I have, over the years, read countless books on World War 2, especially about the conflict itself; but later I studied the rise of the Nazis, its policies, and anti-Jewish programmes. It made depressing reading.
In Hitler’s Mein Kampf – written in prison where he served time for his part in a failed putsch in Munich in 1923, he made no secret of his antisemitism, so there could be no surprise when he rose to power in 1933 and began to implement those policies.
I have sat through some extraordinary footage of what greeted Allied soldiers when they liberated concentration camps. Photos can be grim enough, but actual film is more horrific. Documentaries like Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog and particularly the haunting Shoah, the most chilling of interviews with holocaust survivors and their guards, are reminders of man’s evil.
Schindlers’s List was a pretty good film dramatisation of one war profiteer, Oskar Schindler, who saved his Jewish factory workers, but nothing quite prepares you for film showing heaps of skeletal bodies piled on top of one another; the piles of human hair, shoes – so many children’s shoes; the gold fillings extracted from victims’ teeth.
And so it was that last month Trish and I enjoyed a few days of sunshine in Munich and decided to visit Dachau.
Dachau lies just outside Munich, and we made the short train trip on a sunny morning. We got off with about a dozen others at the small unremarkable town and waited for a bus to take us to the former concentration camp. Inside the admission centre were several people queueing to get in, and to help us we took the audio guides to better explain what we were seeing. Unfortunately, mine proved pretty redundant, but it made no difference to put experience.
The entrance gate (shown above) still mocks all visitors with its message “Arbeit macht frei” – “work sets you free” – although those who started to filter through the gates from 1933 onwards must have felt nothing but trepidation.
The camp is set out over a wide area. Some buildings, now razed, house the hospital wards where unspeakable experiments were carried out on thousands of inmates. As the sun beat down on us it was hard to grasp the horrors inflicted on so many. A Catholic Church has also been built not far from this spot, although that is a more recent and controversial development.
The main exhibition area houses many artefacts from the Nazi era: propaganda photos; a tiny chess set carved by an inmate; several photos of loved ones; pictures of inmates who impaled themselves on electric fences to put themselves out of the misery of living another day in Dachau. There was also a small box of cards with personal details of prisoners. All this was housed in a crumbling building that somehow captured the sombreness of Dachau.
We checked out some of the accommodation blocks where tens of thousands were housed. You get some idea of the cramped quarters by looking at the bunked beds almost touching one another; the room full of toilets where privacy was replaced by expediency.
Dachau’s significance stems not from the number of victims who died within the compound – extermination camps like Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau claimed many hundreds of thousands of lives – but it was the model on which other concentration camps were based. It was also the training centre for SS concentration camp guards.
Opened in 1933, it initially housed political prisoners, then later homosexuals, gypsies, and others, before Jews became the main group from 1938. When it was liberated in April 1945, thousands of dead bodies were found in railroad cars and inside the camp, plus 30,000 starving inmates. It is alleged the US soldiers were so appalled by the scenes they witnessed that they took their revenge out on the SS guards, killing dozens – some allege hundreds – but no courts martial followed.
What is undeniable is that the inhabitants of Dachau village were forced to bury the 9,000 bodies so they could have no doubt what had taken place in the camp so close to them. Given the camp’s proximity, it’s hard to believe people didn’t know what was going on.
Today, the far right is experiencing a renaissance in Europe on the back of an anti-immigrant sentiment. Extremism, whether from political or religious, is dangerous because of its potential for conflict and its belief in its own policies to the exclusion of others. We should learn the lessons of history. Dachau is one such reminder.