There are few words in this world to be understood in all languages by all people. One of them is "Dachau". In 1792, the Bavarian historian and educationalist Lorenz Westenrieder, who also was a man of the Church, left the following description for posterity: "The small town of Dachau is, although not really beautiful (...), a nice, friendly and laughing place". Two hundred years have gone by. Now, the stranger reads the following: "This wretched, pungent, sickly sweet stench of urine. Since 1945, it is cruising around the world (...). Wherever eyes are gouged out, wherever someone is hung or beheaded or burnt, wherever someone is starved to death or shot - there will always be another someone to say: Dachau (...)".
"Dachau", the eagerly listening visitor is told, "Dachau lives with its burden of a difficult past". The name has lost nothing of its horrible sound. Thousands of screams have wiped out the nice, friendly laugh that had caught the ear of Westenrieder. "Dachau is the place of crime to humanity, all over the world it stands for persecution, torture, terror and murder" and only "reluctantly one sets a foot on those grounds, where the stones and every inch of the earth tell the terrible events that have taken place here" - "Cursed be this name" - violated by the Nazi regime.
Two days after the liberation of the concentration camp of Dachau, the American public had learned for the first time through the press on May 1, 1945 of the incredible sights the US army troops encountered when capturing the camp. "The barracks of Dachau", says Maguerite Higgins, an American journalist who had entered Dachau together with the troops and who - as an eye witness - reported of the dramatic events, "were full of this odor of death and illness like those of Buchenwald".
Among the most horrible impressions counted the wagons of the Buchenwald transport covered with the dead bodies of people starved to death and shot. Also, the Americans found more than 3000 corpses in the area of the crematorium. Still after the liberation the typhoid fever epidemic continued and added to the high death rate in the camp, figuring 2226 dead persons in May 1945 and another 196 in June. As the cremation of the many dead in the camp would have taken too long for the Americans, they ordered the reluctant district governor of Dachau, Dr. Heinrich Kneuer, to bury the dead in a mass grave. The bodies of the concentration camp victims were carried in open carts to the nearby villages of Etzenhausen and Prittlbach to be buried there - carried past the aghast citizens of Dachau. This transport of corpses right through Dachau was aimed by the Americans at demonstrating to the very eyes of the people there the crimes that had taken place right next to them. Also, they asked more than 30 VIP's and officials of Dachau to look at the masses of dead bodies in the death chambers of the crematorium. The faces of these Dachau cititzens showed nothing but horror when seeing the emaciated bodies of the camp inmates, women wept bitterly. American war reporters have preserved these scenes on a film for the world to see.
What did the citizens of Dachau know of the atrocities in the concentration camp? That's undoubtedly the main question of the American occupying forces as well as of the world public. That's the question over and over again, even if it's not spoken out loudly. There is such amount of mistrust in the US forces towards the citizens of Dachau that they are suspicious of their feelings of horror after the liberation of the camp and they assume they are only faking. "The Americans report bitterly that the standard excuse of the Dachau people, be they members of the NSDAP or not, was: 'We've all been lied to'. They all admitted, however, that they knew about the camp and that they had seen prison workers with guards marching through the streets and that the SS also had commited brutal acts towards the citizens of Dachau in the years of 1934/1935", Anton Großmann writes in his article "Stadt und Landkreis Dachau im Schatten des Konzentrationslagers" (Town and district of Dachau in the shadow of the concentration camp).
The fact, that the SS had been trying to hide their atrocities from the camp inmates and that camp prisoners, after being released, were not permitted by risk of life to talk about anything they had seen or experienced in the camp, not even to their wives, these facts were known to the American occupants only through former prisoners of Dachau, who came to excuse the citizens of Dachau. Indeed, the camp prisoners of Dachau, when liberated in 1945, they reported in favour of the town of Dachau. After the liberation of the camp, demonstratively they celebrated a service of thanksgiving and emphasized the blood brotherhood between the town and the camp - also because of the "Dachau rebellion", when citizens and prisoners lost their lives in a joint effort to fight the SS.
