I ran across these photos of the infamous Dachau death camp when I was going through my negative files. Viewing them made me think about the political and economic climate today compared to the 1930’s with the rise of Nazism. I am amazed at the cyclical nature of history. In the 1930’s the world economy was in shambles. We had a madman dictator saying just give him all the former Germanic territory ceded at the end of World War I and that will satisfy the German people. He calmed world fears of another war. However, he lied and plunged the world into war. Today we have the dictatorial leader of Russia saying to give him Ukraine and he will not start a nuclear war. We have political leaders in this country branding their opposition as Nazis, semi-fascist and enemies of the state. The 1930’s saw economic turmoil and one man who decided he needed absolute power over the world. Today we have economic turmoil, one man with absolute power trying to conquer his neighbor and one political party trying to hold on to political power by almost any means necessary.
Why black and white? I decided to use black and white film at the time I visited Dachau because color would bring out the beauty that now abounds in the camp. It is but a veneer. This was not a place of beauty no matter how well it is landscaped. I did a very minimal amount of retouching because why beautify the photos of a place so ugly? Now my detour into the twilight zone.
It was a beautiful, sunny, early fall day in Bavaria. I was on my way back to base after a relaxing three days in Munich at the Oktober Fest. The fog had cleared from my brain, and I decided to take backroads instead of the autobahn back to Frankfurt. That decision led me to the town of Dachau. Dachau is a town with a big, infamous reputation. It has the dubious distinction of being the first concentration camp of the Third Reich. Opened in March of 1933, it was a prison for “enemies” of the state. Those imprisoned were political prisoners, Poles, Romani (more often called gypsies), Jews, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholic priests, and Communists. This place of horror was finally liberated by the American Army on April 29, 1945. On that day, the New York 42nd Infantry Division, also known as the Rainbow Division for its service in World War 1, entered the camp. Even though they knew this was a prison camp, nothing could prepare them for what they were about to see. It left an indelible mark on the minds of all who saw it.
I arrived in Dachau and, as a student of World War II history, knew the name. However, there was nothing that could prepare me for what I was to encounter. The experience was so surreal that it left an indelible mark on my mind as well. I had entered the Twilight Zone.
I entered the parking lot of the camp, and all was well. Birds were singing and bees were hard at work. It was a typical early fall day: warm and sunny. I paid the entrance fee and entered the camp. In an instant everything changed. The camp was cold despite the sun shining. Not a bird could be heard. There was nothing but silence. Even the people visiting did not speak or spoke so softly so as not to be heard lest they shatter the silence. It was as if the very earth itself wanted nothing to do with this place. All you could sense is depression, despair, and hopelessness. Despite the colorful flowers and greenery, there was no joy. Just a somber feeling and sorrow for the victims of this place.
The main gate to the camp.
The main gate greeted you with this motto. It means “Work makes you free.” Until April of 1945, the only road to freedom was the dark embrace of death.
Main administrative building. Prisoners formed on the grounds for roll call. When it was in use as a prison, the Nazis painted across the roof:
“There is one road to freedom. Its milestones are:
Obedience – diligence – honesty – cleanliness – temperance – truth – sacrifice – and love of one’s country.”
The hard reality of Dachau was that only death granted freedom.
Main gate building.
One of the buildings that bordered on the electric fence.
Inside one of the remaining barracks. This is a prewar sleeping area which had space for the prisoner to live.
As Dachau grew, all empty space in the sleeping area was removed. People were stacked in here like so much cordwood. Disease was rampant in such close quarters.
Prisoner mess area. Extraordinarily little unused space.
The old barracks are gone and the view leading to the main buildings is clear.
Memorial to the Jewish victims of Dachau.
Monument to the unknown prisoner. The inscription reads:
“Den Toten Zur Ehr Den Lebenden Zur Mahnung”
“To honour the dead, to remind the living”
More empty space where prison barracks stood along with a preserved guard tower.
The camp crematorium was the final stop for those who did not survive to the end of the war.
Two more of the incinerators used to “destroy the evidence.”
This is the legacy of Nazi Germany. The marker to a mass grave of the thousands of unknown that lost their lives here.
I spent eight years in Germany in the 1970’s and 1980’s and found the German people warm and friendly people. I knew, worked with, and supervised German civilians who either served in the armed forces or grew up during the war. I will always remember a lady who would talk to me about the war but whenever she spoke of the Nazis her voice would drop and she continually looked over her shoulder. That was how deep the fear of the Gestapo, and the Nazis was in the German psyche. From 1932 to 1945 the German people learned to keep their mouths shut so that they would not become one of the disappeared. The Gestapo was feared more than death. Silence was a matter of survival for the Germans then. Today they have a breath of freedom they cherish. DO NOT paint the German people of today with the same brush as the Nazis of that long ago, dark era.
Upon leaving the grounds of the camp, everything returned to normal. The birds were once again singing, the sun was warm, and the bees were back hard at work. I looked back completely unnerved by the experience. It is an experience to be taken with somber reverence. This was my detour into the Twilight Zone.
Looking at these photos again speaks, at least for me, of a warning and an unkept promise. The warning is about government, the cult of personality and the branding of the opposition in politics. When people vote, they should vote for what the politician stands for and not their force of personality or their soaring oratory or their branding of the opposition. Hitler was voted into office, and it was his force of personality and his oratory that put him in office. If you listen to Hitler’s speeches, you may not understand them but his force of personality and his oratorial command comes through. He told the German people that it was his political enemies and the Jews that caused all the nation’s woes. He said what the people wanted to hear. This allowed Hitler and the Nazi Party to lead the German people into war and down the path of death and destruction. We as a people must be on guard every election that when we vote for a person it is for their policies and not their oratory, personality, or fear mongering. We must remember that in politics, the first casualty is the truth.
The promise unkept goes with the phrase “Never Again.” Never again will we stand by while genocide is taking place. This is a promise we have failed dismally to keep. Why can I say that? Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge slaughter 1.5 to 2 million of its own citizens in the 1970’s. Rwanda with the Tutsi slaughter of the Hutu. The French finally stepped in but not before a massive slaughter of humanity. The murder of the Kurds by both Turkey and Iraq. The list goes on and yet we still do nothing. The latest is the genocide China is performing against Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Turkic Muslims. We say nothing because we must not upset China. We also have a rise in antisemitism once again vilifying the Jewish population. Unless and until we are ready to take a stand and truly stop genocide, the words “Never Again” will forever ring hollow.