As we travel across Europe, we are drawn to memorials and museums dedicated to World War II. It was our parents’ war. The stuff of movies, TV shows and the war games we would play as boys.
The question that continues to haunt us as we travel Europe is how Germans, good and decent people, allowed the war’s atrocities to occur? What warnings does it sound for the world going forward?
While in Munich, we took a day trip out to visit the Dachau prison camp on a drizzly Monday morning. It was a lesson about the early days of the Nazi consolidation of power as Dachau was the very first concentration camp.
Dachau is a short 30-minute train ride from Munich. Since 1966, the former camp is operated by a non-profit organization as a memorial. We joined a tour led by a very knowledgeable historian who has traveled the world interviewing former inmates from Dachau. His primary duties at the camp involve leading tours of local school groups, making sure they are aware of the country’s dark past.
In 1933, Dachau was the first specialized prison established by the Nazis after they rose to power in Germany. It was not a death camp or a facility that received many Jews; those would come later. Dachau’s purpose was a work camp to hold political prisoners. From the start, the Nazis were ruthless about consolidating power and eliminating any opposition in Germany.
Dachau was filled with members of the opposing political parties and the media who were negative regarding the Nazi movement. The Nazis simply labeled members of the opposition a threat to the country, arrested them and shipped them to Dachau. Soon the prison was expanded to include clergy who spoke out against the Nazis from their pulpits.
Dachau was a large camp, initially designed to hold 3,000 prisoners. Towards the end of the war, it housed as many as 30,000 prisoners crammed into the same space.
The barracks were taken down after the war as locals attempted to put behind them the memory of the camp. A single barrack building has been recreated on the site, along with the bunks and limited facilities.
Today, the other barrack building locations are marked by concrete foundations on a gravel field. It is a somber feeling to walk that massive field and realize the scope.
Our tour began in the intake hall where new prisoners were stripped of their clothing, had all their possessions confiscated, were issued striped uniforms and assigned a number. The entire purpose of the prison was to degrade and defeat the prisoners’ spirits.
The tour guide described two things that led to the rise of the Nazis:
1) Democracy was new and not trusted by Germans. They were more comfortable having a strong leader.
2) The repatriations and crushing punishments imposed by the Allied forces after WWI were devastating upon the country, resulting in extreme inflation, very high unemployment and dismal prospects for the future.
Hitler promised to “Make Germany Great Again” (our guide’s words, mimicking Donald Trump).
We tried to imagine the horror of being arrested in the middle of the night, taken from our families, and sent without trial to a work camp simply because we were members of a German political party in opposition to the Nazis. How long it must have taken for the initial indignation to been replaced by the cold reality of their situation.
These political prisoners were locked up and, with few exceptions, not released until the Americans liberated the camp at the end of the war. The few that were released were sent home to tell their stories as a warning about consequences to possible dissidents. Most of the initial prisoners died under Dachau’s harsh conditions.
Inmates were subjected to brutal hard labor, starvation diet, and overwhelmingly cramped conditions. The conditions were appalling, with no medical care, little food and constant intimidation and cruelty from the guards. Prisoners who complained would be brutalized, hung or shot.
An example of the mentally defeating work was prisoners worked for twelve hours a day moving a hill of sand from one location to another. The next day, they moved it back.
To cover the truth about the camp’s operations, prisoners who died of starvation, sickness or execution were cremated on the prison grounds.
Towards the end of the war, as the camp population soared well beyond capacity, food rations were cut and disease ravaged the camp. 10% of the camp population died each month. Also, coal became scarce, so bodies could no longer be cremated and instead were simply dumped into mass graves.
The German public was shocked and ashamed by the atrocities which were uncovered after the war. At General Eisenhower’s insistence, American soldiers forced residents of Dachau to walk through the prison camp after it was liberated to see what had occurred there. They had no idea of the local camp’s purpose and horror. They knew the town’s name of Dachau was now forever tainted.
We kept feeling an urge to cry as we passed from building to building and exhibit to exhibit at Dachau. It was moving to walk the grounds where these atrocities occurred. It forced us to think about the circumstances in a civilized society like Germany that led to the creation of this phenomenon we call a “concentration camp.” The price paid for blind obedience to party and country. The need to defend the right of the opposition’s voice.
And then we took the train back to Munich.
To the comfortable Bavarian atmosphere.
How strange and sobering is the history of the human race.