One cannot visit Germany without witnessing remnants of its dark past from the Third Reich and the Holocaust. Although Berlin was the official capital during this era, Bavaria is where the Nazi party came to power. During my visit, I had plenty of opportunities to hear stories and visit sites where countless atrocities took place. Before going any further, I should warn you that this post contains some disturbing imagery.
Munich was the site of the Hitler-putsch in 1923, where a young Adolf Hitler and about 2000 Nazi compatriots staged a coup in an attempt to take control of the Bavarian government. The attempt failed, resulting in the death of 16 Nazis and Hitler’s arrest for treason. Unfortunately, the presiding judge was sympathetic to Hitler’s cause, and he was sentenced to a mere 5 years of easy time, serving less than a year. The event actually worked out in Hitler’s favor, as it gave him exposure to spread his ideas on a national stage. During his time in prison, Hitler also wrote his biography Mein Kampf, which was widely used as propaganda.
The Hitler-putsch occurred at the Odeonsplatz, a major square in Munich. Shortly after Hitler came to power, he installed a memorial to the 16 fallen Nazis at the Feldherrnhalle, a large monument in the plaza. SS men stood guard over the memorial, and anyone who passed was required to give the Hitler salute. During a free walking tour that I took in Munich (which I highly recommend), the guide pointed out this spot, along with a nearby side street that many dissenting citizens would take in order to avoid giving the salute. Unfortunately, the Nazis soon grew wise to this, and anyone who took the side route was questioned as to where they were going. If they didn’t have a good answer, they could be thrown in jail.
Another powerful memorial that I visited nearby Munich is Dachau, the site of the very first concentration camp opened in 1933. Unlike extermination camps like Auschwitz, Dachau was initially used as a work camp for political prisoners. However, this doesn’t detract from the fact that thousands of people were literally tortured to death from the brutal, unsanitary conditions they were forced to endure. First, there was severe overcrowding: Although the camp was meant to hold around 5000 people, there were nearly ten times that many prisoners by the end of the war (so that many people were forced to sleep on top of each other or even standing up). People were also forced to work extremely long hours in the hot sun or extreme cold, and often suffered from malnutrition and disease. In addition, they had to endure cruel torture from the guards, who would inflict harsh punishment for the smallest “infraction”, such as a spot of dried water on a prisoner’s plate. Finally, like some other concentration camps, Dachau involved prisoners in cruel medical experiments, such as exposing them to hypothermia or deliberately infecting them with malaria.
When the camp was first opened, the inmates primarily consisted of political prisoners such as Socialists or Communists, who refused to go along with the Nazis’ agenda. However, this was soon expanded to include homosexuals, gypsies, Jehovah’s witnesses, and of course Jews. The interning of Jews rapidly expanded after Kristallnacht (“The Night of Broken Glass”) in 1938, where all over the country Jewish homes and synagogues were ransacked in response to the assassination of a Nazi diplomat by a Polish Jew. After this tragic evening, The Holocaust and the liquidation of ghettos into concentration camps began in full force all over Germany and Nazi-controlled territories.
Prior to my visit to Dachau, I had already visited two other concentration camps: Sachsenhausen near Berlin, and Auschwitz near Krakow. However, seeing the familiar sign “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work sets you free”) on the entry gate still sent chills up my spine. Although most of the barracks at Dachau have since been demolished, a few have been left standing to remind people of the horrid living and working conditions that the prisoners had to endure. Like the other camps I visited, there is also a gas chamber and crematorium. Stepping into the gas chamber was a particularly surreal and powerful experience, as I tried to imagine the fear and confusion that people must have felt as they entered this frightening place. Apparently, guards told prisoners that it was a shower in order to get them to enter willfully, before locking them in and inserting cans of Zyklon-B. More than 30,o00 people were killed at Dachau during the 12 years that it was in operation.
There are quite a few notable people who were prisoners at Dachau concentration camp. The most famous is probably Victor Frankl, who later went on to become a world-renowned author and psychotherapist. A lesser known but perhaps equally notable prisoner was Georg Elser, who unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate Hitler in 1939. He placed a time bomb near the podium at a large beer hell in Munich where Hitler and other Nazi leaders were congregated. Unfortunately, Hitler unexpectedly left the room early before the bomb went off, although several party members were killed or injured. Elser was executed by shooting at Dachau in 1945, just one month before the end of the war.
One can’t talk about the Nazis and the Holocaust without mentioning Nuremberg. Hitler was very fond of Nuremberg, due to its status as a symbol of power during the Holy Roman Empire (see my last post for more about Nuremberg). Therefore, he chose the city as the headquarters of the Nazi party. It was also the site of several massive Nazi party rallies in the 1930s, some of which you’ve probably seen film footage of. In fact, Hitler had planned to convert a large portion of the city into Nazi party rally grounds, including a Congress Hall, parade route, as well as the largest sports stadium in the world. Although many of the buildings were not completed, several of the monuments are left standing today as a memorial to the Holocaust. Although I really only had time to see the Congress Hall, it is truly massive in size. Built to hold around 50,000 people, it is hard to imagine the frenetic atmosphere and frenzied nationalism that spread through this now quiet space not so long ago. In a section of the Congress Hall is an absolutely fascinating museum that documents the history and consequences of Nazi Germany, from its origins until the present day. While in Nuremberg, I highly recommend taking a couple of hours to check out the exhibits, and make sure to grab an audio guide since most of the written text is in German.
Aside from the rally grounds, Nuremberg is also the site of the famous trials held for Nazi war criminals shortly after World War II. Although Hitler had committed suicide prior to Germany’s surrender, dozens of high-ranking Nazi officials still survived and were tried for their crimes by an international tribunal. You can tour the actual courthouse in Nuremberg where these trials took place. While I would have liked to have visited this place, I didn’t quite have enough time as I only visited Nuremberg as a day trip from Munich. Unfortunately, for the most part these trials were fairly superficial, and only a small fraction of those who were tried were actually convicted or sentenced for their crimes. Most were acquitted or escaped to other countries to live out fairly normal lives.
One final thing that I want to mention is that Germans do not shy away from their dark past. They openly acknowledge the atrocities that were committed via the many monuments, memorials, and museums throughout the country that are dedicated to the memory of the Holocaust. By doing so, they are able to move on and ensure that something like that will never again occur in their country. I think this is a very commendable action on their part, and something that Americans should definitely learn from regarding aspects of their own dark history, such as slavery and the genocide of American Indians.
The eventful week that I spent in Bavaria brought a close to my time in Western Europe for this trip. Afterwards, I headed to Eastern Europe to visit the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as the Balkan countries of Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece. There I would encounter more beautiful landscapes, medieval architecture, and of course the unsettling history that these countries endured under the shadow of Communist Russia.