Visiting Dachau concentration camp, near Munich, teaches you some important lessons. One of these is that no country has a perfect, blemish-free past, and it’d be foolish to think otherwise.
Human history is littered with shameful, horrific events perpetrated by one group of people on to another – genocide, slavery, subjugation. There have undoubtedly been incidents so evil that they’ve been thoroughly covered up, and we’re blissfully unaware of their existence. For all the love that humanity is capable of, we are equally talented at inflicted suffering and misery, torture and death. But out of all the notorious acts of genocide, one has not faded with time, and is synonymous with evil: Nazi Germany.
I admit that I was nervous about visiting Dachau concentration camp. I had arrived in Munich less than twelve hours before, and I was already visiting the site of mass murder – it was a whiplash-inducing change from the comfort of modern life, and its accompanying ignorance about human misery and death. Plus I wasn’t entirely sure how to get there, which was a bit of a worry given that The Otter (my boyfriend and occasional travel companion) and I had gotten reasonably flummoxed by the Munich rail system the night before.
But as The Otter, who is a professional historian specializing in the two world wars, reminded me, it is important to visit sites such as Dachau. It is now a memorial site. The camp educates and informs about the darkest period of human history, and makes you remember that the 43,000 people who were murdered here were individuals, not just statistics.
It makes you remember.
How To Get To Dachau From Munich
Visiting Dachau is easier than you think, especially if you’re going by public transport.
It’s a short drive by car; the camp is located only 16 kilometers north-west of Munich – if you find Dachauer Strasse in the city center (which won’t be difficult; it’s one of the biggest streets, and starts almost at the Munich Hauptbahnhof central station), follow it straight to the town of Dachau, and then look out for the signs marked with “KZ-Gedenkstatte”. Parking is located next to the site at 75 Alte Romerstrasse, and is free between November and February, but costs €3 per car between March and November.
However, public transport is a much easier option. The Otter and I were lucky enough to be staying only a few minutes walk from Munich Hauptbahnhof station, and the journey from there couldn’t have been simpler. We bought a Munich XXL ticket from the very helpful people in the ticket office, but it’s also available online and from ticket machines. It costs €8.90, and its a good option as not only will it get you to Dachau and back, but you can use it anywhere in the Munich area for an entire day.
Once you’ve got your ticket, get the S2 train in the direction of Dachau or Petershausen, and sit back and enjoy the ride for about 25 minutes. When you arrive, head out to the exit, and you’ll see a bus stop just to your left. Wait here for the 726 bus (it’ll be marked as going to Saubachseidlung) and hop on – don’t worry about paying, as your train ticket also covers the bus journey! And don’t worry about missing your stop; unlike come countries *coughBritaincough* where you’re expected to instinctively know where your stop is even if you haven’t been there before, the 726 has a screen near the front of the bus which tells you the name of the next stop. This is wonderful, and should be installed in every bus in the world immediately. In any case, you want to get off at the KZ-Gedenkstatte stop.
From the bus stop, cross over the road and walk up the path towards the camp. There’s a visitor center on your left if you need toilets or consumables, and you can also pick up an audioguide for €3.
Entrance to the camp is absolutely free.
What To Expect When Visiting Dachau
The first thing which strikes you as you walk up the path towards the camp is how deceptively peaceful it is. Green trees grow overhead, dappling the path with sunlight. You walk far away from the road, as birds tweet and flutter. It all looks most innocent and pastoral, until suddenly you’re confronted with a rusted, disused rail track leading to the gatehouse. All the illusions of peace are immediately shattered, and you realize why the camp is so far back from the road – it was an attempt to hide what was happening here.
The Jourhaus, to give the gatehouse its proper name, was the only entrance and exit from the camp when it was in use, and you’re very aware that you’re following in the exact footsteps of the prisoners who were held here. And there on the gate is the motto that you’ll recognize if you know anything about Nazi concentration camps, “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Will Make You Free”). It was a lie, meant to deceive: not only the people brought there who were worked to death, but also as propaganda that the Nazis perpetuated, that the camps were there as a “labour and re-education” camp. Dachau was the very first of the concentration camps, built in March 1933, and the same lie was spread in all the successive sites.
At first Dachau was used to hold political prisoners; after the Nuremberg Laws, which allowed institutionalized racism, were passed in 1935, this grew to include Jews, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma, and Sinti. Prisoners of war were also held here, and over 4,000 Soviet prisoners were executed in defiance of the Geneva Conventions. The Jourhaus was just the start of the heavy defenses used to keep the prisoners under control.
The Otter and I passed through the gate, grim-faced. It was early in the morning, the site was silent, and the sky overhead had gone grey. It very much suited our mood.
