Buchenwald Concentration Camp

Heroes of the Anti-Fascist Resistance

Statue in honor of the Buchenwald resistance fighters

Buchenwald was primarily a camp for political prisoners, who were opponents of Hitler's Third Reich. They included prominent Communists and Social Democrats, as well as French, Polish and Dutch resistance fighters, and also pastors of the Confessional Church and Catholic priests who preached against the Nazis. A Monument to the Resistance Fighters stands on the highest point of the Ettersberg about one kilometer from the former camp. A close-up of the statue at the monument is shown in the photograph above.

On April 11, 1945, the day that American troops arrived to liberate the Buchenwald camp, the Communist resistance fighters had already taken control of the camp and forced the SS guards to flee for their lives. When the American liberators arrived, they observed that some of the resistance fighters had left the camp and were hunting down the SS men in the surrounding forest. The SS soldiers were brought back to the camp and shot, hanged or beaten to death by the inmates while the American soldiers looked on and sometimes joined in.

A group of barracks, called the Fichtenhain Special Camp, was built in the forest between the SS barracks and the military garages, outside the barbed wire enclosure of the main camp, and reserved for VIP prisoners. These prisoners included members of the Iron Guard, a Rumanian Fascist group which was banned after a coup attempt against dictator Antonescu in 1941.

One of the most famous prisoners at Buchenwald was Leon Blum, a Jew who was the former Prime Minister of France; he was transferred to Dachau in April 1945.

There were many French resistance fighters in the camp; they were housed in Block 26. The French distinguished themselves by hatching a plot to sabotage the Mibau factory at Buchenwald where the V2 rockets were being built. The Germans built the factory to look like a camp in hopes that the Allies would not bomb it, but it received a direct hit in the August 24, 1944 bombing raid by the British Royal Air Force.

Aerial map shows where bombs hit Buchenwald

Dr. Rudolf Breitscheid, chairman of the Social Democrats in the German Parliament, and Mafalda, the Princess of Hesse and daughter of the Italian king, were kept under arrest in a separate isolation barrack, surrounded by a wall, beginning in 1943. Both of them were killed in the bombing raid on August 24, 1944.

A total of 384 prisoners were killed in the Ausgust 24th RAF bombing raid and around six hundred were injured. Among the wounded were the wife and daughter of the Camp Commandant, SS Colonel Herman Pister.

Again, on February 9, 1945, the complex was bombed for the second time by British planes; this time, the target was the Gustloff Works munitions factory. In this raid 316 prisoners lost their lives out of about 2,000 employed in the factory. Over 80 SS men were killed and 238 wounded during this raid.

The camp prison, called the Bunker (Zellenbau), was located in the west wing of the gatehouse, shown on the right in the photograph below. There were two rows of cells divided by a central hallway. The cells on the north side had windows which looked out over the camp mustering ground (Appellplatz), but the cells on the south side had only air holes, located on the outside wall. The black objects on the wall in the photo below, that look like large mail boxes, were designed with holes in the top to let air into the cells inside. This exterior wall of the prison wing was outside the camp. In the background you can see the electrified barbed wire fence around the camp, and the guard tower at the west gate.

Prison wing of gate house with black boxes for air holes

Cell Number One, the room closest to the entrance of the Bunker, was where prisoners spent their last night before being executed in the crematorium. According to the camp records, 160 political prisoners, who were incarcerated in the Bunker, died between 1938 and the spring of 1943. One of them was Otto Neururer, an Austrian Catholic priest who was executed.

Many of the prison cells have pictures of their famous occupants. The picture below shows the cell formerly occupied by Paul Schneider, a pastor of the Confessional Church. This was the church co-founded by the Reverend Martin Niemöller, who opposed the Nazis. Niemöller is famous for the following quotation attributed to him: "First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist, so I didn't speak up. Then they came for the trade unionists, but I was not a trade unionist, so I didn't speak up. Then they camp for the Jews, but I was not a Jew, so I didn't speak up. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me."

Paul Schneider's picture hangs in his former prison cell

The picture below shows a display in the cell that was occupied by Ernst Thälmann, who was the chairman of the German Communist Party and a member of the Reichstag (Congress or Parliament). He was allegedly executed on August 18, 1944 at the door to the Buchenwald crematorium, where there is a plaque in his honor.

Picture of Ernst Thälmann in his former prison cell

Of all the VIP political prisoners at the four main German camps (Dachau, Buchenwald, Mauthausen and Sachsenhausen), Thälmann and Dr. Rudolf Breitscheid were the only ones who died while imprisoned.

The Nazis claimed in their official party newspaper on September 16, 1944 that both Breitscheid and Thälmann had died in the Allied bombing raid on Buchenwald on August 24, 1944. The Buchenwald Museum guidebook admits that Breitscheid died in the bombing raid, but not Thälmann. Breitscheid was a prisoner in the VIP section in the Fichtenhain Special Camp, but Thälmann was imprisoned in a cell in the Bunker according to the display there.

According to the Buchenwald Report, Thälmann was arrested in 1933 and was later transferred from the Bautzen prison to Buchenwald, where he was "smuggled into the camp by Goebbels around the time of the bombing of Buchenwald."

As anyone can see, the Bunker was not hit in the bombing raid. To add further to the confusion, the Museum at the former Sachsenhausen concentration camp claims that both Breitscheid and Thälmann were executed at Sachsenhausen in September 1944.

In the Report of a Parliamentary Delegation, the British claimed that 750 people had been killed in the Allied bombing raid on the factories at Buchenwald on August 24, 1944, including 400 inmates.

The first picture below shows the crematorium entrance where Thälmann was allegedly shot. The stairs lead to the Leichenkeller in the basement, the place where executions by hanging from meat hooks were allegedly carried out. To the right, but not shown in the photo, was the chute where dead bodies were dropped into the Leichenkeller where they were stored to await cremation in the ovens on the floor above. The second picture below shows a closeup of the plaque which commemorates the spot where Thälmann was allegedly shot.

Entrance to crematorium and basement execution room

Plaque marks the spot where Communist leader was allegedly shot

American Prisoners at Buchenwald

Buchenwald Memorials

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This page was last updated on November 10, 2009