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  • Writer's pictureDr Julien Drouart

Sachsenhausen Memorial: A Former Concentration Camp

Updated: Jun 24, 2023

The Sachsenhausen Memorial is situated on the grounds of the former Hitler concentration camp and the subsequent Soviet special camp. The topics it covers are severe and any visit should not be taken lightly.

The Memorial is Worth a Visit

The concentration camp system was not a peripheral component of Hitler's regime but one of its founding elements. The first-generation camps (1933-1935) were gradually supplanted by new complexes, engineered to be instruments of physical and psychological annihilation. The Sachsenhausen camp was at the heart of this new constellation, serving as a testing ground for the SS. Between 1936 and 1945, more than 200,000 deportees from across Europe were incarcerated in the camp.

Following liberation, the Soviets transformed the former concentration camp into a special camp for imprisoning political dissidents, whether fascists, democrats, or those simply resisting the emerging East German regime. In the 1960s, the GDR established a memorial, the Memorial of Anti-Fascism, which was later revised after German reunification to commemorate victims of National Socialism and the Soviet occupation.

A Somber Heritage Entangled in Tourism

The preserved site is enormous and rapidly imparts the enormity of the tragedy that unfolded there. Few original buildings remain, but intelligent ground marking provides a good sense of the original layout. Certain areas have been reconstructed for the purposes of the Memorial, which also partially serves as a museum.

Each freely accessible building houses an exhibition devoted to a specific theme: anti-Semitism in Barrack 38, medical experiments in one of the Revier barracks, SS personnel in the camp commander's house, and so on. While some repetition is inevitable, the overall content is rich with information. The visitor's ability to navigate the buildings according to their curiosity imbues the experience with a strangely interactive quality.

Regrettably, amidst some questionable staging given the site's sobriety, we lament the domination of tourist companies that have made the Memorial a prime destination. This reflects the outsourcing of educational responsibilities to third parties, a choice and not an inevitability tied to tourism development. By contrast, the Stasi Prison Memorial in Berlin restricts access to the original sites only to groups participating in tours organized by its educational teams, a practice of systematic control and guidance embodying the duty of education.

A Guided Tour is Recommended

The Sachsenhausen Memorial, somewhat difficult to reach from Berlin, necessitates a time commitment. This time is needed to acquaint oneself with the place and explore it without haste. The layout of the site and the concept of a decentralized exhibition in authentic or reconstructed buildings encourage the visitor to take the initiative, promoting personal responsibility.

However, the desire to learn and understand is hampered by an overly comprehensive audio guide, a lack of qualified personnel throughout the site, and occasional information scarcity. Pedagogical support is essential to maximize the visit, to truly feel the intensity of the site, and to comprehend the memorial work undertaken in Germany.

Reasons to Visit

  • The opportunity for self-discovery and access to certain buildings

  • The striking convergence of the memories of victims from two distinct regimes

  • The immensity of the site and its perspective

Reasons to Skip

  • Limited information about the authenticity of the buildings

  • The indecent haste observed on some occasions

  • Poor bus connections (one per hour)

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