Lessons from Dachau
August 4, 2010Learning from history should lead to a more secular, less dogmatic world
This past summer, while traveling through Europe, I visited Dachau outside of Munich, Germany, home of the longest-running concentration camp during the Nazi regime. As one can imagine, the experience was haunting and heart-breaking. A sign that reads “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Will Set You Free”) greeted prisoners as they entered the camp through steel gates. The barracks now contain a variety of black and white photos of sickly, dying inmates, along with stories of the brutal, often fatal treatment to which the Jews, dissidents, homosexuals, and others were subjected during Dachau’s 12-year operation.
Towards the end of my tour of the camp, I came across two buildings that were constructed after the end of the war; given the religion of those who were murdered at Dachau and the supernatural convictions of the Nazis, I found their existence to be particularly disturbing. Two churches have been built on the premises, ostensibly erected to remind the world of the godlessness of those who had orchestrated the holocaust and the need for godliness to prevent such an event from happening again. While most of western culture, dominated by a Christian majority, would not object to these churches – one, a Russian orthodox chapel built in 1994, the other concisely named the “Church of Reconciliation” – I find their presence there to be unwise and unwarranted.
Those familiar with Nazi uniforms are undoubtedly aware that the official Nazi belt buckle, with a swastika underneath, read “Gott Mit Uns,” "God With Us". Further, Hitler, inaccurately known as the world’s most famous atheist, believed that he was fulfilling a divine plan. After surviving an assassination attempt in 1944, Hitler, in a speech given to the people of Germany, said that he viewed his survival “as confirmation of my assignment from Providence to continue to pursue my life’s goal as I have done hitherto.” Building Christian churches within a concentration camp seems disrespectful to the thousands of Jews who were murdered at Dachau and supportive of George Bernard Shaw’s observation that “[W]e learn from history that we learn nothing from history.”
Our campus program is a movement that is in place, among other reasons, to point out the aforementioned facts so that humanity can remember and learn from history. The lesson from the holocaust, it seems to me, is that we need governments to guarantee rights to minorities, assure civil liberties by the rule of law, and to constantly question the intentions and behavior of those with political power. Obedience, absolutism, and nationalism, not liberalism, intellectualism, and skepticism caused the horrors of Dachau. On the western wall of Dachau, the words “never again” are written in five different languages. If humanity is to fulfill this goal, we would do well to applaud, not shame, those who question dogmatic faith and promote reason and secular values.