We began our two-week central European trip in Munich, Germany, and after spending time in Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia, we returned to Germany for a few days before flying back to Madrid. Aside from one day, which we spent celebrating our wedding anniversary (see more here!), we used the other two to take day trips out of the city.
The first place we visited outside of Munich was Dachau, a historic Bavarian town of about 40,000 people. Nowadays, when most people hear the word Dachau the first thing that comes to mind is not the town itself, but instead the concentration camp that's located on its outskirts. Dachau was the first Nazi concentration camp opened in Germany, set up just a few weeks after the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Reich Chancellor in March of 1933 and not liberated until April of 1945 when American soldiers freed the roughly 30,000 starving survivors. Being the first, Dachau was a model for all other concentration camps opened by the Nazis and also served as a training center for SS guards. Over 200,000 people, mostly men, from all over Europe were imprisoned in this camp, 41,500 of whom were killed within its walls.
We visited Dachau on a cold, dreary day. After attempting to get tickets for the 11am guided English tour (which was full by the time we arrived just a few minutes before the hour), and opting for the 1pm instead, we spent our first couple of hours viewing the permanent exhibition. These exhibits are extensive and are housed in what was the administration building while the camp was open.
The focus of the permanent exhibition is on "the path of the prisoners" - how individuals came to Dachau, what life was like in the camp, and their eventual path to either death or liberation. That may not sound like a lot, but the exhibit breaks down how each aspect was different for the many different groups of people who came to Dachau, from criminals, clergy, and political prisoners, to Jews, people from different countries, and more, and the information presented is very thorough. Many personal stories are used throughout, which, in my opinion, helps numbers like "41,500 killed" feel a tiny bit more real, and less like just another statistic.
D - It was a bummer that it was so rainy and cold during our visit to Dachau, but in a sense, it felt appropriate for our time there and gave us an even deeper glimpse into the abysmal conditions that the prisoners lived in each and every day. While I was feeling sorry for myself about standing in the rain with an umbrella, our tour guide told us about how prisoners routinely had to stand outside at attention in far worse conditions for hours at a time, and of course, with no suitable rain gear. How ridiculously limited our perspectives can be!
In total, we spent about four hours in the permanent exhibition at Dachau and still didn't finish seeing and reading everything. We arrived shortly before 11am, took a two-hour guided tour at 1pm, and continued on afterward until the buildings were locked up at 5pm. Coming from someone who isn't a World War II or Holocaust scholar, but appreciates history and in particular, quality museums, it seems like a lot of thought and care went into the Dachau exhibitions. Our guided tour, on the other hand, felt like something we could've skipped, as much of the information from our guide were things we'd read in the permanent exhibition. (Or, on the other hand, if you're looking for a condensed version of the information, opt for the guided tour, and don't spend as much time in the exhibition.)
Outside of the permanent exhibits, there are some other important stops. Two reconstructed barracks are located across from the former administration building (home of the permanent and special exhibitions, as well as a film that plays every 30 minutes and tells the story of Dachau). Originally, there were 32 barracks buildings: one especially for clergy, one for medical experiments, and the remaining 30 for all of the other prisoners.
D - Especially nearing the end of the war, the barracks were stuffed way beyond normal capacity. During our time there, we learned that the small wooden bunks (about the size of a single bed) were often shared by four grown adults. With only a few toilets to share between hundreds of people and not even a semblance of privacy in the bathrooms, every ounce of dignity and honor due to all human beings was stripped from the prisoners at the camp.
Past the barracks, at the end of the camp, there are a few religious memorials that have been added to the site since the time of liberation. Next to the main site of the camp is a crematorium. This was added in 1942, and used to burn the bodies of those who died at Dachau. The crematorium is open for visitors to walk through and see multiple ovens and fumigation cubicles, as well as a gas chamber (which is thought to have never been used, although several thousand prisoners from Dachau who were judged too sick or weak to work were sent to Hartheim in Austria to be euthanized).
Learning about the Holocaust and other tragedies of the past is important, really important, as it can help us understand why and how such horrific things happened. It's easy to think "never again," when in reality, similar atrocities still exist today. People face starvation, torture, forced labor, rape - all acts committed by the Nazis against individuals living in their network of camps across Europe in the 1930s and 40s - in prison camps in countries like North Korea even now. Visiting a (former) concentration camp like Dachau can help bring the words in books to life and make facts and statistics feel a little bit more real when you walk where prisoners marched, worked, fought for survival, and in many cases, died.
I don't know if there's a more meaningful day trip from Munich you can take, to be honest. Yes, you can visit Neuschwanstein Castle (and, in fact, the next day we did!), BMW World, or some quaint small towns, but I don't think any will impact you the way a day spent learning, thinking, and walking around Dachau Concentration Camp will.
If you're considering a visit, I encourage you to allow an entire day, as we found that we wished we had arrived as soon as they opened at 9am. If you don't need the whole day, fine, but at least you have the option if you arrive as early as soon as possible. We didn't leave Munich until later in the morning because we were using the Bayern Ticket, which allows you to travel as much as you like in a specific region of Germany from 9am until 3am the next day, and add up to four others traveling companions onto the ticket for around three euros each (it's really a great deal - don't miss it when traveling in Germany!), but the first train departing for Dachau didn't leave Munich until around 9:50am.
A few other thoughts: we ate lunch at the cafeteria located within the visitors' center. We found the food reasonably priced and convenient - the visitors' center is only about a five-minute walk (if even) from the gate of the camp (also where you can sign up for guided tours). There's loads of information on getting to Dachau from Munich online, but reaching the camp is very easy. We took a train from the Munich Hauptbahnhof (main railway station), which took about 20 minutes, and immediately outside of the train station in Dachau, hopped on a 726 bus that dropped us off directly in front of the camp (the bus fare is included in the Bayern ticket). Visiting Dachau is free, and guided tours cost €3.50 per person.