|Please note: This post deals with the topic of the concentration, work, and extermination camps of Hitler’s Third Reich during World War II. All the particularly gruesome notes are outlined in boxes. If you are a bit squeamish about this topic, avoid reading inside the squares. Do visit the Dachau camp’s website, as they do a wonderful job of respectfully presenting the information available. Clicking on “Historical Site” gives a detailed virtual visit to the site as well. Reader discretion advised.|
The roll call square of the camp.
There is so much one could write about this sad and somber topic. That’s why I will provide some historical background, some basic context to those who are not aware of this particular topic, but I will let the photos present themselves to you all.
One morning in Munich, I took the train and then the bus to the town of Dachau.
Dachau is the location of the notorious Dachau Concentration Camp, which the Nazis saw as a perfect model concentration camp, and many of its practices were copied in other camps across Nazi Germany. It was the only camp that was in use for the entire duration of the Third Reich. Dachau was primarily a men’s work camp. Originally it was for political prisoners – incarcerating opponents of Hitler in order to ensure his lasting dictatorship. Later, other “undesirable” groups were added: homosexuals, immigrants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and yes, eventually the Jews as well. The work camp made forced its prisoners to complete useless tasks, such as shovelling a mountain of sand from one pile to another one just a few feet away. When the job was completed, they then moved the same sand back to where the original pile was. Again and again. They often also built concrete bomb shelters and airport structures for the Nazi use. They were not given any tools for this job however – they had to build everything with only their own two hands. 11 members of royalty were also imprisoned here, who were members of the Luxembourgish, Bavarian, Prussian, Russian and Austrian-Hungarian noble families. You can click on their names to learn more about them.
- Antonia, Crown Princess of Bavaria
- Albrecht, Duke of Bavaria
- Princess Irmingard of Bavaria
- Franz, Duke of Bavaria
- Grand Duchess Kira Kirillovna of Russia
- Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia
- Prince Max, Duke in Bavaria
- Philipp, Landgrave of Hesse
- Franz Wittelsbach, Prinz von Bayern
- Maximilian, Duke of Hohenberg
- Prince Ernst von Hohenberg
Duke Franz and Prince Max are both still alive today, being only children when they were captured. All eleven nobles survived the camp. The camp did not start extermination until nearer to the end of the Third Reich.
|Dachau had no burial method in place though, and they started exterminating faster than their ovens could burn. Despite building three new ovens, they could not keep up with the natural deaths alongside the forced deaths. Thus, when the Allied soldiers arrived, they were met with some of the most gruesome and nauseating sites of the camps – “piles” everywhere. They spent the first few days after liberation giving a proper burial to each and every body they found.|
It is true that some of the German soldiers had no choice about what they did – there was wide spread conscription and many men had little choice but to follow orders or else they would have been imprisoned in work camps and killed too. And it is also true that only superior officers close to Hitler knew the whole story. Plus, Dachau was the only concentration camp actually located in Germany, so most of the public was not completely aware of what was going on either, but knew not to ask questions. Despite these few exceptions though, no one actually working inside a camp may be excused from their crimes. This is because the concentration, work, and extermination camps of the Third Reich were wholly manned by the SS Soldiers. Conscription might have been mandatory, but joining the SS was purely voluntary. These men wanted to do what they were doing, even if just at first.
The winter landscape of my visit added to the atmosphere of this morbid location. The clean, crisp, white snow cloaked the roofs that hung on the bunkers, the way that fear cloaked the inhabitants and hung over their every day. It smothered the roll call squares the way the SS officers smothered the voices of the inmates. The snow lied, trying to make pure a location that was anything but. It lied just like the German words forged into the camp’s iron-barred entrance lied to all those who passed through its doors. “Arbeit Macht Frei” – Work Sets You Free. The white snow tried to make up for the black secrets that seeped into the earth.
The original gate was actually stolen in the night on November 1, 2014. A true replica has been created but the original has yet to be found. The same event happened in Auschwitz when its front entrance was also stolen in 2009. Germany and several other world powers are keeping an eye on the black markets to try and find where the Dachau gate went to. This even includes (incredibly so) online auctioning sites like eBay. With the rise of Neo-Nazism around the world, alongside the emergence of far-right governments, there is a concern that these items are being worshipped rather than shunned.
For the same reason, many graves around Germany that have SS Soldiers and Nazis buried in them have decreed that all names and titles for these graves must be removed. The graves are now marked with a simple black cross. Germany has declared that these burials deserve nothing extravagant, and the dead do not deserve to be known by their names, lest people start treating them as martyrs.
The only thing in the camp’s landscape today that didn’t try to change the reality of its past were the bare, leafless trees. They perfectly portrayed in the thin winter sun exactly what this camp once did. They looked like they were about living, reaching for the sky, soaking up the sun, but in reality, the trees had no life in them, they were dormant, and the light was scarce to be found. There were no growing seeds for a new future, there were no thriving leaves for the present. It was all just a dead shell, a skin with no soul inside.
I know that this topic is of great distress to many today – including myself – and as a history student, you become pretty desensitized to humanity’s cruelty to its own brothers and sisters. Therefore I will just present the photos, and let them tell their own story in their silence.
Where new arrivals were stripped of all possessions and registered. The words on the wall say “Rauchen verboten”, “Smoking forbidden”.
One of the hallways to the solitary confinement cells. It functioned like a jail inside the camp, a jail itself. The smallest cells were just a few square feet – designed such that the prisoner could not sit down or kneel.
One of the watchtowers.
The barriers between imprisonment and freedom.
What the beds looked like in the beginning, with dividing barriers for each prisoner…
…and near the end of the camp’s use: no barriers, not enough space and every man for himself.
The other 32 of the 34 original barracks have been respectfully destroyed. Only their foundations remain.
The view from one of the barracks onto the roll call square.
One of the half dozen “showers” in the crematorium. No one knows if they were actually used or not.
|The Dachau crematorium was unbelievably (and disgustingly so) manned by some select prisoners. We know for certain that these men were responsible for the disposal of their fellow inmates and friends using the ovens. These prisoners lived in a separate barrack outside the regular camp so they could not have any communications with the prisoners inside. The SS Soldiers executed all of these helpers by firing squad when it became obvious that the Allied soldiers would be upon the camp soon. This was to try an remove any “proof” of the crimes commited by the Nazis. Therefore, we will never know to what extent the crematorium was actually used.|
The “new” ovens.
A terrible sight…