“The most diabolical cruelty was a psychological one. The SS tried to break the spirit of inmates by refusing to disclose the length of their “preventive detention,” the euphemism for arbitrary imprisonment. This policy engendered what the Deputy Commandant happily called ‘a sort of prison psychosis.’ The guards next sought to dehumanize their charges by a regime of unbridled savagery.” Piers Brendon, The Dark Valley, published in the year 2000
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Life in the Dachau camp
Political prisoners arrived by truck in early days of the Dachau camp
The Dachau Concentration camp opened on March 22, 1933 in an abandoned munitions factory east of the town of Dachau. The first prisoners were 200 Communists who had been taken into “protective custody” after the burning of the Reichstag on the night of February 27, 1933; the justification for their imprisonment was that they were “enemies of the state.”
Dachau was not set up as an extermination camp to murder the Jews, but rather as a camp for political prisoners, mainly Communists and Social Democrats, who were opposed to the Fascist regime of the Nazis. In the early days, most of the prisoners were released after being “rehabilitated.”
Only a very few prisoners were kept in Dachau for the duration. Ernst Kroll was one of the original 200 prisoners who was still there on April 29, 1945 when the camp was liberated by the US Seventh Army. Alois Pfaller was a Communist who was arrested in 1934 and was not released until the camp was liberated.
Josef Felder was a Social Democrat who was a member of the German Reichstag. He was arrested by the Nazis and sent to Dachau in 1933 where he was a prisoner for 18 months before being released because he had contracted a lung disease.
Prisoners were lectured before being released from Dachau
At first, the Dachau prisoners were quartered in the old factory buildings. Later, these buildings were torn down and a new “model camp” was built; construction of a new gate house began in 1936, followed by the building of new wooden barracks in 1937. The new camp was completely finished in 1938.
The building that you see in the photograph below was one of the old buildings in the munitions factory, which was torn down to make way for the new barracks in the prison compound. The photograph shows prisoners marching with their soup bowls to the kitchen for their noon meal.
Dachau prisoners march to the kitchen with their soup bowls
In 1938, the construction of new barracks at Dachau had recently been completed and the brand new camp was being shown to numerous visitors as a “model camp.” Publicity photos were taken to show the public how well the prisoners were being treated. The Nazis liked to show off their camp to visitors including some foreign dignitaries. Prison officials from America came to the Dachau camp to see how a prison should be run.
The photograph below shows Dachau prisoners at work in 1938. Not all of the prisoners worked, but those who did, received extra food rations, according to Paul Berben, a former Dachau prisoner who became the official historian of the camp after the war. Note the prisoner on the right who appears to be very well fed; perhaps he has not been in the camp very long.
Dachau prisoners doing construction work in 1938
The Dachau prisoners were not required to wear the blue and gray striped prison uniform. In the photo above, the white patch with the prisoner’s number is sewn onto the pants leg. The triangular badge, which identified the prisoner’s classification, was typically sewn onto the striped prison shirt, but these prisoners are wearing their own shirts and the triangle is on the pants leg.
In the early days of the Dachau camp, before World War II started, living conditions were relatively good, compared to the war years when the camp became overcrowded and disease-ridden.
Paul Berben, a prisoner in the camp, wrote a book entitled “Dachau 1933 – 1945, The Official History,” in which he showed how the camp deteriorated as the war progressed. In his book, Berben included the following quote from Wolfgang Jasper, an officer in an SS cavalry unit, who had visited the camp:
We found the camp [in 1937] and the huts in faultless condition and perfectly clean. The prisoners made a very good impression on us and did not seem to be at all hungry. They were allowed to receive letters and parcels and had a canteen where they could buy things. There were also cultural activities available.
Rudolf Hoess, the infamous Commandant of Auschwitz, was a member of the Dachau staff from 1934 to 1938. With regard to Dachau and the other Nazi camps, Hoess testified as follows at the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal on April 15, 1946:
DR. KAUFFMANN: I ask you, therefore, first of all, whether you have any knowledge regarding the treatment of internees, whether certain methods became known to you according to which they were tortured and cruelly treated? Please formulate your statement according to periods, up to 1939 and after 1939.
