The morality and impacts of Holocaust Tourism

Entrance to the crematorium, Dachau concentration camp

Holocaust tourism is alive and well in Europe, especially in Germany. Across the continent there are numerous sites where elements of Nazi culture and the mechanisms of war and genocide have been preserved as memorials. These are also huge tourist attractions.

Similar to disaster tourism (the act of traveling to a disaster area as a matter of curiosity), people are fascinated by mass death and in particular the systematic genocide perpetrated by the Nazi regime. As a result, every tourist who visits Germany seeks out some aspect of Nazi culture that remains and it has become a significant part of the German tourism sector with 1.4 million people per year visiting Germany’s most infamous extermination camp, Auschwitz.

Crowds at Auschwitz

Needless to say the morality of turning these sites of mass murder into tourist sites is a grey area. The stated purpose of these memorials is to recognise the genocidal acts that occurred at these locations, to honour and remember the victims who were murdered and of course to act as a warning or message for future generations to not ever let things like this happen again.

This is an important message and the educational benefits of these memorials is without measure. For the people from all over the world who visit these sites, the horror of the holocaust is made viscerally real and the message reaffirmed at a deep emotional level.

This message aside, surely the use of holocaust sites to generate income is morally corrupt? It is illegal in most countries to profit from a criminal act and it is ironic that sites where the worst acts of inhumanity took place are so popular and therefore generate significant income for the local tourism sector.

Exit through the gift shop at Auschwitz - all proceeds are put into maintaining the historical site

While it is important to note than none of the memorials themselves make a profit - many are free admission and any entry fee only covers of the cost of staffing and maintenance, I nonetheless wonder about the private tour operators who are profiting from the site’s infamy and sordid history. At some of these sites I witnessed tourist groups and school trips who were undoubtably paying somebody extra for the same information they could easily find for themselves on wikipedia.

Furthermore, what about the trickledown effect from the high numbers of domestic and international tourists visiting the area? These tourists invest their money in the local infrastructure and economy surrounding these sites at resturants or bars when they eat and drink, at hotels or hostels when they sleep and in transport when the arrive, leave and move about. With its source of origin being Nazi war crimes, this income is of dubious morality.

‘Never Again' flasks at the UN Holocaust Museum and Holocaust souvenir mugs in Bulgaria

As a secondary school history teacher and a tourist in Germany I was intensely curious to see for myself the places I had shown students pictures of in the classroom. I was even more curious to discover the myths surrounding these places - to see if what I was teaching as fact was really the truth, and to discover how the following generations of German people were dealing with the legacy of their grandparents.

After visiting a few of these sites myself I was left with some questions: How did people in the generations since WWII deal with the knowledge that their older family members tacitly or knowingly commited war crimes? And Was the message these memorials were set up to pass on being effectively transmitted across generations and cultures?

Disclaimer: The following is my impressions and experiences after visiting some of these sites and talking with a smalk number of Germans aged 25-35. It reflects only my personal experience and perspective and is not meant to offer any judgement on contemporary German society.

Dachau concentration/extermination camp

‘Work sets you free' - entrance gate to Dachau

Dachau was the original concentration camp, set up near Munich in 1933 for political opponents of the early Nazi regime. It was to become the model for all the other concentration and extermination camps. The procedures trialled here were taken by the officers who managed the camp and transplanted to the other camps around the Third Reich (Nazi Empire). By the time of its liberation on April 29, 1945, an estimated 39,950 known murders had taken place within its walls.

Standing in the gas chamber and the crematorium was a chilling experience. Just being in a location where I knew so many people had been murdered made me feel physically nauseous and emotionally distressed.

Worse than this was some people’s behaviour on site. While most were visibly affected, others were blase or insensitive. Seeing foreign tourists taking selfies next to crematoriums revealed how some people were not affected at all and treated the place purely as a tourist attraction, like Disneyland.

Unfortunately, the most disrespectful behaviour I witnessed at Dachau was from some of the school groups. As a teacher I know that teenagers often act without thinking and the majority of the students I saw looked sober or bored. However, seeing others play-fighting in the gas chamber or sneaking off for a cigarette brought the site’s purpose into question. These were the children of the very people who had committed some of the worst war crimes in recent history and they were desensitised to the horror and suffering that had occurred here.

