If you don’t know where you are, it’s almost a pretty place.

On my first visit there, I was on a whirlwind bus tour. My itinerary long since misplaced, our bus wended its way past fields punctuated by hay bales and scattered copses of oak and poplar. It was open country, and the scenery didn’t look all that different from what I might have seen back home in the Midwest.

When our tour bus finally rumbled to a stop, I ambled off into a parking lot.  Not sure where we were, I caught up with our driver and asked. When he told me, I almost didn’t believe him.

At first glance, Dachau could have been my backyard.

* * *

A suburb of Munich, Dachau is only about twelve miles from Theresienwiese and the beer tents of Oktoberfest. Munich is the heart of stereotypical Germany. Its postcards are emblazoned with slogans in Bayerisch, the Bavarian dialect of German, and the t-shirts, steins and trinkets that tourists will eventually lug through customs always feature at least one item from the trifecta of German stereotypes: beer and pretzels, portly men in Tyrolean hats, or busty beermaids.

People come here for a reason: With a cold beer in hand, a pretty girl at your table and the red roof of the Frauenkirche slanting toward heaven in the distance, Munich can seem like a perfect place. But the next morning you take the train and then a bus; in half an hour or so, you’re there: Dachau.

That’s the first lesson of Dachau: geography isn’t special. We expect mass murder to occur in some awful corner of the world, but it can happen as easily on a converted school campus as amid far-flung swampland. Dachau is no different; at the turn of the century, the town found its first fame thanks to its artists’ colony, where the scenery was the subject of many landscapes.

* * *

Visiting Dachau is horrific, but in a much different way than you’d expect. If you’ve read the accounts (or know a survivor), you know that it was a place defined by terror and illness. And it was crowded. When it was built in 1933, Dachau was originally designed to hold about 5,000 people. It was later expanded and augmented by many subcamps, and by the time it was liberated in 1945, it held something like 67,000 people.

When you visit today, most of the camp is defined by absence. In his book, Legacies of Dachau, Harold Marcuse describes it as “a barren, sanitized place.” Sanitized is exactly the right word: the original barracks are gone; only two reconstructions remain. The crematorium still stands, but it’s off to the northwest and hidden behind the trees that surround the entire facility. Instead, once you’ve visited (the excellent) museum and have toured the reconstructed barracks, you walk out onto a great expanse of gravel—nearly twenty acres of nothing.

Except for the camp’s haunting poplars and the concrete slabs where the barracks used to be, there is little left. Today, there are nearly as many churches and memorials as original camp structures.

* * *

It is no accident that there’s not much left at Dachau. The Allies turned over the site to the Bavarian authorities in 1948 after the Allied attempt to “denazify” the German population resulted in a fiasco. As David Buxton writes:

Demobilisation after the end of the war reduced the allied military presence, and forced the allies to rely on Germans for parts of the denazification process. German-administered tribunals were notoriously inefficient, corrupt and pro-Nazi. This made it difficult to secure convictions for even the most obvious Nazis[1].

This doesn’t mean that Dachau was left in the hand of former Nazis—though many former Nazis held public office throughout Germany after the war—but those responsible for overseeing Dachau were usually far more interested in rehabilitating the city of Dachau’s image (and that of the German people) than acknowledging what really went on at the camp, let alone memorializing the camp’s victims.

To this end, the camp at Dachau—a site where tens of thousands of victims died—was soon rebuilt and turned into a city of sorts, styled Dachau East, complete with “businesses, restaurants and bars, cinemas, a school and a kindergarten.” Unsurprisingly, in the process, much of the original camp was altered or outright destroyed.

There was even a movement to demolish the crematorium, perhaps the most potent symbol of the camp. In a speech in 1955, Bavarian Deputy Minister Josef Baumgartner said, “The crematorium must go!”  Baumgartner argued that the crematorium was “a defamation of the Dachau area and its people” and a memorial would suffice to commemorate Dachau’s dead. According to a newspaper account of the speech, he received applause for several minutes.[2]

* * *

That’s the second lesson of Dachau: Most guilt goes unpunished. In one respect, this shouldn’t be surprising: mass murder is truly a national effort. For every Eichmann or Heydrich, there were thousands of accomplices, and for each victim, there is a web of guilty parties: the informant who ratted out a hiding spot, the SA-member who shattered the storefront, the SS-man who pulled the trigger. The neighbors who saw it all and did nothing.

Nonetheless, when visiting Dachau, it’s easy to feel morally superior. While it’s natural to condemn the crimes and mourn the victims, too often visitors emerge with the notion that there is a fundamental difference between the perpetrators of the Holocaust and the everyday people who visit the camp today.

When you’re walking on the grounds, it’s easy—and convenient—to think that you’re different, to simply visit the museum, shake your head in disbelief, all the while thinking I could never do that.

It’s easy to think that somehow Dachau was different, too. This is the worst possible lesson that one could learn from Dachau; the camp’s real lesson is simple: Under the right circumstances, we all can become monsters. The only way to prevent future genocide isn’t to deny that, but to remember it and recognize it in the hope of keeping our worst capacities in check.

* * *

Pretending that Dachau is different is also morally convenient. This is especially true for Americans, as it allows us to ignore our country’s sordid history, especially our treatment of African-Americans, immigrants and American Indians. In particular, American Indian history has a number of uncomfortable parallels to Dachau.

