Ashworth & Hartmann (2005): Horror and Human Tragedy

Reshaping Dachau for Visitors,

by Harold Marcuse
(professor of German history at UC Santa Barbara; Publications, Presentations, home)
March 1998 presentation revised January 2001, uploaded 10/04; formatting 9/12/05

revised text published in: Greg Ashworth & Rudi Hartmann (eds.), Horror and Human Tragedy Revisited: The Management of Sites of Atrocities for Tourism
(New York: Cognizant Communications, 2005), 118-149

"Clean Camp"
Cleaning Up
Sanitizing, 1965-96
Int'l Memorial

Introduction (back to top)

Even if, at some point since the 1970s, Auschwitz has eclipsed Dachau as the most widely recognized symbol of Nazi atrocities, Dachau remains by far the most visited original site associated with Nazi Germany. With the annual number of visitors rising from around 100,000 in the early 1950s to peak at just under one million in the late 1980s, the Dachau memorial site museum ranks among the top five most-visited museums in Germany. With foreign tourists consistently comprising well over 50% of the total visitors, state and local officials have long been concerned about the impressions visitors gain at the site. As this essay will show, their attempts to shape visitors’ experiences by reshaping the site were misguided more often then they were successful. They one-sidedly presented the desired image, without taking visitors’ expectations, foreknowledge, and preconceptions into consideration.

The "Clean Camp": 1933-1943 (back to top)

The story should begin, however, at the beginning. Long before Dachau became a site memorializing Nazi atrocities, it was a showcase for the implementation of Nazi ideology. It was the first concentration camp to be set up in 1933, and it was the first to be under the direct supervision of Heinrich Himmler, who soon controlled the entire concentration camp network in the German Reich. One of Dachau’s first commandants, Theodor Eicke, developed a penal code there that Himmler extended to the entire Nazi concentration camp system when he named Eicke "Inspector of Concentration Camps" for all of Nazi Germany in December 1934. Already by early 1934 Dachau had become a model for all other Nazi concentration camps. As the paradigm concentration camp it also served as a "school of violence" where many leading concentration camp officials received their training. Eighteen of the top concentration camp commandants and officials started out in Dachau, among them Adolf Eichmann, the bureaucrat who masterminded the industrially organized extermination of the Jews, and Rudolf Höss, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz (Distel & Jakusch, 1978, 78; Richardi, 1983, 125).

Additionally, Dachau was the camp where the best-known prisoners, including heads of state and leading officials from occupied countries, as well as high-ranking religious leaders, were incarcerated. In keeping with the Dachau camp’s importance and prominence, from the start Himmler’s SS frequently took German and foreign officials on tours of the concentration camp. SS General von Eberstein accompanied numerous high-ranking delegations, including a delegation of "high American police officials." Von Eberstein described his impression, and presumably that of his guests, in testimony before the Nuremberg court in 1946 (International Military Tribunal, 1946, vol. 20, pp. 342ff):

I can only repeat that everything was scrupulously clean, the sanitary installations that I saw were in excellent order, that in peacetime the prisoners were well nourished and, as I saw during the war, on the average their food was like the food of every German outside. I can only say here on oath what I myself saw with my own eyes.

Such testimony points to an often forgotten fact about the Nazi concentration camps: In the Nazi mindset they were perceived as correctional, even educational institutions. The definition of "concentration camp" in a 1939 German encyclopedia began as follows (Berning, 1964, 112, after Meyers Lexikon, 1939):

Better [called] containment and correctional camps. Since 1933 they have the purpose a) to hold … hardened criminals, b) to temporarily neutralize Communists and other enemies of the state … and educate them to be useful national comrades.

This idealized conception explains the inscription "Work makes free," wrought into many concentration camp gates, as well as another inscription painted in broad white letters in prominent places in many camps (ill. *): "There is only one path to freedom. Its milestones are: Obedience, Diligence, Honesty, Orderliness, Cleanliness, Sobriety, Truthfulness, Self-Sacrifice, and Love of the Fatherland."

In light of the actual conditions in the camps, however, these trappings of what I call the "clean camp" were a pinnacle of cynicism. The “clean” impression was created by elaborate preparations prior to such visits. They were described at the Nuremberg trials by the Dachau camp’s former head prisoner doctor (Blaha, 1946). When a delegation was expected, the prisoners had to make sure that their barracks and other showcase buildings such as the kitchens and infirmary were spotless. Prisoners considered "dangerous" were kept out of sight. A typical visit began at the service building with the admitting rooms, kitchen and laundry, then went to the prisoner infirmary, then to a dormitory barrack, usually that of the German inmates, who received the best treatment in the camp. Sometimes the priests' barrack chapel, which included an altar and liturgical furnishings, was part of the tour. Visitors met only with carefully selected inmates.

These manipulations were apparently quite successful. In spite of evidence to the contrary, not only the visitors themselves, but also the broader populace professed to accept the “clean camp” image. Whether or not they accepted it with inner conviction is not important, for it offered a convenient, exoneratory excuse after the war, embodied in the evasive exculpation “We didn’t know!” As I will argue, West German officials, when successfully pressured by concentration camp survivors to convert the former camps into memorial sites, attempted to realize, retroactively and perhaps unconsciously, the “clean camp” image. In some cases, such as Dachau, the officials could not avoid incorporating some coincidentally preserved elements of the murder machinery, but the overall impression conveyed by (West) German memorial sites is scrupulously “clean.”

The "Dirty Camp": 1943-1945 (back to top)

Dr. Karl Doerner, an official of the Nazi Ministry of Justice, toured the Dachau camp on 4 April 1938. He summarized his impression of the camp in a memo to his superiors (after Tuchel, 1991, 339f):

The prisoners live in newly built, light and airy barracks. ... The prisoners work ten hours a day, including Sundays; if a prisoner doesn't complete his allotted amount of work, he has to continue working until he has finished it. ... The prisoners have abundant food. Every prisoner can purchase limited quantities of additional foodstuffs with his own money. In their leisure time the prisoners are not supervised and can do as they please.

By the beginning of 1938, ca. 4200 men had already been murdered in the Dachau concentration camp. Doerner was apparently oblivious to that. He recommended

… that the head and experts of the department of corrections take the opportunity to visit such a KZ [the common German abbreviation of concentration camp] camp. In my opinion, knowledge of how protective custody is implemented is important to consider when planning the implementation of preventative detention.

Prior to such visits, elaborate preparations were made in the camp. They were described by the former head prisoner doctor Frantisek Blaha at the Nuremberg trials (Blaha, 1946). When a delegation was expected, the prisoners had to make sure that their barracks and other showcase buildings such as the kitchens and infirmary were spotless. Prisoners considered "dangerous" were kept out of sight. A typical tour began at the kitchen and laundry, then went to the infirmary with its surgical station and the medical laboratories where malaria, high altitude, freezing and salt water experiments were conducted on prisoners, then to some dormitory barracks, especially those of the German inmates (who received the best treatment in the camp). Sometimes the priests' barrack chapel, which included an altar and liturgical furnishings, was part of the tour. Visitors met with selected inmates, for example first a common criminal introduced as a "murderer;" then Vienna mayor Werner Schmits and a high Czech officer, followed by a homosexual, a gypsy, a Catholic bishop or other high clergyman, and finally a university professor. Although the prisoners who witnessed these tours could not observe it, some delegations were probably also shown the camp's "museum," actually a collection of macabre curiosities including human organs preserved in formaldehyde (Smith, 1972, 126f). Himmler's huge Angora rabbit farm at one end of the complex, and the adjacent "plantation" that was to make Germany independent from imported spices, were probably part of the usual agenda as well. Himmler's daughter Gudrun, who often visited the camp in her adolescent years, has fond memories of the fluffy rabbits and exotic plants at her father's place of work (Kolb, 1983; Westergaard, 1985; Gun, 1967, 306).

The Genocidal Camp, 1945-1948 (back to top)

Living conditions in Germany deteriorated rapidly after 1943. By the end of 1944 conditions in camps such as Dachau were absolutely appalling. Even Herculean preparations could not make them presentable to outsiders, and raging epidemics made them potentially lethal to visitors as well. Thus such official visits dropped off by the end of the war, and the next "outsiders" to tour the Dachau camp were the American liberators on 29 April 1945. Colonel Bill Walsh, leader of the first squad to penetrate the perimeter of the camp, described his experience as follows (Walsh, 1985; Whitlock, 1998). As he entered the Dachau garrison Walsh noticed a disgusting smell emanating from thirty railroad boxcars standing on a siding. Closer inspection revealed that each of the traincars contained more than 60 corpses. After the remaining SS guards had been killed or captured and some semblance of order restored, some prisoners took Walsh on a tour of the camp. Walsh viewed corpses laid out in rows outside the infirmary, then he was shown the interior of one of the filthy, overcrowded barracks, the kennels of the camp's guard dogs, and finally the crematorium building with its gas chamber, overflowing morgue, and ash-laden ovens. General Henning Linden, who arrived only hours later, toured the camp with representatives of the underground prisoners' organization and reporters from Time-Life, the New York Herald-Tribune, and the Associated Press. He filed the following report (Dann, 1998, 15f):

We went through a small crematory, outside of which were shoes and clothing … we saw several stacks of dead bodies, … each looking like a human skeleton with the skin stretched over it. We visited rooms in barracks, where bunks were stacked five and six high in a room 20 by 30 [feet] where 50 men were quartered in so-called hospital wards that were nothing more than a concrete barracks floor with straw strewn on it … living skeletons were lying in ragged, dirty clothing and bedding. The outstanding picture I got from my inspection of this camp was the barbaric, infamous systematic effort of the camp routine to degrade the human to a point where he bordered on the animal. I would strongly recommend that all German citizens within marching distance of this concentration camp be forced to walk through [it], to the end that the German people could know and realize what form of government and philosophy they have been supporting during the Nazi regime.

