Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site (KZ-Gedenkstätte Dachau)
In 1933, shortly after Hitler became chancellor, Himmler and the SS set up the first German concentration camp on the grounds of a former ammunition factory in the small town of Dachau, 10 miles (15km) northwest of Munich. The list of prisoners at the camp included everyone from communists and Social Democrats to Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, clergymen, political opponents, trade union members, and others. The camp was presented to the public, and shown off to visitors, as a labor camp where political dissidents and “social and sexual deviants” could be “rehabilitated” through work—hence the chilling and cynical motto that greeted prisoners as they entered the gates of the camp: arbeit macht frei (work gives you freedom).
The reality of what happened at Dachau, where prisoners were stripped of all human rights and dignity, and turned into slave laborers who were tortured, beaten, shot, hung, starved, lethally injected, and used for medical experiments, is the reality of the barbarism that took hold of German society during World War II and led to the Holocaust. Dachau is not an easy place to visit, but it is an important place to visit. Taking one of the 2 1/2-hour tours, offered in English, is perhaps the best way to gain and overall understanding of the camp and how it worked.
Between 1933 and 1945, more than 206,000 mostly male prisoners from 30 countries were imprisoned at Dachau. At least 30,000 people were registered as dead during that period. However, thousands more were murdered there, even if their deaths weren’t officially logged. Dachau was just one of dozens of concentration camps established by the Third Reich throughout Germany.
The SS abandoned the camp on April 28, 1945, and the liberating U.S. Army moved in to take charge the following day. They discovered some 67,000 living prisoners—all of them on the verge of death—at Dachau and its subsidiary camps.
At the Visitor Center you can book a tour, rent an audioguide, and visit the bookstore. Then expect to spend at least 2 to 2 to 3 hours visiting the grounds.
Much of the camp was destroyed after the war, but not all. A museum with a permanent exhibition is housed in the large building where prisoners were registered and “processed.” Here, photographs, text panels (all translated into English) and documents tell the story of the camp, how it was run, who was incarcerated and killed, and who some of the personnel were—for Dachau was a training camp for Germans who wanted to work their way up the Nazi ladder. An English version of a 22-minute documentary film, “The Dachau Concentration Camp,” is shown at 10am, 11:30am, 2pm, and 3pm.
The grounds have a bleak, haunted quality. Two barracks have been rebuilt to give visitors insight into the living conditions the prisoners endured, but these are of course sanitized versions. The camp, built to house a couple hundred prisoners, ended up holding thousands, and by the end of the war, prisoners who hadn’t worked or starved to death or executed were dying of typhus and other diseases. You will also see the roll-call yard, where prisoners were brutually mustered; a bunker that was used as a camp prison and torture area; the camp road; security installations, and the crematorium area. There are Protesentant and Catholic chapels (neither denomination actively protested Hitler’s policies, claiming they were “outside politics”), and Jewish Memorial, and an International Memorial.
There are still political and controversial elements to be considered at Dachau. The German government, for instance, has refused to acknowledge that the gas chambers at Dachau were used for killing prisoners, although a survivor of the camp has testified that they were. The International Memorial was meant to show versions of all the different i.d. badges that prisoners were forced to wear. Yet when the memorial was dedicated in 1968, there were objections that homosexuals were criminals and should not be represented in the memorial. The pink triangle homosexuals were forced to wear was removed from the memorial and has never been replaced, even though some 6,000 gays were imprisoned here and subjected to unusually (even for Dachau) harsh treatment. If there is one lesson to be learned at this moving memorial, it is that there is no hierarchy to suffering. Every single inmate at Dachau deserves the right to be remembered.
The camp/memorial is open Tuesday to Sunday 9am to 5pm; admission is free.
KZ-Gedenkstätte Dachau. Alte-Römerstrasse 75. tel. 08131/669970. www.kz-gedenkstaette-dachau.de. Free admission; guided tours 3€; audioguides 3.50€. Daily 9am–5pm.
You can get to the camp/memorial by taking the frequent S-Bahn train S2 from the Hauptbahnhof to Dachau (direction: Petershausen), then bus no. 726 to the camp. The bus stop is marked with the name of the memorial, so you can’t miss it. Expect to spend about 30 minutes to get there from Munich’s main train station.