“During the Holocaust, Germans extinguished the lives of six million Jews and, had Germany not been defeated, would have annihilated millions more. The Holocaust was also the defining feature of German politics and political culture during the Nazi period, the most shocking event of the twentieth century, and the most difficult to understand in all of German history. The Germans’ persecution of the Jews culminating in the Holocaust is thus the central feature of Germany during the Nazi period. It is so not because we are retrospectively shocked by the most shocking event of the century, but because of what it meant to Germans at the time and why so many of them contributed to it.” Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust
History of Dachau
Gate into Dachau concentration camp, 1945
Dachau is a name that will be forever associated with Nazi atrocities and the Holocaust. Opened on March 22, 1933 in a former World War I gunpowder factory, just outside the 1200-year-old Bavarian town of Dachau, the Dachau concentration camp was one of the first installations in the Third Reich’s vast network of concentration camps and forced labor camps throughout Germany and the Nazi-occupied countries.
Although there were other spontaneous camps (wild camps) set up in Nazi Germany around the same time, Dachau was the first of these camps to be called a “concentration camp” and it was the first to use SS soldiers as the guards. The other camps used SA soldiers (Storm Troopers) as guards.
Throughout its history, Dachau was primarily a camp for men; it was used to incarcerate Communists, Social Democrats, trade union leaders, religious dissidents, common criminals, Gypsy men, homosexuals, asocials, spies, resistance fighters, and others who were considered “enemies of the state.” It was not a death camp for the genocide of the Jews, although there were Jewish prisoners at Dachau.
During its 12-year history, Dachau had 206,206 registered arrivals and there were 31,951 certified deaths. Many of the Dachau prisoners, including Jews, were released after serving an indeterminate sentence. The Jews were always kept isolated from the other prisoners and were treated far worse than the others.
Dachau was the place where many famous, high-level political opponents of the Nazi government were held near the end of the war. Just before the camp was liberated, there were 137 VIP prisoners at Dachau, including the former Chancellor of Austria, Kurt von Schuschnigg, and the former Jewish premier of France, Leon Blum. They were evacuated to the South Tyrol in April 1945 on three separate trips, shortly before soldiers of the American Seventh Army arrived to liberate the camp.
Although Dachau was in existence for 12 years, most people know only the horror described by the soldiers in the 42nd Rainbow Infantry Division and the 45th Thunderbird Infantry Division after they had liberated the camp on April 29, 1945. Three weeks before, on April 9, 1945, a bomb had hit the camp, knocking out a water main and the source of electricity. There was no running water in the camp and drinking water had to be brought in by trucks. There was no water for the showers, nor any water to flush the toilets. There was however, one last vestige of what the camp had been like before Germany was bombed back to the Stone age: fresh flowers in a vase in the undressing room for the gas chamber.
The prisoners were not starving because there were 5 truck loads of food, which had been brought in by the Red Cross, although it had to be cooked over wood-burning stoves. Just before the guards and SS officers left the camp on April 28th, they turned the food warehouses in the SS garrison over to the prisoners.
The evacuation of prisoners from the sub-camps to the main Dachau camp had begun in March 1945, in preparation for surrendering the prisoners to the Allies. The evacuated prisoners had to walk for several days to the main camp because Allied bombs were destroying the railroad tracks as fast as the Germans could repair them. The few trains that did bring prisoners to Dachau, including a train load of women and children, were bombed or strafed by American planes, killing many of the prisoners.
The first thing that the American liberators saw at Dachau was the “death train” filled with the dead bodies of prisoners who had been evacuated three weeks before from Buchenwald; the train had been strafed by American planes, but the soldiers assumed that these prisoners had been machine-gunned to death by the guards after the train arrived. After the war, Hans Merbach, the German soldier who was in charge of this train was put on trial by an American Military Tribunal at Dachau.
Most of the prisoners in the sub-camps of Dachau were Jews who had survived Auschwitz and had been brought on trains to Germany in January 1945 after a 50-kilometer death march out of the camp. By the time that the survivors staggered into the Dachau main camp in the last weeks of April, they were emaciated, sick and exhausted. Other Jews at Dachau in 1945 had been brought from the three Lithuanian ghettos in the Summer of 1944 to work in the Dachau sub-camps. The American liberators got most of their information about the Dachau camp from these Jews who had only recently arrived and were eager to tell their stories about abuse at the hands of the Nazis.
Since March 1945, around 15,000 new prisoners had been accommodated in a camp that was originally designed for 5,000 men. By the time the liberators arrived, there were over 30,000 prisoners in the camp. There was a typhus epidemic in the camp but the Germans had no DDT, nor typhus vaccine, available to stop it. Up to 400 prisoners per day were dying of typhus by the time that the Americans arrived. There was no coal to burn the bodies in the ovens and the staff could not keep up with burying the bodies in mass graves on a hill several miles from the camp.
At the Bergen-Belsen camp, a sign had been put up outside the gate to warn the British liberators that there was typhus in the camp, but there was no sign at Dachau since there was no danger to the Americans who had all been vaccinated against typhus and other diseases before going overseas. The American liberators assumed that the emaciated bodies that they found piled up in the camp were the bodies of prisoners who had been deliberately starved to death.
The name Dachau became a household word for Americans following World War II. This was because it was the only major Nazi concentration camp in the American occupation zone in western Germany. Bergen-Belsen was in the British zone of occupation and Natzweiler was in the French zone. Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen were in the Soviet zone of occupation in eastern Germany and Mauthausen was in the Soviet zone of Austria.
All the major death camps were behind the “Iron Curtain” and few Americans had even heard of them before the fall of Communism; the six death camps, Auschwitz, Majdanek, Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec and Chelmno were all located in what is now Poland, and they were controlled by the Communists. For many years in America, Dachau was the name most associated with the Holocaust, not Auschwitz.
