Dachau and the German Tragedy

There was significant opposition to Hitler, but brutality and propaganda pushed the Germans to choose fear over tolerance

Wednesday was a beautiful Munich day and we headed out on the S2 train to the Munich suburb of Dachau, also the home of the first Nazi concentration camp.

Usually when you think of the Nazi era the Germans are the bad guys, causing war and slaughtering innocents. But at Dachau the experience is slightly different – Dachau represents a true German tragedy. Germans who stood up to Hitler, who refused to go along with the Nazi seizure of power, and who tried to save their country from a fateful path based on fear and violence were sent to Dachau.

Dachau is not like Auschwitz. It wasn’t a death camp. Most of its prisoners were political or religious prisoners, though to try to avoid making them pitied lots of hardened criminals were sent there too. 30,000 died, many of them near the end as provisions ran out and the war was being lost.

The Nazis won a struggle for the German soul, though the Germans didn’t really understand what they had supported. The National Socialists promised to make Germans proud to be German again, to reject the hated Versailles treaty and to reinvigorate German values that had supposedly been weakened by democracy and capitalism. Once they took power, their propganda machine gave the German people the story they wanted to believe.  And if you were tempted to dissent anyway Dachau was a symbol of what could happen to you if you didn’t take the path of least resistance.

Go along with the propaganda, believe that the National Socialists were saving Germany, and you’d be fine. Be foolish enough to defy the conventional wisdom and call the Nazis out for what they were, you’d be arrested, humiliated, beaten, and forced into slave labor, underfed and abused. Psychologically the impact was clear – people closed their eyes to what they should have been able to see, and then justified their actions because their country later on was “at war.”

The Nazis were bullies. They were heartless. They rejected non-conformity. If you didn’t act like they thought a true German should, then you were worthy of humiliation and brutality. Such a mentality is driven by fear. It’s a base fear, a fear in the soul that one has no value and is adrift in a sea of meaninglessness. To counter act that, fearful people grasp towards conformity and a belief that proper behavior is the key to self-worth. They project all their self-loathing on-conformists and free thinkers as a way to purge themselves of their existential fears.

For such people, empathy plays no role, strength is the ultimate virtue, and humility is debasement. That is what the Nazi movement represented. It was the playground bully in charge of the state, demanding obedience and conformity in exchange for an emotional sense of belonging. Implicit was the threat that non-conformity meant suffering.

The Nazis never won a majority in a free election. Many Germans secretly opposed them, but felt they had to put country first in a time of war. The German tragedy is that many good people found excuses not to stare into the evil engulfing them and fight back. Instead they conformed, bought the narrative the National Socialists were selling (even if they deep down had doubts) and pushed aside the moral dilemmas.

The opponents – Christian activists, socialists, communists, and people from across the political and social spectrum, tried to shout out a warning. Even as the clouds gathered, they were making headway, as the Germans in 1932 started to move away from the National Socialists. Their vote declined by the end of that year and if not for inside deals to try to create a conservative majority government, they may have failed. Instead Franz Von Papen convinced President Hindenberg that Hitler could be trusted given his party’s weakening status.

Hitler was made Chancellor on January 30, 1933. The Reichstag burned on February 27, 1933. Hitler took that as a reason to demand dictatorial powers to respond to the terrorists threatening Germany. In a mood of fear and nationalist fervor, most parties, even those who opposed Hitler, voted to grant him that power. He used it. He arrested those who voted against that “Enabling Act,” and a host of other political opponents across Germany who had been trying to shine light on the truth of the Nazi party.

So many were arrested that local prisons filled. In late March 1933 Dachau opened as a concentration camp to house these people. Officially they were in “protective custody” until the state could investigate whether they were truly a threat. But they had no rights and they were humiliated and abused.

Dachau was the model for the other Nazi camps. The death camps were run much like Dachau.

At the end Germans saw what had been done in their name. When locals witnessed the corpses and near death condition of the inmates they were horrified. Only then did they realize how evil their leaders had been, and how wrong they were to support them and believe the propaganda. Many deep down knew that they should have known better.

Germans take those lessons seriously. All German school children watch Schindler’s List and visit concentration camps. They learn of the holocaust. They learn to understand the horrors that happened. They learn not to trust nationalist rhetoric or the politics of fear.

