Why You Should Visit a Concentration Camp

Why You Should Visit a Concentration Camp

In their curriculum, German students are required to learn about the darker aspects of their nation’s history from young as 10. The Germans have taken a head-on approach to teaching students about the war, particularly the Holocaust, taking pupils for confronting visits to concentration and labour camps. This remains in stark contrast to the way Australia’s education system has addressed – or suppressed – our indigenous history, skipping many of the facts regarding the genocide and discrimination of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population, and kicking up a huge fuss whenever suggestions that an invasion took place arise.

The logic behind Germany’s approach is quite simple: by acknowledging the mistakes made that led to the terrors of the past, they can make sure it never happens again.

Enter Sébastien LeDoux, an academic who noted that in the years immediately following WWII, Holocaust survivors, particularly those with Jewish heritage often “shrouded themselves in silence, repressing memories in a supposedly collective, post-traumatic response”. This may have in turn perpetuated what he described as a period of generalised forgetting.

Decades later, LeDoux says that Holocaust awareness been re-framed as a universal lesson to help shape the zeitgeist of the 21st Century “built on universal civic and moral values, helping to recast what it can mean to younger generations growing up in multicultural societies as global citizens”.

Yes, it’s 2017 and we’ve come a long way, but the building blocks of the Holocaust are still prevalent. Democracies across the globe remain steeped in demagogic rhetoric that acts more effectively on the division of people rather than unity, and with the advent of social media and the interwebs, such rhetoric is more accessible than ever.

Look no further than the rise of populism over the past year or two, whereby politicians have lionised ordinary people and pitted them against the “privileged elite”: the same phenomenon that made Hitler appear as a saviour of Germany back in the ’30s. I’ll let none other than his holiness, Pope Francis sum this one up: “Germany was looking for a leader, someone who would give her back her identity, and there was a little man named Adolf Hitler who said ‘I can do it’.”

Politicians like France’s Marine Le Pen and US President Donald Trump adopted eerily similar techniques in their ascensions to power. At his inauguration, Trump told the crowd: “Today, we are not just transferring power from one administration to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the people.”

According to Pope Francis, “Hitler did not steal power. He was elected by his people and then he destroyed his people.”

Today, dozens of former Nazi concentration camps have been transformed into museums and opened to the public. Applying Germany’s logic as a traveller in Europe, visiting one of these sites allows one to bear witness and learn from the past via a type of confrontation we are often not accustomed to in Australia. It is an immensely sobering experience that will stick with visitors for a long time, and should be considered an important tool in shaping every individual’s moral compass because, like it or not, history often has a habit of repeating itself.

Many of these camps have been tastefully curated and designed to commemorate the thousands who were imprisoned and died there. Often, the sites will feature large spaces of grass and trees: a beautiful juxtaposition to what would have transpired between the camps’ walls 70 years ago. It’s impossible to leave unaffected, that alone being worth at least one day of your time. It may even instil some perspective on the world’s current socio-political climate, and might give you a little bit of optimism that humanity has, and continues, to make strides in a positive direction.

Opening up the doors of concentration camps to the masses hasn’t come without its problems, though. Critiques of dark tourism – the process of visiting places associated with death and suffering – are concerned with the ethics involved with economic gain from past tragedies, as well as the way people often fail to acknowledge the poignancy of the ground they’re standing on and those who lost their lives there. Granted, this is a sad reality of dark tourism: during my time at two camps in Germany, I noticed multiple groups of people posing for selfies, undisputable proof that the importance of the camp was lost on some before they’d even walked through the gates. Such insensitivity was the focus of a German website called ‘Yolocaust’, which superimposed selfies taken by tourists over real photos of prisoners and dead bodies to emphasise their carelessness.

Fortunately, these idiots represent a small proportion of visitors, and the overarching purpose of the camps open to the public today is to educate rather than generate revenue. On that note, they do not charge for admission, meaning it’s difficult to accuse them of blatant exploitation of the dead for profit. They do, however, charge for tours and audio guides, but I would argue that by imparting information and moving anecdotes upon visitors, the staff are attempting to make sure the victims of these camps did not die in vain.

The Holocaust may be one of history’s darkest chapters, but it’s a chapter that should never be glossed over or ignored. Only by acknowledging the mistakes of yesterday can we be sure they are not made again tomorrow. What’s more, education and understanding breeds empathy. Perhaps if school kids in Australia grew up visiting sites where massacres against our Indigenous people had taken place, they too would be more inclined to empathise with the challenges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to face.

If you’re headed to Germany, Sachsenhausen labour camp is a 45-minute ride from Berlin’s city centre: just take the S1 to Oranienburg and follow the signs. If Munich is on the itinerary, Dachau is a short train trip on the S2 line in the direction of Dachau/Peterhausen. For those travelling through Poland, you can visit Auschwitz-Birkenau – the largest, most infamous extermination camp established under the Nazi regime. It’s a two-hour trip via bus or train from the capital, Krakow, located outside the city of Oświęcim. Many other camps are located across Poland and Germany, but also in Austria, France, Latvia, Ukraine, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands – each with tragic stories to tell, but also lessons we can, and should, learn from.

Photos by the author