School trip to Dachau - highly educational

Later in Nuremburg, I asked a local about this behaviour and he described being taught about Nazi Germany “to death” (I don’t think the pun was intended) all through school until students were sick of it. My interpretation of this conversation was that for many contemporary Germans the historic sites are a local tourist attraction, something they dimly remember from school, but have not visited themselves in years.

In addition, I realised due to the constant barrage of human rights abuses portrayed by the media (eg.chemical weapons attacks in Syria, Malaysian air flight MH17 shot down, daily suicide bombings in Iraq) the Holocaust was too historical for many young people to truly comprehend. As a result of media saturation and desensitisation to violence the subject had lost the shock value necessary to successfully impart the warning that the memorials are designed for.

Nuremburg rally grounds

Nuremburg was chosen as a location for the annual Nazi Party rallies and 8 huge rallies were held here from 1933- 1938.

The rally grounds were a huge complex including several stadiums, a conference centre seating 50,000, a 2km long grand causeway and a parade ground called the Zepplin Field. The entire project was never completed as resources were redirected to the war effort after 1939.

Actual footage from the rally grounds - crowds stretching as far as you can see

Rallies were held over 8 days and included mega parades and marches, military displays, sports competitions and celebrations such as light and firework displays. 1.1 million people attended the 1938 rally and the logistics would have been a nightmare. An entire village and railway system was created to transport, feed and accommodate the soldiers alone.

The remaining rally architechure is massive, having been designed to impress, and was constructed by prisoners from natural stone quarried in nearby concentration camps.

Uncompleted conference centre/party congress

Today, the rally grounds are neglected and crumbling.

While the museum at the document centre at the rally grounds is very comprehensive (if you knew nothing about Nazi Germany before entering, you would be fully educated after leaving and could probably do my job as a teacher), most of the rally grounds have been converted to sports grounds, housing developments, car parks and parks. The city is in a predicament regarding the decaying structures because they are now becoming unsafe (being 70 years old), but the government doesn’t necessarily want to renovate or preserve the remaining structures due to the cost. There is also the risk of being criticised of glorifying Nazi culture to measure against the numbers of tourists who visit the rally grounds and museum.

Despite my growing nausea regarding holocaust tourism it was exhilirating to stand on the pulpit in the Zepplinfeild overlooking the parade ground (now a soccer stadium).

As far as I could see a project management company was busy constructing stages and locating toilet blocks for a music festival to be held on the grounds the following week. The preparations must have been similar to those done 70 years ago and I felt a little unstuck in time. As other tourists left the stage to seek shelter in the shade I was alone, standing at the very place Hitler did when addressing the parade ground below. From the pictures and videos I had seen I could imagine thousands of people below standing in perfect formation, despite the heat, and at the edge of my hearing I almost hear the roar of chanting crowds.

Memorial to the murdered jews, Berlin.

This is one of the most well known and visited memorials. As a result it is overrun with tourists taking selfies, tourist vendors selling souvenirs and immigrant children running tourist scams. The inappropriate behaviour of both tourists and opportunists at a site meant for respectful remembrance is a constant issue here. This is despite signs that ask for respectful behaviour in what looks like, and essentially is a giant graveyard. One local photographer took it on himself to creatively publically shame those he felt were deliberately disregarding the sites etiquette by posting their selfies over real life photos on the internet. See their remorse and instant regret at being part of the Yolocaust Project.

Yolocaust photos

The holocaust in Berlin is overshadowed by the additional atrocities the Communist regime inflicted on the people in East Germany after WWII until 1989. This has generated its own plethora of memorials and museums, which are also popular tourist sites.

East Side Gallery: artists work on a remaining section of the Berlin Wall

The graffitied remnants of the Berlin wall that split the city between Communist East and Democratic West Berlin are scattered across the city centre, while the former prisons, work and ‘re - education camps of the Stasi (political secret police) have been converted into museums.

Holding cell at Hohenschoenhausen Stasi prison

I was further shocked in Berlin to discover that the East German Communist government was not Soviet controlled. While it was a satelite state of the USSR, it was self governing after 1949 (only four years after the end of WWII) and all the government ministers and civil servants who violently suppressed the civil and human rights of the East German population were German themselves. I struggle to understand how people, who had so recently and personally experienced the horrors of total war under the facist Nazi regime, would continue to subject the population to another 40+ years of brutal totalitarian control.

