Dark Tourism of Auschwitz: How should we look back, if at all?

Dark Tourism is a term coined by Lennon and Foley in 1996 and refers to tourism that is characterised by attractions of death and tragedy. [1] Its use has been adopted in the last decade in the ever-expanding literature on the Holocaust. There are certainly clear benefits to visiting sites like Auschwitz; appreciating heritage, building a sense of collective identity and paying respects are all important and can help strengthen communities. Organisations like the Holocaust Education Trust work hard to keep the Holocaust remembered and respected today.

Auschwitz MemorialAuschwitz Train Tracks

The three Auschwitz sites attract a huge volume of tourists – well over a million annually. [2] Auschwitz was still in operation when the Allies invaded, and this alongside what Timothy Snyder notes as Auschwitz’ uniqueness as both a death and industrial concentration camp, [3] meant that there were more survivors to remember Auschwitz than any other concentration camp. The existence of survivors and their legacies is perhaps why Auschwitz is so well known and draws such a large volume of visitors.

Ensuring that memorials, especially ones as grave as those of the Holocaust, remain dignified and strike an appropriate tone relies on the balance of both organisers and patrons. Whilst perhaps obvious, it cannot be assumed that either will coordinate memorials appropriately. Organisers of memorials can cause controversy and contention. The Auschwitz museum, at its opening, focussed on Polish victimisation and downplayed Jewish suffering. [4] In the context of the Cold War the memorial was quickly adopted as a political tool – Soviet communism had succeeded over western capitalism, which was reflected in the museum’s choice to underplay Jewish suffering and highlight national efforts and losses. Indeed for the first few decades of the museum’s operation, museum officials remained predisposed to political ties and this dramatically shaped the message of the museum. [5] As Kimberley Allar, a Holocaust historian, succinctly puts: “Auschwitz became a victim itself to the politics of the era”. [6] Allar also notes how Auschwitz is prone to being caught between vested interest groups. [7] It is clear that Auschwitz still contributes to political tension; the topic is set to further divide nations of the Middle East- the traditional Middle Eastern view is that the Jews exaggerated the Holocaust. [8] Only a decade ago Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad launched an attack on Israel composed of offensive Holocaust cartoons. [9] Auschwitz is still politically relevant and used occasionally as a tool to deepen divisions and win cheap support. The effect of the misappropriation of Auschwitz to underplay Jewish suffering and its use as a political tool against Jews led to a sense of disinheritance. Ashworth’s 1996 work ‘Dissonant Heritage’ defines this loss of identity and as Lennon and Foley expand: “The ideologically imbalanced treatment of the camp, coupled with the reputation for anti-Semitism that Poland had, contributed to a feeling of disinheritance and distance among Jews”[10]. Ashworth frames the issue again, and notes that a situation in which all parties are satisfied is impossible, especially when considering how contentious the Auschwitz memorial is. [11] There are several and, whilst not entirely mutually exclusive, diverging narratives that can be presented for the story of Auschwitz. It is in the last few decades that fair representation of those who suffered has improved and been worked on, particularly by bodies like the International Auschwitz Committee, but as the author of Problems with Cultural Tourism Studies Melanie Smith aptly asks: “Whose experience or perception of events should be viewed as the most valuable or the most important?” [12] How much weight should be placed on the other suppressed minorities of Auschwitz? These minorities also suffered a great deal, but in significantly fewer numbers than the Jewish communities of Europe. It is not possible to know objectively how a memorial, especially one as significant as Auschwitz, should be organised or presented. Whilst it may not be possible to satisfy everyone with the presentation of the memorial – something that is inherently subjective, it is possible to ensure that those who maintain, control and operate the museum are safeguarding its interests as a monument of remembrance, not of politics.

Tourists at Auschwitz

Holocaust memorials are now generally more politically aware and conscientious, but issues regarding respect still exist and are prevalent in the tourism industry. One concern raised is that the pilgrimage many take to Auschwitz has become commercialised and trivialised. Historian Tim Cole goes as far as to use the term “Auschwitz-land” to disparagingly discuss the morality of Holocaust tourism. [13] The contention is that Holocaust memorials deserve respect, and that others should not treat it as any other holiday destination. Some travel agents worsen this situation by offering Auschwitz trips on stag weekends away in Krakow advertising the memorial as a must see, bucket list attraction. [14] The intentions behind tourists’ trip to Auschwitz are not decipherable, and perhaps not relevant – it may be more important that the right lessons are gleaned from the trip, not that the motivations are noble. It may be unrealistic to hope that people all take positive things from Auschwitz- who is to say what is a right or good lesson? People cannot all have one homogenous, solemn experience.

Defining how one should behave or feel at Auschwitz is in some ways restrictive and illiberal. If there is a difficulty in establishing how exactly one should experience Auschwitz then it is remedied by knowing how not to behave. This time last year, a young woman, Breanna Mitchell, tweeted a cheery, well-framed photo of herself at the Auschwitz I site; [16] later the same year NBA star Danny Green tweeted a similar photograph at the Berlin Holocaust memorial with the caption “You know I had to do it one time lol #Holocaust”. [17] These indecencies, alongside rare defacing of sites like the theft of ‘arbeit macht frei’ signs and patrons carving their initials are impossible to prevent. [18] The question is then whether these occasional and rare disrespectful blights outweigh the positives of operating Holocaust memorials – another ultimately subjective and unanswerable question. The same issue of perspective is also relevant here, as observers we do not know the context or perspectives of visitors. Several years ago a video of a Holocaust survivor Adolek Kohn dancing to Gloria Gayner’s single ‘I will survive’ at Holocaust concentration camps throughout Germany went viral. [19, 20] The video was met with a mixed response, but was generally upheld and applauded; the success of this survivor and his ownership of his suffering was, to many, commendable. It is likely that Mr. Kohn’s ownership and involvement in the events gives him license to behave freely and without judgement.

