at the exit 10 minutes before closing. The bomb was a mortar rigged to spray shrapnel, including some 8 pounds of nails. The walls of the Pissort* I had been in, 100 feet from the bomb and well within the blast zone that was bigger than a football field, were rattled by that shrapnel. The people outside were shredded. 13 people died and more than 200 were injured. Think the Boston Marathon bombing with more people and a single, but much bigger, bomb.
The attack was carried out by a neo-Nazi, who was also killed in the blast. The bomb went off sooner than he expected, saving countless lives. Had the explosion happened 15 minutes later, the 100,000 occupants of the famed beer tents would have been making their way to the exit.
I am struck by the parallels of Munich with the neo-Nazi / white supremacist killing in Charlottesville. Bavaria’s governor, Franz-Josef Strauss, was a large conservative with grand political aspirations who needed right-wing support. Strauss’ administration wrapped up a hasty investigation that implicated only the bomber, ignoring links to a broader network and largely downplaying the risk that the neo-Nazi ideology posed to the populace. More than a decade passed before that investigation was reopened and, by that time, much evidence collected at the scene had been (legally) disposed of.
I harbor great guilt and shame over the Munich bombing. Here I was, an Eagle Scout trained in first aid and who participated in numerous Red Cross disaster preparation simulations, and I did nothing. People all around me desperately needed my help, and my concerns were with the vomit, blood and goo on me and in not getting caught with the 3 beer mugs under my parka I had stolen from the beer tent. 37 years have not lessened my disappointment with myself.
Munich made my reaction to Charlottesville visceral and vomitous. There is no such thing as a “peaceful” white supremacist rally or a “fine” Nazi. Their ideology, thoughts and values are founded in violence, and only through violence could they ever achieve their goals. They cannot be given any quarter and must be resisted. Their ideas must be pushed into the sewers of society and never allowed in the sunlight. Ignoring them is never good enough and not teaching our children to actively resist them is never the right answer.
It is impossible to number the ways Munich has affected my life. Loud, sudden noises and nightmares that begin with a severed hand are amplified by ALS’ damage to the upper motor neurons in my brain, creating inappropriate responses to stress. Imagine full-body charlie horses that last for days. Munich also began a transformation in me from conservative hawk to pacifist, and nothing bothers me more than a person thinking they are somehow better or more worthy than someone else. I had a radical reshaping of how I perceive life, and the explosion cracked open a shell of selfishness and arrogance I had made of myself. And, not being able to change the past, I try to atone for my inaction by being involved in making the world around me a better place.
Many of my German friends expressed their shock at this violent act in Munich, carried out in the name of an evil whose existence they had preferred to think was defeated and impotent. They knew neo-Nazis existed, but that knowledge had been irrelevant to daily life.
Now that same ugly evil has shown itself in public in Charlottesville, and we are left to consider what to do about it. Will we take the easy path of complacency and choose to ignore it until the next violent upwelling? Will we take the advice of those who advocate for not giving these groups attention?
I vote no. I support actively “outing” these people. I want the public to hear the vile ideas these people hold so that those ideas can be loudly, repeatedly, denounced and ridiculed from every sector of society. The hate and violence will only spread if unopposed. At the same time, we have to show these people love. We cannot let their hateful ideas infect us into hating them as people. This kind of love is the most difficult part of my faith, but without love we will never reclaim lives from this evil, and evil will not be lessened. We are at a point of inflection jn our history. We must choose from three paths: willful ignorance, hateful retaliation, or loving resistance. I denounce the first two and pray for the strength to take the third path.
*Pissort is what you think it is. German for a public bathroom.