Today I was lucky enough to visit the Dachau Concentration Camp for Memorial Day. World War II sites are places where I feel proudest to be American; honestly, while I am traveling it doesn’t happen as often as I would like. Dachau is just outside of Munich and took the better part of 5 hours to experience and tour.
This was the second concentration camp I’ve visited. When I was 21 I visited Austwitz, which is really more of a death or extermination camp, rather than a concentrated labor camp. In other words, people were taken to extermination camps after they were deemed unfit to work in concentration camps or if their “offense” was bad enough in the eyes of the Nazi power. 1.1 million people died in Austwitz, whereas 40,000 died in Dachau; one of the explanations why was that Nazi Germany needed the labor in order to continue its production as a war machine.
Dachau was much different than Austwitz, besides the obvious factor that is wasn’t so much of a killing machine; it focused more on labor and training SS guards to be completely brutal and inhumane towards their prisoners. It was a place of torture and desensitization that reminds me of medieval torture machines and all kind of war crimes and inhumane treatment of people. In addition, Dachau was far more known within the German country; facts about Austwitz and the atrocities committed there are still coming to light because of the cover-ups of the Nazi regimes.
Dachau started as a camp for political enemies, most prominently communists and major opposition to Hitler’s Third Reich. That is one of the primary ways he gained control over the country; he would send anyone who opposed his ideals to concentration camps to be “rehabilitated”. Mostly people were tortured and forced to work as slaves. Over time, his attention turned more broadly to the Jewish population and towards the extermination of eastern European populations, most devastatingly Poland.
Propaganda from the time period was hyperbolized and Hitler preyed upon the fear and weakness in the country’s economic infrastructure after WW1. His cabinet was completely ruthless, taking every advantage that they could to control the mindset of the population and terrorizing their enemies so that they either fled the country, or were sent to concentration camps such as Dachau.
Over 30,000 people at a time would be held at standstill in the courtyards of Dachau, oppressed by beatings and random killings by the SS guards that were at first posed as suicides. Over time they began to kill in front of the residents. Nearing the end of the war, they were forced into long marches that could last weeks and would claim thousands of lives at a time. When US soldiers arrived on April 29th 1945, 10,000 people were very sick and over 3,000 dead bodies lying about the camp. During the concentration camps functioning, over 40,000 people died; 40,000 is the number of confirmed deaths and that number is certain to be low. Over 200,000 people moved through the camp during its 12 year operation.
Concentration camps and extermination camps were run in largely the same way, except for one thing; prisoners at extermination camps were usually brought straight to the gas chambers, then cremated while prisoners at concentration camps were forced into slave labor. Both were considered less than human by SS guards and the guards were forced to call them “things or objects” rather than to refer to them as human beings. Their rights were stripped from them and they became the number on their sleeve, though in Austwitz they were infamously tattooed with their number, which was unique.
Humans were separated into categories based on their “crimes” against the Nazi party: Jews, unemployed, mentally unstable, homosexuals, immigrants, and other religious groups were completely discriminated against in the camps, largely as a result of the Nuremburg laws that institutionalized racism. They were given special patches on their arms and uniforms of dark blue and white to wear in the camp, most of which were very cold.
These human prisoners were processed on arrival; their clothes were stripped, all possessions were taken from them and they were shaved completely, disinfected, then showered torturously with boiling hot then extremely cold water in alternation, according to how much the SS guard wanted to torture the prisoner.They often laughed. Signs saying “Work is freedom” lined all of the concentration camps, a kind of false hope, which is something very important to the psychology of a concentration or death camp. They were subjected to morning role-calls where they would stand outside in the freezing cold for hours at a time at complete attention or be subjected to beatings which they had to count along with the guards. If they missed a number or didn’t know German, the SS guards would restart.
SS guards were particularly fanatical, an elitist group of torturers and killers that eventually were outsources from other countries, but that were originally only the craziest of the Germans. Eventually the Germans ran out of fanatics and had to recruit from other countries; these men were the worst of the worst and had no problems with torture or performing the most brutal of acts upon other human beings.
One of the most interesting and vile parts of Dachau were the psychological experiments. They essentially tested the limits of human survival upon unsuspecting victims, by performing high altitude tests on their brains and bodies, putting them into below freezing water to see how long they could survive, and trying experimental drugs on the prisoners. They would inject things like pathogens into their bodies then see how long they would survive with certain types of medications. Some of the most horrific photos came from this portion of the memorial.
Probably the most disturbing were the piles of bodies, frozen, completely malnourished, dead, sick with typhoid fever, you name it and it happened there. By the end of the war, Germany was out of food and the prisoners at the concentration and death camps were the first victims to go without.
That’s when the forced marches occurred, when Heinrich Himmler issued an order on the 14th of April 1945 to ensure that prisoners did not fall into the hands of the enemy; instead they should die. This is probably the biggest reason why the US troops arrived to see what must of been one of the most horrific sights of the war; corpses strewn about and piled together, nothing but skin and bones. Disease was rampant and many who survived until the liberation died afterwards because of their condition. The Americans held trials for the SS in Dachau for the next three years, until they handed the area back over to the Germans.
Why am I writing about such horrific things, or even visiting such terrible places and low points in human history? To learn from them. Desensitization is very real in today’s world, moreso than maybe ever before with the amount of people on our planet. These types of atrocities still exist today, genocide is a very real aspect of the world we live in. I believe that we can transcend such things if we can learn from our past.
“Never again” is what you will see in the memorials at the camps. In French, “plus jamais”, pretty much a direct translation. Every human is a unique individual, so in the same way that there were surely SS guards who doubted their leadership, there are surely ISIS members, Taliban members, and members of other terrorists groups who revolt against their leadership. Stereotypes can be useful, but we have to give people the opportunity to be more than a category or label. We owe it to ourselves to look for the humanity in others even when we have no reason to anymore. I believe that this is one of the fundamental tenets of hope and what will drive our race to higher level of cooperation and flourishing in the state of the modern world.
(The internet where I am staying is really bad, so I will add some pictures to this in the near future. Sorry I can’t offer more visuals on this post.)