The Problems with Safeguarding History

This evening, I was shocked and angered to discover that the 'Arbeit Macht Frei' gate at the former Dachau concentration camp near Munich, Germany, has been stolen. The theft took place during the night on Sunday 2nd November; the former camp is not protected by CCTV, and so it is thought that the thieves removed the gate during the handover period between security guards that patrol the area.

This is not the first time that such an incident has happened. In December 2009, the gate at Auschwitz I that also bears the inscription of 'Work Sets You Free' was stolen by thieves and found three days later, in a field in the Polish countryside, cut into three pieces. Thankfully the culprits were caught and it was determined that the main suspect had neo-Nazi connections. On a somewhat smaller scale, in May of this year the Auschwitz Museum reported that visitors have been taking 'souvenirs', such as pieces of barbed wire and parts of the railway line, without thinking about how much damage this is causing to the authenticity and preservation of the site.

The gate at the former Dachau concentration camp

What is the attraction to such thefts? In the case of the 'Arbeit Macht Frei' gates, we can guess that they are politically motivated, or perhaps ordered by an extremist collector of Third Reich memorabilia, as was assumed when the Auschwitz gate was taken in 2009. Other arguments that I have read, such as someone posing the possibility of the gate being taken 'for scrap metal', do not seem to fit. The theft of metal for scrap and other uses can be found on railway lines, building sites and other constructions - but surely not from a former concentration camp?
As for the smaller thefts at places like Auschwitz, a number of excuses have been created. One visitor claimed that he wished to take some barbed wire from the camp so that he could use it as an educational resource in his classroom, apparently not giving any thought to what implications this would have on the former site itself. To me, such an object would offer very little in terms of furthering a child's education in the classroom - the best thing to do is to take the children there themselves, so that they can take in the atmosphere and the sheer size of the place. In the 21st century, with cheap flights and easy transport links to Oswiecim, there is very little excuse not to.
The conservation and preservation of Auschwitz costs millions every year, and removal of any artefact or original structure only adds to this bill. Furthermore, if we think about Auschwitz for what it really is - a huge graveyard for hundreds of thousands of people - it makes the idea of people taking 'souvenirs' even more chilling. Would one remove a bunch of flowers or a block of stone from any other graveyard?

The practical problem of preventing thefts would undoubtedly be solved by installation of surveillance equipment such as CCTV - but, again, surveillance of sites as large as Auschwitz and Dachau would not be cheap, and who would foot the bill? More worryingly in some ways, however, is the ethical problem that we are faced with - the fact that, almost 70 years later, a few smug thieves have the bravado to steal one of the most infamous and symbolic objects of the horrors of the 20th century, for whatever purpose. The fact that visitors to places like Auschwitz will happily scratch their names into the former barracks, with messages such as, 'I had a smoke here,' (see third link above) and remove pieces of the camp for their own means. How much more must we teach about the morals of memorialisation, of preservation, and of respecting places where thousands were killed, before such thefts are no longer carried out? Sadly, I believe the answer is simple: much more.