As the 67th anniversary of the liberation of Dachau on April 29, 1945 comes closer, I expect that there will be a lot of blog posts, such as this one, written by people who have visited the Memorial Site, who will ask why the residents of the town of Dachau did not rise up and liberate the death camp that was right in their back yards. Why didn’t the citizens of Dachau try to stop the gassing, torture, starvation and humiliation of the Jews in the concentration camp?
The citizens of Dachau could drive past the wall around the camp, which faced Alte Römerstrasse, and see the guard towers shown in the photo below.
In today’s world, even the murder of one innocent minority person is cause for a mass protest, as in the Trayvon Martin case. Why didn’t the citizens of Dachau protest when the first Nazi concentration camp was opened at Dachau in March 1933?
I wanted to know the answer to this question myself, so in 2001, I went to the town of Dachau and stayed there for a whole week.
Before the Dachau camp was opened in its present location, prisoners were rounded up and put into temporary prisons set up in many cities in Germany. The building shown in the photo below was where political prisoners, who opposed the Nazis, were rounded up in March 1933 and housed in the town of Dachau before the Dachau camp opened.
This was way back in 1933, when there were 12 Jews still living in the town of Dachau. Why didn’t the Jews in the town lead a protest march?
As the saying goes, you had to be there in order to understand why the citizens of Dachau didn’t protest the round-up of political prisoners in Germany.
On March 20, 1933, just eleven days after becoming Munich’s Chief of Police, Heinrich Himmler called a press conference to announce the establishment of the Dachau concentration camp. The concept of a concentration camp was invented by the British during the Boer war. The German people had never heard of such a thing, so why should they protest?
The next day the press announced: “On Wednesday, the first concentration camp, with a capacity of 5000, will be established in the neighborhood of Dachau. Here all Communist party officials, and as far as the security of the State requires, those of the “Reichsbanner” (uniformed wing of the Social Democratic party for purposes of self-protection) and of the Social Democrats will be interned…”
Heinrich Himmler was acting under his authority as the Chief of Police in Munich. Most people know that Himmler was the Reichsführer-SS. Chief of the Munich Police was his second job. This requires some explanation, so bear with me.
The beige building on the left in the photograph above houses various government offices in the town of Dachau. This building’s historical significance relates to the take-over of the town on March 9, 1933 when the Nazis seized control of all the state and local governments in Germany after gaining control of the federal government in Germany’s last Congressional election on May 5, 1933. All state and local offices in Germany had to be supervised now by a member of the Nazi party. Heinrich Himmler was given the job of supervising the Munich Police.
On that day, March 9, 1933, SA and SS troops marched into the town of Dachau and hoisted the party flag of the Nazis with its swastika emblem over the beige building, which was the District Administration Building. A Nazi flag was also put on the Old Town Hall, which is shown in the previous photo above. The people of the town didn’t protest because they thought of Hitler and the Nazis as their saviors from the Communists, whom they thought to be much worse.
The Nazi take-over of Germany was the culmination of a chain of events that began with a fire on the night of February 27, 1933 which burned the Congressional building, called the Reichstag. The day after the fire, a “Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of the People and State” was announced by German President Paul von Hindenberg. This document suspended the seven sections of the Weimar Constitution which guaranteed the civil rights of the German people. The decree also ended state’s rights with the statement that “if in any German state, the measures necessary for the restoration of public security and order are not taken, the Reich government may temporarily take over the powers of the supreme authority in such a state in order to restore security.” Although intended to be an emergency measure, the decree was never rescinded. (Many people believe that the burning of the Reichstag was a “false flag” operation, perpetrated by the Nazis themselves, so that they would have an excuse to take over the country.)
Why didn’t the citizens of Dachau rise up and immediately protest the Nazi take-over of the town on March 9, 1933? As I said before, you had to be there. The photo below tells the story.
The grave shown in the photograph above is the final resting place of four men of the Freikorps Görlitz, a militia group which fought the Red Army of the Communists in 1919. The names on the grave stone shown above are 2nd Lieutenant Bertram, Muskateer Labuke, Private Hauk, and Gunner Hilbig. They were killed near the village of Pellheim, just outside the town of Dachau, on April 30, 1919. They were engaged in a battle against the Communists who had set up a Soviet government in the state of Bavaria, after overthrowing the imperial government, under their Jewish leader Kurt Eisner, on November 7, 1918.
The memorial stone for the men who died while liberating Dachau from the Communists was set in place on April 29, 1934. Ironically, on this same date, eleven years later, the American Seventh Army liberated the political prisoners, who were their Communist allies, from the Nazi concentration camp in Dachau.
