Very close to Munich there is a small town known as Dachau. Historically it was known as the site of summer residences for rich Munich residents – close to the city yet located in a beautiful, serene environment with birds chirping and lush forests.
This all changed, however, with the announcement of the Third Reich’s first concentration camp. Opened in 1933, the camp at Dachau has the special distinction of being both the first and the only to operate throughout the entire period of the Third Reich. I chose to take a tour with a man named Gordon Hogan, an Irishman who has been living in Munich for the past 16 or so years. There were brochures for his tours in the hostel’s lobby and they were well reviewed on the Internet, so I figured it would be a worthwhile endeavour.
In order to get to Dachau you can take either an express (10 minutes or so) or a regional (40 minutes) train… going with Gordon ensured that our times matched the express trains and he handled all of the work in getting our group of about 15 to and from the site. Once you arrive at the train station in Dachau you have to transfer to a bus which winds its way through the picturesque small town before ending at the concentration camp memorial site.
Dachau operated as a concentration camp until 1945 when it was liberated by the Americans. By that time the conditions in the camp were so bad, with rampant disease and death, that the inmates who were “liberated” still had to remain in the camp for close to three months until a quarantine was lifted. Thousands more died during this time, their health unable to recover. I was also surprised to learn that the site continued to be used for an additional 20 years – many of the original buildings, including all of the barracks were destroyed during this time – for various purposes including a refugee camp in the 1950s and an American military facility.
Gordon showed us an aerial map of the area which dated from the war and which included a comprehensive view of the site. I hadn’t realized just how massive the complex was: beyond the prison grounds itself, the site included factories and farms which relied heavily on prison labour. He told us that Dachau had been considered a model camp, with a fake barrack building set up for visitors, and the Nazi party actually showed it to the outside world during the Munich Olympic Games in 1936. Initially built to hold political prisoners, the scope of purpose expanded as new laws were created and war seemed inevitable.
I really appreciated that Gordon didn’t just recite history, he tried to explain it. Instead of describing the SS as faceless monsters, he reminded us that working at Dachau was their job. It was their 9 to 5. In some of the records that he’s studied, low level SS agents talked about the mass extermination of people as though it were nothing more than their orders and not a conscious decision they had to make. In some cases, it was nothing more than accounting and he talked about records that showed they had so many thousand people coming into Auschwitz, for example, but they didn’t have enough food until next week, so simple math dictated what would happen to those who were unlucky enough to arrive that day.
I think the best guides really want you to learn more about the site you’re visiting. Gordon talked a lot about the industry behind the war and about the businesses which were operating in Germany during the time. Fanta, for example, is a brand that was created due to Coca Cola’s problems importing ingredients and doing business in Nazi Germany. Instead of refusing to trade with the Nazi regime, they started a new brand.
Gordon pointed out the former residence of the camp commander, located just outside of the main gate and near where the train would have come into the site. The building still stands, as do many of the buildings in that area which were used by the SS, and is now the site for rapid response police training.
One thing that surprised me about Dachau, and about Germany in general, was their willingness to discuss the war and to talk about what actually happened. There was an element of what Gordon called whitewashing happening after the war, and some people wanted all of the buildings in the camp destroyed, but it seemed as though the Germans were willing to be reasonably open and honest. In my experience travelling through Asia, however, I didn’t notice the same level of sober discussion or reflection with respect to war crimes or tragedies. Apparently decisions with respect to the memorial site are made by committee – which means that it takes a while for change to go through. Some of the information presented in the documentary video, which was developed in the mid-1960s, is apparently incorrect and while the boards show the updated information, gleaned from research and interviews with survivors, the committee only recently reached an agreement with respect to revising the video itself.
There was an agreement not to rebuild any of the destroyed buildings, except for two of the barracks. These were also set up in an educational fashion, with model barracks dating from the mid 1930s, the outbreak of the war and then finally the last set of barracks, as they would have appeared when the Americans arrived in 1945. We actually weren’t allowed to go into that room due to fire code violations and concerns.
We walked from the barracks towards the front of the memorial all the way to the back, along the main road that ran down the centre of the camp. The aerial photos had shown small trees planted beside each building and it was really strange and interesting to see those exact same trees 70 years later. Gordon kept reminding us that the war only ended about 70 years ago – he said that we North Americans tend to think of anything that old as ancient – but that in the grand scheme of things it was really quite recent.
Towards the end of our tour, he brought us to where death sentences would have been carried out. This area is considered a bit of a memorial within a memorial and the site has really worked to beautify the area, in order to give respect to those who remain interred there. Gordon reminded us, more than once, that we were around a mass grave as any unidentified victims were simply returned to the earth and buried on the site. The ovens, used for the disposal of bodies are still there – I didn’t take any photos as it seemed strange to me and disrespectful. I only took a few photos during my visit, to be honest, because it seems weird to sort of trivialize a site such as this through a camera lens.
There is a short loop through the forest which has a few memorials but mostly just shows you the sites and explains, quite matter of factly, that they were used to hang people or for shooting them. Gordon said they have been allowing the forest to reclaim the area, growing over the wall and deeply blanketing the ground, but that they keep the memorials themselves cleaned off and well maintained. There are no admission fees for Dachau but the care that has been taken with respect to this site is really inspiring to see.
The last thing that Gordon wanted to show us was this memorial to the Unknown Survivor. I’ve heard of memorials to Unknown Soldiers, but he explained that this is for everyone. It’s not a religious memorial, it doesn’t discriminate based on sexual orientation or political beliefs, but it is a monument for all. Gordon told us that for him, at least, this statue represented hope, strength and human dignity. I think it was a really good way for him to end the tour as we were all pretty quiet and reflective by this point.
I’m really glad that I did this site with a guide. It cost only a few euros more than making the travel arrangements and coming myself, but I think it would be really easy to get overwhelmed at the Dachau memorial without it. There is so much information presented on boards, through the audioguide and in the documentary that it would be hard to take everything in and still be able to have a proper appreciation and understanding of what you were seeing. It was a really interesting, thought provoking day and I really do mean it when I say that I want to do more research on the subject…