Although Linden's recommendation that all nearby civilians be taken through the camp, only a group of Nazi notables from Dachau township was actually taken through (ill. *). That tour, and others like it at Buchenwald and dozens of smaller camps all over Germany were filmed and photographed, and have become part of the collective memory of the concentration camps (Abzug, 1985; Knigge, 1998, 96f; Marcuse, 2001, 52-6).

Not all of the immediate post-liberation tours took place under military auspices, however. Lorenz Reitmeier, the 14-year-old spross of a well-to-do Dachau family (who became mayor of Dachau for the three decades from 1966 to 1996), was taken through the camp by a surviving Polish priest immediately after liberation (Reitmeier, 1970; Reitmeier, 1985; Holzhaider, 1985). Reitmeier was shown some of the horrifying sights, including the train laden with 2000 corpses. After that tour the Dachau teenager joined the liberated priest for a bowl of soup in the priest's quarters. Reitmeier had clearly not been as sickened by what he saw as the American soldiers had been. In light of the feelings he expressed towards the camp as mayor decades later, I would surmise that young Reitmeier held fast to the image of the "clean camp" that presumably dominated his Nazi-era consciousness, in spite of the evidence he witnessed. For him, the horrific conditions must have been a mere ephemeral aberration.

Within two months of liberation most of the surviving Dachau inmates had been released or repatriated to their home countries, and the US army used the former concentration camp as an internment camp for captured German army officers, members of the SS, and high-ranking functionaries of the Nazi party. At least some of the new camp inmates were given a tour of sorts as their induction into internment. A detailed account can be found in the published version of a diary kept by a member of the German high command, General Gert Naumann (Naumann, 1984, 139-201). Naumann arrived in Dachau with a transport of other arrestees on 8 October 1945 (190). The German prisoners saw a tall crucifix on the roll-call square, and a sign "to the crematory" on the gate house. The men were taken in groups of ten into a small wooden barrack, and returned reeling, some with bloody noses (139). When it was Naumann's turn he saw on one wall "huge pictures from the KZ, horrible pictures of starving KZ inmates, mountains of corpses, tortured creatures." The Germans had to stand right in front of the pictures, and an American soldier walked by from behind and punched their heads so that their faces smashed against the wall. After that initiation, however, the American soldiers outside behaved "correctly and almost politely" while searching the Germans' bags.

Later internees seem not to have had such a physical confrontation with the atrocity pictures. Instead, others report having been shown the concentration camp film Mills of Death (Schornstheimer, 1989, 20f; author's interviews with Ludwig Hepe and Karl Schnell). In both cases, acquaintance with horrifying scenes of atrocity seems to have been the intent of the shapers of the Dachau experience at that time: the US army. This interpretation is confirmed by the first postwar exhibition mounted in the camp gas chamber-crematorium building. In November 1945, parallel to the well-known trials in Nuremberg, a US military court was set up in the Dachau camp to try Nazi criminals such as the personnel of Dachau and other concentration camps.

For this purpose the prisoners' barracks were fenced off, and parts of the service building and some outlying buildings in the SS part of the camp were converted into courtrooms. Camp survivors were allowed and perhaps even encouraged to install a small documentary exhibition in the larger gas chamber-crematorium building. I was not able to locate any visitors to or descriptions of this first exhibition, but a series of postcards, one small 23-page picture pamphlet (Dachau: Ein Tatsachenbericht), and a handful of existing photographs document that it emphasized the crass brutality of the concentration camp (ill. *). Life-size mannequins in SS and prisoners uniforms were set up to demonstrate the use of the "whipping block" and the practice of "pole hanging:" suspending prisoners from a tall pole by their hands bound behind their backs. A third group portrayed a recidivist prisoner "standing punishment" (Strafstehen) near the entry gate with a sign around his neck "I am back again."

From what we know, this exhibition documented only the murderous nature of Dachau and other concentration camps, but not their history or political functions. This focus on crimes and atrocities is revealed both in the immediacy of the reenactments of common camp tortures, and in the selection of pictures in the accompanying pamphlet. More than half of its 23 illustrations depict the most gruesome scenes photographed in the camp at liberation. There are four pictures of the corpses in the death train, several pictures of the heaped and stacked corpses in front of the crematorium, and a series of five pictures in which liberated prisoners demonstrate how corpses were dragged to the ovens with huge tongs and then pushed inside with a hooked metal pole (ill. *) (reprinted in Vaneck, 1979, 63). Three illustrations are photographs of the exhibition mannequins demonstrating agonizing punishments, and the final photograph shows a dead SS man with a huge chunk blown out of his forehead. The caption comments: "The greater portion of the tormentors received just punishment. Here are dead SS men who could not escape in time. Many others have already been sentenced by the military court."

The first Dachau exhibition, too, was designed to show the horrors in order to justify a harsh treatment of defeated Germany. As the Cold War rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union began, both superpowers relaxed their punitive stance toward Germany and took measures to gain the favor of the German populace. For example, in the West the denazification and war crimes trials were phased out after 1947. And in Dachau, with the exception of a temporary flurry of activity after mass graves outside the former concentration camp were rediscovered in 1949, the German authorities who took over responsibility for the former camp in 1948 quietly attempted to remove the traces of its atrocious past.

"Cleaning Up" 1946-1955 (back to top)

Subsequent editions of the Dachau exhibition brochure indicate that its message was already being toned down while under US auspices. A second edition of the pamphlet was published early in 1946, shortly after the end of the first Dachau trial (International Information Office, 1946). The total number of pictures increased from 23 to 36, and the captions were now quadrilingual including English, French and Polish as well as the original German. This second version still contained the same four pictures of the death train, but they were now interspersed between views of camp buildings. The shocking cremation sequence was reduced from five pictures to two. New were twelve pictures showing scenes from the proceedings of the first Dachau trial.

Still later editions from 1949 and 1950 further reduced the number of photographs of corpses while increasing the total number of illustrations. The new material included contemporary views of the various gravesites in Dachau, symbolic representations of camp statistics, a number of charcoal sketches depicting life in the camp, and a bird's-eye view of a model of the entire Dachau camp complex. The shift from pictures of corpses to pictures of cemeteries illustrates a tendency to "bury" the horrors of the Nazi past and preserve kinder memories.

As US military authorities began to wrap up the denazification process, close down the internment camps, and return them to German officials, the Bavarian government began to think about what to do with the former Dachau concentration camp. In November 1947 the Bavarian parliamentary committee on social policy discussed a proposal that former Nazi camps be cleared for reuse as work camps, because a new "Law to Combat Work-Shyness and Loafing" was being drawn up that called for the committal of wayward women and lazy men to "educational work camps" (Hagn, 1947). The matter was discussed in the full Bavarian House on 16 January 1948, and the representatives unanimously passed a resolution that called on the Bavarian government to:

immediately begin negotiations with Military Government for the soonest possible release of camp facilities (Dachau) in order to establish work camps for asocial elements. ...
The importance of work camps as places for the re-education of work-shy elements to productive citizens should be emphasized. (Verhandlungen, 1947/48)

Right down to the choice of words and the explicit reference to Dachau, this reasoning testifies to the postwar pervasiveness in the German public sphere of the image propagated by the Nazis of the concentration camps as "clean" correctional institutions.

The Bavarian parliament's decision to convert the Dachau camp into a penal facility was not an exception in West Germany. For example, in October 1947 the Hamburg prison authority appealed to the Hamburg Senate to request from the responsible Allied authority the release of the former Neuengamme concentration camp for use as a prison in the Hamburg penal system (Bringmann & Roder, 1987, 38f). While this endeavor succeeded in Hamburg, in Dachau the Bavarian government had to change its plans. With the heightening of the Cold War, German refugees began pouring into Bavaria from Czechoslovakia and other eastern European countries. In the fall of 1948 the Bavarian government rapidly converted Dachau into a residential settlement for refugees.

The barbed wire fencing and surrounding wall were removed, and most of the 32 barracks were converted into apartment buildings with 24 one- and two-room dwellings each (ill. *). One barrack was converted into a school and dry goods store, another into four workshops, two others into dormitories for single men and women, yet another into an office and communal kitchen, and 1/4 of another into a public bathing facility. The former delousing facility for clothing at the north end of the camp was converted into a restaurant with a meeting hall for up to 600 persons, and several of the apartment barracks also contained small stores (Rost, 1956). In one barrack space was even allotted for a planned municipal administration. In the following seven years, the camp street was paved, street lights installed, flower beds planted, and more stores and factories granted concessions in the old camp buildings (Marcuse, 2001, 162-4). As far as the elected representatives of the Bavarian people were concerned, there was no need to preserve remnants of the concentration camp for present or future visitors.

While Bavarian officials were converting the barracks area into a residential settlement and the exhibition in the crematorium building was languishing out of public view, a scandal was brewing at the mass grave on a nearby hill where more than 5000 corpses had been buried in 1944-45 (Marcuse, 2001, 142-51). In August 1949 a Dachau survivor taking a stroll near the site noticed some human bones uncovered by a sand-mining operation at the base of the hill. International attention quickly focused on the site, and it was revealed that the mass grave had not been cared for by Bavarian authorities. A grandiose memorial temple planned in 1945 had never been built, and local authorities had even terminated basic landscaping care after a short time. In a flurry of activity designed to curb the damage to its reputation, the Bavarian government poured money into making the former camp presentable to visitors. The atrocity exhibition in the crematorium building was redone in a much more somber, documentary tone (ill. *). A commemorative statue was dedicated in the parklike crematorium enclave, and an octagonal memorial hall was constructed at the newly landscaped mass grave site nearby.

