Text of Museum booklet about
Dachau Concentration Camp
Cover of Dachau Concentration
Dachau, the First Concentration Camp
Today, only forty years after the National-Socialists
seized absolute power in Germany, the twelve-year dictatorship
they established seems to many part of a by-gone age, and the
horrors of the concentration camps seem to retain real significance
only for the victims who survived them, and for historians.
Even today, however, the name Dachau
evokes horror. The first of the concentration camps, it remains
unchanged as a symbol of inhumanity. How did it begin? What went
on there during the twelve years of its existence when scarcely
a detail of what occurred inside was known to the outside world?
After Hitler and his followers had seized
power on January 30, 1933, they immediately began their brutal
persecution and systematic elimination of political opponents.
On March 20, 1933, just eleven days after
becoming Munich's Chief of Police, Heinrich Himmler announced
at a press conference the establishment of the Dachau concentration
Next day the press announced: "On
Wednesday, the first concentration camp, with a capacity of 5000,
will be established in the neighborhood of Dachau. Here all Communist
party officials, and as far as the security of the State requires,
those of the "Reichsbanner" (uniformed wing of the
Social Democratic party for purposes of self-protection) and
of the Social Democrats will be interned..."
The first group of Dachau prisoners taken
into "protective custody" were originally guarded by
the Bavarian police. None of them could have conceived that this
place, an abandoned First World War munitions factory, would
one day become a powerful reservoir of slave laborers comprised
of prisoners from all over Europe, that it would be, for the
SS, the ideal training ground for murder.
When the SS took control of the camp
on April 11, 1933, the prisoners lost the last traces of their
civil rights and were left defenseless to the despotism of their
On becoming commander of the Dachau camp
in June 1933, Theodor Eicke set up a scheme of organization with
detailed regulations for camp life. This came to be used, with
local variations, for all concentration camps. Even the basic
lay-out of the concentration camps came from Eicke. Each camp
had its prisoners' quarters surrounded by a high tension fence
and guard towers and, separate from these, a command area with
administrative buildings and barracks.
In 1934 Eicke was appointed Inspector
General for all concentration camps. With Dachau as his model,
he developed an institution which was intended, by its very existence,
to spread fear among the populace, an effective tool to silence
every opponent of the regime. Dachau became, in effect, a training
ground for the SS. Here its members first learned to see those
with different convictions as inferior and to deal with them
accordingly, not hesitating to murder when the occasion arose.
In later years the SS was able, without a thought, to annihilate
millions of innocent people in the gas chambers. The transformation
of the theories of National-Socialism into a bloody reality began
in the concentration camp at Dachau.
The Prisoners of the Dachau Concentration
When the camp opened, only known political
opponents of the National-Socialists were interned. Social Democrats,
Communists, and Monarchists who had passionately opposed each
other before 1933 found themselves together behind barbed wire.
Having prohibited political organizations, parties, and trade
unions, the Nazis extended this ban later in 1933 to include
membership in the Jehovah's Witnesses. The latter were subjected
to the ugliest forms of derision and maltreatment in the camp.
From about 1935, it was usual for all
persons who had been condemned in a court of law to be taken
automatically to a concentration camp after they had served their
sentences. Paradoxically, then, drawing a long sentence to a
penitentiary meant to be saved, saved from imprisonment in a
concentration camp, and that frequently meant to be saved from
By the beginning of the war in 1939,
the concentration camps, a continually expanding network, were
gradually being filled. The in-mates included political opponents
of all shades, Jews, and gypsies, who were classified as racially
inferior, clergymen who resisted the political coercion of the
churches, and many who had been denounced for making critical
remarks of various kinds.
The initial declarations claimed that
the camp was being established for all "who endangered the
security of the State", but the story soon was given out
that the camps would serve as re-education centers for criminals.
Criminals, who subsequently acted as spies for the SS were brought
into the concentration camps to help create the public impression
that their prisoners consisted of common criminals.
Nevertheless, the camp at Dachau was
always a political prisoners' camp; for the first camp inmates
were political prisoners, and since they knew the conditions
best, they held a great number of the key positions in the so-called
prisoners' self-government which had been instituted by the SS.
Since this body contributed to the organization of the camp's
activity, criminals could generally be prevented from attaining
to positions which would give them power over their fellow-prisoners,
power which they often recklessly misused for their own advantage.
Dachau's first Jewish inmates had been
arrested because of their political opposition to National-Socialism.
Not until the systematization of the persecution of the Jews
did their numbers increase. After the "Crystal Night"
of November 1938 over 10,000 Jews from all over Bavaria were
brought to Dachau . Many of them were later released, and whoever
could, left Germany.
At Dachau, as elsewhere, Jewish prisoners
received even worse treatment than other prisoners. During the
war, when the systematic extermination of the Jews began, they
were dispatched from the concentration camps in Germany to their
death in the extermination camps which the Germans had built
in the occupied areas in the East.
