Dachau – Where the horror began

This concentration camp outside Munich was the blueprint for all the ones that followed. It’s a true must-see.

It seems churlish to say it but this concentration camp outside Munich was well-worth the four hours we spent quietly learning in the freezing snow. Dachau is somewhere that has a place in many of our collective cultural memories. Even if we are not directly connected with the fates of the poor souls who were tortured, often to death, in the camps we still have decades of exposure to the images and history of what happened. Dachau is a word that has spread terror since 1933, when this work camp was set-up just under two months into Hitler’s Chancellorship in order to crush political opposition to what was in effect his dictatorship.

My own exposure to what became The Holocaust is purely through media. I have no relatives among the 27 Brits or one Irish who died at Dachau, and I’m pretty sure I have no Jewish ancestry. My reasons for visiting come purely from the angle that I need to look the beast in the face to begin to know what ANY of us are capable of, given appropriate pressures and prejudices. And I’m just not talking about actually killing thousands of people, I’m talking about¬†allowing it to happen¬†too.

One of Dachau's guard towers in winter

One of Dachau’s guard towers in winter.

I have many friends who curse the Nazis as being unthinking murderers, but I disagree. I believe that they did think, and deeply, but their philosophy sprang from such a putrid and corrupt seed that they were able to see contemporary cultural problems in the light of simple ‘solutions’. They saw cause and effect being linear, without any areas of grey and without branches for alternative thought. Nazi reasoning followed the line that the culture they loved was being subverted, so let’s see what happens when we remove those who are damaging it. They were experimenting with society in the same way they allowed medical experiments on prisoners. Thus; Communists, Jews, Jehova’s Witnesses, the physically and mentally disabled, Romani, vagrants, ‘anti-socials’, all entered Dachau in their tens of thousands. What the Nazis learned from controlling the Dachau prisoners became the model not just for other camps but for training the worst culprits of German war crimes – the SS.

A visit to Dachau teaches you three main things. You learn what a concentration camp actually was, to prisoners and to Germany. You learn its impact on the SS and the Second World War, because their main training centre was literally next door to the camp and is now being used by the Bavarian riot police. And you learn how important it is for each and every one of us to stand up against intolerance and prejudice because all it needs is a critical mass of like-minded ordinary people to recreate what happened in this quiet Munich suburb.

We caught the train from Munich Hauptbahnhof to Dachau Bahnhof, buying a ‘partner’ train ticket for the greater Munich area. About 30 minutes later we caught the 726 bus from the station to the Dachau memorial site. This bus is included in your partner train ticket.

It was freezing when we arrived at the visitor centre. The sombre hall was empty and we walked right up to the desk and asked for an audioguide each. I had to leave ID (my passport, scary) as a deposit. And then we set off down the path to the main gate.

This was where new arrivals to the camp would be unloaded from trains and herded inside. From here on the unfortunates in Dachau concentration camp suffered the most extreme form of military discipline. The tiniest of perceived infractions, such as a single bed sheet being misaligned, could lead to excruciating punishments like being hung off of a post with your arms behind you. For hours.

The view through a bunkhouse window, of one of Dachau's guard towers

The view through a bunkhouse window, of one of Dachau’s guard towers.

Every day the inmates were called out of the long, squat, dismal, bunk blocks and made to stand in drill formation in the huge yard. Whether you were dying or dead, everyone had to attend. Even in the harsh Bavarian winters the prisoners were forced to stand and be counted. This yard, just inside the main gate bearing the terrifying hollow epithet ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (work makes you free), is the first thing to really hit you. It’s a very large space and you can easily imagine just how many people it could hold at one time. On a day like the one we visited on we could see how the poor winter clothing of the prisoners would soon add up to death by exposure.

Prisoners hurling themselves on barbed wire on the Dachau memorial

Prisoners hurling themselves on barbed wire on the Dachau memorial.

