Buchenwald Concentration Camp
|Historical Name of Location||Weimar, Weimar, Germany|
Contributor: Alan Chanter
ww2dbaseWarning: This article contains disturbing material of inhumanity and cruelty
ww2dbaseThere had been concentration camps in Germany before WW2, most notably from 1919 during the years of the post-war crisis when Communists had been rounded up and placed in collection camps (Sammellager) under the watchful eye of local militia (Freikorps) and demobilized soldiers, then again in 1923 at the height of the inflation crisis, when Communists were once again herded into former prisoner of war camps in response to the threat of insurrection. All these camps were quickly shut down once the political situation improved, but a decade later when the National Socialists took over the German Government at least 157 new camps (some little more than overcrowded jails) were set up under the lawless SA (Sturm-Abteilung) to carry out a threat that Adolf Hitler had made at a 1921 Nazi rally to make "Jews and Marxists feel what it is like to live in a concentration camp". Almost all of these were closed during the course of 1933-34 as political prisoners were released; there had been an estimated 25,000 prisoners in the summer of 1933 but no more than 3,500 by 1935. The model for the future camp system now lay in a small group of camps that were given formal state recognition and funding during the course of 1933. These were administered by the Ministries of Justice or the Interior and were regarded as prisons purely for political opponents of the regime. The most important of these was the factory barracks at Dachau which was run by SS (Schutzstaffel) guards under Theodor Eicke, a brutal ex-policeman who Heinrich Himmler had plucked from a psychiatric hospital to become its first Commandant. Then in February 1935 Hitler announced that the number of prisoners would be reduced no further, and in June he authorised Reich funding for camp organization and agreed that camps should be guarded exclusively by armed SS men. In November 1935 he rejected the efforts of the Justice Ministry to introduce normative law into the camps, and finally, in the spring of 1936 confirmed that the camp administration was to be exclusively the responsibility of the SS. When Himmler was appointed Reich security and police chief in June all camps were placed under his direct control.
ww2dbaseBuchenwald Camp was set in hilly, well-wooded country about 15 minutes' drive from Weimar, Germany. The choice of location had been based on Eicke's bizarre belief that before a war enemies of the State would literally hide away here, in the heart of Germany, preparing to strike against the regime after war broke out unless they were pre-emptively incarcerated. A British Parliamentary delegation which visited the camp shortly after its liberation reported that it was badly laid out, on sloping uneven ground. The walls and paths were said to have been ill kept and, at the time of the visit, were covered in dust, which blew about in the wind and, in wet weather, the camp would be deep in mud. Over the main gate to the camp was the inscription "Recht oder unrecht – mein Vaterland" ("My country right or wrong"). The maximum capacity for the camp was said to have been 120,000 inmates although Allied investigators were unable to accurately estimate the percentages of various nationalities – the liberators found 80,813 still being held in April, 1945 (the Germans having removed some 20,000 others before American forces arrived) which included, in addition to Jews other non-Jewish Germans, Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, French, Belgians, Russians and others. Moreover, as Buchenwald had been thrown open prior to the arrival of the American medical and sanitation teams it is possible that a certain number of inmates may have left independently.
ww2dbaseAlthough the inmates of the camp were commonly referred to as prisoners they should not be confused with military prisoners of war. There were three main categories of prisoners: (a) political internees, including thousands of homosexual, vagrants, alcoholics, and Jehovah's Witnesses who refused to compromise their faith by acknowledging Hitler's authority, and German Jews (although by May 1944 these represented just 11 per cent of Buchenwald's inmates); (b) Political internees from Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland , etc.; (c) from 1940 onwards, men and youths imported for forced labour from various other occupied countries. German camps actually contained very few criminals (those convicted of penal offences usually ending up in civilian prisons rather than concentration camps) although most camps had a small core of criminal toughs (ukri) who were never really able to dominate the huge multi-national camp population with impunity. Most of the Germans held in camps after 1937 were there because of a social or biological stigma rather than criminal activities. There were few Britons at any time in Buchenwald; one estimate was "a few dozen." Almost all of these were civilians. One French parachutist, Lieutenant Maurice Pertschuk, who had been captured in 1943 was transferred from Compiégne in France to Buchenwald, in civilian clothes and there hanged shortly before the Americans arrived.
