What Germany’s first ‘school of violence’ taught me about humanity

Photo: Evenly spaced poplar trees were planted along the pathway to the Dachau concentration camp. They still remain.

It was a warm morning in March, yet the shade of tall, brown poplar trees cast an eerie shadow over the pathway to Dachau. I walked down the gravel road, hoping for some signs of spring. But there wasn’t. On March 20, 1933, Dachau became the first ‘concentration’ camp opened by the Nazis, weeks after Adolf Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany. Intended for forced labour to further German war efforts, the first 200 prisoners who arrived were largely political prisoners under strict orders by Heinrich Himmler, then chief of Munich Polizei and leader of the SS. This was the very road that SS soldiers used to march arriving prisoners into the camp. Over 70 years after liberation, the walk was still a lonely one.

Photo: The entrance to the Dachau camp. The gates have Himmler’s infamous slogan “Arbeit macht frei” (work sets you free)

When I entered the gates of Dachau, I didn’t really know what to expect. After all, why would anyone visit a former concentration camp on their own? Why would anyone desire to stand in place that recorded some of the darkest moments in history? A part of me wanted to revisit a period in history that I have always been interested in; the World Wars, the leaders who rose and fell, their grave mistakes and the lessons learned. But Dachau opened my eyes to something else.

The camp’s biggest central area (also called the roll call field) felt like a large playing field. On the gates, Himmler’s infamous words “Arbeit macht frei” (work sets you free) was hidden behind a piece of cardboard. Renovation workers had covered a small portion of the gate.

This was the exact place that thousands of prisoners gathered every day to report for the SS’ roll call. They were often made to stand for long hours in spite of the cold weather, beaten mercilessly and humiliated. On a small placard, I read that even the bodies of dead prisoners were dragged into the area routinely to be counted. A former prisoner, Kupfer-Koberwitz, a German journalist and survivor of Dachau, recalled the roll call count with fear. Talking about his arrival in Dachau, he wrote in his later years, “A roaring voice from behind us to the right resonated across the roll call square. That wasn’t the voice of a human, but that of a raging animal.”

Photo: The large, open central square where prisoners gathered for their daily roll call. Public executions, beatings and punishments were carried out here.

Are we capable of violence?

Every room and corridor I walked through in Dachau made me wonder how little we know ourselves. For centuries, I am sure people have questioned how we were capable of committing such atrocious acts of violence. The ‘holocaust’ to me wasn’t a single event, a tragedy as we’ve been taught. It was certainly far worse. To me, it felt like the darkest testimony to what we are capable of as a people. I remember reading an old article in Live Science, which said that ‘humans craved violence just as they craved food, sex and drugs’. Love, the deepest emotion of all, wasn’t on that list. And that scared me.

You see, Dachau wasn’t like other camps. It wasn’t just the first ‘concept’ of a concentration camp. It also served as a ‘school of violence’ for the Nazi party’s concentration camp commandants. One of the people who trained here was Rudolf Höss, the infamous leader of the Auschwitz concentration camp. His mentor was Theodor Eicke, one of the key SS figures who notoriously managed, built and strengthened the network of camps across Nazi Germany.

Photo: The large internment camp grounds where prisoners were forced to do physical labour.

As I walked through the camp site, staring into eerie spaces where prisoners were once held, I came across a small corner which brought tears to my eyes. On a display, I read that a lot of prisoners, despite being mistreated, humiliated, starved and beaten mercilessly, found refuge in writing.

One of the lines I read was written by a young man called Karl Röder (who was also the prisoner who was forced to fashion the “Arbeit macht frei” sign on the entry gate). He wrote these lines in his memoir “nightwatch”:

“In the camp, I made a meaningful discovery: no power exists in this world that is capable of destroying people as spiritual beings.

Never has life provided so many different reasons to write…the thoughts, the reflections, the impressions to be written down.

A scribbled note could mean a death sentence..

I didn’t want to write about my experience in the camp. It was more important to express the thoughts and impressions that moved me…”

These words, and the poems written by so many others, stood out for me. It made me realise that even in times of despair and misery, a kind word had the power to give us the strength to keep looking ahead. I walked past the infamous gas chamber, the incinerators and the many rooms where prisoners died, wept, sang, held on to each other for warmth or whispered comforting, encouraging words to one another despite their pain. And nothing seemed as powerful as the literary testimonies that they left behind. It showed me that in spite of everything, they refused to be reduced to nothing, they refused to let their souls be held captive.

Photo: The incinerator where many bodies were exhumed. Some of the dying prisoners were hung in front of the incinerator until they died.

Röder was not alone. In a diary entry in 1944, another prisoner Nico Rost, wrote passionately about the solidarity they showed each other as prisoners through writing. “The hunt for paper is becoming a real sport to me.” he wrote, “and I ask everybody, even those I least expect to, whether they can provide writing paper. The whole dormitory is already involved in this game, and they drag along anything they can, even old newspapers or wrapping papers from their packages.”

A lot of prisoners, I learnt, figured out a way to “write in their minds” as a means to forget the misery around them. They were at constant threat because they would be flogged and the writing would be taken away from them, but that didn’t deter them from coming together to support each other.

Photo: Beds in the dormitory style residence area inside the camp. Most times, these beds were crowded and prisoners had no space to sleep in these compartments.

Have we learnt anything?

What I saw at Dachau haunted me for many days after. The silent camp ground is heavy with grief and it was apparent that a lot of German school children who came in with their school staff found it unsettling. This was where it had all begun, the insufferable madness and bloodlust of the Nazi regime, and as I stood there, looking at the white-washed walls and clean wooden beds, I realised that we had so easily forgotten. I had no doubt in my mind that each of those souls who perished and survived within these walls were heroes.

Every single day, when I read the news, I think of the families that are affected by the brutality and selfishness of governments waging war. I think of what they hold on to in times of tragedy. Dachau closed its doors when American troops liberated the camp in 1945. But when I think about it, I still find it hard to imagine that none of the people who held positions of authority felt the slightest compassion towards the people they held captive. I couldn’t help thinking, as I walked away from Dachau, that we have learned so little from history. I was, however, uplifted by the small fact that as a people, we had the unique power to set our spirits free against all odds.

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Meera Vijayann writes on gender-based violence and culture in South Asia. Follow her on Twitter @meeravijayann

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