I recently came across a series of remarkable photographs that have given me pause for serious thought. The images are the work of a guerilla preservationist and urban archaeologist, Richard Nickel Jr., and they capture in haunting detail the current state of a place once known as the Georgia Lunatic Asylum in Milledgeville, Georgia. What struck me immediately was how much these institutional corridors and claustrophobic rooms resembled the architecture I had seen at Dachau concentration camp in Germany.
Dachau was the first concentration camp that the Nazi government built in Germany, and it was constructed to isolate those who could not, according to a German government press release issued on March 21, 1933, be housed “in normal state prisons.” Moreover, its prisoners could not be released back into the general population because, and again I’m quoting here from the 1933 press release, “they continue to agitate and create unrest when released.” In other words, Dachau was designed as a quarantine facility.
And who needed such quarantining? Adolf Hitler had a very specific population in mind. In Mein Kampf, he likened a Jewish person to a type of germ–“a noxious bacillus [that] keeps spreading as soon as a favorable medium invites him. And the effect of his existence is also like that of spongers; wherever he appears, the host people dies out after a shorter or longer period of time.” This hideous racism led directly to the death of six million European Jews.
Facilities such as the Georgia Lunatic Asylum were also clearly designed as places of quarantine, isolating people with a wide range mental health issues (including the emotional trauma that resulted from sexual abuse and incest) from the general population. And many of the inmates in these facilities perished far from the public eye. Some historians suggest that 30,000 people lie buried today at the old Georgia asylum, an astonishing figure in my view. This cemetery is, according to one paper I read, the largest graveyard in the world for people with mental issues.
How did so many people come to die in this institution? Some historians cite rampant epidemics of typhoid and other infectious diseases. This is may well be true. But I personally think this is a tragic history that needs further exploring.
For further information on the history of Dachau, see Barbara Distel and Ruth Jakusch (ed.), Concentration Camp Dachau 1933-1945 (Comite International de Dachau, Brussels: Munich, 1978.)