Thursday, 13 October 2011


Followers of The Afrika Reich on Facebook will know that I’ve recently returned from a research trip to Germany. The main purpose was to visit a site that will play a key role in Book 2. I’ll tell you about that sometime next year as I gear up for the publication of the sequel. In the meantime (and before the A-Z resumes) I wanted to share some thoughts about my visit to Dachau – the first of the Nazis’ concentration camps, opened as soon as they came to power in 1933.

I had expected it to be a place of quiet reflection and reverence, but was surprised – you could even say shocked – at some of the behaviour I saw there. The first jolt came as I got off the train at Dachau station to find a McDonalds. Doubtless fearing bad publicity they have at least been tactful enough to make sure you can’t photograph the word ‘Dachau’ with the golden arches behind them, nevertheless it wasn’t quite the sombre arrival I expected.

From the station it’s fifteen minutes by bus to the camp itself. The entrance to the museum is tasteful and discreet – which is more than can be said about the groups of German school kids waiting to go inside. Again, to my utter surprise, they were laughing and joking; it could have been any ordinary school-trip. (In fairness I should add such behaviour wasn’t just the preserve of Germans: I also saw an American tourist posing for a thumbs-up photograph by the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign).

What should we make of this? Talking to other people who’ve visited the camp, mine is clearly not a unique experience. Perhaps it’s the laughter of nerves. Or a lack of empathy. Maybe just indifference. I know historians have written about this, calling it a process of ‘normalisation’: how events of the Third Reich have no more resonance to Generation Z than, say, the reign of Caligula. Perhaps as someone who has written an entertainment about the period, I’m in no position to criticise.

Enough of other people. How did I find the experience?

It was all relentlessly grim. An assault on the psyche. Not just in the broadest sense of man’s inhumanity to man but in the details of the daily degradations inmates were subjected to. It was that I felt the most: one’s privacy and dignity constantly assailed. And assailed by a group of inadequate, sadistic bullies. Touring the camp there was no respite. Even the memorials (including the extraordinary sculpture on the parade ground; detail pictured) had a harrowing quality to them.

I stayed for five hours and couldn’t face all of it; I gave the punishment block and crematorium a miss. And on my way back to Munich (and the security of a comfortable hotel and decent dinner) I kept thinking of a line by the Indian poet Tagore. Nothing sums up my visit better:

When I go home, let this be my parting word, that what I have seen is unimaginable’.


  1. MacDonald's at Dachau?!?!?!?

    Take care

  2. It gave me goose bumps,dude.

  3. Kitty - seriously! I suppose it's progress... better the golden arches than a swastika.

  4. Raman - bit of an ambiguous comment, so not entirely sure what you mean. If you care to elaborate...

  5. I took my then 15 year old son (who desperatly wants to be a serviceman like his old man, now retired from service) to Dachau on a two week father/son road trip that started at the Normandy beaches and ended in Berlin. I too found the laughter and play of the teenagers discomforting. My son seemed not too effected by Dachau until after talking to him later. He found it as overwhelming as I but without a lifetime of context, had no way to process it.
    As you said, the kids today have no more relationship to events more than half a century past than I did to WWI growing up. And viewing the remnants of such barbarity would unsettle any school kid. At least the camp is on the German required school trip list.

    "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" as the Herero know only too well.

  6. Speaking as someone who has gone through the German education system, what you've most likely witnessed have either been kids too young to really grasp the actual importance of the place (you can teach even the dumbest that dictatorships and genocide and discrimination are wrong, but the theoretical knowledge and the actual proof are two different things alltogether), or you've been privy to the other side of the coin: oversaturation, resulting in a subconscious effort to ignore the whole episode (the trip there).

    We went to Dachau in 1995. A couple of the girls in class were hit pretty hard by the documentary that was shown there, but given the flood of documentaries that had been on TV for years at that time, most of us really couldn't have cared less.

    I went to school in the 1990s, and I was treated with the Holocaust and German crimes 8 times over prolongued periods as I've detailed here:

    As for the McDonalds... KZ Dachau has up to 800,000 visitors per year. Business decision, pure and simple.

  7. Scary Fast Hummer - sorry not to have replied sooner; I've only just seen your comment. That sounds like an amazing trip from Normandy to Berlin!

    The more I tell people about my disconcerting experience at Dachau the more I realise it wasn't unique, though as you say at least it's a required school trip in Germany, which brings me to the next post...

  8. War Blogger - as with the previous poster, apologies for not having replied sooner (only just seen your comment).

    Very interesting to have the perspective of someone who has been through the German education system. I had assumed that the kids just couldn't appreciate the significance of what they were seeing but had never considered your 'other side of the coin' ie over-saturation, though of course that burdens the teaching of the period with the impossibility of how much is enough / too much.

    I agree that McDonalds is purely business, it nevertheless startled me as the first thing I saw. Then again, in many ways it's progress: better to see golden arches than a swastika.

  9. Well, Guy, I guess we can both agree that the McDonald's is in bad taste.