Munich, day 3 / Dachau
So today was my Dachau day, the day to go visit the first concentration camp of Nazi-era Germany and the one where the officers of all the other concentration camps were trained. Here, by the way, are the exact directions to get to the camp, because neither my guidebooks nor the city of Dachau make it very clear. From the Munich Hauptbahnhof, ride the S2-bahn north to Dachau, about 20 minutes total. At the Dachau Bahnhof, walk outside to the buses waiting in front. You can take either the 724 or the 726 bus; the 726 is only one direction, so you can hop on any bus with that number, but the 724 goes off in two directions, so when taking that one look for the bus saying "To Kraeutergarten." You ride on this bus for about ten minutes, until getting to the camp. WARNING: Unlike the busses in most big cities, the stops on Dachau busses are not dual-listed in English, so you have to keep your eye out for the "KZ-Gadenkstaette" stop (translated, "CC [concentration camp] Memorial") and get out there when you arrive. (The camp is across the street.) As a matter of fact, it's almost impossible to find information about the camp while actually in the city of Dachau; despite the tens of thousands of tourists who visit there each year, you won't see one single piece of information about it in the train station, nor any official acknowledgement from the city government that the camp even exists. Which in a way I can definitely understand, but in a way you'd think the transit company would want to at least save themselves the trouble of having thousands of tourists walking up to bored bus drivers smoking cigarettes in the parking lot and asking, "How do I get to the concentration camp?"
The first thing you notice about Dachau is that it's huge, despite it being the smallest concentration camp in the entirety of the Third Reich; you stand at the front of the compound when you first go in, and you almost cannot see the back, it's so far away. About a third of the buildings from the original camp are still standing, with more being reconstructed each year, and the entire administration building has been turned into a huge, detailed museum. I highly recommend going through the museum first, before starting to explore the grounds; it gives you a very intimate understanding of every building you're about to see, what it was used for, what kinds of torture and inhuman conditions could be found in each.
I expected Dachau to be upsetting, and it was; in fact, I started crying in room two of the museum and pretty much continued to do so for almost three hours, as I slowly made my way through it and then through the compound into the back. I was trying to explain my reaction to Sebastian and Carolin tonight, and this is what I came up with. Any exploration of the Nazi era, no matter how superficial, brings one back to a very basic, very fundamental question - that of how something like this could happen. How could hundreds of thousands of otherwise perfectly normal human beings turn into such inhumane monsters? Was it the fault of the government, for encouraging this kind of behavior from its citizens, or was it the fault of the citizens, for supporting such a government in the first place? Being in Dachau, roaming the actual rooms where the worst of this behavior took place, seeing the photos and smuggled drawings from former prisoners, seeing exactly the kind of barbaric torture and sadistic glee that took place right at the very spot you're standing, makes this basic question even more powerful and relevant than ever. You stand there, you stand there right at this spot where Jews and gays and artists and Jehovah's Witnesses and homeless people were hung from hooks, from actual giant, metal hooks, beaten repeatedly by guards until a step away from death, often for violations like having a dried spot of water in their bowl after a meal, and you think, "How could this possibly have happened?"
It gets you thinking not about blame, but about human nature. You start wondering, if a person like Hitler ever gained power in America, right now, if he was to form a government that encouraged this kind of behavior from its citizens, how many of your neighbors would gleefully join along? And why? My first instinct, standing in front of the crematoriums and walking through the showers/gas chambers myself, was to say, "It's because humans are fundamentally evil, and will happily commit the most atrocious crimes against humanity if given the slightest chance to do so without fear of reprisal." But then a big part of me refuses to believe that, because ultimately I believe in the fundamental goodness of humanity, of our infinite capacity for compassion and aid and help when help is most needed. But then you're confronted, over and over and over and over, by facts that belie this belief; you see room after room, photo after photo, of things you can scarcely believe are real and actually happened where you're standing. And you go back and forth, back and forth in your head as you walk around the compound, wondering confusedly about whether humanity is the greatest thing in the history of the universe or the absolute worst.
When it was time for me to finally leave, I had no answers - in fact, I was more confused than ever, and had not the sense of resolution I thought I was going to have but even more sadness and anger and just plain frustration about the horrible, horrible things that happened here in Germany during those darkest of years. In fact, I've been sitting here crying for the last five minutes, just writing out this damn story for you, and Carolin (who's sitting here next to me right now) just turned, touched me on the arm and asked if I was okay. And the truth is, I don't know. It's hard to answer a question like that after going to someplace like Dachau. Part of you leaves that camp a much more cynical, much more bitter person than you were going into it, and I can already feel my ultimate belief in humanity's goodness slipping a little bit because of the experience. But on the other hand, along the back of the compound has been built a series of churches and prayer centers, one for each of the major denominations on the planet. And experiencing those gives you this real sense of joy and optimism again, even if it's a serious, melancholy one. There's something uplifting about seeing people refuse to forget Dachau, of building testaments right on its soil to the prevailing optimism of humanity, of a very public declaration that the Nazis were a small group and eventually were defeated as they should've been, and that the rest of us refuse to take part in their actions and legacy.
I don't know. I don't know. Like everything else associated with my days in Munich this week, I'm finding my experience in Dachau hard to put into words. And in many ways, it should be hard, or else there wouldn't be a point to visit Dachau in the first place. If you yourself are planning on visiting Bavaria in the future, I highly encourage you to visit the camp while you're here. It's not a pleasant experience, and not something you're going to say "I'm so glad I did that" when it's over, but it's important. It's so very, very important.
Sebastian took some photos of me last night! All right! For those who haven't yet been to his website, Sebastian is a fine-art photographer, someone who calls himself "amateur" but to me is as good as most professional photographers I've ever seen. This has been a frustrating part of the tour, to tell you the egotistical truth - having only crappy disposable cameras and getting mostly shitty, badly-lit shots of the things I've been seeing and the performances I've been doing. Along with everything else about Munich, I was also looking forward to having Sebastian shoot some decent shots of me for the sake of posterity, so I've been very glad that Sebastian's felt the same way. We went to this very strange, very sad laundromat for the shoot last night, filled all over the place with these surreal little paintings from Disney movies and crappy notices taped to the walls in German language and stupid clip art. Sebastian just got done with the contact sheets about five minutes ago, in fact, and they look fantastic; so cool and postmodern and like I'm going to be hanging in a gallery one day after Sebastian is famous. Right. Fucking. On. This weekend we're going to go out and shoot some photos in Marienplatz for the book, then some photos in the Bavaria Hunting and Fishing Museum (yet another surreal place - Munich's full of them) for Sebastian's portfolio. I can't wait.
Okay, okay, 11 pm and I still haven't gotten this posted, so I think I'm going to go. Yet more from Munich tomorrow, including my afternoon roaming around the old imperial palace of the Bavarian Empire, plus my trip to the Olympic Park, just five minutes' walk from where I'm staying. Ciao!