The situation in the concentration camps
changed decisively with the beginning of the war. From then on
the prisoners could at least hope for the defeat of the Third
Reich; no longer did they have to face the hopeless prospect
of an endless incarceration. Thus, the number of suicides which
had been very high till then, fell radically in 1939.
Prisoners came to Dachau from all the
countries which were at war with Germany: resistance fighters,
Jews, clergymen, or simply patriots who refused to collaborate
with the occupation. When the camp was liberated, prisoners from
over thirty countries were found there, the German prisoners
forming only a small minority.
Life in the Dachau Concentration Camp
Life as a prisoner in the concentration
camp began with arrival at the camp. The SS made a cruel ritual
of the "welcome". It was intended to instill dread
and make clear to the prisoners their lack of legal status.
Blows and insults rained down upon the
bewildered newcomers; their remaining possessions were confiscated,
their hair was shaved off, and they were put into striped fatigues.
They were allocated a number as well
as a colored triangle indicating to which category of prisoner
they belonged. Both had to be fixed to the suit so that they
were clearly visible. Their nameless existence as outcasts had
begun. The daily routine which followed was filled with work,
hunger, exhaustion, and fear of the brutality of the sadistic
SS guards. The value of the cheap labor that the prisoners would
provide was quickly recognized and ruthlessly exploited.
At first within the Dachau camp area
every sort of hand industry was set up, from basketry to wrought-iron
work. Initially the production of the camps was directly under
the control of the individual camp commander. But as the camps
continued to grow, the range of production increased apace, till
in 1938 the "Wirtschaftliche Unternehmungen der SS"
(the SS Industries) were centralized under their main office
Dachau prisoners were also required for
the management and maintenance of the camp; still others had
to work under SS guard outside the camp in so-called branch detachments,
at road construction, in gravel pits, or at marsh cultivation.
While the camp was being enlarged from
1937 to 1938, the prisoners had to work at an especially exhausting
pace often for seven days a week.
From about 1939 the SS expanded its activities
into important areas of production. Thus, concentration camps
were built at Flossenburg and Mauthausen near a quarry where
the prisoners were to work. In the first winter of the war, 1939-40,
the concentration camp at Dachau was used to set up the SS division
"Eicke". During this time its prisoners were sent to
the camps at Buchenwald, Flossenburg and Mauthausen. There they
had to work in the quarries under the hardest of conditions without
the slightest safety precautions. Indeed, prisoners were often
pushed to their deaths deliberately; large numbers became victims
of what was called "annihilation through work".
In the course of the war the work force
of the concentration camps became more and more indispensable
to the German armament industry. The network of camps which gradually
extended over the whole of Central Europe took on gigantic proportions.
The camp at Dachau alone had, besides numerous smaller ones,
thirty-six large subsidiary camps in which approximately 37,000
prisoners worked almost exclusively on armaments.
In 1942 the main office of the SS economic
section (WVHA) was made responsible for the inspection of the
concentration camps. In the interest of armament production,
this office tried to effect certain improvements in the camps'
living conditions in order to lower the high death rate.
At the same time, however, the systematic
killing of "inferior races" began in the extermination
camps. Thus, in contradiction to the plan to provide as many
slave workers as possible for the armament industry, the objective
became the rapid and systematic extermination of as many people
Even though towards the end of the war,
SS behavior to the prisoners changed somewhat, on the whole the
latter's position scarcely improved. Weakened and undernourished,
they had to work at least eleven hours a day. In addition, there
was the often long journey to and from work, as well as the morning
and evening roll call so that many prisoners had only a few hours
Private firms had the opportunity to
hire slave laborers from the concentration camps. For the prisoners,
who worked for them under SS guard, they paid a daily rate to
the main office of the SS economic division. The prisoner, however,
Prisoners who fell ill were sent back
to the main camp; this usually implied a death sentence. The
firms received new, healthier laborers until these too could
no longer meet the demands of their employers.
Overwork endangered the health of the
prisoners, especially when combined with the malnutrition found
in the concentration camps.
Although the prisoners were not directly
threatened with starvation before the war, they were always,
when one considered the work demanded of them, severely undernourished.
Many prisoners had no money for the canteen
where, during the first few years, they were able to buy a few
things at excessive prices.
Hunger thus came to play a central role
in the life of the prisoners.
They were ruled more and more strongly
by their desperate need for food, for a satisfying nourishing
meal. Daily anxious anticipation before mealtime was cruelly
disappointed at the sight of the thin watery soup and a piece
of bread which, when consumed, scarcely reduced the torment of
The theft of bread was considered a serious
breach of solidarity among the prisoners; for under the circumstances.
it could bring about the physical collapse of the person robbed.
