Underneath the beer haze normally associated with Munich is a fascinating city that played a pivotal role in the modern history of the world.
Hitler made Munich his launching point during the early 20th century, and it was only 2 months after he was elected as Chancellor of Germany that Dachau was established. At the time, Dachau was not intended to be an extermination camp but as a prison for Hitler’s political opponents and non-sympathisers. It wasn’t long before prisoners included Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, politicians, religious figures and undesirables, Austrians, Czechs, Poles, Russians, French, and Yugoslavs; all as unwilling guests of Heinrich Himmler and the SS.
Surprisingly, the survivors of the camp had to fight the Bavarian State Parliament to prevent the destruction of the camp and crematorium to create the memorial. In the years following liberation, Dachau as a city was restored and developed and a motion was put forward to demolish the concenration camp site “to put an end to the defamation of the Dachau area” (Barbara Distel, The Dachau Concentration Camp, 1933 to 1945 – Catalogue for the Exhibition, 2005).
At risk of losing Dachau forever, the International Committee for Survivors (a secret organization formed in the final phase prior to liberation in 1945) reformed in 1959. The Committee began campaigning to convince politicians that the site should be preserved and a memorial should be built to “conserve and pass on the legacy of all prisoners” (Barbara Distel). It wasn’t until 1960, when 50,000 people attended the opening ceremony of a Catholic Chapel on the concentration camp grounds, that the creation of a memorial and the preservation of the site could no longer be denied.
Having been to Dachau almost as many times as I have been to Munich, the only way that I can describe my experience is an eerie but strangely positive feeling. The feeling of positivity that I refer to comes directly from the necessity that the survivors felt to communicate their stories and message to the world. That message is awareness. Be aware of what we humans, men and women, were capable of and ensure that we will never forget such that it will never happen again.
Dachau, just as it was the first concentration camp to be established, was instrumental in reuniting survivors and facilitating intergenerational encounters. It gave the survivors a new voice and vehicle for their message and served as a contact point for survivors requiring assistance or financial aid.
The prisoners fought for their survival in the camp just as they fought to get their message heard once they were out of the camp. A high percentage of visitors to the memorial site are young, and soon the survivors of Dachau will all be gone, leaving us responsible to carry their collective voice and ensure that it is heard by future generations.
The Dachau Memorial Site is a testament to the 200,000 prisoners of varied origins that passed through Dachau between 1933 and 1945, to the some 43,000 who died there, and the 30,000 who were liberated by the American Forces on April 29th 1945.
Article and photos by Anna McNiel
Muinch From Monks to Modernity by Paul Wheatley, 2010
The Dachau Concentration Camp, 1933 to 1945 – Catalogue for the Exhibition, 2005