Here are some notes from a family visit to Dachau in the summer of 2013. It was part of a larger drive from England to Croatia. Dachau is just north of Munich, which saw most of the early days of the rise of the Nazis.
We arrived in Munich, late in the evening, with no hotel booking and on the eve of a major football match in the city. Oops. Not surprisingly, the stay was somewhat nomadic, wandering for three nights using three different hotels, which ranged from mediocre to appalling. I refuse to use this entry as an opportunity for a whinge, but best to say, plan ahead or you will be left with some dire and expensive choices.
This was not going to get us down because we had a job to do. Before we left, I asked Viv and Will what they might want to do whilst we were away. Viv wanted to see the lakes in northern Italy (tick), I wanted to visit Verdun, northern France (tick) and Will wanted to eat pizza (tick) and rather strangely, wanted to see where Hitler was fired upon during the Munich Putsch (he explained it was part of his history course). And we all wanted to spend an evening at the world’s most famous bierkeller; the Hofbrauhaus in Munich, Germany. It turned out to be a very big tick in the box.
What we didn’t plan on though, was a trip to Dachau, just north of Munich and one of the world’s most notorious World War Two concentration camps. I am rather ashamed of how little I knew about this particularly dark part of the 20th Century; not knowing for instance that hundreds of camps were distributed over Germany and not just a few. Dachau was one of the main centres, but there were many more feeding into them. On further prowling around the internet, it seems that at least 5,000 installations existed across the occupied territories and that up 15,000 were built, but for the most part were destroyed by the end of the war. It was obviously an enormous operation and again I was unaware that Dachau was built as early as 1933, (it was the first) some six years before the start of the Second World War. Our image of these camps is inextricably linked with the extermination of millions of the world’s Jewry, but Dachau was an example of just how deep the Nazi’s oppressive regime cut into Germany’s way of life. Dachau was a working area, rather than primarily a death camp and one that housed initially political opponents; it’s early aim was to tell the German people that you do not argue with the Nazis and get away with it. From political prisoners to homosexuals and sexual deviants, Dachau became a supplier of labour to many of the local factories including the BMW works. The works officials became annoyed at the delivery of workers who were too weak to be of any use and quietly they agreed to feed them with scraps from their own canteen. Some of the workers, insane with starvation began to fight over the scraps provided for them and the food had to be withdrawn.
As the war required increasing amounts of resources, the food supply actually increased, but even prior to 1939, Dachau’s most skilled workers found themselves the last to be released, if at all. I am not sure just how important these places were in the production cycle, but it certainly adds another hideous dimension to the idea that these institutions were just death camps. I know this is a strange perspective; that work camps should be worse than death camps and of course they are not. What becomes frightening though, is the idea that in the event of victory, the Nazis would be unlimited in using all of the population to slave in work camps. This concept was further illustrated by how the Nazis approached labour in France following victory there in 1940. What swelled the numbers of the French Resistance was the demand by the Nazis that able bodied men should go into forced labour to feed the demands of the war machine. Over 1.1 million able bodied French men went through the labour system, often with fatal results.
The camp system soon spread throughout the subjugated nations of Europe and a question which constantly springs to mind is how small a number of soldiers could control so large a population of potentially aggressive citizens. The answer in part comes from the way they handled their own country and then used those techniques within the camps themselves. The Nazis started the camp system in Dachau in 1933 and at first interred political opposition. They were sent for ‘rehabilitation’, the argument being that to attack the Fuhrer was to attack the Reich, the Fatherland and therefore the very core of the German nation. The next stage was to inter those people who would not receive much attention and certainly not outrage and incite defensive actions; these being the homosexuals, deviants, the homeless, gypsies, jews and other ethnic minorities. They were all sent to the camps, not for extermination at this point, but to be set to work. The next stage was for the handicapped and the elderly who were unable to support themselves. Here we can see the gradual chipping away at the senses of the ordinary population and the calming intellectual arguments that this was Social Darwinism in action; ie the survival of the fittest. Those who were not sent to the camps were seen as important and valuable members of society who could look down at those who being taken off the streets and into ‘protective care’.
Once inside the camps, the act of Divide and Rule was repeated. Different segments of prisoners were given different coloured labels, creating a class system in the camps. The coloured labels effectively informed each other, whereabouts in the pecking order each of them were placed. At the top of the camp structure were the political opponents and then the structure went all the way down to the gypsies and finally the Jews. Dachau in particular found ways to emphasise these structures by the way they populated the camp. In one corner, the ‘upper classes’ had better conditions and food, whilst at the bottom of the tree the accommodation was cramped and in poor condition, creating a secondary ghetto within the camp walls and emulating what was taking place in the outside world. Consequently with this very structured class system in place, the Nazi guards were able to use the higher level prisoners to take control and command over the lower orders.