The shortest route between heaven and hell is exactly 181km long and less than two hours by car.
At one end: Konzentrationslager Dachau, the mother ship of the Nazi camp system and the chief proving ground for some of the most gruesome atrocities in history. The odd thing about Dachau was that it started out as just another prison facility, made miserable by the budgetary lash of the penny-pinching Heinrich Himmler. Its first Kommandant, Hilmar Wäckerle, was even fired for excessive corruption and brutality. But then, one thing led to another. Without Dachau to pave the way, there would have been no Auschwitz or Treblinka.
The village of Dachau used to be a sleepy suburb of Munich, but today has been bottled up in the standard drab and modern urban sprawl. After the war, the locals bitterly resisted American plans for a memorial here. Irony being in short supply, they even chose the site for a police training facility—a cynic might wonder if the camp ruins served their recruits as warning or as inspiration.
At the other end of the drive: The gorgeous Obersalzburg heights above Berchtesgaden on the Austrian border. It’s impossible to overstate the beauty and grandeur of these mountains. The thugs of the Nazi leadership certainly thought so. Beginning in the 1920s, they rested and recuperated here in between bouts of worldwide mayhem. After the war, the Americans moved out the Nazi faithful, commandeered the champagne, returned the art treasures to their owners (at least the still living owners), and demolished every last one of the Nazi palaces.
We made the trip in the dead of winter and ended up stuck in an alpine snowstorm at the Intercontinental Hotel in Berchtesgaden. This swank and stylish resort was built on top of the ruins left when the Americans dynamited Hermann Göring’s residence. The hotel still affords a perfect view of the Kehlsteinhaus, or Eagle’s Nest, the mountaintop retreat that the grateful Nazi leadership built—oddly enough—for the pathologically acrophobic Adolf Hitler.
When juxtaposed like this, each place is as ghastly in its way as the other. And you can visit one in the morning and reach the other before nightfall, even in winter.
Distance can be measured all kinds of ways, but in this case, maybe time is the the more important dimension. The crimes incorporated in this short drive might not have paid forever, but it took twelve long years and unimaginable suffering for the checks to bounce.