In spite of these improvements, Bavarian authorities did not encourage visits to the former camp, as the following story by a visitor in 1951 illustrates (Werner, 1951). Alfred Werner was an Austrian Jew who had been imprisoned in Dachau for several months in 1938-39, before he was able to emigrate to the United States. In the summer of 1951, Werner returned to Germany as a tourist. Although he had not planned to visit his former prison camp, he was "magnetically drawn to it," to see, as he put it, "whether the fires were really out." In Munich his inquiries about the camp met with hostile reactions from Munich residents, but once Werner was on his way to Dachau in a bus, talkative Dachau natives addressed him and told their version of what life near a concentration camp had been like.

As his taxi from the Dachau bus station passed through the large US Army installation, Werner mused about the lives of the SS guards and officers who had previously occupied the buildings. Once inside the former prisoners' compound, Werner discovered a kind of shantytown, "a German version of a Hooverville," as he wrote. The concentration camp barracks were now covered with "Eternite" asbestos cement paneling and inhabited by "DPs"–"Displaced Persons" from Eastern Europe. As the taxi cruised down the central camp/settlement street, Werner noted that barbed-wire fencing still surrounded parts of the compound. He resisted the urge to stop and inspect the barrack in which he had lived because he did not want to disturb the playing children. Finally the taxi drove into a walled enclosure surrounding what appeared to him like a "tastefully landscaped American state park." This park featured a statue, several plaques and two crematoria, the larger of which included a gas chamber bearing the inscription "shower room," a morgue, and four ovens. Werner commented positively on the graffiti on the walls, much of it from survivors like himself.

The expatriate Austrian Jew contemplated the perfunctory manner in which his driver-guide explained the ovens and gas chamber to him, namely "with a certain callousness ... common to all guides who show visitors through cemeteries, battlefields, and the like." Werner reasoned that the memorial site was probably designed as it should be: soothing for those who had suffered in the camp, a documentary warning for those who had not experienced Nazi Germany, and not so graphic as to disturb present day life in the city of Dachau and in Germany. He suddenly felt deeply unsettled by what remained of the concentration camp's past, so he left Dachau "perhaps a bit too brusquely," wanting to shake the "cursed soil" of Dachau's past from his shoes.

Many Americans, especially American Jews, right down to the present day, express similar sentiments. In many published accounts from the early 1950s to the 1980s, American visitors describe their anticipation, observations of local Germans, thoughts about the sights in the camp, and attempts to make sense of their visit (Bettelheim, 1956; Bronstein, 1987; Decter, 1967; Gun, 1966, 296-309; Halperin, 1971, 106-113; H-Holocaust, 1994; McCord, 1999, *; Philipson, 1957; Ragins, 1992; Stokes, 1999; Tennenbaum, 1976; Wakin, 1964). Except for details about the physical condition of the former camp, which changed dramatically during those three decades, their narratives reveal a high degree of similarity. This suggests that preexisting knowledge and expectations play an extremely important role in how the memorial site is experienced.

Nonetheless, the Bavarian authorities modified the site extensively in repeated attempts to shape visitors' experiences. The first such modification was prompted by the account Alfred Werner published in Commentary after his visit. His December 1951 article came to the attention of the main Munich newspaper, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, which sent a member of its editorial staff to retrace the Austrian-American visitor's tracks and prepare a report for German readers (Steinmayr, 1952a).

In contrast to the returning Jewish survivor, the German newspaperman Joachim Steinmayr made no mention of the refugee settlement in his account of his visit. Nor did he reflect about his own impressions, or about what other German visitors might learn from seeing the preserved remains. His primary concern was the impression that the former camp might make on foreigner visitors. Steinmayr found the small exhibition of photographs, models, posters, maps, relics, and explanatory tables "unattractive." In his article he repeatedly mentioned the groups of American soldiers gaping at the whipping horse, entering their "countless" names in the visitors' book, "heatedly" but "unconcernedly" discussing something near the now-empty kennels of the camp bloodhounds, and all the while taking pictures of sights such as the old crematory, the execution range, and the "gallows tree."

Steinmayr concluded his report with a series of quotations. A refugee farmer living in the former concentration camp barracks said: "Something must be done." The mayor of Dachau commented: "We Dachauer don't like this collection of curiosities at all, but we keep our hands off." A taxi driver told him: "Whether we like it or not, it attracts foreigners, and they would be disappointed if there were nothing to see." A Dachau survivor explained: "These deeds have to be kept alive as memories and supported by facts so that no one will one day be able to call us prisoners liars." Finally, a representative of the State Restitution Office purportedly told Steinmayr that he personally was dissatisfied with the exhibition, but explained that the German authorities were at the mercy of the Dachau survivors:

If we change any part, foreigners would storm the barricades. They will say: the Germans want to cover up their guilt. ... Many of the foreigners who were once imprisoned in Dachau are completely justified in denying us Germans the right to have any say in what happens to the crematorium in Dachau.

Steinmayr did not explicitly interpret these quotations, but his uncommented selection strongly implied that only foreign interests supported the exhibition. Steinmayr concluded his article with the simple demand that "something must be done." Steinmayr never said explicitly that the exhibition should be removed, but the article's title: "When Horrors Become a Tourist Attraction," and an accompanying editorial made quite clear that the "horrors" drew the tourists, and it would be best if both disappeared. The editorial pointed out that the US government planned to build internment camps in the United States for use in domestic emergencies. The unsigned editorial concluded that even as "a kind of museum," former KZ Dachau was not a "deterrent [against setting up internment camps]."

Steinmayr himself proceeded to do "something": he made his opinion known to the broadest possible audience. His article was reprinted two weeks later in the Ruhr Nachrichten, a newspaper in the most populous industrial region of Germany, and then distributed by the news agency Nordpress in February (Steinmayr, 1952b, 1952c).

Steinmayr's report did not remain completely uncontradicted, however. In April a popular illustrated weekend magazine ran a series of pictures that closely followed Steinmayr's narrative, but with a very different "spin." Since so many publications were "serving the memory of those who served Hitler," the magazine editorialized, "we must and want to commemorate once again those who were his victims" (Löhrich, 1952). The last caption of the article, which was clipped for Steinmayr's newspaper archive at the Süddeutsche Zeitung, concluded with the contention that the crematory ovens "have become one of the most impressive memorial sites, a memorial site in two senses: an eternal accusation against the executioners, and an eternal commemoration of the unfortunate executees." That was precisely what Steinmayr did not want, and he did not leave that contention standing for long. In July 1952 he distributed a modified version of his article through the Munich Nordpress bureau (Steinmayr, 1952d). This time he did not limit himself to suggestive description, but argued explicitly. After describing the museum, he wrote:

Thus this place that was supposed to stimulate introspection ... turned into a site of curiosity and lust for sensations. ... Additionally, the visitors of the grounds, especially the conspicuously large number of American soldiers, show not the least trace of piety. They take pictures ... and talk as if they were in a zoological garden or in a wax museum, not at a site of remembrance for the suffering and death of innocent people. Thus one has the impression that the gas chamber and the crematory ovens and the two mass graves ... were never horrible reality. One leaves KZ Dachau in spite of all of the commemorative plaques ... with the feeling that this place that was intended to be a fiery appeal to humanity does not or only poorly fulfills that mission.

In contrast to the explicit praise and emphasis of commemoration in the illustrated magazine's April report, phrases such as "in spite of all of the commemorative plaques" again made clear that the exhibition should be removed, without spelling out the demand. The Bavarian authorities responded to such expressions of dissatisfaction. Almost immediately after the survivors' memorial ceremony on 30 April 1953, the Bavarian government took action (Marcuse, 2001, 176-80). On 5 May 1953 the cabinet decided to remove the exhibition from the crematorium and close it to the public. One week later the exhibition was removed, the museum closed, and the sale of printed matter within the crematory complex and all guided tours were prohibited. The Finance Minister announced to the press that it had been necessary to clear out the exhibition in order to "counter uncontrollable propaganda" being spread by the curator, a survivor of the camp (Bayern schliesst Dachauer KZ-Museum, 1953).

The Bavarian government, however, did not realize that an international pilgrimage of Dachau survivors from France was planned for 7 June. French survivors and family members of inmates who had perished had been coming to Dachau annually in June for a number of years. They had attracted little attention because the French never stayed overnight on German soil. A short time after the pilgrimage French Minister of Justice Edmond Michelet, a Dachau survivor, published articles condemning the removal of the exhibition in the French newspapers Figaro and Le Monde, prompting the French General Consulate to send an inquiry to the Bavarian government.

The correspondence between the Bavarian Ministry of Finance and the State Chancellery reveals the motives of the Bavarian government for removing the exhibition (Marcuse, 2001, 180f). The State Chancellory suggested that the Finance Ministry might mention that a survivor, Erich Preuss, had set up the exhibition "without a permit;" that the type of presentation was, "in the unanimous opinion of the responsible authorities ... not commensurate with the sacrifices of the camp prisoners" (sic!); and that Mr. Preuss had made substantial personal profits through the sale of brochures and postcards. The clinching argument was that "a broad spectrum of the public, in particular also groups of former prisoners, felt that this was, for obvious reasons, an unworthy situation that was to be terminated." That rationale was later used in the official answer to the French inquiry. The State Chancellery's accompanying explanatory letter to the Bavarian Finance Ministry, however, offers a glimpse of the real motivation: "For political reasons we strongly advise that especially no reference be made to the climate of opinion vis-à-vis the exhibition that obviously dominated certain circles in the city of Dachau."

Other West German newspapers used descriptions of tourist visits to Dachau in order to explain the removal of the exhibition. In late May 1953 the Munich Merkur published a pathos-filled description of a Swiss family's visit to Dachau ("Dachau kämpft," 1953). The family members, according to the article, had felt quite at ease in the town until they decided to visit the former KZ. That evening they returned to their hotel completely distraught, and the "aging lady" suffered an "actual" heart attack. The family fled the town two hours later. "What happened in this 'symptomatic' case?," the author asked rhetorically, and indignantly answered his own question: "The former KZ prisoner Erich Preuss, employed for many years by the US camp [actually by the Bavarian State Restitution Authority], had described the tragic past with great authenticity."

The journalist apparently thought that Preuss should have been less authentic. A week later a Heidelberg newspaper characterized Preuss as someone who "could not forget what he had experienced as a KZ inmate" ("Bayern schliesst," 1953). The article, which suggested that "Dachau be turned into a memorial of reconciliation, just as the dilapidated barracks of the former KZ have turned into a blossoming city of expellees," then fired its lowest shot at Preuss. In its most powerful invective it claimed that:

He preferred to lead the columns of visitors, after they had completed their travels through the gorgeous landscapes of the [German] south, into his KZ memorial site, where [their impression of?] the reconstruction of the new Germany was destroyed by "parting impressions" and intentionally fostered feelings of resentment. [emphasis added]

Foreign interest in Dachau remained high, however. For instance, in early March 1954 the New York Herald-Tribune published a front page article about the memorial site (Coblentz, 1954). The article, written in a cool, objective style, showed understanding for the removal of the old exhibition, but also criticized German attempts to sanitize remains of the Nazi past. The author described how the SS complex was being used by the "Dachau Detachment" of the US Army to process food and rations for army units throughout central Europe, while the Bavarian government had refurbished the prisoners' compound to accommodate 5,000 "expellees" from the East. The directional sign at the entrance to the US installation listed eclectically "laundry and dry cleaning, chapel, crematory, and motor pool." In the crematorium itself the author found no historical documentation, only hundreds of signatures on the walls. He offered the Bavarian government’s explanation for the removal of the exhibition nine months earlier, namely because it had been "offensive to good taste and … harmful to an improvement in international relations." He concluded by noting critically that the German caretaker had tried to convince him that the crematorium-gas chamber building had been built by the US army after the war for propaganda purposes.

Another article, published in 1954 by the Manchester Guardian Weekly, was more critical of the German clean-up efforts (Prittie, 1954). Author Terence Prittie first contrasted the "raggedy refugee-children" and old women peering out of the concentration camp barracks windows with the "perfectly preserved" garden around the crematoria. Then he described the gruesome murder apparatus in straightforward terms, noting that the walls were covered with "scribbled messages." In conclusion he quoted a story in a German newspaper that repeated the claim that the US had built the crematorium after the war to "pin guilt" on Germany. Prittie prophesied that in a year's time there would be neither a sentry nor directional signs.

He was right on the second count: The town of Dachau had the directional signs removed that same year, and it even attempted to prohibit the sale of literature about the concentration camp in the stores and restaurants in the former camp. In 1955 the county governor spearheaded an even bolder initiative: closing the crematorium grounds to the public, and tearing the building itself down (Marcuse, 2001, 181-5). In contrast to the Bavarian government’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering in 1952-53, however, this attempt was public. When the Dachau county representative submitted the proposal to the Bavarian parliament in July 1955, it immediately met a barrage of vehement protest from camp survivors and the news media.

From 1952 to 1955, however, the political situation had changed. The German "economic miracle" was in full swing, West Germany had been accepted into NATO and had begun rebuilding its army, and Chancellor Adenauer was about to leave for a visit to Moscow, where he would negotiate the release of the last German POWs and convicted war criminals still being held there. Thus West Germans had far less cause to perceive themselves as victims. State officials were now turning their attention outwards and trying to establish a "clean" image in the international public sphere, rather than catering to local fears of bad publicity. The same Bavarian Minister of Finance who ordered the removal of the exhibition in 1953 told the press in 1955 ("Landrat schlecht beraten," 1955):

I think that the former concentration camp Dachau is so well known and so notorious the world over, and so many people died and were murdered there, that it would give the world a very false impression if one were to prohibit visitors. Landrat Junker was very poorly advised to have submitted this bill.

The county governor withdrew his proposal, and survivors of the camp began mobilizing internationally to launch a campaign to close the refugee settlement and preserve the former camp buildings as a memorial site. It took a full decade before their effort succeeded.

1955-60: Documenting the Past (back to top)

Protracted negotiations between the survivors' organization and the Bavarian government began. A breakthrough came in 1960 from a rather unexpected source: the Catholic priests who had been imprisoned in the camp. Munich suffragan bishop Neuhäusler, who had been imprisoned with Niemöller in the tract of cells for special prisoners, was in charge of organizing the Eucharistic World Congress to be held in Munich that year. Critical reactions by two recent prominent visitors prompted Neuhäusler to decide to erect a chapel in the camp to make it more "dignified" for the unavoidable visits by foreigners. The first was an initiative by Italian Dachau survivors to erect a chapel near the camp's mass grave site, which highlighted the fact that the Bavarian government had done next to nothing to memorialize the camp. The second was a September 1959 visit by Captain Leonard Cheshire, the British observer in the bombing of Nagasaki, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the outbreak of the World War II.

Within six months Neuhäusler organized a fund-raising drive, found a suitable design, and began construction. He decided to dedicate the chapel at an official ceremony during the World Congress in early August 1960, when tens of thousands of foreign visitors would be present. The Dachau survivors, who had added a museum to their plans for a memorial site in 1957, realized that the World Congress would be an ideal opportunity to install a preliminary exhibition. In July 1960 they created a small exhibition in the morgue and undressing rooms of the crematorium, where the first postwar exhibition had stood until 1953. The August 1960 chapel dedication was an impressive event, with at least 50,000 people in attendance. During the following year the temporary exhibition was expanded and improved, and the Bavarian government began negotiating more seriously about relocating the thousands of people still living in the former concentration camp, even though its foot-dragging continued for several more years.

This 1960 exhibition contained many of the elements of the permanent exhibition that was to open in 1965. In one room a model of the prisoners' compound of the concentration camp, which had already been commissioned by the survivors in 1957 for the permanent museum, was displayed. The rest was a collection of artifacts, charts, photographs and facsimile documents. A local newspaper reporter described it as follows (Reichel, 1960):

Statistics, blueprints, and documents aid one's memory: arrest warrants from the Gestapo; orders to send the prisoners' tooth-gold directly to the medical office, to make women's hair into felt and yarn, and to bring the low temperature experiments "to a good conclusion;" clemency petitions, reports about autopsies, police investigations; photocopies of orders of the day and liquidation detail lists; pictures, graphs. In their midst spotted gray-blue striped prisoners' uniforms, bull whip, whipping horse, and other instruments of torture. A "profitability calculation" makes a ghastly impression: for an average life span a net profit of 1631 Reichsmarks per prisoner is calculated, "not including the proceeds from the utilization of the bones and ash," says the panel. Under it the terse preprinted forms: "release due to death"–sent to the families of dead prisoners. The last room of the exhibition is dominated by the headlines in the international press–about the liberation of the Dachau KZ prisoners on 29 April 1945, and about the subsequent trials of the SS thugs and henchmen. In one glass case lie nearly 50 books and brochures–memoirs of liberated prisoners. At the exit a placard warns: "Never Again!"

It is interesting to examine the differences between this exhibition and the one installed in the service building in 1965 (which will remain until ca. 2002). Most notably, the earlier documentation does not contain any reference to the systematic extermination of the Jews. Of course there was little room in the crematorium to display such documentation, but since the judeocide was missing from the contemporaneous museum conceptions for the barracks as well, considerations of space were probably not the reason for its exclusion. Rather, in 1960 there was very little public awareness of the Holocaust per se. Only after the Eichmann trial in 1961 did the enormity of the Holocaust–and its links to their own camp–become clear to the survivors of Dachau.

Another important difference was that the 1960 exhibition included models of the gassing facility at Hartheim in Austria, where almost 3200 Dachau inmates had been murdered, and of the shooting range at nearby Hebertshausen, where an estimated 6000 Soviet POWs were executed. Although Dutch survivor Nico Rost, one of the leading figures in the movement to create a museum, felt that these models were, if anything, too small to convey the enormity of the events they represented, they were not included in the 1965 museum (Rost, 1962). The 1965 exhibition shows only photographs and some documents of these two aspects of Dachau's history. I have not been able to find a satisfactory explanation for the disappearance of the models, although it does conform to the tendency to focus only on events within the Dachau concentration camp itself. The camp survivors made this concession in order to allay the criticism of Germans who claimed that the planned memorial site would force the town of Dachau to bear the entire burden of all crimes committed in Nazi Germany.

The survivors’ sensivity to criticism of the memorial site is also evident in the signs at the entrance to the gas chamber in both the 1960 and 1965 exhibitions. The sign attempted to strike a balance between the untrue claim that the gas chamber in Dachau had been built under American command after the war, and the fact that it had never been used for factory-scale murder. Next to the original stenciled sign "Shower Baths" over the entrance to the gas chamber an explanatory text commented: "This room would have been used as an undressing and waiting room if the gas chamber had worked. The sign 'shower baths' served to deceive the prisoners" (ill. *). In fact, the gas chamber was in good working order long before the end of the war. It was even tested on at least two groups of prisoners. It was indeed never used for systematic gassings, probably because the death rate in Dachau was high enough to keep the crematorium ovens running at capacity anyway. The explanatory sign thus inadvertently supported the myth of the "clean camp," by implying that the gas chamber had been some sort of non-functional sham. The 1965 sign was terser but equally misleading: "Gas chamber / disguised as a shower room / never used as a gas chamber."