The excuse for setting up concentration camps, including the Dachau camp, was the hysteria following the burning of the Reichstag, which was the Congressional building in Berlin, on the night of February 27, 1933, only four weeks after Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany. Hermann Goering accused the Communists of starting the fire in protest of the appointment of Hitler as the Chancellor and the scheduled Congressional election to confirm his appointment, but the Communists claimed that the Nazis had set the fire themselves in order to begin a reign of terror. The arrests of Communists and Social Democrats began even before the fire was put out.
After President Paul von Hindenburg was asked by the Nazi-controlled German Cabinet that night to use his emergency powers under Article 48 of the German Constitution to suspend certain civil rights, 2,000 leading Communists throughout Germany were imprisoned without formal charges being brought against them and without a trial. They were held in abandoned buildings such as the camp in an old brewery in Oranienburg; this camp was rebuilt in 1936 as the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. On March 21, 1933, Communists in the town of Dachau were imprisoned in the building which now houses the New Gallery for modern art. Other Communists were sent to prisons such as the federal prison at Landsberg am Lech, where Hitler himself had formerly been a prisoner after his failed Putsch in 1923.
The first prisoners brought to the old gunpowder factory at Dachau on March 22, 1933 were 200 Communists, including some of the members of the Reichstag, who had been taken into “protective custody” and had, at first, been sent to the Landsberg am Lech prison near Munich.
After the Reichstag fire, the Congressional election took place on March 5, 1933 as scheduled. The Nazis won the most seats and they were able to put together a coalition government to form a majority, which confirmed Hitler as the new Chancellor.
On March 7, 1933, an important law was passed by the newly-elected German Congress, which called for all high-level government officials in the German states to be appointed by the Nazis and for all state government positions to be supervised by the Nazis in the event of an emergency. Germany was already in an emergency situation and Article 48 of the German Constitution had already been invoked. Under this new law, Heinrich Himmler was appointed the acting Chief of Police in Munich, although his real job was Reichsführer-SS, the leader of Hitler’s elite private Army.
As the acting Police Chief, Himmler announced the opening of a Konzentrationslager (concentration camp) at Dachau in a news conference on March 20, 1933.
The concept of a concentration camp was not originated by the Nazis. The following quote is from Wikipedia:
Although the first modern concentration camps used to systematically dissuade rebels from fighting are usually attributed to the British during the Boer War, in the Spanish-American War, forts and camps were used by the Spanish in Cuba to separate rebels from their agricultural support bases.
Theodore Eicke, who became the second Commandant of Dachau in June 1933, is called the “father of the Nazi concentration camp system” because all subsequent camps used the rules and regulations which he wrote for the Dachau camp.
The first commander of Dachau, Hilmar Wäckerle, was dismissed from his position by Heinrich Himmler after charges of murder were brought against him by a Munich court for the deaths of several prisoners who had died after being severely punished. Another Dachau Commandant, Alex Piorkowski, was also dismissed by Himmler and was expelled from the Nazi party for breaking the strict rules set by Eicke.
An office was set up at Dachau in 1934 to administer all the camps; this office, called the WVHA, was later moved to Oranienburg near Berlin. All punishments of prisoners in all the Nazi camps had to approved by the WVHA. All punishments for women prisoners had to be approved by Heinrich Himmler himself.
On March 23, 1933, the German Congress passed another important law, called the Enabling Act, which gave Hitler the power to rule by decree in case of an emergency. On that day, Germany still had a President and as Chancellor, Hitler was not yet the undisputed leader of Germany. The next day, on March 24, 1933, front page headlines in The Daily Express of London read “Judea Declares War on Germany – Jews of All the World Unite – Boycott of German Goods – Mass Demonstrations.” The newspaper article mentioned that the boycott of German goods had already started.
The following is a quote from the Daily Express of London on March 24, 1933:
The whole of Israel throughout the world is uniting to declare an economic and financial war on Germany. The appearance of the Swastika as the symbol of the new Germany has revived the old war symbol of Judas to new life. Fourteen million Jews scattered over the entire world are tight to each other as if one man, in order to declare war against the German persecutors of their fellow believers. The Jewish wholesaler will quit his house, the banker his stock exchange, the merchant his business, and the beggar his humble hut, in order to join the holy war against Hitler’s people.
In America, the boycott of German goods was announced on March 23, 1933 as 20,000 Jews protested against Hitler’s government at the City Hall in New York City. On March 27, 1933, a mass rally, that had already been planned on March 12th, was held in Madison Square Garden; there were 40,000 Jewish protesters, according to the New York Daily News. The next day, on March 28, 1933 Hitler made a speech in which he deplored the stories of Nazi atrocities that were being published in the American press and announced a one-day boycott of Jewish stores in Germany on April 1, 1933 in retaliation.
The following is a quote from Hitler’s speech on March 28, 1933:
Lies and slander of positively hair-raising perversity are being launched about Germany. Horror stories of dismembered Jewish corpses, gouged out eyes and hacked off hands are circulating for the purpose of defaming the German Volk in the world for the second time, just as they had succeeded in doing once before in 1914.
In spite of the Jewish “holy war” against the Nazis, there were no Jews sent to a concentration camp solely because they were Jewish during the first five and a half years that the Nazi concentration camps were in existence. Jews were sent to Dachau from day one, but it was because they were Communists or trade union leaders, not because they were Jewish. The first Jews to be taken into “protective custody,” simply because they were Jews, were arrested during the pogrom on the night of November 9th & 10th in 1938, which the Nazis named Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass).
Kristallnacht was the night that German citizens smashed windows in Jewish shops and set fire to over 200 Jewish Synagogues throughout Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland in what is now the Czech Republic. Ninety-one people were killed during this uncontrolled riot which the police did not try to stop. That night, Hitler and his henchmen were gathered at the Bürgerbräukeller, a beer hall in Munich, celebrating the anniversary of Hitler’s attempt to take over the German government by force in 1923; Hitler’s failed Putsch had been organized at the Bürgerbräukeller.
