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Dachau: 90 years on, the warning remains

March 21, 2023

In 1933, the Nazis set up one of the first concentration camps in Dachau, near Munich — it was the start of a system of terror. What is now a memorial site still serves as a warning today.

The gate of the former Dachau concentration camp with the words 'Arbeit macht frei'
'Arbeit macht frei': The motto on the Dachau concentration camp gate exemplified the Nazis' contempt for their prisonersImage: Kickner/IMAGO

The establishment of theNazi concentration camp in Dachau, northwest of Munich, 90 years ago was the prelude to the regime's systematic destruction of human beings. The first prisoners arrived at the camp, which is not even 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) from the Bavarian capital, on March 22, 1933 — less than two months after the Nazis seized power on January 30.

"Dachau — the significance of this name cannot be exorcized from German history,"  the Holocaust survivor Eugen Kogon (1903-1987), a respected political scientist and journalist, was later to say. "It stands for all the concentration camps that the Nazis put up in the territory they ruled."

Dachau was, indeed, something of a model for further camps of this type. The historian Wolfgang Benz said once that Dachau was where "the structure for all later concentration camps was invented." In Dachau, for example, the inmates already encountered the motto "Arbeit macht frei" ("Work sets you free") on the entrance gate, as was to be the case with later camps. This phrase was a concrete expression of the mockery, the repression and the dehumanization to which the prisoners were subjected.

And, as with other large-scale camps later, Dachau had some 100 or so subcamps. It could easily happen that people encountered prisoners in many places throughout the region, perhaps while they were building roads or clearing away rubble.

'Primal site of Nazi terror'

Last June, Charlotte Knobloch, the former president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany and now a main leader of the Jewish community in Munich, described Dachau as a "primal site of Nazi terror."

Speaking to rabbis from numerous European countries, she said that for people today, it was a place that, like none other in Germany, warned "never again." "Never again exclusion, never again disenfranchisement, never again murder. Never again dehumanization. And, for Jewish people: Never again be victims," she said. The pain associated with this location is perhaps made most apparent when a rabbi sings the Jewish lament for the dead.

Charlotte Knobloch speaking at the Dachau memorial on June 1, 2022
Knobloch says Dachau remains a warning that the evils of the Nazi era should not be repeatedImage: picture alliance/dpa

To this concentration camp, the Nazis brought people who were a nuisance to them, who were inconvenient. They included those opposed to the National Socialist regime, communists, committed Christians, Jews, Sinti and Roma, Jehovah's Witnesses and homosexuals.

In the 12 years before the camp was liberated by the US Army on April 29, 1945, more than 200,000 people from all over Europe were locked up here, or, to put it more precisely, packed together at very close quarters. By the end of the war, more than 32,000 people had met their deaths here; new research even suggests that the number of victims could be as high as 41,000. About a quarter of all prisoners were Jewish. Of these, at least 11,250 died in the camp.

Black-and-white photo of Dachau prisoners, including children, welcoming US soldiers
The camp in Dachau was liberated by US soldiers in April 1945Image: akg-images/picture alliance

Imprisoned clergy

A specialty at Dachau was the so-called Priest Barracks ("Priesterblock" in German). In 1940, the Nazis gathered clergy of various denominations across Germany and from other camps in the more than 20 countries the Nazis occupied. Most of them were Catholic priests, of which a large number came from Poland. Altogether some 3,000 clergy suffered here. When epidemic typhus broke out in the camp in early 1945, some priests volunteered to care for the sick — and lost their lives in the process.

Even after US soldiers liberated the camp, it remained sealed off for weeks under strict quarantine because of the outbreak. More than 10,000 people, weakened by the years of deprivation and harassment at the camp, succumbed to the illness, including several hundred Catholic priests.

Among the imprisoned clergymen were Martin Niemöller (1892-1984), a Protestant theologian who was a prominent opponent of the Nazis, and the Dutch Carmelite friar and priest Titus Brandsma (1881-1942), who died after undergoing medical experiments in the camp's sick bay and who has been revered as a saint in the Catholic Church since 2022. Several prisoners who survived later became bishops.

Probably the last living survivor was the priest Hermann Scheipers (1913-2016) of Münster, who was ordained as a priest in 1937. He was held in the concentration camp for more than four years, from 1941-1945. Even as a very old man of more than 90, Scheipers went to schools and events to give his account of this time. "I had to tell later generations what it was like in Dachau," he once said.

Hermann Scheipers in Dachau
Scheipers considered it his duty to tell later generations what happened in DachauImage: Hermann-Josef Pape

Warning against extremism

Today, the extensive memorial site, established in 1965, is visited by around a million people from all over the world every year. Still, only a few buildings from Dachau's time as a concentration camp have been preserved.

During the visit by the European rabbis last summer, Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann announced that the memorial would be extended further. He said buildings that had been used for other purposes at the time but still belonged to the Dachau concentration camp would be freed up "because demand and the number of visitors have grown considerably." The expansions are to be completed by 2025 at the latest, he said.

For the 90-year-old Charlotte Knobloch, Dachau remains the place where "barbarity in the name of Germany" has its roots. She stresses the importance of keeping the memory alive not just to give the victims back their dignity, but because Dachau is the perpetual warning that "extremism from left and right endangers religion, social harmony and freedom. It endangers everything that we have built." Those people who are once more supporting barbarity in Germany today and who "promote it with violence" must be stopped in time, she says.

The fact that a memorial site of this kind is not immune to renewed violence became evident in 2014: On a night in November of that year, persons unknown stole the wrought-iron gate of the memorial with the inscription "Arbeit macht frei." Two years later, it turned up in Norway and was returned in 2017. The circumstances of the theft have never been elucidated.

This article was translated from German.

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Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C