The permanent museum's conception, developed in conjunction with German specialists sympathetic to the survivors' cause, was presented to the public in May 1963. It claimed programmatically that it would serve to "transmit to the widest possible audience a realistic and in every respect truthful picture of all events that occurred in this camp. Beyond that the exhibition has to show how this murderous system could develop and expand" (Distel & Jakusch, 1978, 5; Lehrke, 1988, 99-104). In keeping with this second goal, the 1965 exhibition included an introductory section on antisemitism and the Nazi rise to power, and another section on the program to exterminate the Jews. The four main sections are entitled:

The Prehistory up to the Take-over of Power
The Dachau Concentration Camp
Extermination and
The End of the Concentration Camps.

The first goal of being "realistic and in every respect truthful," however, proved difficult. Almost exclusive use of documents and photographs, for instance, was less realistic than the mannequins used to reenact punishment scenes in the 1945 exhibition. Instead, realism was achieved primarily by huge enlargements of very graphic photographs of scenes in KZ Dachau and other concentration camps. For example, one series depicts the death of a human subject during "high altitude" experiments in a decompression chamber in Dachau; another shows an SS man standing among corpses in a mass grave after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen.

And while everything was truthful, it was not the whole truth. Excluded were "cultural" activities not related to bare physical survival or suffering and death, so that the exhibition does not convey the aspects of the daily routine that helped to make life remotely livable under the extreme SS repression. Reading, writing, dramatic productions and political discussions, for example, were important to many of the long-term inmates. Another example is the role of religion in the daily life of some inmates, to which one exhibit case in the 1960 exhibition was devoted, but which was dropped from the 1965 exhibition. Or the clandestinely tolerated use of forbidden "bed sticks," polished sticks that helped to make the perfectly smooth beds needed to escape punishment. In fact, given the predominance of photographs in the exhibition, the overall impression is exclusively of repression, horror and inhumanity. The decision to rely solely on official documents made it much easier to document exploitation, torture, murder, suicide and emaciation than to portray solidarity and resistance among the inmates. A graduate student studying memorial site exhibitions concluded in 1990 (Brink, 1990, 72; see also Lehrke, 1988, 99-103):

Those who leave the [Dachau] memorial site [museum] take shocking pictures of horrors with them. These pictures do not serve only as sources of historical information. The greatly enlarged photographs reproduce especially the fear and terror which the prisoners experienced, presented from the perspective with which perpetrators view their victims. Almost all pictures are contextualized by explanatory texts and historical documents, but the emotional shock that they are able to trigger predominates nonetheless. ...
Consciousness of one's own [distancing] reactions when confronted by photographs of horror is not made possible by the primarily emotional appeal of the pictures in Dachau, but rather only by intellectual reflection about historical reality. The pictures in Dachau, especially the ones in the section about the medical experiments performed on prisoners, are detrimental to this approach [of fostering intellectual reflection].

In 1960 the general secretary of the international survivors organization, Georges Walraeve, explained why the museum focused on barbarity (Reichel, 1960):

As a monument of inhumanity it should teach the coming generations love of their neighbors, fraternity, and respect of human rights. ... [It] should not arouse feelings of hatred towards the German people, although the public, especially the younger generations, must be informed about the past without making things seem better than they were.

Exactly how shocking pictures of atrocities are to foster love and respect is a problem with which pedagogues are still grappling today. We will return to it at the end of this essay.

The "Green" Memorial Site, 1960 (back to top)

In addition to the development of the main museum exhibition between the late 1950s and 1965, the site as a whole was undergoing substantial changes. After the Eucharistic World Congress in 1960, Suffragan Bishop Neuhäusler proposed planting the whole barracks area with trees (ill. *) (Hoffmann, 1998, 78f). He also invited the Protestant and Jewish religious communities in Germany to erect memorials flanking the Catholic chapel at the north end of the central camp street. Although the international survivors organization forced Neuhäusler to drop this plan of greening the entire memorial site, Jewish and Protestant commemorative buildings were constructed. They were dedicated in May 1967. A Russian Orthodox chapel was added in 1994.

Although Neuhäusler was not able to push through the greening of the former Dachau prisoners’ compound, he successfully defended a remnant of that plan. He wanted the three religious memorials at the north end to be "unified" by a grassy area planted with trees. While the Dachau survivors and the architects of the Protestant and Neuhäusler's Catholic chapel were willing to compromise and allow "sparse natural plantings" and perhaps "a few tall trees" in the memorial site, the architect of the Jewish memorial drew the line, demanding a 30 meter "tree-free zone" around his building. Ultimately, a ring of grass and dwarf oak trees was permitted only around the Catholic chapel only.

The Sanitized Memorial Site, 1965-1996 (back to top)

Although the various exhibitions graphically presented the horrors of the Dachau's Nazi past to visitors, the camp terrain was emptied of historical relics. While it was clear from the outset that the gatehouse, watchtowers, and gas chamber-crematorium building would be preserved, the Bavarian government was able to persuade the survivors that it was not feasible to preserve the camp barracks. They had been built in 1937 with a life expectancy of 10-15 years (Himmler had thought that by that time the Nazis would have won the war and been able to dispense with concentration camps), and even their extensive renovation in 1948 had not been able to remove all damage from years of misuse. The costs for restoring and maintaining nearly 29,000 sq. meters of floor space would have been prohibitive. The survivors proposed various plans for partial preservation, such as restoring only a few select barracks or leaving only the end walls facing the camp street standing, but all were rejected by the German authorities.

It was easier to remove those traces of life and history in the camp that did not fit into the message that the memorial site was to convey. As Volkhard Knigge, director of the Buchenwald memorial site in the 1990s, phrased it: "The minimization of remains is a prerequisite for the maximization of possibilities for creating new meanings" (Knigge, 1996, 207). Already in 1959 former camp elder Oskar Müller noted that the Bavarian authorities were constantly trying to destroy as many relics of the camp as they could. In a letter to a fellow survivor he wrote (Müller, 1959):

We aren't making any progress in the creation of a warning and memorial site in Dachau. It is quite obvious: The motivation for this stance [of the Bavarian authorities] is the intention to spread the cloak of silence and oblivion over the last period of German history. The persecutors of yesterday who are once again setting the tone fear the presentation of historical truth, they fear those documents that reveal their shameful deeds.

Without historical relics and documents, government authorities could shape the memorial site to embody the impression they wished to convey to visitors.

The primary prerequisite for the creation of the memorial site was the relocation of the 1,500-2,000 people who had been living in the former concentration camp since 1948. Finally, in 1963-64 new housing for the refugee residents was built, and all of the barracks were demolished. The two immediately bordering the roll-call square were rebuilt according to modern standards, with foundations, cement floors, tightly fitting windows, locking doors, etc. One of these two new barracks was left empty, the other furnished to show the three chronologically successive interior bunk designs in spatial succession in the central section of the 90m length of the building. One day room, one washroom, and one communal toilet room were reconstructed as well (the original barracks had two of each). The small enclaves with more comfortable beds for the barrack functionaries, however, were not reconstructed. The outlines of the other 30 demolished barracks were marked by low cement curbs filled with pebbles. Small tablets indicate the original barrack numbers, but not the special functions that they served.

Other details of the original camp were dispensed with as well. The roll-call square had been subdivided by raised curbs, which were also not reconstructed. Instead, the international monument with its broad substructure was placed within the wings of the service building. This left the vast expanse of the original assembly grounds completely empty. The roll-call square itself, and the entire camp including the areas where the barracks had stood, were strewn with gravel and small, light-colored pebbles instead of the original grass, dirt, gravel and cement. The SS inscription on the roof of the service building was not reconstructed, nor were a number of other signs and pictures throughout the camp, such as the mural behind the crematorium ovens depicting a man riding on a pig reminding workers "Wash hands before touching corpses, any one who does not wash is a pig," and the saying "One louse–means death" (Gun, 1966, 32; Smith, 1972, 95).

Almost all of the special function buildings in the camp were demolished and not replaced: the canteen and infirmary barracks, the inmates' library, the punishment barracks, the priests' chapel, the disinfection building for clothing, the brothel, the greenhouses, the kennels, the rabbit hutches, and the SS prison. Only the entry gate, the watchtowers, the "special prisoners" bunker behind the service building, and the two crematoria were left standing (or, in the case of the watchtowers, reconstructed). Taken together, these changes reduce the multifaceted and contradictory hell of KZ Dachau to a rather sterile, unidimensional image: a barren, gray-white expanse surrounded by a high cement wall and watchtowers, a huge museum, two dormitory barracks at one end, and a crematorium with a gas chamber at the other. Thus the former concentration camp Dachau was reduced to a streamlined symbol: It had all of the stereotypical attributes of a Nazi camp–gate, barbed wire, watchtowers, crematoria–, but otherwise it had been reduced to a representation of the spotlessly "clean camp" of Nazi propaganda and its postwar mythic adherents. And that seems to have been the goal of Bavarian officials.

In 1966, after the memorial site was completed, a critical reviewer wrote that Dachau was "made up like a witch who wants to appear harmless" (Eine so pittoreske kleine Stadt, 1966). He noted the fresh paint on the service building, the clean gravel on the roll-call square, the absence of barracks, the trim "chapel of atonement" at the end of a beautiful tree-lined lane, and the cypress trees and well-trimmed hedges surrounding the crematoria. And in 1968, after the international memorial was dedicated, a reporter for the London Times described a similar impression for his readers (Warman, 1968). Noting that "much of the camp does not … act as an effective reminder of the past," he offered the following description:

The watch towers and barbed-wire fences remain, but all the barracks are gone save two, which are renovated and clean, almost clinical. … the barrack areas are now neatly marked off and numbered. … The crematorium–complete with ovens, a stretcher in the mouth of each–is a chilling sight, but it is hidden behind trees in a beautifully kept garden and it is outside the camp itself.

This British journalist also quoted several survivors who felt that the concentration camp should have been left in its original state. "It means nothing as it is," one told him.

