Travel blog

Dachau and Collective German Guilt

By on June 30, 2013
We went to Dachau yesterday morning. It was the Nazi model for further concentration camp efforts, and the hub of their initial medical experimentations.
Dachau, the town, was an artistic community that’s still modestly picturesque. The ‘furnace that burned night and day’ was a small building. It’s disturbing how something so petite could be the emblem of humanity’s heinous capabilities towards others.
One surprising thing: who the actual prisoners were. In Dachau, there were 1st German political prisoners, as in ranting against the new system. Then: anti-socials (‘lazy workers’) and criminals.
Jews, Roma, half-caste Roma (Sisli?), Czechs, Polish, Hungarians and Italians were next. Belgians, homosexuals, French and any others they could capture under the broad tag of ‘political prisoner’ followed.
Yet the largest amount of people who died in Dachau: Russians. The Russians were… the biggest victims in Dachau. I was genuinely surprised, but then again that’s something we don’t often consider when it comes to the 2nd World War.
In other words: everyone but English and Americans that fought during WWII were interred in Dachau. The death toll (considering that the barracks were designed for 200 people and in the end housed 2,000 in each, plus intentional disease and mass killings) was less than other camps.
I’ll cynically assume that’s down to it being a.) in Germany, unlike Auschwitz and b.) a test site for the bigger and better. I was surprised I wasn’t as emotional as I expected.
I think sometimes those big, horrendous concepts numb your mind before grasping.
Self-preservation, intellectual denial (we couldn’t really do this, as people to people, could we-?) and the groups of teenage students not taking anything seriously muted my experience. Yet I am oh-so-very-glad I went.
It was- it is- important. Important to remember the simplicity of our cruelest capabilities. We’re all human, right?
Many Germans have spoken to me about a ‘collective German guilt’ over WWII. It has filtered down, seeping into even the latest generation. It creates over compensation, a silent shame, an unspoken grief of history.
It is illegal in Germany to disclaim the Holocaust. You can be arrested for it. You can also be arrested for making ‘rude gestures,’ including flipping the bird or doing a Hitler salute- if someone finds it offensive.
From the external, I just wonder how different it is now to name names of disclaimers than it was in not so far days of yore, disclaiming your gay neighbor or the churches providing writs tracing foreign family histories.
We’re different now, but not as much as we (perhaps) would like to be.
I met a lovely German man once, Sonke, who worked with the infirm survivors of concentration camps in the Czech Republic.
He was cleaning bedpans and providing companionship to people their families couldn’t be bothered with. Or the families no longer existed.
I’ll never forget him asking me: ‘When does it end? How many generations have to pay for one? How many more jokes about ‘ze Germahns’ do I have to listen to? It wasn’t even my grandparents-!’
Another recent conversation I had with a friend posed the question: why do the Germans feel so guilty, so terrible- when the Allies (America) did a thing that was (in scale) much more horrifying by dropping the bomb. Not once, but twice in Japan. Yet there is no ‘collective guilt’ in the U.S. over those actions.
I think it’s right that Dachau is preserved and shown, that Germans take their history to heart. I also think if the same sort of accountability were done worldwide, we might actually do less harm. Perhaps that’s just the optimist in me- what do you think?
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