Fresh Start for Dachau: Moving On from Its Shameful Nazi Past

Dachau Town and Dachau Concentration Camp

Shame from its Nazi past been Dachau’s tail for years.

The town, with its 45,000 population, is nothing short of a neat Bavarian town complete with a castle, a rustic air and holds a esteemed place championing arts. It is only 30 kilometers from Bavaria’s bustling capital city, Munich. However, as the first Nazi concentration camp was built in the town, the shadow of notoriety surrounding Dachau Concentration Camp, dubbed as the mother of all the others, has followed the town throughout history.

Around Dachau, reminders of those grim memories are everywhere. Every bus has ‘Concentration Camp’ signs lit up in a bright orange hue and placed just above their windscreens. Information boards recalling the ways inmates were beaten by SS guards and tortured in the town’s concentration camp some 70 years ago are also located just outside the main station.

The infamous Nazi internment camp in Dachau is found in the north eastern part of the town and the years saw it becoming a weird but well-known tourist destination. Last year’s statistics revealed that over 80,000 visitors came to the said place and currently, that number of visits has unexpectedly risen.

“We have to accept the former concentration camp as part of our history,” Peter Burgel, the town’s conservative mayor, stated in an interview, and added, “But the town was formally established over a thousand years ago, it is older than Munich. It would be wrong to see Dachau purely in terms of the twelve years during which it was under Nazi rule.”

The Visit

For years, Dachau Concentration Camp has been an edifice that caused embarrassment and shame to post-Nazi German governments. After WWII, no German leader ever graced the memorial put up in the old camp.

Last August 27, however, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made history as the first governing leader of post-war Germany to ever set foot in the Dachau concentration camp memorial and even offered a wreath which was placed close to the monument that had the inscribed words, “Never Again.” Her predecessor and mentor, Helmut Kohl, indeed visited the town in two occasions but in his 16 years in service, he never went into the concentration camp.

Bitter criticisms rained upon Merkel’s visit in part because it was followed right after with an election rally she did in town. Nevertheless, camp survivors defended her visit. 93-year-old Max Mannheimer, member of the Dachau International Committee lauded the Chancellor’s deed saying it was a ‘great honor’ and that it sent a ‘strong political signal’ after 65 years of being overlooked by German leaders.

Air of Change

The Dachau Concentration Camp may always be a bad permanent mark in Germany’s  history but people living within the town has learned to cope up and the said place doesn’t get picked-up by the town people’s radars anymore.

“The camp? I’ve been in there once,” Konrad Grosser, 75 and living just right across the camp’s SS guards’ quarters, simply said. He then jokingly added, “Of course it’s horrible what they did. But it’s a fact of life here and people just get on with their lives. The good thing now is that you can walk into the camp and out again,”

Young families who recently moved into town do not even seem to care about the town’s dark past and the structure that has been a constant reminder of that brutal past.

“ We came here because there is more space than Munich and its nicer for our daughter,” Andrea Grobel, 33 and who recently moved in her Dachau neighborhood with her husband and daughter, said. “I often visit the camp. It’s something we have to accept – each time I go in there I learn something new. Dachau is in a unique position – it can show the world something that should never be repeated – it’s not all bad.”

A Permanent Place in History

However, it is hard to come by the former camp with its endless white walls, watchtowers and wrought iron gates with the scoffing Nazi slogan ““Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work makes you Free) on them and not think about the crimes that happened inside them decades ago. There is even an imprint made by a former prisoner and is on a barrier just outside which works as a lasting reminder to visitors that  “Dachau will never be erased from German history”.

The horrors that happened inside the prison walls will always be driven inside the minds of tourists taking time to visit the former prison house as some of its relics are on permanent exhibition inside – from bullwhips to ‘whipping tools’ used by the ruthless SS guards to inflict bloody pain on countless of camp inmates during the 12-year Nazi rule.

One of the displays in the exhibit is an account written by Alfred Hübsch, a Dachau inmate from 1937 onwards, about a certain whipping tool (on display also) used by the Nazis.

“The prisoner’s screams could be heard everywhere. The delinquent had to count the strokes out loud. The numbers were blurted out in terrible pain so the tortured person would slur his words or misspeak. If that happened they would begin beating all over again,” he related in his writing.

Using that tool was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to cruelty inside the ‘Nazis’ mother camp’. There was also the ‘pole hanging’ system where inmates were strung up through their hands and their arms tied back putting them in intense pain for hours. Some were locked in ‘standing cells’ – chambers without room to sit or even turn around – for days. They were ravaged by the dogs brought around in the camp, were drowned, shot, made to work endlessly even to the point of death or died from mass overcrowding and continuous disease outbreaks which was so rampant inside the camp.

When it was finally liberated by American troops on April 1945, the soldiers were said to have found countless “ sallow skeletons with large sad eyes”.

Dachau, which was set up in 1933 to become the blueprint of all the Nazis’ concentration camps was built to ‘calm down Germany’. It housed political prisoners at first then later on, Jews, Roma, homosexuals and other enemies of the regime became its victims. From its birth until it was liberated, it held over 200,000 prisoners – 41,500 of this number died due to starvation, disease and results of brutality.

Remembering Dachau

When The Allies won WWII, Dachau concentration camp housed German Nazi prisoners then  later on, German refugees.

“When plans to turn the site into a concentration camp memorial were first mooted in the 1960s, the citizens of Dachau were dead against the idea,” town resident and camp guide Bernd Kroeger stated.

However, the political pressure that came from the camp survivors’ groups won over the authorities making them change their minds.

Mr. Kroeger, who is in his sixties, has devoted his life to keeping the memories of Dachau alive. he even offers the hospitality of his home to survivors who come over to visit the former Nazi camp in town.

“For my children Dachau will just be history – but that does not diminish its importance. In fact quite the reverse,” he spoke up.

-The Independent Reports



Heziel Pitogo

Heziel Pitogo is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE