Munich is a city of the wildly popular Weisswurst (white sausage), lively beer gardens (about 20 to choose from!), bustling street side cafes, significant architecture and stunning hikes courtesy of the Bavarian Alps.
It also harbors a dark history. During the 1920’s, Germany was mired in economic depression, which offered a slice of sunlight to extremist political parties, one being the Nationalist Socialist German Worker’s Party or known worldwide as the Nazi Party.
History is similar to karma, he weaves and sprouts with no set targets in mind. He just does. Munich is an unfortunate mistress to history.
By 1923, the majority of Nazi Party members were concentrated in Munich. This is where Hitler chose to stage the famous Beer Hall Putcsh, a plot to overthrow the Weimar Republic.
He failed at that time, but by 1933 the Nazi Party controlled all of Germany.
Dachau is about 20 km from Munich, a quaint town with an 18th century castle and quiet, treel lined streets flanked by suburban homes to those who work in Munich.
51 days after Hitler seized power, an abandoned munitions factory near Dachau became the Party’s first prisoner camp. It opened on March 22, 1933 and was liberated by the U.S. Army on April 29, 1945.
At first, Dachau was mainly implemented to eliminate Hitler’s political opponents and Jews, but soon expanded to rid Germany of undesirables – homosexuals, criminals, gypsies, Christian leaders or anyone deemed unworthy to exist under the Nazi regime.
By the mid 1940’s, Germany was losing the war and the amount of foreign intakes to the concentration camp rose significantly. I suspect the Nazi Party was panicking and wanted to erase evidence by relocating and executing their captive enemies.
Dachau is considered a prototype for other concentration camps that were built in eastern Europe, particularly Poland. The highest concentration of Jewish people lived in Poland at the time, so anything learned and crafted at Dachau contributed to Hitler’s Final Solution.
It’s an awful concept to think about and you might wonder why I chose to tour Dachau during my stay in Munich when there are so many other lighthearted things to do.
Thanatoursim or “dark’ tourism is not the latest fad in travel. As long as there’s been horror, there’s also been grief and the need to remember those who perished at the hands of evil.
British scholar A.V. Seaton wrote about thanatourism in his 1996 academic paper titled, From Thanatopsis to Thanatourism: Guided by the Dark, describing it as, “The ‘thanatourist’ being motivated by the desire for actual or symbolic encounters with death.”
On a personal level, touring such sights taps into a side of myself that I still struggle with. I’ve certainly never been incarcerated or torn from my home, but I did endure a rocky and dysfunctional childhood, so I understand pain and bewilderment at a young age.
I relate to the gravitas of their situations and in turn, this type of tourism instructs, as well as allows the ‘thanatourist’ to fully embrace gratitude. I don’t insuinuate it’s a ‘thank goodness it was them and not me’ scenario, but more saying to myself: “Whatever I’ve been through, it’s nothing compared to what they went through.”
I then realize that certainly I have challenges and stress, but I can triumph.
Mostly though, I come back to appreciating how precious life is, how easily it can be taken away and silently pray that horrid events like this shouldn’t happen again, yet history continues to turn its wheel.
Included are some unforgettable images of my tour, along with information I learned. It was unsettling and strange, left me uttering the words I saw at one of the prominent monuments at Dachau, “NEVER AGAIN.” I hope so.
Famous saying at the entrance gate, translates to, “Work will set you free.” This was a bitter joke among prisoners. Dachau was categorized as a ‘work’ camp. The SS starved the prisoners by feeding them 600 to 800 calories a day (even 400 at times) and forcing them to do hollow tasks like moving snow from one location to another. In essence, they were being worked to death. Eventually as the war intensified, prisoners were then used for making munitions or German army uniforms.
The grounds in front of the main gate where prisoners had roll call every morning. This was the main area of decision-making. What work details might be, who would be punished or executed, or even moved. In the early years of the camp, political prisoners were often let go after a period of time, but many were also re-arrested.
