Today I read this on a blog written by a tourist who visited Dachau:
“It was about a fifteen minute ride outside of Munich, and I caught a train there this morning and was I Dachau around 11:00. I met a very nice American family on the bus out to the camp from Philadelphia and talked to them for awhile on my way in. I saw them again right before I left, and the dad had gotten into an argument with a tour guide who had compared the camp to a Japanese internment camp. He said he was going to write letters to the company she was with and the Dachau memorial committee. I told him to do it, and that he had done the right thing. That is an absurd and horrific comparison and I am glad I wasn’t the one who heard it.”
Funny, that’s the first thing I thought of when I first visited Dachau in 1997: Dachau is not like the camps that America had for Japanese-Americans during World War II.
In 1997, I entered the Dachau memorial site by going through an opening in the fence on the east side of the former camp. At that time, the entrance was not through the gate house, as it is today.
The first thing that I saw when I entered Dachau in 1997 was the two reconstructed barracks. I was taken aback because I had expected the barracks to look like those in photos that I had seen of America’s internment camps for the Japanese-Americans.
The barracks for the Japanese-Americans were constructed with the cheapest kind of materials; they were what is known as “tar paper shacks.” The roads between the barracks in the internment camps were not covered with gravel; they were just dirt roads which were muddy in winter and dusty in summer. The paths between the barracks were not perfectly straight and there were no trees or flowers, like at Dachau.
I went inside one of the reconstructed barracks at Dachau, the only one that was open at that time. The toilets and wash basins were inside the barracks where the prisoners slept. In the Japanese internment camps, the prisoners had to go outside to the toilets which were in a separate building. If they had to go at night, the prisoners had to go outside, through the mud and rain, to get to the toilets.
The Japanese-Americans had to work in the internment camps, although they were paid a pittance. The Dachau prisoners also had to work, but they got paid in camp money which they could use to buy extra food or other things in the camp canteen. They could even use their camp money to visit a brothel inside the camp. I don’t think the Japanese-Americans were provided with a brothel.
The biggest difference between Dachau and the internment camps in America was that prisoners were put into the Dachau camp only after they had done something to identify themselves as “an enemy of the state.” Japanese-Americans and German-Americans were put into internment camps just because of their ethnicity. This was a violation of their 4th Amendment rights under the American Constitution. The German Constitution had an Emergency clause (Article 48) which allowed civil rights to be suspended in case of an emergency; the emergency that led to the opening of Dachau in 1933 was the Reichstag fire on the night of February 27, 1933.
So the prisoners who were put into Dachau did not have anything comparable to our 4th Amendment rights. Yet, after World War II, the German concentration camp system was declared by the Allies to be a “criminal enterprise” so that every staff member (including the Kapos) was automatically a war criminal. Was it a war crime for America to put Japanese-Americans into internment camp? No, America won the war, so we can’t be war criminals.
It was not until November 1938 that Jews were sent to Dachau or other camps just because they were Jews. The Jews sent to Dachau in 1938 were released as soon as they made arrangements to leave Germany. It was not until February 1942 that all Jews in Germany and German-occupied territories were deported to camps, although not to Dachau.
The Dachau prisoners could be released for good behavior, but the Japanese-Americans were only released if they agreed to serve in the American Army, which means the women had no chance of being released until the war was over.
In other respects, the camps were the same. Both the internment camps and the Dachau camp had guard towers where soldiers guarded them with loaded guns.
So it was very wrong for a tour guide to compare Dachau to a Japanese-American internment camp. I certainly hope that this man wrote to the tour company that employed this guide and set them straight on how these two types of camps compared. (Just kidding!)