Today – the day before the G20 Youth Forum begins – I visited the remains of the old concentration camp at Dachau, 15km from Munich. Some might think this a slightly controversial choice of destination, given that today is my first ever full day in Germany. But if any single day trip could suggest that the world’s problems should be taken seriously, this would be it. The Biergärten and Schnäpse can come later.
After disembarking from my train to Dachau, I followed a crowd to a waiting bus, which travels the line between the train station and the Konzentrationslager. The crowd – composed mostly of young German students – filed into the bus. Those who had no place to sit were required to stand, shoulder to shoulder. The mood was nevertheless congenial among the students: boys joked; girls leaned fashionably against the edges of seats; and the introverts among them, sitting beside the windows, gazed out at the passing fields.
Though it was a perfectly innocent bus ride, I was unable to avoid its awful association. As a dozen healthy arms all around me clung onto the handrails above, tensing and relaxing with each movement of the bus on its way to the camp, I remembered my most grim history lessons.
“Work brings Freedom”
Dachau and its surrounds are now lush, green, and – I say with hesitation – almost beautiful. Daisies and dandelions abound in the long grass. Paths wind through the tall trees, across gently-flowing streams. It was a warm spring day, and birdsong filled the air under a cloudless blue sky. The former ugliness of the area had in most places been replaced by greenery. Inside the prisoners’ camp, two long rows of poplars stood between two long rows of barrack houses. I assumed that these trees had also been planted after the liberation, but later discovered that they were in fact planted by the SS to feature in photos and films of the camp – in other words, for propaganda purposes.
I sat in the shade of an old barracks, jotting down some of my impressions. As I looked up from the page, I noticed the precision with which the foundations of the barrack buildings were aligned. Angle met angle as far as I could see. I later read that Helmut Striffler, a German architect, regarded the right angle as a symbol of the Nazi murder system. The writer Heinrich Mann – whose books were among the many burned by the regime – spoke of “exactness within the dreadful”. And a Protestant church, erected on the grounds of the camp in the 1960s, had therefore been constructed without a single right angle.
The part of the camp where I sat was empty, except for two blackbirds which dug for worms in the grass beneath a watchtower on the perimeter. Another group of German students laughed and joked somewhere in the distance. But far from intruding on the hushed atmosphere of the camp, their unspoiled happiness only brought to my mind another dark association. Seventy years ago, people just like these German students were compelled to live and die within these same barbed wire fences. As if this association needed underlining, I glimpsed a schoolboy who looked almost exactly like Peter van Daan, the love interest of Anne Frank.
This post is hardly related to the G20 Forum, which begins tomorrow, but it did seem to be an experience worth sharing – and remembering, as we explore some of the world’s most pressing issues in the days to come. Even though I studied history at university, I left the camp with the feeling that I should know much more.