During World War II, the German policy of expansion was known as Lebensraum, which roughly translates to “living space.” The Nazis considered themselves the superior race and viewed the population of Eastern Europe—especially Jews—as racially impure vermin to be enslaved or eradicated. 

In the U.S., westward expansion was driven by the notion of Manifest Destiny: the belief that settlement should progress westward, inevitably creating a nation spanning from sea to sea. This idea explicitly endorsed the displacement of the resident Native American populations in those areas, but instead of focusing explicitly on race, U.S. federal policy was often framed as an attempt to “civilize” Native Americans. Native Americans were seen as the equivalent of wild children—children who happened to have a very valuable inheritance.

While there are obvious differences between the two scenarios, the end result was the same. Both populations were nearly eradicated. Nazi Germany had ghettos and concentration camps; in the U.S., Native Americans were forcibly relocated to reservations, where conditions were often as dire. In the end, the victims even often died of the same causes—disease, neglect, starvation.

Practically speaking, Lebensraum and Manifest Destiny are the same idea.[3]

* * *

On my second trip to Dachau, I was with my college sweetheart. We were on a bus headed to the concentration camp. It was loud and crowded, and as I should have expected, most of the riders were college students. Like me, they were obvious tourists, and true to cliché, several were clutching dog-eared copies of Europe on a Budget.

The ride to the camp was punctuated by sudden squalls of laughter, and the din of so many different accents made it hard to hear the automated loudspeaker calling out each stop.

From what I could tell, there were a few Australians or Kiwis, some Brits, what sounded like a group of Americans. Whenever they were especially loud, the driver looked back and scowled. When he did, I wondered if being assigned the route was some sort of punishment.

As always, my college sweetheart was buried in a book, and I was lost in the tapestry of the Munich subway map. As the bus pulled to a stop, the loudspeaker called out KZ-Gedenkstätte, but I must not have noticed, because the woman across from me—I hadn’t noticed her much until then—said in perfect English, “This is where you want to be.”

There was something about her tone that surprised me. It was direct, and I might have imagined it, but her voice seemed to have wavered a bit halfway through. The accent was German, and when I looked up to say Vielen Dank I realized that she was nearly my grandfather’s age, certainly old enough to have been alive for the war. With a soft face, gray curls and sharp chin, she even looked a bit like my grandmother.

She seemed surprised to hear me speak German—and it immediately registered that I was speaking to someone who was almost certainly German, had been alive during the war, and maybe had been a resident of the city of Dachau itself.

Perhaps it’s not fair, but I couldn’t help but wonder what role she played, if any. Was she a monster? Just another everyday accomplice? One of the rare Germans who resisted? Were my assumptions wrong entirely?

Whatever the truth was—and I’ll never find out—that momentary, potentially tangible connection made the visit resonate more than any reconstructed barracks ever could.

I’ve been thinking about her ever since.

* * *

I was surprised immediately after stepping off the bus. My first trip to the camp had been solemn, but this time, when the bus’s hydraulic door swung open, groups gamboled down the stairs, laughing and chatting as if we had stopped at just another Bierstube.

The first thing they did was pose for pictures, all smiles as they mugged for snapshots in front of a mass grave.

I knew what they were doing was wrong—but like several others around me, I didn’t do anything. Instead, I scowled and shook my head before my girlfriend and I simply shouldered our way past them and walked toward the museum.

When injustice occurs, we like to think that we’ll notice and take action on behalf of the victim, but that’s a form of self-flattery. Sometimes, we’re too self-absorbed or blinded by social status to even notice, and if we do, we might not be courageous enough to do anything.

In my small case, I wasn’t, and the worst part is that I didn’t have to do much. I didn’t have to steal rations for a Jewish family or go up against a Panzer crew or conceal Polish priests behind a false wall in my study. I simply had to speak up, with little risk to myself, but I failed.

That’s the last lesson of Dachau, and perhaps the most humbling: the war in Europe ended 68 years ago, but we share more in common with those who enabled the worst horrors of the war than we’d ever like to admit.

[1] Buxton, David. “To what Extent was the Failure of Denazification in Germany 1945-48 a Result of the Apathy of the Allies?” Historian.78 (2003): 18-. ProQuest. Web. 30 Mar. 2013.

[2] The crematorium was saved largely thanks to the efforts of the Committee International de Dachau, a group consisting of Dachau survivors.

[3] Lebensraum was associated with the notion of Drang nach Osten—a literal push to the east; the only difference between it and Manifest Destiny was the direction of expansion.

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BRETT ORTLER is a writer and an editor from the Twin Cities. His first book of poetry, The Lessons of the Dead, is forthcoming from Fomite Press.

2 responses to “The Problem with Cuckoo Clock Country: Germany, Dachau and Genocide”

  1. You painted it as it was intended to be seen from the outside but the day to day life of the camp was far from that

    • Brett says:

      You’re right. As a visitor–let’s be honest, a tourist–I only am informed by books and accounts, so I certainly was not going for anything close to verisimilitude. I’m definitely not claiming to represent what the inmates experienced or felt. Instead, I was hoping (and perhaps this is vain) to say something about the experience of visiting the camp today, which is a bewildering experience in its own right.

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