In the final weekend of my two month long PhD secondment in Germany, I visited the Dachau concentration camp, just north of Munich. It was the first time I’d visited a memorial site of this kind, so was an especially moving experience. Dachau was a uniquely notorious camp, used as a “model” for the other camps that came after, and was the only one to exist throughout the entire war.
Between 1933–1945, the men (and towards the end the women) endured some of the worst treatment ever inflicted on mankind. Whilst walking around the camp, it was difficult to imagine the physical and mental horrors endured. The physical pain from hunger, the constant fear of death and the humiliation from being stripped of one’s dignity and identity. They were no longer people with names, they were numbers.
At the end of the guide I was taken to a statue named “Unknown Prisoner” depicting a frail inmate in prison uniform. Frailty was typical of those imprisoned in these camps, which for many led to their deaths from being purposefully overworked by their captors. However, this prisoner was standing with his hands in his pockets, looking up, instead of down at his feet. Whilst prisoner uniforms in the camp had pockets, their use was strictly forbidden, a form of psychological torment similar in nature to the “Work Sets You Free” sign on the iron gates at the entrance. The hands in the pockets, and head held high indicate this man was no longer imprisoned, either through liberation which came in the form of the American Army on April 29, 1945, or perhaps more sadly, the liberation that came to him through his death. I suspect being titled “Unknown Prisoner” the latter is more likely true.
I focused on this statue because of the text written underneath, which in German reads “Den Toten zur Ehr, Den Lebenden zur Mahnung” translated “To honour the dead, to remind the living”. To remind the living. To remind me, to remind us all of the events during this period of time.
After WWI Germany was one of the leading countries in Europe, progressive in manufacturing and technology, a period known in Germany as the Golden Years. Had you asked anyone then whether Germany would be capable of such acts, the response would have been a resounding, conviction filled no, yet history tells a very different story.
The people who died in these camps wanted to send us an eternal message. They wanted us to remember the events of WWII to prevent such suffering from ever happening again, to save us from ourselves, and to learn from the shadows of our past.
As we go forward into a future which is unknown, riddled with uncertainties, we should be vigilant of acts that divide us, acts that stem from hatred, driven by desires for power at the immense cost to others. We should stand up to these acts of hatred and division, even if they have little effect on us now, they may affect us in the future.
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” - Martin Niemöller