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Natzweiler-Struthof 

  
  (  if you know French)  - darkometer rating:  8 -
 
The site of the only Nazi concentration camp on the territory of France – near Strasbourg in Alsace, a region that was occupied by Germany during WWII. The camp was primarily for political prisoners, both from France and Germany and beyond. The inmates had to do forced labour in a nearby quarry.      
More background info: Natzweiler-Struthof, or "Le camp du Struthof" as it is simply known as in French, was one of the smaller Nazi concentration camps, but still one of the most significant ones. It was set up during the occupation of France by Germany during WWII from 1940. It was the only concentration camp proper on French territory (Drancy in Paris was a transit camp).
 
Comparatively small it may have been, but it was a particularly deadly camp. Overall the camp has seen over 50,000 inmates, nearly half of whom are believed to have perished here. Amongst them were French Resistance fighters, who are commemorated especially at the site today. But there were also prisoners deported here from within Germany, usually from other camps (such as Sachsenhausen), later also large numbers of POWs from Poland and the Soviet Union, as well as various other categories of inmates.
 
Some exceptionally vicious "medical experiments" were conducted here from 1943, including the gassing of prisoners in an attempt to research possible antidotes to the poison gas phosgene (a chemical weapon used in World War One). On other occasions specially selected Jews were sent to the camp to be gassed in order to obtain a skeleton collection for the Anatomical Institute of Strasbourg University.
 
Most deaths, however, were due to the harsh living and working conditions. Forced labour primarily took place in a nearby red-granite quarry, which supplied building materials for the Nazis' megalomaniac architectural projects, just like Flossenbürg's and Mauthausen's quarries did – see e.g. Nuremberg for some relics of those projects.
 
As usual for such camps, it was augmented by a plethora of so-called satellite camps in various locations in the surrounding region, where inmates had to do forced labour in various war-related areas such as the manufacturing of weapons.
 
From September 1944, as the Allied US and British troops were advancing from the west, the camp was "evacuated" by the Nazis, i.e., inmates were sent on death marches, in particular to the Dachau concentration camp near Munich. Natzweiler-Struthof was liberated by the Allies in November 1944.
 
Today's memorial site comprises a gigantic modern monument (inaugurated in 1960 by de Gaulle), plus various original features such as fences, watchtowers and a few barracks and ancillary buildings. In one of them a museum was set up after the war.
 
This first museum fell victim to a neo-Nazi arson attack in May 1976, in which the majority of artefacts on display were lost. But a new museum was reconstructed, including some salvaged artefacts from the old museum. By now this museum, housed in one of the camp's barracks, already has a rather old-fashioned feel and seems dated.
 
In 2005 an entirely new additional modern museum was inaugurated in the purpose-built so-called CERD. The acronym stands for "Centre européen du résistant deporté" ('European Centre of Deported Resistance Members'), i.e. as so often within France, the main focus is on the French Resistance. If you didn't know better, this name could mislead you to believe that it was only deported French Resistance fighters who were imprisoned here, when in actual fact there were all sorts of prisoners of more than 30 different nationalities.
 
This new centre also has seminar and film rooms, a cafe and space for extra themed exhibitions. In the former "potato cellar" underneath the centre, a third permanent exhibition has been added, which provides more wider-reaching historical background information.
 
The previously rather scant exhibitions have thus been greatly enhanced making Natzweiler-Struthof a much more worthwhile dark destination than had been the case in the past. Education is a main aim and indeed about half the visitors that come here are school groups from France as well as parts of Germany that are just across the border to the east.
 
 
What there is to see: Of the original camp as such, the double barbed-wire fence, watchtowers, the gatehouse, a couple of barracks, the prison block and the crematorium are still there. The other barracks are only indicated by their footprint shapes on the terraced slope of the grounds of the camp.
 
Outside the camp perimeter proper are the former commandant's house, the house where medical experiments and killings in a gas chamber took place in the former SS compound, and the old "potato cellar", on top of which the new visitor centre has been built.
 
The latter, called CERD (Centre européen du résistant deporté), is any visitor's first port of call. Here you have to decide if you just want to see the former grounds of the camp, or the museum exhibitions as well. The former would in theory be free of charge, the admission fee is only for the museum exhibitions, though that was not made explicitly clear when I was there. Never mind, I obviously wanted to see the exhibitions too anyway so I paid. It is a bit unusual to be charged admission at a concentration camp memorial site (you hardly ever encounter that at similar sites in Germany or Poland), but the price is quite reasonable.
 
You can then decide whether you want to see the exhibitions in the CERD first, or go straight to the former camp's grounds. Always more up for place authenticity, I opted for the latter and saved the CERD for later.   
 