Joseph Goebbels made a speech at the beer hall in which he said that he would not be surprised if the German people were so outraged by the assassination of German diplomat Ernst vom Rath by a Polish Jew named Herschel Grynszpan that they would take the law into their own lands and attack Jewish businesses and Synagogues. Goebbels is generally credited with being the instigator of the pogrom. (Pogrom is a Polish word which means an event in which ordinary citizens use violence to drive the Jews out.)
Approximately 30,00 Jewish men were arrested during the pogrom, allegedly for their own protection, and taken to the 3 major concentration camps in Germany, including 10,911 who were brought to Dachau and held as prisoners while they were pressured to sign over their property and leave the country. The majority of these Jews were released within a few weeks, after they promised to leave Germany within six months; most of them wound up in Shanghai, the only place that did not require a visa, because other countries, except Great Britain, refused to take them.
In anticipation of such violence against the Jews by the Nazis, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had invited 32 countries to a Conference in Evian, France in July 1938 to discuss the problem of Jewish refugees. The only country which agreed to allow Jewish refugees as immigrants was the Dominican Republic; 5,000 German Jews emigrated to the Dominican Republic before the start of World War II. The American Congress refused to change the US immigration laws, passed in 1920 and 1921, to allow a higher quota of Jewish refugees from Germany to enter, although America did start filling the quota under the existing laws for the first time.
After the joint conquest of Poland, by Germany and the Soviet Union, in September 1939, numerous Polish resistance fighters were imprisoned, including 1,780 Catholic priests. When the Catholic Church complained about the harsh treatment the priests received in the concentration camps, all the priests were moved to Dachau because it was the mildest camp of all. Dachau was designated as the main camp for Catholic priests who had been arrested on various charges, including child molestation, and a total of 2,720 from 19 different nations were sent there. The priests did not have to work in the factories and were given special privileges.
The most famous priest at Dachau was Leonard Roth who was a prisoner there from 1943 to 1945.
Regarding Father Roth, the following was written by Harold Marcuse, the author of “Legacies of Dachau”:
The camp administration gave him the “black triangle” badge of the “asocials” because he was accused of homosexual conduct as well as anti-Nazi activity. He was one of the few priests imprisoned in the Dachau KZ to survive the work caring for inmates dying of highly infectious typhus at the end of the war. Roth remained in Dachau as a priest for the SS men interned there by the US Army after July 1945. When that internment camp was dissolved and the Bavarian government converted the camp to housing for German refugees from Czechoslovakia in 1948, Roth remained as their “curate” (he had been demoted from priest status). A stern but well-liked pastor, he worked tirelessly to better the living conditions of the refugees. Around 1957 he joined the Dachau camp survivors’ organization as a representative of the priests who had been imprisoned in the camp. By 1960 he was in heated conflict with the Catholic hierarchy in Bavaria. Relieved of his post in the refugee settlement, he took his own life.
Also among the Dachau inmates were 109 anti-Nazi Protestant clergymen, including the Reverend Martin Niemöller, one of the founders of the Protestant Confessional Church. Niemöller had been tried in a German court and convicted of treason; after being sentenced to time served, he was first sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin, then later to Buchnwald and finally to Dachau. After the war, he continued to preach against the Nazi regime, including making a speech before the American Congress.
Niemöller is famous for the following words which he spoke many times:
Als die Nazis die Kommunisten holten, habe ich geschwiegen; ich war ja kein Kommunist.
Als sie die Sozialdemokraten einsperrten, habe ich geschwiegen; ich war ja kein Sozialdemokrat.
Als sie die Gewerkschafter holten, habe ich geschwiegen; ich war ja kein Gewerkschafter.
Als sie die Juden holten, habe ich geschwiegen; ich war ja kein Jude.
Als sie mich holten, gab es keinen mehr, der protestieren konnte.
Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, Russian Prisoners of War were sent to Dachau. On Hitler’s orders, Russian POWs who were determined to be Communist Commissars were executed at Dachau and other major concentration camps in Germany. The Communist Soviet Union had both political Commissars and military Commissars whose job it was to keep their citizens or soldiers in line. The military Commissars were stationed behind the front lines in order to urge reluctant Soviet soldiers forward since only one out of every 5 men had been furnished with a rifle. The Soviet soldiers were expected to pick up a rifle after another soldier had been shot; those who tried to retreat were shot by the Commissars. If captured, the Commissars were under orders to organize an escape or otherwise create havoc in the POW camp.
Throughout its 12-year history, Dachau was predominantly a camp for non-Jewish adult males. At first, the few women who were sent to Dachau lived with German families in the town of Dachau and worked as servants. In 1944, Jewish women were brought to Dachau from Hungary, but most of them were then transferred to some of the 123 Dachau sub-camps to work in German factories. Other women at Dachau were non-Jewish prostitutes who worked in a camp brothel for the inmates, which was set up in 1943. There were 11 prostitutes at the camp when it was liberated.
Resistance fighters and high-ranking Communists from France, Belgium, Albania, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and many other countries were also brought to Dachau. Several captured British SOE agents, and even one American in the OSS, a secret agent who was working with the French Resistance, were imprisoned at Dachau during the war.
According to Nerin E. Gun, a Turkish journalist who was a prisoner at Dachau, there were 11 Americans at Dachau at some time during its 12-year history.
Frank Cappabianca e-mailed us the information that his grandfather Frank Machnig spent some time as a POW at Dachau after he was captured by the Germans following the D-Day invasion.
Prisoners at Dachau and the other Nazi concentration camps wore badges which indicated their classification. Most of the prisoners at Dachau wore a red triangle to indicate that they were political prisoners. German criminals in the camp wore a green triangle.
