Archive for June 14th, 2009

Dachau: Something to Think About

Sunday, June 14th, 2009

On June the 9th we saw Dachau. It was horrifying yet fascinating in a terrible way. While walking through the gate that sardonically declares “arbeit macht frei,” it was somehow difficult to wrap my mind around the reality of what had happened at this place and that it had happened within the life time of my grandparents, nearly my parents (Maybe not quite, but close). As recently as 56 years previous, the people walking through these gates would have done so to the hateful shouts of the SS, and seen guards with machine guns in the towers. They would be entering into one of history’s greatest atrocities as the victim that could not simply leave as I could. It is so far removed from my experience that it seems impossible that it only happened half a century back.

Dachau began as the barracks for the workers at a munitions plant. With Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 it became a place to lock away dissidents and enemies of the Nazi party, making Dachau the only concentration camp that was operational the entire 12 years Hitler was in power. The camp soon housed undesirables (Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, handicaps, etc.), and POWs as well as political and religious prisoners. In response to Dachau’s changing demographic, the SS took control of the camp from the Munich police.

Einkie, an SS crony of Himmler’s, was placed in charge and instituted a strict set of rules and policy regarding prisoners and a training program for the SS guards. Einkie’s program emphasized the dehumanization and deindividualization of inmates. Prisoners did heavy labor at a number of satellite camps that sprang up around Dachau, working with insufficient food, sleep, or medical attention. In fact, the sick and invalids were shipped off to extermination camps to make room for more workers. At one point Himmler even proscribed a 20% death rate due to illness. Einkie’s model became the standard for Nazi concentration camps throughout the war.

Though Dachau wasn’t an extermination camp, over 31,000 died within its fences during the 12 years it was operational, whether from malnutrition, overworking, poor medical care or out right murder. For example, over 4,000 Soviet POWs were systematically shot at Dachau during its early years. Enough died on site that a new, more efficient crematorium was constructed in addition to the old. Late in World War II a gas chamber was built at Dachau and, though it was never used for en masse extermination, it may have been tested on several individuals or small groups.

Perhaps most horrific were the medical experiments performed on prisoners. Over 80 prisoners died from being submerged in freezing water for hours to test the onset of hypothermia. Others were forced to drink sea water for weeks to test its effect on the body. Some were placed in vacuum chambers to simulate the effects of high-altitude flight. Perhaps most unfortunate were those who were injected with bacterial puss to test newly developed anti-bacterial drugs. The lucky ones were infected with malaria to test an experimental vaccine. Himmler declared that any German who objected to such experiments, which might help save German soldiers, should be executed for high treason.

Dachau was designed to house around 6,000, though near the end of the war its population reached over 30,000 as prisoners were shipped in from other camps that were in danger of falling to the Allies. On April 9, 1945 Dachau was liberated by the US Army. During its 12 years of operation it housed over 206,000 inmates, 2,000 of whom died in the first months after being liberated because of abuses suffered in the camp. When the US soldiers questioned the inhabitants of the towns of Dachau and Munich, they found that most knew something terrible was happening behind those walls, but chose to ignore it.

The story of Dachau has so many aspects deserving of our meditation that it is impossible to fully explore them in the space I have here. With that in mind I have tried to lay out a rough summary and let it speak for itself. I feel it would be appropriate, however, to discuss at least one thing I thought of while pondering Dachau. Foremost in my mind is the importance of avoiding an arrogant attitude when looking at Dachau. As much as we hate to admit it, the masterminds of Dachau were humans just like the rest of us. They had families they loved and sought for the joy and meaning in life that every person longs for. They worked hard to make the world a better place and believed passionately in the justice of their cause.

Though our bile rises at the very thought of such comparison, anything less leaves the door open to repeating Dachau. Any measure we take to distance ourselves from the Nazis makes us more likely to fall into the same trap they did. It is only when we realize that in different times and circumstances we could have been those SS guards, that we can truly take Dachau’s warning seriously. To think one’s self above such corruption and depravity is to take the first step towards it. I do not speak as one who has succeeded; no matter how often I remind myself of this warning, Istill find it hard to actually believe. No one likes to confront the depths evil hidden in their own soul, least of all myself. Only by doing so, however, can we truly honor the memory of those who suffered at Dachau and stay true to the plea on their memorial: “Never Again.”

Daniel Shenk