I once read that Germans ‘cling to a distant and inglorious past to avoid confronting the horrors of the past century.’ I don’t agree with that, at all. In fact I believe Germany does anything but avoid confronting the horrors of the past century. The country lives with the dark legacy handed to them by diabolical people who did diabolical things over a period of time that has blighted a long and fascinating history. And they live with this legacy with a quiet acceptance, the generations born after the war educated and informed, the responsibility passed down in the classrooms to kids with no context within which to place it, simply the understanding that it is part of their heritage, part of how the world will always see them. Museums and memorials across the country provide visitors access to honest, confronting information about what happened. Germany does not shy away from confronting the horrors of the past century – they can’t and I don’t believe they would, even if they could.
I went to Flossenbürg recently, on a fittingly grey, chilly day. Flossenbürg is a village on the edge of the forest that until 1938 was just like any other Bavarian village – quaint and peaceful with a crumbling castle and an appeal to early 20th century holidaymakers. Then it became host to a concentration camp, first as a place for ‘anti social’ German ‘career criminals’ to mine the SS-owned quarry and then as a camp for political opponents of the Nazi regime, homosexuals, Sintis and Romanis, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Jews. From 1938, until its liberation by the US Army in 1945, an estimated 100,000 prisoners passed through Flossenbürg Concentration Camp and its satellite camps. 30,000 of them never came out. These days Flossenbürg, with its crumbling castle on a hill and quiet, forest surrounds, is synonymous with one of the most vile parts of Nazi Germany.
Flossenbürg was a forced labour camp, its prisoners put to work quarrying the granite in such appalling conditions. Many could not survive the work coupled with illness and starvation. Later, as forced labour became more and more vital to Hitler’s campaign, around one hundred satellite camps were built in the region, for arms production. In 1944, less than a year before its liberation, Flossenbürg became a training camp for female guards, who would then go on to to work in the satellite camps. With the end of the war nearing and Germany’s defeat imminent, Flossenbürg bore witness to so many executions, the crematorium’s capacity was exceeded and bodies were stacked and burnt by guards. A ramp was built, in order to make transporting mass amounts of bodies to the crematorium, easier and quicker. Weeks from liberation, a series of public executions took place with some of the most notable opponents of National Socialism humiliated and hanged. In 1945, as American forces neared the camp, a mass evacuation was ordered, with 22,000 prisoners driven from Flossenbürg – the death marches. 1500 critically ill prisoners, unable to walk, were left behind and found by the Americans when they entered the camp on the 23rd April, 1945. An estimated 7000 prisoners of the 22,000 evacuated, did not survive the march – those too weak to walk were shot.
Today, what remains of the camp acts as a memorial to those who died within its grounds, the grounds of its satellite camp, and a constant reminder of Germany’s darkest days. A year after the war ended, work began on the ‘Valley of Death’ memorial, making the site of this camp the oldest concentration camp memorial in Bavaria. Bodies exhumed from the death march, upon the order of American Forces, were laid to rest in the middle of Flossenbürg camp, in a funeral ceremony attended by the citizens of Flossenbürg. Today the Cemetery of Honour is a vast expanse of green, covered in wildflowers, hedged by the quiet Bavarian forest. The ramp and the crematorium remain as stark reminders of the mass death the camp saw, the now grassy Pyramid of Ashes the resting place of those who went down that ramp. The Square of Nations is a courtyard of stones engraved with the flags of each country that lost people and the number they lost. The ‘Jesus in the Dungeon’ chapel is made from the stone of the torn-down watch towers.
The former prisoner’s kitchen and laundry buildings, which sandwich the bleak roll-call courtyard, are small museums now. In them are relics and pictures, audio from survivors, original documents, short films – curated exhibitions telling the Flossenbürg story in full, gory, tragic detail.