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 Treblinka* 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. Then I saw a plaque, which read:

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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:

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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:

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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 like a more accurate 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.

*Correction: A kind reader pointed out that Buchenwald was not a death camp. Indeed, there were no death camps on German soil. I have added Treblinka as an alternate example, and apologize for the mistake.

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One thought on “Dachau: A concentration camp up close

  1. Thanks for your reflections. Reminds me of walking on the grounds of an antebellum plantation in the American South, and realizing in one instance the tree grove that seemed so peaceful and benign was actually where “problem slaves” were “broke’ then if determined unworkable, hung to death.

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