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.”