A visit to Dachau: managing the past in the present
A web of expectations
I have just arrived in Bavaria where I will be spending the next 12 months at the University of Augsburg. It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon at the beginning of August. And, armed with one of the famous “Land tickets” that allow you to go wherever you want within a large radius on German regional trains, I have decided to visit Dachau.
Dachau is actually part of “greater Munich”. On my many previous visits to the city, I have glanced at this spot on the map in the north-east in silent wonder: What can be it be like to say to people one meets on holiday, in the pub or in the office, “I live in Dachau”; “I come from Dachau”; “I grew up in Dachau”? This word has become the shorthand, not for the small town that it actually is, but for the concentration camp it once housed. I am obviously caught up in a web of expectations.
Nevertheless, on my way to Dachau for real this time, my thoughts continue to wander. It should be the same as saying ”I live in Sachsenhausen” – the concentration camp outside Berlin, in what used to be East Germany, with which I am more familiar. But in fact, it is not. I have the feeling Dachau is a name for the crimes of National Socialism in a way that Sachsenhausen never was. Once more, I wonder why this is. Maybe the visit will offer an answer.
“It stands for all…”
I arrive at the station in Dachau around 1pm. It seems a nice, quiet little town – not dissimilar to Sachsenhausen, in fact, though notably richer – with small shops, neat houses and young families taking a walk. The station, however, is not in the centre and from there, the buses seem to go in one of two directions: KZ Gedenkstätte [concentration camp memorial] and Altstadt [old town]. Once more I wonder how many tourists aim or are tempted, on an afterthought, by the second. As I would later read on the town’s webpage, this is something Dachau is trying to market. Of course, the memorial features prominently in the “culture and tourism” section but the town’s slogan reads: Dachau – viel mehr Stadt als Sie denken [Dachau – much more of a town that you would think] and highlights the existence of a castle. It is a shame for them that one is not on the way to the other.
Since the memorial is just three kilometres away from the train station, it would have been possible to walk. However I choose to get the bus to save time and do what other tourists do too. In effect, the bus journey down residential streets named “Street of the Victims of Concentration Camps” and passing stops such as “Kennedy Square” or “Father Roth Street” (both the detainees’ pastor and a man who was instrumental for the transformation of Dachau into a memorial after the war) make this seem like an introductory journey. At the same time, the bus packed with a noisy international crowd concealing the few locals also appears to be part of the experience. Today, the camp certainly is a very visible presence well beyond its strict perimeter in the town of Dachau.
The bus stop is the entrance to the memorial site and marked by a large sign. It displays a quote by Eugen Kogon, a German postwar intellectual, and it reads: “Dachau – the significance of this name will never be erased from German history. It stands for all concentration camps which the Nazis established in their territory.” I feel confirmed in my assumption of the weight of the word Dachau although it is rather peculiar to see this embraced in this way. Dachau was indeed the first concentration camp to open in Germany and functioned from 1933 until liberation by the Americans in April 1945. Yet having been to Sachsenhausen, Auschwitz and unmarked killing fields in Lithuania, I do ask myself whether a single site can, or even should attempt to live up to such a claim. Once more, perhaps the visit will offer an answer.
A few steps farther along, there is a second panel: a list of interdictions. These include no eating, smoking, bearing of flags or racist insignia. It seems self-evident but also sets the sober tone of such a visit. Once more, however, I am not sure I agree with such an explicit statement. For one, can this be controlled and where does one draw the line of suitable behaviour? But secondly, I reflect, in a place like this in particular, the past is in an ever evolving and very much lived present. Can we stop people from being themselves while they look back? Is this even desirable? Is the memorial site itself not replete with evidence of the later and changing present and different and contestable intentions?
A complex site
Dachau is admittedly a very complex site. And in this sense, perhaps it gives credence to both Kogon’s and my own reservations. There is the camp – the authentic site so to speak – including the iron gates with the infamous and much photographed inscription Arbeit macht frei [work makes (you) free]. But there is also the Appelplatz, the Camp Street [Lagerstrasse], watchtowers, barbed wire, barracks, a crematorium with ovens so untouched by time, they appear to be in working condition and even a gas chamber which though never used, one is able to enter and which bears the deceitful title of Brausebad [shower room]. One therefore gets a rather good sense of the topography of the camp as it was when still in use and the extent of the horror as well.
Yet not everything is stamped with the same label of “authenticity”. The old offices also still stand, maintained in good condition as they house the administration and archive and with cars and bicycles parked outside, they give quite a different impression of the historical site. This points to the fine line between what is part of the display and what is not. Beyond what is now regarded as the memorial site as such, there are also former office buildings that would have been used by the SS. Not untypically, as this is also the case in Sachsenhausen, they are still being used today as offices for local government and the police. In effect, then, the memorial only shows what one has chosen to preserve and commemorate.
