I write this in a youth hostel in Munich. I’ve just come back from a Munich suburb where I have spent two days with Sebastian, a German Ubuntu developer, talking about computers, the Ubuntu community, interaction design and much, much more.
Sebastian lives along the railway line between Munich and Dachau, the village now mostly known for being the home of the first Nazi concentration camp and the model which all of the other camps followed. Yesterday, we went to see the memorial site and the museum, and it is the kind of place that really affects you.
The concentration camp was opened on the very day that Hitler and the Nazi party took over the govermental authority of Bavaria, and it was quickly expanded to house more than 6.000 prisoners. Most of these were political prisoners such as Communists and trade unionists, but up through the 30s the nazis also incarcerated religious deviants such as Jehova’s witnesses, racial deviants such as jews and gypsies, sexual deviants such as homosexuals and social deviants such as the homeless or habitual criminals.
One of the prominent prisoners in Dachau was the protestant priest Martin Niemöller who was a supporter of the nazis in the early 30s but changed his stance and was promptly persecuted for it. His conclusion of the oppression that existed in Germany in the 30s is one of the most famous ever said of totalitarian regimes:
In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.
Walking through the Dachau museum, all of these atrocities are spelled out, pictured and expounded to leave no doubt about the way these things work. Sebastian told me that German children have extensive lessons exploring this history and the circumstances that brought them about.
He also mentioned how soon-to-be parents often drive to Munich to give birth to avoid having that dreaded name Dachau appear on both birth certificate and passports. But despite of this consciousness, people live there and focus on the good things. Though the old camp is located a long the main road into the old town of Dachau, it is well hidden by sports facilities, drive-in fast food places and supermarkets.
The strangeness of growing up in a place so closely associated with an often-repressed past is to some degree central to the German national identity. I see that there’s even a film about it.
Central Munich on the other hand has been washed completely clean of anything reminding people of the cruel past. Even though huge sections of the city were completely bombed out by the end of the war, the Muncheners have rebuilt all of it faithfully. It is hard to see that only a few of the central historical buildings in Munich are less than 60 years old.
The Odeonsplatz in central Munich was where Hitler’s 1923 coup was foiled. Hitler survived only because his bodyguard threw himself on top of him, taking 11 bullets from the 100 police officers barricaded by the square. When Hitler came into power in 1933, he erected a memorial on that site to honour the memory of the 15 nazis who died there that day. He also made it law that people passing by the memorial should salute it with the Hitler salute. There were police officers posted by the memorial at all times to enforce this.
The memorial then.
The site of the memorial today.
(more pictures can be found here.)
Non-nazis often tried to avoid this by walking through the nearby alley Viscardigasse that took them to the other side of the Odeonsplatz, bypassing the memorial. To discourage this, there were plainsclothes police officers posted to note if some people took this shortcut too often and question or threaten them as they felt necessary.
Today, the Coup memorial is gone, there is just a small plaque in the ground near the site commemorating the 4 police officers who died then. In the nearby alley, there is no plaque – but there is a swayed line of yellow bricks in the pavement to commemorate the people who quietly disagreed with the Nazi line. If you look at it, you would never know that it signifies anything special. That seems to be the state of things in Munich where they are happy to delegate that sort of memories to Dachau.