Survivors meet in one of the old “dorms”

But it can happen again. The politics of fear represent an emotional theme that often succeeds. People close their eyes to what they should see, and believe what they deep down know to be wrong. The heartless bullies can grab power. Learning the history of the German tragedy is one way to help us try to assure it doesn’t happen again.


  1. #1 by classicliberal2 on May 19, 2012 - 05:45

    The matter of happening again is a place to pick this up. The U.S. has a VERY strong fascist element in its politics right now. Large sections of what previously passed for a society are devolving into isolated enclaves–isolated from one another, and, with this far-right faction, isolated from reality itself. The phenomenon sociologists call “confirmation bias” has joined hands with corporate social hegemony to make political discourse nearly impossible. Too much of what is labeled American “conservatism” listens only to the sound of its own voice, and that voice is saying increasingly poisonous, vile, violent things. Much of its rhetoric is in service of demonization of the Great Other–everyone outside the bubble.

    Examples seem superfluous–just fill in the blank with “all.”

    • #2 by Don on May 21, 2012 - 08:55

      My great Grandmother was deported from Germany to the U.S. by the Nazi’s in 1934. I’m a little bit saddened that you are trying to use the tragedy of WW2 to make a silly political statement. Had the allies not pursued a punitive strategy Hitler would most likely never have been able to take power.

      As to your assertion that the American Right resembles Nazi Germany.. it is absurd. To be direct… it’s tinfoil hat absurd! Neither right nor left has anything in common with Hitler’s ideals beyond the superficial.

      Our local Occupy Wall Street protesters recently ran amok beating people and vandalizing property. The TEA Party rally was pretty much a picnic.

      The point is that your comments prove in the most hypocritical of fashions that you are just as disconnected and full of “confirmation bias” as those you are fearful of. Just as the article above shows us… truly monstrous acts can be perpetrated when you live in fear of another group. Perhaps it’s time to open your mind and understand where other people are coming from. Stop being close minded.

      Also, drop the Hitler analogies. It’s crap for you to use the tragedy of a generation for your own soap box rantings!

      • #3 by classicliberal2 on May 24, 2012 - 01:16

        “Just as the article above shows us… truly monstrous acts can be perpetrated when you live in fear of another group.”

        The Germans didn’t merely live in fear of the Great Other. They _hated_ the Great Other, and blamed it for every problem that plagued them. That’s critically important, and exactly why the lesson of this history should NOT be cast aside, as you and so many others insist be done (apparently only because you find it politically problematic to draw the appropriate parallels).

        North Carolina just passed another of the many anti-gay initiatives that have spread throughout the U.S. like a cancer. On the verge of its passage, we got things like this:


        That’s not a case of paralleling fascism–that’s a case of the active, enthusiastic embrace of fascism.

        Still another North Carolina “pastor,” only days later, called for rounding up homosexuals, placing them in concentration camps surrounded by electrified barbed wire, and letting them die out.

        You can pick up books by Pat Robertson and John Hagee wherein they offer up elaborate conspiracy theories, picked up and parroted straight from the Third Reich, about how Jewish financiers control major portions of the economy of the nation and the world. These accounts are sanitized for public consumption, removing explicit references to “Jews” and simply identifying nearly every bad guy as Jewish (Alan Greenspan, the Rothschilds, etc.). You can turn on TV any day of the week and see John Hagee preaching such notions. These are not treated as fringe crackpots.

        Again, these do not represent a fascist parallel; they are examples of active fascism. These are the voices that put people in ovens. Recognizing this isn’t “tinfoil hat absurd”; failing to recognize it is idiocy of the worst sort, and utterly irresponsible.

  2. #4 by blueberriejournal on June 4, 2012 - 12:37

    It is kind of simplifying to make these sharp differences between Germans and the Nazis in the history of WWII. It sounds like the Nazis weren’t Germans (but they were) and came from outside or act as an seperated group (they didn’t).
    Not all Germans were Nazis and the Nazis back then were not only to find in Germany. Of course there were opposition taking place and a great deal of the population didn’t reflect what was going on, due to the circumtances of WWII, neglecting or unawareness.
    But there were numerous participants who came out of the people. Gards, contractors, suppliers. Those camps had high infrastructures.

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