Like the network of concentration camps that followed, becoming the killing grounds of the Holocaust, Dachau was under the control of Heinrich Himmler, head of the elite Nazi guard, the Schutzstaffel (SS), and later chief of the German police. By July 1933, German concentration camps (Konzentrationslager in German, or KZ) held some 27,000 people in “protective custody.” Huge Nazi rallies and symbolic acts such as the public burning of books by Jews, Communists, liberals and foreigners helped drive home the desired message of party strength.
In November 1938, the prohibitive measures against German Jews that had been instituted since Hitler came to power took a violent and deadly turn during “Kristallnacht” (“Crystal Night” or “Night of Broken Glass”). On the evening of November 9, synagogues in Germany and Austria were burned and Jewish homes, schools and businesses were vandalized. Over 30,000 Jews were arrested and dispatched to Dachau and the Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen concentration camps. Nearly 11,000 Jews ended up in Dachau.
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.
During World War II the main camp was supplemented by about 150 branches scattered throughout southern Germany and Austria, all of which collectively were called Dachau. (This southern system complemented the camps for central and northern Germany, at Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen.) In the course of Dachau’s history, at least 160,000 prisoners passed through the main camp, and 90,000 through the branches. Incomplete records indicate that at least 32,000 of the inmates died there from disease, malnutrition, physical oppression, and execution, but countless more were transported to the extermination camps in German-occupied Poland.
Of a total of 2,720 clergy recorded as imprisoned at Dachau, the overwhelming majority, some 2,579 (or 94.88%) were Catholic. Among the other denominations, there were 109 Protestants, 22 Greek Orthodox, 8 Old Catholics and Mariavites and 2 Muslims. In his Dachau: The Official History 1933–1945, Paul Berben noted that R. Schnabel's 1966 investigation, Die Frommen in der Hölle ("The Pious Ones in Hell") found an alternative total of 2,771 and included the fate all the clergy listed, with 692 noted as deceased and 336 sent out on "invalid trainloads" and therefore presumed dead.:276–277 Over 400 German priests were sent to Dachau. Total numbers incarcerated are nonetheless difficult to assert, for some clergy were not recognised as such by the camp authorities, and some—particularly Poles—did not wish to be identified as such, fearing they would be mistreated.:157
The camp was divided into eight sections: a detention camp, two women's camps, a special camp, neutrals camp, "star" camp, Hungarian camp and a tent camp. Polish Jews with citizenship papers from foreign countries lived in the special camp. The detention camp held prisoners brought from other camps to construct Bergen-Belsen. Approximately 4,000 Jewish prisoners, primarily Dutch, lived in the "Star" camp, so named because the prisoners wore the Star of David on their clothing instead of camp uniforms. The Hungarian camp housed more than 1,600 Hungarian Jews. The tent camp housed the overflow of sick, debilitated female prisoners from the hospital camp. Bergen-Belsen's most famous prisoners-Anne Frank and her sister Margo-lived in the tent camp.
The secretary of the Communist party, Deputy Joseph Goetz, was frequently taken out for a cross-examination. He always returned to his cell covered with wounds, and the orderly at the barracks refused to dress them. Every night at 10 o’clock, Steinbrenner, one of the overseers, entered the cell with five other special policemen equipped with long oxtails. They beat him into unconsciousness. The mattress, drenched with blood, was put out to dry in the sun every second day. After having gone through this torture for more than two weeks, Goetz was killed in his cell. His coffin was made in the cabinet-makers’ workshop by his former friends. In the meantime, his corpse lay in a coal cellar, the bleeding head wrapped in newspapers.
By negotiations between British and German officers, British troops took over from the SS and the Wehrmacht the task of guarding the vast concentration camp at Belsen, a few miles northwest of Celle, which contains 60,000 prisoners, many of them political. This has been done because typhus is rampant in the camp and it is vital that no prisoners be released until the infection is checked. The advancing British agreed to refrain from bombing or shelling the area of the camp, and the Germans agreed to leave behind an armed guard which would be allowed to return to their own lines a week after the British arrival.
