On this day in 1945, U.S. troops liberated the oldest of the Nazi concentration camps - Dachau, located just outside Munich. My father-in-law was one of those GIs. Here, the historic past joins hands with the personal past. In 1962, when he was again stationed in Munich, my mother-in-law and my wife got the chance to take a tour of Dachau, albeit in a much cleaned-up form. Maj. Lea refused to go with him, saying something to the effect that he'd already seen it.
My father, who was a POW in Germany for twenty-one months, always lists this day as his personal liberation day. On April 29, 1945, the U.S. 14th Armored Division freed him and twenty thousand or so other POWs at the Moosburg camp north of Munich. However, for most of his POW days, he resided (if that's the right word) at Stalag Luft IIIC, in Sagan, Germany (now part of Poland). In WW2, the further east you went, at least in Europe, the worse it got. While Dachau, Buchenwald, and Bergen-Belsen were horrific, they didn't hold a candle to what the Red Army troops who liberated Treblinka, Maidanek, or Auschwitz saw. Those were the real death camps, the ones that had only a single purpose: to either exterminate the untermenschen outright or to work them to death. The POWs at Stalag Luft IIIC were unaware of those horrors as well, although many of them knew that Hitler had ordered the killing of all Allied POWs. By early 1945, there were enough Germans who knew the war was lost to make disobeying Der Fuehrer thinkable.
Yale historian Timothy Schneider's book Bloodlands makes a compelling case that the extermination camps were just one of the ways that the rulers of Eastern Europe adopted to rid themselves of their political opponents and others deemed worthy of death. The full truth about all of the places where humanity was violated during the years 1918-1945 will probably never be known. What we know, however, is enough. If, at the beginning of the twentieth century, people still believed in progress, we who live in these latter days owe it to the dead to remember the devils that sometimes lurk beneath the surface of ordinary life. The world can no longer claim innocence of humanity's demonic potential.