The political prisoners at Dachau were the Resistance fighters from many countries which Germany had conquered, but there were also German Resistance fighters, according to a book entitled “That was Dachau” by former Dachau inmate Stanislav Zámecník
The following quote is from “That was Dachau” by Stanislav Zámecník
The anti-Hitler movement inside Germany, which included German communists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, was the largest indigenous resistance movement of any country during the whole war. Only in Germany was an attempt made to assassinate their leader. Around 800,000 were sent to prison at one time or another for active resistance to the regime. While the western allies did all in their power to help other resistance movements, ie in France and the Netherlands, they did nothing to help or encourage the movement in Germany which in all probability could have ended the war sooner. But the Allies were intent on unconditional surrender and refused to make any deals at all with Germans. Accordingly the Allies viewed all Germans as bad, not only Nazis.
Dachau was never a camp that was specifically intended for murdering the Jews; the Nazi plan was to consolidate all the Jews into ghettos, from which they were later sent to the death camps. German Jews were sent to the Lodz ghetto in what is now Poland where they worked in factories until 1944; those who could no longer work were sent to the Chelmno death camp. In 1942, the Jews who were still living in Germany were sent to the Theresienstadt ghetto in what is now the Czech Republic and from there to the gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
In January 1941, Dachau was designated a Class I camp and Buchenwald became a Class II camp; Mauthausen and Gusen in Austria were the only Class III camps in the Nazi system. The Class I designation meant that treatment of the inmates was less harsh and that prisoners had a better chance of being released. Dachau was the best of the Nazis camps, as far as the treatment of the prisoners was concerned.
According to testimony given at the Nuremberg IMT, approximately 150 Dachau inmates were forced to participate in medical experiments conducted by Dr. Sigmund Rascher for the German Air Force, and about half of them died as a result. The subjects for these experiments were allegedly German “professional criminals” and Soviet POWs who were Communist Commissars, sentenced to be executed on the orders of Adolf Hitler. One Jew, who had been condemned to death for breaking the law against race mixing, was used in these experiments.
Prof. Dr. Klaus Schilling, a renowned expert on malaria, was persuaded to come out of retirement in order to conduct medical experiments on approximately 1,200 Dachau prisoners in an attempt to find a cure for malaria after German troops began fighting the Allies in North Africa. Hundreds died as a result of Dr. Schilling’s experiments, including a few who died from malaria and others who died from other diseases after being weakened by malaria. The subjects for the malaria experiments were the Catholic priests in the camp because they were not required to work, and would not be missed in the labor force if they died.
In February 1942, the Nazis began systematically rounding up all the Jews in Germany and the Nazi-occupied countries, and transporting them to what is now Poland or the area that is now Belarus, in a program of extermination, which had been planned at the Wannsee conference on January 20, 1942. The title of the conference was “The Final Solution to the Jewish Question.”
After the evacuation process began in February 1942, there were only a few Jews left in any of the camps in Germany, including Dachau. On April 29, 1945 when Dachau was liberated, there were 2,539 Jews in the main camp, including 225 women, according to the US Army census. Most of them had arrived only weeks or even days before, after they were evacuated from the Dachau sub-camps, mainly the Kaufering camps near Landsberg am Lech, where they had been forced to work in building underground factories for the manufacture of Messerschmitt airplanes.
In April 1942, at the same time that the Jews were being sent to the death camps in the East, a new brick building called Baracke X was planned for the Dachau camp. It was designed to house a homicidal gas chamber, disguised as a shower room, and four cremation ovens. The new Baracke X also has four disinfection gas chambers, designed to kill lice in clothing with the use of Zyklon-B, the same poison gas that was used to kill the Jews in the homicidal gas chambers at Majdanek and Auschwitz. The clothing was disinfected in all the Nazi camps in an attempt to prevent typhus which is spread by lice.
Construction on Baracke X began in July 1942, using the labor of the Catholic priests who were the only prisoners not forced to work in the factories at Dachau. The building was finished in 1943, but a sign that was put in the gas chamber in 1965 inexplicably informed tourists that this room was never used for gassing people. By May 2003, the sign was gone and a poster on the wall of the undressing room next to the gas chamber said that the gas chamber “could have been used” to kill prisoners.
The Dachau museum mentions in one of its displays that 3,166 “terminally ill” prisoners were transported from Dachau to Hartheim Castle near Linz, Austria where they were murdered in a gas chamber there, beginning in February 1942.
A letter from Dr. Sigmund Rascher to Heinrich Himmler, the head of all the concentration camps, which makes a reference to a facility like the one at Hartheim which the Nazis were planning to build at Dachau, is the best proof that the fake shower room in Baracke X was actually a gas chamber. A copy of this letter was displayed in the gas chamber building in May 2001, but it was later moved to the Dachau Museum.
When the death camps in what is now Poland had to be abandoned, as the Soviet troops advanced westward, the Jewish survivors were brought back to Germany and crowded into camps such as Bergen-Belsen and Dachau, which did not have enough room to accommodate them properly.
Typhus, transmitted by body lice, which had been prevalent in the ghettos and death camps in occupied Poland throughout the war, now spread to the concentration camps in Germany. After January 1945, conditions in all of Germany and Austria, including the concentration camps, became intolerable due to the chaos caused by the intensive Allied bombing of civilian areas in all the major cities.
Just west of the concentration camp at Dachau, a large SS army garrison was set up in 1936 on the grounds of the former gunpowder factory. This facility, which was four or five times the size of the Dachau prison camp, included an officers’ training school where German SS soldiers were educated to be administrators. Some of the famous graduates of this school were Adolf Eichmann, who became the head of Hitler’s Race and Resettlement office, and Rudolf Hoess, the infamous Commandant of Auschwitz, who confessed that 2.5 million Jews had been gassed while he was in charge there, from May 1940 through November 1943.