ww2dbaseAt Buchenwald the prisoners were housed in roughly constructed wood huts, with earth floors, without windows or sanitation. Inside, the verminous huts were lined on each side with four tiers of wooden shelves, supported and divided by upright struts. In each of the small open cubicles thus formed, about six feet in depth, four feet in width, and two feet in height, five or six men had to sleep. Even in their wasted condition, there was room for them to lie in one position only, on their sides. For bedclothes they had such rags as they could collect. Latrines consisted of poles suspended over unsanitary trenches.
ww2dbaseBlock 61, a hut 80 feet long by 24 feet wide, was used as a rough overcrowded hospital, chiefly for those suffering from tuberculosis or dysentery. Estimates of its normal sick population varied from 700 to 1,300. Four, five or six men, including those who had undergone surgery performed without anaesthetics by prisoner doctors on a crude operating table located at one end of the hut, in full view of the other patients, had regularly to lie in each of the small shelf cubicles with no mattresses. The excreta from the dysentery patients dripped down from tier to tier. If the living were strong enough, they pushed the dead out into the gangway, and each night the dead were thrown into a small annexe at one of the hut, where each morning the corpses were collected and taken in carts to the crematorium or, if required as specimens, to the pathological laboratory of the Nazi doctors.
ww2dbaseHealthier prisoners were forced to work in a large munition factory near the camp or in the quarries. Others were regularly hired out in small groups to help local firms or state offices with small construction projects, gardening or repair work. There could have been few in Germany who could pretend that the camps were hidden from view. Children, like adults were compelled to work eight or more hours a day. There were as many as 800 children discovered in the camp, many now orphans - their parents taken away and never seen alive again. These workers were able to obtain more than the basic ration of a bowl of watery soup and a chunk of dry bread each day, but only those in possession of the oblong disc marked "Essmarke KLB" were permitted to draw the rations (and Jews were literally worked to death). Additionally some inmates could earn camp paper money to spend in the canteen. The official daily camp schedule consisted of a reveille at between 0430 and 0600 hours, depending on the season, breakfast, work until evening, supper, evening roll call (which could last for as long as it took to account for everyone who had died or fallen ill during the day), and finally an exhausted impoverished sleep.
ww2dbaseAlthough Buchenwald Camp was for men and boys, one better hut was divided into small rooms with cement floor and windows, four of which the American liberators were informed had been used as a brothel to which the higher-grade prisoners – those employed in various supervisory jobs, with extra rations and other privileges – were allowed to resort for twenty minutes at a time. The women in this brothel were prisoners from other camps induced by threats and promises of better treatment to become prostitutes, but subsequently killed. When the Americans arrived, fifteen women were found in the brothel. They were turned over to the care of the Burgomaster of Weimar, and the hut was converted to a transit hospital for some of the worst cases of malnutrition.
ww2dbaseThe mortuary block consisted of two floors, ground and basement. Access to the basement was by a steep stone staircase or through a vertical chute below a trap-door. Here refractory or useless prisoners would be precipitated for execution. Hanging seems to have been the preferred method of killing for on the basement walls Allied officers discovered strong hooks, at a height of about 8 feet above the floor, and a gibbet. They were informed that there had once been more than forty hooks, most of which the Nazi guards had hastily removed before leaving. In the yard, outside, near a pile of white ashes, was found another such gibbet. The liberators were shown a heavy blood stained wooden club about 2 feet long which it was claimed had been utilised for knocking out any victim who died too slowly. Bodies were subsequently transported from the basement to the ground floor crematorium in an electric lift. In the yard outside the crematorium also arrived the carts, packed tightly with the corpses from the hospital and other huts, mostly stripped bare even of the striped blue and white suits which was the normal camp clothing for prisoners. Inside the crematorium were a row of capacious arched ovens in which the corpses would be disposed. The gruesome work being conducted by other prisoners who obtained privileges (the prisoner in charge having a private room with furniture and lace curtains, adjoining the crematorium) for conducting this unpleasant work. No Jews were ever allocated these special tasks.