Many of the men who later became top Nazi leaders fought with other divisions of the Freikorp, including Heinrich Himmler. Born in 1900, Himmler was too young to join the German army in World War I, but he did fight with the Freikorps in their defeat of the Bavarian Soviet Republic.
Bavaria was the largest of the German states. What would Americans have done if Texas had been taken over by Communists, led by a Jew, and turned into a Soviet State?
The first 200 prisoners brought to the Dachau camp on March 22, 1933 were Communists who had been taken into “protective custody” because they were considered to be “enemies of the state.”
But I digress. To get back to the story of Dachau, the first Commandant of Dachau, Hilmar Wäckerle, was charged with murder for the deaths of Louis Schloss on May 16, 1933 and Dr. Alfred Strauss on May 24, 1933. On August 7, 1933, Felix Fechenbach, another Jewish prisoner at Dachau, died in the camp after being punished. This was the point when the 12 Jews living in the town should have started a formal protest and shut down the Dachau camp.
Wäckerle was never put on trial, but he was dismissed from his position as Commandant and transferred to another camp.
After Wäckerle was dismissed because his severe punishment of the prisoners had resulted in several deaths, the new Commandant, Theodor Eicke, issued a new set of rules for the camp in October 1933. The SS guards and administrators were forbidden to strike the prisoners or to punish them on their own authority. Punishment for such offenses as stealing or sabotage had to be approved by headquarters, which was at first located in Dachau, but was later moved to Oranienburg near Berlin.
Although Jews were imprisoned at Dachau, starting on the day that the camp opened, there were no Jews sent to Dachau simply because they were Jews until November 1938. There were 10,911 Jews brought to Dachau, after they were taken into “protective custody” on the night of November 9th and 10th. This was the night when the windows in all of the Jewish stores were smashed and merchandise was thrown into the street. All of the Synagogues in Germany and Austria were burned. The name given by the Nazis to this destruction was Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass.) Another 20,000 Jews were sent to either Sachsenhausen or Buchenwald after Kristallnacht.
Although there was no rioting in the town of Dachau, and Dachau had no synagogue that could be burned, all 12 Jewish residents in the town were visited by Nazi officials on the night of November 10, 1938 and ordered to leave town before sunrise or risk imprisonment in a concentration camp. In the following days, there were 30,000 Jews throughout Germany and Austria who were rounded up and taken to the three major concentration camps (Dachau, Sachsenhausen, and Buchenwald).
Most of the Jews arrested after Kristallnacht were released within a few weeks after they promised to make arrangements to leave Germany. Around 8,000 of the 30,000 Jews, who were taken into “protective custody,” were allowed to enter Great Britain without a visa and thousands more went to Shanghai, where no visa was required. According to Jewish author Martin Gilbert, more than 50,000 German Jews found safety in Britain before World War II started, including 10,000 Jewish children, who were sent on Kindertransports.
No other country, including the United States of America, would open its doors to the Jews who were expelled from Germany. America did start allowing its quota of German citizens, but this accounted for only a small number of Jews who were saved from the Holocaust.
Five of the 12 Jewish residents of Dachau died in the Nazi death camps. Their names, which are inscribed on the plaque, displayed in the town, are Julius Kohn, Max Wallach, Melly Wallach, Hans Neumeyer, and Vera Neumeyer. Julius Kohn and the Wallachs went to Berlin after they were expelled. They were later sent to Auschwitz where they were murdered. Hans Neumeyer died in the Theresienstadt ghetto in what is now the Czech Republic.
Other Jews who died in the early days of the Dachau camp were Ernst Goldmann, Arthur Kahn, Erwin Kahn, Karl Lehrburger and Wilhelm Aron. Herbert Hunglinge committed suicide to escape the unbearable conditions in the camp. So why didn’t the citizens of the town do something?
Before the concentration camp was opened at Dachau, the residents of the town were destitute because there was no industry in the town, no place for citizens to work to earn a living. The Dachau camp was built on the 20 acre site where a gun powder factory had been located in World War I. After Germany lost World War I, the Treaty of Versailles prevented Germany from arming itself again and the factory was closed.
When the Dachau camp opened, this created jobs and also revived the business places in the town. The SS men who were stationed in the garrison next to the camp would visit the local bars and restaurants. Several bakeries in the town supplied bread for the camp. The town of Dachau was suddenly lifted out of the Depression and was now thriving because of the SS garrison and the concentration camp on the outskirts of the town.
The four-story building in the foreground of the photograph above is the former location of the Cafe Belstler, which was a popular spot for drinking and dancing during the years that the SS had a Training Camp and garrison west of the Dachau concentration camp. In the background, you can see the Baroque gable of the Ludwig Thoma House.