[The International Memorial: Mass Death vs. Solidarity] (back to top)

After the Jewish and Protestant memorials were dedicated in 1967, two elements of the survivors' plan for a memorial site still remained to be realized: a central camp memorial at the roll-call square, and the restoration of the access to the memorial site through the original gatehouse with its inscription "work makes free." The central memorial was dedicated in September 1968, but the access through the gatehouse was not even realized in 1972, when the US army pulled out of the former SS camp and returned the southeast corner of the camp to Bavarian authorities. The gatehouse became accessible at that time, but instead of recreating the original access route, the Bavarian government stationed a detachment of state police in the former SS camp. Another quarter-century passed before government officials even began to consider modifications of that police installation to allow the partial reconstruction of the original access route.

[The design for the international memorial was found though an artistic competition in 1959. The winning design submitted by Yugoslavian artist Nandor Glid was further modified in a second competition in 1965 (Marcuse, 1999; Hoffmann, 1997-98). In Glid's dark bronze sculpture sticklike stylized emaciated bodies with small heads and barblike hands are interwoven and mounted on high bronze fenceposts with angled tops. Short, thick segments of barbed wire within the sculpture, and flanking cement fenceposts on both sides strengthen the impression of a mangled mass of humanity tangled into a barbed wire fence. The dark, sprawling sculpture is predominantly horizontal: 16 meters wide and 6.3 meters tall. It is also well over a meter deep, but viewers only realize this if they walk down the angular ramplike foundation that serves as the base of the sculpture, and view it from underneath. From below, the filigree structure of the piece shows the true weight of the bronze: a crushing burden of nameless, faceless mass death.

The West German committee in the CID did not like this evocation of mass misery, mass death, and complicity in the machinery of death. The Germans preferred a model by Hamburg architect Hansdietmar Klug in which a slender, 35 meter tall column of jagged, interlaced strands towered over a large and a smaller stone prism thrusting in opposite directions (Klug, 1966). While the jagged edges of the ladderlike tower connote the pain of camp life, the verticality of the piece signifies honor and resistance. The thrusting triangles are reminiscent of a famous 1923 monument in Weimar designed by Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius to commemorate the trade unionists who died defending the new German republic in the 1918-19 revolution (Schubert, 1976). That monument had been blown up by the Nazis and restored by the East German government after 1945.

Glid's original design did contain a symbol of resistance, which was included in the final project. A second sculpture concealed within the ramplike base was composed of three large stylized links of a chain adorned with triangles glazed in the colors of the cloth badges that the SS used to categorize the various groups in the prisoner hierarchy. This bas relief symbolizes the international solidarity of the prisoners within the camp. However, two of the colors used in the camps are not included in the sculpture: the green of the "professional criminals" and the pink of the homosexuals. Whereas the absence of multiple criminal offenders who usually collaborated with the camp SS is not without logic, the exclusion of the persecuted homosexuals reveals prejudices in the survivors’ organization at that time. Homosexuals were victims as innocent as Jews, whose yellow triangles are amply represented in the sculpture. Only in 1995, after almost two decades of debate, did the survivors allow a plaque commemorating the persecution of homosexuals in Dachau to be displayed in the memorial site museum.]

From 1968 until the 1990s few changes were made to the memorial site. In 1969 a film about the camp and its liberation was completed, and in 1978 a catalog of the exhibition. When the US army relinquished its corner of the camp in 1971, a few more buildings became accessible, but they remained closed to the public. Outdoors the poplar trees along the camp street were replanted in the late 1970s or early 1980s, when the original ones had to be felled. In 1983 the Bavarian government created positions for nine secondary school teachers to work with schoolclasses on a rotating basis. After 1985 large signs with maps, enlarged photographs and short texts were posted at strategic points in the memorial site. Although local authorities continued to resist the construction of a youth hostel nearby, in 1983 a coalition of local groups began to sponsor a summer "tent camp for international youth encounters." After another decade their efforts began to bear fruit, and in 1998 a "House for Youth Encounters" was dedicated.

Visitors Statistics, 1950-1995 (back to top)

Many of the didactic improvements had to do with the changing number and demography of visitors to the site. Dachau visitors statistics suggest that the popularity of the former camp among visitors is a generational phenomenon. A look at the aggregate number of visitors to the memorial site shows a jump around 1960 from roughly 160,000 visitors per year to about 360,000 visitors per year (ill. *). Then from 1975 the curve of total visitors climbs steeply to about 900,000 per year in the early 1980s, where it oscillates sharply before falling off slightly to a new plateau of about 700,000 in the mid-1990s. (The 1990s plateau may actually be 20 or more percent higher, since the head counts as visitors enter the museum have given way to hourly estimates. My personal observation of the museum personnel doing the counting suggests that in the busy summer months actual numbers may be as much as 20% higher. Additionally, during the most crowded times both individual and group visitors often do not enter the museum at all, and are thus not included in the counts.) The sharp oscillations of the 1980s are due to events such as the closing of the memorial site on Mondays for maintenance since 1983; the upsurge of interest during the anniversary years 1985 and 1990, and a falling off of foreign (especially American) visitors at the time of the Gulf War in 1991. Nonetheless, the plateaus of the 1950s, 1960s, later 1980s and later 1990s are clearly visible, as are the periods of change in the early 1960s and later 1970s.

A closer look at the breakdown between German and foreign visitors allows a more precise dating of transitions. The two curves do not begin to diverge until after 1965, when the number of German visitors falls off slightly and does not begin to pick up again until 1974, five years later than the climb in the number of foreign visitors. Thereafter the number of Germans climbs more steeply until 1979, when it again begins to level off in comparison to the more constantly rising number of foreign visitors. Looking at yet another level of detail within the German visitors, we can see that the proportion of Germans coming to the Dachau memorial site in organized youth and school groups increased dramatically during the 1960s and 1970s, from ca. 2.5% in 1965 to 14% in 1970, to 21% in 1975 and 42% in 1980 (compare ill. *). The proportion rose much more gradually to 50% in 1990, after which it jumped to and then oscillated around ca. 60% through the middle of the decade. The steep rise from the late 1960s to 1980 reflects the generational transition in interest in the Nazi past during the 1970s. Even if most of these groups of young Germans came to Dachau at the initiative of their 1968 generation (born ca. 1937-1953) teachers, the subsequent plateau indicates that interest in the memorial site was strong enough to be self-sustaining.

It is difficult to assess the effects of other factors on the number of visitors to Dachau, such the rising standard of living, which increased leisure and travel time, and the role of improved transportation infrastructure (availability of school buses, quality of autobahns, construction of commuter railway to Dachau, etc.). A comparison with two other Bavarian tourist attractions, the Deutsches Museum of Science and Technology in Munich, frequented primarily by Germans, including especially school groups, and the castle Neuschwanstein, equally popular among foreigners, can help to answer this question (ill. 3). The relatively steady upward climbs (with a slight steepening in the late 1960s) in these curves indicate that the sharp climbs and plateaus for Dachau are not attributable to external factors of accessibility.

Reconstruction vs. Preservation: Changes 1996-2003 (back to top)

The political will materialized to move the riot police barracks back and open the original access route into the camp. A commission of experts developed a new conception for the museum according to more sophisticated pedagogical standards. It also recommended symbolic partial reconstructions throughout the camp. Local, national and international lobby groups successfully pressured the Bavarian parliament to budget funds for the long overdue renovation, which is scheduled to be realized in stages between 1999 and 2001.

Not until the mid-1990s, when a much younger generation took over the reins of political power in Dachau, were substantial changes to the memorial site considered. In 1988 the Bavarian ministry of culture proposed convening a panel of experts to draw up guidelines for a major renovation. After much foot-dragging, an "advisory council" was finally established. Composed of seven historians and four Dachau survivors, the council solicited input from local, regional and national groups interested in the educational work taking place in the memorial site. In May 1996 it released its draft recommendations, which it summarized in six guidelines (Fachbeirat, 1996). Most of them addressed what should be done with the site. They stipulated that the planned visitor tour would retrace the path that entering inmates followed, starting at the entrance gate. The few remaining historical buildings would be used to house exhibitions relating to their original function (most were empty or inaccessible since 1965). Thus, the camp prison ("bunker") would contain documentaiton about the inmates held and murder in the camp, and the reconstructed barracks would house exhibits about inmate groups and daily life in the camps. Additionally, ca. 33 explanatory panels would be erected throughout the terrain. Finally, the main museum exhibition would be modernized to incorporate the latest historical findings and multimedia technology, and a new exhibit about the postwar history of the camp would be included. A more specific 1998 plan specified further that every room would also contain some documentaiton about its original function (Haus der Bayerischen Geschichte, 1999). The memorial site would thus have four distinct functional areas: 1) authentic sites throughout the terrain, with their own exhibitions, 2) the main exhibition, 3) a "communication and media" area with a movie theater, seminar and lecture rooms, and 4) an enlarged "library and archive" area for scholarly, public relations and pedagogical uses.

One guideline, however, deserves special attention. It stipulates that the redesign of the outside spaces would be governed by the following principles:

a) no reconstructions or stagings will be implemented;
b) the watch towers will not be accessible (avoidance of the perspective of the perpetrators);
c) outside of the main exhibition the history only of KZ Dachau will be addressed (no references to the situation in other KZs); only texts and pictures of KZ Dachau will be exhibited.

While the other guidelines attempt to make use of the Dachau site's ability to promote experiential learning, this final stipulation sharply curtails the redesigners' ability to use sensory experiences to foster emotional connections between visitors and the history of Nazi Germany. I suggest that these prohibitions represent a pedagogically misguided attempt to preempt criticism of the site, and that they unwittingly perpetuate the streamlined "clean camp" image.