In favour of the Dachau citizens are also the results of the last -partially- free elections in 1933, when the votes for the NSDAP were far below the average in Bavaria and the "Reich". Moreover, it has to be said that in the morning following the establishment of the camp, as many as 64 communists of Dachau were taken in custody. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that most citizens of Dachau had adapted surprisingly fast to the everyday life in Nazi Germany, despite of their disapproval of the SS and the concentration camp expressed in the beginning by quite a number of the cititzens. Not only the commoners, such as the members of the "Bavarian People's Party" which, by pressure of the Nazis, were forced to quit their party and to resign from their political office, not only them but also the Social Democrats of Dachau became tragic figures in those days by bowing to the new force and even agree to make Hitler become a freeman of the town of Dachau. Some citizens however had maintained good contact with the SS and, as a result, had made considerable profit from the concentration camp.
To the majority of the 'Dachauers', however, this accusation can certainly not be made. Yet, in 1945 the Dachauers had to declare why they had not tried to end the SS terror by risk of their proper lives. In the face of those horrible pictures that now cruised the world, the many quiet acts of solidarity, such as secretly slipping bread or potatoes to the prisoners, counted little in the eyes of the winners. The letter of an American soldier, published by the Süddeutsche Zeitung in autumn of 1945 reads as follows: "Twelve million Christian martyrs, mothers, fathers, daughters and sons died upon the order of the cruel Roman emperor. These Christians sacrificed everything except their faith. You see, that's why the Americans become impatient with the Germans who say 'We were unable to help the unfortunates of the Dachau camp. For anything we would have done, the SS would have killed us. We too would have died from starvation and our families would have suffered'. Jesus says, however, that he will spill the halfhearted out of his mouth."
Of course, the citizens of Dachau had noticed the emaciated prisoners from the camp, and of course the farmers from the area had been watching the SS forcing camp prisoners to dig trenches on the hill of Leitenberg towards the end of the war. They had also seen the horsecarts going back and forth with their covered freight. Yet, filled with fear, they had bent their heads back down to their field work when the SS screaming and cursing ordered them to do so.
An information leaflet issued by the US Army for their troops after the liberation quotes: "Although the people could well imagine the bestiality of the SS and the revolting events behind the closed doors of the camp, they were afraid to do or say anything, for the shadow of the camp had been cast on them as well." Some persons confirmed that there had been cases when people were even afraid to closely watch the transports of the prisoners in case they might be imprisoned themselves just for knowing a small portion of the crimes. The entire system was probably based on the theory that "dead bodies cannot tell stories".
The 32.000 prisoners liberated on April 29, 1945 by the Americans could now testify the crimes comitted. After their arrival in Dachau, the troops in May 1945 established "a short term but extremely diverse press reporting". This is why the first free newspapers after the SS terror in Germany were published in the liberated camp. They were copied leaflets, published by the national commitees in the size of a regular letter. The German prisoners published their first information leaflet on May 6, 1945. It was called "The Anti-Fascist", subtitle "The voice of the Germans from Dachau". As the moment of the long expected farewell approached, the camp elder Oskar Müller, gave his comrades a motto to follow in their future life: "We want to build a new Germany for ourselves and our youth, a Germany of anti-fascism, of freedom and democracy".
Once at home from the concentration camp, the images of the past returned however, became vivid and the very question of why it all had to happen came to mind. "Alone I'm sitting here at my table, alone with my memories", writes the Belgian Dachau prisoner Arthur Haulot in June 1945 during a sleepless night. "Difficult and cruel memories, memories of dark days and also of sunny days, of nerve wrecking illegal fight, of horror and bestiality in the camp, memories of my dead comrades", Haulot continues. That night he asks them to forgive him: "Death has taken you away, he didn't want me". And from the bottom of his heart, Haulot fights the thought that all the suffering might have been in vain. This, he feels, would have been the deepest humiliation the SS could have done to their victims after they had destroyed them. And thus he writes in memory of his dead comrades "You will continue to live, because withstanding death you have overcome it, because you are the real heroes, here and in your country. And the world of tomorrow - may they remember or forget - will carry your mark".
Translated by Marlene Hoffmeister