The Holocaust as a Rhetorical Device

The Holocaust and the atrocities committed at Auschwitz are universally known and are both commonly referenced – they have become rhetorical synonyms for evil. Godwin’s Law is a satirical observation that asserts Internet discussions, if lasting long enough, will refer to Hitler or Nazism. [15] As the term has been adopted it has come to include speeches, articles and more. As Godwin’s Law suggests, Hitler and the acts of the Nazis are heavily relied upon. Their use as rhetorical devices and emotional tools to instill fear or gain support, arguably, trivializes them and diminishes their impact. Atrocious global disasters and events defined by tragedy have their own identities that should be kept distinct.

Auschwitz as a Death Site

A pertinent and compelling argument against Dark Tourism is seen in an extract of James Young’s The Texture of Memory:

“What do we understand of the killers and victims through their remains? […] In a perversely ironic twist, these artefacts force us to recall the victims as the Germans have remembered them to us: in the collected debris of a destroyed civilisation… Armless sleeves, eyeless lenses, headless caps, footless shoes: victims are known only by their absence, by the moment of their destruction. In great loose piles, these remnants remind of not of the lives that once animated them, so much as of the brokenness of lives… Nowhere in this debris do we find traces of what bound these people together into a civilisation, a nation, a culture.” [21]

These powerful words remind us that focussing on the macabre and obsessing on mortality teaches us far less about the heritage and communities of the dead.


Perhaps the most prominent lesson from the past is best put by the German philosopher Hegel, who argues “what experience and history teach is this — that peoples and governments never have learned anything from history”. [22] The study of history teaches us that far too often its lessons are not learnt; here we can see why remembering the Holocaust is so important, as it is not only to preserve and respect the identities and cultures of those lost, but it is to work to break this perpetual pattern. Humanity can only attempt to learn from its mistakes through the remembrance of global events like the Holocaust.

Written by Will Lloyd-Regan


[1] J. John Lennon and Malcolm Foley, JFK and dark tourism: A fascination with assassination, International Journal of Heritage Studies, Volume 2, Issue 4, 1996 pp 198-211

[2] Kimberley P. Allar, ‘Holocaust tourism in a post-Holocaust Europe’ in Dark Tourism and Place Identity: Managing and interpreting dark places ed. Leanne White and Elspeth Frew (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013) p.195

[3] Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, (New York: Basic Books, 2010) p.382

[4] Robert S.C. Gordon ‘Introduction to Primo Levi’s Auschwitz report’, in P. Levi (ed). Auschwitz Report, (London: Verso, 2006) p. 13

[5] Kimberley P. Allar, ‘Holocaust tourism in a post-Holocaust Europe’ in Dark Tourism and Place Identity: Managing and interpreting dark places ed. Leanne White and Elspeth Frew (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013) pp.193-194

[6] Kimberley P. Allar, ‘Holocaust tourism in a post-Holocaust Europe’ in Dark Tourism and Place Identity: Managing and interpreting dark places ed. Leanne White and Elspeth Frew (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013) p194

[7] Ibid

[8] The Economist, Milking the Holocaust, September 14th 2006, http://www.economist.com/node/7912959 accessed 15th July 2015

[9] Ibid

[10] J. John Lennon and Malcolm Foley, Dark Tourism, (Andover: Cengage Learning EMEA, 2000) p.52

[11] Gregory Ashworth and Rudi Hartmann, Horror and Human Tragedy Revisited: The Management of Sites of Atrocities for Tourism (New York: Cognizant Communications Corporation, 2014) p.253

[12] Melanie Smith, Issues in Cultural Tourism Studies, (London: Routledge, 2009) p 91

[13] Tim Cole, Selling the Holocaust. From Auschwitz to Schindler: How History is Bought, Packaged, and Sold. (New York: Routledge, 1999) p. 111

[14] Catherine Bennett, First it’s a visit to Auschwitz, then an organised bar crawl, The Guardian, 25th August 2015
http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/aug/25/auschwitz-first-world-war-tourism-teaching accessed 15th July 2015.

[15] Mike Godwin, Meme, Counter-Meme, Wired, October 1994 http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/2.10/godwin.if_pr.html Accessed 17th July 201

[16] Chris Perez, Smiling Auschwitz selfie sparks Twitter outrage, New York Post, July 21st 2014 http://nypost.com/2014/07/21/smiling-auschwitz-selfie-sparks-twitter-outrage/ Accessed July 15th 2015

[17] Toby Moses, San Antonio Spurs’ Danny Green provokes outrage with ‘Holocaust selfie’, The Guardian, 8th October 2014,
http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2014/oct/08/san-antonio-spurs-danny-green-holocaust-selfie Accessed July 15th 2015

[18] Andrew Marszal, Nazi ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign stolen from gate at Dachau concentration camp, The Guardian, 2nd November 2014,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/germany/11204284/Nazi-Arbeit-Macht-Frei-sign-stolen-from-gate-at-Dachau-concentration-camp.html Accessed July 15th 2015

[19] Tony Paterson, Auschwitz ‘I will survive’ dance video is internet sensation, The Independent, 16th July 2010,
http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/news/auschwitz-i-will-survive-dance-video-is-internet-sensation-2027725.html Accessed July 15th 2015

[20] Jane Korman’s film of survivor Adolek Kohn’s dance, Updated video Link,
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cFzNBzKTS4I Accessed July 15th 2015

[21] James E. Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993) p152

[22] Georg W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, Dover Philosophical Classics edition, (Mineola: Courier Corporation, 2012) p. 6