First, reconstructions are a sensitive issue because they can be interpreted as attempts to recreate a concentration camp, as opposed to creating a space for commemoration and learning. Max Mannheimer, one of the Dachau survivors on the advisory council, stated this position concisely when he told a reporter in 1996 that the memorial site "should not become a horror story," as one might find "recreated at Disneyland" (Sing, 1998). Additionally, because claiming that concentration camp crematoria and gas chambers were constructed after the war is a favorite tactic of people who deny that the Nazi genocide took place, by extension any postwar construction might fuel their arguments.

A survey of the elements of the camp that were destroyed and (partially) reconstructed, reveals the absurdity of these prohibitions. From the inscription "Arbeit macht frei" on the camp gate, which was removed during the American occupation, to the wall, ditch, barbed-wire barrier and two watchtowers demolished in the 1950s, to the barracks bulldozed in 1964, important elements of the concentration camp had to be recreated in order to mark the extent of the memorial site. Only the kitchen/administration building, several watchtowers, and the crematorium-gas chamber building survived the clean-up efforts of Bavarian officials; the latter only because of international intervention. Why should apologetic past visions of the "clean camp" be allowed to determine the future appearance and impact of the memorial site? The real question is not whether there should be reconstructions, but what should be reconstructed, and how accurate the reconstruction should be.

Let us examine pros and cons of reconstruction in a few specific cases. The most salient feature of the present camp terrain are the rows of poplar trees lining the central camp street. The original trees were planted during the expansion of the camp in 1938. They were felled in the 1960s and replanted in the late 1970s or early 1980s. Especially when they are in full foliage, these "second generation" trees dominate the barren camp terrain and make a strong impression on visitors. Why, of all of the original elements in the barracks area, were they alone reconstructed? Without competition from other reconstructions, they help to create a serene atmosphere appropriate to the commemorative function of a memorial site. It would be quite different if, say, the barbed wire fencing that once surrounded some barracks, isolating some groups of prisoners from others, were reconstructed. Those interior fences would reinforce an experience of the isolation and harshness of life in the camp, while the trees provide a space of emotional respite for reflection about the historical events.

In contrast to the trees, only two barracks of originally 34 have been reconstructed. They were built 1965 after the extensively modified originals from 1938 were torn down. However, as mentioned above, they were built to a much higher standard, with concrete slab floors and reinforced concrete supports. Whereas most of the original barracks were subdivided into four sections consisting of one day room and one dormitory room each, one of the new barracks was furninshed with one day room and three different dormitories, representing the different bunk styles and arrangements used to accommodate increasing numbers of inmates. And not only that: The two barracks that originally adjoined the roll-call square were not dormitory barracks. They housed the camp infirmary, and the canteen, where privileged prisoners could purchase food, tobacco, and some personal items.

Instead of reconstruction, the other 32 barracks, most of which were dormitory barracks, were marked by low cement walls, which many visitors mistakenly assume are remnants of the original barracks. Neither the two reconstructed barracks nor the low cement rectangles convey an impression of the daily lives of the inmates. The hierarchies among the prisoners, and their segregation in different barracks according to nationality, religion, degree of severity of punishment, and health are neutralized. Nothing conjures up the advantages of living in a barrack closer to the kitchen, which, for example, not only shortened by up to 500 meters the distance the large vessels of broth had to be carried, but lengthened the time one had to eat it as well. How would kitchens, showers, a library, canteen, brothel, rabbit hutches and greenhouses fit into most visitors’ preconceived notions of Nazi concentration camps? In this case the reductive reconstruction dispenses with features that are crucial both to forging an experiential connection to the historical events, and for understanding the moral and physical complexities of the Nazi system of oppression and murder.

In considering this question, it is useful to distinguish between genuine and authentic: While genuine means the original itself, one meaning of authentic (which also means genuine) is that something is "marked by close conformity to an original, accurately and satisfyingly reproducing essential features" of it. Not only are the concrete reinforced barracks inauthentic, so are The watchtowers. The originals xxx had different window coverings and no doors entering into the camp. The roof of the service building, without its clean-camp inscription about the "milestones to freedom," and with the addition of dormer windows on the east wing in the 1997 renovation, is not authentic in a narrow sense, either. Clearly there are gradations in the degree of authenticity. What was a "satisfying reproduction" at one time may not be sufficient at another time. Most camp survivors and many adults today would find that machine guns and search lights overstep the bounds of appropriate reconstruction. Max Mannheimer, one of the Dachau survivors on the advisory council, stated this position concisely when he told a reporter in 1996 that the memorial site "should not become a horror story," as one might find "recreated at Disneyland." This is a valid concern, but it should not obscure the fact that a great deal could be reconstructed before there was any danger of the Dachau memorial site becoming a historical theme park or "chamber of horrors," as critics have worried in the local press since the early 1950s. Memorial site designers must thus not only decide which reconstructions are appropriate, but also how explicitly they can and should be visible as reconstructions.

To take the example of the watchtowers: For young people with little foreknowledge of the history, such graphic elements as machine guns might be effective in creating an experiential sense of what the original camp was like. In the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., visitors pass through an original deportation boxcar and walk through an arrangement of original shoes; in the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Beit Hashoah/Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, the tour ends with visitors passing through a replica concentration camp gate into a simulated gas chamber. Many younger visitors report that these are powerful experiences; some older visitors are overwhelmed by them. In these cases, however, the museum context makes clear that these are only simulated experiences. At an actual concentration camp site, that distinction is not as clear, and it becomes much more important to explicitly distinguish reconstructions from original remains. An examination of the camp features that have already been reconstructed illustrates the broad range of possibilities for marking reconstructions.

The most salient feature of the barracks area is also a recent reconstruction: the two rows of poplar trees along the central camp street. The original trees were planted during the expansion of the camp in 1938. They were felled in the early 1960s when the barracks were torn down, and then replanted in the 1980s (see ill. 4, 29). Especially when they are in full foliage, these "second generation" trees dominate in the barrackless camp and make a strong impression on visitors. Why, of all of the original elements of the barracks area, are they alone worthy of reconstruction? Without distraction by other reconstructions, they lend the memorial site an eerie, almost parklike quality. The atmosphere of the memorial site would be quite different if, say, the barbed wire fencing that once stood between the barracks, isolating some groups of prisoners from others, were reconstructed. The interior fences would reinforce visitors' impression of the harshness of life in the camp, instead of giving today's barren site a serene, garden-like quality.

Another problematic area of reconstruction is the security system enclosing the camp. From the gate inscription "Arbeit macht frei" to the one and one-half new watchtowers on the east side, essentially all of the barrier system around the camp was reconstructed after 1960. Only two segments of the ditch and barbed-wire barrier were rebuilt: near the 1965-2001 entrance in the southeast corner, and near the—postwar—gate to the crematorium in the northwest corner (see ill. x). The concrete wall, which was not even intended to mimic an original, was erected in the 1980s (ill. x). A well-tended strip of grass replaces the ditch and barrier around most of the rest of the camp. This haphazard reconstruction gives a highly distorted impression of the security of the original installation, but it is sufficient to illustrate the original security system.

One of the didactically most problematic changes in the presentation of the original security system is the broad path connecting the prisoners compound and the crematorium area. It misrepresents the completely inaccessibility of the murder and corpse disposal installation for prisoners in the camp. During the KZ period this installation was behind the barrier, ditch and wall, and strictly off limits to all but the few prisoners who were required to work there. Today a broad bridge crosses the ditch and penetrates the wall to connect the two. There are practical reasons for this artificial connection. In addition to shortening the distance visitors have to walk from the barracks area to the crematoria, this bridge physically represents the close functional connection between persecution and genocide that evolved in the concentration camps in 1941-42.

However, other ways of achieving those ends might distort the original situation in the camp less. For instance, a clearly modern ramp or catwalk over the barbed-wire barrier, moat and wall would allow visitors physically to experience their privilege of being able to transcend the prisoners' compound and examine the crematoria. A separate, ground-level bridge further down along the wall could provide access for disabled visitors and maintenance personnel. Last but not least is the question of barrack reconstructions. As mentioned above, two new barracks were reconstructed adjacent to the roll-call square in 1965, after all of the originals had been demolished. Although a prisoner infirmary and a canteen barrack (where more privileged prisoners could buy additional food and small items) originally stood at that site, these barracks were reconstructed as dormitory barracks.

The advisory council's 1996 recommendations barely address the issue of the inauthenticity of these preexisting, "staged" barracks. The more detailed plan released in 1998 suggests a more detailed dormitory reconstruction, with the formerly empty rooms at the east end of the former infirmary barrack devoted to an exhibition about the original function. In the second barrack, where the canteen was, the 1996 plan and 1998 specifications foresee exhibitions about the various groups of prisoners, such as political prisoners of various affiliations and nationalities, Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses and homosexuals, with "special emphasis on resistance and solidarity in the camp."

A biographical approach is intended to balance the structural emphasis of the main exhibition, which is based primarily on perpetrator records. However, the fact that in that very barrack certain prisoners could purchase a limited number of foodstuffs and personal items, thus reinforcing the divisive hierarchy among the prisoners, is not mentioned in the recommendations, nor is the existence of a prisoner library and classrooms in the adjacent barrack. Since these superficially benign camp-era facilities do not lend themselves to a simple "dirty camp" narrative, recreating them would raise more questions than it would answer. The advisory council may have omitted such reconstructions from its list in order to keep the message of the memorial site straightforward, thus avoiding potentially confusing or even "wrong" impressions. If that is the case, the council's calculation may be short-sighted. As argued above, memorial sites with generally limited time for visits are best suited to evoking emotional reactions that can function as a starting point for longer-term, cognitive interactions with the historical record. Creating dissonant impressions and raising difficult issues is a more promising way of fostering the development of an emotional connection than an attempt to administer the most direct anti-Nazi message possible.