ww2dbaseElsewhere in the camp American officers found a laboratory with a large collection of glass jars containing preserved specimens of human organs. It was alleged that it was here that Nazi doctors had conducted scientific experiments, such as infecting prisoners with typhus or conducting experiments in the sterilisation on Jews, although latterly the extermination of Jews had taken preference over castrating them. It was further alleged that Ilse Koch, the wife of the camp's first Commandant Karl-Otto Koch, had collected articles made from human skin. The walls of this laboratory and other medical rooms were found decorated with sundry death-masks of, they were told, the "more interesting" prisoners; many with features of notable nobility and refinement.
ww2dbaseBased on survivors' testimonies and captured SS documentation it has been estimated that around 56,000 people lost their lives at Buchenwald Concentration camp complex between its establishment in 1937 and liberation in 1945. Much of Buchenwald was demolished in the early 1950s although today the remains serve as a permanent exhibition and museum administrated by Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation as a memorial to those who suffered at that inhuman place.
By the end of the war it was estimated that some 30,000 to 35,000 Waffen-SS personnel were employed in the Nazi sadistic concentration camps. Many of them were former members of the SS-Totenkopf Division. Wounded Waffen-SS soldiers were sometimes assigned to the camps as guards thereby allowing other able-bodied SS personnel to be sent to the front as replacements. Post-war apologists for the Waffen-SS have frequently denied that this happened. But none of them have been able to explain away the Waffen-SS uniforms worn by the camp guards – or the Waffen-SS paybooks frequently found carried in those uniforms.
Buchenwald Camp – The Report of a Parliamentary Delegation (Hutchinson's Pictorial History of the War Vol. 26)
Richard Overy, The Dictators – Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia (Penguin, 2004)
Rupert Butler, The Black Angels – The story of the Waffen-SS (Hamlyn Paperbacks, 1978)
Last Major Update: Jan 2016
Buchenwald Concentration Camp Interactive Map
Buchenwald Concentration Camp Timeline
|15 Jul 1937||In Germany, the construction of Buchenwald Concentration Camp began by the inmates of the Lichtenburg Concentration Camp.|
|1 Aug 1937||Karl-Otto Koch was made the commandant of Buchenwald Concentration Camp in Weimar, Germany.|
|20 Feb 1943||A special section was established at the Hinzert Concentration Camp for Polish civilian workers who fraternized with German women.|
|2 Mar 1944||421 Czech prisoners were transferred from Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland to Buchenwald Concentration Camp in Germany.|
|24 Aug 1944||Princess Mafalda of the House of Savoy, wife if Prince Philipp of the House of Hesse, was seriously injured by Allied bombing at Buchenwald Concentration Camp near Weimar, Germany, where she was imprisoned.|
|27 Aug 1944||Princess Mafalda of the House of Savoy, wife of Prince Philipp of the House of Hesse, passed away from wounds suffered from Allied bombing at Buchenwald Concentration Camp near Weimar, Germany, where she was imprisoned.|
|21 Nov 1944||The Hinzert Concentration Camp administratively became a satellite camp of Buchenwald Concentration Camp.|
|3 Mar 1945||Prisoners at Hinzert satellite camp of Buchenwald Concentration Camp were evacuated.|
|4 Apr 1945||Troops of US 89th Infantry Division captured Ohrdruf Concentration Camp in Germany, which was a satellite of Buchenwald Concentration Camp.|
|5 Apr 1945||SS-Obersturmbannführer Karl-Otto Koch, the notorious, brutal and corrupt former Commandant of Buchenwald Concentration Camp was executed by firing squad at Buchenwald after a trial in which he was convicted of bringing himself and the SS into disrepute.|
|6 Apr 1945||15,000 prisoners of Buchenwald Concentration Camp in Germany were evacuated by German authorities.|
|11 Apr 1945||Prisoners of Buchenwald Concentration Camp freed themselves after most of the guards had fled. In the Buchenwald satellite camp of Langenstein, the US 83rd Infantry Division arrived; it had about 1,100 prisoners at the time.|
|12 Apr 1945||American troops began arriving at Buchenwald Concentration Camp near Weimar, Germany.|
|15 Apr 1945||Hermann Florstedt, former Majdanek Concentration Camp commandant, was executed at Buchenwald Concentration Camp in Germany by a SS firing squad. He had been found guilty for having embezzled wealth left behind by murdered Jews.|
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|WW2-Era Place Name||Weimar, Weimar, Germany|
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Winston Churchill, 1935