In the course of the war years, the food
shortage became increasingly catastrophic. The consequences,
besides the greater susceptibility of the prisoners to infectious
diseases and epidemics, were the appearances of serious malnutritional
diseases of all kinds.
When the Dachau camp was liberated in
April 1945, for many prisoners the help arrived too late; they
died of the consequences of hunger.
A further threat was punishments inflicted
by the SS. The Disciplinary and Penal Code opened with the following
"Tolerance means weakness ... Beware
of being caught lest you be grabbed by the neck and silenced
by your own methods." This code was instituted by Eicke
in 1933 and remained in force for all camps till 1945.
It was left to the discretion of each
SS-man to determine the alleged offenses of the prisoners; and
it was impossible to predict what might arouse the anger of an
individual SS-man and thus result in a "punishment notice".
A button missing from a jacket, a spot
on the barrack floor, a short pause to catch one's breath at
work, or an incorrect reply - the threat of punishment was always
Among the most frequent punishments were
the following: Flogging whereby the prisoner was strapped to
a specially designed block and had to count aloud the lashes
he received with a whip. If he lost consciousness, the punishment
Tree or Pole-Hanging whereby the prisoner
was suspended for hours with his hands tied behind his back.
The Standing Punishment in which the
prisoner, regardless of the weather, had to stand without moving
for days in the roll-call square. The Cutting Off of Rations
for individuals or groups.
Detention in the "bunker",
the camp prison, where the prisoners were often held in chains
and deprived of their rations.
The Death Penalty was also specified
in the Order of Discipline and Punishment.
Beyond the "official" punishments
of the camps, the SS had many other opportunities to "punish"
the prisoners according to their desires, driving them to despair,
sickness and death.
Particularly favored were "punishment
drills" through snow and bog, "work during free time",
or endlessly prolonged "roll-calls". Every morning
all prisoners had to form up in the square according to barracks
while their numbers were called. This usually lasted for an hour.
When the SS wished to torment the prisoners,
they would keep them standing for hours after the roll-call count.
On January 23, 1938, a prisoner escaped
from the camp. The remaining prisoners had to stand in the roll-call
square throughout the night. It was cold and snowing, and a great
number of prisoners collapsed and died during this night.
In the pre-war years Dachau had a "penal"
company which was isolated by barbed wire from the rest of the
prisoners. Conditions for the prisoners in this company were
even harder than those for the other prisoners. When the SS wanted
to get rid of a particular prisoner, they would usually hand
him a rope with the command to hang himself.
Most of them preferred quick suicide
to a slow death by torture. The prisoners knew that the report
"shot while escaping", was usually an euphemism for
the murder of one of their comrades. Although in the spring of
1933 the office of the public prosecutor began an inquiry into
the first prisoner murders, camouflaged as suicides or attempted
escapes, the proceedings of this inquiry were prevented from
Nevertheless, in the first years the
concentration camps offered to the outside world a picture of
diligence, order and cleanliness. Terror and oppression were
not immediately noticeable. When official visitors were conducted
around the camp, they saw sparkling clean barracks, well-tended
flower beds, and - from a distance - prisoners marching to work
This facade collapsed only with the beginning
of the war.
The prisoners soon learned the necessity
of remaining healthy under all circumstances. The SS had no interest
in financing the medical and nursing care of the prisoners. The
camp leader determined whether a prisoner was sick and should
be permitted to see a doctor, or perhaps should receive a punishment
notice for "malingering". A prisoner was not permitted
to be absent from work until his temperature had risen to over
40C (1040F) and he could no longer stand up. With a few exceptions,
the SS doctors were of no help to the sick prisoners. Often inadequately
trained, they performed dangerous and unnecessary operations
on the prisoners.
The numerous accidents which occurred
at work in the absence of safety precautions often resulted in
the crippling or the death of the injured person because of improper
treatment and the lack of drugs. The most frequent illnesses
- circulatory disorders, congestion of the lungs, hunger edema,
tuberculosis, and weakness of the heart - were caused by undernourishment
and physical overexertion.
In addition, many suffered severe frostbite
in winter due to inadequate clothing. In summer they suffered
the effects of working for hours unprotected from the sun's rays.
Food became scarcer and hygienic conditions
in the camp worsened in the course of the war; the exhausted
and starving prisoners scarcely had the resources to resist the
epidemics which quickly spread amongst them.
No preventative medicines were given,
and the sick were abandoned to their fate in isolated quarantine
Thus in the last four months preceding
the liberation of Dachau, over 13,000 prisoners died.
The building for the sick prisoners,
which was called the infirmary, gradually had to be extended
from its original two barracks containing seventy places to fourteen
barracks containing 3400 places.
Untrained prisoners serving as male nurses
did as much as possible to help the sick while assisting the
SS physicians who were, more often than not, feared by the patients.