The Unterbräu Inn at Augsburgerstrasse 12 is directly across the street from the Ludwig-Thoma-Haus and the building which is the former location of the Cafe Belstler. The building dates back to 1891 and the Unterbräu is said to be the oldest brewery in Dachau.
The Unterbräu Inn is significant in the history of both the Communists and the Nazis. On April 16, 1919 when the Red Army occupied Dachau, the Inn became their headquarters. Before the Red Army was routed on April 30, 1919 by the Freikorps Görlitz, an order was issued for all Dachau citizens to turn in their weapons here. In the 1930ies, it was the turn of the Nazis and they used the Inn to hold meetings.
The citizens of Dachau had a choice: Confront the Nazis and get the concentration camp shut down, or prosper as a result of the Nazis taking over the former factory location. I wish I had a nickel for every time that I heard a person in Germany say, right after the end of World War II: “Nazi Germany was a paradise — until 1943 when Germany started losing the war.”
There was one Dachau resident who was against the Nazis and he paid for it.
The photograph above shows the grave of Georg Scherer, a Dachau resident who was a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camp for five years. Scherer was sent to the Dachau camp on December 22, 1935 because of his anti-Nazi resistance activity, but was released on January 17, 1941. As a prisoner, Georg was living at the same place where he had served an apprenticeship as a lathe operator in 1921 at the German Industrial Works which was located on the site of the former gunpowder factory. After he was released from the Dachau camp, Scherer continued to work in a factory in the SS camp, right next to the concentration camp. The day before American Soldiers arrived in Dachau, Georg led the Dachau Uprising in which residents of the town joined escaped prisoners in fighting against the SS soldiers. Another prisoner, Walter Neff, also remained at the camp after his release, working as an assistant to Dr. Rascher in his medical experiments. Neff also participated in helping the Dachau prisoners to escape and in planning the uprising.
I hope that I have answered the question of why the good people in the town of Dachau did nothing to save the Jews in the concentration camp in their back yards. For those who still can’t understand it, maybe one more photo will help. The photo below shows the bomb shelter where the citizens of Dachau would cower when the Allies regularly bombed the city of Munich which was 18 kilometers from Dachau.
An estimated 500,000 German civilians, including a few Dachau citizens, were killed in the Allied bombing raids, more than the total of American soldiers who lost their lives in the entire war in both Europe and the Pacific. At the end of the war in May, 1945, the whole country of Germany lay in ruins, with thousands of bodies rotting under the beautiful buildings that had been destroyed by bombs. It took more than a year to dig the bodies out from under the rubble and some were never recovered. Americans arriving to conduct trials of Nazi war criminals in Dachau and Nuremberg were astounded by the stench of decaying corpses that permeated every major city in Germany.
As the unofficial “capital of the Nazis,” Munich was one of the primary targets for the American bombers. Dachau was close enough to Munich (approximately 12 miles) that the Dachau residents went into their shelters every time the air-raid alarms sounded. In 1944, there were 97 air-raid alarms for Munich and nearby Dachau. Another bombing raid on Munich and Dachau was on April 9, 1945. On air-raids over Munich, the US Air Force pilots were careful not to bomb the prison compound at Dachau, which was known to house 137 VIP prisoners and thousands of Communists, who were allies of the Americans. The concentration camp was marked by flares in the sky, so that the bombers wouldn’t accidentally drop any bombs that might kill the prisoners. There was only one direct hit on the Dachau concentration camp, a bomb that struck the service building and destroyed all the prisoner clothing that was stored there. (Incoming prisoners had to surrender their civilian clothing which was kept in storage and returned to them if and when they were released, as many Dachau prisoners were.)
The names of the soldiers from the town of Dachau who died in the two World Wars is posted on the wall shown in the photo above. There are six tablets on the wall with the names of 168 men who died at the front in World War I and 504 men from the town who sacrificed their lives for their country in World War II. This sad sight is something that you see on the walls of small town Catholic churches all over Germany, not just in Dachau.
How many prisoners died in the Dachau camp while 504 men from the town were dying in the war? Half of all the prisoners who died at Dachau died in the typhus epidemic in the last months of the war. The total number of deaths in the 12-year history of the camp was 31,951.
I think that the people of Dachau should be given a break. They were grieving over their sons and fathers who were German soldiers that died fighting for their country, so that’s why they weren’t concerned with the prisoners who were dying of typhus in the camp.
When the Dachau camp was opened in 1933, the population of the town of Dachau was 13,000. Now Dachau is a popular suburb of Munich. The 50,000 residents of this suburb should not be blamed for what happened from 1933 to 1945 in the historic town of Dachau.