In 2005, I went on a WWII tour of Europe planned by my daughter’s high school. The tour was planned to begin in England, then travel the path of WWII soldiers to the beaches of Normandy, through France, into Germany and end in Berlin. Our group actually did the trip in reverse, starting in Berlin.
Since I first read the Diary of Anne Frank as a teenager, the Holocaust captured my interest, and over the years I read a lot about it. I saw all the movies that haunted me for days afterwards: Sophie’s Choice, Schindler’s List. It was the human reaction of studying that which horrifies. There is so much about the Holocaust that just simply defies comprehension.
Mostly I wondered, how could people stand by and allow this to happen?
I know now; that’s a very simplistic question for a highly complex situation.
Today I share with you my impressions of my visit to Dachau, outside of Munich, Germany.
I expected the visit to Dachau to be painful—and it was. The suffering, fear, and oppression of the concentration camp is still palpable in the air at Dachau—from the moment I began to walk a narrow corridor beside the barbed wire fence towards the imposing guard tower at the entrance to the camp.
Inside the fence, a museum is housed in a large building that had been used by the Nazis for administrative purposes. Two rows of barracks that housed the prisoners are separated by a tree-lined street. Although all that remains of most of the barracks is their foundations, two have been reconstructed. As did many of the visitors, I began to walk down the street between the foundations to view the gas chamber (that was never used), the crematorium, and a chapel that were at the far end of the camp.
But I only got partway down the street and found I was unable to continue. I felt as if I was met with a wall of sadness and terror that I just could not pass through—even on a second attempt. Instead, I retreated to the museum and desperately searched for some kind of positive thing to set my mind around and pull me out of the quagmire that was overwhelming me.
Amidst photographs of emaciated prisoners, and displays of torture devices, and printed edicts of the Third Reich, I finally found a board depicting the solidarity of the prisoners—small things they did to support each other, small ways they resisted—it was one tiny light in a sea of darkness.
In some of the photographs of the camp in operation, I could see small saplings planted in the center front of each barrack. The trees are still there today, only larger, full grown, standing as sentinels at the front of each foundation and making it all very real.
I was so shook up at Dachau that somehow I only managed to get photos of the entrance into and exit from the camp, even though I took a lot of photos while I was there. I was particularly interested in getting a good photo of the Holocaust Sculpture and I took multiple pictures of it from different angles, even kneeling down at one point to shoot it against the backdrop of the sky. None of these pictures turned out. None of the pictures of the tree-lined road between the foundations of the barracks turned out either. I must have left the cap on the camera in my distress.
I had expected to be disturbed by Dachau—and I was.
What I hadn’t expected, but probably should have realized, was that Hitler and the Nazis were the enemies not only of the Jews and Allies—but of the German intellectuals and leaders as well. When I hear the term “concentration camp,” the atrocities of the Holocaust come to mind and I immediately equate that term with mass executions of the Jews. What I often forget is that many of the victims of concentration camps were non-Jewish German citizens.
In Concentration Camp Dachau 1933-1945, editors Barbara Distel and Ruth Jakusch explain that Dachau was “primarily intended to eliminate all political opposition.” In addition to Jews, common criminals, homosexuals, “antisocials,” gypsies, clergymen, and “any citizens who made themselves unpopular with the regime were imprisoned there” (4).
Dachau was never used as a mass extermination camp. Even so, nearly 32,000 deaths were registered there between March 21, 1933 when Dachau opened as the first concentration camp for “Communist and Social Democratic functionaries” until April 29, 1945 when its 30,000 survivors were liberated. These recorded deaths were from “hunger and illness, arbitrary killings and mass executions along with the SS doctors’ pseudo-scientific experiments.” This number does not accurately reflect the actual number of deaths from executions and the final death marches. That number will likely never be known (Distel 4).
What the visit to Dachau made clear is that there were Germans who opposed the Nazis—but they were quickly, efficiently, and many times permanently silenced.
People continue to write about the complicity of the German people in the Nazi crimes. Alexander Groth makes the case, in Demonizing the Germans: Goldhagen and Gellately on Nazism, that such characterization is unrealistic and unjust. In his 2003 review of the books “Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust” (1996) by Daniel Goldhagen, and “Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany” (2001) by Robert Gellately, Groth writes: The idea of spontaneous national unanimity over the whole period of Nazi rule, and especially on the wholesale murder of the Jews, quite untinged by heavy-handed manipulation from above—by propaganda and information controls, and by terror—is a grotesque, simplistic, and stereotypical assumption. (119) Many will argue that although probably only 5 percent of the 80 million Germans living during the Third Reich participated in some way in the planning and execution of the atrocities, the other German people suffered from passive apathy and did nothing to help (Groth 119).
Groth criticizes the misleading assumption that informs this attitude. He points to Gellately’s own example where he recounts, “In cities like Wurzburg in Lower Franconia, through which the Jews were marched on their way to the trains, anyone who showed signs of sympathy or who dared to shed a tear, was denounced, brought to the police, and punished in the Special Courts” (qtd in Groth 142). Groth goes on to say, “Under these circumstances, the person who was concerned with his own safety, career, and the welfare of spouse and children, would almost instinctively understand that solicitude about Jews and concern about their fate were not very functional attitudes” (144).
The real import of Groth’s argument is that we not lose sight of perhaps the most terrifying part of the whole holocaust—the way the potential voices of reason were silenced.
The atrocity of the Jewish Holocaust is a blinding inferno. It can cause us to lose sight of other things. I don’t in any way mean to trivialize the travesty that was committed in terms of the suffering and the loss of the millions of Jewish lives, including the old and frail, men and women, children and infants. But in our sometimes modern-day rush to understand things, and to keep it simple, we may miss an important point. We may forget that many German leaders and intellectuals were also victims of the Nazis.
Germany doesn’t forget. The German people have to reconcile the fact that the crimes committed during the Third Reich are crimes for which they not only share some responsibility, but also of which they were victims. I saw this at Dachau.
Distel, Barbara, and Ruth Jakusch, eds. Concentration Camp Dachau 1933-1945.
Munich: Comite International de Dachau, Brussels Lipp GmbH, 1978.
Groth, Alexander J. “Demonizing the Germans: Goldhagen and Gellately on Nazism.”
Political Science Reviewer 32 (2003): 118-158. Academic Search Premier 27 Oct. 2004 < http://libezp.msj.edu/login?url=http: //search.epnet.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=cookie,ip,url,uid&db=aph&an=10817239>.