The impact on contemporary society

A trend of all the sites I visited was that the motivation to convert these sites into memorials had been almost exclusively from the survivors and victims. After WWII and the fall of the Berlin Wall, successive governments were criticised for a lack of any appropriate response. In some instances the survivors had to occupy the site in protest to force some action from the resistant government.

Overall, it would appear that the policy of the post-war regimes was amnesty, repress and forget. Luckily, the people (and now tourists dollars) won’t let that happen. To be fair the government was in a tricky situation. The percentage of the population implicated in war crimes was too high to prosecute everyone and destroyed records meant alot of the evidence that would be needed for fair trials was absent.

Only 22 high ranking members of the Nazi Regime were helf to account and sentenced in the Nuremberg trials.

However, to use that as a justification to do next to nothing is not moral. Government officials were not charged, but are not supposed to hold current public positions, (see recent scandal involving the state secretary for housing), while other high profile officials had their assets seized or were trialled and given reduced sentences. The majority continued as before, along with whatever economic benefits they had gained from capitalising on the corrupt power structure and the seizing of personal or state owned assets. It is creepy to think that these people are present in society, walking round - maybe even pretending to be tourists and re-visiting the very sites where they formerly committed crimes.

Turning a blind eye

This official attitude of willful ignorance and active repression mirrored the attitude of desensitisation I had seen students and tourists displaying at Dachau. But I began to realise that there was more than just information overload going on. Some people were so scarred or traumatised by events they just wanted to forget, move on and make a new life. As a result one of the ways contemporary German people were dealing with their history was to treat it as taboo. The involvement of people’s grandparents and parents was never ever discussed as a topic of conversation. Even as a foreigner I found it very difficult and awkward to broach this subject with people without causing offence.

Despite the official blanket amnesty it would be false to pretend that people just didn’t know what was going on and didn’t know who was involved and to what level. An audio account by one of the first American soldiers to enter Dachau township described the smell of the crematorium covering the town, the discovery of train boxcars filled with the bodies of prisoners and his disbelief at seeing the townsfolk walking around dressed in their Sunday best as if nothing untoward was occuring less than 2km away. I began to understand why in the face of this active ignorance the American soldiers had made some of the villagers visit the camp and crematorium in an effort to force them to confront the reality everyone was hiding from.

German civilians forced to tour Dachau

There is a quote by Martin Niemoller which still resonates with me. I had read it to my students to help them understand why it was unjust to think that the German people had knowingly turned a blind eye.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Trade Unionist

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

History repeats itself

What is most concerning is that these attitudes are still present in contemporary German society. The moral ambiguity of holocaust tourism is never raised because the subject is socially taboo and Germans are polite people. Meanwhile the fear of what might happen if you question the authorities remains.

My own negative experience with the German state apparatus was while travelling by bus across Germany. Two out of the three intercity bus trips I took were pulled over for random identification checks by police or customs. The first time an un-uniformed officer took our passports and returned them fifteen minutes later, but the second time was more hardcore. First the bus was escorted off the motorway under police convoy. Customs officers had taken over the carpark of a service centre and all the passengers were forced to get off, get their bags and half were subjected to full bag search, officers even opening unopened products like honey jars etc. We weren’t searched - I think our bursting tramping packs put them off.

A quick photo of the last person being questioned/searched after I was back on the bus - officers had asked another women to delete the photos she took

In both situations no one protested or even asked why they were being checked or targeted. This quiet acceptance of the state flexing its muscles would never have happened in the USA where there is a history of people standing up for their personal rights. Historically, I guess Germans have a quite different relationship with their state. Personally (and as a foreigner) I felt too intimidated and for the first time experienced a small dose of the fear people must have felt under the Nazi regime . I am unsure if the authorities are concerned about terrorism or drugs, but it’s the only EU country I have experienced this in (Update: At the border between Spain and France a policeman entered the bus, but didn’t bother checking our passports as soon as he saw our nationality. Instead he focused on Arabic or Turkish looking people).

I found the intimidating nature of these checks and no one’s courage to even ask why especially concerning. Eroding civil rights and random identification checks is exactly the first things the German government did 80 years ago when responding to 'terrorist' attacks from communists.

I ironcially half wondered if next time I travel in Germany the authorities might ask me to wear a badge with T on it for easy identification as a tourist.