Sunday, 8 August 2010

The Path to Dachau

Whilst in Munich, I paid a visit to the Dachau Memorial Site, which preserves the grounds and some of the buildings of the former Concentration Camp and houses an exhibition, Art works and religious memorials. I went with on a a guided trip with a Munich-based tour company. I was rather nervous as to what this would be like, because the same company sold trips to destinations such as Neuschwanstein Castle and Salzburg; would the site of such horror be reduced to a mere tourist attraction? I was particularly leery of this as, when I visited the House of the Wannsee Conference in Berlin, there were people having their photographs taken smiling with the house in the background (although everyone behaved impeccably in the house).

My fears were not realised as not only was our guide excellent at conveying the horror and the history of the place but for the most part people were very respectful at the site. I've read a fair amount about the Nazis in power and the Holocaust but seeing the actual location of one of the notorious camps is something else. Not, I have to say, because the camp has any residual atmosphere - it was a sunny day when I visited, everything is clean and people were making their way around the site in a relaxed fashion, which mitigated against atmosphere. What struck me at the site itself was the scale of the place and the proximity to the town of Dachau. It has only been since the visit, in digesting the worlds of the guide and the meaning of this particular piece of recent history, that I've felt Dachau's deep impact.

Dachau was the first of the Camps, the one which set the principle for all of the others. The tour guide took us on a route which mirrored the prisoners' induction into the camp. They were marched through the town (the camp at Dachau was public knowledge), then passed through the gate with its infamous "Arbeit macht frei" sign. It is in this sign that the Protestant Work Ethic reaches its ultimate conclusion - a world where work kills and where the only freedom is in that death. As prisoners entered, the rest of the inmates would be gathered in the yard. The new arrivals would be brutally beaten before the other prisoners; it was clear that they were entering a world where your fellows will watch you being brutalised and do nothing about it. Then, with broken noses and aching guts from the smashes and jabs of the SS men's fists and elbows, the new prisoners would be taken into the reception area. Here they would be forced to strip naked and hand over all their belongings. Their possessions would be carefully bagged and labelled, creating an idea in the prisoner's mind ("arbeit macht frei") that they might one day get their stuff back on release. A prisoner would be given a number, which would henceforth be their only name. They would have the hair from their entire body removed; the clippers are on display, and they are more designed to rip than shave the hair. Having had their hair ripped out, they would be dipped in a chemical bath (inflaming their wounds) and then given uniforms, which most likely did not fit. As it says in the printed Guide to the Camp:

"By this stage in the admission process, the prisoners had lost their liberty, dignity, property, clothing, bodily hair and their names (...) They had also lost their independence and autonomy; the only thing they had not lost in the maelstrom was the freedom to die." (Mitchell, 2009, p. 19)

Death now lay in wait at every moment. Guards, or the Capos who effectively policed the camp for the SS guards, might arbitrarily pick a prisoner to humiliate unto death. Uniform must be worn at all times, as the lack of it means an attempt to escape. Even the lack of the cap means you are not in uniform. So a guard might take your cap and throw it on the camp perimeter, where snipers will shoot to kill anyone trespassing. So, a choice - either get instantly shot dead fetching the cap or slowly beaten to death for not wearing it. The labouring work prisoners did in the camp and in the local area was itself so burdensome it could be fatal; work made you free to die.

The guide emphasised two things: the process through which the Nazis gained political power (the post WW1 depression which gripped the country, where people watched their  children starve to death, was made vivid; no one in Germany wanted to go back to that in the late 20s/early 30s and would look to anything that would prevent this); and the lack of solidarity between the prisoners in the camp: the Capos (Socialists in this camp) would be as cruel as the guards; some groups of prisoners would be better treated than others, breeding intense resentments; snitching on and stealing from fellow prisoners was rife. The stakes if another prisoner escaped could be your own death. Yet there were appalling acts of kindness, courage and mercy by prisoners for their fellows.

The camp began by imprisoning political opponents of the Nazis: "Communists, Social Democrats, journalists, royalists, trade unionists, Jewish Lawyers and others" (Mitchell, 2009, p. 12) but soon encompassed all kinds of "undesirables" including violent and career criminals (who found themselves in Dachau after serving their sentences in regular prison), homosexuals, Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses and, of course, Jews. When the war begun, enemy combatants from the USSR and other countries crowded the camp. Each types of prisoner was identified by a patch, sown into their uniform; the system of categorisation was very sophisticated, so for example if you were a Jewish homosexual you'd get a Star of David made up of interlinking Yellow and Pink Triangles. As a racially Jewish homosexual with anarchist leanings, there would have been at least three reasons why I would have been sent to the camps; constitutionally, I don't think I would have survived for long. Perhaps it is morbid to think this way. I was very saddened to see that the 1960s memorial sculpture In the Machine by Nandor Glid - part of which is made up of triangles which "symbolise the prisoner patches" - omits the pink as well as the black (asocial) and green (criminal)  triangles, as at that time there was still a feeling that some people perhaps deserved to be in Dachau. There is now a large Pink Triangle memorial on site, although hidden away in a room whereas Glid's sculpture has a significant place in the parade ground. Our guide told us that there has been talk of adding the other triangles to the sculpture but this was rejected as the work offers a snapshot of attitudes when it was designed. This is probably right but those 1960s attitude were shameful. The sign in five languages nearby says  "Never Again" and never again should this happen to any of the groups categorised, even the worst of criminals does not deserve anything like this kind of treatment and no society which treated a single one of its citizens thus would be properly human. Someone said that you can measure a society's values by how it treats its criminals...

