Dachau. This place needs no introduction. Since World War II, Dachau has become synonymous with cruelty and torture. But Dachau is also a real town – a town that was a hip artists colony before the Nazi regime, a town that was a willing provider of supplies to the camp during the brutal Third Reich, and a complacent partner to crimes against humanity. Today, it is a town trying to reclaim its name through a push to get people to see it for more than Dachau concentration camp. Visiting Dachau is complicated.
The KZ-Gedenkstaette Dachau (or Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site and Museum) sits about 45 minutes from downtown Munich in what is now a very posh suburb. Dachau was the Nazi’s first concentration camp and where they refined their cruel processes for over a decade. This was “simply” a brutal work camp for political opponents. This is also what happens when blind nationalism goes unchecked.
The camp was established in March 1933, just weeks after Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. From its formation until liberation by the U.S. Army on April 29, 1945, over 200,000 prisoners from 30 countries were imprisoned here.
Sadly, over 41,000 lost their lives. The survivors and liberators established the Dachau Memorial Site in 1965.
We spent an hour and a half going through the Museum and watching the movie. The film itself isn’t highly instructive, but I recommend it because seeing the museum first sets the tone for the experience of walking through the barracks, the vast open square, and the crematorium.
Please note: Movie times in English are subject to change despite printed literature at the camp – and guidebooks like Rick Steves and Frommers. All of them had the wrong time for the movie. Ask a staff member for updated information during your visit.
When visiting any camp, the two places that always stick with you are the gas chamber and the crematory ovens. And this camp is no different.
Even now, the gas chamber is absolutely terrifying. The brick walls and low ceiling make it feel like a prison. The lack of any external light weighs on you. It sucks all of the lightness from your soul.
The crematory ovens, the mechanism by which the Germans attempted to remove all physical evidence of their crimes, bear testament to what actually happened here. These devices of inhumanity are built with incredible workmanship. German engineering superiority was used with unbelievable efficiency to such a horrific result.
It’s tough to put this dreadful place into words. I’ve been to many concentration camps in Germany: Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald (a couple of times) and Dachau previously, as well as the death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. But I’ve always wondered ‘how could this happen?’ No matter what you read in books, you cannot fathom how an entire country could be duped by the Nazis.
After visiting Dachau concentration camp, we walked around the town of Dachau (the few blocks bordering the train station). It was mostly small snack stands and stores selling all manner of goods. There is so much normalcy so close to such a horrific place. This is just a regular town.
And maybe that’s the point. That we must be vigilant because the horrors of nationalism are never far away.