Text of Museum booklet about Dachau Concentration Camp

Cover of Dachau Concentration Camp guidebook


Dachau, the First Concentration Camp in Germany

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 camp.

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 guards.

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 Camp

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 death.

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 in Berlin.

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 as possible.

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 of sleep.

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, received nothing.

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 hunger.

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 statement:

"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 present.

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 was repeated.

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 being completed.

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 singing.

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 blocks.

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 scene.


Medical Experiments in the Dachau Concentration Camp

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 guinea pigs.

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 disease.

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 himself available.

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, 1943:

"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 Camp

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 scarce.

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 camps.

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 Camp

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 immediately.

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 Soviet politics.

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, 1941:

"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 en route.

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 still manned.

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 roll-call square.

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 not registered.


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 Dachau

Privately printed 1972

Author: Barbara Distel


Back to Table of Contents