Finally, as we will see, the exclusive "dirty camp" narrative is not only inauthentic, it is the least accessible to empathetic understanding. On the question of the prisoner barracks, the advisory council implicitly recognized the insupportability of its categorical prohibition of reconstructions and stagings. The recommendations suggest namely that "frames constructed out of black metal poles in the outlines of individual barracks or parts of barracks" might be used to point out the special functions of some of the demolished buildings. Documentary photographs and texts would be attached to the black poles to illustrate the special barracks functions. This kind of abstract staging elegantly solves the problem of distinguishing the authentic but non-genuine from the original by making no pretense of verisimilitude.

However, in that it did not recommend which specific barracks should be marked by framing poles, the council avoided the difficult issue of selecting aspects to emphasize. Before its recommendations can be realized, someone must decide which images of "Dachau" the memorial site should represent. The "dirty," inhuman camp would be symbolized by marking the punishment, quarantine and even the infirmary barracks (since experiments on human subjects were also performed there); the "clean," "reeducation" aspects of the camp might be highlighted by marking the library, the canteen, and the chapel for religious services. The infirmary, library and chapel could also be used to underscore the solidarity and resistance of the inmates, since both were used for clandestine and highly dangerous subversive activities.

These issues will be decided by symposia of specialists as the renovation work progresses. Striking a balance between the various aspects of the original camp to be emphasized in the memorial site will not be easy. Given the traditional emphasis on icons of the "dirty camp" in memorial sites, and the continuing desire on the part of visitors to take away a positive "lesson" from the site, it is likely that genocidal aspects and inmate resistance will be highlighted. Both derive from the constellation of myths in the 1960s: the survivors needed to highlight the genocidal nature of their persecution in order to restore their good reputation, and the 1968ers supported the survivors in order to refute the "clean" camps described by the elder Nazi-era cohorts. Equally important for the development of intuitive understanding among future postmythic cohorts, however, will be the documentation of the ideological construct of the "clean camp."

As we have seen, evidence suggests that subsequent cohorts find these streamlined iconic "dirty" camps unconvincing. The example of 1979er Stefanie discussed in chapter 12 is a case in point. Stefanie's 1968er history teacher had lectured the class on "victims, nothing but victims," and then exploded with frustration when a student asked him to explain the causes of the genocide in a way that made the behavior of the perpetrators comprehensible: "Tell us, where was the madness? Why did all those people shout hurrah and Heil? ... There must have been something to it." The desire to understand the perpetrators was at the core of the major discussion-provoking events during the 1990s: Schindler's List, the exhibition "Crimes of the German Army," and Daniel Goldhagen's book Hitler's Willing Executioners, to name only the three most salient.

This brings us to a second questionable statement in guideline five: the stipulation that the "perspective of the perpetrators" be avoided. Explaining the recommendation that the watchtowers remain inaccessible, a member of the advisory council told the author in 1997 that young Germans "already had enough experience with the perspective of the perpetrators" and should "for once experience the perspective of the victims when they come to a [concentration camp] memorial site." It is likely that another mythic legacy is at work here: the 1968ers' powerful identification with the victims. Attempting to control the visitor experience in this way is tantamount to railroading a particular view, a particularly unempathetic view, of the Nazi period into the minds of Dachau's visitors. It is likely to be as ineffectual with post-1979ers as it was with Stephanie and skeptics among her cohort.

Finally, the 1996 guidelines indicate that another mythic legacy, this time from the myth of ignorance, may also be at work: the privileging of cognitive over experiential learning. In a special section entitled "pedagogy of the memorial site," there is an explicit call to subordinate the emotional appeal of the site to a completely "rational" approach. Although it is not amplified in the suggestions that follow, the programmatic introductory sentence states: "The memorial site is not only a site of commemoration and warning, but especially a site of cognitive learning. For that reason the importance of cognitive learning shall be explicitly emphasized." In a 1998 interview advisory council member Hans Günter Hockerts, a professor of contemporary history in Munich, underscored this point, linking it to the "perspective" question:

"There will be no theatrical stagings. Visitors will not be allowed to go into a watch tower, because then they might slip into the role of a perpetrator. No one will be allowed to play a virtual SS-man—there is enough of that in those awful video games."

This statement ignores didactic insight outlined above: That memorial sites are especially suited to fostering a personal, emotional connection to historical events. Since the guidelines were completed in 1996, the realization plans have been modified several times. The Ministry of Culture first commissioned the Bavarian State Center for Political Education to oversee the project, while the task of redesigning the main exhibition was delegated to the House of Bavarian History, the official state historical museum. (Later, however, exhibition designs were solicited from private exhibition developers instead.) Given the difficult task of designing an exhibition for 50,000 square feet on a limited budget of one million Marks, the House of Bavarian History convened a colloquium of experts in June 1998.

In December 1998 concrete plans and a timetable were finally released to the public. As additional problems emerged, the council modified its suggestions. For instance, when an original fragment of a camp-era sign painted on an interior wall of the west wing was discovered, the word "verboten" in gothic script, as well as the murals left behind by U.S. soldiers, the council recommended leaving the walls intact. This prevented the movie theater from being moved to that area, since too many interior walls would have had to have been removed. The Dachau decision to preserve remains of postwar utilizations of the concentration camp echoes similar decisions made at Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald. In contrast to the early 1960s, when all traces of postwar uses were obliterated, the present consensus is that such remains will help younger generations to perceive and define their own relationships to the Nazi concentration camps. To this end, the council also recommended including a room in the museum devoted to the postwar history of the Dachau concentration camp site.

Ultimately the needs and assumptions of future visitors to the memorial site should determine what balance between emotion and cognition should be maintained. The advisory council notes in its preface that in the year 2000 the memorial site will be visited primarily by young people who have "no life-historical relationship to the events" because even their parents and teachers "only learned about National Socialist crimes … in school or college." This assumption is both misleading and untrue. The parents of the post-2000 visitors, namely 1979ers, may have learned more information at school, but they also heard the mythically colored portrayals of their 1948er parents and 1933er grandparents.

Most of the 1979ers interested in the Nazi past heard or even worked with camp survivors, and they often developed very strong personal feelings about the brown-collar crimes and their relevance for the present. It is precisely because of their own strong feelings that the 1968er designers of the new memorial site, whose 1989er children will be the teachers of those post-2000 visitors, are so concerned with controlling the experience of visitors to the memorial site.

After the year 2000 youth groups visiting concentration camp memorial sites increasingly guided by members of the 1989er cohort, whose parents were 1968ers. Those guides will probably have first learned about the brown-collar crimes in their teen years, that is, during the 1980s. In conclusion we will examine the stories of a few 1989er teachers who came to have a stronger than average connection to the events of Germany's National Socialist past. The process by which 1989ers forged stronger connections to the Nazi period is probably the best indication we have about how that process might take place in future generations. It also offers anecdotal evidence about the role memorial sites can play in that learning process.

Conclusion (back to top)

This overview of the winding path between the Dachau concentration camp and its successive recreations as a memorial site reveals that the site was actually not adapted to suit the needs or expectations of visitors at all. Instead, it was continually redesigned according the representational desires of those in power. First, United States occupation authorities used it to punish former Nazis, and exhibited only the most barbaric aspects of the camp’s past use as a prison and "death mill." West German authorities, in contrast, wanted to turn the camp into the correctional institution portrayed to them by Nazi propaganda. Economic and political constraints prevented them from realizing that goal immediately. Rapidly changing exigencies at the beginning of the Cold War prompted them to convert it into a residential settlement instead.

By the late 1950s that solution proved to be a source of increasing embarrassment, however, so Bavarian authorities reluctantly yielded to those interested in creating a memorial site. Still, they were able to shape the site in such a way that it reflected the horrific events of the Nazi period in an abstract, minimalist way. Especially in the 1950s and early 1960s German officials succeeded in removing most traces of the everyday life in the concentration camp, leaving only a few icons of a clean, streamlined murder factory: a wall with watchtowers and a gate, two bare barracks, and a gas-chamber/morgue/crematorium building. Survivors successfully rejected attempts to plant the site with trees, but new religious buildings were erected instead of preserving historic remains. The representational wishes of the powerholders are evident in the conceptions of the various religious memorials erected on the site, as well as in the international memorial dedicated in 1968.

The analysis of visitor statistics over a 45-year-period reveals the ebb and flow of German and foreign interest in the Dachau concentration camp. In general, rising interest meant increased pressure on powerholders to preserve and document the history of the camp. They shaped the former camp in a certain minimalist way in an attempt to shape visitors’ experiences, albeit with limited success. Through the 1960s and beyond, visitors were apt to take from a visit to the memorial site the same preconceptions with which they arrived. With increasing distance from the events and a shift towards visits by organized groups of young people, however, more and more visitors began arriving with less and less foreknowledge about the camp. A generational change beginning in the early 1970s and cresting in the 1980s prompted a series of augmentations to the didactic infrastructure available at the site during the 1980s. However, it was not until the late 1990s that further-reaching changes to the appearance of the site were considered. By that time the political will to confront the complexities and ambiguities in the concentration camp’s history had reached critical mass.

A younger generation of politicians and pedagogues developed guidelines to restore greater historical authenticity to the Dachau memorial site. These guidelines focus on the preservation and accessibility of the few authentic relics that coincidentally survived the destructive impulses of past generations. Still, in their reluctance to recreate important but incongruous features of the concentration camp, and in their willingness to destroy evidence of postwar uses, those guidelines run the risk of past unsuccessful attempts to shape visitors’ experiences. A memorial site must be designed to meet visitors half-way, addressing their interests first, before its form can be used to guide them towards the views the site’s designers wish to convey.

text written by Harold Marcuse March 1998, revised Jan. 2001; web publication Oct. 2004; last update: see page header
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