April 28, 2011 0 Comments

The crematorium at Buchenwald, photographed shortly after the camp was liberated, 1945.

Buchenwald was a major National Socialist concentration camp located in Thuringia in central Germany, on the Ettersberg, a mountain eight kilometers north of Weimar. The origins of the camp can be traced back to a request from the Nazi Party gauleiter or district leader of Thuringia, Fritz Sauckel (1894–1946), who wanted to replace a small concentration camp in his realm. The SS (Schutzstaffel) concentration camp administration itself was interested in setting up a new ‘‘modern’’ concentration camp like the one in Sachsenhausen. The camp was opened in July 1937. The Weimar Nazi Cultural Society (NS-Kulturgemeinde) wanted to avoid the name ‘‘Ettersberg concentration camp’’ because the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), who lived in Weimar, had strolled there frequently. Supposedly, the SS chief himself, Heinrich Himmler, chose the rather ‘‘neutral’’ name, which officially read ‘‘K.L. Buchenwald/Post Weimar.’’


The SS-owned territory subsequently was expanded until 1940, to 190 hectares. The camp itself was divided into several sectors, the ‘‘big camp,’’ the ‘‘small camp,’’ temporarily the ‘‘tent camp,’’ and the area for SS personnel and the economic facilities of the SS-owned Deutsche Ausrüstungswerke (DAW, German armament works). A Kommandantur, in 1944 consisting of more than three hundred SS functionaries, organized camp life and crimes against prisoners. Karl Otto Koch (1897–1945) served as the first camp commander; he was replaced by Hermann Pister (1885–1948) in January 1942. Guard duties were first carried out by the SS-Totenkopfstandarte Thüringen, then after the beginning of the war by a Wachsturmbann Buchenwald. Its personnel expanded from 1,200 men in 1938 to 6,300 men and women in early 1945, at which point most of the guardsmen were on duty in subcamps.


The first 149 prisoners arrived at Buchenwald on 14 July 1937. Along with several hundred inmates of the recently dissolved Sachsenburg and Lichtenburg camps, they had to build the camp infrastructure. In April 1938 the victims of mass arrests during the so-called action against asocials arrived in the camp, followed by several thousand Jews during the mass arrests in June and in November 1938, the latter connected to Kristallnacht. These prisoners were treated especially badly, and as a consequence hundreds soon died. After the beginning of the war, newly arriving Polish and Jewish prisoners were put into the improvised ‘‘tent camp,’’ where within months they died en masse from the horrible living conditions. At the end of 1939 nearly twelve thousand prisoners lived in the camp; then this figure decreased to just under eight thousand. Until the end of 1941 the prisoner constituency remained fundamentally the same, despite some deportations from the Netherlands. In October 1941 a small extra camp for Soviet prisoners of war (POWs) was established; in October 1942 most of the Jewish prisoners were deported to Auschwitz.


During the second half of the war, subcamps were established, especially for the purposes of the armament industries in central Germany. The subcamps were scattered from the Rhineland in the west, in Westphalia, Hanover province, and especially in central Germany, to Silesia in the east. One of the worst was the subcamp Mittelbau-Dora, which in October 1944 was transformed into a separate main camp, taking over other branches. Similarly, Buchenwald integrated all branches of the Ravensbrück camp for women, which were situated in its geographical realm, by September 1944. Thus, some Buchenwald subcamps consisted exclusively of female prisoners. In the largest of those, five thousand women worked for the Hugo Schneider AG in Leipzig. The biggest branches of Buchenwald, like Ellrich or Nordhausen, had grown to almost the same size as the main camp itself before 1942.


 Already by spring 1944 more than half of the forty-two thousand inmates were imprisoned in subcamps. More and more civilians from France and from the Soviet Union were brought to Buchenwald, and in summer 1944 even Jews from Hungary were brought there. In autumn 1944, 27 percent of the inmates were non-Jewish Soviet civilians, 20 percent were Poles, 15 percent were French, and 12 percent were Jews from different countries. Especially in the last period of the war, specific small groups such as German politicians from the pre-1933 era, western Allied POWs, Norwegian students, and Danish policemen were deported to the camp. As a consequence of the evacuation of camps in Poland, especially from Auschwitz and Groß-Rosen in January 1945, Buchenwald grew into the biggest concentration camp in the Reich. The number of inmates finally rose to 112,000 persons in February 1945, among them 25,000 women. At that time the majority of prisoners lived in the eighty-seven subcamps.



Living conditions in Buchenwald were as horrible as in the other camps in Germany. A small number of prominent prisoners—such as the three French prime ministers  Édouard Daladier, Paul Reynaud, and Léon Blum—were kept in separate camp sectors and treated better than average. But in general almost all prisoners suffered from constant undernourishment, and probably every tenth inmate was infected with tuberculosis. In the early camp period, prisoners worked in the camp itself or in the Weimar area—from 1943 on in the armament industry, such as the gun-producing ‘‘Wilhelm- Gustloff-Werke’’ in Weimar. The penal company was forced to work in the stone quarry at the Ettersberg, a horrible working place with extremely high death rates. Later on, Buchenwald inmates were forced to work in arms, ammunition, and airplane production; excavation work for subterranean installations; or clearing blind bombs in cities. Inhuman living and working conditions led to rapidly deteriorating health; SS guards or guardsmen of the enterprises frequently beat or even killed prisoners. Systematic torture was applied by the camp SS in the ‘‘bunker,’’ a specific penal prison cell, or by the political department of the camp, a branch of the Weimar Gestapo. By 1940 the annual death rate had already risen to 20 percent. Until 1942 corpses of the victims were incinerated in the crematorium of a Weimar cemetery, but then Buchenwald obtained its own crematorium.


