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Sat 19 October 2019
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Mike Stuchbery sheds some light on the heated debate ignited by New York congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, who compared the Trump administration’s facilities for containing asylum seekers on the US southern border to concentration camps.

Let’s talk about Dachau, the first of the concentration camps of the Nazi era. Let’s talk about how it began, and what happened next, under the eyes of Germans.

Dachau, a small town 30km north-west of Munich, was selected as the site of a detention centre by Heinrich Himmler, then chief of Munich’s police.

It was chosen because it was a former munitions factory that could quickly be refitted to take a number of prisoners.

Dachau in 1933 wasn’t the Dachau that now haunts our dreams.

When the gates of Dachau opened on the 22 March 1933, it was first intended to take in prisoners from other crowded facilities throughout Bavaria. From there, it was to house communists, trade unionists and others considered enemies of the new Nazi Government.

For the first couple of weeks of the camp’s existence, it was staffed by ordinary police and jailers – before the SS arrived to take it over.

The camp commander gives a speech to prisoners at Dachau about to be released as part of a pardoning action near Christmas 1933

Dachau was not hidden. It was no secret, not only to its neighbours, but the wider German public.

Media toured the camp and the Munich Illustriete Zeitung even published a picture of a swimming pool, ostensibly for the use of those detained. Photos were published of arrivals, wearing their civilian clothes, lining up with their possessions before being processed.


Prisoners were housed in bunked barracks, with straw mattresses and blankets. Let’s just pause here to contrast that with our contemporary images of migrants asleep on cage floors, covered in foil blankets.

A trip to the camp also wasn’t one-way, not to begin with.

Prisoners could be released, although there is some suggestion that the regime would later re-arrest many it claimed to free in the media.

Dachau began as an idea. It was sold as the solution to a problem that the Nazi party had convinced millions posed an existential threat to the German nation.

To begin with, there was little oversight in terms of discipline and daily routine at Dachau. It’s only after a number of extrajudicial killings by guards that Theodor Eicke, a fanatical party member and SS functionary, was brought in to establish clear procedures for both guards and prisoners.

Commencing in January 1934, uniforms for prisoners were introduced, and rigid discipline among the guards established.

Over the next few years, the population of Dachau swelled to the thousands and the prisoners were forced to build new barracks to house new arrivals. Facilities were refurbished and even modernised over time, in order to minimise disruptions.

Eicke’s reforms would create the template for all the other concentration camps that would be established in Germany prior to the outbreak of war. Buchenwald, Ravensbruck and Sachsenhausen all drew from the lessons learnt at Dachau.


More than a decade later, when it was liberated by US troops, Dachau was found to contain 32,000 sick, emaciated prisoners.

Venturing further into the camp, thousands more corpses had been prepared for disposal via cremation before Allied forces arrived.

Among the vast mass of prisoners were Jews, Poles and homosexuals, in addition to many more opponents of the crumbling Reich.

US Soldiers liberate Dachau

As a former factory-turned-prison, Dachau became one of the deadliest camps in Germany during the Nazi era.

Thanks to the news reels made and testimony recorded during its liberation by the US, it has become a byword for atrocity; callous disregard for human life; the nihilistic death drive of Nazism.

Dachau began as an idea. It was sold as the solution to a problem that the Nazi party had convinced millions posed an existential threat to the German nation.

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It began as the response to a thousand speeches, broadcasts and propaganda pieces – the image of Hitler, not yet the Führer, underlining just how these communists and other dissenters were destroying the German nation from within.

Dachau began as something the German people thought they needed to keep them safe, something to relieve the burden on other prisons. It began being perceived as the perfectly acceptable response to the country’s problems.

Does any of this sound familiar?

At least 24 asylum seekers have died in the custody of detention camps near the US border since the beginning of the Trump administration. This alone should be cause for outrage and protest.

Plans for the expansion of these detention camps, as well as a severe crackdown on illegal migrants mooted by President Trump, should not only be drawing comparisons with Nazi era concentration camps, but the entire ideology and mechanisms of the Nazi state itself.

Dachau in 1933 wasn’t the Dachau that now haunts our dreams. Let us hope that we won’t have to say the same of these border detention camps to our grandchildren.

Meet Mike Stutchbery and other Byline Times writers at Byline Festival

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