As I stood in the building where new arrivals were brought, it frightened me to know this is the only scenery they had to look upon.
It’s well known the SS kept meticulous records, here’s a ledger recording new prisoners.
A poster recovered and now on display. This chart helped newly trained SS determine the categories of prisoners. In reality, this translated to each prisoner having to wear a colored badge on their uniforms. The badge itself held so much meaning.
The type of badge a prisoner was granted determined their fate in the camp and contributed to how other prisoners treated them. For instance, a pink triangle signified homosexuals, sexual offenders or pedophiles. A pink, double triangle meant that person was a Jewish homosexual, etc. A green triangle was given to professional criminals. Quite often, the SS recruited criminals as Kapos. A black one was reserved for ‘asocial elements’ in German society, usually the mentally ill, people with addictions, Roma gypsies, pacifists, anarchists and prostitutes.
This room served as the shower or ‘delousing’ area. New prisoners were huddled into groups, told to strip down and stand under communal showers. As you can see, the plumbing fixtures were removed years ago.
Example of the standard prisoner uniform, which was introduced in the later years of the concentration camp.
Some statistics that show the number of prisoners at Dachau. This number is generally treated with skepticism, as many people simply disappeared under the Nazi regime and were not accounted for.
After the camp was liberated, it wasn’t closed and reopened as a memorial right away. For several years after the war it served as a refugee camp to house displaced Germans from Czechoslovakia. The German government altered buildings, tore down prisoner barracks and planted trees and vegetation. Survivors were surprised to learn the site was being used for this purpose and in 1965 several of them petitioned the government to reopen Dachau as a memorial site.
Here is a sculpture reflecting the mentality of some prisoners. Sometimes the only relief was suicide, which entailed hurling themselves at the electrified fence surrounding the camp.
This piece speaks for itself – an accumulation of badges that represents human beings imprisoned here.
A closer look.
This building was called the “special prisoners” building and was used to hold prominent inmates like Allied spies, powerful religious leaders or anyone who held an intense interest for the regime. Typically these prisoners were fed more calories, because they might be under torture or questioning to reveal Allied secrets or kept alive for particular reasons.
For instance, Johann Georg Elser, the man who attempted to assassinate Hitler in order to prevent World War II was held under heavy guard in Dachau. Under strict orders, he was to be kept alive, for after winning the war, Hitler wanted the pleasure of executing Elser himself.
An example of the conditions at the “special prisoners’ barracks.
Another example. Quite far from luxury accommodations. Surprisingly, some SS officers were also imprisoned here as well. Reasons for imprisonment might be false claims of Aryan purity or betrayal to the regime.
A guard watchtower outside. Notice the trees, those did not exist during the operation of the camp.
These concrete formations represent the 32 barracks that were torn down due to their poor condition. It’s been suggested their removal was engineered by the government to erase evidence of Dachau’s history. At least two of the barracks have been rebuilt during the memorial years.
In English this translates to “shower bath”, a way to lure them into what was really the gas chamber.
The gas chamber, which historians claim was never used. Many speculate the regime was nervous about using it on native soil.
There are two crematoriums at Dachau. The first one is housed in what resembles a barn, but as the population increased, so did the deaths and threat of typhus. Prisoners were used as labor to build the old one and newer one. Depicted here is the newer one where several bodies could be cremated at once.
This post barely delves into the complicated, deeply entwined history of Dachau. As much as this tour touched upon the dark acts that men do to each other, it’s an important study into the human heart. Fear, love, hate – are all emotions that drive us. I’d like to believe that love wins eventually.
I did a tour with Gordon’s Tours. The tour guide was passionate and thoughtful about the material and always answered any question.
When: daily tours (except Mondays). They start at 10:15 a.m.
Cost: Adult is €20 for adults, €18 for students. Prices include travel by train. Booking is not necessary.
Meeting point: Inside Hauptbahnhof (Main Train Station), Central Entrance, next to the flower shop.
Duration: approximately five hours including travel time.