There were, of course, also criminal
prisoners among them who did nothing for their sick fellow-prisoners
and who, in certain cases, even became SS accomplices in murder.
Prisoners who were doctors were not officially
permitted to act as nurses until 1942. But they supported the
efforts of the nurses for the sick prior to this. Fever charts
and case histories were falsified by the nurses, additional food
was procured for the enfeebled, and urgent necessary medication
was organized. They fought selflessly and obstinately for the
lives of their fellow-prisoners who had often already given up
and apathetically awaited death. The knowledge that they were
not sent to die alone often helped the sick to renew the struggle
for survival. A little additional food which was slipped into
their hands unexpectedly, a little medicine secretly dispensed,
and an encouraging conversation could contribute to dispelling
the feeling of isolation, thereby helping the particular patient
on the road to recovery.
Not only in the infirmary, but in all
areas of camp life, the prisoners united to support the weaker
among them. The individual prisoner had been delivered up defenseless
to the superior power of his enemies, but there were cases in
which the prisoner community could save him. The prisoners' self-government
allowed them a certain latitude of action, for example, in the
distribution of labour. This enabled them to shelter convalescents
in lighter-labor squads and sometimes "hide" particularly
endangered prisoners in remote work places for a time.
Newcomers were helped to orientate themselves
in the life of the camp, and for particularly urgent cases additional
food, clothing and medicine were organized.
They were concerned, moreover, to bring
information to the public about occurrences in the camp, and
to acquire for themselves reliable information about "outside"
events. Rumors, which spread daily, were often quite demoralizing
to the prisoners and had to be combatted with reliable reports.
The few prisoners who were released in
the course of the years were threatened with reimprisonment if
they related their experiences or formed alliances with other
prisoners. Nevertheless, prisoners were able to form alliances,
not only with their released comrades, but also, in the branch
detachments, with civilians; thus, they maintained their contact
with the outside world. With the help of radio receivers hidden
in the camp, the course of the war was followed in detail.
Prisoners learned that a man's own misery
made him indifferent to the desperation of his neighbor; that
the constant hunger, exhaustion and cold destroyed a man not
only physically, but psychologically as well, and that egotism
and the right of the stronger then easily gained the upper hand.
But again and again there were outstanding examples of selflessness
in helping fellow-prisoners, of fearless humanitarian efforts,
and of unbreakable spirit of resistance to SS methods. When prisoners
were commanded to flog their comrades themselves, Karl Wagner,
a prisoner responsible for his barrack at the subsidiary camp
at Allach, refused openly in the roll-call square to strike his
comrade. A deep impression was left on all who witnessed the
Medical Experiments in the Dachau
During the war, medical experiments were
performed on helpless prisoners in the concentration camps, which
were shielded from the outside world.
Heinrich Himmler wanted to develop an
SS science; he had no hesitation about delivering concentration
camp prisoners into the hands of the SS physicians as experimental
In part, these experiments were to determine
the methods by which a German soldier's chances of survival and
recovery could be improved. The health of innumerable men and
women was ruined for life - countless numbers met agonizing death
in these experiments. At the Dachau camp, too, prisoners were
subjected to medical experiments.
Dr. Claus Schilling, a well-known researcher
in tropical medicine, was already over 70 years old at the beginning
of 1942, when he responded to a request of Himmler and opened
a malaria experimental station in the camp at Dachau. He hoped
to discover possible methods of immunization against malaria.
For this purpose around 1100 prisoners were infected with the
The subjects were injected with malaria
agents or infected through fly bites. The attacks of fever which
followed were then treated with various drugs and the progress
of the illness was noted in detail.
Initially criminals were used as experimental
subjects, but later Italians and Russians, and especially, Polish
clergymen were used. In the last weeks before the liberation,
the camp directorate gave Dr. Schilling only invalids as experimental
subjects; but he continued his experiments undeterred until Himmler
ordered them stopped on April 5, 1945.
The exact number of prisoners who died
as a result of these malaria experiments cannot be determined,
since the prisoners returned to their old places in the camp
after the disease had subsided and many, physically weakened,
then fell victim to other illnesses.
The alleged object of the "decompression
or high altitude" experiments was to examine the effect
of sudden loss of pressure or lack of oxygen experienced by pilots
when their planes were destroyed and they had to make parachute
jumps at great heights. The air force physician, SS Lieutenant,
Dr. Siegmund Rascher, played a key role here. In a letter of
May 15, 1942, to Himmler, the question was raised for the first
time by Dr. Rascher as to whether professional criminals could
be made available for such experimentation, since, in view of
the danger of these experiments, no one would willingly make
Himmler allowed Rascher to perform these
experiments at Dachau, and he, himself, took a lively interest
in their progress.
The subjects entered a decompression
chamber which simulated the conditions to which pilots were exposed
when their planes were destroyed at great heights.
