Dachau: A concentration camp up close

Yesterday I had the opportunity to visit the Dachau memorial outside Munich, Germany. First, I encourage everyone who can to go, it’s a superb and moving memorial. Particularly though, as someone who studies violence and the political economy of conflict and who also studied German political history, I was wondering how I’d feel visiting one of the primary nodes in what used to be a huge system of slave labor and death camps. Intellectually I know the history so instead I decided to try to feel the place, focus less on the historical plaques and explainers and more on the way the place made me feel as I walked through.

The buildings have displays and information throughout, covering the history and evolution of the camp as part of the wider system of Nazi politics and economics. Dachau was one of the earliest camps established, with the primary purpose of holding political prisoners from the local area starting in 1933. The camp evolved over time, providing slave labor to the region’s commercial, and later armaments, industries as over 188,000 people passed through it. Dachau would be used to funnel people designated “Lebensunwertes Leben” (loosely “life unworthy of life”), men women and children with developmental disabilities, into the T4 program’s euthanasia facilities. It was also a medical test site; the German air force performed tests on prisoners including how long the body took to completely shut down due to hypothermia in frigid water and the effect of low atmospheric pressure on the body (prisoners often died of embolisms during these tests).

When it was liberated in 1945 over 67,000 prisoners occupied it, and the surrounding network of work camps. This is a huge number since the camp was built to hold 6,000 prisoners. As World War II drew to a close and more prisoners were transferred from other camps closer to the front to Dachau to prevent their liberation, the mortality rate increased dramatically due to outbreaks of dysentery and typhus.

Perhaps the most unsettling thing was the persistent sense that the entire set up of the camp was meant to make you feel nothing; the layout was mechanistic and utilitarian. I didn’t feel a sense of doom or evil when walking around the camp muster court, through the narrow prison complex where people were tortured, or along the grassy ‘kill zone’ next to the camp wall. Instead I felt an overpowering sense of order. Dachau wasn’t a death camp, per se, but a labor facility. If you could work and were over 14, you stayed at Dachau; when you couldn’t you were sent to a death camp such as Buchenwald or Auschwitz to be killed (assuming you didn’t get worked to death at Dachau). It was a deeply unsettling realization to internally ‘feel’ the design of the camp so clearly. As a labor camp the point was maintaining order and efficiency. The more those two things could be internalized by the prisoners, regardless of their fear, terror, or hopelessness, the more effective the camp would be. As I walked through the facility, it wasn’t the atrocities committed in the camp or the terror experienced by the prisoners that resonated. It was the way that 82 years later the design of the space itself could continue to instill a numbing sense of mechanistic inevitability.

There was one section where I didn’t feel this though. In the northwest corner of the facility is the crematorium. It has a small gas chamber, most likely used for experiments instead of full-scale killing. There’s a narrow trail into the woods to the right of the crematorium that you can follow. It led to a quiet wooded area, and for a few minutes the oppressive control of the camp lifted. I felt a vague sense of peacefulness. I walked 20 yards down from the crematorium in foliage dense enough to no longer see the camp facility. The I saw a plaque, which read:


I looked up and it was woods to the cement camp wall, but about 15 yards farther down the trail was a second similar plaque:


The inscription is harder to read because I wanted to capture the entire space. Unlike the other execution range, this one has been maintained. The tablet reads “Execution Range with Blood Ditch.” From the trail to the wall is about 10 feet, pistol range. The blood ditch is the small indentation in the ground next to the trail, where blood could collect and drain away. The wall, of course, is where you stood to be executed. As I read the tablet, I realized I was standing about where the executioner would stand. I turned to my back to the wall to get a sense of what a prisoner would see, and could only see the woods. They were thick, empty, and cut off sight between the camp and the execution range. This was the only place where a pure sense of terror struck me. Going back to applying meaning or a feeling to a place, this was a space that wasn’t meant to moderate your feelings. You weren’t in the numbing order of the camp anymore; you could feel terror as much as you wanted because once you were here, you were going to die. Bodies were cremated nearby after execution and the ashes were dumped in these same woods. They don’t have exact numbers for how many people were murdered in this wooded corner of the camp, but ‘thousands’ is the low end with an upper bound of 10,000+. They have a tomb of the unknown victims near the execution ranges:


This was the one spot in the camp where emotion finally overwhelmed me. It was the absolute lack of industrialization that was so striking. The hugeness of Nazi killing is hard to conceptualize. It might shock the conscious, but it exceeds our ability to really feel it. It’s just too big. But in this corner of woods I could feel a sense of overwhelming sorrow. I could connect to an individual’s experience, away from the massiveness of the camp. Taken from a home and perhaps a family, head shaved and identity taken, worked brutally until being roughly shuffled in front of that gray wall in a nameless wood, and summarily executed. Not knowing where your family was, or if they’d ever know where you were. My initial feeling of peacefulness had been completely replaced by lonely anguish, which is the only thing I could imagine someone would have felt when they looked up, perhaps at the low sun through the trees or into the eyes of their executioner.

As I reflect on the feeling I found that wooded execution range to be a perfect summation of the Nazi view of those they considered sub-human. The death camps, due to the massiveness and collective murder, bestow the victim with an identity; Jewish, Roma, Slavic, etc. In dying together, there remained some collective identity. But the Nazi ideology viewed these groups as less then that, not worthy of identity. The death camps are searing symbols of the Nazi state, but these woods felt more like the distillation of Nazi ideology. They were where you went after you were stripped of an origin, an identity, a name, your humanity, and turned into a cog. When you no longer served the purpose of a cog you were nothing. You were murdered in the woods, burned to dust and thrown back into those woods with the other unknown, untraceable thousands before and after you.

Initial Reflections on the Charlie Hebdo Attack

By now news of the tragic shooting at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris has made it around the world. Since I work in peacebuilding and conflict resolution, it’s been interesting seeing how the narratives about freedom of expression and the role of religion have circulated on social media. As I’ve sifted through the articles and posts I’ve wondered how to honor the lives of those killed, while finding ways to find common ground between Muslim and non-Muslim communities.

One of the first themes I saw percolating around my Facebook and Twitter feeds was one of anti-religion sentiment. I’ve seen commentary that treats this as a referendum on religion generally, and Islam specifically. The problems with this line of thinking are multi-fold. Fundamentally this argument is a non-solution, since religion isn’t going to go away. By extension it discounts the many religious actors who are pro-peace. Finally, this position suffers from attribution error. IS/ISIL/ISIS/Daesh do what they do because they crave power, not because Islam is an inherently violent religion (any more than any other religion or concept of social order, at least). The vast majority of Muslims don’t subscribe to IS’s interpretation of Islam in the same way that the vast majority of Christians don’t subscribe to the Biblical interpretations of the KKK.

The second theme I’ve seen is the importance of freedom of expression. Whether one agrees with Charlie Hebdo’s editorial tastes or not, there’s no place in a liberal society for silencing opinions with violence. But just as we face a big challenge in not allowing this act of violence to be a referendum on Islam and religion generally, we also have an opportunity to expand the space for political satire. In the Middle East there is a flourishing anti-IS brand of satire. Much of it is brilliant, and shows there is a large population in the Muslim world that finds the retrograde politico-theorcratic goals of IS and related extremists to be unacceptable. This is common ground on which the Western and Muslim worlds can both stand in support of liberal social ideals.

The way to honor the lives lost in Paris is to refuse to let the extremists, wherever they are and whatever their affiliation, dictate the terms on which we relate to each other across religious and political divides.

Dissertation Proposal Defense

No, I won’t be ‘Dr.’ tomorrow, but the proposal defense is a milestone none the less. For those who are interested in my dissertation research, and can’t make it to my proposal defense tomorrow at 12:00PM at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, below is a sound file you can listen to. You can download my slideshow here and follow along that way as well!

