The details matter: Postcard from Dachau, Germany

A third and final postcard to 49w friends from my recent research trip to Italy and Germany.

I planned my recent Europe trip as a one-way journey from Rome to Munich, with plans to visit the concentration camp at Dachau just before flying home to Alaska. To be honest, I dreaded ending the trip on such a gloomy note. But what I ended up seeing at Dachau on an appropriately cold and rainy October day convinced me again of the importance of doing in-person research, of seeing with one’s own eyes rather than relying on books, movies, or the web, helpful as those resources are.

This blogpost is not the place to do justice to such a weighty subject as the Holocaust, but I want to speak simply here, as a writer to other writers and readers, about that moment when new insights begin to flicker, and we realize how easily we might have gotten things wrong.

There is so much to say, but I’ll focus away from the ovens and gas showers (yes, we saw those, too), toward something simpler: the bunkhouses.

At Dachau, many of the original buildings have been demolished, but visitors can tour some re-created areas that show how prisoner bunkhouses looked at various stages in the camp’s history. Dachau, Germany’s first concentration camp, an SS training center, and the model for many camps that followed, opened in 1933. The first prisoners weren’t Jews; the “Final Solution” was still many years away. The first enemy of the Nazis was the enemy within – including non-Jewish Germans who threatened the regime’s increasing power. Nazis silenced critical voices early, and locals knew where criticism might lead. Long before the war, long before Kristallnacht, the people of Munich were aware of the efficient, well-scrubbed camp about 10 miles outside of town, where political trouble-makers and other misfits were sent.

In 1933, the camp held just under 5,000 inmates. By 1945, it had expanded to hold 55,000. The earliest bunkhouses – as shown in the three-part reconstructed barracks area – were roomy. In a later phase, the bunks have become narrower. By the end, there are simply undivided platforms, stacked one on top of the other all the way to the ceiling, better suited to cramming vast numbers of bodies.

When we see Nazi concentration camps in movies, we’re usually seeing images from late in the war: skeletally thin prisoners in striped uniforms or worse, piles of bodies; scenes of dirt and mayhem and starvation. The extreme awfulness, counterintuitively, can almost sap our deepest sympathy – the images are so alien and awful, it’s nearly impossible to imaginatively participate in them, to imagine the life of an inmate, or for that matter, a guard.

But a concentration camp, pre-war, looked different: orderly, well-run, apparently normal or even humanitarian. (Keep in mind that international visitors regularly toured – and praised – Dachau. The famous sign displayed at Dachau and several other camps, “Arbeit Macht Frei/Work Shall Make You Free” – a false promise or mystical/metaphorical flourish from day one – may have left those visitors feeling optimistic about the inmates’ chance for redemption).

The lessons for me are both literary and political. If you set a story in a concentration camp, in the 1930s, and try to describe it through the lens either of a Hollywood movie or from photos taken from 1943 or 1945, you risk getting the facts very, very wrong. And by getting it wrong, you may miss the most important part of the story. Which leads me to the political lesson.

Horror doesn’t always look like horror from day one. Sometimes it looks like a floor so well-polished you can see your face in it; or a roomy public inmates’ bathroom with a large circular sink, “nicer than the one you probably have at home!” Sometimes it looks like something you can – almost – imagine accepting, in the way we Americans have accepted the creation of certain other international detainment facilities, or even the old-fashioned prisons in our own communities. Horror doesn’t always appear full-blown, it evolves. (In the case of Dachau, it began to evolve just two months after the camp opened – when a public prosecutor in Munich tried to charge the camp commandant and SS officials with murdering an inmate, and Hitler responded by terminating the legal proceedings and removing concentration camps from all judicial oversight.)

How extensively did the evil – for lack of any better word — evolve over 12 long years? This is just one of many more things I didn’t realize until I visited Dachau and saw a map of not only the ‘death camps’ (only six camps qualify as death camps, where systematic murder was the main aim) and the more numerous ‘generic’ concentration or labor camps (where murder was common but not as systematized), but also the numerous tiny subcamps where inmates were involved in all kinds of forced labor. Just outside the city of Munich alone, there were between 30 and 200 subcamps operating. Across all of Germany and its conquered territories, there was not just a network, but an incredibly, suffocatingly fine web of facilities – and guilt – so extensive and entrenched, it boggles the mind.

But let me end not there, but with a different parting image from our visit: most of the groups touring Dachau alongside us were German high school students, learning the details of this dark chapter in local history — some for the first time.

2 thoughts on “The details matter: Postcard from Dachau, Germany”

  1. Hitler was a well loved, publicly idolized leader in the beginning. The people adored him because he brought the country back from financial ruin, back from failed policies, and put them back on the map. By 1936 he was mostly still considered a great man, and the general population loved him. Those in proximity to the camps began to be truly aware, but the prisoners were "criminals" and "enemies of the state" and extermination was not the rule.

    It was not until they had reached the point of no return that people really began to realize what was going on. By the early forties his plans were seen for what they were and some people tried to put a stop to it as much as they could, but most were just terrified they would end up in the camps if they opened their mouth, so they didn't.

    The key to remember, is that Hitler was eloquent, handsome, loved, popular, and flat out evil in the end. And few people knew that last part until they were stuck under his malevolent thumb. Something to keep in mind when we look at those who desire to lead others. The smoother the honey coated speech, the more likely vileness lies shallow beneath.

    Basil Sands

  2. A sobering post, with a corollary on the power of words in today's political climate, when tossing insults like "Hitler," "Nazi," and "fascism" is in vogue among many who promote easy answers and anti-intellectualism. The irony is chilling and thick.

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