This is a long post. I thought about splitting it in two, but the camp at Dachau was a horrible place and frankly I found reading what I wrote about it on its own too depressing.
I don’t like tours. My idea of travel hell would be to be bused around a country only to be let off at places of interest 15 minutes at a time to be rushed around as part of a group of bum-bag/fanny pack owning Americans all following a tour guide holding aloft a coloured umbrella, or god forbid some “novelty” item to distinguish themselves from the other coach loads of bum-bag/fanny pack owning Americans and their tour guides.
However a number of hostels do offer “free” walking tours around city centres which I feel less inclined to rant about as because on the whole they provide a good opportunity to meet fellow backpackers and it normally leaves me nicely orientated for my own individual wanderings afterwards. Of course something that should be pointed out from the beginning is that these tours are not of course actually “free” instead they have no fixed price and it is expected that upon its conclusion, everyone will tip the guide what they feel is appropriate for the tour. Of course if the tour and the guide are completely awful you don’t therefore feel out-of-pocket.
Not all hostels and cities offer this of course, but the hostel I stayed at in Munich did, so I decided to take advantage of it on Monday.
Luckily for me no one on the tour was wearing a bum-bag and our group wasn’t big enough that our guide needed to hold aloft an umbrella to make himself seen. Although equally that might have been because he was an African man in Lederhosen and I guess that if that didn’t make him stand out enough to his tour groups than the addition of an umbrella was unlikely to be much more help. He certainly was an “interesting” guide although some of his attempts at humour bordered on the “creepy”. He also spoke almost non-stop for 4 hours which is more than can be said for some free tours where the guides don’t really seem to have anything to say other than pointing you in the direction of photo opportunities. Some of his information was genuinely useful, for example I discovered that the reason why Germans seem to put up with their almost always red traffic lights whilst I kept ignoring them to cross, was because there are heavy fines for jaywalking. Some of the information he gave us about the political status of Bavaria was also of interest. We were then shown several places where we could get food but rather than being put under any obligation to buy were instead given a general overview of what prices you would expect to have to pay in establishments aimed at “locals” versus those aimed at “tourists” and there were fun facts about the beer-halls. The unusual design of the Bavarian flags painted flapping into the wind at famous Hoffbrau Haus, and designed that way so they could be painted over the Swastikas left by the Nazi’s on the ceiling.
However, as with all free tours, being run as they generally are by a self-employed tour guide, you can sometimes wonder at the quality of some of the information you are getting. They often say that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and having several history degrees and thus a little knowledge I quickly found myself questioning some of his apparent “facts” like that the 1972 Olympics were abandoned after the terrorist attack on the Israeli athletes. Of course in reality there was a days pause before the games carried on. As a result of this and some other questionable assertions like this, I did start to question some of the other thing he said even when I had no specific reason to otherwise doubt him. A slightly surreal, repeated phrase that the Aborigines were jealous of the Jews because the world went to war to save the Jews from the Nazi genocide, but not to save the Aborigines from the actions of the British and Australian settlers “because the Nazi’s were caught on tape” left a bad taste in the mouth. If nothing else it’s not true – I’m not aware of any country that fought Hitler that based its decision to do so on the Nazi treatment of Jews. Most of the more horrific details did not emerge until late into the war.
However all that said, I enjoyed the tour as, historical inaccuracies aside, it fulfilled the main purposes I wanted from it, namely meeting other travellers and getting a quick overview of the layout of the city. (although if the hostel had provided a map that didn’t selectively miss off roads the latter might not have been necessary. I tipped 10 Euros for the tour, which I thought was a bit much based on the fact he seemed to be making a lot of it up, but that for 4 hours worth it seemed a good enough deal.
As it was the next day I found myself in a very different sort of tour group in a very different location.
If you are flirting with someone, Dachau is – and I can’t emphasise this enough – a terrible, terrible place to suggest you both visit the next day. In my defence it was suggested because I was drunk and it was the only other activity I could remember from the guide-book that wasn’t the local transport museum. As soon as I suggested it, it occurred to me that this was actually one of the few instances in which the local transport museum would probably make a more appealing venue, but by then it was too late. Surprisingly, they agreed to what now goes straight to number 1 in the list of stupidest dates I’ve arranged, finally knocking ‘agreeing to go on a cycle date despite not being able to cycle‘ off the top spot. I think they probably only agreed because they were also too drunk to think of anywhere else to go. That or maybe they had a thing for SS Uniforms.
