Australian Journal of Politics and History, v48, n1 (March, 2002), 138f.
COPYRIGHT 2002 University of Queensland Press
Legacies of Dachau: The Uses and Abuses of a Concentration Camp, 1933-2001. By Harold Marcuse, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001) pp. 590. Illustrated. $64.95
Tony Barta, Research Fellow in History, La Trobe University
There was no debate at all in 1933 when the town of Dachau acquired a concentration camp on its outskirts. There has been ceaseless debate since the camp was liberated in 1945. If ever there has been a contested site this is it. Harold Marcuse's hugely ambitious book combines a narrative history, a contexting of events in Dachau within larger political developments, and a forthright interpretation of how local and personal interests interact with ideological and great-power politics round one memorial site. His achievement is a major addition to the history of postwar Germany and to the growing literature on problems of commemoration.
Under the headings "Good" Nazis, "Bad" Inmates and "Clean" Camps he shows how little had been learned from the Nazi catastrophe and how the realities of West German politics very quickly inverted the assumptions of both the victors and the victims. Ordinary people outraged by the perceived unfairness of denazification found the prejudices cultivated by Nazi propaganda more comfortable to live with than the insistence they had participated in a terrible wrong.
It is not surprising that it took twenty years before the Dachau concentration camp site could be reclaimed as a memorial. The former prisoners were marginalised and vilified, those who had been glad to remove them from society were rewarded. They also rewarded themselves with three enduring myths: that they were themselves victims, that they had been ignorant of what happened, and that they had in their own way (typically by leaving some food, late in the war, for a starving prisoner) resisted the regime. From my own experience in Dachau, I know what he means. I also know how uneasy—until very recently—the relationship has been between townspeople and those Marcuse calls ''persecutees".
"Persecutees" is one of several uncommon usages the reader has to get used to in this book. Some of them are translations straining to do justice to the German, others ("brown-collar criminals") do not always do justice to the complexities. But the scope and detail of the research enterprise, and the author's many years of engagement with the issues, give weight to the judgements he makes.
Some link changing attitudes towards the past to the differences between generations (we learn to watch for birth dates) and the different histories they have encountered. Some point to the continuity of prejudice and myth. Some challenge dominant beliefs. The publisher has situated the book within the problem of the Holocaust and that is how many people will come to it. Marcuse situates changing Jewish attitudes within a history of remembering important to the millions of non-Jewish victims as well—first among them the original prisoners of Dachau.
Will the world ever understand the past and continuing significance of Dachau? A wide reading of this important book will help.
Research Fellow in History
La Trobe University
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