(Translation: Feeling Empty).
Before arriving in Munich Mel and I had decided we would go for an afternoon at Dachau; she hadn’t been for a few years, and after Auschwitz I wanted to see the concentration camp that had served as the model for all subsequent encampments around Europe and was the only one to have existed the entire 12 years of Nazi rule.
So just a bit of background about Dachau.
The camp was opened in March 1933 by Heinrich Himmler a mere few weeks after Hitler’s appointment as Reich chancellor, as a place for political prisoners. On the grounds of an abandoned munitions factory it was soon enlarged to include forced labour then Jewish prisoners and foreign nationals from countries under German occupation. Throughout its 12 years of running, before it was liberated by US forces on April 29, 1945, more than 200,000 people were incarcerated within its gates and numerous subcamps with 43,000 meeting their deaths.
“Dachau” became a word synonymous with fear and terror. The prisoners were brutally treated, with draconian detentions for the most menial things, such as a marginally wrinkled bedsheet or the trace of water in a dish, punishments taking the form of standing cells, floggings or pole hangings.
After the liberation the grounds served as the holding location for SS soldiers awaiting trial, before becoming the temporary home for ethnic Germans who had been expelled from eastern Europe after 1948 and were awaiting resettlement. Closed in 1960, it then became a memorial site in 1965 to serve as a reminder of the past to never be repeated, said to have the character of a cemetery as a place of sorrow and remembrance.
I was surprised by two details of the camp before we even reached it. One, being only 16km away from Munich, that it was so close to the Bavarian capital, and two, that entry was free. I guess what with Auschwitz being a bit more out of the way of a significant settlement and a fee being charged for going in, I had expected the same here.
Mel and I opted for the audio guides to listen to as we made our way around the camp (it always feels so wrong to me to call them “camps”. What with the term eliciting memories of fun family times and scenes from American movies, I feel so erroneous referring to them as such. But, I guess, that was the whole point of calling them so rom the get go, wasn’t it?). It offered many an insight and shared story as to Dachau and as I punched in the numbers to hear the horrors I noted how white and bloodless my fingers were.
Walking into the complex you follow the “path of a prisoner”, walking the very same walk they were forced to upon arriving at the camp. You pass through the main iron gate that is set in steel with the camp’s cynical and cruel motto, being “Arbeit macht frei”, being, “Work makes you free” (“Stupid, stupid phrase,” Mel admonished), before going along the main part that once served as the Maintenance Building, as the sort of admin, offices and facilities of the SS. On the roof of this building it declared in paint, “There is a path to freedom. Its milestones are: Obedience, Honesty, Cleanliness, Sobriety, Hard Work, Discipline, Sacrifice, Truthfulness, Love of Thy Fatherland”. The building is now set up as a museum (with oh so many big information boards along the way as well as a cinema screening a 20-minute movie on a scheduled basis in a fair few languages; seriously, set out a good grouping of hours to see this place properly).
As with Auschwitz and the Anne Frank Huis, I believe the enormity of the emotion needs to come from actually experiencing such places in person; thus, I will just point the most notable of notes rather than a comprehensive consideration of the whole site and situation.
- One of the aspects of the place that really struck me was how well it (being the boards in the exhibition areas) explained just how Hitler was able to come to the power that he did. Having questioned this myself back at school and reading into it to get the 5W’s&H of it all I was well aware, but for those who aren’t so familiar with the whole ins and outs of it, it not only painted the picture of the past but rendered a chef-d’ouevre of the political climate. I shan’t go into all of it, but for an extremely laconic relation.
- After WWI Germany was suffering. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles declared that the Germans Reich alone was responsible for the whole war, with the consequences being heavy burdens on the country from ceding territory to paying high reparations to drastically reducing military forces. The victorious powers were allowed occupations and controlled rights of the German nation, and many areas very soon came into poverty. This was intensely furthered in 1923 when the mark (currency of Germany at the time) rapidly lost value and the inflation divided society significantly. The next year saw an incremental economic recovery start for the further four, before the 1929 world economic crisis saw all up roads taking a grim turn and unemployment, scarcity, paucity and starvation became the norm. The German people were desperate and losing faith in their “weak” Weimar Republic government, prompting socialists to use the situation to present themselves as “rescuers in times of need”. (Photo below shows the unemployed standing in a line in front of the employment office in Hanover in 1931).
- The gateway for a saviour was set, and along came Hitler. A charismatic man with a tremendous talent for spellbinding public speaking (and swaying), he and his party, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazi Party) made promises that were delivered on. His vows to provide a new and glorious Germany with a much better life for the disenchanted and overturning the Treaty of Versailles garnered significant support and the Nazis rose to rapid power. (Before the depression the party was relatively unknown, taking only three per cent of the electoral vote in 1924). The 1932 elections saw the Nazis take 33 per cent of the vote (interesting to note that two-thirds of the German people did still not give support even here) with January 1933 seeing Hitler as chancellor.
