Nothing prepares you for a visit to Dachau Concentration Camp. This was Germany’s ‘cradle of terror’ during World War Two, a place which served as a ‘school of violence’ for the Nazis.
It was Germany’s first concentration camp, a prototype of what was to follow over the next decade, a precursor to the Holocaust.
A visit to Dachau reveals uncomfortable truths, even for those of us who studied the history of the Nazis at school. In the cold light of day, it is a shocking place, beyond belief.
‘The cradle of the Holocaust’
Dachau Camp – Key highlights
- As a first port of call, head to the main exhibition on the history of Dachau in the Former Maintenance Building – this provides a good introduction to the camp.
- The former camp prison exhibition gives an insight into what life was like for the inmates.
- Visit the religious remembrance memorials – including the Jewish Memorial and the Catholic Agony of Christ chapel.
- The Path of Remembrance, which runs from the railway station to/from the camp, is an interesting walk, punctuated by memorials.
Perhaps Dachau isn’t everybody’s first choice of ‘fun holiday trip’ but, once you step foot inside the camp , it’s a powerful experience which will never be forgotten.
For some visitors, it’s revelatory, as witnessed by the bowed heads of stunned teenagers being shown around on organised trips.
And for others who know the story of the Holocaust, there are new truths to learn. You can’t help feel that a visit to this horrendous concentration camp should be made compulsory for anyone with an interest in the current state of our world.
There’s a fine line between tourism, education and historic ‘voyeurism’, but Dachau gets the tone of its terrible story completely right. It’s hard not to come away without being profoundly moved and stunned.
Dachau’s Shocking Secrets
Dachau camp was established in March 1933 by the National Socialist government in Germany under Chancellor, Adolf Hitler. It was located in the grounds of an abandoned munitions factory.
Around 188,000 prisoners were incarcerated at Dachau between 1933 and 1945. It’s estimated that at least 30,000 people died here. That’s every 5th prisoner.
Heinrich Himmler described it as “the first concentration camp for political prisoners”, but it was much more than that. It was part of the Nazis machinery of oppression and, ultimately, a key part of their ‘Final Solution’.
This was a hellish place for its inmates – torture and beatings were common. The prisoners were treated as third-rate creatures with little or no respect for their welfare or needs.
Initially, the camp took in about 4,800 prisoners, mainly German Communists, Social Democrats and other political opponents of the Nazi regime.
But these figures soon escalated as the Nazis incarcerated an increasing number of Jews, Roma gypsies, homosexuals, ethnic minorities and even Catholic priests.
By April 1945, there were over 67,000 registered prisoners in Dachau, including over 22,000 Jews. The story of the unfortunate inmates is told bleakly but brilliantly in Dachau’s museum.
Perhaps most surprising for me was the discovery that virtually every European nationality was represented at the camp during its 12-year existence. There were inmates from Poland, Russia, Hungary, Germany and France, but also substantial numbers of Italians, Lithuanians, Czechs, Slovenians and Belgians.
My jaw dropped as I walked around the extensive museum exhibits and read the information panels. Even I hadn’t expected to find such mass incarceration across so many different ethnic groups.
Their stories were heartbreaking and tragic. The story of the Jews in Dachau is – of course – one of the most traumatic, and one we must never forget.
The big question lurking in my mind was how could the Nazis have inflicted such grotesque pain and suffering on their fellow men and women – and got away with it?
Genocide is not a 20th Century phenomena, but the scale of the Holocaust was unprecedented.
About 14 million people died across Europe during the Holocaust, in lands extending from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Six million of those annihilated were Jewish and their communities were devastated or destroyed.
Dachau was an experiment in terror and subjugation, a model for camps that would be built across Germany and Poland, including Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, Auschwitz and Belsen. The terror regime started here.
Walking around the Dachau concentration camp site, I kept coming back to the age-old question of how did this happen here?
How did the world not know what was going on during the early days?
1933 is very early in Hitler’s regime to build the first Nazi concentration camp. Dachau was a blueprint for his bigger plans, six years before the outbreak of the Second World War.
I also wondered how the perpetrators persuaded themselves and brainwashed others into thinking that this was morally acceptable? Of course, most had already been taken in by Hitler’s rhetoric, rallies and racist attacks against ethnic groups, especially the Jews.
