Our Guide Expounds at the Infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Will Make You Free) Gate

Dachau, one of the more well-known Nazi concentration camps, lies a short train ride to the north of Munich. Rick Steves of PBS fame and whose travel guide we use rates it a must see. We complied.

It’s a surprisingly popular tourist destination. There were probably 500 or more visitors there when we arrived. I didn’t think so many people would want to see a monument to death and torture but I have to commend the German government for so openly acknowledging such a hideous chapter of its history.

A significant amount of the camp remains intact. Listening to an account of the atrocities while standing in the very rooms in which they occurred is an especially effective way of getting the point across. Our guide’s German-accented English also lent a particular air of authenticity to the afternoon.

As the tale of brutality and suffering proceeded, I observed many “how-could-this-have-happened?” shakings of the head and I think many visitors take from the tour an assumption that the Nazis were a singularly cruel bunch of guys. My take is a little different.

Yes, the Nazis were undeniably sadistic bastards but sadistic bastards abound in this world. One has only to consider current events in the Middle East or recent history in several African nations to realize that sadistic bastards will always be among us. Any run-of-the-mill terrorist or criminal can commit acts of appalling butchery. What distinguished the Nazis is what makes Germany an economic powerhouse to this day: organizational genius.

P1020984-1.JPGThese Ovens Didn’t Bake Bread

The hope of those who have maintained Dachau as a memorial to man’s inhumanity is that by allowing people to witness the horrors that occurred there it will “never happen again.” Our guide did a good job of explaining how the German people allowed the Nazi state to assume progressively more power until only an overwhelming military force (America) could turn back the tide of evil.

(Pardon me if I climb onto a soap box for a moment but my visit to Dachau touched on an issue to which I have given considerable thought, namely, the fragility of democracy.)

It is my contention that the prosperous, stable, comfortable life enjoyed today by Americans and Europeans is an anomaly that is recognized as such by few of those who live it. If history instruction in our schools serves any purpose it should be to point out that the natural state of human affairs is conflict – of which savagery is a necessary part. We are living in a magical moment – the eye of the hurricane if you will, where chaos reigned in our past and in all likelihood, chaos awaits us in our future. By reminding us of the depths to which human depravity can descend, the Dachau memorial is a small step toward maintaining our current stability. But like a pencil standing on end, stability is not the natural human state of affairs.

I came away from Dachau convinced more than ever that evil is an integral part of human nature and that atrocities on the scale of Dachau and Auschwitz are only another Hitler away.