However, what is most striking is what has been added and removed since the war ended and the camp was liberated in 1945. In fact, only two barracks have been kept and these are clearly described as “reconstructions”, displaying the evolution of conditions for the prisoners over time rather than “how things were”, which would only be possible for one given point in time. Elsewhere, stones mark the areas of the foundations, but the buildings themselves are gone.
The changes are more than just absence and removal. The Camp Street has been lined with trees; the area around the crematorium has been turned into a so-called “Ash Garden” and is reminiscent of a well kept and peaceful cemetery; the small stream near there has been used by visitors as a wishing well; and at the front, near the entrance, there is a huge sculpture which is a memorial entitled Human Barbed Wire by the artist Nandor Glid dating from 1967.
But it is at the back that one finds the three major additions: the Protestant Church of Reconciliation, the Mortal Agony of Christ Catholic Chapel and the Jewish Memorial with a menorah on top. A smaller orthodox chapel is hidden behind the trees, slightly outside the limits of the camp, near the crematorium. Finally, adjacent to the outer wall, one can see and access through a gate formed out of a former watchtower the Carmelite Convent, which was built there in 1960.
An ambivalent experience
These features change not only the character of the place as a historical site but also the way people engage with the space. Visiting the crematorium area was the strangest of all. It is both horrifying and soothing as one sees together the most tangible evidence of industrial killing and the beauty of the garden where one finds respite from the scorching sun. The small stream glitters with the coins that people have thrown in. Under some trees, I see a couple sitting on a bench, taking selfies and kissing. Families stand around with young children and pushchairs as though they were on a day out in the park. Later, when walking down the Camp Street with its row of trees I overhear a North American tell his teenage daughter, “if you took away what happened here and planted some flowers, this could be Schloss Schönbrunn”. I was certainly caught between the sense that the sunshine and the symmetry would make for great Instagram posts. But would gathering “likes” for pictures of what remains at Dachau be acceptable? That was not part of the list of dos and don’ts, but it is nevertheless a good question.
The somewhat confusing experiential dimensions are however undoubtedly counterbalanced by the large exhibition which is near the entrance to the camp in the former administrative buildings and which most people seem to spend time in. I went there last, leading me to wonder if I had gone around the wrong way. It is well-organised and factual and clearly seeks to give broad context for what one is seeing outside. The issues covered range from the appeal of National Socialism in Germany in the early 1930s to the use of the camp as a refugee camp for German expellees after World War II and explanations for the transformation of the site into a memorial.
The length of time that the camp operated and its pioneering role in the Nazi concentration camp system certainly warrants such a comprehensive and exhaustive approach. But I particularly welcomed the inclusion of exhibits regarding the process of musealisation and memorialisation. Two rooms at the back are dedicated to this: one offering a display of memorial plaques of detainees from around the world; the other providing the history of the creation and selection of Glid’s Human Barbed Wire memorial and images of various ceremonies that took place in Dachau over the years. It occurred to me then that it is also the character and length of the history of commemoration in this place that is the reason for its renown: Dachau today is both a site of horror and a site of redemption.
Site of reflection
The last stage of the visit for me was the film which can be watched every half hour in a cinema room in the middle of the exhibition. It is a rather out-dated feature, reminiscent of moralising and stigmatising documentaries on the camps produced after the war. It felt necessary but exhausting. If I did go the wrong way around, I was glad I did and that I had now finished. I would not be walking back to the station.
Clearly the exhaustion was shared. The bus back was just as packed as the one on the way there, but silent and the atmosphere weighty. I reflected on the name Gedenkstätte, one of many names Germans have chosen to label their historical sites, pointing the diverse purposes they have given them. I always found this a little confusing and amusing – Dokumentationszentrum, Informationszentrum, Mahnmal, Denkmal, Museum, Archiv, Gedenkstätte…. This last word is linked to gedenken [to commemorate] but also denken [to think]. For the first time, I felt the chosen label truly made sense. Thoughtful as we all were on the bus back, this clearly was not just a site of memory, but a site of reflection.
I wondered if this reflective stance also included the locals. Perhaps not. The vast majority of visitors I encountered had seemed to be foreign. Besides, it would be thoughtful, I thought, to put more buses on the line for the millions of tourists coming every year… there is an argument for not exploiting these sites commercially. But where is the line between this and actually hindering visitors? Isn’t offering the right infrastructure part of the act of commemoration and repentance? Did Dachauers not want their notoriety? And can we blame them?
As though confirming my thoughts, as we arrived back at the station, I overheard an old lady who had sat near me on the bus speaking to the driver. She had been sitting on the bus when it arrived at the memorial site and it had picked up a load of people. From then on, a young English tourist, who was standing in the aisle on the busy bus, had leaned on the old lady’s seat, taking up some of the room around her. She complained to the driver: “You know, those seats are only made for one person!” I did not wait to hear his response but I felt I had gained a final and genuine insight into what it means to live in Dachau in the present.