HOESS: Until the outbreak of war in 1939, the situation in the camps regarding feeding, accommodations, and treatment of internees, was the same as in any other prison or penitentiary in the Reich. The internees were treated severely, but methodical beatings or ill-treatments were out of the question. The Reichsführer gave frequent orders that every SS man who laid violent hands on an internee would be punished; and several times SS men who did ill-treat internees were punished.
Feeding and billeting at that time were on the same basis as those of other prisoners under legal administration. The accommodations in the camps during those years were still normal because the mass influxes at the outbreak of the war and during the war had not yet taken place. When the war started and when mass deliveries of political internees arrived, and, later on, when prisoners who were members of the resistance movements arrived from the occupied territories, the construction of buildings and the extensions of the camps could no longer keep pace with the number of incoming internees. During the first years of the war this problem could still be overcome by improvising measures; but later, due to the exigencies of the war, this was no longer possible since there were practically no building materials any more at our disposal. And, furthermore, rations for the internees were again and again severely curtailed by the provincial economic administration offices.
When prisoners arrived in the camp, all their clothes and possessions, including their money, were taken from them and kept in the service building in the camp. Rudolf Hoess had the job of keeping track of the prisoners’ possessions. In the early days, when many of the prisoners were released after they had been “rehabilitated,” all their possessions were returned to them.
According to Berben’s book, a system of camp money or “gift coupons” was started in 1942, because it was believed that money in the hands of the prisoners would make it easier for them to escape. Money which the prisoners had brought with them, and any money that was subsequently sent to a prisoner, was credited to the prisoner’s account, and the prisoners were issued special paper money to use in the camp. Berben wrote that “The money in their account had to be used for the purchase of articles obtainable at the canteen.”
The canteen at Dachau was not unique. Other camps such as Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen also had canteens and issued camp money to the prisoners. Berben wrote that “A large selection of goods could be bought before the war, but the canteen gradually lost its importance, and little by little reached a state when it could offer nothing.” He also mentions that the SS made a profit from the sales in the camp canteens.
According to Berben’s book, the following items were for sale in the canteen at Dachau:
Beetroot jam, oatmeal, sauerkraut, dried vegetables, tinned mussels and fish, cucumbers, condiments, etc. were on sale The canteen also stocked articles such as needles and thread, and particularly lotions, creams and perfume: the close-cropped prisoner was invited to buy something to put on his hair!
Berben maintains that, in the early days before the war, the prisoners received adequate food, and even after the war started, the prisoners who worked received extra food. The following quote is from his book:
When manpower needs became pressing during the war supplementary food was sanctioned to increase output. Certain categories of workers were given a much appreciated “second breakfast,” called Brotzeit, consisting of an eighth or tenth part of a loaf and 2 ounces of sausage.
When prisoners went to the town of Dachau to work, the people in the town sometimes tried to give them food, but this was forbidden by the Nazis. They did, however, allow the clergy in Dachau to collect and send food packages to the camp for the prisoners. Berben wrote that “From the end of 1942, however, large consignments of food and other useful things did reach the camp.”
The following quote is from Paul Berben’s book:
Food parcels could be sent to the clergy and the food situation improved noticeably. Germans and Poles particularly received them in considerable quantities from their families, their parishioners and members of religious communities. In Block 26 one hundred sometimes arrived on the same day. This period of relative plenty lasted till the end of 1944 when the disruption of communications stopped the dispatch of parcels. Nevertheless the German clergy continued to receive food through the Dean of Dachau, Herr Pfanzelt, to whom the correspondents sent food tickets: the priests bought bread and sausage with these and sent the parcels by the local post.
Block 26 was the priest’s block. The “disruption of communications” was due to the Allied bombing of the railroad tracks in Germany.
Red Cross packages also reached the camp, according to Berben, who mentioned that the Red Cross sent thousands of parcels to Dachau.
Gypsy men and homeless vagrants were imprisoned for being asocials
The daily supervision of the Dachau inmates was handled by prisoners who were designated as Kapos; their job was to assist the guards. The Kapos were usually German criminals. They were typically more cruel than the guards and would beat the prisoners while the guards looked the other way. After the war, some of the Kapos at Dachau and other camps were prosecuted by the American Military as war criminals. Jews and homosexuals were particularly singled out for abuse by the Kapos.