The audioguide led us on a slow tour of the yard and the extremely powerful memorial depicting prisoners hurling themselves on the barbed wire fence. We decided to leave the museum until the end and see the site itself first. I crossed the yard, avoiding the often extremely disrespectfully jovial and loud German schoolchildren, and entered the bunkhouse on the right. Here you see the wooden bunkbeds in their cramped uniformity. There was an English school group in one of the other rooms sitting listening to a really interesting guide explain everything about anything for them, so we stole some of his talk to complement what we had in the audioguide. An American school group were in the next room and they too did themselves proud by being respectful to their surroundings. Apart from the kids there were quite a few other tourists, including some older people – I often found myself wondering if they had a personal connection to the site and I cringed every time a schoolboy monkeyed around, showing off to the girls. I mean, this really isn’t the time or place, right?

The wooden bunks in Dachau

The bunkhouse in Dachau.

After looking in on the toilet and washing facilities I started the long walk up the central avenue to the Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish chapels at the north end. The Catholic chapel in particular is really striking, especially from a distance. We crossed west, over the security ditches and into the area just before the crematorium. The audioguide relayed the results of American intelligence carried out in the Dachau region during the war. The US infiltrated and examined local attitudes to the concentration camp and found that every single person knew what happened there. Only a small and fervent minority were involved in the atrocities, and there were some heroic people who would throw food to help prisoners if they were around the town, but the vast majority existed with an uneasy acceptance of the site and what it stood for. The oft-repeated denials of what went on simply don’t stand up to what the US Army discovered before they liberated the camp.

Plaque at Dachau marking a pistol firing range

Plaque at Dachau marking a pistol firing range.

The crematorium at Dachau is horrendous. It appears that the gas chambers here were never employed to kill prisoners. Nobody knows why though. They certainly worked and are of a similar design to all the other extermination centres. The ‘showers’ are eerie but the furnaces are worse. Ceiling beams just in front of the ovens were employed as handy scaffolds and prisoners were hanged in this room so that staff wouldn’t have so far to drag the corpses. This mechanical and completely logical way of killing struck me deeply. You see the infrastructure all around you but it really is the little improvisations like this that make you realise how ordinary this became for the camp officials. Behind the crematorium are a number of small and serene memorials and shrines to the murdered.

We began the long walk back to the museum buildings. We had been outside for about two hours already were becoming numb because it was about -15 degrees Celsius. I felt sick and angry before I went into the museum. That was just the start.

I didn’t learn much that I didn’t already know in the surprisingly massive museum. The audioguide had impressed upon me how important the SS training centre next door was to the camp culture because this ended up being exported to all the other similar sites throughout the occupied territories, but the museum does fill in several missing pieces with evocative testimonials. I had never realised how badly Jehova’s Witnesses suffered either. They took the incarceration as a test from God. They refused to perform the Hitler salute and were gradually all locked away to suffer for their faith.

Orders from Himmler about food packages in Dachau

Himmler reversed orders where food packages had been allowed into Dachau only as a reward. This was because death rates were harming the armament output of the camp workers at a time where war was turning in the Allies’ favour. Cold logic from Himmler again.

Two things that did surprise me really shouldn’t have. Firstly that I was shaking with rage after reading a few of Heinrich Himmler’s speeches and letters to various committees and officials. His hatred became more clear to me than I have ever seen before. Secondly, there is a letter from a Red Cross dignitary expressing his thanks to Himmler for allowing him to visit Dachau and see the excellent conditions for himself. The blindness and the utter idiocy of this man is hard to comprehend. This was no spot-check, it was a theatrical performance of an arranged visit but the Red Cross just goes ahead and happily signs off what it sees as (I paraphrase here) an ‘exemplary internment camp’. Talk about facepalm. My jaw just dropped at this point.

As the museum wound on I became fatigued. It’s an emotional place to visit and intensely difficult. I had read almost every single piece of information in the museum up to the halfway point but now I just wandered from room to room in a bit of a daze.

When we reached the final room we just exited through the back door and crossed the icy path to ‘The Bunker’, AKA the prison block.

When we went inside the atmosphere made Kristina refuse to walk down the corridors. The Bunker was used as an American prison after the camp was liberated but it still felt like it was corrupted with everything that went before. The long corridor to the west has cells off of each side and echoes as you walk along. My rubber soles were loud so imagine how a military boot would have sounded to those locked up.

The west corridor in Dachau's 'Bunker'

The west corridor in Dachau’s ‘Bunker’.

