Travel to former war zones
One of the toughest travel questions to wrestle with is how to travel to former war zones. Coming from a country that has never been engaged in a war on domestic soil during my time on Earth, knowing how to treat sensitive subjects like war can be difficult because of a complete or perceived lack of perspective. Is traveling to a war zone somehow bearing witness to what transpired there, and thus, in some sense, laudable or brave? Or is it opportunistic or even vaguely imperialistic? How can a traveler visit a former war zone compassionately and humanely? Should a traveler even go at all?
These are questions that are immensely important to wrestle with if one is planning a site to any country that has been the scene of violence or war in recent memory. I am personally very much of the opinion that there are no right answers, and that each traveler will have to examine his or herself and discover with what he or she is comfortable. While I have been to ancient battle sites in Ireland and elsewhere in Western Europe, and places like Gettysburg in the United States, I have never been somewhere that might be classified as a “recent” war zone. That is, I have never been to the Congo; never traveled to Bosnia or any other Baltic state; East Timor remains off the list of places I have been; I have never been to the Middle East.
To attempt to concretize this notion a little bit, I cast around in my mind for any personal experience I might have with a “war zone.” I couldn’t come up with anything until I realized that I have visited two concentration camps in Germany. While these are not battlefields or other sites of physical army-on-army fighting, concentration camps stand as a very stark reminder of the horrors of cruelty and of the inhuman depths to which a human being can sink. In this sense, concentration camps are very much “war zones,” technicalities of that term aside.
During a trip to Germany in the winter of 2011, I visited Sachsenhausen (outside of Berlin) and Dachau (outside of Munich). I did this not out of some sadistic impulse, nor some kind of compulsive need to check it off a “list.” I didn’t do it so I could brag about having stomached the site once I returned home, nor just to fill up an afternoon with some kind of activity. I did it because the Holocaust represents a horrific chapter in human history, and it is something I had heard about, learned about, seen pictures of, seen recreated on screen, but that I didn’t have any first-hand experience with. I went, I suppose, out of some kind of desire to be a good citizen of the world, to witness a physical manifestation of that which had previously been only an intellectual reality to me, to contribute in some small way to a larger collective memory of those individuals who perished in one of humanity’s darkest periods.
While this will not be the case for every war zone, especially those of more recent eras, one of the most noticeable things about visiting a concentration camp is the disparity between the surrounding areas and the camp itself. Sachsenhausen is in a lovely, peaceful, leafy suburb of Berlin known as Oranienburg, and Dachau is situated in an idyllic section of a suburb of Munich. The camps are now, of course, empty of all people except for employees, volunteers, and visitors, but an eerie silence hangs over them that is not present in other areas of the cities. The difference in atmosphere between Oranienburg and Sachsenhausen is almost tangible, as is the difference between the town of Dachau and the camp.
One of the things I found it most difficult to come to terms with in this age of modern technology was picture-taking. To what extent should I take pictures of my surroundings, both to remind myself of what I’d seen and to show to others back home who hadn’t come on this trip with me? To what extent was picture-taking disrespectful of the dead and of what had gone on here? Another layer to this dilemma was, of course, social media. If I took pictures, what was acceptable to put on Facebook, and what was not? Didn’t I want to show people back in the States what I had witnessed so that they, too, could hold Dachau and Sachsenhausen in their memories? Or was doing this somehow cheapening the experience, broadcasting death and destruction and lessening human lives?
I negotiated a balance with myself as I went on the guided tours of the camps. I told myself I could take pictures for private consumption of anything that struck me as important and worth remembering, but I was only allowed to put certain things on Facebook: the instantly recognizable “Arbeit macht frei” gates, for example, or pictures of the yards or camp squares. Public, relatively non-violent pictures were all right for mass dissemination. On the other hand, pictures of gas chambers did not go up. Pictures of torture implements stayed in my camera and off the Internet.
I am proud to report that on both of my guided tours, every guest acted responsibly and appropriately. There was no laughing, no snickering, no discussions of subjects unrelated to the horrors we were currently witnessing. No one attempted to discuss dinner plans or current TV shows. Everyone was solemn, respectful, and gave at least an outward display of dismay and shock.
I offer this example not because I expect or want others to mold their behavior on my experience. Rather, I offer it in the kind of sense of why I visited these concentration camps in the first place: in the hopes that I can contribute to some larger body of knowledge or memory or experience. I don’t think there is necessarily a “right” or “wrong” way to approach or travel to a war zone (with the obvious exceptions – it would have been wildly inappropriate for a neo-Nazi or white power enthusiast to have attended the tour and cheered, for example). If you do decide to travel to a recent war zone, the issues at hand are largely about understanding the acceptable parameters for behavior and acting in accord with them, as well as with your own conscience.