The decision to visit a concentration camp while in Germany was a difficult one for me. On one hand, it is historically important and I deeply believe that knowing and understanding our past helps us chart a better future. I had asked around and confirmed that the German government has taken great care to present the sites in an educational while appropriately solemn manner. On the other hand, whoa depressing.
Sachsenhausen is about 30 minutes by train outside of Berlin. Built by prison labor in 1936, the camp served as a model for the expanding camp system. Originally, the camps were designed not to kill Jews but as hard labor camps and heavy punishment for the Nazis’ political rivals, chiefly members of the Social Democratic Party (SPD in German) and the Communist party (KPD). For the first four years of the camp, the majority of prisoners were political prisoners.
All of the concentration camp sites are free and Sachsenhausen had several really clear educational exhibits in addition to the remaining buildings. The exhibit on the history of the site did a great job incorporating primary source documents and materials found on the site. I found that much easier than walking through the prison and barracks. Being in the actual buildings used for isolation and the most inhumane conditions for the “general population” was too overwhelming, especially since I was there by myself.
Overall, I am glad that I went. I’m also really pleased with the diligence paid to all of the Nazis’ victims as often times the political prisoners and so-called “social undesirables” (gays, the mental handicapped and Roma) are overlooked. As the Wall Street Journal calls for a fascist dictatorship in Egypt, today was a somber reminder of the political tasks at hand and the necessity of challenging all forms of oppression.