While it does not quite share the same level of notoriety or infamy as perhaps Auschwitz, the concentration camp set up in the small Bavarian town of Dachau is to this day one of the resounding symbols of Nazi Germany and ultimately of genocide. Dachau was the only concentration camp that existed throughout the entire course of the Nazi regime, and for this reason its legacy is unique. When US military forces returned the compound to the Bavarian government in 1948, its first function after a concentration camp was as a correctional institution. As public interest in the events of the Nazi regime grew, so did the number of visitors to Dachau; since it was opened officially as a memorial in 1962, the number of visitors reached more than 300,000. This number tripled by the 1970s to over one million visitors. Dachau attracted visitors from all over the world eager to learn about the history of the camp as well as pay tribute to the victims. The transition from leftover relic of the Third Reich to symbol of genocide, memory, and extermination redefined what could be learned about the Holocaust by allowing the camp to serve as a deadly reminder of what can never be again.
Due to the longevity of Dachau, many photographs exist that provide insight as to how Dachau changed over its twelve-year lifespan and how its uses evolved over the years before the Third Reich crumbled. Over the past five and a half years that I have lived in Germany, I have visited Dachau a total of 7 times and have taken photos myself that bear a striking contrast to the photos taken while Dachau was in operation. What is chilling, however, are the similarities between the old photos and my own photos. The transition from a concentration camp to a memorial site perhaps cannot be better articulated or illustrated than in the comparison of these two equally important sets of photographs.
II. History of the Camp
Dachau, as previously stated, was the first of the Nazi concentration camps to be set up in 1933. It was also the first camp under the direct supervision of Heinrich Himmler, who later went on to control the entire network of concentration and extermination camps. Thus Dachau became the model for all other concentration camps. It was originally built as a gunpowder and munitions factor on the outskirts on Munich, and was rebuilt for the use of the Nazis between 1937 and 1938. Situated in a Bavarian town that bears the same name, it is common knowledge that the majority of people living near the camp either understood or supported what was occurring behind the walls. However, the entire story was not always told.
“The official disseminated and tolerated image was one of orderly, spartanly efficient camps designed to both “educate” person with “asocial” behavior to become productive members of the German racial collectivity, and to isolate incurable political, social and racial “parasites” from the rest of society.” (Mitchell 28)
Dachau was portrayed (as all camps were) of a place where the “parasites” in German society would be either corrected or exterminated. As a normal part of Nazi culture, the people living nearby in the town of Dachau did in fact know or had some idea about what was occurring behind the closed doors. The number of prisoners who were brought to Dachau after 1933 hovered around about 2,000 prisoners a year. As the Nazi regime tightened its grip, more than 18,000 prisoners were brought to Dachau in 1938, and exactly 10,911 more were brought to the camp after the events of Kristallnacht. A large number of the prisoners kept in Dachau were religious figures (priests, clergymen, etc) and prominent political figures. Among the imprisoned were Prince Frederick Leopold of Prussia and former Austrian Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg. It is estimated that the total number of prisoners reached 206,206, and the number of deceased reached 31,951. (book, website)
III. Transition to Memorial
After the fall of the Third Reich, Dachau’s function shifted from a concentration camp to a “correctional institution,” then to a residential settlement for the refugee crisis, which consisted of about 2,000 Germans from Czechoslovakia. As the legacy of the atrocities stared the Bavarian government in the face, the decision to tear down the camp entirely in 1955 (Mitchell 4) was unsuccessful; however, prison walls and barbed wire as well as the majority of the barracks and historical buildings were all destroyed. Only the gatehouse, a few watchtowers, two barracks, and the crematorium and gas chambers were preserved.
By the 1970s, visitors to Dachau totaled over one million per year. However the government officials made it very difficult for tourists to find Dachau, often giving them difficult directions or the completely wrong ones. My grandfather visited Dachau in 1972 and spent four hours searching the city before a local finally gave him information as to the whereabouts of the camp. This was an indication of the fact that “the local populace’s changing opinion of the memorial site was vital to understanding its transformation from camp to memorial.” (Mitchell 5) If the camp could not be backed by the people of the city, there would be no hope for the legacy and history of Dachau to live on. “Barely a handful of camp survivors still give tours, and their voices will fall silent soon.” (Mitchell 7) This quote represents just how vital the citizens of Dachau, both young and old, are to preserving its history and making it readily available to those who are eager to learn.