As you approach the main gate you can see at its top the sign "Konzentrationslager Natzweiler-Struthof". It's the first full mention of the camp's name as given to it by the Nazis – these days in French it's usually just referred to as "le Struthof". That's possibly so as to avoid confusion with the almost identically named nearby village of Natzwiller.
 
The other main feature, visible from afar, is the huge monument which looks a bit like a giant sail made from marble. The inside of the "sail" features an inscription and a huge relief of a man. On the little platform in front of the monument wreathes are usually placed. Beyond the monument is a cemetery with plots of graves set on three terraced levels – it is a rather modest affair, but it is somewhat pompously referred to as a "national necropolis". These areas of the monument and cemetery are freely accessible.
 
To get into the camp proper, however, you have to show a valid ticket at the gatehouse. Before you do so, take a look from the viewpoint to the left to see the camp grounds from outside the fence as well as the little monument "La Lanterne des morts" on the hillside next to the camp.
 
Once through the gate and fence the first barrack on the left houses the older museum. Inside, the exhibition features mostly information panels with texts and reproduced documents, photos and plenty of artwork depicting life in the camp, its internal organization, the system of repression and punishments, executions, work conditions (also in the satellite camps) as well as the medical experiments conducted at Natzweiler. Covered too are the post-war trials of some of the perpetrators, including the camp's former commandant Josef Kramer who later also served in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen before being captured at the end of the war. He was sentenced to death by a British tribunal and executed by hanging in late 1945.
 
The full texts in this museum are all in French. Only short summaries are given in German and English as well. Some documents are in Dutch or Norwegian, but no translations of these into either German or English are given either.
 
As for concrete exhibits: in one corner stands a reconstruction of part of the "living quarters" of a typical barrack. Amongst the few original artefacts that survived here (see background) are some personal effects of prisoners, a camp inmate's striped frock featuring the red triangle with an "F" (marking a French political prisoner). A particular poignant artefact is the gas valve/funnel that was apparently used in the nearby gas chamber (see below).
 
The other barrack at the top level of the camp is not accessible (it's used for storage and as workshop). On the level just below these two barracks is the open space that used to be the camp's roll-call square. Here you find a gallows as well as a cart and a narrow-gauge railway trolley from the nearby quarry, complete with some blocks of rock from there. The terrace levels between the top barracks and the other buildings at the bottom are bare, except for the outlines of the barracks that once stood here. On each level there is also a memorial stele dedicated to each of the other major camps. These terraced areas were however not accessible at the time of my visit due to the wintry conditions. Indeed it was still quite icy in some places (cf. access).
 
To get to the bottom of the steep terraced grounds, the long sloping path along the western outer fence of the camp had to be used. This is named "le Ravine de la Mort" – which roughly translates as 'little death valley'. It's not quite the equivalent of Mauthausen's quarry's "Todesstiege" ('stairs of death'), but grim enough because of where it is leading to: the prison and the crematorium.
 
The two buildings at the bottom are also accessible. The crematorium still has one cast iron oven, a room with shelves stacked with earthenware urns, another mock sleeping room with bunk beds, as well as the particularly grim dissection room with a white-tiled dissection table in its centre. There are trilingual information panels in French, German and English.
 
The prison cell block next door consists mainly of just empty cells – these had been used for solitary confinement as a punishment. Other punishment was corporal: on display is a "Prügelbock", a kind of wooden rack on which prisoners were brutally beaten, often causing lasting damage to the body.
 
Back through the gatehouse on the forecourt of the camp you can either head back to the CERD or take the path that branches off diagonally to the right. The latter leads past the villa where the camp commandant used to live. You can't go inside, but from the outside the pretty villa, which dates back to 1911 (i.e. before the camp was conceived) is quite well preserved. The swimming pool directly adjacent to the villa is now covered with metal grating. The villa is barely 200 yards from the camp's gate. Just imagine scenes of a high-ranking SS officer's family enjoying a splash in the pool that is so close to the place of so much suffering!
 
If you followed this path further down, you'd eventually get to the former gas chamber building. But since I had seen from the car on the way up that there was a separate car park directly at that site I decided to drive down to it after my visit to the main camp and its museums – see below.
 
Back at the CERD, there are three exhibitions. The one just to the right of the reception desk is about the other main concentration camps: Sachsenhausen, Dachau, Groß-Rosen, Mauthausen, Flossenbürg, Neuengamme, Buchenwald, Mittelbau-Dora, Bergen-Belsen, Stutthof, Auschwitz and Majdanek. These are described in some depth through an interactive computer screen system (trilingual again). This is augmented by one artefact each to symbolically represent the camp in question. In the case of Majdanek that's a Zyklon-B gas canister!
 
