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Afterlife After Death

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

Few areas of historical study are more popular today than the discussion of memory and commemoration. The historians who adopt this approach debate how people remember important events, what use consecutive generations make of the memory of these events, and why monuments tell us more about those who created them than about those whom the monument purports to commemorate. They are historians of subjectivity and culture. When their work concentrates on World War II and, more specifically, on concentration camps and the Holocaust, public interest in the subject must be taken for granted.

Legacies of Dachau falls squarely into this category, dealing as it does with the oldest Nazi camp, from which the chief ideas and practices of the Nazi system of Konzentrazionslager originated. Dachau was one of the few big camps to come under Western administration in 1945, which means that it has continued to have a complex history, being fought over publicly by survivors and outsiders, private groups and government authorities, left-wing politicians and right-wing politicians, business entrepreneurs, radical ideologists, and various religious denominations. The postwar history of the former Nazi camps in the eastern part of Germany, such as Buchenwald, is simpler: beginning as holding pens for POWs and Nazi war criminals, they rapidly transformed themselves into concentration camps for real or suspected enemies of the Communist state, and then into sites dedicated to the memory of the martyrs of the working class and to the struggle against American and West German imperialism.

Harold Marcuse, a historian who is the grandson of the philosopher Herbert Marcuse, has chosen an exciting subject, for Dachau after 1945 very much reflects the vagaries of Western democratic politics, and especially the politics of the cold war. Had Marcuse decided to use fewer of his accumulated notes, his book might also have been exciting to read. Unfortunately, he drowns the reader in too many details about too many things. In statistical tabulations that are much too precise, Marcuse presents the group characteristics of seven age cohorts and their relationship to Dachau and to the memory of Nazism in general. Individual historians, writers, and politicians are neatly fitted into specific age cohorts, their way of thinking apparently determined more by the year of their birth than by their personality and their experiences. There are one hundred fifty-six pages of endnotes. This is a very learned book, indeed, but a book likely to be appreciated primarily by the very informed and the very patient.

This is especially unfortunate because there are useful and even important ideas in Marcuse's book. He is a fair judge of personalities and historical dilemmas. He shows persuasively how German perceptions of the concentration camps changed over the last half-century. At first, most Germans tried to ignore Dachau and similar places of ignominy, developing a tripartite myth of self-exculpation, according to which (1) the Germans themselves were victimized, first by the Nazis and then by postwar occupation; and (2) ordinary Germans knew nothing of Nazi crimes; and (3) outraged by Nazi crimes, most Germans offered some form of passive resistance. Created in 1945, these myths have by now lost all significance, as Marcuse shows. Instead, millions of mostly younger Germans flock to Dachau--to date, twenty-one million people have visited the camp--to investigate and to learn. Marcuse is particularly convincing when he argues that sites of memory, like memory itself, are never static: as cultures change, so the caretakers of the rites of commemoration should also change their goals in order to better educate the public.

DACHAU WAS SOMETHING like the mother of all camps: the first place where suspected enemies of National Socialism were imprisoned for long periods without a trial; the first camp to come under the direct supervision of Heinrich Himmler; the model for all other concentration camps. It provided initial training to eighteen of the top camp commanders in the Nazi bureaucracy of oppression and murder. It was a place of horror, where prisoners were beaten or worked to death--and yet, as Marcuse explains, and as all visitors who spend a little time outside the camp site can testify, Dachau itself is a lovely old town, whose loveliness makes its horrifying role between 1933 and 1945 all the more jarring.

Visitors to the former concentration camp are offered a pleasing colored brochure, published in 1985 by Lorenz Reitmeier, then the mayor of Dachau, which outlines the past and the present of the town. Marcuse uses the brochure, along with many other things, to explain the varying images that the city fathers have tried to project over time. Rather than hiding the horrible episode in the city's past, Dachau's brochure mentions the camp at once, and only then turns to the history and the present-day glories of the place. It was settled by Celts in the fifth century B.C.E., and its first documented mention as "Dahaua" dates from 805 C.E. Although overshadowed by neighboring Munich, Dachau was always a popular place, enchanting the visitor with its ducal palace, its handsome churches, and its bucolic beauty.