From mid-March to mid-May 1942 about
200 inmates, including political prisoners and Polish clergymen,
were misused for these experiments.
The perversion of a physician's ethical
obligations to his patient was most clearly evident in the reports
which Dr. Rascher sent Himmler. In a secret report dated May
11, 1942 he wrote:
"To clarify whether the severe psychic
and physical symptoms described under no. 3 are due to the formation
of pulmonary embolisms, particular subjects, before they had
gained consciousness, but after they had recovered somewhat from
this type of experiment, were placed under water until they expired
. . ."
According to the testimony of Walter
Neff, the prisoner nurse who was an eye witness, out of 200 subjects
a minimum of 70 to 80 died.
"Freezing" experiments were
carried out from the middle of August to October 1942. Their
object was to determine how pilots shot down at sea and suffering
from freezing could be quickly and effectively helped. The Air
Force expressed its readiness to carry out these experiments
under the direction of Dr. Holzlbhner, who worked with Dr. Rascher
and Dr. Finke in Dachau.
Wearing pilot uniforms, the subjects
were placed for hours in basins filled with ice-water; various
methods of reheating were then tried.
The results were summarized in a paper
entitled, "Concerning Experiments in Freezing the Human
Organism". It was read at a scientific gathering of the
medical branch of the Air Force on October 26/ 27, 1942.
Dr. Holzlohner and Dr. Finke then broke
off their own work on the experiments, as they were of the opinion
that nothing more was to be gained by further experimentation.
With Himmler's support, Dr. Rascher continued
the experiments alone until May 1943. According to the testimony
of witnesses, from a total of 360 to 400 subjects, 80 to 90 died.
Rascher also planned to perform a wider
series of experiments on freezing through exposure at the concentration
camp in Auschwitz.
As he wrote to Himmler on February 12,
"For such experimentation Auschwitz
is in every way more suitable than Dachau. It is colder there
and because of the very size of the grounds, less attention will
be attracted ... the subjects cry out when they are freezing".
Nothing more, however came of these experiments.
Besides the series of experiments described,
a variety of other experiments were also made. There existed
in Dachau a tuberculosis experimental station. Sepsis and phlegm
were also artificially induced in a group of prisoners to test
and compare the effects of biochemical and allopathical remedies.
In addition, there were also experiments attempting to make sea
water drinkable, and experiments with medicaments to stop bleeding.
Transport to and from the Dachau Concentration
During the war the transport of prisoners
played an extraordinarily important role in the system of concentration
camps; to a certain extent such transports mirrored the course
of the war.
Shortly after the German march into Austria,
the first Austrians came to Dachau; the first Sudetenlanders
came shortly after the occupation of the Sudetenland.
Likewise, following the march into Czechoslovakia,
the first transport of Czechs and, following the march into Poland,
the first transport of Poles to Dachau occurred.
While the first years of the war the
transports could be carried out to some extent in an orderly
way, the conditions worsened radically when the turning tide
of the war began to make itself felt, and transportation became
In the occupied countries the prisoners
were placed in prisons or collecting camps where they awaited
their transport to Germany.
They had only rumors to go by concerning
what went on in the concentration camps; they could not suspect
that only a minute percentage of them would return alive. As
it was, the journey to Germany surpassed their worst fears.
Supplied with only a piece of bread,
they were locked up by hundreds in cattle or freight cars, where,
without sufficient oxygen, without drinking water, further care,
or sanitary arrangements, they traveled for days. What took place
within these cars where people were so tightly packed that they
could not even sit down is indescribable.
Of 2,521 prisoners, 984 perished in a
transport which left Compibgne, France on July 2, 1944, and arrived
in Dachau on July 6th. The horror at the arrival of this train
shook even the prisoners who had been living in the hell of the
concentration camp for years .
Although frequently delayed by bombing
attacks and destruction of railway lines, the transports rolled
unceasingly until the collapse of the Hitler regime. When the
railway lines were cut, the sealed carriages often remained standing
for days, with no one to care for the people locked within.
Besides the transports bringing new arrivals,
there was also an extensive transport system between the concentration
The prisoners, who had with difficulty
adapted themselves to the life of their present camp, having
learned to appraise the people and the dangers of their surroundings,
feared transport to an unknown camp where the new conditions
for the newcomer were almost always worse. The SS also used these
transports as a means of ridding themselves of prisoners who
stood up for the rights of their fellow-prisoners, and who, through
their own upright behavior, strengthened prisoner solidarity.
As the war progressed, increased productivity
was demanded of the camps. As a result, camp commanders would,
without a thought, transport to other camps the prisoner who
had become too sick or too weak to work. As there was just as
little interest in the sick at the camps to which they were sent,
prisoners were shunted from one camp to another till they died
miserably somewhere along the way. Thus, in a report from the
Buchenwald concentration camp dated July 16, 1941, we read:
"The branch office 1/5 of the Buchenwald
concentration camp reports, with respect to the above-mentioned
order, the accomplishment of the transference of the 2000 prisoners
from Dachau to Buchenwald.
