Having already gained some understanding what life was like in a concentration camp at Le Struthof, in France, I now find myself in Dachau, only 29 kms from Munich and the site of the first Nazi Work camp which was to become a model for the 20,000 camps and sub camps set up during Hitler’s regime. His mantra “Work will set you free” is sculpted into the iron entrance gate, although this is a reproduction as the original was stolen in 2014.
Despite a hefty parking fee, entry to the site of the camp is free. However, I pay €3 for an English language guided tour which turns out to be 2.5 hours long and very good value for money. Our group is made up of 50% Americans, with some Canadians, Israelis, a French man and a couple from Singapore. I am the only Brit and I receive comments from both the guide and the Americans regarding Brexit.
The tour starts outside, where it is bitterly cold and a reminder of the harsh conditions often experienced by the prisoners. But the chilly weather was nothing compared to the torture inflicted by the guards who, according to our guide Bernd, were treated no better than pigs. He is very passionate about the history of the camp and recites quotes from both guards and prisoners to give us an idea of just how awful life was in KZ – Dachau. He also regales us with interesting facts such as the uniforms for the notorious SS were designed by Hugo Boss.
We move into the former maintenance building which is now a museum filled with detailed information boards about life in the camp, both in German and English. For visitors from other countries, audioguides are available, enabling everyone to benefit from the experience. There are a large number of school parties and Bernd explains how it is part of the German school curriculum to visit such places and although I later see some schoolgirls visibly upset by the experience, there are plenty of students who seem unable to comprehend the scale of torture and death which occurred in the camp. 206,206 men were imprisoned there between 1933 and 1945 and about 40,000 died in the camp including more than 4,000 in the two months before liberation and another 4,000 Russian POWs who were executed because the Nazis believed they were not protected by the Geneva Convention. Interestingly, Bernd’s father, a German soldier during WWII, survived 4 years in a Russian POW camp.
The Dachau camp was initially for political prisoners who opposed Hitler’s regime but following the Nuremberg anti-Semitic laws up to 12,000 Jews were sent there. Once the war began, prisoners from invaded countries such as Czechoslovakia and Poland were transferred and the prisoners were sent to local work camps to provide free labour for aircraft manufacturers such as Messerschmitt, Zeppelin and BMW (who still have factories in Dachau). Additionally, medical experiments were conducted on the prisoners to understand better the effects on airmen who might be shot down in icy sea water or had to fly the new fighter jets at altitudes of 20,000ft. Very few of these human guinea pigs survived.
In the warm library of the protestant church, one of several religious places of worship to be built on the site, Bernd explains to us how the prisoners were numbered and categorised. Different coloured triangular patches were sewn onto their prison ‘pyjamas’ to indicate their religious or political beliefs.
- Red – political
- Green – professional criminal
- Blue – German
- Brown – gypsies (Roma or Sinta)
- Black – outcasts (beggars or street musicians)
- Pink – homosexuals
- Purple – religious
- Yellow – Jews
We end our tour at the Crematoriums, one of which contains a gas chamber. Interestingly, it was never used for the mass extermination of Jews, as at the Auschwitz camp in Poland. The Nazis were not keen on having ‘Human Liquidation Systems’ on German soil. During WWII up to 6 million Jews were killed for their religious beliefs. The genocide of the Jews was decided on 20th January 1942 during a meeting of senior officials in Wanasee, led by Reinhard Heydrich and classified as the ‘Final Solution of the Jewish Question.’ I recently read the novel Fatherland by Robert Harris which imagines a 1960s Germany after WWII has been won by Hitler and is a detective story with the previously mentioned meeting at the centre of the plot.
When the Americans liberated the camp on the 29th April 1945, there were approximately 30,000 prisoners there, 5 times as many as the camp was designed to hold. The GIs found train wagons full of dead bodies of prisoners being transferred to the camp who had not survived the journey, another 2,226 died following liberation, many due to the rich food given to them by the American soldiers, according to Bernd. Bizarrely, it seems that they were killed with kindness.
Whilst Dachau is very different from Le Struthof , there are also many similarities. The camps were both built to provide a labour force. They both initially held political prisoners and later resistance fighters, some of whom were executed at the sites. 22,529 prisoners were transferred from Le Struthof to Dachau and 14,828 in the opposite direction as the prisoners were traded like slaves. But the most interesting fact for me was that four female British SOE officers were sent to each camp to be executed there. At Dachau this included Indian Princess Noor-un-nisa Inayatkhan, who was working as a radio operator in Paris.