The testimony of Rudolf Hoess on April 15, 1946 at the Nuremberg IMT puts the blame for ill treatment of the prisoners in all the camps on the Kapos.
The following quote is from the trial transcripts of the testimony of Hoess at the Nuremberg IMT:
HERR BABEL: Did you make any observations as to whether there was any ill-treatment of prisoners to a greater or lesser degree on the part of those guards, or whether the ill-treatment was mainly to be traced back to the so-called Kapos?
HOESS: If any ill-treatment of prisoners by guards occurred-I myself have never observed any–then this was possible only to a very small degree since all offices in charge of the camps took care that as few SS men as possible had direct contact with the inmates, because in the course of the years the guard personnel had deteriorated to such an extent that the standards formerly demanded could no longer be maintained.
We had thousands of guards who could hardly speak German, who came from all lands as volunteers and joined these units, or we had older men, between 50 and 60, who lacked all interest in their work, so that a camp commander had to watch constantly that these men fulfilled even the lowest requirements of their duties. It is obvious that there were elements among them who would ill-treat internees, but this ill-treatment was never tolerated. Besides, it was impossible to have these masses of people directed at work or when in the camp by SS men only; therefore, inmates had to be assigned everywhere to direct the other prisoners and set them to work. The internal administration of the camp was almost completely in their hands. Of course a great deal of ill-treatment occurred which could not be avoided because at night there were hardly any members of the SS in the camps. Only in specific cases were SS men allowed to enter the camp, so that the internees were more or less exposed to these Kapos.
According to Harold Marcuse, who wrote the book “Legacies of Dachau,” Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, the head of all the concentration camps, did not condone cruelty in the concentration camps. Marcuse wrote that “Himmler had indeed punished several of the most sadistic and corrupt concentration camp commandants. He replaced the sadist Piorkowski in Dachau, for instance, with the much more competent Martin Weiss in September 1942…”
In his testimony at the Nuremberg IMT on April 15, 1946, Rudolf Hoess spoke about how the prisoners at Dachau and other concentration camps were punished.
The following quote is from the testimony of Rudolf Hoess at the Nuremberg IMT:
HERR BABEL: You have already mentioned regulations which existed for the guards, but there was also a standing order in each camp. In this camp order certainly punishment was provided for internees who violated the camp rules. What punishment was provided?
HOESS: First of all, transfer to a penal company (Strafkompanie), that is to say, harder work and restricted accommodations; next, detention in the cell block, detention in a dark cell; and in very serious cases, chaining or strapping. Punishment by strapping was prohibited in the year 1942 or 1943–I cannot say exactly when–by the Reichsführer. Then there was the punishment of standing at the camp gate over a rather long period, and finally corporal punishment.
However, no commander could decree this corporal punishment on his own authority. He could only apply for it. In the case of men, the decision came from the Inspector of Concentration Camps Gruppenführer Schmidt, and where women were concerned, the Reichsführer reserved the decision exclusively for himself.
Discipline in all the concentration camps was very strict and even the guards or camp administrators, who broke the rules, were put into a wing of the Dachau bunker (camp prison) which was reserved for SS men. Just before the camp was liberated, there were 128 SS men from various concentration camps, who were in prison at Dachau.
Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the head of RSHA, testified at Nuremberg that there were 13 main concentration camps and one of them, called Danzig-Matzkau was a Straflager (punishment camp) for SS men who had mistreated prisoners. The 12 main concentration camps in the Greater German Reich, as listed by Lucy Dawidowicz in her book entitled “The War Against the Jews, 1933 – 1945,” were Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Ravensbrück, Flossenbürg, Neuengamme, Gross Rosen, Natzweiler-Struthof, Mauthausen, Stutthof, Mittelbau-Dora and Theresienstadt. Bergen-Belsen was initially a holding camp which did not become a concentration camp until December 1944.
Rudolf Hoess testified at Nuremberg as follows, regarding the punishment for SS men who broke the strict rules of the concentration camps:
HERR BABEL: It may also be known to you that for members of the SS, too, there were two penal camps which sometimes were called concentration camps, namely, Dachau and Danzig-Matzkau
HOESS: That is right.