From the mid-nineteenth century on, Dachau brought together some of Germany's greatest painters, among them Carl Spitzweg and Max Liebermann. In those years it also underwent an industrial transformation, and during World War I it housed a large ammunition factory whose products, ironically, may have killed more people than the camp later did. As both Marcuse and the municipal brochure explain, more than 200,000 prisoners passed through the camp between its creation on March 22, 1933 and its liberation on April 29, 1945. Between 32,000 and 35,000 died. This was a relatively low death rate, and it shows that Dachau was a concentration camp, not a death camp (Vernichtungslager). It was not even a mixture of the two types as, for instance, Auschwitz was. The gas chamber at Dachau was used only experimentally. Prisoners died from torture, execution, hunger, or disease. Nor was Dachau a "Jewish camp"; the majority of its inmates were non-Jews, though Jews arrived in two great waves, about which more later.

As the municipal brochure explains, the end of World War I brought the closing of the munitions factory, and massive unemployment. All the greater, then, was the relief of the populace when the SS selected the factory's abandoned halls for its first prisoners: this brought increased tax revenues and employment to the depressed town. It is interesting to note, though, that fewer people in Catholic, working-class Dachau voted for the Nazis in the parliamentary elections of 1932 and 1933 than in most other places in Germany. Bavaria, in general, gave relatively little support to Hitler before he came to power.

The official brochure also assures its readers that, toward the end of the war, the citizens of the town tried to give food to starving prisoners in the camp.There is, indeed, no proof that the "Dachauer" behaved any worse toward the prisoners than other Germans--but Marcuse is rightly dissatisfied with Mayor Reitmeier's soothing and apologetic words. More introspection and more contrition are certainly warranted, even if it is not hard to understand the impulses of a mayor whose town must go on living even though its name will forever be associated with absolute evil. Dachau is one of the few German towns that has never succeeded in acquiring a "sister city" abroad. In truth, when one attends a concert in the magnificent Baroque ducal palace, or admires the undulating fairy-tale countryside from the terrace, it is agonizingly difficult to visualize the hordes of bedraggled and starving slaves who were often beaten in front of the locals. (I saw the camp in the early 1950s, when it did not yet contain an assemblage of modernistic chapels, and Christian as well as Jewish memorial buildings and monuments, all surrounded by carefully mowed grass. At that time it housed thousands of German expellees from Czechoslovakia in the same miserable barracks where the prisoners had once lived and died.)

MARCUSE EXPLAINS THAT in Dachau there were prisoners and there were prisoners, just as there were everywhere else in the concentration camp system, except that in Dachau the class differences were even more pronounced. The most privileged prisoners were those in the compound that was reserved for important personalities, such as the former French Prime Minister Leon Blum, the anti-Nazi Pastor Martin Niemoller, the former President of the Reichsbank Hjalmar Schacht (who was later tried and acquitted at Nuremberg), the former Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg, and many others. For these Prominenten, there was even a library. They received their food from the SS kitchen, their cells were not locked, and they had access to a canteen where they could buy supplies.

Dachau was also where Hitler's regime imprisoned most of its clerical opponents, two-thirds of whom were Poles. Altogether, 2,762 clergymen were held there, 93 percent of them Catholics. They lived separately from the other prisoners. They were allowed to celebrate Mass in a special room, and had a few other privileges. Still, as Marcuse shows, more than one-third of the clerics died, a much higher percentage than among the general prisoner population at Dachau.

The total number of inmates varied greatly over the years: 2,600 in December 1933, for example, but only 1,300 a year later. The Anschluss of Austria in March 1938 brought in 18,000 new prisoners, many of whom stayed only temporarily, and in the wake of the violence of Kristallnacht in November of that year more than 10,000 wealthier Jews were dragged into the camp with the aim of terrorizing them into surrendering their property and emigrating.During the last years of the war, Dachau expanded to encompass numerous branches, and the number of prisoners skyrocketed. By early 1945, up to 4,000 people perished there every month, mostly Jews who had been brought in from the East. As Marcuse explains, of the 2,000 Jewish prisoners brought from Buchenwald in forty boxcars at the end of the war, only seventeen were alive after the liberation, and they would die soon.

MARCUSE DIVIDES THE postwar history of Dachau into five phases: from July 1945 to the summer of 1948, when the camp held 30,000 German Nazis and army officers, and when some of the major American postwar trials were held; from 1948 to the early 1960s, after the camp had been handed over to the Bavarian government, and when it held about 3,000 German refugees; from 1962 to 1965, when the historical buildings were torn down and the camp was turned into a memorial site; from 1965 to 1998, when there was stagnation in the camp's physical appearance but the number of young visitors increased annually; and the years since 1998, when the memorial site has become an integral element in the German educational curriculum. Not so long ago, the camp was difficult to find, buses from the railroad station were rare, and the camp's name was not marked on the bus leading to it or on city maps. Today buses regularly service a well-marked location. But this improvement has brought a new complication: this former hell, once run-down and hence still somewhat authentic in its bleak appearance, has become a great tourist attraction and a large source of commercial revenue.