The east wing is mostly locked off but there are rooms where some prisoners were tortured and killed. Even I was feeling utterly drained by the place by now. As we stepped back outside into the beautiful setting sun I just promised myself to keep on doing the little things that make life better for other people. Making a stand against racism and homophobia in everyday situations. Berating anyone who deserves it. Giving to charity. Just remembering where we end up when we let these things slide.

The east corridor in Dachau's 'Bunker'

The east corridor in Dachau’s ‘Bunker’.

Britain scares me sometimes. Certain tabloid papers stir up the filthiest of lies and misinformation and serve it to a rabid class of bigots who will blame anyone but themselves for their predicament. Empathy is reserved for people who are just like themselves, and nobody else. The lies that they reiterate over and over are the things that need to be smashed to pieces and their egos redirected to the true cause of their woes, which is usually their own poor decisions. The British have, over the past decade, stumbled back into a strange militarism where we exalt the military as heroes, regardless of what they do. An SAS sniper smuggles a gun home and is rightly arrested when it’s discovered. The public outcry over his arrest leads to this ‘hero’ being released because we can’t have children without a Daddy at Christmas, can we?

We are allowing our morals to slide, allowing our reason to be polluted in the name of the filth that is nationalism, failing to punish things that are truly dangerous, and dropping our guard and our duty to protect people who really haven’t done anything wrong. Pakistani wedding guests ‘die in drone attacks’, they’re never ‘murdered’ apparently. Dachau and memorial sites like it need to be stamped on all our thoughts as the end-game of this thinking.

‘Never Again’ reads the plaque on the Dachau memorial.

If only.

'Never Again' on the memorial at Dachau

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6 thoughts on “Dachau – Where the horror began

  1. I did get to visit Dacahu and thought it was a pity that only a few of the barracks have survived. I also found it rather shocking that this camp was near the actual city of Dachau itself, unlike the camps in the east.

    • I agree, to an extent. I thought that the lack of barracks in the run up to the chapels made it really stark and powerful, but that if they had retained/rebuilt some more then they could have made the museum itself less dense and therefore the whole memorial more ‘digestible’. In an intellectual sense rather than taste. I was pretty drained by the end of the museum.

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. What hit me the most was the part where the prisoners were hanged just before the ovens. It’s pretty unimaginable what was going through the prisoners minds knowing full well what was about to happen. I will be visiting Auswitz in February and if I can bare another concentration camp at that point may visit this one when I am in Munich.

    • Cheers very much John, yeah there aren’t really words to describe that kind of callousness. It feels so much like a conveyor belt of death – mechanical. So strange. Auschwitz is on my ‘bucket list’ and I know it’s going to be awful. The difference between the two camps will probably be quite large, as the focus at Dachau was more about churning out armaments and workers rather than slaughtering prisoners. At Dachau that was just an ‘unfortunate’ side-effect, as the SS saw it, until later in the war. Thanks for your comment, I knew this was going to be a heavy (and longish) article so I hoped it wouldn’t turn people off from the outset.

  3. Despite living in Germany I never went to a concentration camp. I think the problem is is that whenever people think of Germany now they think of the Nazis and the holocaust and this is a problem. The vast majority of those alive today weren’t alive during the war and are not related, yet they still bare the burden of responsibility. I think ultimately we learned a lot from the Nazis. If it wasn’t for them people like the BNP would be in power in Britain, and that has to be remembered too.

    • Germany is definitely marked in the world consciousness by the two wars, no doubt about that. It’s such a shame because as you say most people alive today had absolutely nothing to do with it. There’s an unreasonable expectation that the faults of older people have definitely been passed on to the next generations. If anything it’s Austria that’s developing/got a far-right problem, not Germany.

      I don’t believe the far-right would have succeeded in Britain though, unless we’d lost the war. They never really got a grip under Mosely in the early 30s, and things like the invention of the welfare state after WWII surely helped deflate whatever sympathy that survived it. We do owe the soldiers of that era a different kind of respect, in my view, because that was the last time that we fought what I would call a righteous war. Something with actual genuine importance to the citizens of every country occupied (even Germany). Everything since has been a petty and pathetic attempt at asserting our lost power, or a resource grab. Actually I’ll amend that – the Falklands was a fight of self-defense which was probably necessary. But that’s another story entirely…

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