Beginning in 1936, most of the old gunpowder factory buildings were torn down and the prisoners were forced to build a new camp with 34 barrack buildings, a gate house and a large service building. Two rows of poplar trees were planted along a main camp road; the service building and all the barrack buildings had flower beds in front of them.
Also in 1936, a new camp called Sachsenhausen was built to replace the former “wild camp” that had been set up in an abandoned brewery in Oranienburg in 1933. The camp in the old brewery was the place where the famous “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign was first erected. When the new Dachau gate house was finished in June 1936, this slogan was put on the iron gate. The words mean “work will set you free.” According to Rudolf Hoess, who was on the Dachau staff in 1936, the slogan meant that work sets one free in the spiritual sense, not literally.
The existence of the Dachau concentration camp was far from a secret; visitors were frequently brought to the camp and given a tour in the years before World War II started, including some American prison officials. Heinrich Himmler even brought his small daughter, Gudrun, to visit the Dachau camp.
Himmler had a college degree in Agriculture and was interested in the health movement which began in Germany. He established a large farm just outside the Dachau camp where some of the prisoners worked. According to this news story, experiments were done on the farm to find out why potatoes had become so vulnerable to pests and early decay. Herbs were grown for use as medicine and vitamins were extracted from plants.
Fermented blackberry and raspberry leaves from the Dachau farm were used to create German tea, reducing dependency on imports. Work was done on growing German pepper and gladioli flowers were grown in great quantities for their vitamin C. The gladioli leaves were dried and pulverized, then combined with a mixture of spices, beef fat and cooking salt to make a food supplement for SS soldiers.
Himmler was way ahead of his time in his knowledge of plants that could be used as medicine; he planted fields of primroses in a first attempt to extract evening primrose oil for use as medication.
On the Dachau farm, there were herds of cows in 1,850 acres of pastures, tended by up to 800 inmates, whose task was to gather the dung for testing in the camp gardens. A special compost was devised to speed the growth of healing herbs, and there were also experiments using worms to improve the soil.
Beginning in 1943, a series of 123 sub-camps were set up near the Dachau main camp. The worst of these sub-camps were the 11 camps near Landsberg am Lech, which were named Kaufering I – XI; Kaufering was the name of the railroad station where the prisoners arrived by train. Beginning on June 18, 1944, Hungarian Jews from the death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau were brought to the Kaufering camps to work on construction of underground factories where airplanes were to be built.
By March 9, 1945, a total of 28,838 prisoners had been brought to Dachau and then transferred to the 11 Landsberg sub-camps. Approximately 14,500 prisoners died in these camps. In April 1945, the Kaufering camps were evacuated, except for the Kaufering IV camp where sick prisoners were left behind. Kaufering IV was liberated by American soldiers two days before the main camp was liberated.
According to a book published by the US Seventh Army immediately after the war, entitled “Dachau Liberated, The Official Report by The U.S. Seventh Army,” there was a total of 29,138 Jews brought to Dachau from other camps between June 20, 1944 and November 23, 1944. This report says the Jews were brought to Dachau to be executed and that they were gassed in the gas chamber disguised as a shower room and also in the four smaller gas chambers, which were designed to be disinfection chambers. The report also says that 16,717 non-Jewish, German prisoners were executed at Dachau between October 1940 and March 1945.
On April 26, 1945, three days before the camp was liberated, there were 30,442 prisoners counted during roll call. On that same day, 1,759 Jews were put onto a train and evacuated, on the orders of Heinrich Himmler. Then 6,887 other Dachau prisoners, half of them Jews and half of them Russian POWs, were marched in the direction of the South Tyrol.
There were an additional 37,223 prisoners counted in the sub-camps near Dachau on April 26, 1945, the date of the last roll call. According to the US Army Report, there were approximately 7,000 prisoners who arrived at Dachau after April 26, 1945 who were not registered in the camp. They were prisoners from the sub-camps who had been evacuated to the main camp. One group of prisoners from a subcamp arrived on April 28th, escorted by Otto Moll, a notorious SS man who had formerly worked in the Auschwitz death camp.
Due to horrific overcrowding and the spread of contagious diseases brought from what is now Poland by new arrivals who had been evacuated from the death camps, the number of recorded deaths at Dachau in the last four chaotic months of the war jumped to 13,158. After the camp was liberated by the US Seventh Army on April 29, 1945, an additional 2,226 prisoners died from disease in the month of May and 196 more died in June.
The total number of deaths in the first five months of 1945 was almost half the total deaths in the 12-year history of the camp. The death rate in the other Nazi concentration camps also rose dramatically in the last months of the war, as the typhus epidemic spread throughout Germany. American POWs in German camps were saved from the epidemic by booster shots of typhus vaccine sent to them from America by the International Red Cross. The Germans were conducting experiments at the Buchenwald camp in an effort to develop a vaccine for typhus, but had not been successful. After the war, the doctors who had attempted to develop a typhus vaccine at Buchenwald were put on trial as war criminals at Nuremberg in the Doctor’s Trial conducted by Americans.
By October 1944, there was a shortage of coal in all of Germany and the dead could no longer be cremated. A new cemetery was opened on a hill north of the camp, called Leitenberg, where the last Dachau victims were buried in unmarked mass graves. Ashes of earlier unknown victims are buried in the area north of the new crematorium. Markers were placed on the sites of the mass graves of ashes between 1950 and 1964.
On April 28, 1945, the day before the liberation of the camp, Dachau citizens joined with escaped prisoners from the camp in an uprising led by Georg Scherer, a former prisoner who had been released, but was still working in a factory at the Dachau complex. Their attempt to take control of the town of Dachau failed; 3 of the prisoners and 4 of the locals were killed in a battle that took place in front of the Dachau town hall. Georg Scherer survived and later became the mayor of Dachau.