On the gallery above the main exhibition at the back of the building is another space used for temporary exhibitions. At the time of my visit in April 2013 it was a comparatively dull one about radio technology, covering both the gear used by the Resistance (and their British suppliers of such technology) and the Nazi German equivalents.
 
Down in the basement of the CERD ringing the camp's former potato cellar on top of which the new visitor centre was built, is yet another permanent exhibition. This is the most modern commodification of the site and its subject matter. It's also the most comprehensive from a historical point of view and covers the whole breadth of the topic, from the ideology and rise to power of the Nazis, through WWII and the whole repression system, up to the post-war trials and remembrance … as well as political changes since, including the end of the Cold War with the fall of the Eastern Bloc and also covering conflicts since then (e.g. in Bosnia). That's quite some scope! Strangely and unfortunately, though, this exhibition is almost entirely in French only.  
 
The term "potato cellar", incidentally, was just a code name the Nazis used for this massive 70m-long concrete structure. What its real intended purpose was is not known. The inside of the thick concrete walls is these days home to pieces of art – earthenware heads mostly.
 
In a room just before you descend the stairs down to the cellar is a small film theatre in which a short film is played in a loop, first in French, then in English, then in German. Its soundtrack provides a constant background down in the exhibition, which I personally found just a little distracting and annoying – also because it featured such a hefty dose of overly poetic pathos … but I suppose that's just the French way of doing these things …
 
The CERD also has a medium-sized bookshop – but only one small shelf contains works in languages other than French.
 
One final key part of Natzweiler-Struthof lies a bit outside the camp as such, namely where the SS quarters used to be. Today only two buildings remain. One now houses a restaurant, the other is the place where the Natzweiler medical experiments had been conducted. Its main feature is the gas chamber. The whole building is actually signposted and labelled as "la chambre à gaz".
 
The gas chamber itself looks quite harmless today, it's a bare tiled room, only the barred small slit on the side for peeking in offers a vague indication of what the room's purpose may have been.
  
In an adjacent room, two panels (French only) provide some background information … including a picture of that gas valve, or funnel, that is on display in the old museum inside the camp itself. Another side room is bare except for some old wash basins. That's it
  
All in all, the memorial complex of Natzweiler-Struthof is naturally the most significant site of its type in France – within this country it's practically unique. Compared to other concentration camp memorial sites in Poland and Germany, it kind of sits in the middle. The present-day commodification is certainly a great improvement over previous times, and is better than at some sites such as Stutthof (by the way: do NOT confuse these two very similar names!). Compared to the much more elaborately developed top sites such as Dachau, however, Natzweiler falls behind a bit. Flossenbürg is probably the closest cognate, not only in nature (as a camp for forced labour in a quarry), but also in overall layout and size. The difference is that the latter has fewer original features of the old camp still in situ, but to compensate for this its exhibitions have been brought up to a standard that exceeds that at Natzweiler.
 
In sum, for anyone with a profound interest in the whole Nazi history of the concentration camp system, and/or France's role in WWII and the Resistance, the place is a must-see. For others it may be less compelling. Especially if your French lets you down and at the same time you don't want to see all camps but only a couple of representative ones, then you'd be better advised to go to, say, Dachau, or straight to the ultimate site of its category: Auschwitz.
 
 
Location: near the village of Natzwiller (but NOT in it!), in a remote place high on a hillside in the mountains of Alsace, some 30 miles (50 km) south-west of Strasbourg, eastern France.
 
Google maps locators: 

main camp gate: [48.4545,7.2533]
 
gas chamber: [48.45535,7.24436]
 
   
Access and costs: quite remote but not too difficult to get to by car – a mid-price admission fee is levied.
 
Details: To get there you need a car; a satellite navigation system could come in handy too – alternatively you could rely on maps and signposting. The nearest town is Rothau, just south of Schirmeck. From there you take the D130 road (Rue des Deportes), which winds its way up into the hills. The signposting is quite good for France, but do note that the signs only say "Le Struthof" and do not mention the name "Natzweiler" at all (at least not until you get to the actual gate). Don't make the mistake of heading to the village of Natzwiller, which is some way south of the memorial site and thus actually a detour. Just before you get to the camp there's a car park by the new visitor centre – it's not particularly big (just 50 spaces or so), so at busier seasonal times it may be a good idea to get there early.  
 
