Germany Holidays: Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp

Travel isn’t always about pleasure; occasionally a destination can be a gruelling and yet still a worthwhile experience. A visit to Dachau concentration camp (officially known as the KZ Gedenkstätte Dachau) falls into this category.

This camp, in an otherwise pleasant suburb in the north-western outskirts of Munich and easily reached on the S2 train, is without doubt one of the most educational and informative places you will ever visit, and yet each passing exhibit and story just adds to an unrelenting sense of gloom and misery, a hint of what the camp was like when it was operational.

The first concentration camp to open in March 1933, immediately after the Nazi Party took power, Dachau processed around 240,000 prisoners over the following 12 years, 41,000 of whom died. Unlike the death camps in occupied Poland, such as Auschwitz Birkenau, this was a prison and labour camp, initially designed to hold ideological opponents of the regime. Then once World War II was under way, it deployed a much wider spread of inmates as forced labour to contribute to the war effort. Thus the Dachau ovens were not weapons of extermination, but a means of disposal of bodies of those who died from overwork, starvation and disease.

The camp re-opened as a memorial in 1965 and expanded further with the conversion of the former maintenance building as a permanent exhibition in 2002. It is here that most of your time will be spent, learning the history of Germany between the wars, leading to the Nazi seizure of power. That is followed by a detailed history of the camp and its development from 1933 onwards, broken down into three periods (1933-39, 1939-41, 1942-1945), each representing a separate phase of operation.

During the course of this there are multiple very harrowing testimonies about life in Dachau, told by inmates of the camp. There is also considerable focus on all the different types of prisoners, not just  Jews, but those other minorities persecuted by the Nazi regime: homosexuals, Communists, Roma and Sinti gypsies, Czechs and Jehovah’s Witnesses among others.

For the defense of peace and freedom

Once through the permanent exhibition (and it is quite difficult to read and take in all the exhibits, such is the extent of the documented suffering and deprivation), there are further memorials outside, the most celebrated of which is the international monument bearing the following inscription, in four languages: “May the example of those who were exterminated here between 1933 and 1945 because they resisted Nazism help to unite the living for the defense of peace and freedom and in respect for their fellow men”.

Visitors also have the opportunity to walk through a reconstructed barracks, the security installations and the crematorium area, not to mention the infamous camp gates with the legend ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (work will set you free) set into the ironwork. All told the visit will take two to three hours depending on how much you can take in.

A visit to Dachau cannot be recommended enough, if only to grasp the true scale of Nazi repression and the calculated planning that went into how to incarcerate and exploit opponents of the regime. It is impossible to come out unmoved by the suffering and the horrors that its inmates must have experienced.       – Mark Arrol


Looking for more? See other destinations in Southern Germany

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