Luckily severe awkwardness was avoided as by the time we met up the next day various other people had attached themselves to our plan so we were now a party of 6. On the downside, this now seemed to mean I was our unofficial tour guide as everyone assumed I knew how to get there and had worked out how Munich’s different local transport tickets worked. Perhaps this was karma for my criticism of tour guides from the day before. I suppose saying I was the tour guide is perhaps too grand a title. No-one actually had any expectation that I would talk about any of what we were seeing, but in all honesty that’s not what a visit to Dachau needs. The site is free to visit, but the various paid tours on offer will charge you about 20 to 25 Euros. For the most part these paid tours seemed to consist primarily of tour guides giving overly simplified summaries of the mass of information available (in both English and German) across the site, and then positioning themselves and their groups in front of the various information points so no one else could read what they were saying. I would not recommend getting a tour, going on your own will allow you to take your time and absorb it all at your own pass. This is easily done as Dachau is easily reachable via public transport from Munich, a short ride on the S-Bahn and a bus ride or walk to the actual site and I managed to get the group there having taken only one wrong turning.
Dachau was the first concentration camp, in operation within months of Hitler becoming Chancellor in 1933. The site consists of several reconstructed barrack buildings and a large administration building that has now become a very moving museum. Our group was not at all ignorant of the events that took place at Dachau and other camps like it, as well as the death camps at Auschwitz and elsewhere and I think in a way this made us even more unprepared for the experience of the museum. I lost track of time in there, but I think I must have been there for close to 2 hours. Whilst providing an overview of events it also cleverly shines a light on various individual stories and accounts of events which really bring home the horrible reality much more than the “distance” seemingly allowed by viewing events remotely through from a broader perspective. As I said, the museum is deceptively large, and each display seemingly tells another story. There is a sad truth in the phrase “one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic,” and the effect as you move through these tragedies is cumulative, like being constantly punched in the stomach.
Eventually emerging from the museum it was necessary to gather our thoughts before moving on. We next quickly looked at the reconstructed barrack building. After the museum I was not expecting this building to effect me. However again I was wrong as the reconstruction included a large circular sink for washing in that for many visitors perhaps remains remarkable only for its unusual shape. However it was also recognisable from a photo in the museum earlier. In that photo a man had hung himself above one of them. I quickly left the barrack building.
From here most of the rest of the site is open space. The foundations laying testament to the number of other barrack buildings and the number of people held captive at the site during its operation. Towards the top of the site are a number of religious chapels of various different faiths. Then, slightly outside of the main camp came the worst part of the day. The crematorium is without doubt the most horrible chilling and just evil feeling building I have ever set foot in. You can feel your skin crawl as you enter it. More than just numbers, more even than some of the personal testimony, just seeing the number of ovens this site required makes you truly realise how horrific these sorts of places were. Walking on through the building my faith in humanity got even worse. Dachau was a concentration camp, not an extermination camp like Auschwitz, although as the size of the crematorium laid testament to, for many victims the final outcome was much the same. But despite technically being a concentration camp Dachau did have a gas chamber, which whilst not used systematically, was apparently used on several occasions. Entering this room and just taking a moment to realise where I was, was an experience I am certain will stay with me until the end of my life. I am tempted to say that I really did feel as if I could feel my blood freezing but written down on a screen it just looks inadequate to get across the experience. I truly don’t believe words exist that can quite describe what its like to stand in one of these places.
After this we made our way back into Munich, a considerably more subdued group than before. None of us had been to such a camp before when we were at school but we were all aware of the moves across various countries to encourage this and to get more and more school children to visit these sort of places. Having been so affected by the experience you might expect that we would be supportive of such moves but for us though, it was too much. The children visit in tours, which in our view was not the best way to visit the site in any event. Taking it all in also takes a lot of time and we were unsure if children’s attention span would necessarily last. Would children be able to really appreciate and understand the context of what they were seeing? We were doubtful. Ultimately, we felt that if we were parents, we would not want our children to feel the way we had just been made to feel, and equally would not want them to visit and fail to appreciate the madness that went on here. This area of history should by no means be whitewashed, but for school children at least, I think it should be possible to learn about what lessons we might take from this and other camps, without necessarily requiring them to be taken on what has the power to be a nightmare factory.