The transports, carrying 1000 prisoners
each, arrived here on June 5th and June 12th respectively. Those
who were transported were mostly sick and crippled and incapable
of working. A great number had already been in Buchenwald, and
had, in fact, been sent on as cripples to Dachau. After a minimal
convalescence of four to six weeks perhaps 50% of them can be
employed, although even then only for very light work. Up to
the present,30 prisoners have already died .
In the camp jargon, the seriously weak
were referred to as "Muslims" (Muselmenner). For such
prisoners, to be sentenced "to go on transport" almost
invariably meant death.
In 1944, in the face of advancing Soviet
troops the camps in the East had to be evacuated. Inmates were
brought by foot, by freight car, or by trucks to the concentration
camps in Germany. Countless numbers died along the way since
the accompanying guards mercilessly shot all who could not keep
up or who tried to escape.
Eventually more than 30,000 prisoners
had to be barracked at the Dachau camp, which had originally
been built for 5,000.
The American soldiers who liberated Dachau
on April 29, 1945 found, even before they reached the camp itself,
a freight train filled with dead. In the confusion of the last
days of the war, the train had never been unloaded - it was a
terrifying spectacle, powerfully displaying to them the methods
of the Third Reich.
Transports of Invalids
Subsequently to the mass murder of the
insane, which was referred to as euthanasia, systematic killing
of persons who were sick and incapable of work began within the
concentration camps. The legal basis was provided by Hitler's
"Euthanasia Proclamation" which stated that the ".
. . incurably ill . . could, upon the careful review of the condition
of their illness, be granted the mercy of death."
In the summer of 1941 the camp physician
at Dachau was commanded to register those prisoners who were
sick or incapable of work. Some weeks later a medical commission
from Berlin arrived to pass judgment. It was explained to the
sick and disabled that they were to be sent to another camp where
the work was lighter and where later they would be set free.
The prisoners greeted this news trustingly, awaiting their transfer
impatiently. As "Invalid Transports" departed from
Dachau in quick succession during the winter of 1941/42, it soon
became clear to those remaining that their friends were going
to their death.
Prisoners summoned for transport had
to await departure in the bath. While there, better articles
of clothing, including shoes, were exchanged for inferior ones;
glasses and artificial limbs were confiscated.
They were transported in trucks at night.
Their destination was Hartheim castle near Linz, which had served
as an asylum for the insane before the war; here they were gassed
to death. Weeks later the relatives would receive a death notice
issued by the registrar's office of the Dachau concentration
camp. Circulatory diseases and heart failure were usually given
as the cause of death.
When the prisoners in Dachau had conclusive
evidence about the fate of their comrades - recognition of articles
of clothing which had been returned, contact by letter with relatives
who had received the death notices - they tried desperately to
protect their fellow-prisoners from further "Invalid Transports".
When renewed selections took place, they succeeded in hiding
several of those who were obviously sick, and there were cases
where a name on the transport list could be replaced by that
of a prisoner who had already died.
But the prisoners were powerless to stop
the transports: 3,016 inmates of Dachau were sent in 1942 to
their death at Hartheim castle.
In 1942 a gas chamber was also built
in the Dachau concentration camp, but inexplicably, it was never
used. It was located within the new crematorium, a larger building
whose construction with four ovens became necessary when the
first crematorium, which had only one oven, proved inadequate.
Execution in the Dachau Concentration
Even before the war every concentration
camp had a so-called Political Department directly under the
State Secret Police. This department conducted the prisoner trials
and interrogations, receiving its mandate from the laws, the
police, or the camp commanders. Connected with this department
was the "Identity Bureau" which composed files with
fingerprints, photographs, and exact descriptions of every prisoner.
The beginning of the war provoked renewed
and extensive waves of imprisonment, not least in Germany itself.
Suspected opponents of the Third Reich
were seized by the Gestapo and sent to the concentration camps.
With the aid of the circular, "On the Principles of Inner
State Security during the War", which was sent to the Gestapo
and the police, Himmler immediately succeeded in taking particularly
hated opponents into "Protective custody", and in having
them executed in the concentration camps without court judgment.
In the summer and autumn of 1941, when
a number of assaults on members of the German Army in occupied
France occurred, and when a widening of resistance provoked by
a great number of military court proceedings was feared, Hitler
issued the "Night and Fog Order" which came into effect
through a decree signed by Keitel.
Everyone suspected of resistance was
brought to Germany according to the "night and fog"
order without his relatives being allowed to learn anything of
his whereabouts. As such prisoners had not been sentenced by
the "Volksgerichtshof" (highest Nazi court established
to deal with cases involving "high treason") nor a
"Sondergericht" (special court established to deal
with political opponents) they formed, on arrival at the camps,
a special category, "NN" (Nacht und Nebel).
