Dachau - First German Concentration Camp
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.
"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 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.