Munich & Dachau

The wisdom goes, as wisdom does, that if you have any preconceptions about the Germans (of the sauerkraut, bratwurst and beer kind) then you will have them realised in Bavaria in glorious abundance, and every German I had met on my travels – from North Strathfield to Istanbul – had a firm opinion on the matter. If they hailed from the north, say, Berlin, then they adopted the same lofty and dismissive tone when talking of the Bavarians that the French traditionally reserve for the Americans: “The Bavarians!” they would guffaw, “are peculiar, conservative and insular, caught up in their own interminable myths, etc…” or something like that. If they were Bavarian, on the other hand, then they would inform you, misty eyed, that Bavaria is the true Germany, and (often literally) sing her praise… Well, both of them are right, and, frankly, I wouldn’t want it any other way. It’s not every day you can walk into a department store and find an entire section devoted to lederhosen.

Most of my time in Munich was spent doing as the locals do, eating sausages by the cathedral-lode, and drinking beer by the litre. A festive city, after dark Munich brims with laughter, until, like the characters in a Bavarian Dawn of the Dead, an army of contented drunks flirts and shuffles around the city where, hours before, they had been shopping for the latest in European couture. Or lederhosen, perhaps, depending on how early the drinking started…

My final day in Munich, and the sun has disappeared. Overhead, dark clouds shift uneasily and the air thickens with the threat of storms, typical of Munich at that time of year. It was without any trace of meteorological irony that I had just joined a tour to a picturesque German town, half an hour from the city by train, and the second most visited town in Germany. Site of some of the worst crimes that man has ever committed against man. Dachau.

As our bus from the station approached the remnants of Nazi Germany’s first concentration camp, we approached her just as her inmates and liberators had done, passing the luxurious SS buildings, still standing,  before entering the camp on foot, through its infamous steel gates, still inscribed with the words “arbeit macht frei.” The site is intimidating, lifelessly grey, and the school-children and tour groups who wander about in their colourful modern clothes seem almost superimposed, coloured faces in a black and white photo.

The history of the place immediately overwhelms. As Hitler’s first concentration camp, Dachau was the model camp, without which Auschwitz-Birkenau – the great abyss of the 20th Century – might never have been conceived. Within its fortified walls, the Final Solution was puzzled out by the psychopathy of policy-makers and guards, who piled dissidents, homosexuals, Roma and Jews into the diseased boxes they passed off as rooms. Although much of the camp remains, the barracks have been torn down, bar one, reconstructed by the government as a monument to past misdeeds. Officially, as our guide explained, this was done because of the high costs of maintaining the site intact. Unofficially, he added, it allowed for a subtle, yet convenient, revision of history, the spacious reconstruction offering little idea of the cramped horror of its actual operation, stacked as it would have been with its doomed cargo of living skeletons. As it stands, the building looks much like an old school dormitory.

Still, it is difficult to fault the intensity of the onsite museum, and the long line of German children pass each stand in silence, their backpacks covered in the usual graffiti, but also “No Nazi” slogans, and other little defiances against their nation’s history prominently displayed. Even with this narrative drummed into them at school, they clearly find the trip to Dachau as harrowing, if not more so, than anyone else.

Our last stop is the most grotesque, the crematoria whose human smoke rose over Dachau village’s supposedly ignorant population, and a small darkened chamber labelled “brausebad,” the shower room. One has only to place a finger inside a shower-head to see no water ever ran there … Officially – and according to the decade old documentary screened hourly at Dachau – this room was never used for the purpose for which it was built. A death camp Dachau may have been, but not an extermination camp. Unofficially, as our guide explained, this is less than certain, and historians continue to debate the evidence of Dachau’s role in the concerted annihilation of Europe’s Jewish population. What is certain about Dachau’s gas chamber, however, is that, as one team of experts appraised, it would only take one afternoon of preparation to have the system operational once more.

As the storm finally broke, we left the crematoria and filed, soaked, past Dachau’s unmarked graves, filled with the ashes of so many unidentified dead. After ten minutes of quiet reflection, we came to the end of our tour, and slipped quietly away. By that time, it felt not a minute too soon. Quite frankly, as I boarded the bus from Dachau to Munich, I felt poisoned, and it would take me days before I could even start to work the feeling out of my system, if indeed I ever wanted to. The visit felt, as everyone agreed, both horrible and essential. In the illumination of my feelings about the place, no further words are necessary, except to quote the simple exhortation of Dachau’s Jewish Memorial: “Never again.”

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