The Bavaria region in southern Germany is justifiably famous for its beautiful mountain scenery, great beer, and unique culture. Tourists flock there to eat, drink, and soak up the atmosphere in any number of gorgeous towns and villages.
Just to the northwest of Munich, in the Bavaria region, lies the small town of Dachau. If traveling was only about seeing the truly wonderful and beautiful places on earth, this would surely remain off the beaten path. However, every year over 800,000 people are drawn to experience something different.
From 1933 to 1945, Dachau was the site of the very first of Nazi Germany’s concentration camps. The Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site thoughtfully preserves the location, the history, and many of the original buildings as a learning experience for you to visit and take away your own memories and emotions.
Why Visit Dachau Concentration Camp?
Everyone has their own reason for visiting these places, and tour buses from all over Europe, lined up in the car park, testify to the almost magnet-like attraction this site holds.
For us, Dachau was the fifth former concentration camp site we visited since arriving in Poland three months earlier. Auschwitz, Birkenau, Treblinka, Gross Rosen, and now Dachau -- all had similarities while also being different in their own way. We somehow felt drawn in, as though we couldn’t be in this region and just drive by. Maybe it was a thirst for knowledge about history, a yearning to connect as humans with the events that took place here, or maybe we just needed to understand how this site could ever have existed in the first place. It’s hard to really pin down our exact reasons, but we are so grateful we went, and somehow feel richer and more empowered for the experience.
“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it” -- this famous quote by philosopher George Santayana is printed on a plaque within the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Given the divisive climates in many countries around the world, the more we know about what extremest ideologies led to in the past, the greater the prospects of preventing it happening again in the future. This alone may be enough to include a visit to Dachau Concentration Camp in your itinerary.
Whatever your reasons for visiting this memorial site, we can help prepare you to fully absorb the experience this infamous place will offer you.
Give Yourself Enough Time
Dachau isn’t a rush around, take photos, and leave destination. There is a lot to absorb, a vast amount of information to process, and it will take time for your emotions about what you are seeing to set in. The official website recommends spending half a day. We had control of our own timetable and spent six hours, which was perfect for us.
Take A Virtual Tour
If you are time constrained, take a Virtual Tour online ahead of time to identify the areas of most interest to you, then head straight to those when you arrive.
Prepare To Feel Emotional
Over 40,000 people lost their lives here in the most atrocious conditions imaginable. Others were tortured, starved, and scarred for life. Their stories are told and shown in sometimes graphic detail. You are supposed to feel shocked, dismayed, and ashamed by what humans did to each other here. You are also likely to be uplifted and enheartened by some of the stories of courage, self-sacrifice, survival, and the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. This is one reason why Dachau is such a compelling place to visit.
Do Your Homework
Prepare yourself for the inevitable information overload by learning something about Dachau Concentration Camp and what happened there before you arrive.
The Virtual Tour, mentioned above, provides a brief overview of each building and memorial site.
One of the biggest questions that you will ask yourself is How could this have happened? The museum provides a very detailed timeline of Hitler’s rise to power and the subsequent development of the concentration camp network. Reading this article published by the National World War II Museum in New Orleans before your visit will help you digest the answers to this question.
It is clear that Germany as a nation has fully accepted responsibility for the horrors of the concentration camps. They bend over backward to educate their own citizens and visitors about what really happened at these places. As you progress through the timeline exhibits, you read just how the German public was drawn into the Nazi propaganda -- and into Hitler’s dream of a racially pure German empire. Once Hitler was elected as Chancellor, however, it was too late, and they were locked into his tyrannical dictatorship.
The logical progression of the storyboards almost seemed a little too obvious to me, as if the events had been spun to give some justification as to the unfolding history. But why? Maybe so visiting Germans didn’t feel too guilty or foreigners too angry? You can make your own mind up on your visit.
Know What Kind Of Concentration Camp Dachau Was
There were actually several types of Nazi concentration camps, depending on their role and the prisoners they held. Prior to the outbreak of World War II, Dachau Concentration Camp held only German political prisoners, which then extended to Austrians and later Czechs as Nazi Germany annexed those countries. Subsequently, other people treated as undesirables by the Nazi party, including Jews, gypsies (Roma and Sinti people), homosexuals, priests from Poland, and Soviet prisoners of war were crowded into the packed barracks. At the time the camp was liberated by the American forces in 1945, Dachau was the central hub in a network of over a hundred sub-camps that provided slave labor for the German armaments industry.
How To Get To Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site
Dachau is located about 12 miles northwest of central Munich or 20 miles to the east of Munich International Airport. Take the S2 train from Munich to Dachau station, then the 726 bus to the site. If you are driving, the address of the parking area is 73 Alte Romerstrasse, 85221, Dachau.
Full detailed instructions for those using public transport or driving there are available here.
The site is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. except on December 24, and admission is free.
Guided tours in English start at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. daily, so I suggest you time your arrival accordingly. The cost is less than $4 USD and the tour takes approximately 2.5 hours. Alternatively, you can use Dachau’s informative audio guide for under $5 or simply read the comprehensive visual boards. On this occasion, we opted for the audio guide -- which came with a great map -- so we could progress at our own pace.
The advantage of having a guided tour is the extra background information provided -- and that you have the opportunity to ask questions. However, the pace of the tour doesn’t give you the freedom to pause where it suits you, allowing your thoughts and emotions to fully develop.
Although Dachau may not be on your bucket list, time spent here embeds a lasting memory and deeper experience than the usual top-10-places-to-visit type of destinations.
Dachau Concentration Camp can be called the Ground Zero of concentration camps. It was the first of the Nazi camps and it was here that the Schutzstaffel, or SS who ran Dachau, refined the techniques and methods that were used in all other concentration camps in neighboring countries. None of the four other camps we visited gave the same in-depth background and information, so if you are only going to visit one concentration camp, Dachau would be my recommendation.