HERR BABEL: Were the existing camp regulations and the treatment of members of the SS who were put in such camps different from the regulations applying to the other concentration camps?
HOESS: Yes, these two detention camps were not under the Inspectorate for Concentration Camps, but they were under an SS and Police court. I myself have neither inspected nor seen these two camps.
The “penal camp” (Straflager) for SS men at Dachau, which was a wing of the bunker, was torn down and no mention of it is made in the Dachau Museum.
During the summer of 1943, a brothel was set up inside the Dachau main camp for the prisoners on the orders of Heinrich Himmler. The brothel was in Block 31, the Sonderbau (special building) which was located near where the Jewish Memorial now stands. Among the prisoners, the brothel was known as “the Puff” or “the sorority.” Shortly before the camp was liberated, the women were moved out of Block 31 and some of the VIP prisoners in the bunker were moved into the former brothel, which had small individual rooms just big enough for a bed.
According to Paul Berben, the official historian of the camp, there were 13 women working in the brothel in December 1944. There were 11 prostitutes at Dachau on April 29, 1945 when the camp was liberated. The SS charged the prisoners two marks for a visit to the brothel, the exact amount of a week’s pay for the prisoners.
Nerin E. Gun, a prisoner in the camp who was the author of a book entitled “The Day of the Americans,” wrote that there were 15 prostitutes, but one of them only had sex with one of the Kapos. Gun wrote that the girls in the brothel were professional prostitutes and that there were pimps in the camp. According to Gun, most of the prisoners boycotted the brothel; the SS had its own brothel, staffed with professional prostitutes.
If there were any Jewish prisoners in the camp at that time, they would not have been permitted to visit the brothel because this would have been against the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 which forbade sexual intercourse between Jews and Aryans. There were no Jewish women in any of the camp brothels.
There was also a library for the prisoners inside the camp. Books were originally brought to the camp from the town of Dachau and the library eventually grew to 15,000 volumes. The prisoners were allowed to read books written by Communist authors which were banned in Germany. According to Paul Berben, the prisoners could also subscribe to newspapers, right up to the time that the camp was liberated.
All of the Nazi concentration camps had a camp orchestra which would play as the prisoners marched in and out of the camp to work in the factories. The orchestra would also play at executions, as a photo in the Dachau Museum in May 2001 showed. The prisoners were allowed to have concerts and musical reviews.
According to Nerin E. Gun, in his book “The Day of the Americans,” the orchestra was killed by an SS firing squad just before the camp was liberated.
Gun also wrote that there was a thriving black market operating in the shower room in the administration buiding at Dachau; cigarettes were used as currency and the items that were sold or traded were from the Red Cross packages or from packages that all of the inmates, except for the Nacht und Nebel prisoners, were allowed to receive from friends and relatives.
On pages 121 and 122 of his book “The Day of the Americans,” Nerin E. Gun wrote:
Then there was the matter of the Red Cross food parcels. A large number of them were issued to the prisoners during the last days of our captivity. The Germans no loner knew what to do with them. Because of the Allied advance, the only road open to the supply trains of the International Red Cross from Switzerland was the road to Dachau. So all the food packages intended for all the other prison camps had been funneled to Dachau. The camp commander, probably thinking he was making points for himself in the final days, decided to distribute them among the internees. It was manna from heaven, for food had become extremely scarce in the camp and the statistics of those dying of starvation had soared.
But the Geneva International Red Cross had a very “Swiss franc” concept of human solidarity. It had laid down the rule that the packages could be given only to nationals of those countries which contributed hard-currency dollars to the organization. Therefore the food could legally be given only to Frenchmen, Belgians, Dutchmen, to some Poles, to Scandinavians and other citizens of Allied countries. Russians, Germans, Italians and Jews were entitled to nothing.
These windfalls turned out to be the cause of serious trouble, arguments, sometimes bloody fights. Each parcel call meant that the following night there might be up to a hundred dead. The Russians, true to their Bolshevik catechism, used force to seize the packages belonging to others. The Poles, even though they got their own packages, wanted more, and organized regular armed expeditions to get them. The German Kapos demanded their rake-off.
