As we were going through the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site, Claire asked me what it meant to bear witness. I told her that was exactly what we were doing – informing ourselves so that we can call out those who might have this happen again.
Dachau was another place Al and I needed to think about whether we would take the kids. While the kids went to the Nuremberg zoo, we visited the Documentation Centre that has an extensive exhibit on the rise of Hitler. We learned that Dachau was just outside of Munich and we tossed back and forth whether the kids were old enough to go.
The discussion lasted all of 10 minutes, however, because frankly – our kids have already seen the War Remnants Museum in Vietnam, the Killing Fields in Cambodia, and have passed by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Rwandan Genocide in Arusha.
Kids can handle a lot of information if you spend the time to help them understand. Going to places like these really depends on the maturity and interest of your child; not their age.
Dachau was one of the first Nazi concentration camps set up in 1933 a few weeks after Hitler was appointed Reich Chancellor. It was originally meant to hold political prisoners, but was eventually expanded to include forced labor as well as the imprisonment of Jews, ordinary German and Austrian criminals, and foreign nationals.
The camp served as a model for all later concentration camps built across Germany and in countries that Germany was occupying or had invaded. There were literally thousands of concentration camps, some of which held the sole purpose of population extinction, which is why approximately six million European Jews lost their lives during 12 years of Nazi rule.
The SS was in charge of Dachau and used the camp as a “school of violence” to teach SS members how to mistreat prisoners in other camps. Prisoners were forced to stand at attention for hours, beaten, tortured, denied medical attention, required to do hard labour, and undergo medical experiments (like drinking salt water) at the camp.
I was surprised to learn that as the war progressed, workers were used as slave labour for the armaments industry, including for companies like BMW.
The camp itself was not an extermination camp, but it is estimated that 41,500 people lost their lives there just the same.
The girls were very interested in the camp. Claire had me read out excerpts in the museum of pictures that peaked her interest (which was pretty much all of them). We saw the camp late in the day, so it was peaceful and quiet, and the memorial aspect of the camp was present.
With a degree in Political Science, none of the information was new to me. But seeing a historical site in person is so much more striking than reading about it in a textbook.
What I’ve found the most disturbing in the past couple of days is comparing Hitler’s rhetoric as he rose to power to that of populist politicians today. Anyone who leans too much towards nationalism, and who removes space from the public realm from entire groups of people, are not the leaders we need in a globalized world.
I’m sure Germans living in the bombed out shell of their country when victory was declared by the Allies would agree. Hitler’s policies led to the direct devastation of the country, as well as the horrors we saw in Dachau.
Today we have Donald Trump declaring that he will make America great again, that Muslims will be banned from the US, that Mexicans will be walled out. Replace America with Germany, and Jews and German dissenters with Muslims/Latin Americans/liberal thinkers, and you have the same rhetoric that Hitler used. It’s scary…
I hope in November that Americans prove to us that they are smarter. I hope they realize that wanting change is not a reason to vote for someone whose change is based on redefining America through race and religion. The world has already seen that and we don’t need that again.