I wasn’t entirely sure till the last minute if I wanted to go through with this.
The last time I’d been in Munich, I had intentionally avoided a side-trip to Dachau, a former Nazi concentration camp just outside Munich. The reason wasn’t that I thought it would bore me or be too dull; rather, it was the opposite – I was afraid of being in the same spaces as former prisoners of the Nazis, afraid of letting my mind visualize disturbing scenes of torture, afraid of returning with a heart sagging like it was made of lead.
This time, things were a little different – I was all of 6 years older (and 6 years wiser, as I imagine). So this time, I didn’t entirely shrink away at the idea of visiting Dachau when I was making my plans for Munich. However, when we reached Munich amidst the festive atmosphere of an Oktoberfest weekend (the weekend of the boisterous Italians, specifically), I was wondering if a dark, depressing visit to a former torture centre was how I wanted to spend my morning.
We reached Dachau from Munich Central train station (Hauptbahnof) via an easy ride on the S-Bahn (S2) and Bus #726 (or 724) which picks you up just outside the Dachau train station (Bahnof) and drops you right in front of the site (KZ – Gedenkstätte). Your train ticket covers the bus fare too. The memorial has its own website, which is useful for planning visits. The site entrance (Mondays closed) is free, so is the exhibition inside. There are two official guided tours in the premises daily (€ 3 pp) – alternatively, you can rent an audio guide (€3.5) or just go by the detailed description plaques at all points of importance. Young children are discouraged from visiting for obvious reasons.
When Germany decided to open its former concentration camps to the public as memorial sites, I imagine it would have encountered its share of controversy and second thoughts – wouldn’t it be more comfortable just to bury the ugly past and forget it? The site alludes to this briefly – the former camps were opened for public access on the wishes of the surviving prisoners so that today’s generations don’t forget how power corrupted a man and drove a country and government to such extreme actions. To be honest, I always imagined that Adolf Hitler had somehow snatched power without much support from the German masses. As I learned that day, I was wrong. And the circumstances in which he rose to power are not very different from the usual in multiple developing countries of the world today – he promised freedom from poverty, unemployment, inequality and to bring a battered, post-WW I economy back on its feet.
Coming back to the memorial site itself – the weather that morning seemed to have aligned itself to the mood of the place – it was gloomy and overcast. We were two of the first few visitors at the site when it opened but it was starting to fill up by the time we left (~1 PM) in spite of (or maybe because of) a cheery festival like the Oktoberfest happening in town (Munich). The site is solemn, have no doubts about that. A large part of it has been left untouched, to let you imagine what life was like for the prisoners. Dachau was the first Nazi concentration camp – a model camp, on which many future ones were based. ‘Concentration camps’ started out being projected as exactly that – they were supposed to be centres where deviant members of the society (i.e. political prisoners) could be disciplined and learn work-related skills. That’s why the gate to this eventual house of horrors, read this (the gate has unfortunately been stolen in Nov ’14):
“Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work will make you free)
You are allowed to enter the bunkers, the administration building, the gas chamber, the crematorium with its ovens, the chapel. Particularly sobering are the bunkers with the cells and office (torture) rooms – you can walk through some of the rooms and look into some of the cells. There are audio devices here that will narrate first-person accounts of the inmates to you – makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up to be in the same room, same building where these men lived in fear, were put through constant atrocities and left to die. The camp housed 200,000 prisoners in its 12 years and witnessed the execution of over 40,000.
There’s also a large exhibition / museum section in the former administration building that gives you in-depth information about the start of the Nazi movement; the apparent need for nationalism and a belief in racial superiority in desperate post-war times; the NSDAP’s coming to power, concentration of all authority in the hands of one man; and the imprisonment, torture and extermination of millions of men, women and children who were deemed ‘undesirables’ by the party. It also houses personal belongings of some of the inmates of the camp. I strongly recommend spending time here – it give a powerful insight into how things came about to what they were and why they got so ugly.
After over 3 hours, we walked to the exit and got back on the bus to the Bahnof, in silence. Overwhelmed but happy that we’d come; and with a history lesson that’ll never be forgotten.