His tasks for the Abwehr included collecting information on railways, military installations, and troop movements, as well as recruiting other spies within Czechoslovakia, in advance of a planned invasion of the country by Nazi Germany. He was arrested by the Czech government for espionage on 18 July 1938 and immediately imprisoned, but was released as a political prisoner under the terms of the Munich Agreement, the instrument under which the Czech Sudetenland was annexed into Germany on 1 October. Schindler applied for membership in the Nazi Party on 1 November and was accepted the following year.
Though at the time of liberation the death rate had peaked at 200 per day, after the liberation by U.S. forces the rate eventually fell to between 50 and 80 deaths per day. In addition to the direct abuse of the SS and the harsh conditions, people died from typhus epidemics and starvation. The number of inmates had peaked in 1944 with transports from evacuated camps in the east (such as Auschwitz), and the resulting overcrowding led to an increase in the death rate.
By May 19, 1945, all the former prisoners had been evacuated to the nearby Army barracks and on May 21, 1945, the last hut at the Bergen-Belsen camp was burned to the ground. The horror that was Bergen-Belsen had been completely wiped off the face of the earth. Today the former camp is a landscaped park with heather, which blooms in August, covering the mass graves. Most of the visitors to the Memorial Site are German students who come on tour buses.
Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, and emigrants were sent to Dachau after the 1935 passage of the Nuremberg Laws which institutionalized racial discrimination. In early 1937, the SS, using prisoner labor, initiated construction of a large complex capable of holding 6,000 prisoners. The construction was officially completed in mid-August 1938. More political opponents, and over 11,000 German and Austrian Jews were sent to the camp after the annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland in 1938. Sinti and Roma in the hundreds were sent to the camp in 1939, and over 13,000 prisoners were sent to the camp from Poland in 1940.
By October of the same year the camp was being used by the U.S. Army as a place of confinement for war criminals, the SS and important witnesses. It was also the site of the Dachau Trials for German war criminals, a site chosen for its symbolism. In 1948 the Bavarian government established housing for refugees on the site, and this remained for many years. Among those held in the Dachau internment camp set up under the U.S. Army were Elsa Ehrich, Maria Mandl, and Elisabeth Ruppert.
Eleven of the defendants were sentenced to death. They included Kramer, Volkenrath and Klein. The executions by hanging took place on December 13, 1945 in Hamelin. Fourteen defendants were acquitted (one was excluded from the trial due to illness). Of the remaining 19, one was sentenced to life in prison but he was executed for another crime. Eighteen were sentenced to prison for periods of one to 15 years; however, most of these sentences were subsequently reduced significantly on appeals or pleas for clemency. By June 1955, the last of those sentenced in the Belsen trial had been released.:37 Nine other members of the Belsen personnel were tried by later military tribunals in 1946 and 1948.
Dachau prisoners were used as forced laborers. At first, they were employed in the operation of the camp, in various construction projects, and in small handicraft industries established in the camp. Prisoners built roads, worked in gravel pits, and drained marshes. During the war, forced labor utilizing concentration camp prisoners became increasingly important to German armaments production.
When asked, Schindler told that his metamorphosis during the war was sparked by the shocking immensity of the Final Solution. In his own words: "I hated the brutality, the sadism, and the insanity of Nazism. I just couldn't stand by and see people destroyed. I did what I could, what I had to do, what my conscience told me I must do. That's all there is to it. Really, nothing more."
In August 1944, a new section was created and this became the so-called "women's camp". By November 1944 this camp received around 9,000 women and young girls. Most of those who were able to work stayed only for a short while and were then sent on to other concentration camps or slave-labour camps. The first women interned there were Poles, arrested after the failed Warsaw Uprising. Others were Jewish women from Poland or Hungary, transferred from Auschwitz. Among those who never left Bergen-Belsen were Margot and Anne Frank, who died there in February or March 1945.