We have not done much formal touring on our trip so far, but yesterday John and I took a tour of Dachau while we were in Munich for the World Cup match. I have never had such a spectacular guide. Leading foreigners through a German concentration camp could take many tones. Gordon took an incredibly objective approach; instead of trying to get us to evoke a certain emotion, he just laid out what happened there.
For example, he made a point to show us a model of the entire camp; no political or religious agenda, just the physical structure, and he left us to draw our own conclusions.
John mentioned that it is hard to know how to prepare or what to feel going into something as emotionally charged and deeply tragic as Dachau. What do you feel when you walk into a room where thousands of people were gassed? Take a picture? It seemed weird to photograph, but at the same time, I want to remember it.
A couple of things he said really stood out:
1. You cannot put a judgment statement on experiences of internment by saying one is ‘worse’ than another. It’s terrible no matter what.
2. Dachau was the first camp, the biggest camp, and also the model for all other camps. It was here that they tested chemicals for gassing, methods for holding people, etc. At the beginning, it was shown off to people while it was still being used for German political enemies of Hitler. People literally toured the camp then too.
3. Although there was a barbed wire fence around the camp, Gordon told us this was more symbolic than literal. So much of the torture was psychological as well as physical. They grouped people so that if someone in your group did something wrong, all were punished.
Gordon also discussed how Dachau is remembered and how its memory will continue. I asked him how Germans dealt with Dachau after the Allied occupation of Munich. In my modern German history class, we learned that the Nazi Germans quickly came to see themselves as victims when the Allies ravaged and raped their cities and people. Gordon confirmed this by telling me that the Allies paraded the entire city of Dachau through the camp before they were ready or willing to see it. It helped them to quickly reject America and initially refuse to be repentant.
The division of Germany during the Cold War further complicated and redefined the remembrance of Dachau. Because East Germany was anti-fascist/communist state, Dachau’s memory took a much more political tone. Gordon told us that since the Cold War, the memory of Dachau has been much more inclusive.
It left me thinking this:
What is the political, social, religious climate that shapes how we see the past today? When we think of history as a set of immutable facts, we fail to realize how it is being reexamined, redefined, and essentially rewritten in each generation.
When we look back on something as astonishingly atrocious as the Holocaust, it’s hard to imagine how a human could calulate such madness. But that’s exactly what it was. To say that Hitler was a lunatic is to undermine the victims; he was not crazy, nor were the SS. It was measured and controlled and premediated. These people were actually very brilliant, and carried out their plans extremely efficiently through institutionalization.
When we look at the genocides going on in our world today, we have to wonder ‘have we really learned?’ When the survivors said ‘Never Again,’ what would they say to the situation in Darfur or the recent history of Rwanda’s civil war? Was their warning not strong enough? What will it take?
At the end of the tour, Gordon showed us a statue that was inscribed ‘To remember the dead, and to warn the living.’ It’s not enough just to read the history and sign and wonder how it could have happened. We have to look at how injustice STILL happens today and work for restoration.