Auschwitz, Belsen, Dachau. Generations later, these names still evoke the horrors of Nazi Germany around the world. What should be done with the sites where hundreds of thousands of people were murdered and cremated? Punish Nazis? Tear down the buildings and plant trees? Build stores and apartments? Educate teenagers? All of these things happened at former concentration camps after 1945. Historian Harold Marcuse takes one of these sites, Dachau, and traces its history from the beginning of the twentieth century, through its twelve years as Nazi Germany's premier concentration camp, to the camp's postwar use as a prison, residential neighborhood, and, finally, museum and memorial site.
From the outset, the Dachau concentration camp occupied an especially prominent place in the Nazi concentration camp system. It was the first camp to be set up in 1933, and it was the first to be under the direct supervision of Heinrich Himmler, who later controlled the entire concentration and extermination camp network. The Dachau system became a model for all other Nazi concentration camps. It also served as a "school of violence" for concentration camp leaders including Adolf Eichmann, the bureacrat who masterminded the industrially organized extermination of the Jews, and Rudolf Höss, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz. Dachau was also the camp where the Nazi's regime most prominent prisoners, including chancellors and cabinet ministers from occupied countries, as well as high-ranking religious leaders, were incarcerated. Dachau served as a concentration camp until it was liberated by American troops on April 29, 1945. Since that time, more than 21 million people have visited the site, 19 million of them, 90 percent, since the camp was designated as a memorial in 1965. Few of them know how the site was used in the twenty years before it was turned into a memorial, nor are they aware of the many choices that were made in the creation and modification of the present memorial site. How did the Dachau memorial come to be? What lessons does it teach us? How are the site's messages received by visitors, and what short and long-term effects does a visit have upon them? Marcuse attempts to provide answers to those questions.
The book is divided into four parts. The first recounts the history of Dachau from its beginnings as a market town and dynastic residence centuries ago through its repressive and genocidal phase, from 1933 to 1945. Three phases of the camp's history after 1945 are examined in the following three parts. Part II focuses on the decade from 1945 to 1955. It begins with a portrayal of three primary responses to the crimes symbolized by Dachau: the myth that the German people had been victimized by the Nazis, the myth that most Germans had been ignorant of the crimes their neighbors, friends, and relatives were committing, and the myth that most Germans had been upright citizens who resisted Nazism as much as possible without taking inordinate risks. From the early 1950s those myths of victimization, ignorance, and resistance were expressed by three inversions of historical fact. Those inversions are the subject of the three chapters in part II, which show the development and effects of the conception that Nazis had been "good," the consequences of the feeling that concentration camp survivors had been and still were "bad," and the transformation of Dachau and other former concentration camps into "clean" camps. Because these three historical myths and the resulting mythic inversions played an important role in the establishment of the West German state and the peculiar nature of its politics from the late 1940s until the turn of the millennium, they are referred to as the three founding myths.
Part III traces the images of Dachau embraced and propagated by the groups most involved in shaping its postwar history. It focuses on the period from 1955-1970, although it begins with a survey of the first impulses to memorialize the Dachau camp after the war. Subsequent chapters examine how the camp survivors, German Catholics, Jews, and Protestants, worked to represent their own present conception of the meaning of the concentration camp's past. The final chapter of part III introduces a theory of generational cohorts to demonstrate how, at the end of the 1960s, a generation of Germans born between roughly 1937 and 1953 began openly to challenge the veracity of the three founding myths. However, those children of the "generation of perpetrators" were themselves enmeshed in the distortion of their parents' myths. While they denied their parents' claim of victimization, they saw themselves as victims. While they rejected their elders' profession of ignorance and sought knowledge about the Nazi past, their own understanding remained abstract, intangible, and unconnected to real life. While they scoffed at claims of resistance during the Nazi years, their own resistance against present injustices was at times motivated more by a desire to compensate for past injustices than justified by the consistent application of moral principles.
Part IV outlines the process of overcoming, since 1970, the mythically distorted collective images of the Nazi era. It examines how the perpetrator and the first postwar generations' legacies of victim identification, historical ignorance, and overblown resistance have been challenged and even overcome by members of younger age cohorts. Taken together, the three founding myths had served to establish Germans' innocence of Nazi crimes. Overcoming them entailed recognizing guilt and accepting responsibility for those crimes, as well as correcting the inversions that emerged from the three founding myths during the 1950s. At the close of the twentieth century, Nazi-era Germans are once again becoming "bad," Hitler's victims are regaining their "good" standing (additional groups are being compensated for their losses and persecution), and the former concentration camps are losing their "cleanliness" as recent historiography and renovations seek to recreate long-destroyed or ignored aspects of the past.
Finally, the book concludes with an examination of the renovation of Dachau originally slated for completion in 2001. It explores in detail some of the questions of commemoration, pedagogy, and meaning raised in previous chapters. Specifically, it looks at ways in which the founding myths and their legacies have found expression in the current redesign plans, and suggests ways in which uses by a post-millennial generation might be considered, in order to avoid the distortion of past abuses.
Marcuse's insightful narrative combines meticulous archival research with an encyclopedic knowledge of the extensive literatures on Germany, the Holocaust, and historical memory. "Legacies of Dachau" unravels the intriguing relationship between historical events, individual memory, and political culture, enabling it to offer an unifying interpretation of their interaction over the entire sweep of German history from the Nazi era into the twenty-first century.