"Are you German?" "No, a Jew, actually." Only after this can the conversation proceed

Off to the German Alps for a little bit of hiking. My publisher recommends Schloss Elmau, a sort of intellectual precursor to Club Med, as a base. Daily seminars bring in international scholars and writers, and the evenings bring the musicians. Despite our inadequate German, we have many lively conversations about physics, racism and art with the other guests, many of whom have been coming since they were children - and now bring their children and their children's children - to this progressive outpost in the midst of Bavaria.

Meals are communal, with a nightly placement to facilitate conversation. Within the first five minutes of every encounter, we discover who did what during the war. I don't know if it is my name that provokes the exchange, "Are you German?" "No, a Jew, actually", but it is impossible to proceed unless this is acknowledged.

During the day, we climb the mountains surrounding Elmau. Despite some idiosyncratic markings, they are some of the best trails I've been on, and the walks are beautiful, varied and just challenging enough so that it's impossible to think of anything more than putting one foot in front of the other. We climb 600 metres in an hour on a switchback, feeling rather pleased with ourselves. The trails are quiet and empty - not like the ever popular High Sierra, where you have to book ahead for the wilderness experience, nor like the superhighway around Mont Blanc, which we tried a couple of years ago.

The few people we encounter on the trail challenge almost every myth about fitness and size. There are seriously large men and women hiking without puff who, on reaching the alpine huttes, order large glasses of beer, Schnitzel or Bratwurst and potatoes, apple pancakes with Schlagrahm, cheese and coffee, before heading further afield. I think about an epidemiological study to challenge the prevailing ideology of thinness equals fit.

Three days later, and getting into the swing, the rains come. It's not possible to continue hiking. The cloud ceiling is too low, and I'm not one for squelchy walking in fog. Forty minutes outside of Munich, Dachau beckons. Finding it isn't difficult. The road signs have a chimney. Does it mean the industrial sector of Dachau, or Dachau the camp for industrial killing? It wasn't officially an extermination camp, so it must be the former - given that Dachau was primarily a forced labour camp, it would make sense for it to be in the industrial area.

The exhibition inside dates from 1965 (before the Holocaust industry). Dachau was the first camp. It started taking in political prisoners in 1933 - two thousand Catholic clergy among them. It's always salient to be reminded of the number of Germans who died for opposing fascism. Officially, 200,000 people were in Dachau from 1933 to 1945; 30,000 were killed. But the guides say that both figures were much bigger: it was a designated killing station for Russians, Roma and Jews.

Three details stick out. First, the meticulous classification system: a red dot for a communist; a pink triangle for a homo-sexual; a black square for the criminal element brought in to destabilise the political prisoners; another symbol for a social democrat. If you were a Jew, the symbol was set on the gold star - so communist, homosexual jews were highly decorated. The classification determined what you ate, the nature of your work and what grade of brutality you suffered.

The second detail is more a matter of ignorance. I hadn't realised that each concentration camp had subsidiary camps. Dachau had 30-plus associated camps around Munich, which were set up during the war to provide on-site slave labour for BMW and the armaments industry. The SS gained political currency by offering its prisoners to German industry. One further detail that has kept me wondering is the gas chambers at Dachau that were never used. Why were they installed? Did the high command find them so efficient that they ordered them to be put into all the camps? Was the Dachau commandant keeping up his quota of killings without resorting to industrialised methods? Were they there for the Russian army that Germany hoped to capture?

We drive back to Munich. Desperate for a beer, we go to the Augustiner restaurant near the Marienplatz. Inside is a huge room with 20ft ceilings and tables seating anything from four to 16 - and everything is awash with the light from a huge skylight dome. The restaurant seats 2,000, does 10,000 to 15,000 covers a day (Conran, take note), with waiting staff of 50 and 15 cooks. The restaurant and the Schloss show how good organisation and provision on a vast scale can benefit nurturing and feeding. It's an important antidote to the organised, industrialised killing of the war, which still prejudices our view of Germans - an outmoded prejudice, given West Germany's attempt to examine its history head-on. The Germans I know of my own age group, and the 20- to 30-year-olds they've taught, have created a vibrant new Germany. Yes, it's got huge problems, particularly associated with reunification. But the spirit and successes of red-green politics, the interesting architectural and cultural scene, as well as the coffee-house culture, have promoted a new Germany - one that seems unafraid to examine its past, and that looks and feels good to be in at present.

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