Yesterday I went to Dachau. Dachau was the first concentration camp to be opened during the Third Reich and was the only camp to be open during the entire 12 year period of that Reich (1933-1945). It was originally a munitions facility that had been used during WWI and was closed down at the end of the war. Before I go into more details about Dachau, I’m going to share the brief history lesson that I have learned on my various tours.
WWI was started by Prussia and Austria (if I remember correctly) when someone shot the crowned prince. Because Germany was allied with one of them (I can’t remember which one now) they were brought into the war. Germany went into the war thinking that it would be over in 4 months since they had just fought France and defeated them in 4 months time. Well, the war lasted much longer and Germany’s economy was devastated. By signing the treaty of Versailles Germany accepted all responsibility for the war (even though it wasn’t really their fault) and had to pay back all of the damages to each country. Germany was a very young nation (and still is – as I mentioned in an earlier blog) and so they did not have the money to repay all the debt. I think it took them until 1990 or something like that to pay everyone back.
Unemployment was ridiculously high (more people were unemployed than employed) and people were starving. The people no longer trusted the government because they had misled them during the war, so in 1931 when Hitler showed up and started to campaign people trusted him. He said that he would rip up the treaty of Versailles and be tough on Germany’s enemies. He was going to turn Germany around and get people jobs and feed the people. He was legally elected as chancellor in 1933 (I think that’s the right year) – although there was some foul play on his part. In order to be elected he had to receive 66% of the vote in the parliament and he had something like 35% or 40%. A few days before the election a fire “mysteriously” broke out in the Reichstag in Berlin and it was blamed on one communist man, who was certifiably insane. The truth is that the fire was started in six different rooms, so there is no way this man acted alone, AND he had a history of being in and out of mental institutions for claiming to commit crimes he had not committed, specifically arson.
Anyway, all that to say, because Germany had been hit by a “terrorist” attack, Hitler, who was second in command at the time, was given special authority. With this authority he could detain anyone he liked pretty much. Overnight many of his communist opponents in Parliament were taken and placed in concentration camps – specifically Dachau – or many of them went into hiding. On the day of the vote, Hitler had the percentage he needed since he had removed his opposition. He was elected “legally” into his position and his promises of change and hope had the people of Germany excited. One of his posters was at Dachau (there is a picture up on Facebook) and it reads “Our Last Hope, Hitler.”
I think learning so much of this history has helped me to understand a bit more about why Hitler was able to come to power. What I remember of my WWII history was just the terror and the horror of it all, but no one ever explained to me why or how he got to power in the first place. I can understand how people were desperate for something different and how they didn’t fully investigate the man they were electing simply because they were so excited about his promises. Obviously this is a lesson we should learn from.
So Dachau, was the first camp opened and people knew that it was opened and existed. It was a work camp where prisoners were to be “re-educated” about their political thinking. For the most part everyone in the camp was a political opponent. To be released they would have to work hard and then sign a statement saying that they were a part of the Nazi party and also sign another document that said they would not tell anyone about what they endured at the camp. One point that the tour guide made was about the definition of a concentration camp. I appreciated his pointing it out. Many times I think that our perception of a concentration camp is that it is a place of torture, fear, cruelty, malnutrition, and death. Those are all true, but those things exist in many prisons around the world today, but they would not be considered a concentration camp. A concentration camp is a prison that you are placed in for no legal reason, your rights are removed completely, you are dehumanized, and you have no hope of leaving, or if you do have hope, you have no set amount of time to when that is to happen. There is no way to appeal anything and you are completely helpless.
Dachau was also the camp where all of the SS guards were trained. It was said in other camps that if a guard was especially cruel that he had learned the “Dachau Spirit.” With that said, Dachau was a work camp, not a death camp. People did die there and the atrocities of the camps are horrifying on their own, but it was not a camp like Auschwitz where people were essentially sent to be exterminated. My guide at Dachau, Kevin, told us that on one of the other tours a guest, upon learning that, raised her hand and asked, “Is this not the real thing then?” I can’t believe the insensitivity and ignorance of people sometimes.
On the tour I learned a lot about what the camp was used for and some interesting facts about it. For example, Dachau was the model camp that the rest of the camps were based off of. So, the layout and the rules and regulations of camp life were all created at Dachau. There was a gas chamber built at Dachau but there is no evidence or records that it was used as such, but it is possible. It was however used for medical experiments that I’m sure were just as horrific.
Being at the camp and walking through the gate that read “Abbeit Macht Frei” or “Work Will Set You Free” (even though it’s a replica not the original) was chilling. I knew going into it that it would be – how could it not. It is a memorial site, considered a graveyard by the German government, and there was an eerie stillness and quiet to the place. It was vast and huge. A former inmate described the main area of the camp, where inmates would have to line up 2-3 times each day to be counted, as a desolate wasteland. I would agree with that statement. It is vast, empty, grey, and dead. The only green is the grass surrounding the camp that was known as the “death strip.” If a prisoner walked into the strip they were immediately shot at.
Sometimes guards would throw a prisoner’s hat into the area and tell them to go get it. Whether the prisoner retrieved the hat or not they were dead. If they went into the strip they were shot and if they disobeyed a direct order they were shot. I can’t imagine living through something like that. There are also trees that grow down the middle of the road where the barracks used to stand. Some of them are original, but some have been replaced since they only live for 50-50 years. The trees were added in the late 1930’s when the Red Cross came to investigate the camp and make sure prisoners weren’t being deprived of their human rights. The Nazi’s knew the investigation was going to happen, so they did everything they could to make the camp pass the test – it was all an illusion though.
I saw the Old Crematorium where they burned the bodies of the dead for the first many years of the camp with one oven. They had to build a second one however, the New Crematorium, because they couldn’t keep up with all the dead bodies. We walked through the New Crematorium, through the room where the inmates would have had to strip naked, into the shower room, into the room where the dead bodies would have been kept until they were cremated, and into the room where the three ovens were held. There are memorials set-up around the parameter of the crematorium area that are in honor of the unknown number of dead. As the war went on many records were not kept and so the actual number of people killed will never be known.
I don’t know exactly what my final thoughts are on my visit to Dachau. I don’t know if there is a way to sum it up. There is no way to explain why these sorts of cruel things happen in the world. I can say “Never Again” as one of the memorials states, but as much as I hate to say it, can we really stop it? There have been wars of genocide more recent than 1945 and people have been warring and trying to wipe each other out all throughout history. Can we really say, “Never again?” I don’t know. I hope so. I pray for peace, as cheesy as it may sound, and I hope that we as the inhabitants of this planet stand up for those who do not have a voice and refuse to turn a blind eye to the wrongs of this world.
We must examine and question our leaders. We must not let them do things behind our back. We must not give them too much power because they promise change and hope. We all need to be held accountable to our words and actions. We cannot blame just the leaders when they fail. We cannot just point fingers and point to the problem. We must help with the solution. This is our world and we are all responsible.