Dachau’s roll-call square is huge, for a simple reason – it needed to be in order to hold all of the prisoners held there at any given time. It could hold forty to fifty thousand prisoners, who were assembled there every morning and evening to be counted, to be assigned work details, and to witness punishments. When you look on the vast expanse of the square and imagine it filled with exhausted, desperately ill people, it makes your blood boil.
The prisoners had to stand in front of the maintenance building, which had the following mocking inscription painted on the roof: “There is one path to freedom. Its milestones are: obedience, honesty, cleanliness, sobriety, diligence, orderliness, self-sacrifice, truthfulness, love of the fatherland“. This was a joke for the officers of the SS, who had it painted there.
The Otter and I focused on the modern memorials instead. One of these was the sculpture by Nandor Gild, a Yugoslav whose parents were murdered in Auschwitz, depicting the stretched, emaciated bodies of the site’s victims. It looks almost like barbed wire, and it really brings home what was done to the people here in the name of an insane racism. The other is the International Memorial, where we paused for a bit. It’s a very simple monument, where the ribbons on the wreaths flickered in the cold breeze, but the words are powerful: ““May the example of those who were exterminated here between 1933 and 1945 because of their fight against National Socialism unite the living in their defense of peace and freedom and in reverence of human dignity.”
What a difference between the words of the International Monument, written in English, French, Yiddish, German and Russian so they could be read and understood by as many people as possible when visiting Dachau, paying their respects, and the sarcastic bile of the maintenance building’s roof.
The bunker is located on the far side of the camp, well away from from the standard barracks, far away from the crematorium. It looks wholly unassuming from the outside, but as The Otter and I discovered as we went in, it was a hellhole. This was where the ‘special’ prisoners were held, isolated and far from any help which could be offered by their fellow prisoners.
We were immediately confronted by a corridor which seemed to stretch on forever, embedded with doors which led to single occupancy cells. This was the province of the SS, who had the authority to report anyone they wanted, and have them removed to one of the cells – rooms which had cavity walls and double doors to prevent the cries from being heard outside. Torture and death was commonplace.
The barracks are done very sensitively. Most rooms had plaques up on the wall, giving details and photos of the people who had been held in them, and the language is very deliberate – no-one is described as having ‘died’; it is a very definite ‘was murdered’. Sketches made by the prisoners illustrate how the cells looked, without having to do a fake recreation. All the rooms were bare, stripped of the agony they’d contained, apart from a couple which contained rudimentary toilets. The Otter and I walked in silence, joined only by an American mother and daughter. They didn’t speak either.
The Shunt Room
This was the busiest room in the camp – it was originally the room where the prisoners were taken on arrival to be ‘processed’ (i.e. registered, stripped, and robbed of their possessions) but is now the main center of information. Maps cover the walls, and banners and small walls are blanketed with words, detailing everything. Even as a pair of history-lovers, who work professionally in the field, it became information overload. Not because there was too much of it, but because the details were just so horrific. There was a map giving the figures of how many people from each European country had been held there. There was information boards, seemingly countless information boards, giving details about every ethnic and religious group who had been held and killed there. There was the death mask of a prisoner, made secretly in the morgue by his fellow prisoners, because he was so beloved. His face was so thin, gaunt. It became mind-boggling; too much. The information is excellent, but your mind struggles to comprehend it, and how it all could have been allowed to happen.
Most heartrendingly, there are cases in the middle of the room which contain some of the possessions which were stolen from the prisoners. Combs, photos of friends and relatives, postcards, religious embroideries. Things which meant everything to their owners, and nothing to their killers, but they took them anyway.
The barracks are located on the other side of the roll-call square – only one still stands, left as an example. The others have all been demolished.
The buildings were located a fair distance away from the SS territory of the bunker, which just illustrates how unconcerned the guards were of any chance of an escape. The whole camp was surrounded by a ‘no man’s land’ which was overlooked by guard posts, machine guns permanently trained on the ground (the prison guards used to throw a prisoner’s cap into no man’s land before ordering them to retrieve it, knowing fully well that they’d be mowed down by machine gun fire). Escape was an impossibility.
The example barrack is actually a little misleading; being a reconstruction, the information boards actually admit that it looks far too nice, and that the site is currently in the middle of renovating in order to reflect the reality more accurately. As it is, it still looks horrific. Tiny bunks, little more than pallets or shelving, are squashed in together. These were constantly overcrowded, meaning that there were many more ill bodies is close proximity to each other: typhus ran rampant.
I looked out of the window of the barrack. The foundations of the other barracks stretched on, almost out of sight. I counted roughly about 34; buildings which had been identical to this one, which in itself was able to hold hundreds of people.
Flowers lay on the ground of the demolished barracks, leaning against the stones which indicated the number of the building. Nearly every building was marked with flowers, placed by those who had been left behind.
