Posts Tagged ‘Dachau’

WW2 Relevance

|   18 September 2011

Arbeit Macht Frei

Arbeit Macht Frei inscribed on the main gate of Dachau concentration camp

‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (‘work makes you free’) must be one of the most infamous phrases in the world. But, I thought, as I filmed at the site of Dachau concentration camp this week, the origin of this phrase is often misunderstood.

The words are almost exclusively known because the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoess, placed them on a giant iron banner above the entrance to Auschwitz main camp. Here they were to take on the meaning of a black, cynical joke, since ‘work’ most certainly did not make the vast majority of the Auschwitz inmates ‘free’ – in fact, work or the gas chambers killed more than a million of them.

But what a visit to Dachau reminds us, is that this was not necessarily how the Nazis originally saw the meaning of this phrase at all. ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’, which was emblazoned on the gates of Dachau in 1936, four years before Auschwitz main camp was constructed, was the title of a nineteenth century novel by Lorenz Diefenbach about the idea of redemption through work. And this notion of the power of work to reclaim ‘degenerates’ was what the most powerful commandant of Dachau, Theodore Eicke, saw as the purpose of concentration camps before the war.

Close up of Arbeit Macht Frei at Dachau

The concentration camp of Dachau, outside Munich in southern Germany, established shortly after the Nazis came to power in January 1933, was not designed to murder people en masse – nor were most people who were sent there in the Nazis’ early years Jewish. Most were political prisoners, and though a minority of people sent to Dachau before the war did die there – often after appalling mistreatment by the SS guards – the majority did not. They went into the camp and were, as the Nazis saw it, brutally ‘re-educated’ and then released back into society.

Eicke, one of the most gifted sadists who has ever lived, devised a routine designed to break the spirit of the prisoners. Yes, there was physical brutality, but often the worst form of torture was mental. For example, if you were sent to Dachau you were never told when – or if – you might be released. Most prisoners served a sentence of around eighteen months, but some were there for less time and some never regained their freedom. Rudolf Hoess, who trained under Eicke at Dachau, later wrote how this uncertainty played with the minds of the inmates.

As a result, Hoess, I believe, thought that the phrase ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ was almost a ‘help’ – an ‘inspiration’ of you like – to concentration camp prisoners (and remember that Auschwitz was a concentration camp before it became a death camp). Hoess, who had been imprisoned for an act of appalling political violence himself before the Nazis came to power, always remembered how it was the chance to work as a prisoner that had helped get him through his period behind bars. And since concentration camp prisoners were forced to work, then this ‘distraction’ would, Hoess thought, make them ‘free’ inside their minds. There was also, of course, the more obvious meaning to the phrase – if you ‘worked’ as the Nazis wanted in Dachau, behaving as a good German National Socialist Worker, then you did stand a chance, before the war, of being released and ‘free’ from the camp.


Arbeit Macht Frei above the gate of Auschwitz main camp

However, I think Eicke wanted the inmates of Dachau to read something else into the iron sign ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ which he placed on the gates of Dachau. I think it was another attempt to cynically eat into the minds of the inmates. Each day they saw the sign and thought ‘will I be free today?’ and ‘will I ever be free?’

It’s a reminder that the Nazis were not just brutal thugs. Many of them were extremely clever thugs as well.

WW2 Relevance

|   29 July 2010

Concentration Camps and Extermination Camps

Dachau concentration camp in Bavaria.

I was recently asked  what I thought was the single greatest confusion in the public consciousness about the Nazis and their policy of oppression.

Not, I admit, a question that I am often asked. But, as it happened, it was one for which I had a ready answer, because I have thought for a long time that a huge amount of confusion is caused because of the difference between a Nazi concentration camp (in German ‘Konzentrationslager’) and a Nazi death camp (in German ‘Vernichtungslager’).

I remember that when I first visited Dachau concentration camp in Bavaria – some twenty years ago now – I overheard an English tourist remark that she thought it ‘terrible, since Dachau opened in 1933, that people didn’t stop the Nazis murdering Jews in the camp from that very moment’. And then, only a couple of years ago, a high school student I met at the Holocaust museum in Washington asked me: ’since concentration camps appeared in Germany almost from the moment Hitler came to power, why hadn’t the Holocaust been stopped right there and then!’

It’s a profound misunderstanding, of course, to think that a ‘concentration camp’ and an ‘extermination camp’ were the same. Concentration camps like Dachau were indeed established in Germany very early on during Hitler’s rule, but they were not built to kill the Jews. Whilst some Jews were sent there, as were Gypsies and other at risk categories in the Nazi state, these camps were primarily established to imprison the Nazis’ political opponents and the majority of inmates were released after a stay of anything from a few months to a few years.  Conditions in the concentration camps were appalling – torture and other forms of mistreatment were commonplace – and a number of people were killed, with the SS sometimes pretending they died whilst ‘trying to escape’ – but this was not the norm. These concentration camps were conceived not as extermination centres but as places of oppression. As such the Nazis wanted people to know that they existed. The concentration camp of Buchenwald, for example, was built on a hillside, directly overlooking the city of Weimar.

Extermination camps, on the other hand, only came into existence during the war and were all situated in Nazi occupied Poland. Places like Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka were in remote areas and only had one purpose – the murder of the Jews. 99% of people who arrived at these camps were dead within a few hours.

Part of the confusion about the two types of camp is caused because the biggest camp of all – Auschwitz – was both a concentration and an extermination camp. It opened in 1940 as an even nastier version of a pre-war concentration camp (Rudolph Hoess, the SS commandant had trained at Dachau) and then subsequently developed into a place of extermination as well.

But I also believe there is another reason why so many people confuse these two types of camps. I often think that it is easier for some people to try and comprehend the horror of the Holocaust by imagining that Hitler and the Nazis always had a ‘blueprint’ for the mass murder of millions, and that they implemented a policy of mass murder from the very start of their rule in 1933. That way it is possible to dismiss the perpetrators as inhuman monsters. It makes the crime easier both to understand and – in a way – dismiss. Because since the perpetrators were so obviously evil and insane then something similar would be simple to spot if it was ever about to happen again.

The history wasn’t like that at all, of course. I’ve met many Germans who approved of concentration camps during the 1930s. They thought – mistakenly – that these camps were kind of tough ’short sharp shock’ centres for ‘curing’ anti-social elements in society. But I certainly haven’t met many Germans who lived through this period who ‘approved’ of extermination camps.

But – via a long and winding road – one type of camp led to the other.