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Dachau - First German Concentration Camp

Updated on December 8, 2011
Photo from the opening day of Dachau Concentration Camp on March 22, l933.
Photo from the opening day of Dachau Concentration Camp on March 22, l933. | Source


One of the saddest epochs in Germany's history is, of course, the Holocaust. Even today, the German people struggle with the guilt they feel for the genocide committed in the name of a better Germany during World War II. I know you are all familiar with the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime that ruled Germany from 1933-1945. So, instead of writing a tome on the war, holocaust, and Nazi's, I am going to take a look at Germany's very first concentration camp, Dachau Concentration Camp, located outside the medieval town of Dachau, just sixteen kilometers from Munich, Germany. And, as irony would have it, it also lies on the Romantic Road. And, yes, when I lived in Germany, I took the time to visit Dachau Concentration Camp, which today, is a memorial to all those who died there and were imprisoned there from 1933-1945.

We must never forget! Sound familiar? It is also a phrase used after the Holocaust and when the shocked and stunned world saw what had occurred in these Nazi concentration camps when they were liberated by the allies in l945. So, although it would be more pleasant, to write about the great German city of Munich, especially during this time when the Oktoberfest is going on there, it is more important that we never forget what the Nazi's did. So, instead of closing my eyes to the dark, gritty, torturous, evil phenomen of concentration camps, I think we must take this time to look at what is also on the Romantishestrasse even though it did not take place in medieval times, but, when man's inhumanity to man, for a time, won out over goodness in this world.

Dachau Concentration Camp is located in Bavaria in southern Germany. It was the first concentration camp opened in Germany on March 22, 1933 (51 days after Hitler and the Nazi party took power in Germany) It was originally opened as "the first concentration camp for political prisoners." - Heinrick Himmler, Chief of Police of Munich. It served as the model for the other Nazi concentration camps that followed. Layout of this camp was designed by Kommandant Theodor Eicke and this design was applied to all other camps. Eicke became the chief inspector to all the other concentration camps.

The front gate of Dachau with the infamous words, "arbeit mach frei."
The front gate of Dachau with the infamous words, "arbeit mach frei."

"Arbeit macht frei"

"Arbeit macht frei" welded on the front gate of Dachau Concentration Camp, which means "work makes one free" is of course the irony of the 20th century. Prisoners at Dachau were worked to death; however, if Dachau has one redeming factor, it is that it was not a camp of mass murder or a crematorium as Hitler's other camps were. Most prisoners held in Dachau died from disease, malnutrition, or suicide. Two-thirds of the prisoners held there were political prisoners and one-third were Jewish prisoners.

When the Nazi's came to power in l933, they moved quickly and ruthlessly to suppress all or potential opposition. The Jewish population became the scapegoats for all of Germany's ills, the biggest being an economic depression, and were targeted for annihilation. From 1933-1938 the prisoners sent to Dachau were mostly German nationals detained for political reasons. Once the war began in l939, it became a camp for not only political prisoners, but also common criminals and also the Jewish. Those who were there for political reasons wore a red tag, those who were common criminals wore a green tag, and the Jewish, of course, wore the yellow star of David. Once WWII began, most of the Jewish were sent to concentration camps outside of Germany and that is where the famous "gas showers" were held and the mass murder took place.

What has always bothered me or concerned me about the German people is how did they allow this concentration camp, that was so close to Munich and right outside the town of Dachau, to be there and not question its existence. The other camps were outside of Germany, but this one was right under the German's noses. When Dachau opened, it was explained to the German people that those imprisoned were "all communists and - where necessary - those that endanger state security are to be concentrated here." But, no one questioned authority. Everyone, apparently thought it was permitted as long as it was in the name of state security. Sound familiar again?

Dachau women's camp when liberated by the U.S. Army
Dachau women's camp when liberated by the U.S. Army | Source
Heinrich Himmler checking the men's camp at Dachau.
Heinrich Himmler checking the men's camp at Dachau. | Source

Dachau Concentration Camp was officially liberated by the U.S. Army on April 29, l945. Administrators and officials of the camp started slowly leaving Dachau as early as August, l945. They took some prisoners with them and transferred them to different camps. The Germans knew the allied forces were advancing toward and were in Germany and knew it was only a matter of time before Dachau Concentration Camp would be discovered. On April, 29, l945 the German military left at Dachau surrendered to the American army by flying a white flag, The 42nd Infantry Division and the 45th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army were the liberators of Dachau and the first to see the horrible conditions and the sad prisoners of Dachau.

Surprisingly, Dachau Concentration Camp was not immediately closed down after liberation. From 1945-1948 the camp was used as a prison for SS officers awaiting trials. After 1948, the German population expelled from Czechoslovakia were housed here. It was finally closed in l960 by the U.S. at the insistance of those who had been imprisoned there.

Today, Dachau Concentration Camp is, first, a memorial to those who died and were imprisoned there during WWII. Second, it is a learning center so that we will never forget. I believe it is a must see when in Germany. No castles or fairytales here, it is probably one of the most important spots to stop and see. Plan to spend a day here. There are movies about Hitler's "Final Solution," that, frankly, are difficult to watch. The stick figures of the ematiated prisoners are heartbreaking to watch. There are several memorials at the camp you will want to see and pay tribute to. There are barracks set up so you can see the living conditions. Sixteen hundred prisoners kept in barracks to hold 250.

Germany is, therefore, a dichotomy. While on the one hand it has a bold, colorful, rich history and culture, it also has produced death, torture, annihilation and a holocaust as is evidenced by Dachau Concentration Camp - not to be missed when visiting Germany.

