In contrast to the Nazis’ extermination camps in Poland, the former concentration camp at Dachau, now the KZ-Gedenkstätte Dachau, was no secret. Established on the site of a redundant munitions works in March 1933 and a model for all subsequent camps, it was highly publicized, the better to keep the Third Reich’s malcontents in line. In its twelve-year existence more than 200,000 people were imprisoned here, of whom 43,000 died. It was finally liberated by US troops on April 29, 1945.
You enter the camp through an iron gate into which is set the Nazis’ bitter joke against its victims – the slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei”, “work makes you free”; here, as in so many other camps, hard work was no guarantee even of survival. Much of the camp compound now consists of the empty foundations of the old barrack blocks, but two have been reconstructed to give an idea of what conditions were like, and how they deteriorated during the course of the war as the camp became more overcrowded. The SS guards used any infringement of the barracks’ rigid cleanliness regime as an excuse to administer harsh discipline; nevertheless, when the camp was finally liberated typhus was rife.
A place of remembrance as well as a museum, the site is peppered with memorials: there are Jewish, Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic memorials at the fringes of the camp, and an expressive international memorial in front of the maintenance building.
The maintenance building
An exhibition in the former camp maintenance building describes the full horror of Dachau, including a graphic colour film shot at liberation and grisly details of the medical experiments conducted on prisoners, including hypothermia and altitude experiments conducted on fit young male prisoners in order to determine how long downed Luftwaffe pilots might survive in extreme circumstances, as well as others in which inmates were deliberately infected with malaria or tuberculosis.
The camp prison (Bunker)
Behind the maintenance building, the camp prison (known as the Bunker) contained cells for important prisoners who were kept separate from the rest of the inmates; these included Georg Elser, who tried to assassinate Hitler with a bomb at the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich on November 8, 1939, and Richard Stevens, one of the two British secret agents kidnapped and smuggled across the border from the Netherlands the following day in the notorious Venlo incident.
The gas chamber
Though it wasn’t an extermination camp Dachau did have a gas chamber, screened by trees and located outside the camp perimeter. A crematorium was built in the summer of 1940 because of the rapidly rising numbers of prisoner deaths; in 1942–43 a larger one was built, and this incorporated a gas chamber. Though it was never used for systematic extermination, former prisoners testify that it was used to murder small groups of prisoners. As in other camps, the fiction of it being a shower room was maintained. A plaque in the crematorium commemorates four women agents of the British SOE murdered here on September 12, 1944.