I was puzzled about the local citizens of Dachau who lived so close to the camp that they must have heard, smelled or sensed the atrocities going on beyond its walls.
The Nazis used propaganda and fear to avoid the full-scale of the atrocities at Dachau from being exposed. Fake news and fabricated press stories praised the camp as a model for dealing with prisoners.
Prisoners were told that they must deny having been beaten, and a few were forced to write articles giving favourable accounts of life in the camp. Locals who guessed what was going on were too afraid or felt unable to protest.
Famously, the camp gate proclaims “Arbeit macht frei”, which, of course, means “work sets you free”.
This was the ultimate lie. By the time the truth started to leak out, it was too late. An almost unstoppable machine of terror, death and destruction had been gaining momentum for years.
The Shocking Truth
Although Dachau was not a death camp as such, the brutal conditions still resulted in over 30,000 deaths. We’ll never know the real numbers but it was certainly much higher, possibly double.
The prisoners were forced into hard labour, constructing roads and railway tracks, draining marches, and working on camp buildings. There were tales of prisoners were harnessed to a heavy roller which they were made to tow nine hours a day without a rest.
Another shocking story is how inmates were forced to stand up for a whole day in cold water, excavating quagmire to lay the foundation for a swimming pool for the guards. Lashings and beatings were not uncommon.
Medical experiments were also performed on prisoners, and many died or became permanently disabled by this treatment. Dachau was also used in Germany’s euthanasia programme in which thousands were systematically murdered.
Life in the camp
Just looking at the main towers and perimeter fence as you enter Dachau camp is enough to send a chill down the spine. This is the machinery of terror.
The camp administration was situated in the gatehouse at the main entrance. There were support buildings including the kitchen, laundry, showers, and workshops, as well as a prison block.
Although many of these buildings no longer exist, it’s easy to get a sense of what the camp must have looked like. There is a barbed-wire fence, ditch, and wall with seven guard towers surrounding the camp.
Today there are reconstructions of what the prisoner dormitories would have looked like – which, for me, was like walking back in time 70 years.
Looking at the machinery of terror terrified me. I feared that history might easily repeat itself with the rise of extremism in Europe – unless we learn lessons from the past.
The rise of the Nazism was partly made possible by the fragmentation and ineffectiveness of the other political parties in Germany, and their inability to challenge the rise of extremism.
Sadly, this has some resonances of what is going on politically in Europe today.
One of the most chilling areas of Dachau camp is the crematorium site. In 1942, a new crematorium was constructed adjacent to the old one, and both can be seen today including the gas chamber.
Although there is little evidence that the gas chamber here was used to murder the inmates, it is terrifying to walk through its waiting rooms and shower areas.
This was another instrument of fear which could be deployed, as necessary, and was also used to dispose of the bodies of inmates who were worked or beaten to death.
The ‘effectiveness’ of Dachau led the Nazis to build even bigger concentration camps and develop a network of death sites. By the end of 1944, the Nazis had also opened satellite camps under the administration of Dachau to assist in the war effort and armament production.
Dachau had more than 30 large sub camps where over 30,000 prisoners worked in armaments. Thousands of these internees were “worked to death”.
The Liberation of Dachau
After 12 long years of terror, the liberation of Dachau by American forces finally came in late April 1945.
Before the liberation could take place, the Germans had forced more than 7,000 prisoners, mostly Jews, on a six-day long death march from Dachau to another camp at Tegernsee. The SS didn’t want prisoners to fall into enemy hands to tell their stories to their liberators.
The Nazis shot anyone who were too tired to walk the complete route, whilst many others died of hunger, cold, or exhaustion.
Warning: Graphic video content
When the United States forces entered Dachau on April 29, 1945, what they discovered was truly shocking, as you’ll see in this archive film footage.
At fist they found thousands of emaciated prisoners but a closer inspection revealed over 30 railroad cars filled with bodies brought to Dachau camp, in an advanced state of decomposition.
In early May 1945, the American forces liberated the surviving prisoners sent on the death march who had not succumbed to physical exhaustion or maltreatment.
A Bitter Truth
Today, Dachau has a chilling atmosphere, a strange and sombre ‘quietude’. It’s silent enough to reflect on man’s extreme cruelty and tactics of oppression.
There are memorials dotted across the camp to different religions, ethnic groups and prisoners. The Jewish memorial is one of the most powerful as you walk down a ramp from the light outside into the darkness.