Following the liberation of the camp in 1945, outraged American soldiers gunned down some of the SS guards and forced townspeople to parade past the mountain of corpses. Although shaken by the view, locals saw themselves, according to Marcuse, as victims of both the Nazis and the American soldiers. Terrified by what they perceived as criminals in the camp (true, common criminals had also been held at Dachau), townspeople insisted on their innocence and demanded protection. Marcuse quotes the photographer Margaret Bourke-White: "The Germans act as though the Nazis were a strange race of Eskimos who came down from the North Pole and somehow invaded Germany."

Worse, as the Americans hastened to repatriate the prisoners, some Eastern Europeans and many Eastern European Jews remained, who would not hear of returning to the "homeland." This disgruntled crowd reinforced the Germans' impression that the former prisoners were bad people. For a while Jews lived in close proximity to the interned German POWs and Nazis, who liked to equate their alleged mistreatment with that of the camp's wartime inmates. For many Germans, the mass murderers being tried at Dachau were victims of blatant injustice--especially after the churches began a campaign for their acquittal.

Guided by the Vatican of Pope Pius XII, German Catholic clergymen fought for the release of Nazi war criminals and often helped them to escape. Protestant churchmen behaved no better, and, amazingly, priests and ministers formerly imprisoned at Dachau were among the most militant opponents of the criminal proceedings. The former inmates Pastor Martin Niemoller and Catholic Bishop Johannes Neuhausler tried their very best to save the lives of such SS arch-criminals as Oswald Pohl, former head of the SS administrative office for the concentration camps, and Paul Blobel, who had organized and executed the massacre of 35,000 Jews at Babi Yar near Kiev. Catholic bishops inundated American politicians with letters of protest emphasizing the anti-Communist and anti-Soviet credentials of the defendants; this, at a time when relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were going from bad to worse.

IN THE END, as Marcuse emphasizes, only two-thirds of the two hundred ninety-seven Germans sentenced to death by the courts of the Western allies were actually executed, and by 1955 only forty of those who had been given a life sentence were still in prison. Soon there would not be a single German war criminal in jail anywhere, except for the handful of major war criminals sentenced to imprisonment at the first great Nuremberg trial. It is worth mentioning in this context that tiny Hungary executed more war criminals than Germany, and that such countries as Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Belgium imprisoned many more war criminals than were ever held in Germany or Austria.

Among the killers of Jews and other Europeans, then, the Germans got away with the least punishment. As Marcuse explains, the West German government, especially under Adenauer in the 1950s and 1960s, made certain that mass murderers returning from prisons abroad would receive restitution payments. All the released war criminals received their pensions or were allowed to make careers in state service, the professions, or the private sector. In 1966, to top it all off, Kurt-Georg Kiesinger, a "brown-collar criminal," as Marcuse calls the Nazi leaders, became chancellor of the West German republic.

Marcuse does not neglect to explain that amnesty for criminals is what Adenauer extorted from the Allies in exchange for West Germany's becoming a model democracy and a staunch ally. As for the brown-collar criminals, they too became perfect democrats, thus assuring continuity in the business and the administration of Germany and providing for the "economic miracle" and domestic peace. All in all, then, the Americans' denazification program was both a great failure and a great success. In his discussion of the brown-collar criminals, Marcuse expands his horizon, as he does almost everywhere in the book, to embrace all of West Germany. In fact, his book is both a history of Dachau and a history of the Federal Republic. It is hard to fault him for this:historically speaking, the two are indeed inseparable.

THE EARLY DECADES of the cold war were not favorable to former prisoners in Dachau. As Marcuse shows, eighty-four percent of the judges and the public prosecutors in democratic Bavaria had been members of the Nazi Party; and camp survivors were often excoriated in the press as the corrupters of German women and as black marketers (which undoubtedly some of them were). Even the freshly arrived American troops seemed to prefer the "neat, friendly German populace" to the unkempt, sullen Jews in the camps. Eventually the Jews emigrated, and eventually the black market disappeared.

Meanwhile the survivors of Dachau were mostly unable to come to an agreement on how the camp should best be remembered. Even the Jews among them were profoundly divided, in Marcuse's account, between the German Jews and those from Eastern Europe. The former generally spent only a few weeks in Dachau following Kristallnacht and before emigrating; for most of them, Nazism was only an aberration in the long history of Germans. For the Eastern European Jews, by contrast, Dachau was one more hellhole among the many hellholes through which the Germans had driven them.

