It’s hard to avoid history in Dachau. The town’s buses have the destination “Concentration Camp” illuminated in bright orange letters above their windscreens. Outside the main station, information boards recall how inmates at the mother of all Nazi camps were brutally beaten by SS guards on arrival there over 70 years ago.
The site of the infamous Nazi internment camp on the north eastern edge of the town has turned into a macabre yet hugely popular tourist attraction. More than 800,000 people, many of them foreigners, visited last year and the numbers are steadily rising beyond expectation.
“We have to accept the former concentration camp as part of our history,” Dachau’s conservative mayor, Peter Bürgel told The Independent, “But the town was formally established over a thousand years ago, it is older than Munich. It would be wrong to see Dachau purely in terms of the twelve years during which it was under Nazi rule,” he said.
Dachau, population 45,000, is on one level simply a neat Bavarian town with a castle, old town and reputation for fostering the arts. It lies just 30 kilometres from the centre of wealthy and fashionable Munich and has taken much of its population overspill over the past 30 years.
For decades the Dachau concentration camp has been a source of shame and embarrassment for successive post-war German governments. Angela Merkel last week became the first governing German Chancellor ever to visit the camp memorial site.
On Tuesday the wreath she presented was still lying close to a monument inscribed the with words “Never Again”. Helmut Kohl, her mentor and predecessor, visited Dachau town twice during his 16 years in office but he never went to the concentration camp.
Ms Merkel was bitterly criticised by her political opponents for tacking an election rally on to her Dachau tour, but her visit was welcomed by camp survivors such as Max Mannheimer, a 93-year-old member of the International Dachau Committee who described it as a “great honour” and a gesture that sent a “strong political signal” after an absence of German leaders lasting over 65 years.
The town has its shopping centres, art galleries, theatre and German equivalent of a grammar school. Its population, if anything, has come to accept the existence of the monument to Germany’s shame which lies within the town’s limits. It is no longer on people’s everyday radar. “The camp? I’ve been in there once,” said 75-year-old Konrad Grosser who lives opposite the former barracks once inhabited by Dachau’s SS-guards.
“Of course it’s horrible what they did. But it’s a fact of life here and people just get on with their lives. The good thing now is that you can walk into the camp and out again,” he joked. Dachau’s town council has done its best to try to address the town’s unenviable past head on.
The streets around the camp have all been named after Dachau’s more famous camp victims. There is a Pastor Niemöller street and a “Street of Concentration Camp Victims”.
Andrea Goebel, 33, moved to Dachau from Munich with husband and baby daughter three years ago. On Tuesday, she was pushing her child in a pram along Street of Concentration Camp Victims.
“ We came here because there is more space than Munich and its nicer for our daughter,” she said. “I often visit the camp. It’s something we have to accept – each time I go in there I learn something new,” she said. “Dachau is in a unique position – it can show the world something that should never be repeated – it’s not all bad,” she insisted.
But the vast white walled former camp with its watchtowers and wrought iron gates bearing the cynical Nazi slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work makes you Free) seems destined to leave an indelible imprint on Dachau. A former inmate’s slogan etched into a barrier outside the camp reminds the visitor that “Dachau will never be erased from German history”.
It is difficult to take issue with such a statement. The horror of Dachau takes a little time to sink in. It hits home half way through the former camp’s permanent exhibition on Third Reich terror when visitors are confronted with a piece of slatted wooden furniture that resembles an innocuous child’s toboggan.
Closer inspection reveals that a 4ft-long “bull whip” is lying across the wooden slats. The toboggan, it turns out, is one of the concentration camp system’s notorious “whipping stools” that were used to ruthlessly inflict blood soaked punishment on hundreds of thousands of camp inmates during 12 years of Nazi rule
Alfred Hübsch, a prisoner in Dachau from 1937 onwards, witnessed the whipping stool in action. His account is on display in the camp museum: “The prisoner’s screams could be heard everywhere,” he writes, “The delinquent had to count the strokes out loud. The numbers were blurted out in terrible pain so the tortured person would slur his words or misspeak. If that happened they would begin beating all over again,” he added.
The whipping stool is merely an introduction to Dachau’s regime of inconceivable cruelty. Its victims were tortured by “Pole hanging” – a system whereby inmates in groups of 50 were strung up by their hands with their arms tied behind their backs for hours, causing them excruciating pain.
They were locked in “standing cells” with no room to sit down of turn around for days on end. They were savaged by camp dogs, drowned, shot, worked to death or died from mass overcrowding and the successive outbreaks of disease which plagued the camp before it was finally liberated by American troops in April 1945. The soldiers found hundreds of “ sallow skeletons with large sad eyes”.
The statistics speak for themselves. Dachau, set up by the Nazis in 1933 to “calm down Germany”, was the blueprint for all of the Third Reich’s concentration camps.
Political prisoners were its first victims. Jews, Roma, homosexuals and countless other opponents of the regime followed. More than 200,000 were held there from 1933 onwards and 41,500 of them perished as a result of murder, starvation and disease.
After its liberation the camp was used to house German Nazi prisoners and subsequently to house German refugees. “When plans to turn the site into a concentration camp memorial were first mooted in the 1960s, the citizens of Dachau were dead against the idea,” said Dachau resident and camp guide Bernd Kroeger.
Political pressure exerted by camp survivors’ groups finally persuaded the authorities to change their mind.
Mr Kroeger, who is in his sixties, describes himself as a member of the “in-between” generation of Germans who have been able to speak to the perpetrators and victims of Nazi rule. He has devoted much of his life to keeping the memory of Dachau alive. He puts up survivors in his home when they visit the camp. “For my children Dachau will just be history – but that does not diminish its importance. In fact quite the reverse,” he said.