“There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” – Walter Benjamin.
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, arrived in the town of Dachau a few weeks ago in order to address an election rally in a beer tent. On her way there, she found time to briefly make history by becoming the first post-war German leader to visit the Memorial Site that stands on the grounds of the former concentration camp. Not everyone was impressed. Wolfgang Benz, eminent historian of the darkest period in German history, criticised the timing as insultingly casual. Within 15 minutes of posing in silence with survivors of the concentration camp at a wreath-laying ceremony, Merkel was surrounded by a horde of beer-swilling political activists in a festival in the centre of town. Politicians from other parties described the sequence as “tasteless.”
Merkel has normally shown herself to be adept at dealing with this most sensitive of issues, but this was a misstep. Past and present sit uneasily together in Germany. This is familiar territory to Radius, as we specialise in guided tours themed on Germany’s tragic 20th century history. Combining the structures of modern tourism with the sensitivities of a difficult history requires adeptness on our part. Not all commercial operators get it right, as this recent article in the UK newspaper, The Guardian, shows.
The period 1933-45 is the history that is never merely “history” in this country. Not only is its legacy always present in the background in German attitudes to politics and foreign affairs, but it is a ubiquitous presence in the landscape of urban Germany: monuments, memorials, streets and public squares named in honour of victims and dissidents.
And that’s not counting the public buildings in everyday use that carry the shadow of a sinister history, like a stain that paint won’t quite cover. Name a likely winner in any poll to discover the single most fun place to be in Munich? Very probably the Hofbräuhaus, the most famous German beer hall in the world, and the home of excellent beer, great atmosphere, and good times. Also deeply associated with the origins of the Nazi party.
Are the nightly revellers in the Hofbräuhaus insulting the memory of victims by enjoying themselves in the very place where Adolf Hitler made some of his most infamous speeches? No, of course they are not. They are enjoying themselves in a beer hall. That’s what beer halls are for. Adolf Hitler made speeches all over Munich. Must the entire city forever be embalmed in memory and shame? No, life goes on. That’s what life is supposed to do.
How does “memory” work here? Surely the responsibility is not just to remember, but to study, reflect and learn. Is a beer hall the place for that? Perhaps a more insidious problem is not that posed by people dancing on the tables of the Hofbräuhaus, but by those same people walking to work the following morning past public memorials that have become so fixed a part of the furniture of the city that they have become invisible. That is a problem with public monuments, statues, sculptures, or plaques. They can become a kind of cultural wallpaper. Societies do not always build monuments to the past because they wish to remember; they sometimes do so because they prefer to forget. Put it on a pedestal, and leave it to the pigeons.
Dachau Memorial Site: the past in the present.
The place that Merkel visited was different, however, in that it occupies more than one dimension. It is a memorial to the past, but it is also the authentic location where that past occurred. Original buildings survive, interspersed with modern exhibition and educational spaces, individual religious memorials, and visitor service areas. It is a de facto cemetery as well as a place of education. It stands in testimony to an unspeakable past, but also functions as a modern resource centre from which great numbers of schoolkids and individual adult visitors benefit.
To state the obvious, the Dachau Memorial Site is a place where the past and present sit side by side. Such places are not always happy places. There are many places in the world where the scars of the past disfigure the face of the present. But there is also a positive way in which past and present can come together, and it has a name: education. The best way to remember is to learn.
The ethics of tours to a former concentration camp.
When she visited the Dachau Memorial Site, Angela Merkel was in a location to which Radius Tours brings tens of thousands of visitors every year. Along with other private operators in Munich and Bavarian tourism, we account for a not-insignificant proportion of non-German visitors who pass through the infamous entrance gate to the former prisoner compound every year. We have been doing this tour for a long time, and for a lot of that time with a core of highly experienced and highly responsible tour guides who have been trained and accredited by the authorities who run the Memorial Site. We are always conscious of our responsibilities here, as we are very aware that a commercial tour to a place of such profound sensitivity places a special weight of duty on the shoulders of those providing the service.
We have in the past been asked about the ethics of offering a tour to a former concentration camp as a commercial service. There are various ways to answer this question. We have over the years brought great numbers of visitors to the Memorial Site who would not otherwise have travelled to see it. We know this for a fact. Visitor numbers, especially among international tourists, have grown dramatically in the years since commercial tour operators began bringing tour groups to Dachau from Munich, a phenomenon pioneered by Radius. These people benefit from an edifying and educational experience provided by our tour guides.
Our guides are paid for what they do, just as schoolteachers are paid for what they do. This does not make it any less a vocation. They do it because they believe in what they are doing, and they are good at it.
Above all, however, the question of ethics answers itself. We justify our tours on ethical grounds precisely by doing them in an ethical way. Our tours are ethical because our tours are good. The price of the ticket is the only aspect of the experience which is commercial. Everything else – the content, the seriousness with which the guides take their responsibility both to the history and to their tour groups, the respect they have for the Memorial Site and the work it does – is about much more.
This is a subject to which I will return in future blog posts.