Right-wing populism in Germany
Shortly before the election, the chairman of this party, Alexander Gauland, liked to express his sympathy for all things military in public. The people of Germany, said Gauland, should be allowed to be proud again of the achievements of German soldiers in two world wars. After all, the Brits and the French were proud of their Winston Churchill or their former emperor as well. This remark was cheerfully applauded by the members of his party.
After the first shock and outrage about these remarks have calmed down, the question arises, which achievements specifically Mr. Gauland might have referred to. Did he mean German soldiers participating in the Holocaust, the mass murder of Jews, the massacres of the civilian population of Poland, the POW camps which were just as bad as the concentration camps operated by the SS? Or maybe he was referring to the military brothels, where women were forced into prostitution? The list of atrocities is much longer. 1
Dachau Concentration Camp
In the face of such attitude being on the rise, it seems to be appropriate and essential to remind people of what this position genuinely stand for and what could happen if its supporters gain too much power. For this purpose, the photographs I made a couple of months ago in the former concentration camp in Dachau, Germany, might be helpful. After being transformed into a memorial and a museum in 1965, it now gives visitors the opportunity to deal with the atrocities of national socialism. About 800000 people take this opportunity every year. Here are some cornerstone facts.
The concentration camp of Dachau was the first continuously operated nazi concentration camp. For about 12 years, people were held captive, made to do forced labor, bullied, tormented, maltreated and killed. While this concentration camp wasn’t an extermination camp, it did have gas chambers and a crematory. In the 12 years of its existence, about 41500 prisoners were killed. In the beginning, the victims were mainly political prisoners, later, Romani people, Jews, Jehova’s Witnesses and homosexual people. The SS officers who worked in the extermination camps were trained here. The concentration camp was a template for the organizational model for those camps. 2
The entrance gate
Just like in almost all other concentration camps, the sentence „Arbeit macht frei“ (Work brings freedom) is displayed on the gate. The number of victims mentioned above alone can leave no doubt that this sentence cannot be surpassed in its cynicism. Dachau was not about freedom at all. It was about death through work. 3
The sculpture by Nandor Glid
After going through the gate, the visitor enters a vast space. The two barracks on the left stand out most. After a few meters, on the right-hand side, a huge sculpture appears. It is the work of sculptor Nandor Glid. It shows contorted people hanging on a barbwire fence. Glad doesn’t one remind us of the brutality in the camp, but also of those poor souls who out of desperation threw themselves into the camp’s fence knowing very well that they would be shot for doing so.
The Dachau concentration camp was comprised of 34 barracks which were designed to house 6000 prisoners. However, when the camp was freed by the US Army in 1945, about 30000 prisoners stayed there under the worst of living conditions. 4
When I visited the Concentration Camp Memorial, it was very hot. Only very few clouds were in the sky and brought little relief from the heat to the visitors. On their way over the camp street, visitors chose to walk underneath the shadow of the huge poplars there – a luxury which the prisoners didn’t have as those poplars were much smaller in those days.
Most barracks have been torn down. Their space was filled with gravel so that you can still see their outlines today. So, while you are standing in a vast open area, actually have an indication where all the barracks stood. Some might think of this as a weird concept, but it really is not. This way, the visitor gets the opportunity to think about what he has seen, and his imagination is stirred instead of buried by a constant input. After all, Dachau today is a memorial, not a theme park.
Fences and watchtowers
Before visitors get into the memorial, they approach the gate along a wall. Today, it is a very idyllic place. Vegetation is lush and green. The watchtower behind the wall is the only thing reminiscent of the atrocities of the past. Therefore, it somehow appears to be strangely out of place.
The camp was surrounded by a so-called death strip. In Nazi-speak this was euphemistically called „neutral zone.“ It was comprised of inner ditch, the watchtowers, and an outer fence/wall. The SS-officers were ordered to punish attempted flights by immediately killing the prisoner without further warning. Many prisoners ran towards the fence to get themselves killed because the couldn’t bear the suffering any longer. 5
Crematory and gas chamber
Outside the camp, there was the so-called Barrack X. Here, there was the crematory with four ovens And a gas chamber. It was used to burn the bodies of the many people who were killed in the concentration camp.6
If and to what extent the gas chamber was used for the mass murder of people is not entirely clear. Like all gas chambers in Nazi concentration camps, the one in Dachau was camouflaged as a shower room. The word „Brausebad“ (shower room) is displayed above the entrance. Within the gas chamber, there were many fake shower heads as well as barred portholes which could be used to let Zyklon B into the chamber. In the same building, there were rooms dedicated to disinfecting the belongings of the victims as well as places where dead bodies were stored before they could be cremated.
Limits of anger and fury
According to polls, the most of the AfD voters don’t really agree with the parties political ideas. These people said that they used their vote to express their profound dissatisfaction with the achievements of the governing parties in the last term. So, they were protest voters. What a huge political stupidity. A visit to the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial or a comparable facility is wholeheartedly recommended to those voters. If they have a little glimpse of humanity in them, they might realize that anger and fury need limits. Here in Dachau, it is plain to see what can happen if limitless rage and hatred gain power. These voters would be well-advised to remember that the political system in Germany gives ample opportunity to be politically engaged and make changes. By no means, there is any need to support a party which in the style of modern day populism and with nationalist hate speech against refugees and political opponents instead of factual political substance try to convert anger into political power.
- You can get a complete picture here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_crimes_of_the_Wehrmacht ↩
- More detailed information on the camp can be found on Wikipedia and the website of the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial. ↩
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arbeit_macht_frei ↩
- https://www.kz-gedenkstaette-dachau.de/stop09.html ↩