Memorial built in 1997 to those imprisoned and who died at the camp.
Memorial built in 1997 to those imprisoned and who died at the camp. | Source


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  • suzettenaples profile image

    Suzette Walker 2 years ago from Taos, NM

    Hi Nell: Even living in Germany and liking the German people, I couldn't believe that they knew nothing of what the Nazi army was doing. Dachau is only five to ten miles outside of Munich. There is no way the Germans living in this area of Germany could not have known what was really going on. Yes, I worked with a German teacher at the high school I taught at who taught the Holocaust was a hoax and never took place. He taught that to his students. Another teacher was proud to bring in all her Nazi memorabilia from WWII to show to her students. It would literally gag me. I did always speak out to my students against what these teachers were teaching. It just made me shudder. I don't know how human beings can be so cruel and inhumane to one another either. Thanks for reading and for your insightful comments, Nell.

  • Nell Rose profile image

    Nell Rose 2 years ago from England

    Hi Suzette, its beyond belief how people could have treated other human beings like that. I remember reading somewhere that many germans today deny it, and some don't even believe it happened, it should be told in their schools so it doesn't happen again, wonderfully told, nell

  • suzettenaples profile image

    Suzette Walker 3 years ago from Taos, NM

    VVanNess: It is scary how human beings could treat one another. Even visiting it, it was hard to comprehend. It is such a sad time in the history of Germany and for the German people. I found the German's to be such friendly, kind people, but again, there is another side to them and I think all human beings when they are manipulated by someone so evil as Hitler. Thanks for reading this - it is not an easy subject to write or read about.

  • VVanNess profile image

    Victoria Van Ness 3 years ago from Prescott Valley

    This is very scary. It's hard to comprehend that this was actually a reality.

  • suzettenaples profile image

    Suzette Walker 6 years ago from Taos, NM

    rlbert00: I really learned so much from your hub on Auschwitz. Thank you for stopping by and reading mine. I appreciate it. You really have extensive knowledge in this area and I will read some of your other ones also.

  • rlbert00 profile image

    rlbert00 6 years ago from USA

    You're right...I definitely should have read this. Excellent account of Dachau and the beginning of the horror that was the Nazi camp system. Well done.

  • suzettenaples profile image

    Suzette Walker 6 years ago from Taos, NM

    You are most welcome. And, thank you for reading and commenting. I appreciate your input. When I taught 8th grade English, I taught a unit on the Holocaust when we read Anne Frank's diary. I agree with you in the importance of teaching this subject. As we do get further and further away from the happening, it is imperative that future generations know that it did happen and what happened, why and how. Yes, sometimes the right is more frightening that the left on the political spectrum. Well said.

  • phdast7 profile image

    Theresa Ast 6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

    As a historian and history professor whose focus is twentieth century Europe, I appreciate your Hub. As we get further and further from the Holocaust and Nazi Germany in time, the more important it becomes that clear historical information be made available for younger generations who are not aware of the horrors which can be found on the extreme right end of the political spectrum. Thank you for writing this Hub. Theresa

  • suzettenaples profile image

    Suzette Walker 6 years ago from Taos, NM

    Thank you Epi for your support! It is a tough subject, but you know, it is also part of Germany's history, too, along with all the fairytales, and good of Germany. I have a lot of German friends from Germany, and this hub took a lot of thought - my German friends probably won't speak to me again. Who knows?

  • epigramman profile image

    epigramman 6 years ago

    ...this is a serious important essential hub - and you are such a terrific writer for tackling this tough subject - I will post this world class effort by you to my Facebook page with a direct link back here.

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  • suzettenaples profile image

    Suzette Walker 6 years ago from Taos, NM

    I know about Rwanda. It broke my heart that just about half the world ignored that situation. I should probably resesarch that one, too. Dachau is the saddest place I've ever been to.

  • paulwillson26 profile image

    paulwillson26 6 years ago from Madrid

    I studied about Nazi Germany when I was at school. It is amazing what man can do to another. Poverty and nationalism are a dangerous mix. Worst part of it all is that it still happens. You just have to look at what happened in and Rwanda. An interesting read and a history that unfortunately Germany will be heavily marked by for many more years to come.

  • suzettenaples profile image

    Suzette Walker 6 years ago from Taos, NM

    Thanks so much Hyphen. As usual your comments mean so much to me. This was very difficult to write and I tried to choose photos that were easily viewable. Some of the photos that show the cruelty and torture by the Nazis are so hard to view. I didn't want to revolt people, but at the same time I wanted them to know about Dachau and the dichotomy of the German people.

  • Hyphenbird profile image

    Brenda Barnes 6 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

    These atrocities must remain burned into our hearts so that we refuse to ever allow them to happen again. The more I learn about those horrific times, the more I want to love people into compassion instead of hatred. As hurtful as this was to read, you wrote it well and thank you for that.

  • suzettenaples profile image

    Suzette Walker 6 years ago from Taos, NM

    Thank you for reading this and your supportive comment. I appreciate your input!

  • Ricki Landers profile image

    Ricki Landers 6 years ago from Gatlinburg, Tennessee

    Thank you for sharing with us, we all need to know more about this horrific period of time so we can be sure it is never repeated.

  • suzettenaples profile image

    Suzette Walker 6 years ago from Taos, NM

    Thank you. Yes, I remember your book. I haven't read it yet but it is on my "to read" list. Yes, we must never forget. I not sure how this will be received, but I felt I couldn't ignore this part of Germany. It is just as much a part of Germany as all the castles and Christkindlesmarkt's and fairy tales.

    Thank you for your comments. I appreciate your input.

  • catspirit profile image

    catspirit 6 years ago

    I have written a book on three aspects of the Holocaust - so this hub is very dear to me. Your information is accurate and precise. Keep writing...the world must never forget.

    Cathlene Smith

    Trio of Horrors: Three Tales from the Holocaust - available on Amazon's Kindle