Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Day 12: Blueprint for Terror

Dachau was the first concentration camp developed by the Nazis; it was put into use in 1933, and served until the end of the war. In the minds of Hitler and his lieutenants, it was designed so well that it became the blueprint for all subsequent concentration and death camps throughout the course of the Nazi reign.

Originally the site of a munitions factory, the Nazis re-purposed the land near the town of Dachau for a political prison and SS training facility. Upon its opening, the Nazis provided a press release stating that the camp was to accommodate up to 5000 men who endangered the state. As Nazi activities heated up in prelude to war, Hitler decided that he did not want Dachau to be "just another prison", but wanted the facility to inspire terror and remove hope. Tasked with this challenge, Heinrich Himmler turned to Theodor Eicke, a man who had to be released from a mental asylum in order to re-fashion Dachau and the guards who were stationed there.  It was the resulting plan by Eicke that governed all subsequent camps under the Nazis.

The gates of Dachau greet prisoners with the words: "Arbeit Macht Frei". This taunt was only the first of many at Dachau, for the only freedom guaranteed through work was the sort that comes when one is worked to death.

This gate, incidentally, is a reproduction, as the previous gate was stolen last year.  It is suspected that neo-Nazis stole the gate as a memento of the famed Dachau. If it weren't so sinister, it might be funny that the stolen gate has no historical significance, being a reproduction in itself.  The original gate disappeared shortly after Dachau was freed.  It is suspected that it was melted down for scrap metal.

From 1933 to 1938, prisoners were sometimes freed from Dachau.  There were no set terms of imprisonment, and the releases were not based on set rules, but prisoners did maintain small hope that their torture would end. After 1938, no prisoners were released from Dachau or the dozens of sub-camps directly under Dachau's control. Dachau was a source of slave labour to support the war effort and the continuing engine of the German economy.

War-time decisions are always complicated, but perhaps one of the more unsettling outcomes of the Nazi work camps was the widespread use of this labour by private corporations that are still in business today.  Agfa, Siemens, Puma, Adidas, and virtually all other large German companies were provided with concentration camp labour to boost production and profits.  Undoubtedly, these organizations were pressured to make use of the prisoners. Nonetheless, one has to wonder how much the advantage to the bottom line encouraged compliance.

Upon their first arrival at Dachau, prisoners would be shown through the gates and assembled for the "camp welcome", a speech by the senior officer overseeing prisoners, reminding them they had lost all rights, including the right to make eye contact with the "superior" Aryan race. During this speech, prisoners would be pulled at random from those assembled to be beaten, tortured, and sometimes killed on the spot.  The official record states that 32 000 documented deaths occurred at Dachau, but these murders at the gates and before registration never made the official record. Estimates are that many thousands of undocumented deaths occurred.

While Dachau was built to inspire terror among prisoners and the public, it was equally designed to pass the superficial inspections of the Red Cross.  The poplars lining the roadway from the gates are true to the original camp, aesthetics meant to mask the real design of the place.

Grass fields on either side of the barbed-wire fence were also meant to produce a more welcoming view. International inspections were not informed that SS guards were instructed to shoot any prisoner who set foot on the grass, and the guards always shot to kill. The fence itself, a mere eight feet high, does not announce the 30 000 volts of electricity running through it.  Escape was effectively impossible. In nearly all cases where escape was attempted, the prisoners were killed during the attempt, or subsequently recaptured.

Dachau was built for up to 5000 prisoners, yet 30 000 prisoners were found there at the time of liberation. Camp facilities had not been expanded; conditions simply progressively got worse and worse.

Originally, each inmate was provided with a single bunk for sleeping, and adequate calories to sustain himself.  While conditions were still brutal in terms of torture and punishment, this was the Dachau of the early years, where prisoners were still granted some degree of humanity, despite being identified as Untermensch, or sub-human.

As the population of the camp increased, these "luxurious" wide bunks were replaced with narrower bunks, each to house two men - sleeping head to toe. In parallel, sustenance was progressively restricted.  Ultimately, prisoners were granted no more than 600 calories per day, while expected to maintain the onerous demands of hard labour.

As conditions worsened further, these bunks were again replaced, this time by undivided platforms.  The sick and weak laid down on the hard bunks first, followed by a second row of prisoners who slept on top. It was not uncommon for prisoners on the bottom level to suffocate through the night. Perhaps, in some ways, that was better for them than to have to face another day of torture at the hands of their captors.

It is said that only those who experienced life in the concentration camps can ever understand what it was like in the concentration camps. SS guards competed with one another for the most creative and egregious treatment of prisoners, and were financially rewarded for preventing an attempted escape through the murder of the supposed escapee. Pole-hangings were common, where an inmate would have his hands tied behind his back, and then be hoisted and left there to hang, all his weight upon his twisted arms.  A few minutes were agony, yet several hours was the usual duration. In one case, a guard suspended himself by holding onto a prisoner's legs while he hung.  Swinging back and forth, the guard's weight ultimately resulted in the prisoner's arms tearing off.

SS guards may have been brainwashed.  Terrifyingly, those questioned in court after the war predominantly maintained that they were not brainwashed, but instead were working for the benefit of the German people. In the case of the prisoner whose arms were torn off, the guard compared it to pulling the wings off a fly as a child. These SS soldiers were the graduates of a system that threatened compassion with the penalty of violent death.

In the case of Kapos, mostly violent prisoners who were granted authority as administrators of other prisoners, an understanding of their deeds is further complicated. One particularly brutal Kapo forced prisoners to run barefoot through the sharp stones of the camp assembly yard for hours on end, and then clean the floors of their barracks with their tongues.  When asked how he could impose this on fellow humans, this man reportedly said that he would do anything to see his wife and daughter again.

Dachau was built as a labour camp, but it was fully equipped with the tools of mass genocide. Walking through the gas chamber was chilling, even knowing it was "only" used on two documented occasions.

The original crematorium proved insufficient to keep pace with the growing numbers of dead at Dachau, and so a larger, more efficient set of ovens was built. An untold number of bodies passed through this facility until 1944, when the Nazis ran out of coal. 

By the time the camp was liberated in 1945, dead bodies were littering the camp. Thousands more died as the Allied forces attempted to restore the prisoners to health before releasing them back home, if their homes remained.

After the war, German refugees poured back into Germany, and many were temporarily housed in Dachau.  The camp had a new lease on life. By the time the refugees were re-integrated, survivors had begun campaigning to keep Dachau as a memorial to those who suffered, and a reminder for future generations.

This memorial is one of many throughout the camp; a tribute to those who died at Dachau. Controversially, this sculpture seems to pay homage to those prisoners who threw themselves against the electrified barbed wire, unable to tolerate the suffering any longer, looking for the release of death.

I am told that the town of Dachau is very pleasant, with a well-preserved old town and castle. Many of the people who live there moved in since the war, and have no connection to the brutalities that made the name Dachau synonymous with inhumanity.

Some of Dachau's residents, however, may recall the cries of terror and agony, coaxed from the mouths of torture victims in the early mornings or late at night. SS guards warned against resistance by keeping the windows open for these deliberately-timed sessions, in the otherwise peaceful hours of the day. At the time, there was no peace at Dachau.

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