Sunday, April 1, 2012

Dark Tourism

A Matisse postcard from the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon that
my friend Cynthia sent me in 2007 that I still use as a bookmark.

I just finished reading Seeing Hitler's Germany: Tourism in the Third Reich by Kristin Semmens. A little over a month ago I had wondered to myself if there was tourism in Nazi Germany. A simple google search revealed that someone had written a book on the topic, so I got it from my alma mater's library. In the preface Semmens thanks both Dr. Christopher Friedrichs and cites Dr. Anne Gorsuch, both professors of history at my alma mater, which tipped me off that Semmens graduated from the same undergraduate honours programme as me. Semmens obtained her doctorate at the University of Cambridge; Seeing Hitler's Germany is her doctoral thesis.

Seeing Hitler's Germany was intriguing. It examined the Gleischschaltung of commercial tourism but also demonstrated that to a large extent German tourism organizations willingly fell into line with Nazi policies. Semmen's investigation was comprehensive in terms of the geographical regions studied, and she compared and contrasted tourism in different regions (e.g. the Black Forest vs. Berlin). One of the most interesting things I learned reading this book was the Kraft durch Freude (Strength Through Joy) programme, designed to enable Germans of lower economic classes to enjoy leisure travel. Tourism, as Semmens herself argues in her introduction, is not a trivial topic of study. Rather, the study of tourism under Hitler reveals much about the Nazis' politics, use of propaganda, and mobilization leading up to the Second World War. Tourism and travel was used to build a sense of community among Germans. International tourism, of Germans abroad and foreigners in Germany, was further used to legitimize the Nazi regime leading up to the outbreak of the war. Tourism in Germany did not cease with the outbreak of the war, but (strangely) persisted nearly to the very end; I could not imagine being a tourist in a war-torn country.

Semmens raises some interesting points in her conclusion. She writes:

After the Second World War, a kind of 'dark tourism' emerged in Germany, as the former sites of death and terror in the Third Reich became 'must see' sights on the tourist trail. Today, Dachau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen and other 'fatal attractions' linked to the Hitler dictatorship draw thousands of visitors each year. The . . . [2004] Lonely Planet guide to Germany, for example, lists the former concentration camp at Dachau as one of the key attractions around Munich . . . . Foreign and German travellers climb the trails to see Hitler's Tea House on the Obersalzberg in southern Bavaria; they take part in guided tours to view the location of his underground bunker in Berlin. Of course, not all German cities are equally keen to promote this dark past, as a recent trip to Nuremberg revealed. At the tourist information centre, brochures about the Reich Party Rally grounds were available only on request and at a cost.

The image of a crowd of holidaymakers -- guidebooks in hands, cameras at the ready -- descending on a site like Dachau is admittedly disturbing. Yet tourism plays a role in Germany's ongoing attempt to come to terms with its Nazi past. Today, leisure travel has become an important vehicle for understanding and working through a nation's history, not only in Germany, but also in many other countries struggling to confront their own horrific legacies. . . .

The latter paragraph resonated with me. Having studied German history, I was somewhat anxious prior to departing for Europe on my year abroad. Would I go to Poland and visit Auschwitz? What would that visit be like and how would I feel? I imagine it would be profoundly upsetting.

I haven't yet visited Poland or a concentration camp. I did, however, visit Berlin. Jacky and I went on a free walking tour that took us to many memorials, including one to the Nazi book burnings, the Neue Wache, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

I found the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (pictured above) really powerful. A few interpretations our group discussed included: how the columns and slopes created an uneasy, isolating atmosphere; the columns, which become taller towards the middle of the monument, as a metaphor for the rise of tyranny and totalitarianism in Germany under Hitler. For me, it was a solemn moment. After our visit, I was left considering the city and the country's complex, multifaceted history.

Have you ever visited a concentration camp or similarly somber place? What was it like for you? If you have not, would you visit such places? How do you feel about "dark tourism"? I am curious to know.

(Postcard depicts Henri Matisse's Jeune femme en blanc, fond rouge, 1946)


Mark said...

I wouldn't call it tourism as much as more a sign of respect for the dead. If I had the chance to go to Vimy Ridge or Juno Beach (or all the other major sites) I certainly would and pay my respects. Even when I visited Australia, I paid respects to the war memorial there.

Mark Penney said...

I have a number of thoughts about this.

This may sound odd, but I found parts of Pompeii really somber. It’s a strange place. On the one hand it’s an ancient town, which is really fascinating; on the other hand there are corpses which you can casually see at certain points. Additionally, the sight overseers made a huge mistake when they decided to install a cafeteria in the forum. It’s just too weird; an ancient building that has been gutted for a pizza parlour. I also found the disrespect and carelessness of most of the visitors shocking.

I spent some time in Munich in the fall. I was there for two reasons of equal importance in my mind: to visit some distant relations, and to see the city’s excellent collection of classical and Egyptian antiquities. I stayed at a hostel, and I chummed it up with some Americans and Canadians who were also staying there. I had conversations with several of them about why they were visiting Munich and what they wanted to see. A number of them responded with “Dachau.” This threw me a little. Although I think it’s important to preserve those sites so people can visit them if they wish, I can’t fathom a visit to Dachau being the “primary” on a trip to Munich, unless you are a researcher. None of these people were historians. I declined to go with them, because I figured I knew enough about what went on there. I just didn’t feel the need to go see it. I spent some time with them on other occasions too, and often enough the conversations took a turn into discussing Nazism, which I found really frustrating and inappropriate. I understand most people, especially in North America, don’t go out of their way to learn a lot about the places they go visit, but I thought it was really sad that all these people were in a country like Germany, which has all manner of wonderful things to do and see, yet they were fixated on Nazism and death.

I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong about visiting a concentration camp or something similar, but if you want to do “dark tourism”, I think you need to reflect about your reasons for wanting to. That kind of tourism demands a more difficult intellectual commitment than what most people associate with vacationing / travel.

Vanessa said...

I think you raise a really good point, Mark. I thought Berlin tourism would be way more fixated on its Nazi past than it was. What I didn't mention in the body of the post here, is that our tour group also went to the site of Hitler's bunker. I'm not sure how I feel about that. I suppose it was interesting to know where it was, and they included it on the tour because so many tourists want to know where it was. Berlin (and Germany, I'm sure) has so much more to offer. I guess it depends on what you seek out.

I'd love to go back to Berlin and see more of the rest of Germany, Nazi past aside.