Usually, our students are quite boisterous (usually in a very good way) as we walk from point to point on our daily adventures. Today, they were virtually silent as we explored the hell that was the Dachau concentration camp.
Many readers of this blog are familiar with the basics: As the first Nazi concentration camp, created months after Hitler took power, Dachau served as training ground, experimental lab, and model for the vast network of horrific camps that would spread throughout Germany and into its occupied territories. Although technically not an extermination camp, more than 42,000 people died there through starvation, disease, overwork, and outright murder. Countless others passed through on their way to certain death in camps outside of Germany; many here met their final fate at Auschwitz.
A good number of our students were visibly moved while walking through the gas chambers (which contrary to popular belief were used on a limited basis) and crematory; it’s safe to say none left unaffected by the experience. We suspect it will take time for some of them to process what they saw, and we hope you will read their reflections in the coming days by clicking on the student blog links at right.
Since this course is a history of mass communication, it struck this professor as to how much Dachau reflected the Nazi’s unyielding focus on managing image and language.
- When calling early detainees “political prisoners” proved to be unpalatable to the masses, the regime quickly changed their labels to “professional criminals,” and later the all-encompassing “anti-social.”
- Far from being clandestine, the Nazi’s made no secret about the camp’s existence – it appeared on the city bus schedule during the 1930s. “Everyone knew it was here,” said Jason, our tour guide. “It was never supposed to be a secret.” For the Nazis, the camp served not only as punishment but visible deterrent.
- The SS provided photographs to newspapers in the 1930s depicting tidy. clean barracks and relatively well-fed, well-bathed detainees, to assure the public that prisoners were being treated well.
- The trees lining the area near the roll call area, according to Jason, were likely part of the propaganda as well, giving a hint of lush greenery to the otherwise cold, barren landscape.
- The most cruel propaganda and abuse of language was saved for the prisoners. When coming in through the lone gate upon their arrival, they were greeted with the cruelly ironic phrase “ARBEIT MACHR FREI,” literally translated as “works make free.” And the few prisoners who were gassed here were pacified by being told a shower and clean clothes – aside from food and medicine the most desired items in the camp – awaited them.
For the purpose of the course, we intentionally put the Nuremberg rally grounds and Dachau back-to-back on the schedule. The first emphasizes the reach and scale of Nazi propaganda, the second underscores the peril of letting that propaganda go unchecked.
Below are photos of the camp with explanatory captions under each.