Also note that the location so high in the hills means it can get quite chilly up here, so bring appropriate clothing. (Note the snow in the pictures below, which were taken in early April!) The main camp grounds are on a fairly steep slope, not too difficult to walk, but sturdy shoes may be a good idea. Visitors with limited mobility may not be able to explore the camp grounds much beyond the initial part that is level with the gatehouse. The exhibitions, though, are wheelchair-accessible.
 
The gas chamber building is off-site, namely where the former SS quarters used to be, about a mile (1.5 km) down the hill to the west. You can use a straight foot path that branches off from the main camp gate access road (and also passes the former camp commandant's villa); but you could just as well drive it. Just head back down the road towards Rothau and just after the second switchback bend take the small road branching off to the right, which also leads to the restaurant "Chez Danny".
 
Opening times: daily from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. between mid-April and mid-October, only to 5 p.m. between 1 March and 15 April and 16 October and 23 December. Closed between Christmas and end of February. Also closed on certain days of the year such as 31 March and 1 and 9 May (in 2013). The ticket counter shuts an hour before closing time of the camp/museums!
 
The gas chamber building has more limited opening times, namely 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 2 to 4 p.m., at least normally, at times access may be even more restricted.  
 
Admission: You can visit just the outdoor former camp grounds and memorials for free, but you still need a ticket from the reception of the visitor centre, or CERD, the European Centre of Deported Resistance Members. Admission to the indoor exhibitions is 6 EUR (half price for under-18-year-olds, unemployed and students). A visitor guide in English (or French or German) for self-guided tours can be purchased for another 2 EUR. Guided tours are only available for groups and only in French. For combined visits of the camp and the new Alsace-Moselle Memorial, so called "billets duo" are available for 11 EUR, i.e. you can save a solid fiver if you want to see both places – the combi tickets are valid for a full year.
 
The memorial's management asks visitors to behave in a respectful manner, i.e. no loud talking, smoking, littering, using mobile phones etc., and also bans the wearing of sandals – which would be impractical at this site anyway.
 
 
Time required: two to three hours are recommended. The actual time you can spend here very much depends on a) how familiar you already are with the subject matter, and b) how good your grasp of French is. If a) is low and b) is high, then you could spend a lot longer here than three hours.  
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: One combination that is actively promoted is that with the new Alsace-Moselle Memorial north of Schirmeck, just a ca. 15 minutes' drive away. Combination tickets ("billet duo") give visitors to both places a 5 EUR saving (11 EUR, as opposed to 6 + 10 EUR individually). The Memorial is also partly linked thematically, as it covers the period of Nazi Germany's occupation of the region in quite some detail, with a main focus on the effects it had on ordinary citizens, but it also covers some aspects of the camps, including Natzweiler.
 
War history buffs or anyone more interested in the solid concrete remains of fortifications and such war-time relics can also find remnants of the old Maginot Line in the area. This was an elaborate system of bunkers, tunnels and artillery positions intended to stall any attack from the east, i.e. by Germany. Constructed in the 1930s with old World War One experiences in mind, the system quickly proved ineffective and outdated when the attack actually did come in 1940. By then, modern Blitzkrieg approaches had rendered static dug-in fortifications as good as useless to do anything against the mobile flexibility of Germany's tank-based assault tactics.
  
Today, parts of the underground system can be visited, especially at the Ouvrage Schoenenbourg (just north of the Alsatian village of the same name). It features artillery bunkers, ammunition storage and tunnels deep underground in which even an electric train line operated!
 
Another visitable bunker that is open to the public as a museum is the Casemate d'Esch further east, just to the south-east of the village of Hatten. Here some artillery positions and anti-tank barriers can be seen along with an American tank put here to celebrate the liberation of France from Nazi occupation
 
Both sites formed part of what used to be the easternmost part of the Maginot Line, the so-called Secteur Fortifiée de Haguenau, north of Strasbourg. Further relics of the Maginot Line that are not developed for tourists can be found dotted all over the region. Hard-core bunker enthusiasts could have several field days searching them out … the website lignemaginot.com can provide some guidance (with regard to the lesser sites for the most part in French only, though).
 
Sites thematically related to Natzweiler that are quite a bit further afield but still within same-day reach by car include two of the Nazi Operation T4 "Euthanasia" institutions, namely Grafeneck and Hadamar (ca. 200 miles/300 km or 3 to 3 ½ hours drive away); even Dachau near Munich could be reached within a good four hours, likewise Nuremberg.   
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Alsace is famed as a very scenic part of the country, featuring a distinctive cultural "fusion" or "cross-over" aspect, having been alternately in German or French hands, which is also reflected in many place names of the region. There are many picturesque villages and towns with half-timbered houses, plus dense forests on rolling hills, nature reserves, vineyards and in the city of Strasbourg one of the most splendid Gothic cathedrals in the world.
 