- February 27, 1933, saw the arson attack on the Reichstag building in Berlin, the event now known as the Reichstag fire. A young Dutch council communist by the name of Marinus van der Lubbe was found at the scene who admitted to the crime and was tried and sentenced to death. Hitler used the incident as ammunition to move his hold to a dictatorship, declaring that communists were plotting against the German government; he urged President Paul von Hindenburg to pass an emergency decree to suspend civil liberties to protect the country. Simply put? The police could arrest whoever whenever and throw them into prison without trial. The Nazis set forth on eliminating all political opposition and with the seats of the communist “enemies” empty, the Nazis went from a plurality party to the majority with Hitler able to consolidate his power and establish Nazi Germany. (Today the persons behind the Reichstag fire is an ongoing topic of debate, with many historians believing that it was actually lit up on order of the Nazis as a false flag operation to solidify their power and eliminate political rivals).
- So Hitler was seen as a hero. He brought prosperity and a pleasurable life back to many of his people. And with an extensive propaganda campaign ongoing, his announcements of so-called “labour and re-education camps” were accepted by many of the masses as a positive plus in the reestablishment of a happy Germany.
- The modernisation of society was said to be a crisis that soon came to evoke fears and resentment, with cultural uniformity heralded as the way forward; this set to the anti-Semitic prejudices and the banning of “gutter literature” in (these are off the signs in the camp, not from my own terming I must point out) “degenerate art”, “Jewish building Bolshevism” and “parasite works”.
- Which is how the Nazi barbarism site of Dachau came about. (Very, very pithy and concise account there, but the main threads).
- Once a prisoner arrived and passed through the hideous gates into the camp complex, they ceased to be a person and instead became nothing but a number. Walking in what was once the Schubraum (“shunt room”) had me shivering in appal; it was here that the degrading admission procedure started and where the prisoners suffered the loss of personal rights, liberties and human autonomy. All personal possessions were to be relinquished (today many that were salvaged are displayed in the room, mostly being letters, photos of family and little treasured trinkets; photos below) and the new arrivals were commanded to all strip naked and go on to be “bathed” in the prisoner baths. I actually felt sick. The process was detailed out along boards along the room, explaining just how these poor, poor people were made to surrender all that they were, including their individuality. It was the first step in forming a mass reservoir of slaves who had had all of the dignity and respect stolen from them purely as a result of not being from the “right” bloodlines.
- Nowadays people watch The Hunger Games, read Harry Potter, immerse themselves in the Insurgent series and have no idea that the inspiration for all of these storylines is not fully just fictitious; the authors take aspects from history as it has actually happened.
- The film midway through the museum was the most exposed I have ever been to how it actually was. The images of piles upon piles of long dead, emaciated bodies with others just carrying about their days a mere few metres away; the brutal beatings of perishing prisoners for no reason other than the fact they were Jewish; the motioned media of mass burials when coal shortages meant creations were no longer an option… it was so sobering, so impelling, I left that room wondering how on earth I would ever smile again. At one point a short showing of Hitler shouting out a sermon to his supporters was screened and I experienced a rush of unalloyed, unequivocal hate; this man, this (no word incites enough of a despicable description as to be apropos) man, the initiator of all the revulsion and the terror and the anguish and the agony, just proclaiming out under his fucking stupid moustache… it just made me bilious.
- From there Mel and I wandered about the next few rooms, taking in the personal accounts of those having suffered in the encampments and the way it all worked on a day-to-day basis. One of the exhibits which really struck me was that of the artwork room (photos not allowed much to my chagrin – though I managed a stealthy one before I realised). I think they actually proved more powerful than the photos displayed around the way, as these were real life scenes the prisoners were seeing each and every day, so much so that they could transfer them to paper (hidden from the guards, of course). There were stills of the human experiments undertaken on the imprisoned, such as the hypothermia one where men were continually plunged into a pool of freezing water (the artworks by one Georg Tauber, which were actually used as evidence in the Dachau and Nuremberg Trials after liberation), to pictures of pole hangings, with prisoners handcuffed behind their backs and then hung from a hook for a good two or three hours (such a common form of punishments that a room was built devoted to it, with hooks along walls and on support pillars) to stacks of stripped and suffered bodies just right outside the barracks where the still-alive “lived” (in quotation marks as this was absolutely no life). It broke my heart to think of a middle-aged man sitting with his pencil and pad which he appropriated by forbidden means, calmly stencilling out the images he was so accustomed to.