On April 29, 1945, Dachau became the second major Nazi concentration camp to be liberated by American troops, after Buchenwald was liberated on April 11, 1945 by the 6th Armored Division of General George S. Patton’s Third Army.
The last Commandant of the Dachau Concentration Camp was Wilhelm Eduard Weiter, who replaced Martin Gottfried Weiss on November 1, 1943; Weiss was transferred to the Majdanek death camp in Poland.
Eduard Weiter left the Dachau camp on April 26, 1945 with a prisoner transport to the Schloss Itter, a subcamp of Dachau in Austria. Weiter shot himself at Schloss Itter on May 6, 1945, according to Johannes Tuchel who wrote about The Commandants of the Dachau Concentration Camp in his book: Dachau and the Nazi Terror II, 1933-1945.
In May 1944, Martin Gottfried Weiss was appointed the department head of the Office Group D in the SS Main Office of Economic Administration (WVHA) at Oranienburg. That same year, Weiss became the commander of the five sub-camps of Dachau at Mühldorf; when the Mühldorf prisoners were evacuated and brought to the main camp in the Spring of 1945, Weiss returned to Dachau. Fourteen members of the staff at Mühldorf were put on trial at Dachau from April 1 through May 13, 1947 in the case of US vs. Franz Auer et al.
On April 28, 1945, Martin Gottfried Weiss escaped from the Dachau camp along with most of the regular guards; he had been the highest ranking SS officer and the acting Commandant for two days before the camp was liberated by the US Seventh Army on April 29, 1945.
Weiss had previously been the Commandant of the Neuengamme concentration camp from 1940 to 1942. From September 1942 until the end of October 1943, Weiss was the Commandant of Dachau. During his time as the Commandant of Dachau, some of the worst atrocities had occurred, including the building of the gas chamber and the medical experiments conducted for the German air force. In spite of this, several former prisoners testified in his defense when he was put on trial at Dachau in the first American Military Tribunal in November 1945.
Martin Gottfried Weiss should not be confused with another man named Martin Weiss, who was named by one of the prosecution witnesses at the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal as the man that he saw killing Jews in Vilna, Lithuania in 1941. Martin Gottfried Weiss was the Commandant at Neuengamme during that time.
On April 29, 1945, SS 2nd Lt. Heinrich Wicker surrendered the camp to the 42nd Rainbow Division of the US Seventh Army, which had found the camp on its way to take the city of Munich, 18 kilometers to the south. Accompanied by Red Cross representative Victor Maurer, 2nd Lt. Wicker surrendered the Dachau concentration camp to Brigadier General Henning Linden, commander of the 42nd Rainbow Division, under a white flag of truce. The 45th Thunderbird Division of the US Seventh Army also participated in the liberation of Dachau, arriving at the nearby SS garrison before the 42nd Division approached the installations’s main entrance on the south side of the Dachau complex where 2nd Lt. Wicker was waiting to surrender the camp.
Before reaching the concentration camp, the 45th Thunderbird Division had discovered an abandoned train, with no engine, on a branch railroad line which at that time ran from the Dachau station along Freisinger Street in the direction of the camp. Inside the 39 train cars were the corpses of prisoners who had been evacuated from Buchenwald on April 7, 1945 and, because of heavy bombing and strafing by Allied planes in the last days of the war, had not reached Dachau until three weeks later, two days before the American soldiers arrived.
Most of the regular SS guards and the administrative staff had fled from the camp the next day and there was no one left to oversee the burial of the bodies. No precise figures are available, but the train had started out with approximately 4,500 to 6,000 prisoners on board and between 1,300 and 2,600 had made it to Dachau still alive. Some of the dead had been buried along the way, or left in rows alongside the tracks. The gruesome sight of the death train, with some of the corpses in the open cars riddled by bullets, so affected the young soldiers of the 45th Thunderbird Division that they executed Waffen-SS soldiers stationed at the Dachau garrison after they had surrendered.
SS soldiers in guard tower B on the west side of the concentration camp were ordered to come down and were then shot by the American liberators, even though the tower was flying the white flag of surrender and the guards in Tower A had already surrendered without incident.
After the regular guards had escaped from the camp on the day before the liberation, 128 SS soldiers who had been imprisoned in a special wing of the Dachau bunker were released and ordered to serve as guards until the Americans arrived to take over the camp. 2nd Lt. Wicker had stayed behind when the other guards escaped because his mother was staying at the Dachau garrison, visiting him. Wicker’s mother reported him missing after the war, and it is presumed that he was killed after he surrendered the camp to the Americans.
Prisoners in the camp were given guns by some of the liberators and were allowed to shoot or beat to death 40 of the German guards while American soldiers looked on. The German Sheppard guard dogs were shot in their kennels. The bodies of some the dead SS soldiers were later buried in unmarked graves inside the garrison, after their dog tags had been removed; their families were not notified of their deaths. Some of the bodies of the executed SS soldiers were burned in the ovens in the crematorium at Dachau.
Upon entering the camp after the surrender, the American liberators, and the news reporters accompanying them, were horrified to discover over 900 dying prisoners in the infirmary barracks. According to the court testimony of the camp doctor, as many as 400 prisoners were dying of disease each day in the final days before the liberation.
Accompanied by Communist political prisoners, who served as guides, the Americans toured the prison camp and were shown the building, just outside the barbed wire enclosure, which housed the homicidal gas chamber disguised as a shower room. The Americans heard eye-witness accounts from Dachau survivors who said that prisoners had been gassed to death in the fake shower room; they also heard stories of how prisoners had been shoved into the crematory ovens while still alive. Bodies of fully-clothed dead inmates were found piled inside the new crematorium building and many more naked corpses were piled up outside. Outside the disinfection chambers, there was a huge pile of clothing waiting to be fumigated with Zyklon-B gas pellets.
