review by John Conway scanned & OCR by H. Marcuse, April 2004 (Marcuse's homepage, Dachau page)

Shofar, 21:3(Spring 2003), 185-187.

Legacies of Dachau: The Uses and Abuses of a Concentration Camp 1933-2001,
by Harold Marcuse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001 . 590 pp. $34.95.

For all Germans, facing up to their Nazi post has been a harrowing experience and is still far from complete. Even more difficult has been the task of coming to terms with the physical legacy of concentration camps such as Dachau, near Munich, Once feted as pioneer institutions of penal reform, these camps soon became the sites of sadistic horrors inflicted on political or racial victims of the Nazi regime. Marcuse has now given us a full-length account of the post-1945 history of the Dachau facility, first opened in 1933 . Its purpose was well advertised, and its proximity to Munich meant that no one could have ignored its existence. But after 1945, the situation changed radically. Marcuse's description of die prevarications, amnesia, and evasions of the local authorities and population is rightly shocking. But he also points to the continued and eventually successful pressure brought by the survivors, especially from abroad. His meticulous reconstruction of the tangled arguments about what to do with the camp [186] illuminates the complexities of trying to maintain the atmosphere of violence and hatred in a museum setting, now inundated with casual and usually uninformed visitors.

Particularly interesting are the three chapters devoted to the Catholics, the Jews, and the Protestants, and their respective efforts at memorialization. The Catholics followed their traditional practice of erecting a shrine over the place of martyrdom and suffering, so that the violence of evil could be redeemed. Especially if relics of the martyrs could be found there. The emphasis is oil religious pilgrimage, not historical consciousness. The Catholic Chapel, dedicated in 1960, makes no mention of the Nazi past.

By contrast, the Protestants, led by their most famous Dachau inmate Pastor Martin Niemöller, and supported by a youth group. Aktion Sühnezeichen stressed the Church's failings in the Nazi years. The need to learn from the lessons of the past was markedly emphasized in Niemöller's speech at die ceremonial dedication of the Chapel of Reconciliation in 1967. Reconciliation could not be assumed to take place automatically, but had to be earned by an active commitment to justice and peace.

For their part, the Jewish survivors of the camp regarded it as a hell-hole. Most fled as quickly as possible to Israel or other refuges. Not until after the Eichmann trial did interest revive, when efforts were made to find a suitable, memorial for the Jewish victims. Finally dedicated in 1967, the striking, gaunt building emphasizes aspects of the Jewish identity, such as Judaism's continuity and connection with Israel, as well as including symbols of the inmates' sufferings, such as barbed wire, underground gas chamber, chimney.

Marcuse puts these architectural attempts to come to terms with the past into the wider setting of post-1945 political and intellectual trends. The volatile changes in Germany, especially during the late 1960s and 1980s, have given rise to a succession of interpretations of the Nazi period and how to deal with its atrocities, usually changing with each successive generation. No less problematical has been the choice of methods of commemoration, by whom, for whom, to whom? The question of whose perspective--that of the victims or that of the perpetrators--had to be tackled. So too, the, question of maintenance, reconstruction, or restoration of the original buildings, in the interests of authenticity, has caused continuing problems at Dachau, as at most other such facilities. For example, after the Bavarian government tore down all the tows of barracks, as being totally irreparable and unsanitary, public pressure insisted on two dormitory barracks being reconstructed, now on a more permanent--hence inauthentic basis.

Only in recent years have these issues found a tolerable solution, but the overall problem of how to bring alive the traumatic events of sixty years ago for pedagogic or therapeutic purposes remains insuperable, But at least, by the end of the century, a new generation has arisen now prepared to abandon older myths and defenses, and dedicated to gaining a more critical awareness of their own past. Today the emphasis is less on [187] personal recriminations and more on the search for meaning in the past. But even so the negative image of the camp continues to he felt and resented by die local population. Striking a balance between commemorating the victims or providing educational information for newcomers while fending off the efforts of those who would like to suppress and badly the past entirely, has not been easy. Marcuse's explanation of these dilemmas is exemplary.

John S. Conway
Department of History
University of British Columbia

scanned & OCR by H. Marcuse, 4/30/04
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