You can’t help but imagine the fate of many of the Jewish inmates of the camp as they toiled under forced labour or were tortured and killed.
The Catholic monument is a striking memorial to those Catholics who were incarcerated at Dachau for their beliefs and resistance to Hitler’s regime.
I was surprised to learn that 2,579 Catholic clergymen were among the inmates at Dachau, including a large number of anti-Nazi priests brought from Poland.
Not far away is the Protestant Church of Reconciliation, another visually impressive piece of architecture which leads visitors beneath the surface, taking you through darkness and light.
As I left the camp grounds, I felt deeply moved by what I’d seen, but there was also a feeling of hope.
Watching hundreds of other people reflecting on the Dachau’s bitter truth gave me a sense that if enough people learn from these events, then perhaps we can stop similar atrocities happening again.
Let’s hope that ‘Never Again’ written on Dachau’s memorial wall becomes a reality, not just in our lifetime but for future generations.
What the Travel Guides don’t tell you…
Take your time. There’s a lot to see at Dachau – to do justice to the camp site and museums, it needs at least half a day or more. Opening hours are 9-5 daily (closed 24 December).
There is free admission to Dachau. Facilities include a cinema, museums, a canteen, shop, library and book store.
I prefer self-guided tours but there are numerous group tours (in different languages), if you want to hear from an expert guide. That said, there is such a wealth of interpretative information at Dachau that you won’t feel short-changed, if you do your own thing.
Tours for individual visitors and groups are available for 2.5-3.5 Euros – and last for around 2.5 hours. If you’re short of time, there’s an audio guide costing 4 Euros in 14 languages.
Pick up a tour brochure at the information desk before you start your visit. The brochure guides visitors through the grounds and exhibitions with 20 key information stations.
There’s also a bigger publication available for 8 euros which can be downloaded here – https://www.utzverlag.de/catalog/book/44664
Other nearby Holocaust sites
If you want to look at other Holocaust sites and monuments in Dachau, pick up an information guide at the visitor centre. Not far from the main camp, you can visit the following sites:
- Railway track – remains of the line which led to Dachau concentration camp on Isar Amperwerke Strasse (1 km).
- Memorial for the victims of the death marches – Theodor Heuss Strasse (1 km).
Further afield you’ll discover other related sites:
- Commemorative site – former SS shooting range – Hebertshausen – plus open air exhibition (3 kms).
- SS experimental garden – where many inmates worked as forced labourers.
- The concentration camp cemetery in Leitenberg, 3 kms from the camp.
- Concentration camp graves – the woodland cemetery – prisoners who died after liberation – Krankenhaus Strasse – 3 kms from the main camp.
Dachau is located near the north-east area of the town of Dachau, about 10 miles north-west of Munich in Bavaria.
Getting to Dachau is easy from Munich city centre. Take the S2 suburban train to Dachau Bahnhof (towards Peterhausen) from which takes around 15 minutes. Once you leave the station, you’ll see the Dachau bus stop almost straight ahead of you. The buses run roughly every 20 minutes, but be aware that they can get very crowded and it’s often ‘standing up room’ only.
A good way of returning to the train station is to walk the Path of Remembrance along the old railway track. This takes about 20-25 minutes on a flat, easy path which features some memorials along its route.
There’s also a direct bus from Munch – number 726 – to the Dachau Concentration Camp site.
If you’re coming by car, it’s an easy drive from Munch – and there is car parking next to the concentration camp site on Pater-Roth Strasse.
Photography and Cinema
Photography is permitted at Dachau for private use – without a tripod.
I decided to take a lot of photographs because I’d regretted not taking images at Buchenwald camp a few years ago. This was out of respect to the dead. But my attitude has changed as I think the world must never forget what happened at these camps.
Be respectful. I was appalled to see 20-somethings taking happy, smiley selfies in front of very graphic photographs of the atrocities, posing sexily like Kim Kardashian. Be sensitive to what happened here.
Don’t miss the documentary film “The Dachau Concentration Camp 1933-1945” which gives a good overview of the history of Dachau. There is a minimum age of 14.
The film is shown in the auditorium in the former maintenance building at the following times:
|German||9:30 am, 11:00 am, 1:30 pm, 2:30 pm, 3:30 pm|
|English||10:00 am, 11:30 am, 12:30 pm, 2:00 pm, 3:00 pm|