There were no charges of killing prisoners in a gas chamber brought against the accused in the proceedings against the staff members of the Dachau camp, which were conducted by an American Military Tribunal at Dachau in November 1945, although a film of the gas chamber was shown at the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal on November 29, 1945, while the Dachau tribunal was in progress. This documentary film was taken by the Allies, under the direction of famed Hollywood director George Stevens; it showed the pipes through which the gas flowed into the gas chamber and the control wheels which regulated the flow of gas that came out of the shower heads.
The top Nazis on trial at Nuremberg were stunned and claimed that they were hearing about the Dachau gas chamber for the first time. Some of the footage from this film is currently being shown at the Dachau Museum, although in May 2003, the staff at the Memorial Site was telling visitors that the Dachau gas chamber had actually been designed so that the introduction of poison gas was done by pouring Zyklon-B pellets onto the floor of the gas chamber through two chutes on the outside wall of the building.
Several of the “special prisoners” in the bunker were shot just before the camp was liberated, including Dr. Sigmund Rascher, who had formerly conducted experiments on condemned prisoners in the camp for the German Air Force. Dr. Rascher had been arrested and imprisoned in Munich after it was learned that he had illegally adopted two children and told everyone that these were his own children.
Georg Elser, who was imprisoned at Dachau as a suspect in the attempted assassination of Hitler on November 8, 1939, was allegedly shot around the time that an Allied bomb hit the camp on April 9, 1945 and his death was blamed on the bombing. General Charles Delestraint, a Dachau prisoner who had been the leader of the French Secret Army in the Resistance, was allegedly executed at Dachau on April 19, 1945, although no execution order from Berlin was ever found. Four female British SOE agents were also allegedly executed Dachau, although the execution order was never found.
After the German surrender on May 7, 1945, the American Army took over the barracks of the SS garrison and set up a command post called Eastman which they occupied until 1973. On the orders of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, all available American soldiers were brought to Dachau so that they could be eye-witnesses to the existence of the homicidal gas chamber, disguised as a shower room.
Many of the naked corpses found in the camp were left out until May 13, two weeks after the liberation, so that American Congressmen, newspaper reporters and as many American soldiers as possible could view the horror. Thirty male citizens from the town of Dachau were brought to the camp and forced to view the rotting corpses, even though the typhus epidemic was still raging in the camp, and the Germans had not been vaccinated.
Young boys of the Hitler Youth were brought to see the dead bodies on the train. Mutilated corpses of SS guards, who had been killed by the Americans after discovering the train, were lying nearby. Before the corpses in the camp were finally given a decent burial, the stench could be smelled up to a mile away, according to the American liberators. When the bodies of the typhus victims were finally taken to the cemetery on a hill called Leitenberg for burial by the citizens of Dachau, the horse-drawn wagons had to be driven slowly though the town, on the orders of the American military, so that the town’s people would be forced to confront the horror of what the Nazis had done.
Rabbi Eli Bohnen was the Jewish Chaplain of the 42nd Rainbow Division; he arrived at Dachau on April 30, 1945 along with Rabbi David Max Eichhorn of the US Army XV Corps, who conducted the first Shabbat at Dachau on May 5, 1945.
After the liberation of Dachau, the commanding officer of the Rainbow division, Major General Harry J. Collins, made sure that the Jewish survivors were taken care of properly. Some of the Jewish survivors were given private housing in homes in the town of Dachau after their owners had been evicted. In some cases, the home owners were allowed to live in the attic of their homes, but they were forbidden to remove any of the linens, china or silverware, which had to be left for the use of the new occupants. A few of the Jewish survivors settled in Dachau permanently after the war.
In the first few days after the liberation, the town’s people were forced to scrounge for food and deliver it to the camp inmates. The two bakeries in Dachau had to deliver wagon loads of bread for the starving inmates. Major General Collins, with the help of Rabbi Bohnen, made sure that the former Jewish inmates of Dachau received the best rations, including kosher foods.
All of the food in the army warehouse of the SS garrison was given to the inmates, although there was a food shortage also in the town of Dachau. There were 1,268 prisoners, who died after the liberation, that were buried in individual graves by the Dachau residents at Waldfriedhof, the town cemetery, on the orders of the US Army.
The liberated inmates had to be kept in the camp until the typhus epidemic could be brought under control. The Americans used DDT, a new insecticide not being used in Germany, to kill the lice in the camp. When the epidemic ended, the concentration camp was immediately turned into War Crimes Enclosure No. 1 for 30,000 Germans who had been arrested as war criminals and were awaiting trial by an American Military Tribunal. Most of them were released by 1948 for lack of evidence, although some were transferred to France for trial.
Former concentration camp inmates of Dachau and Displaced Persons from other camps were housed at the Dachau army garrison, next door to the concentration camp; they were fed by the American Army. Former inmates were paid to be prosecution witnesses in a series of American Military Tribunals that were held on the grounds of the Dachau complex, beginning in November 1945.
In the first proceeding of the American Military Tribunal at Dachau in November 1945, 36 of the 40 accused staff members at Dachau were sentenced to death by hanging. Only 28 of the 36 condemned men were actually hanged.
The American Military Tribunal proceeding against the Waffen-SS soldiers who were accused of shooting American POWs at Malmédy was also held at Dachau, as were the proceedings against the accused guards and staff at the Buchenwald, Mauthausen, Flossenbürg and Nordhausen concentration camps. The proceedings against the infamous Ilse Koch, dubbed the “Bitch of Buchenwald” by the press, also took place in Dachau. As the wife of the Commandant at Buchenwald, she was accused of selecting tattooed prisoners to be killed by her alleged lover, Dr. Waldemar Hoven, so that their skin could be made into human lamp shades to decorate her home.
All of the Dachau proceedings were conducted by US Army Military Tribunals in which the accused were presumed to be guilty; most of the interrogators, prosecutors and judges were Jews, many of whom were foreign-born American citizens. After the Jewish interrogators in the Malmédy trial were accused of torturing the Waffen-SS soldiers into confessing, a Congressional investigation was conducted, and by December 1957, all of the convicted men in this case had been released.