With the march into the Soviet Union
in June 1941, the Germans completely radicalized their conduct
of the war. Hitler, together with his General Staff, had already
drawn up orders specifying that Soviet soldiers were not to be
dealt with according to the 1907 Hague Convention, "Rules
of Land Warfare", nor according to the 1914 Geneva Convention
on the Treatment of War Prisoners. The basis for murder of millions
of Russian prisoners was provided by the "Commissar's Order",
issued on June 6th, 1941 according to which every Soviet prisoner-of-war
found to be a commissar or political functionary was to be shot
According to German testimony given at
the Nuremberg trials of the main war criminals, about 3,700,000
Soviet prisoners-of-war perished in German-occupied territory.
The first military encirclements between
July and November 1941 resulted in the capture of hundreds of
thousands of Russian soldiers. Following their capture they were
placed in "transit" camps: there, in the open, without
provisions or medical care, they were left to die. The "Einsatzgruppen"
(death squads) of the SS and the police, following their own
judgment, decided on who was to be executed as a commissar; only
a very few of these victims had the slightest involvement with
In autumn 1941 separate camps for prisoners-of-war
were constructed within the German concentration camps. Some
weeks later the first Russian prisoners-of-war arrived; gradually
tens of thousands came to be shot in the hidden confines of the
camps. Often their physical condition was already so bad that
they did not live to experience their executions. Thus, Mueller,
the Chief of the Gestapo, wrote in a letter dated November 9,
"The commanders of the camps are
complaining that from 5'% to 10'% of the Russians to be executed
arrive in the camps dead or half dead. Thus the impression is
created that this is, in fact, how the prisoner-of-war camps
get rid of such prisoners. In particular, it has been determined
that in marching, for example, from the train station to the
camp, a not insignificant number of war prisoners collapse on
the way, dead or half-dead from exhaustion. They have to be picked
up by a vehicle following behind. One cannot prevent the German
inhabitants from taking notice of these events . . ."
At Dachau mass shootings of Soviet prisoners-of-war
continued from October 1941 to April 1942. These took place on
an SS shooting range that was located somewhat outside the camp
grounds. The exact number of these victims can not be determined,
as they were not listed in camp files.
But then a change of policy occurred.
The Soviet prisoners-of-war were incorporated into the powerful
forced-labor system working for the armament industry. Only individual
executions were still carried out until the end of the war.
The Closing Phase of the Dachau Concentration
Camp - The Liberation of the Prisoners
In the last weeks before the liberation,
the prisoners had to live under inhuman conditions, conditions
which even they had thought to be impossible.
The gigantic transports continually arriving
from the camps evacuated in the face of the advancing Allies
brought human beings who were, for the most part, reduced to
skeletons and exhausted to death. From each railway carriage
it was necessary to remove the corpses of those who had died
Those prisoners incapable of work were
taken to the "invalid barracks" where they received
only half the allotted ration. This meant awaiting death by starvation.
They were not set to work, neither were they allowed to remain
in the barracks during the day; considering the cold winter weather,
this amounted to a death sentence.
At night, up to 1600 people crowded into
barracks originally intended for 200.
Daily over 100 people, and for a time
over 200, fell victim to the typhus epidemic which had been raging
since December 1944. The steadily-growing number of sick prisoners
crowded into a very small space, as well as the lack of medicaments,
made it impossible to bring the epidemic under control.
The town of Dachau had not been bombed,
but numerous armament factories, where men and women in the subsidiary
camps worked, were partially or completely destroyed through
bombing. Since the prisoners were not permitted to use the civilian
bomb shelters, many were killed in these air raids.
After the bombing raids on Munich, groups
of Dachau prisoners, labeled as death squads, were sent to search
for unexploded bombs and to do the initial cleaning.
Every day the prisoners saw the Allies'
bombers in the sky. The mood in the camp vacillated between hopeful
impatience and anxious despair. The dominating questions became:
What did the SS intend to do with the prisoners who numbered
over 30,000? Would the prisoners all be slain before the arrival
of the Allies?
After the war it was revealed that the
plans had, indeed, existed to kill the inmates of the concentration
camp by bombs and poison. On April 14, 1945, Himmler telegraphed
the following command to the camp commanders of Dachau and Flossenburg:
"There is to be no question of surrender. The camp must
be evacuated immediately. Not a single living prisoner must fall
into the hands of the enemy." Representing various countries,
the prisoners who had been working loosely together decided to
organize an underground camp committee which would try to ensure
the survival of the prisoners and, if necessary, organize resistance
to SS plans of action.