I’m afraid that I didn’t take photos of the inside of the crematorium, because I didn’t think that was appropriate. But unfortunately, there were plenty of people who were. Number one tip for visiting Dachau: think a bit about what you’re taking photographs of.
The crematorium is located in a large building at the back of the camp, hidden off down a little side road and sheltered by trees. Next to it is the old crematorium, which was replaced with the bigger building because it couldn’t keep up with demand. Let that sink in.
It is, as anyone whose read about Auschwitz will recognize, disguised as a shower room. I wasn’t expecting it when I entered the room – I hadn’t read any boards or maps, so I didn’t know which room I was about to enter – but you can immediately sense the evil, the feeling that something is ‘off’. On the surface, you could believe that it was a shower room, with its fake spigots on the ceiling. But you know straightaway that it isn’t the case. The ceiling is low, the room is dark, the holes in the ceiling, where the poison gas was dropped through, are out of place. You can only imagine what happened in that room, and all of it is distressing.
Next to the gas chamber is the room with the ovens. There were four of them in a line, made of brick, with a metal sheet connected to a pulley which closed the furnace once a body had been placed inside. Wooden beams supported the ceiling, and even these had been used for murder: victims were hung from a noose suspended from the beams, before being thrown into the ovens.
A memorial plaque is on the wall of the crematorium. So instead of providing a photo of the ovens, I’m going to provide a link to the story of woman it memorializes, Noor Inayat Khan, as well as her fellow resistance fighters Yolande Beekman, Madeleine Damerment, and Eliane Plewman, because they, along with everyone else who was held at Dachau, deserve to be remembered.
When we looked into visiting Dachau, the last thing I expected was to find working religious sites, and that one of them in particular would be one of the most marvelously peaceful places I’ve ever set foot in.
Dachau was liberated by American forces in 1945, releasing 30,000 prisoners, many of whom were severely ill. In a role reversal, the camp was then used by the U.S. to hold war criminals, SS, and important witnesses. The site continued to be used for various purposes, until 1960, when the first of the religious memorials was constructed. The Mortal Agony of Christ Chapel was built at the far end of the camp (as all the religious buildings are, near to the demolished barracks), followed soon after by the Protestant Church of Reconciliation and the Jewish Memorial in 1967. The latter is particularly touching; the entrance slopes downwards so that you almost feel as if you’re entering a cavern, but the opening in the roof floods it with light, a gold band running from the floor to the sky. Wreaths carpeted the floor, and candles burned in the walls.
A Russian Orthodox church was constructed in 1995, but the building we visited was the Carmelite convent, which was situated almost under the shadow of a guard post. It was quiet – we were almost unsure if we were allowed to go in – but it turned out to be utterly wonderful. It was an oasis of peace: the main church was small and simple – a leaflet I picked up stated “It was the intention of the foundress, Mother Maria Theresia of the Crucified Love, to make this place, where there has been so much horror in the past, into a place of offering and prayer, and to establish here a living symbol of hope.” I think that’s marvelous.
On our way out, we noticed that the nuns run a small shop which sells crafts made on-site – we had to ring a doorbell, and a lovely nun came to our aid. We enthusiastically bought some of their arts, and I encourage you to do the same and help support the people who are bringing peace to this place.
Visiting Dachau – Should You Do It?
As I said at the start of this article, I was a bit nervous about visiting Dachau. Would it be too grim? Would it upset me? Did I want to delve into dark tourism?
Well, a trip to Dachau does upset you, and so it should. But at the same time, I wholeheartedly recommend visiting – everyone should visit a place like this at least once in their lives, to learn and pay respects to those who were murdered, to remind yourself that they’re not just statistics in a textbook. You need to see the human suffering. It’s not nice, not remotely, but it’s an important learning experience. However, I would not recommend that anyone under 14 years of age visits.
I hope that this article has been informative. I know I usually write in quite a light-hearted style – all the better for encouraging people to travel! – but I really want to impress what kind of experience this will be. It’s not an easy visit. It’s not sanitized. You will come out having seen more of the dark side of humanity than you ever wanted to. But you will see hope where there used to be none. You’ll see friendly people who work there, the modern people of Dachau who help you to learn and understand, by taking you on a tour or by selling you a book (I can highly recommend both bookshops on site). The religious orders bring peace to a place which is so disturbing. You’ll see other people visiting Dachau, learning, vowing to never let it happen again. There is hope there.
In the bookshop, I bought a pin badge. It depicts a dove of peace, smashing through the gate reading “Arbeit Macht Frei”, breaking it in two, unstoppable.
I can’t think of a better message than that.
Please let me know your thoughts in the comments; I’d be really interested to hear what everyone has to think. Or click here to go back to the home page.