Peacekeeping tech with Dr. Walter Dorn

I got to interview Dr. Walter Dorn of Canadian Forces College about his work on technology and peacekeeping for my TechChange course on technology for conflict management and peacebuilding – a good interview that lends some operational and political insight for using these tools in peacekeeping settings!

Upcoming events!

Unfortunately the last few months have been fairly low output in terms of blog posts. This can be credited to resettling after returning from Samoa, getting back to work with the tech community in D.C, and of course getting a dissertation written. I have had the chance to get myself on a few panels this month and next to discuss my research, though. I’ll be joined by some awesome people too, so hopefully if you’re in D.C. you can come out and join us!

October 15: Brownbag lunch panel at the OpenGovHub hosted by the Social Innovation Lab, FrontlineSMS, and Ushahidi.

November 5: Guest talk at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service about my research in Samoa, and larger issues of using ICTs for crisis response.

Later in November: Dissertation proposal defense at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (exact date TBD). Open to the public!

Hopefully you can make it out to one or more of these, I think they’ll be really interesting!


The talk I gave at USAID Sept. 4

For those who were curious about what I discussed with USAID’s Office on Conflict Management and Mitigation on September 4, wonder no more. TechChange’s video guru got me on camera to record the presentation – hopefully it’s useful (or leads to some good arguments at least).

TC-109: Technology for Conflict Management and Peacebuilding

I’ll be teaching a course for TechChange on ICTs and peacebuilding next month. I’m really excited to be facilitating it, and I was really thrilled to see the final cut of the course introduction video we produced today:

Hopefully you’ll join us, it’s going to be a lot of fun and some awesome guests will be joining us to talk about their work in the peacebuilding and technology spaces!

Big News: The GDELT Global Dashboard

GDELT just released their new Global Visualization dashboard, and it’s pretty cool. It blinks and flashes, glows and pulses, and is really interesting to navigate. Naturally, as a social scientist who studies conflict, I have some thoughts.

1) This is really cool. The user interface is attractive, it’s easy to navigate, and it’s intuitive. I don’t need a raft of instructions on how to use it, and I don’t need to be a programmer or have any background in programming to make use of all its functionality. If the technology and data sectors are going to make inroads into the conflict analysis space, they should take note of how GDELT did this, since most conflict specialists don’t have programming backgrounds and will ignore tools that are too programming intensive. Basically, if it takes more than about 10 minutes for me to get a tool or data program functioning, I’m probably not going to use it since I have other analytic techniques at my disposal that can achieve the same outcome that I’ve already mastered.

2) Beware the desire to forecast! As I dug through the data a bit, I realized something important. This is not a database of information that will be particularly useful for forecasting or predictive analysis. Well, replicable predictive analysis at least. You might be able to identify some trends, but since the data itself is news reports there’s going to be a lot of variation across tone, lag between event and publication, and a whole host of other things that will make quasi-experiments difficult. The example I gave to a friend who I was discussing this with was the challenge of predicting election results using Twitter; it worked when political scientists tried to predict the distribution of seats in the German Bundestag by party, but then when they replicated the experiment in the 2010 U.S. midterm elections it didn’t work at all. Most of this stemmed from the socio-linguistics of political commentary in the two countries. Germans aren’t particularly snarky or sarcastic in their political tweeting (apparently), while Americans are. This caused a major problem for the algorithm that was tracking key words and phrases during the American campaign season. Consider, if we have trouble predicting relatively uniform events like elections using language-based data, how much harder will it be to predict something like violence, which is far more complex?

3) Do look for qualitative details in the data! A friend of mine pointed out that the data contained on this map is treasure trove of sentiment, perception and narrative about how the media at a very local level conceptualizes violence. Understanding how media, especially local media, perceive things like risk or frame political issues is incredibly valuable for conflict analysts or peacebuilding professionals. I would argue that this is actually more valuable than forecasting or predictive modeling; if we’re honest with ourselves I think we’d have to admit that ‘predicting’ conflict and then rushing to stop it before it starts has proven to be a pretty lost endeavor. But if we understand at a deeper level why people would turn to violence, and how their context helps distill their perception of risk into something hard enough to fight over, then interventions such as negotiation, mediation and political settlements are going to be better tailored to the specific conflict. This is where the GDELT dashboard really shines as an analytic tool.