There is a display about the euthanasia programme, whereby the mentally and physically disabled were murdered by the state, and the medical experiments which doctors carried out on inmates at the Camp. I won't describe these here. The picture of the young man frozen to death in an ice bath will stay with me forever. More chilling even than this is the "commemorative photograph" which the doctors in charge of the euthanasia programme had taken on their appointment to their job, after they'd chosen the first batch of people to be murdered. They look relaxed, happy and proud of themselves. Our guide was very firm in maintaining that these men were not mad - the Nazis made a point of weeding out psychopaths and sociopaths from such position. There were "normal" men who were convinced that murdering other human beings was the best thing for their country.

There is a crematorium at Dachau; in fact, there are two, as an earlier pair of ovens did not suffice to dispose of the many dead the system produced. The newer building, built by prisoner labour, includes gas chambers for delousing clothes, a gas chamber for murdering human beings, a mortuary room and a number of large ovens. There is some doubt that the gas chamber was ever used for mass exterminations - Dachau was a prison camp not a death camp (those were further afield). Despite knowing this, there is no coming to terms with the experience of walking through the second building, a man-made conveyer belt designed to turn living human beings to ash.

There are religious monuments on the site - Catholic, Protestant and Russian Orthodox Churches, a Carmelite monastery and a Jewish memorial. The first four are concentrated places of worship and services go on most Sundays. They appeared to me to be rather melancholy and inadequate responses to the horror of what went on here, although the architects have striven to find imaginative ways of responding to the needs of the place; the crown of thorns in the Catholic Church of Christ's Mortal Agony has barbed wire making its crown of thorns, the Protestant Church of Reconciliation has no right angles (Nazi architecture being obsessed with them) and the Jewish Memorial poetical surveys the suffering of the Jewish people in the Holocaust, a granite tunnel leading down to nowhere. The Carmelite nuns, our guide told us, think it is their duty to pray the pain in the place away but this just seemed to me to be hyperbolic superstitious grandstanding of a dubious nature.

It is a week since I went to Dachau. What keeps me going through my mind as I think about the place is not a sense of the absolute apartness of what went on when compared to what happens in our society but rather the sense of the similarities. At the end of Trevor Griffiths' Comedians, the old comic speaks about his experience of visiting a camp shorty after the end of the war and he says "It was the logic of our world... extended" (Griffiths, 1979, p. 64). A word where some people are judged fit to be able to be productive members of society, some people can't or won't produce and some people are distrusted as culturally or politically alien. The whole point of the Camp system was to dehumanise those reckoned to be unfit for society. This came after years of propaganda in which non-productive or alien people were dehumanised through language in newspapers and general conversation. You read a copy of The Sun or Daily Mail or go onto the comment threads at The Guardian even and you can see the dehumanising language that people who have enough wealth to gain access to a computer are using about their fellow human beings.

Something in some ways very predictable but nevertheless very strong is said by the guide at the end of the tour: now that we've have been here, and seen and heard this, We become the custodians of "Never Again." The people of the tour were "ordinary" people, from the UK, the US, Austria, South Africa. It is my faith that all of them came away with as strong a feeling as I did of the need for watchfulness of the language and behaviour we use when referring to or interacting with our fellow human beings, even our political opponents or those whose behaviour or culture scandalises us. May we all also find the courage to point out when we see others dehumanising our fellows that that this is the path to Dachau.

Works Cited
Griffiths, T. (1979). Comedians. London: Faber and Faber.
Mitchell, N. S. (2009). Dachau Concentration Camp: A Guide to the former Concentration Camp and the Memorial Site. Sheffield: Minerva Research.

1 comment:

  1. I actually found this blog post searching the internet for people who had the same problem with this sculpture I did. I visited Dachau over a year ago and it's still keeping me up in the middle of the night. When we study The Holocaust, we divide people into the categories of perpetraters, victims, and bystanders, and we discuss time and time again the level of responsibility a person has standing up against injustice even though it's dangerous. The point of Holocaust remembrance going forward, since all the victims will soon be dead, is to keep in mind the danger of going along with socially accepted apathy.

    So here, *at Dachau* is a monument to socially acceptable apathy. It's vey likely that the person who made this sculpture and the people who approved it think gays and "criminals" (remember, harboring persecuted Jews in Nazi Germany made you a high-profile criminal) and "antisocials" should be remembered and respected. But it wasn't a popular opinion and so they left them off. The takeaway message from the Dachau sculpture garden is, "It's okay to treat some people worse than others as long as they belong to a group that most people despise or fear.

    If it's left to document the attitudes of the 1960s, fine, that's legitimate, but it needs to be documented, on-site next to the sculpture as another tragedy. Otherwise, Isn't there something we can do to get them to alter it or take it down?