An eternal shame

The watch tower at Dachau.

The watch tower at Dachau.  

Dachau, where Adolf Hitler had located the first of his obnoxious concentration camps, may not exist, but its remnants stand testimony to the beastly brutality and sadism that marked the Nazi era, says K.V. KRISHNASWAMY.

YOU enter the Goethe Institute in Munich, the Bavarian capital, through a newly opened gate on the side street in circumstances that Franz Kafka would have envied. The original entrance on the main road has been boarded up because the institute, which serves as the cultural nodal point of the German nation, does not want a daily postal reminder of a shameful past. The office, it so happens, lies on Dachaustrasse or Dachau road, the longwinding highway that leads out of Munich and into the sleepy town of Dachau where Adolf Hitler had located the first of his obnoxious concentration camps.

The institute's decision to shift the entrance is heartening testimony to the shame and remorse the German nation continues to feel collectively for the aberration of the Nazi era. It is simultaneously reflective of a national resolve, indeed a national obsession, to wipe out reminders of that era as Germany courageously confronts its past and tries to come to terms with it. The well-thought shift to the side street was acknowledgment that few individuals or institutions in today's Germany want even a remote association with any symbol of those dark days.

It was in April 57 years ago that Dachau was liberated by Allied forces led by the Americans as World War II was in its final stages. A large granite stone tablet carrying the message "Never again" in four languages, a museum of available documentation, an archives, a specialist library and an internationally sponsored memorial attempt to convey the trauma of that era when man's inhumanity to fellow man on the dubious rationale of race reached unprecedented proportions, unprecedened even by the violent and bloody standards of the 20th Century. A tour through the museum which has some of the original torture tools used by the Nazis was a shattering experience and prepared you for the documentary screened inside an auditorium which proved gut wrenchingly moving once you began to believe that such cruelty was even possible.

On the wintry afternoon when I visited Dachau (pronounce it as though you are clearing a bone stuck in your throat), uniformed school students were trooping out of the camp at the end of what I was told was an annual pilgrimage to the site to pay homage to the victims of Nazi atrocities. It was part of the school calendar. I was not sure the teenagers realised either the gravity of the occasion or the experience their countrymen had gone through half a century earlier but the gesture seemed appropriate, considering that reminders of the dark past do serve to ensure that the hard lessons are learnt and history, particularly its horrific version, does not repeat itself. It is a repentant society's obligation to the past for the sake of the safety of the future.

The concentration camp site is an hour's drive from Munich on Dachaustrasse in southwestern Germany in the shadow of the Alps mountain range. You can reach it also by train, with regular bus services taking you from the Dachau station to the camp site a few kilometres away. If you go there with visions of barbed wire fences, trenches and guard towers preserved from that dark era six decades ago, images garnered mostly from American cinema, you will be disappointed. From the outside there is not the slightest sign that you are approaching the site of one of humanity's eternal shames. There is certainly no conscious attempt to camouflage but, much like in Hitler's time when the villagers in the surrounding areas were said to have been unaware of the macabre goings-on behind the high walls of the camp, there are today few distinguising marks on the outside, like say a skull and dagger or a cross to symbolise the fate of the one-time inmates.

The eternal message in stone

The eternal message in stone  

An Indian's political naivette apparently knows no limits. Not that these symbols will add to the sombreness and serenity of the scene. Or mitigate the chill that runs down your spine when you listen to the statistics. On April 29, 1945, when the liberators finally arrived, the disastrously overcrowded camp's barracks had more than 30,000 survivors of different nationalities. In the 12 years of its existence, more than 20,00 prisoners were registered, the number of unregistered ones never to be known as, "enemies", too numerous for totalling, were cartloaded into the camp throughout the years and from various regions.

The "official count" of the dead stood at 31,951. This terrible underestimation, itself a permanent indictment of the society, has never been explained but is understandable. The camp authorities, like the rest of the vast Nazi propaganda machinery, had destroyed a substantial part of incriminating records before the liberation. Including the victims of individual and mass executions and of the pseudo-sciencitific experiments of SS doctors, and the final death marches, the toll at Dachau must indeed have been very high.

Though it was the first to be opened by the Nazis, Dachau was not originally intended to be a mass extermination camp or a model and training ground for Auschwitz, Treblinka and others. When the then police commissioner of Munich and later Hitler aide, Heinrich Himmler announced at a press conference on March 21, 1933, that a camp for communist and social democratic opponents of the Nazis was to be opened the next day in nearby Dachau, there was not the slightest hint that this would, in less than a decade, turn into a horror site.

A police barrack soon was fortified into a prison camp, with plans to accommodate 5,000 prisoners. The camp's original purpose was to try and isolate and ultimately eliminate all political opposition. As Hitler tightened his hold on the country, the list of opponents kept increasing: Jews, gypsies, anti-Nazi clergymen, any one foolhardly enough to tread on the toes of the Nazis and become unpopular with the regime. "Anti-socials" such as homosexuals and common criminals swelled the ranks to such a degree that within five years there was an abundance of prison labour which was put to use to enlarge the camp. It was an ironic twist but remember the Nazi motto was: arbeit macht frei (work makes free). In their lingo: We the Nazis feel free to make you work.

Soon after liberation on April 25, 1945, the captured members of the SS, the secret service, were held in custody till their conviction by a war crimes tribunal. Afterwards, refugees and displaced persons were housed in the barracks. By the time the former Dachau prisoners gathered on the 10th anniversary of liberation, the buildings were in a dilapidated condition and were demolished: the barracks, the notorious "shower" rooms, kitchens, even the mote and ditches filled with barbed wire fence. Only the parade ground for roll call and rebuilt barracks and watch towers stand testimony today to those black days.

The whip lash ... in safe custody.

The whip lash ... in safe custody.  

It was at this meeting of former prisoners that a decision was taken to raise a memorial and a museum. The memorial stands on the former parade ground where the defenceless inmates had to answer the roll call to begin one more day of horror.

Even a short tour of the museum fills you with disgust and revulsion once you overcome your disbelief. Among the exhibits are photographs depicting scenes of beating and torture, homicide, murder through a shot in the back of the neck, killer parades and marches to death, apart from those taken by SS doctors of their medical experiments which included the study of human endurance to extremes of cold and heat and high altitudes, pus injections and operations on healthy persons and contamination with malaria. They are a testimony to the beastly brutality and sadism that characterised the Nazi era.

The post-Hitler decades have witnessed the rise of other manifestations of fascism and variations of killing fields across the globe. I left the site on that wind-swept cold afternoon wondering why such reminders of the past like Dachau have failed to deter the latter-day Hitlers.

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