I didn’t know how I was going to step foot in Germany, let alone tour the Dachau concentration camp. Yet summer was coming, when I traveled for research, and I was writing Nothing Is Forgotten, and both Munich and the camp, 25 kilometers outside the city, were central to my novel. Munich was where the headquarters of Radio Liberty was located, and the station, broadcasting into the Soviet Union, made the city a battleground between the CIA and KGB, and it would play a pivotal role in the life of one of my main characters. And the Dachau camp was crucial to the story, a nexus where the present and past would collide.
Most important, for me, I saw historical novels as where imagination meets reality, each igniting the other and providing a necessary spark for the writer. So I had to go to Germany, but how could I visit a country that had murdered members of my extended family? I came up with a plan to do my research in a day, driving in from Belgium then hightailing it for Switzerland. However, that didn’t give me enough time, so I was stumped—until I interviewed James Critchlow, a former employee of Radio Liberty who worked in Munich in the 1960s.
Back then, Mr. Critchlow said, the concentration camp was being transformed into a memorial, and the town officials of Dachau were unhappy about it. One of them complained to James that in the future, because of the memorial, whenever anyone heard “Dachau,” they would think of the camp and not the lovely old town in Bavaria.
I laughed, a bizarre reaction that unnerved me. Then I said, “You mean, if they put up a brewery where the crematorium used to be, everyone would think of Dachau as a beer?”
“Something like that,” Mr. Critchlow replied.
When I got off the phone, I knew that I could go to Germany. Two decades after the camps were liberated, a German official remained unaware that words like Dachau and Nazi, and the names of Hitler, Himmler et al would remain synonyms for unspeakable evil.
When I got off the phone, I knew that I had to go to Germany—not simply to see the birthplace of the Holocaust. But to contemplate the extraordinary talent humans possess for self-delusion.