- Interestingly, a gas chamber was built at Dachau as well but was never used; historians are unsure as to why not. But it was still a centre of potential mass murder, with the room disguised as shower stills and equipped with fake shower heads to mislead the victims. Within fifteen to twenty minutes, 150 people could at once be suffocated to death with Zyklon B, a prussic acid poison gas that filtered through the “shower heads” and into the lungs of the soon to be non-living. (Just how could this have happened? How?).
- I came across a really insightful map that colour coded the countries and their status throughout WWII. Ignorant and unwitting of me, I had never really considered the position of nations such as Turkey and what not before in face of siding in the war, but this map clearly illustrates how all stood. (Yellow shows neutral nations; blue as opponents of Germany that held colonies, mandates and occupied territories).
- As with all camps, some of the prisoners were given special powers to be in a higher position than the others. While most tried to use this ranking as to protect the other prisoners, some abused it, committing murder and acting in awful ways towards those “below” them. It’s easy enough to say how atrocious such behaviour is and such, but think about it; I mean, would you cooperate with the way of the camp and be a cog in the instrument of SS terror, ensuring your survival and slightly better treatment, or would you refuse and relinquish any influence and put your own life in jeopardy? It’s so easy to sit back and judge but being in the face of it all? I don’t think many people could solemnly swear they would be of the latter category.
- There were busloads upon busloads of other people visiting the site, but one lot really touched me upon coming across them; a group of nuns. About 20 or so, all habited up, wandering about the museum and signing the cross over some of the displays. I don’t know why but seeing this really warmed me up a little.
- After the museum building Mel and I made our way across to where the barracks were built. Back in the day 34 barracks lined the left and right of the camp road, their former positions marked by stone foundations laid out retrospectively, with two reconstructed as replica ones at the top of the road showing how it once was. Each barrack was comprised of four stuben (rooms), each meant to be for a limit of 52 prisoners, a guide that was not at all kept to. In fact, the whole camp was built for a max of 6240 imprisoned people, but on liberation in 1945 more than 30,000 prisoners were found within its confinements. So on going into the imitation of the barracks now does the past no justice as it fails to convey the atmosphere of confinement and density that the inhabitants suffered. There are two lines of toilets in the “bathroom” where the prisoners had a set out time to do their expelling each morning, with no repeat until evening time allowed; imagine that, given a trifle two minutes to excrete sitting alongside nine other men.
- Whilst in the barracks I took this beautiful picture of Mel, her completely unaware.
- It completely caught the moment, her lost in a world of wartime and its atrocities. It was really, really cool going to Dachau with her and being able to talk about it after. On the way we had touched upon how she felt somewhat guilty for the part the German people played in the war and the oblivion or ignorance of some in light of the barbarisms going on around them. On leaving we resumed the conversation, and she told me a few stories about times when people from other countries have treated her with distaste upon finding out she was German. (Once when she was 14 she was in England in a store and the shopkeeper lady was being all lovely. Unable to detect her accent she asked where Mel was from; when Mel replied with “Germany”, the lady froze up, handed her her items and told her to leave the store. This upset me even more so than some of the images within the camp – I mean, that’s racism and wrongly-placed blame in itself, exactly how the whole “Jewish Question” started, isn’t it?).
- It really struck me that Mel (and later upon continuing the chat with Joachim, him too) felt somewhat culpable for what went on back then. Just by being of German ancestry and of knowing now what we do, that they feel liable for the actions undertaken by those of the Nazi officials and the SS. When I said she had no need to burden herself with responsibility she said, “Well you can’t help it. I mean, look at that”. (As well I was told by a few others that on learning about WWII at school, although it was never overtly stated, the whole “you did this” accusation was in the air).
I was a trace disturbed to find on leaving Dachau I was somewhat removed. How could I see all that had been on display, hear of the horrors, read the writings of woe and wretchedness, and feel so empty? Was I so heartless as to just not feel? Having seen quite a lot of similar sites as of the past few months, was I simply detached? It really saddened me.
But later on as I lay in bed the tears started and I was almost relieved to feel them come on. I guess I had sort of disconnected myself upon going in, readying myself for the sorts of stuff I knew I was going to see and experience.
I don’t know what to think anymore. I started making inroads into Anne Frank’s Diary this afternoon, and rereading it all now again after what I’ve seen in person makes me feel really weird. It’s like this sense of heartbreak mingled with despair and a garnering undercurrent of immense rile. All these thoughts and insights swirl about my mind and I sometimes really struggle to have faith that the world is even a tad decent, let alone good place.
People say we’ve come a long way since the days of Dachau but I think such claims are delusional. If you look around at the world, fling open the thick drapes of pop culture and KUWTK, you can clearly see we haven’t come that far at all. We may not have camps scattered all about the countries, but we have a lot going on behind the opaque ignorance of being happy chappies and it’s fucking sad.
If you have never been to see one of these sites, I truly and wholeheartedly recommend you make it a must do.