From 1941 on, systematic killing actions hit Buchenwald prisoners. From July 1941 medical commissions selected weak and old prisoners, preferably Jews, and sent them to ‘‘euthanasia’’ killing centers such as Sonnenstein and Bernburg, where they were killed by gas. Some months later the SS started to shoot Soviet POWs near the camp territory—the Soviets had been selected as ‘‘undesirables’’ in German POW camps. In sum, approximately eight thousand Red Army soldiers were killed that way. More than one thousand prisoners were shot by the Gestapo inside the crematorium, including the former Communist Party leader Ernst Thälmann. From early 1942, SS camp physicians undertook cruel medical experiments on prisoners, which resulted in the death of most of the victims. Finally in 1944, especially Jewish and Romani inmates were sent to Majdanek and Auschwitz and were murdered there.


Despite the extreme conditions in the camp, some prisoners managed to establish improvised underground organizations; the national camp committees that were founded from the end of 1943 served to assist their fellow countrymen or the almost nine hundred imprisoned children. In August 1944 the U.S. Air Force bombed the Wilhelm-Gustloff-Werke, claiming more than three hundred victims among the prisoners. Thus Buchenwald entered the final phase of the war. The camp SS prepared evacuation from the beginning of 1945. In early April twenty-eight thousand inmates of the main camp were driven south either by rail or in death marches; almost twelve thousand died en route or in other camps. On 11 April 1945, U.S. army troops, assisted by an uprising of the prisoners, liberated Buchenwald, which still housed twenty-one thousand inmates. Hundreds of them died immediately after liberation because their state of health had been extremely critical.


The population of the surrounding area—especially Weimar citizens—was by and large informed about the camp and to a certain extent also about the atrocities. The SS personnel had everyday contacts with locals, and the camp infrastructure was tightly connected to the economy of Weimar, as forced laborers worked in town. After liberation, U.S. military authorities forced Weimar inhabitants to visit the camp area, in order to be confronted with a mass of corpses of those prisoners who had died during the final period of the camp.


From 1937 until 1945, 266,000 persons became prisoners in the Buchenwald camp system, among them 27,000 women added during the 1944 reorganization. Thirty-five thousand prisoners died in the camp and all its branches. If the killings of Soviet POWs and those that took place during the evacuation are added, Buchenwald claimed the lives of fifty-six thousand human beings. Only some of the responsible SS men— thirty-one functionaries—were put on trial during the so-called Buchenwald trial at a U.S. military court in Dachau 1947. Individual perpetrators, including the first commander’s wife, Ilse Koch, were sentenced by Soviet or German courts.


The Soviet Secret Police, which entered Thuringia in June 1945 after the repartitioning of the occupation zones, already in autumn of that year started to use the camp facilities for its own purposes, installing there Special Camp No. 2. In the beginning, mostly Nazi functionaries and members of Nazi organizations were interned at the camp, but later victims of political persecutions and denunciations were kept there as well. Almost half of the twenty-six thousand inmates died in the camp, especially from undernourishment during the winter 1946–1947. Thousands were deported to camps inside the Soviet Union. In January 1950 the MVD (Ministry of the Interior) camp was dissolved.



Unlike other camps, such as Dachau for Americans or Bergen-Belsen for the British, Buchenwald did not occupy a central place in war memory after 1945. However, in the second half of the 1950s it developed into a major commemoration site of East German politics. Most of the camp installations had been demolished after 1950. In 1958 the Nationale Mahn- und Gedenkstätte Buchenwald was opened, focusing on the fate of Ernst Thälmann. The communist interpretation of the camp history was highly popularized in the novel by the former prisoner Bruno Apitz, Nackt unter Wölfen (1958; Naked among Wolves, 1960; film version, 1963). The book glorified the communist prisoners’ underground and was introduced as compulsory reading in East German schools. Yet the history of the Soviet camp in Buchenwald was completely ignored in the German Democratic Republic (GDR).


In the West, publications on Buchenwald, most of them written by former inmates, gave a much more differentiated picture. Eugen Kogon based his first overall history of Nazi camps, Der SS-Staat (1946; Theory and Practice of Hell, 1950), on his Buchenwald experience. The individual and human perspective prevailed in the memoirs of the former prisoners, the most important of which were Robert Antelme’s L’espèce humaine (1947; The Human Race, 1992) and especially Jorge Semprún’s Le grand voyage (1963; Long Voyage, 1964) and Quel beau dimanche (1980; What a Beautiful Sunday, 1982), written after his break with the Communist Party in 1964. There has been considerable public debate since the mid-1990s on the communist underground, as some of its members as prisoner functionaries allegedly decided who was put on death lists of the SS. This almost completely devastated the myths surrounding the communist underground in the camp. The double perspective on Buchenwald’s history, as a Nazi and as a Soviet camp, also led to fierce discussions. The memorial, now part of the Stiftung Gedenkstätten Buchenwald und Mittelbau-Dora, opened a new exhibition on the Nazi camp in 1995 and a separate one on the MVD camp in 1999.


BIBLIOGRAPHY ‘‘Buchenwald Memorial.’’ Internet homepage. Available at http://www.buchenwald.de/. The Buchenwald Report. Translated, edited, and with an introduction by David A. Hackett. Boulder, Colo., 1995. Polak, Edmund. Dziennik buchenwaldzki. Warsaw, 1983. Ritscher, Bodo, et al., eds. Das sowjetische Speziallager Nr. 2, 1945–1950: Katalog zur ständigen historischen Ausstellung. Göttingen, Germany, 1999. Stein, Harry, comp. Buchenwald Concentration Camp 1937–1945: A Guide to the Permanent Historical Exhibition. Edited by the Gedenkstätte Buchenwald. Göttingen, Germany, 2005.

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