Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

Berlin Long Reads | Dark Tourism And Why We Visit Atrocity Sites

View of the Tower A entrance to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp across the Appellplatz
View of the Tower A entrance to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp across the Appellplatz

In the fourth installment of our Berlin Guides Association Berlin Long Reads series, BBS member, Asaf Leshem, discusses the phenomenon of ‘Dark Tourism’ and why atrocity sites remain popular destinations for tourists. 

Over the past decade, the Sachsenhausen memorial site and museum became one of the most visited sites for tourists travelling to Berlin. Although, this former Nazi concentration camp is actually located some 35km away from Berlin’s city centre, in the Brandenburg town of Oranienburg – which means the trip usually requires people to make a decision to take a suburban train out of the city or join a tour that includes a visit to the former camp as part of its itinerary.

It is by no means a typical holiday activity. It is unlikely that anyone would describe visiting Sachsenhausen as a fun tourist ‘thing to do’, or a temporary relaxing escape from one’s ordinary life – such as time spent in a nice hotel spa or an exciting evening at the opera. Naturally, most tour guides refrain from concluding their Sachsenhausen tours with remarks such as ‘I hope you enjoyed the tour today’. Yet, the site continues to draw visitors.

Why does Sachsenhausen attract nearly one million visitors each year?

In this article I will discuss the motivation behind visiting sites of death and atrocity, such as Sachsenhausen, acknowledging their ‘darkest’ position on what Dark Tourism expert Philip Stone’s ‘light to dark spectrum’. In addition, I will explore the expectations tourists may have of visiting sites such as Sachsenhausen.


The Camp Obelisk, added by the East German government, and the perimeter fence
The Camp Obelisk, added by the East German government, and the perimeter fence

What is Dark Tourism?

The act of visiting a site like Sachsenhausen is nowadays referred to in academic circles as Dark Tourism: “the travel and visitation to sites associated with death, acts of violence, tragedy, scenes of death and crimes against humanity” (adapted from Tanaya Preece and Gary Price’s 2005 definition). Although the term has gained some mainstream popularity, the phenomenon of visiting sites of death and atrocity is as old as travel itself.

One notable form of the movement of people during Roman times was travel to attend activities and attractions that can be considered an early manifestation of dark tourism entertainment – think of the Colosseum and Circus Maximus, the gladiator fights and public executions. Another example of an early form of dark tourism came centuries later when Edward Stanley, the Bishop of Norwich, testified as to the popularity of tourists walking through the Catacombs in Paris, where bodies of guillotined prisoners were stored.

In terms of scale and degree of tourism infrastructure, however, these early form of tourism cannot be compared to the way we perceive travel, accommodation and services today. Modern tourism – and with it modern dark tourism – may have changed but as we shall see several of the motivations to visit sites presenting death as a tourist commodity have not changed that much.

The term dark tourism itself is relatively new.

Researchers John J. Lennon and Malcolm Foley coined the term in 1996 in a special issue of the International Journal of Heritage Studies. In the same edition, Tony Seaton referred to this emerging unique form of tourism as Thanatourism. For Seaton, the word Thanatopsis – meaning contemplation of death – played a major role in the need to name a social behaviour, which had grown in scale to the extent that it required its own tourism category, and consequently, more research.

Perhaps as it is easier to pronounce, it was ‘Dark Tourism’ rather than ‘Thanatourism’ that became the more popular term to refer to any tourist visitation to sites presenting death, human tragedy, or atrocity. Nevertheless, to many in the general public the term remains somewhat confusing, and occasionally I still get people asking me if by ‘dark tourism’ I mean guiding a tour at night or a sinister form of tourism.

Despite the ambiguity of the term, the growth in popularity of dark tourism as a segment or a category of travel on its own has attracted researchers to further expand the body of theory on the subject. From the late 1990s, researchers engaged in various avenues of enquiry on the various aspects of dark tourism.

These included:

  • the morality and ethics of visiting dark tourism sites,
  • the management of dark tourism sites,
  • the ethics of marketing of such sites,
  • the interpretation of these sites,
  • tourist behaviour,
  • the shades of dark tourism,
  • and the motivations behind visiting dark tourism sites.

The infamous camp lettering 'Arbeit Macht Frei' (Work Sets One Free)
The infamous camp lettering ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (Work Sets One Free)

Why do we visit Dark Tourism sites?

Like many similar sites, Sachsenhausen’s first aim as a memorial site was to be a place of mourning and remembrance. Along with education these are worthy of mention as motivations for people to visit the former concentration camp during its incarnation as a memorial site of the German Democractic Republic (GDR). Mourning and remembrance, and education, are still known to us as common motivations behind visiting dark tourism sites (before the 1990s, such sites would often be called heritage or even difficult heritage sites). During the GDR times, many schools from all over the north-east of the country visited Sachsenhausen (similarly, GDR students from the south of the country visited Buchenwald, near the city of Weimar).

