Flossenbürg is a short distance off the main road between Nurnberg and Prague, not far from the border between Germany and the Czech Republic. I’ve driven that road numerous times back and forward to Amsterdam or the UK. This summer we travelled in the motorhome to Germany on our way to Prague and took the opportunity to visit Flossenbürg.
The main reason many are aware of the existence of Flossenbürg is the link with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran Pastor.
Bonhoeffer’s story has had a profound impact on many people. Coming from a large, academic and well connected family Bonhoeffer lectured in theology before being ordained as a Lutheran pastor in 1931. For the rest of his relatively short life his work portrayed the qualities of theologian and pastor, thinker and practitioner.
Bonhoeffer was strongly opposed to the Nazi ideology and, as with other members of his family, was recruited into a resistance movement whose intention was to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the Third Reich. He was arrested in April 1943 and eventually executed at Flossenbürg on 9th April 1945, two weeks before the camp was liberated by the Americans.
Unlike some of the concentration camps built by the Nazis, such as Auschwitz and Birkenau, where vast numbers of Jews were detained and executed, Flossenbürg was built to detain German male criminals and others perceived as ‘asocial’, or antisocial. It soon became home to German, Czech and Polish political prisoners and members of resistance groups. Eventually Soviet prisoners of war and some 20,000 Jews were incarcerated in Flossenbürg or one of the satellite camps associated with Flossenbürg. Ultimately 100,000 people from 47 countries were interned at Flossenbürg or one of its subcamps: 84,000 men, 16,000 women and children. Some 30,000 of them died in the camp from illness or hard labour, many were executed. You will find more details on the history of the camp at the websites listed below.
The things that struck us on the visit were:
- The ‘quality’ of the exhibition and the renovation of the site. There’s not much of the original camp still standing but what there is has been restored and put to use as a well equipped educational centre.
As the director of the memorial puts it, ‘The site developed from a cemetery to a memorial, which dedicates itself to the commemoration and honouring of the victims, as well as to political and historical educational tasks.’ The facilities at the site are excellent including the locally run restaurant staffed by people with learning difficulties and managed by a local NGO.
- The emphasis on telling the human story of the victims. The basement of one of the two main blocks has a wonderful display of many of the prisoners, not as prisoners in the familiar pyjama type clothing, but taken pre-arrest, people with their families, work colleagues or enjoying recreation. The effect is powerful. The stark nature of the story of the camp and its horrors told on the story boards and videos on the floor above seem all the more tragic and brutal when you ‘meet’ the victims as family members, ordinary people who happened to dissent or be of the wrong sort.
- Standing in the large shower room where new inmates were stripped and showered together in large numbers. Walking on a suspended glass floor you see the floor tiles upon which stood many of those whose photos are on display. The tiles on the walls are the tiles that caught the spray of the water that doused the tragic victims of the Nazi purge. There’s something quite powerful standing for a moment in the place where the dignity and identity of so many people was torn from them at the beginning of the most horrible experience of incarceration.
- The lower section of the camp. There’s a steep path at the rear of the camp that leads to a small building with an open door into which you can walk unhindered and unaccompanied. It’s the crematorium.
While not on the scale of Auschwitz it has the same chilling effect. Here human beings were disposed of without ceremony, without mourners, without dignity, without any sense of them being human. At this lower level is the area where prisoners were shot and a huge grassy mound made up of the ash of the remains of the dead.
Visiting such places as Auschwitz, Birkenau and Flossenbürg has, for us, been a valuable opportunity to struggle with the reality of human hatred and barbarism. These visits have been deeply disturbing but have left us feeling incredibly privileged that we have lived most of our lives, despite the problems of Northern Ireland, free to hold and express our views without fear of oppression. However, it is heart breaking to think that what is memorialized in places like Flossenbürg remains a current reality for many people in the war zones and oppressive regimes of today’s world.