Another Congressional investigation was conducted after General Lucius D. Clay commuted the sentence of Ilse Koch to time served. Gen. Clay claimed that the lamp shades, allegedly made from human skin, were actually made from goat skin.
Immediately after the war, Erich Preuss, a former Dachau prisoner, set up an exhibit in the crematory building, located just outside the barbed wire enclosure of the concentration camp. American soldiers stationed in Germany were brought to Dachau to see the gas chamber, which they were told had been used to murder innocent inmates of the concentration camp. Mannequins were used in a display that was set up to illustrate how the Dachau prisoners were punished on the whipping block. During this time, the former concentration camp itself was off limits to visitors because it was filled with accused German war criminals awaiting the proceedings of the American Military Tribunals at Dachau, and later by homeless German refugees.
The prisoner barracks at Dachau were renovated in 1948 and 5,000 refugees from Czechoslovakia, who were among the 12 to 18 million ethnic Germans that were expelled from their homes after the war, lived in the Dachau camp until 1964 when an organization of Communist camp survivors began demanding that they be removed so that a Memorial could be built in honor of the former concentration camp political prisoners.
A symbolic cornerstone for the International Memorial at Dachau had already been dedicated in 1956 by the International Committee of Dachau. The remaining 2,000 German refugees were moved in 1964 to Dachau East, a new suburb which was created for them.
The first Dachau Memorial building was erected in 1960; it is a Catholic chapel in honor of the priests who were imprisoned at Dachau, including Dr. Johannes Neuhäusler, a Bishop from Munich, who was arrested for objecting to the policies of the Nazi government. With Neuhäusler’s help, a Carmelite convent was opened in 1964 on the site of the gravel pit just outside the north wall of the camp; the convent has an entrance through one of the guard towers. In the same year, the dilapidated barracks buildings, by now vacated by the refugees, were torn down.
A Protestant Church and a Jewish Memorial were dedicated in 1967. The International Memorial with its poignant sculpture, designed by Yugoslavian artist Nandor Glid, was dedicated on September 8, 1968.
A Museum was opened in the Administration building on May 9, 1965, after the original museum was closed in 1953 due to protests by the Bavarian government.
New Museum exhibits were under construction for two years, starting in 2001, and the special section on “The Final Solution” was not open from 2001 to 2003; the Museum was expanded to include the West wing of the administration building. The Museum now tells the complete story of Dachau and there is no section on Auschwitz or other death camps.
An exhibit in the former camp prison, called the bunker, was formally dedicated on January 27, 2000.
In 1973, the American Army left the Dachau complex for good and the former SS garrison area was turned over to the Bavarian government. Most of the beautiful stone SS barracks buildings, which had been used by the U.S. Army for 28 years, have been torn down, and the site of the former SS installation is now being used by the Bavarian Police.
Eicke Plaza, which was a formal garden in front of the main entrance to the Dachau complex, is now a soccer field. New homes and apartments have been built directly behind the south wall of the former concentration camp. There are some nice new homes also built on the street that borders the former SS garrison.
The Memorial Site is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. except Mondays and admission is free. It is located east of the town of Dachau, which can be reached from the main train station in Munich in 20 minutes via S-Bahn train number 2 going towards Petershausen.
Until 2005, the entrance to the former camp was located at Alte Römerstrasse 75, a few yards north of where Alte Römerstrasse intersects Sudetenlandstrasse. In May 2005, the entrance was changed so that visitors now enter the camp through the original gate with the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign, on the west side of the camp, opposite the old entrance.
The first thing that visitors are told by their tour guides at Dachau is that the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign was put up to taunt the prisoners who had no chance of being set free because the policy of the Dachau camp was extermination through work. Actually, the Arbeit Macht Frei sign was only put on Class 1 camps where prisoners had a good chance of being released. Buchenwald was a Class II camp where the sign on the gate said “Jedem das Seine,” which means “To each his own.” Mauthausen was a Class III camp where the prisoners were designated “Return unwanted” and there was no sign at all.
Bus number 726 runs from the train station in Dachau directly to the Memorial Site, following the route along Freisinger Street, the same street on which prisoners, arriving on transports, were forced to walk 3 kilometers to the concentration camp.
One of the alleged survivors of Dachau is Martin Zaidenstadt, a Polish Jew born in 1911, who settled in the town of Dachau after the war and married a German woman. He lives in a very nice house in the heart of Old Town Dachau, and up until May 2003 he would come to the Memorial Site every day to talk with the tourists. As many American tourists learned, he expected a donation and would get angry if he was handed less than $20. Although Martin told the tourists that he was a prisoner at Dachau for 3 years before the camp was liberated, the staff at the Museum claims that there is no record of him being incarcerated there.
German students over the age of 12 are required to tour a concentration camp as part of the on-going education of the present generation of German citizens in the evil perpetrated by the Nazi regime over 60 years ago. German soldiers are also required to tour the former concentration camps. Most visitors associate Dachau with the death of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust, although the majority of the inmates at Dachau were Catholics.
Few visitors to the camp bother to visit the town of Dachau which has grown from 13,000 residents in 1945 to 50,000 residents. Dachau is now multicultural and has a diverse population which includes many people who are not ethnic German. Older residents of Dachau are quick to point out that the majority of the people in the town did not vote for Hitler when he ran for President of Germany in 1932.
Dachauers have accepted the fact that their town will always be reviled as the home of the best-known Nazi concentration camp, but they are sometimes resentful that the town of Dachau is always associated with Nazi atrocities. They refer to the town itself as “the other Dachau.” They have pretty much given up trying to persuade tourists to visit the town, since the Holocaust is the only thing that attracts visitors to Dachau today.