Although German reunification brought a temporary decline in the number of school groups visiting, the number soon climbed back up to include today not only groups from north-east Germany, but also from other parts of the country and from neighbouring countries.

The next motivations we can identify are from those people who have a general interest in history or in learning about history and culture. Very often, interest in history is accompanied by family heritage, or the desire to learn about the exact location where known events took place. For many, the latter is closely related with the need to “see it to believe it”. Even today, despite ample amount of research and proof that exists, many find it hard to believe that humans would commit such heinous crimes against each other. Sadly, the shocking, almost unbelievable nature of these crimes makes the life of Holocaust deniers easier. For that reason, visits to Sachsenhausen by school groups or individual adult tourists carry a special weight of responsibility.

Certainly, as many different scholars have suggested visiting a dark tourism site is closely related to various naturally occuring human attributes, such as fascination with death and/or violence of war, morbid curiosity, and voyeurism. In a way, these, especially the latter, are argued to be akin to the act of ‘rubber necking’ – slowing down your car to get a better look at an accident.

There are many sites around the world that fall under the rubrik of Dark Tourism, from the ‘lighter’ London Dungeon to various sites where famous battles took place. In the case of such sites, it is not uncommon for people to be motivated to visit by the feeling of affiliation with one side or the other.

The feeling or even showing empathy to the Nazi side when visiting Sachsenhausen – beyond the possible ideological motivations – could also be classified as Schadenfreude, in itself a motivation identified in the dark tourism literature. In the case of Sachsenhausen, Schadenfreudea pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune – could, of course, also be an additional motivation for neo-Nazis, people with anti-Semitic ideologies, or people with other racist ideologies to visit the site. It may be the case that they would try to visit in order to take pride in the crimes committed by the SS, intentionally to spite and/or to draw political attention. It is important to note here that although a person can visit the memorial site without having any identifiable clothing or behaviour, if a visitor were to show such behaviour they would be asked by management to leave to premises.

In contrast to the latter, a sense of social duty/’the thing to do’ and the need for social belonging are also strong motivations for visiting a site such as Sachsenhausen. Tourists often tell their guides that part of the reason they wanted to come on the Sachsenhausen tour is the need to understand an event (i.e. the Holocaust) that was so instrumental in shaping the value system of our contemporary society. In addition to that, some scholars (see for example Philip Stone) have argued that in secular societies there is a modern need to contemplate death, fulfilling a void that has been left by the absence of religious ceremonies, which as western society becomes more secularised are no longer part of everyday life for many people.

One of the most pedestrian reasons for visiting a dark tourism site, such as Sachsenhausen, is due to the combination of global population growth and the recent rapid advances in online communication technologies, as many people are motivated to visited Sachsenhausen simply because ‘it is the place to go while in Berlin’; perhaps following a recommendations they have read on one of the big travel websites. Another related motivation, similarly influenced by technological and social changes, is when people may wish to visit Sachsenhausen to try a new or different experience. In the process paradoxically reducing the dark tourism site to its most meta form, that the appeal is not just in that Sachsenhausen as a location presents aspects that attract the visitor and qualify it as a dark tourism site but as a dark tourism site it is worthy of visiting because of its Dark Tourism label. That the claim to dark tourism itself has become enough of a motivation.

A view of Tower A and the hanging posts in the special SS/Gestapo prison
A view of Tower A and the hanging posts in the special SS/Gestapo prison

Individual motivations vs the group dynamic

Most visitors to Sachsenhausen (as scholars such as Richard Sharpley have argued in relations to other dark tourism sites) have more than one motivation to visit. Often, people visit as part of a student group, an incentive tour with itinerary set by the company, or a family day tour to the memorial site. For example, a person may wish to learn more about this part of the Holocaust or the war, but is also motivated to go because there is an opportunity to go with friends or colleagues. Thus, although there is little research on the social circles of expectations, tour guides have made interesting observations on the subject of motivations to visit dark tourism sites within the context of group dynamics.

More generally, as sociologist Erving Goffman famously suggested: social performance may hinder truthful behaviour. It can be argued then, that social performance can alter behaviour during the visit to the former camp, and may influence the motivations of the individual to visit a former concentration camp such as Sachsenhausen.

Most commonly observed are the expectation circles in student groups, and they are indeed an interesting example. In such groups a student’s motivation to visit Sachsenhausen may involve:

  • going because everyone in their class is going and/or because it’s common in their country,
  • going because their close friends are going,
  • going because someone they like (or or attracted to) is going,
  • going because their teachers and/or parents expect them to go,
  • going because they are interested in history,
  • going because they have just recently learned that chapter of history for their exams, or are about to have exams on, for example, the Second World War,
  • and going because they want to understand their family’s or ethnic heritage,

As explained above, the student may also harbour different expected outcomes. In this case, what they think is expected of them to gain from such a visit, in terms of learning outcomes, social behaviour and etiquette, cultural and social belonging, understanding of moral values, etc. Noticeably, young students may or may not have interest in history as their motivation to visit Sachsenhausen.