According to Gun, the shower room was also the place where the prisoners settled disputes by fighting with knives.
In the last months of the camp, motion pictures were shown every two weeks, but only the prominent prisoners were allowed into the theater. The prisoners had Sundays off and could engage in cultural activities or play games. Privileged prisoners were sometimes allowed to swim in the triangular-shaped swimming pool in the SS garrison right next to the camp.
Marcus J. Smith wrote in his book “The Harrowing of Hell” that there were “about 2,000 clean, pink-eyed, fluffy white Angora rabbits in hutches in the rear of the prison compound. For years, their needs were attended to by Dutch and Polish prisoners, who still continue to administer tender care to them.” He was told by the former inmates that the rabbits were not being raised for their fur; they were there so that visiting dignitaries could watch them being fed by the prisoners. The American liberators ordered the prisoners to cook the rabbits and make Hasenpfeffer out of them, according to Smith, but the former prisoners didn’t have the heart to kill them.
All of the major camps in the concentration camp system were equipped with hospitals, including Dachau. These hospitals were staffed by doctors who were prisoners in the camp, as well as Nazi doctors. Paul Berben wrote extensively about the medical treatment available to the prisoners. The following quotes are from his book “Dachau 1933 – 1945: The Official History”:
Blocks A and B: they consisted of an operating theatre with modern equipment. Visitors were invariably shown these buildings, because they proved “the interest taken by the S.S. in the prisoners health.”
As the war progressed the demand for health services in the camp increased. In 1940 the hospital was extended to Blocks 1, 3 and 5. But it was mainly from 1942 onwards that increasing numbers caused the sick block to be extended: in September of that year it comprised 7 blocks, one of which had no wards and was reserved for offices, the pharmacy, the laboratory and the rooms occupied by the experimental departments. In the second half of 1944, the seven blocks were linked by a long closed corridor, and then the three blocks 11 to 15 were added.
The accommodation was complete and modern, and in normal conditions specialists could have treated all the diseases efficiently. Operations were performed in two well-equipped theatres. The laboratory was well appointed, and all the necessary analyses could be made there until, at the end of 1944, the service was overwhelmed. There was an electrocardiograph and the very latest model of a Siemens X-ray apparatus.
The effect of these changes on the prisoners’ situation was beneficial. Generally speaking, there was good understanding between the doctors and prisoner-nurses, and their co-operation achieved good results. Thanks to the doctors’ initiative, backed up by the nurses and with the help of workmen, a special hut was built between Blocks 11 and 13 for the tuberculosis patients to take open-air cures. Sputum was examined in the laboratory and most of those prisoners in whom it was found to give a positive reaction were hospitalized and treated by rest and fresh-air cures and given extra rations.
In spite of all these medical facilities at Dachau, the death toll, particularly during the war years, was very high. According to Berben, the number of deaths between 1940 and 1945 totaled 27,839 out of a camp population of 168,433 in the main camp and all the subcamps. Most of these deaths were due to disease, particularly typhus which is spread by lice.
According to Herbert Stolpmann, who was a former German soldier working at Dachau after the liberation, escapes from the Dachau Concentration camp were not unknown. In an e-mail letter to me, Stolpmann wrote:
The main entrance was an open gate, overlooked by the watchtower; civilian contractors, including a chimney sweep, had free access. The chimney sweep entered the camp with his bicycle on a regular basis. An inmate (a left wing Professor) dyed his underpants black as well as his undershirt, made a cardboard top hat, took the chimney sweep’s bike and left the camp unhindered. What happened to him later or if he was ever recaptured, I do not know.
In July 1943, a special Nazi court headed by SS officer Dr. Georg Konrad Morgen began doing investigations in all the concentration camps, starting with Buchenwald. Dachau was investigated for two months between May and July 1944.
Guards or administrators who arbitrarily killed prisoners in any of the concentration camps were tried in Dr. Morgen’s court, and if convicted, they were executed. According to his testimony at the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal, Morgen said that he had investigated 800 documents which pertained to the concentration camp cases and this resulted in 200 indictments and numerous convictions. The most famous case was that of Karl Otto Koch, the Commandant of Buchenwald, who was executed for the murder of two camp prisoners.