Wednesday, February 18, 2009

History vs. Tourism

I've written before about growing up in Germany and how that influenced my approach to history. This weekend got me to thinking about it some more.

We had a four day weekend for President's Day, but since the new LT and I both had errands and things to take care of at home as well, we decided to go to Munich for two days instead of an extensive trip involving planes and so forth. It was her first time in Munich, and I haven't been there since I was 18, so we hit up some of the more obvious places, such as Schloss Nymphenburg, the Rathause, a few churches, and downtown. When listing places famous historic sites in the Munich area, I mentioned Dachau, and she expressed a strong desire to go see it. So that's where we went Sunday afternoon.

This is the third time I've been to Dachau Concentration Camp. When I was 8, I was shocked to discover such systemized human cruelty but also inspired to learn about the subject and I felt everyone should know about it. When I was 18, I went with my best friend at the time and my grandfather. My grandfather, who is German, seemed less than happy about going, but he took us. Being a rather unsympathetic 18 year old who tended to see the world in black and white, I felt like he shouldn't have a problem with taking us to Dachau and should face his country's history and past (not that he hasn't in his own way, I'm sure, but he's never talked about World War 2 much, except when noting his displeasure about me being in the military).

Now that I'm 24, I have very mixed and difficult reactions. And they were caused less by the place I was than the people I saw around me. Almost all of the people I noticed and saw were American. I heard lots of English around me, and a few other languages, but little German. And I was kind of annoyed. My first reaction was, "you come all the way to Germany, and you come straight to the concentration camps? There's more to Germany than just that." But more so than that, something about the fact that Dachau has somehow become a tourist attraction or site strikes me in the wrong way. I believe that Dachau should remain standing and open to the public as a reminder of what happened. It is an important historic landmark. People should know their history, but where is the line between a tourist site and a historical monument? While I think people should focus on other parts of German history and not just the Holocaust, I also hate the idea of Dachau just being another place to mark off on the check list of "Places to See in Munich," that somehow it is simply another famous site to say they've visited without recognizing its meaning. If it inspires people to learn more about the subject that's great, or if someone has an ardent interest in history and came for that reason, I also respect that, but how many people actually realize just how significant the Holocaust was? Is it wrong for me to almost want a dress code in place because I find the idea of someone walking around in pajama pants or sweat pants in a former labor camp where thousands upon thousands of people died wrong? Am I just taking things too seriously when I feel uncomfortable hearing people laughing while walking around near the crematorium? I don't think there is a way to reconcile the idea of keeping Dachau open to the public and avoiding it becoming a tourist attraction, but it just got to me this weekend and it was a really unexpected reaction.

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