On Saturday, 26 th January 2002, I took the suburban train to Dachau, a town which is located just beyond the north-western outskirts of Munich. I had come to Munich a few days before to participate in a Eurpean "Leonardo" project, run by a local professional training company, dealing with "web content management". I was the French partner, and it was my first occasion to experiment with using Euros (introduced officially at the beginning of the month) outside of France, and it made the European "presence" more tangible and pleasurable.
The person at the Munich tourist office warned me gently that I should refer to "Dachau" as the "memorial", and not as the "concentration camp", due to the exacerbated susceptibility of local citizens who were sick of visitors coming there thinking that it is only the camp, whereas the name represents an entire town.
Dachau was the first, prototypical concentration camp, where the Nazis laid down the principles and honed the conduct of barbary. That it was outside Munich is no coincidence, since Munich was the birthplace and spiritual capital of the regime. The concentration camp was set up in 1933, immediatly after Hitler was elected to power, and was used initially for political prisoners, notably left-wing and communists.
One takes a bus from the railway station to the camp. It passes through neat housing estates. In the 1930s, the camp was probably beyond town limits - the town has grown, and today there is a Mercedes dealership and Macdonalds fast food franchise just up the road. I asked myself whether the presence of the camp in the vicinity entered into market survey calculations, due to the visitors it draws into the neighbourhood. A visit to the camp removes all appetite.
Most of the barracks are no longer there, just gravel enclosures representing the foundations. The camp is an enormous, empty expanse. The barbed wire perimeter fence is still there; some of the watch towers remain.
The former main building that faced the parallel rows of barracks has a very exhaustive museum with photographs and documents. However only about half the museum was open when I visited, since the exhibition was very old and was being redone. There are explanations in several languages. A cross-referenced table presented the classification of different coloured triangles or stars for all the categories of prisoners who were held in Dachau: political, Jews, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, Gypsies, slave labourers of different nationalities: the system provided for compound graphic symbols since a person could belong to several categories... There was an extensive exhibit on the medical experiments that were done on prisoners - plunged into freezing water to simulate extreme combat conditions, or shut in a chambre that was depressurised to simulate the effect of high altitude on pilots, until they screamed to death. I was struck because here there were no longer explanations in other languages, as if the people who set up the exhibition felt such shame, that they should keep it a German "family secret", though their rage to completely document it remained intact.
Behind this building is a long, low structure, like dog kennels, containing a narrow corridor with tiny cells on either side. This was the "bunker", the prison within the prison, where the SS did their dirty work. It has a very handsome, heavy wooden front door with an ornate wrought iron handle, a style retrograde with depravity. The bunker is parallel to the camp's perimeter wall, which is shared by the backyards of neighbouring houses, the windows of their upper stories staring down into the camp.
The only remaining barracks building contains the furniture that was used by the prisoners, the bunks, stools, tables, clean and polished, so distant from the infinite chafing of flesh against wood of twelve long years of horror and grief.
At the further end of the camp are the crematoria. They are located in a wooded clearing, just outside the main camp area. There is also a gas chamber there, though this was apparently never operated. It is possible that a certain doctor, Sigmund Rascher who had served at Dachau conducted experiments there: his assignments included optimising the extermination process...
Visitors to the camp no longer use the original entrance, the covered "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("Work Makes Free") gateway. I finished my visit there, after nightfall, and kept the watchman waiting impatiently as I took my last photographs.
The following morning I went to see the Glockenspiel in Munich. The New City Hall was built at the end of the 19th century in Gothic pastiche, which style is what the city fathers must have thought the populace would look up to in changing times. The Glockenspiel is a little mechanical pageant of sickly, painted medieval characters set off at midday, accompanied by desultory, tinny bells (which are the glocken) - the people dance, the good knight spears the bad knight, and then the courtesans spin around, hanging lightly from one hand. This made me think of one of the prefered tortures at Dachau, which was to tie the prisoners hands behind their heads and hang them like that for an hour or so, apparently it was excruciating.