The First that made the Worst
Discussions of Hitler occasionally mention that at least the trains ran on time, without any consideration of where these mythically prompt trains were running to. Last weekend I went to one of those places. Though the trains didn’t always run there, eventually they did to the detriment of all who rode.
Last weekend I completed the trifecta I never imagined completing. I went to my third former concentration camp, Dachau. The mother of them all. The first camp whose deputy went on to create the worst camp. It was, like the others, a sobering and surreal experience. No trip to a concentration camp is without moments of incredulous shock at the atrocities that were done, but despite being prepared to have that experience, Dachau still found ways to shock.
If you read either of my earlier posts on Auschwitz or Flössenburg I mentioned that on the way to see the first camp Lizi and I discussed visiting more than one to see if the treatment of the camps were the same in Germany as they were treated in occupied Germany. Once again, our theory was confirmed. They are different.
Dachau was created specifically to be a prison for enemies of the state but even though all were prisoners, there was a dedicated prison cell building, The Bunker, behind the massive main building. Where Aushwitz was more preserved (almost no former barracks were removed) Dacahau, like Flössenburg, has had almost all of the barracks removed. Two actual barracks remain and 32 footprints are clearly defined stretching out towards the crematorium. What we think of as the camp itself was only a small portion of the overall installation though.
In addition to the prison camp there were SS Officer quarters, training facilities, farms, and a whole slew of buildings which are not part of the memorial site. Distrubingly, the location was used as an American installation after liberation. The US Army even put prisoners in The Bunker, though they did remove the standing cells which were particularly cruel and inhumane. Then in the late 60s and early 70s as the memorial was being set up the majority of the installation was turned over to the Polizei. It is still being used albeit in a manner that precludes the public from ever seeing it.
The far back corner of the memorial, which would have been inside the heart of the overall installation, was the crematorium area. The first crematorium still stands but when it could not keep up the pace a newer one was built nearby. The newer facility also included a gassing facility disguised as a shower room very much like Auschwitz has, the only difference being that the Dachau facilities were never used. No one understands why which I find interesting in and of itself. Was no one who had run the place asked? Are they sure the rooms were never used? It is a very elaborate system to construct so simply having a go-by example makes little sense yet that’s the best guess we can form now.
It is still a haunting statement so I’ll say it again. The first crematorium was too under sized. It could not keep up. It did not have sufficient capacity. And this was a labor camp, not a death camp.
The atrocities committed here were no less severe than the atrocities committed in other camps, especially to those on which they were done. To say there were perhaps fewer atrocities committed here lessens the fact that none were excusable, allowable, or forgivable. That is not what makes the treatment different in this case.
The memorial at Auschwitz was all about the victims and survivors. Not only were the camps run by Germans, the citizens of the town were removed and taken elsewhere. The city was repopulated by Germans deliberately so that none of the surrounding residents would know what was behind the wall much less what went on there. On the grounds, there were former barracks dedicated to each race, nationality, and religion that had been imprisoned, tortured, brutalized, and attempted to be exterminated. The only real discussion about the captors was one on Rudolf Höss. After touring nearly all of the facility the last two things to see are the crematorium and the gallows on which Höss was hung. At that point it is a feel good story to see that he was hung right next to the crematorium and within sight of where he and his family had lived. Where after the end of a long day of terrorizing, dehumidifying, and desecrating everything good about living this demon went to spend time with his wife and children. He was hung within sight of where he had enjoyed life and family. And fuck him for making us feel good about him being hung, too.
My visit to Auschwitz was so powerful I still feel the need to discuss it in detail when the point of my post is a different camp. It is that emotionally strong.
The memorial at Flössenburg had a great deal about the captors. Here the captors were not just Germans, they were fellow Germans. This was where they were from. Where they had lived and played and grew up. At the end of the war this area was still German. There was a lot about the victims and survivors here, but they shared the stage. While most of the buildings here were torn down, even the footprint of the camp was removed. Today there are houses that were built upon the location of some former barracks of the camp. There is no barrier between the town and the memorial. It is open, wide open to the city that remains.The Mound of Ashes and crematorium are hidden from view of the town, but that was where they were originally built—out of sight.
The memorial at Dachau has memorials to the victims and survivors. I was there three weeks after their liberation anniversary. There were several 90+ year old survivors that had been in attendance for the ceremony. There was information about what happened, the history, the coverup, and how the process spread. It was regularly “cleaned up” for propaganda visits, at least early on. It did serve as a model for other camps. At one spot there was a board showing the “career arc” of the leadership of Dachau. It showed where the important members of the leadership went on to serve, set up, or be a part of the overall labor and death camp systems.
Living in Germany, not just visiting it, has given me a unique opportunity to get to know Germany and its people. I have friends, close friends who are German and I can talk with them and pick their brains on life and living here. When you first come here they tell you that most Germans do not want to talk about the 12 year period that includes that dark time. There are 2000 other years of German history to discuss. But I’ve been here long enough now that they’ll talk to me about that part too. It isn’t that I dwell on it, it’s just that it is that 12 year period that has allowed me to come do what I do here. And the question that we all want to know is how can these people, who are so kind and helpful today, have been led down that path.
Looking back 2000 years into German history explains the reason they are the way they are. It explains why they could be led down the path they were led. But looking back over the last 75 years explains where they are today. They have taken such a shift that all life is sacred to them now. I had a massive hornet nest in my shed. Not bees, not wasps, hornets. Ugly, nasty, loud, big stingers that stay on the insect not in your arm, huge hornets. Not only is there no hornet spray in this country, you can get fined up to 50,000 Euros for willfully damaging or killing them. One of my projects at work is to replace guy wires on an antenna that is in danger of falling down. If it falls it has the potential to land on other buildings and possibly even kill humans if they’re unlucky and happen to be where it goes down. The whole project, to save a structure and make it safe for people, was threatened because of an ant hill at one anchor point. If the ants had not decided on their own to move the project would have been canceled. Why mention that here? Because of the life I found in the camp. Ant hills and wasps. I don’t think the ants show up, but the wasp does. Life moves on, and a respect for life is now evident. Not just in the memorial site but throughout the country.
Life rules. Life is good. And that is what memorials like this hope to convey to their visitors.