On the 130th anniversary, I recreated part of the journey of the first person to cycle around the world on a bicycle. Taking it one day at a time. View the archive.

Dachau

By Stuart Lowe on

The plan today was to reach Munich as Stevens had done. I cycled through pretty villages and forests again. Every village in Bavaria seems to put small Christmas trees on top of a huge pole with lots of badges on. These turned out to be German Maypoles and the badges/shields presumably indicate the industries associated with the village. One village shunned the Christmas tree on a pole for a Jesus with assorted tools, dominoes and a dress. Stevens saw the Maypoles too but the villages seemed to be much more full of activity in his day.

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May pole

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German village

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Another wooden tower

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Logs in the forest

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Forest track

At one point I cycled by a brewery that was established in 1450. That makes it older than many countries. The day was sunny and pleasant and I wasn't really in a rush. On a few occasions I found benches and stopped to take in the view.

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Brewery

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Nice spot for a rest

Looking at my map I realised that I was heading to Dachau. Stevens had taken his lunch in a gasthaus there. For him it was just an "antiquated town" on his way to Munich. For a 21st century visitor it has far greater significance. Within 50 years of Stevens passing through it had become home to one of the largest concentration camps in Nazi Germany's network. Between 1933 and 1945, thousands upon thousands of those hated by the Nazis were exterminated in camps like these spread all over Nazi-controlled Europe.

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The scale of the Nazi concentration camp network

The camp is now a memorial and museum explaining the attrocities that occurred there. It is almost impossible to convey in words how emotional it was. I wasn't able to hold back the tears. Humanity managed to distort itself into a place where utterly horrific acts of brutality and suffering were considered normal, accepted and even required.

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The Nazi's put the phrase 'Work makes you free' on the gate to the camp as some kind of cruel mockery of those murdered inside. This gate was a recent replica as the original was stolen in 2014.

The seeds of this hate were already there in 1885 with the everyday prejudice evident against various groups including the Jews and the Romani people. Thomas Stevens, whose journey I'm following, is guilty of this. Although he is seemingly positive about the Romani people in Hungary, he doesn't care much for the Romani people in the Balkans. In Bulgaria and Turkey, he uses racist stereotypes against the Jewish currency changers. I can't excuse his prejudices. Yes, he was of his time and may well have been far more open to different people than his contemporaries. But those same stereotypes and racist undertones in society were part of a foundation for the horrors that came later.

It is easy to fool ourselves into thinking that this sort of hate and barbarity is consigned to the past. It isn't. Anti-Semitism still exists. The Romani are still mocked or feared. Wide-spread racism continues. Homosexuality is still persecuted the world over. Political opponents are still incarcerated. In 21st century Europe we demonise asylum seekers, refugees, and immigrants. There are increases in anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim attacks. We are as capable of the same horrific, inhumane, acts and sentiment today. I find that terrifying.

Humanity has the capacity to be so much better. I'm glad to have met many friendly, generous, people along this trip who demonstrate that. At the same time I wonder how different my experience may have been if I'd been a black man cycling across the US last year, or a muslim cycling through Europe this year. A good way to honour those persecuted by prejudice in the past is to ensure we don't let it continue in the present and future.

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Dachau memorial.

It is impossible to rush around an exhibition such as this. I was still only half way through when closing time approached and I and many others were ushered out. I elected to remain in the town of Dachau tonight. There was a youth hostel and I needed time for contemplation.

The youth hostel is a new building designed to host international peace conferences for young people of the world. Like the other hostels I'd experienced since Paris, the cost of a night was almost my entire daily budget. Lucas - the receptionist - hearing where I was headed took pity on me and told me there would be some left over dinner as he'd prepared too much; it would have only gone to waste otherwise. Thank you Lucas! You are a star. I didn't leave a crumb of it.

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The brilliant Lucas at the Youth Hostel