However, I would argue that even those who do not initially show interest will in most cases become curious during their visit, with the added educational value of the content they learn.


The entrance to the Sachsenhausen Concrentration Camp Memorial and Museum
The entrance to the Sachsenhausen Concrentration Camp Memorial and Museum

What do visitors expect when visiting a Dark Tourism site?

Expectations when visiting Sachsenhausen or similar sites are indeed a distinctive topic within the context of tourism research.

There is a tendency among researchers to argue that most of tourism is motivated by hedonistic and individualistic needs. Intuitively, we may agree with that assumption, with the understanding that people often travel on a holiday with family and/or friends and are therefore required to have their own expectations or hedonistic wishes somewhat limited by the needs and wishes of others in the group.

Nevertheless, the social aspect is amplified in a visit to a dark tourism site such as Sachsenhausen where, as I explained in the student example, social norms play a much bigger role. Reactions of the individual are to some extent determined by the pressures of their social environment or at the very least by the expectations they believe come from their immediate or larger social circle.

Continuing on the same vein as the students’ case, a great example can be seen in the groundbreaking documentary “Uploading Holocaust”, produced by film-makers Udi Nir and Sagi Bornstein in 2016. In the film one of the protagonists believes he was suppose to cry after visiting one of the former extermination camps (on a group trip to Poland), and as a result feels shame that he didn’t. The outcome of the visit, being different than what the young man had initially expected, was the feeling that took him by surprise. In my years of joining such groups and meeting with them several weeks after I observed that it is that feeling of sadness, feelings of cultural belonging, or further contemplation of death may take weeks, or even months to sink in.

To extend this observation to the matter of education, a family may visit Sachsenhausen, motivated by the parents’ wish for a learning experience and their expectations that their children will learn about this part of history, but their wishes may only be fulfilled in the following years to come.

No one person can know all that there is to know about any dark tourism site. And inevitably, people visiting Sachsenhausen will have varying degrees of knowledge on the Holocaust and specifically on the SS concentration camp system. Naturally, many will not be very familiar with, for example, the lives of the prisoners in the camp, or all of the SS objectives regarding the camp. It can be argued that lack of knowledge is a perfectly acceptable justification for visiting the camp.

For some people, walking around in solemn contemplation, or maybe just taking pictures and reading information boards in some of the exhibitions is the way to go. For others, an audio guide proves the most useful and informative structure. Others still, may choose to book a private tour or join a tour organised by a public tour company.

For all, whatever their motivations may be, I would argue that the outcome of the visit is largely a positive one.

Asaf Leshem

This piece was contributed by Berlin Guides Association member, Asaf Leshem

Sources and further reading:

Biran, A., Poria, Y. and Oren, G. 2011) Sought experiences at (dark) heritage sites. Annals of Tourism Research38(3), 820-841.

Bookheimer, B.J. (2015). The layers of memory at Sachsenhausen. From the GDR to contemporary Germany (thesis). University of Tennessee Chattanooga.

Cohen, E., (2011). Educational Dark Tourism at an IN POPULO SITE. The Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, 38, (1), 193-209.

DW, 2018. Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp: Anniversary of Liberation.

Feldman, J. (2002). Marking the boundaries of the enclave: defining the Israeli collective through the Poland ‘experience’. Israel Studies, 7 (2), 84-114.

Foley, M. and Lennon, J. (1996) JFK and dark tourism: A fascination with assassination, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 2(4), 198-211.

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. London, Anchor Books.

Lennon, J.J. and Foley, M. (2000) Dark Tourism: The Attraction of Death and Disaster. London: Continuum.

Nir, U. and Bornstein, S. (2016). Uploading Holocaust. Available at: Accessed on: 20.4.2017.

Preece, T. and Price, G.G. (2005). Motivations of participants in dark tourism: A case  study of Port Arthur, Tasmania. In Ryan C., Page S., & Aitken M. (Eds.), Taking tourism to the limits: Issues, concepts and managerial perspectives (191-197).

Seaton, A.V. (1996). Guided by the dark: From thanatopsis to thanatourism, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 2(4), 234-244.

Sharpley, R. and Stone, P. (2009). The Darker Side of Travel: The Theory and Practice of Dark Tourism (Eds.). Bristol: Channel View Publications.

Sharpley, R. (2014) Tourist experiences of genocide sites: The Case of Rwanda.

Keynote Paper, Belgrade International Tourism Conference, College of Tourism, Belgrade, 27-29 March.

Soen, D. and Davidovich, N. (2011). Israeli youth pilgrimages to Poland: rationale and polemics. Images, 11, 17-18.

Stone, P. and Sharpley, R. (2008). Consuming dark tourism: a thanatological perspective. Annals of Tourism Research, 35 (2), 574–595.

Stone, P. (2006). A dark tourism spectrum: Towards a typology of death and macabre related tourist sites, attractions and exhibitions, Tourism: An Interdisciplinary International Journal, 54(2), 145-160.