On April 26th, the secret committee authorized
two prisoners to escape from the camp and to find their way to
the American troops whose approach could be heard by the roar
of the guns. They were to ask them to come to Dachau as quickly
as possible. The prisoners were successful and, two days later,
the Americans, who had originally planned to capture Munich first,
arrived in Dachau.
On that same day, April 26th, the command
rang out in the camp to form up in the roll-call square; provisions
and blankets were distributed and nearly 7,000 prisoners were
forced, under SS guard, to march south.
On the march, hundreds were shot as soon
as they could continue no longer, or they died from hunger, cold,
and exhaustion as the marches through rain and snow lasted for
days and the nights were passed out in the open. The American
troops overtook those columns on the march at the beginning of
May. Only then, just before the approach of the Americans, did
the accompanying SS guards take to flight. Thus, only two days
before the liberation of the camp, these prisoners fell victim
to a fanatical ideology carried through to its ultimate consequences,
in the name of which innocent people were driven relentlessly
to their death.
By April 28th tension in the Dachau camp
had risen even higher. No new evacuation marches had been made,
and the prisoners discovered that the greater part of the SS
had disappeared; only the machine guns on the guard towers were
The prisoners in the disinfection barracks
suddenly heard, from their hidden radio receiver, appeals from
the "Bavarian Action for Freedom" (Freiheitsaktion
Bayern). Soldiers were told to lay down their arms. A short time
later, shots and tank alarms could be heard from the town of
Dachau. As the prisoners knew that fifty of their comrades from
various branch detachments had escaped and were hiding in Dachau,
they were full of concern and wondered what could have happened.
Not until after the liberation did they
learn that these prisoners-in-hiding and some citizens of Dachau
had taken the call of the "Bavarian Action for Freedom"
as the signal for the occupation of the Dachau city hall. An
SS unit, returning unexpectedly, forced them to give up their
plan. In an exchange of shots in the city hall square, six resistance
fighters were killed. The following morning, the first American
tanks reached the city of Dachau.
On Sunday April 29, 1945, the concentration
camp prisoners remained in their barracks. Over the camp lay
a strained silence. Suddenly sporadic shots rang out. Shortly
afterwards, the words, "We are free!" resounded and
spread through the camp like wildfire - in all languages.
At the sight of the first American soldiers
at the camp gates, the tension of the last days and hours was
discharged and the joy of the prisoners broke loose like the
fury of a hurricane. All who could still stand rushed to the
The individual national flags of the
prisoners, which had been secretly prepared, were hoisted alongside
the white flag of surrender.
The prisoners of the Dachau concentration
camp were liberated - a new life was beginning.
As the first expression of joy over their
new freedom, those prisoners who were able organized a series
of celebrations in the roll-call square. These became powerful
demonstrations of the unbroken spirit and will of most of the
prisoners to join in the future fight for humanity and justice.
Catholic priests, who had, for some time,
been transported from all camps to Dachau, where more than 1000
of them had perished, could finally celebrate their religious
services as could Protestant and Jewish clergymen.
After the first joy had given way the
most urgent tasks were the burial of the dead, medical care for
the sick, and provision of food for all prisoners.
The first free distribution of food by
the American Army to the emaciated prisoners had catastrophic
results: hundreds died, as their systems could no longer digest
such an abundance of unfamiliar food. To check the typhus epidemic
the Americans placed the camp under the strictest of quarantines.
They officially entrusted the underground camp committee with
the organization of camp life until it was possible for the prisoners
to return to their homelands.
The continuing life in the over-crowded
barracks had to be made bearable, since the return of individual
national groups could not be begun until several weeks had passed.
After the last prisoners had left Dachau,
only the SS men captured by the Americans remained to await their
trials. The corpses of the prisoners who had died prior or just
after the liberation were buried, on US Army instructions, by
Dachau farmers in the cemetery in Dachau or on the near-by Leitenberg-hill.
Of the more than 200,000 registered prisoners
who went through the concentration camp at Dachau, 31,951 cases
of death were recorded, according to the International Tracing
Service, Arolsen. The actual number of deaths at the Dachau camp
can no longer be ascertained as figures on deaths resulting from
such causes as mass shootings and forced evacuation marches were
After the prisoners had all left, a refugee
camp was established in the barracks.
Ten years after the liberation, the former
prisoners met for a memorial celebration in Dachau. They discovered,
with anger, that people still had to live there under disgraceful
conditions. They decided to strive together to transform the
neglected grounds of the former concentration camp into a worthy
memorial. Ten years later, the memorial site, which had been
established with the financial help of the Bavarian Government,
was dedicated. Included within it are a documentary display,
as well as a reference library and archives.
The International Monument erected in
the roll-call square was unveiled in 1968.
The Catholic Church, the Protestant Church
and the Jewish community each set up a religious memorial on
the camp grounds.
Published by: Comite International de
Privately printed 1972
Author: Barbara Distel