The Germanic links become particularly apparent in the cuisine of Alsace which features more sauerkraut and pork products than is the case over in Germany itself. The famed wines of Alsace are special in their own right, though, neither typically French nor typically German, but a style of its own. In particular the potent wines made from the Gewürztraminer grape are a local speciality almost unique to the region.  
 
See also under France in general – and likewise under Germany, which is just an hour's drive away from Natzweiler anyway (while Paris is more than 5 hours away).  
   
  
 
  • Natzweiler 01 - main camp gateNatzweiler 01 - main camp gate
  • Natzweiler 02 - still with the old German nameNatzweiler 02 - still with the old German name
  • Natzweiler 03 - the slope of the camp as seen from outside the fenceNatzweiler 03 - the slope of the camp as seen from outside the fence
  • Natzweiler 04 - the double fenceNatzweiler 04 - the double fence
  • Natzweiler 05 - the gate from the insideNatzweiler 05 - the gate from the inside
  • Natzweiler 06 - museum in one of the barracksNatzweiler 06 - museum in one of the barracks
  • Natzweiler 07 - old museum exhibitionNatzweiler 07 - old museum exhibition
  • Natzweiler 08 - model of what the camp used to look likeNatzweiler 08 - model of what the camp used to look like
  • Natzweiler 09 - artefactsNatzweiler 09 - artefacts
  • Natzweiler 10 - F for FrenchNatzweiler 10 - F for French
  • Natzweiler 11 - reconstructed sleeping quartersNatzweiler 11 - reconstructed sleeping quarters
  • Natzweiler 12 - valve from the gas chamberNatzweiler 12 - valve from the gas chamber
  • Natzweiler 13 - view over the camp with gallows in the foregroundNatzweiler 13 - view over the camp with gallows in the foreground
  • Natzweiler 14 - the path down to the bottom partNatzweiler 14 - the path down to the bottom part
  • Natzweiler 15 - watchtowerNatzweiler 15 - watchtower
  • Natzweiler 16 - fence with extra gateNatzweiler 16 - fence with extra gate
  • Natzweiler 17 - crematoriumNatzweiler 17 - crematorium
  • Natzweiler 18 - crematorium ovenNatzweiler 18 - crematorium oven
  • Natzweiler 19 - earthenware urnsNatzweiler 19 - earthenware urns
  • Natzweiler 20 - dissection roomNatzweiler 20 - dissection room
  • Natzweiler 21 - block of special arrest cellsNatzweiler 21 - block of special arrest cells
  • Natzweiler 22 - cell doorNatzweiler 22 - cell door
  • Natzweiler 23 - typical means of corporal punishmentNatzweiler 23 - typical means of corporal punishment
  • Natzweiler 24 - view up over to the top of the camp slopeNatzweiler 24 - view up over to the top of the camp slope
  • Natzweiler 25 - cemetery at the topNatzweiler 25 - cemetery at the top
  • Natzweiler 26 - main monument and flagNatzweiler 26 - main monument and flag
  • Natzweiler 27 - relief-offering monumentNatzweiler 27 - relief-offering monument
  • Natzweiler 28 - villa of the former camp commandantNatzweiler 28 - villa of the former camp commandant
  • Natzweiler 29 - modern visitor centreNatzweiler 29 - modern visitor centre
  • Natzweiler 30 - Majdanek exhibit in the new visitor centre ground floor exhibitionNatzweiler 30 - Majdanek exhibit in the new visitor centre ground floor exhibition
  • Natzweiler 31 - additional exhibition about period radio technologyNatzweiler 31 - additional exhibition about period radio technology
  • Natzweiler 32 - another new exhibition in the former potato cellarNatzweiler 32 - another new exhibition in the former potato cellar
  • Natzweiler 33 - with artNatzweiler 33 - with art
  • Natzweiler 34 - building housing the former gas chamberNatzweiler 34 - building housing the former gas chamber
  • Natzweiler 35 - gas chamber doorNatzweiler 35 - gas chamber door
  • Natzweiler 36 - gas chamberNatzweiler 36 - gas chamber
  • Natzweiler 37 - this is where that valve would have beenNatzweiler 37 - this is where that valve would have been
  • Natzweiler 38 - other rooms in the gas chamber buildingNatzweiler 38 - other rooms in the gas chamber building
  • Natzweiler 39 - another former SS building now housing a restaurantNatzweiler 39 - another former SS building now housing a restaurant
 
  

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