There were too many different kinds of people in the Dachau camp for them to arrive at a consensus about commemoration: Jews, "asocials" (tramps, beggars, and other Germans deemed unworthy of living among their compatriots), prostitutes, priests, politicians, aristocrats, homosexuals, sectarians, Social Democratic functionaries, criminals, Communists, Red Army soldiers, French and other wartime resistance fighters. Not even the memory of common suffering united them, because their sufferings had varied so enormously.

But eventually the first monuments were erected, and the interest in the camp on the part of young Germans increased. Marcuse explains the crucial influence exercised on the German public by the publication of Anne Frank's diary in the 1950s, the Eichmann trial in 1961, the first production of Rolf Hochuth's anti-papal play The Deputy in 1963, and the broadcast of the American television miniseries Holocaust in 1979.

MEANWHILE, FASCINATING figures appeared on the postwar Dachau scene, such as the Dominican Father Leonhard Roth, who as a prisoner had heroically cared for his fellow inmates, and after the war first served as the spiritual adviser of the SS prisoners, then worked as curate in the refugee settlement, and later became pastor of the newly created Dachau camp parish. While doing all these things, he alternately voiced pro-National Socialist, anti-Communist, and pro-Soviet sentiments. A reputed homosexual who had worn the black triangle of the asocials in the camp (many priests imprisoned by the Germans had been charged with homosexuality and/or currency manipulation), Father Roth committed suicide in 1960. It is a pity that Marcuse tells the remarkable story of Father Roth only in snatches.

Most interesting is the problem presented by the generation of 1968, whose members went furthest, according to Marcuse, in questioning their fathers about their activities during the Nazi era. Many in the younger generation completely rejected West German society for its corruption, its political and moral impenitence, its self-satisfaction, and its tolerance of ex-Nazis in high positions. Still, as Marcuse shows, militant members of this generation went too far, eventually becoming not very different from their Nazified ancestors: self-satisfied, dogmatic, impatient, and wildly intolerant. Radical young Germans called the Israeli athletes murdered at Munich "Zionist soldiers masquerading as athletes"; and at Entebbe, in 1976, during the "Red Army's" hijacking of an Air France airbus, the German commander of that terrorist group "selected" the Jewish passengers for execution following the expiration of the forty-eight-hour deadline.

I remember how outraged I was, at Heidelberg University in the late 1960s, at the sight of radical German students cruelly harassing the most liberal professors, while the university administration and the state looked the other way. The whole affair made me think grimly of the Weimar Republic. Only recently did I learn that the liberal professor I most admired had once been a dedicated Nazi--a fact of which the student radicals were equally ignorant.They hated the professor for being a part of the "fascist," "imperialist," and "pro-American" West German establishment. In September 1968, when former anti-Nazi resistance fighters from abroad held a memorial meeting at Dachau, accompanied by detachments of soldiers from their own countries, German left-wing radicals mounted a demonstration against the "NATO imperialists" at the site of the concentration camp. Outraged, the former French inmates, many of them Communists, stormed the young German radicals with the cry, "C'est les fascistes!"

Once the "successor generation" had challenged the myths that were created in self-defense by the generations tainted by the war, more and more Germans, Marcuse writes, are relinquishing the legend of their own victimization, and are beginning to discover the many forgotten victims of the Holocaust, such as homosexuals and Gypsies. True, there have been some setbacks to historical understanding, as in 1985, when President Reagan visited the military cemetery in Bitburg, with its graves of Waffen SS soldiers. The presidential visit temporarily strengthened the argument of those who wished to make an exonerating equation between fallen German soldiers and victims of Nazism. Yet the tone of the new Germany was set by West German President Richard von Weizsacker, who, three days after the symbolic handclasp at Bitburg, unequivocally repudiated the myth of ignorance and branded the Germans as perpetrators in an extraordinary speech delivered in the Bundestag.

Toward the end of his book, Marcuse discusses the impact of Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners on the German public, and, even more, the success of a recent traveling exhibition about crimes committed by the Wehrmacht in the East. It is indeed hard to exaggerate the importance of that exhibition, created by a private group in Hamburg, in unmasking the reputed innocence of ordinary German officers and soldiers. Today Dachau--and, one might say, united Germany as a whole--is a place of learning where, in the view of Marcuse, reflection has replaced reflexes. He concludes his important book on an optimistic note, calling for a happy balance between antiquarian preservation and the critical deconstruction of mythical histories, whether at Dachau or at other sites of commemoration. There is no reason to disagree with such a conclusion, even if it is easier said than done.