The transformation of Dachau from a concentration camp to a memorial is vital in a very unique way that may not often be considered. The original barracks of Dachau, as mentioned previously, were built in 1937-38. But the barracks were not made to last more than fifteen years at the most. What is interesting is that according to SS Chief Himmler’s calculations, by the early 1950’s, “…Nazi Germany would have won the war and “purified” its domain of unwanted people, making concentration camps unnecessary.” (Mitchell 9) If (and they truly believed that they would) the Nazis had succeeded in all of their massive plans, concentration camps would have only been temporary. The victims who walked through them and died there would cease to exist. This chilling notion reminds us again that the past cannot ever be forgotten. In another life, these victims may have been erased from the pages of history. Thanks to the memorials, their story is told every single day.
The series of photographs I have chosen to compare are of the barracks (both original and reproduced versions), the gas chambers, and the sign at the entrance to the camp that reads “Arbeit Macht Frei” which translated means “work makes you free”. These three images have stuck with me for years since the first time I visited Dachau, and every time I go back I am struck all over again by the power of the words on the gates, by the emptiness of barracks that were once overcrowded, and by the terror that still hangs in the air in the gas chambers.
The bunks at Dachau are entirely reproduced because only two of the original barracks remain. The first photograph shows the reproduced bunks that are empty, and during a tour of the grounds it is revealed that more than fifty men at a time were shoved into just one row of the bunks, forced to sleep in cramped and filthy quarters. The photo to the left shows just that – prisoners in cramped, overcrowded stacks. When visiting Dachau and learning about what happened in each place, it is easy to imagine in your head what it must have been like. But seeing the images side by side makes it all too real. It almost seems wrong that the image on the left is lit up with sunlight, when surely the original bunkers were not a sunny place to be. Recreating these bunkers allows for the memory of those prisoners to come back to life. Although we can never truly imagine the horrors that took place, standing there certainly makes it feel all too real.
The gas chambers at Dachau are without a doubt the most horrifying and nerve wracking experience of visiting the concentration camp. The incredible sense of death and terror is overwhelming, and I personally found it too emotional to stand in the chambers for too long. I have been to Dachau many times, but I find it never gets easier to stomach. Seeing these two images side by side makes it that much worse in my opinion – in the image on the right, blood is trailing down into the drain. The thought that I have stepped on those drains several times sends a wave of shock through me. The fact that I (or any other visitor) will never fully understand what those last moments must have been like is perhaps the most important part of the memorial itself. Walking through the gas chambers is a horrible experience for any visitor, but certainly it does not even scratch the surface of the emotions felt by the prisoners themselves. The gas chambers represent that while Dachau is a “memorial,” we will never share those memories with the prisoners, but they are well preserved in the walls of the gas chambers.
These images of the gate leading in to the concentration camp could not be more different, even though they are of the exact same gate. “Arbeit macht frei” was a commonplace phrase during the Nazi regime. The idea that work would make those prisoners free is incredibly depressing, because the only freedom most of those victims ever achieved through the work they did in the camps led to their deaths. In death, they were finally free. What is also striking about the photo on the left is that clearly the prisoners are caged and trapped at Dachau, but the sign uses the word “free” quite ironically, as if to remind the prisoners that they too will pass through those gates and be “free” as soon as they have worked for it.
As seen in the photographs, Dachau’s function as a memorial allows visitors to walk through the same gates, stand in the same bunkers, and experience the same gas chambers that victims who lived and died here did. Though the memories of those victims cannot ever truly be reproduced or understood nor can the experiences ever be replicated, Dachau stands as a reminder of those years. It allows visitors to create their own personal idea and interpretation of the events that took place at Dachau nearly seventy years later. “Memories reflect the concerns of the living, not the history of the dead.” (Mitchell, 10) This quote is incredibly accurate when it comes to Dachau. Genocide may be a horrible and depressing topic, but something about it ignites the human side of all of us. We are all drawn to things that are horrible, but for what reason? Walking through a gas chamber knowing tens of thousands of people were murdered where you stand is not exactly a walk in the park, but it reminds us how fragile everything is. If Dachau was not open to the public, people might stop learning; even worse, they might stop caring. People must always be reminded of the horror in order to prevent it from ever happening again as best we can. Though we have failed the promise of “never again,” we are a lot closer than we would be without memorials such as Dachau that represent the genocidal acts that may be in the past, but come to life every single day in the memorial.
Marcuse, Harold. Legacies of Dachau: The Uses and Abuses of a Concentration Camp, 1933-2001. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Print.
Mitchell, John J. Dachau Museum and Memorial Grounds: A Photographic Essay. Marceline, Mo: Walsworth, 1969. Print.