review by Robert Jan van Pelt scanned & OCR by H. Marcuse, April 2004 (Marcuse's homepage, Dachau page)
The Public Historian, 25:2(Spring 2003), 146-148.
Legacies of Dachau: The Uses and Abuses of a Concentration Camp, 1933-2001 by HAROLD MARCUSE. New York: Cambridge University
Press, 2001; xxii + 594 pp., glossary, photographs, notes, index;
In 1995 the prominent British-Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman raised the question how the twentieth century would be remembered. Recalling that the seventeenth century was known as the Age of Reason, and the following two centuries as the Age of Enlightenment and the Age of Revolutions, Bauman made a convincing case that future generations may well brand the twentieth century as the Age of the Camps. I believe that Bauman was right, and that the twentieth century may well be known as the Age of the Camps--and not only because of the way the camps operated, or because of the way they have continued to form a sinister horizon of possibility, but also because of the way they are recognized as sites where the West confronts its own shadows. This, then, immediately suggests the importance of Harold Marcuse's almost 600-page-long study Legacies of Dachau: The Uses and Abuses of a Concentration Camp, 1933-2001. As the title makes clear, Legacies of Dachau concentrates on the postwar history of the Dachau concentration camp, firmly set within the context of the development of collective amnesia and collective memory of the citizens and governments of the town named Dachau, of the so-called Free State of Bavaria, and of the German Federal Republic.
Marcuse organizes his material by creating a temporal/thematic matrix that is organized by dividing the postwar history of Dachau in three periods--1945-55, 1955-70, 1970-present--and by identifying three major themes--victimization, ignorance, resistance--to organize his narrative. With the help of this matrix, Marcuse deftly manages and presents a very complex constellation of issues that encompasses not only the clash between history, memory, and political culture, but also the different perspectives on the past of camp survivors and former Nazis, neighbors and authorities, liberals and reactionaries, Protestants and Catholics, Christians and Jews.
Marcuse describes how, in the first decade after the war, the camp continued to be used, first as an internment camp for Nazis and army officers, and from 1948 onwards as a refugee camp for 3,000 German expellees. In this period, the citizens of Dachau, the inhabitants of Bavaria, and Germans in general learned to disconnect the history of the concentration camp from that of civil society through the development of a self-exculpatory myth that postulated that the Nazis were, in the words of photographer Margaret Bourke-White, like "a strange race of Eskimos who came down from the North Pole and somehow invaded Germany," and that ordinary Germans had been the true victims of the Nazis. None of these upright Buerger had been aware of what was happening in the camps, and many of them had been in fact resistors to the Nazis. Their experience of suffering under Allied occupation reinforced their own sense of being the true victims. Church dignitaries, including  former Dachau inmates Pastor Martin Niemoeller and Catholic Bishop Johannes Neuhaeusler, actively campaigned for the acquittal and/or amnesty of Nazi war criminals. To facilitate the construction of this distorted image of the past, the Germans cleaned up the camp grounds, first by making it into a residential camp for refugees, then by linguistically whitewashing it by referring to it as the "one-time internment camp." At the same time, those whom the Nazis had imprisoned in that camp were marginalized, silenced, and even criminalized: indeed, it proved easy to show that many camp survivors were involved in the black market, and that hence their original detention must have been justified also. And didn't many have socialist, or even communist sympathies? A severe charge in late-1940s Bavaria.
Marcuse describes how, initially, survivors were disunited. Jews, socalled "asocials," priests, Social Democrats, homosexuals, convicted criminals, and European resistance fighters had suffered different fates in Dachau, and in the first decade after the war these various victim groups did not see eye-to-eye. Only after 1955 did various survivor groups join in a central organization, the Comité International de Dachau, which set out to challenge the very comfortable mythology the German Buerger had constructed for themselves. Aided by a new awareness wrought by Resnais' film Night and Fog (1955) and by the revelations generated by the various large trials of Nazi perpetrators (1958-64), survivors successfully pushed for a new attitude which resulted in the dedication of the site of the Dachau camp as a memorial (1960), and the establishment of a museum on its grounds (1965). In response, the Catholic Church, Protestant denominations, and the Jewish community sought to take possession of the site and its memory through the creation of chapels to commemorate with the help of conventional religious symbols the suffering of the camp inmates. Yet, as Marcuse observes, this symbolic repossession of Dachau by survivors and institutions proved a mixed blessing: as beautiful new buildings that aimed to generate reflection and prayer went up, the worn and dilapidated historical structures that could have offered understanding were torn down. The transformation of Dachau into a memorial site occurred at a time that German society was still unwilling to consider the implications of Dachau for their own society. In the 1960s no one questioned the fact that former Nazis prospered, that mass murderers returning from prisons abroad received from the German government restitution payments and pensions, and that most of them were readmitted in state service, the professions, or the private sector. Only in the 1970s did the Germans begin to reconsider the exculpatory myth of German victimhood formulated in the immediate postwar period. The tale that the Germans had been ignorant of what happened in the camp was exposed, challenged, and abandoned. Marcuse tells this process of national self-discovery well, constantly moving between the debates in German society and the changing interpretation of Dachau. He shows how, by the 1980s, most Germans accepted that they had not been the primary victims of Nazism, and by in the 1990s they were finally prepared to accept that there  had been little to no resistance to Nazism. In the words of Marcuse, reflexes had finally given way to reflection. Dachau now became a symbol of national failure and a site of learning economically well placed in the Bavarian tourist infrastructure and intellectually well integrated in the German high-school curriculum, but spiritually somewhat stuck between the desire to preserve what is left, and the urge to deconstruct its myths.
Legacies of Dachau belongs to an increasingly popular genre of academic books on the German Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung ("Coming to Terms with the Past") which includes excellent studies such as Herf's Divided Memory (1997), Rosenfeld's Munich and Memory (2000), Moeller's War Stories (2001), and Niven's Facing the Nazi Past (2002). In providing an intensely focused and well-written case study of Dachau as it has existed in the social and political culture of West Germany since 1945, Marcuse is better able than Herf to judge the texture of the evolution of the postwar German historical and moral consciousness he tries to describe. For this reason alone, Legacies of Dachau is an important addition to the bibliography of the manner in which Germans have chosen to remember and commemorate the Nazi past. And for those interested in or involved with public history, Marcuse's book is a "must-read" as it shows the problems and paradoxes that shape the stewardship of any historically significant site. If our age is indeed the Age of the Camps, the remains of the camps have acquired extraordinary significance as public places. Legacies of Dachau analyzes one of the most important of these public places, and his insights are therefore important for our understanding of the shape of the current public domain.
ROBERT JAN VAN PELT