I’m excited to see how GDELT continues to make the dashboard better – there are already plans to provide more options for layering and filtering data, which will be helpful. Overall though, I’m excited to see what can be done with some creative qualitative research using this data, particularly for understanding sentiment and perception in the media during conflict.

Putting the ‘political’ back in political economy

I stumbled across an article in the New York Times a few days ago by Tyler Cowen of George Mason University and a regular contributor to the blog Marginal Revolution. Entitled “Income Inequality Is Not Rising Globally. It’s Falling.”, it takes a crack at attempting to indicate that while country-level income inequality is increasing the overall effects of globalization are leading to less aggregate income inequality globally, and that this is a good thing. I always enjoy reading Cowen’s stuff even when I don’t agree with him, and in this case I have a few contentions as a political scientist about his argument.

These contentions developed after seeing a comment from a friend on Facebook about the article. He noted that the key problem isn’t income inequality, but wealth inequality. The way that income and growth are structured in the modern world, if you start from a position of higher wealth and asset ownership, the more you benefit from the structure of the global economy. If you rely on a bi-weekly paycheck though you face nothing but downward pressure on your economic position, unless you work in the information, research, governance, or financial sectors (which happen to all play key roles in globalization). Cowen though says that while this country-level trend is unfortunate, we shouldn’t miss the point that globally income inequality has dropped. This is where I have my biggest contentions with the argument, since economics is about politics, and like Tip O’Neill said all politics is local.

To make his argument Cowen has to invert the relationship between people, politics and economic systems. In effect, he argues that we should be happy that while at the local (or national) level the economy might be a mess, it’s important that at a global system level income inequality is decreasing. For this to hold up, we have to assume that systems, in this case the global economic system, are what people are responsive to, things that people can’t or shouldn’t be motivated to change. While Cowen is more humane than many of his libertarian counterparts, believing that safety nets should still exist for the workers who lose in national wealth inequality, he still makes what I think is a problematically common mistake in economics. Implicit to Cowen’s argument is that economic systems exist in parallel or outside the impact of politics. Instead of discussing the tangible problem of increasing wealth and income inequality at the national level as something that can be changed through policy and intervention, he finds an abstract way to claim the system is working. This is a huge problem from a public policy perspective.

At a fundamental level Cowen’s argument subverts the notion of representative democracy. The models of economy have become the ends in themselves, things that politicians and policy makers have applied normative value to, and thus try to shape laws and policy for. This is where the democracy problem comes in. In the United States, we ostensibly elect officials to create policies that support the public interest. When those representatives make economic policy that is based on a set of models that actually lead to massive inequality and economic hardship, they are no longer representing their constituents and instead are representing the abstract notion of market economics. If my congressional representative’s response to a total failure of the economy in my district is to say “there may be no jobs and wages might be way too low, but at least on a global scale income equality is down” then they are not representing the needs of their constituents.

This is the inherent problem with Cowen’s argument, and it has knock on effects since policy makers listen to him and other’s from his school of thought. Essentially he is arguing that a system that has failed at the level where it matters (the citizen level) due to particular aspects of the socio-political nature of finance-driven markets shouldn’t be changed at the local level because it seems, depending on how you cook define the numbers, to be working at an abstract global level. It dehumanizes economics, which is an inherently very human enterprise. In case we forget our history, such things as the Reign of Terror, Communist revolutions, and Jesus’s life and teachings were in response to fundamentally broken and/or exploitive economic systems. If tally the score in those three cases, it would be: System Maintenance 0 : 3 Revolutionary Uprising (and Violence).

Politicians and public intellectuals who focus on abstract and contorted ways to justify the maintenance of an economic system that tangibly fails the public would do well to heed the lessons of history. Abstract arguments about the way the global system is working won’t mean much when the pitchforks come out at the local level.