American soldiers stare down at a mass grave in Nordhausen concentration camp © Originally a concentration camp for Polish political prisoners, Auschwitz was greatly expanded in 1941 with the addition of a much larger camp at nearby Birkenau. In all, Auschwitz-Birkenau and its sub-camps held 400,000 registered prisoners including 205,000 Jews, 137,000 Poles, 21,000 Gypsies, 12,000 Soviet POWs and 25,000 others (including a few British POWs). In this largest and worst of all the Nazi concentration camps, 210,000 prisoners died of starvation and abuse.
In October 1939 Hitler signed a "euthanasia decree" backdated to 1 September 1939 that authorized Reichsleiter Philipp Bouhler, the chief of Hitler's Chancellery, and Karl Brandt, Hitler's personal physician, to carry out a program of involuntary "euthanasia"; after the war this program was named Aktion T4. It was named after Tiergartenstraße 4, the address of a villa in the Berlin borough of Tiergarten, where the various organizations involved were headquartered. T4 was mainly directed at adults, but the "euthanasia" of children was also carried out. Between 1939 and 1941, 80,000 to 100,000 mentally ill adults in institutions were killed, as were 5,000 children and 1,000 Jews, also in institutions. In addition there were specialized killing centres, where the deaths were estimated at 20,000, according to Georg Renno, the deputy director of Schloss Hartheim, one of the "euthanasia" centers, or 400,000, according to Frank Zeireis, the commandant of the Mauthausen concentration camp. Overall, the number of mentally and physically handicapped murdered was about 150,000.
Under such terrible conditions, Kramer did everything in his power to reduce suffering and prevent death among the inmates, even appealing to the hard-pressed German army. "I don't know what else to do," he told high-ranking army officers. "I have reached the limit. Masses of people are dying. The drinking water supply has broken down. A trainload of food was destroyed by low-flying [Allied] war planes. Something must be done immediately." /16
The mass killings of Jews in the occupied Soviet territories were assigned to four SS formations called Einsatzgruppen ("task groups"), which were under Heydrich's overall command. Similar formations had been used to a limited extent in Poland in 1939, but the ones operating in the Soviet territories were much larger. The Einsatzgruppen's commanders were ordinary citizens: the great majority were professionals and most were intellectuals. By the winter of 1941–1942, the four Einsatzgruppen and their helpers had killed almost 500,000 people. The largest massacre of Jews by the mobile killing squads in the Soviet Union was at a ravine called Babi Yar outside Kiev, where 33,771 Jews were killed in a single operation on 29–30 September 1941.[n] A mixture of SS and Security Police, assisted by Ukrainian police, carried out the killings. Although they did not actively participate in the killings, men of the German 6th Army helped round up the Jews of Kiev and transport them to be shot. By the end of the war, around two million are thought to have been victims of the Einsatzgruppen and their helpers in the local population and the German Army. Of those, about 1.3 million were Jews and up to a quarter of a million Roma.
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.
Throughout the 1930s, the legal, economic, and social rights of Jews were steadily restricted. On 1 April 1933, there was a boycott of Jewish businesses. On 7 April 1933, the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service was passed, which excluded Jews and other "non-Aryans" from the civil service. Jews were disbarred from practising law, being editors or proprietors of newspapers, joining the Journalists' Association, or owning farms. In Silesia, in March 1933, a group of men entered the courthouse and beat up Jewish lawyers; Friedländer writes that, in Dresden, Jewish lawyers and judges were dragged out of courtrooms during trials. Jewish students were restricted by quotas from attending schools and universities. Jewish businesses were targeted for closure or "Aryanization", the forcible sale to Germans; of the approximately 50,000 Jewish-owned businesses in Germany in 1933, about 7,000 were still Jewish-owned in April 1939. Works by Jewish composers, authors, and artists were excluded from publications, performances, and exhibitions. Jewish doctors were dismissed or urged to resign. The Deutsches Ärzteblatt (a medical journal) reported on 6 April 1933: "Germans are to be treated by Germans only."
The twin goals of racial purity and spatial expansion were the core of Hitler’s worldview, and from 1933 onward they would combine to form the driving force behind his foreign and domestic policy. At first, the Nazis reserved their harshest persecution for political opponents such as Communists or Social Democrats. The first official concentration camp opened at Dachau (near Munich) in March 1933, and many of the first prisoners sent there were Communists.
^ "War nicht der 'Archipel Gulag' ursprünglicher als 'Auschwitz'? War nicht der 'Klassenmord' der Bolschewiki das logische und faktische Prius des 'Rassenmords' der Nationalsozialisten? Sind Hitlers geheimste Handlungen nicht gerade auch dadurch zu erklären, daß er den 'Rattenkäfig' nicht vergessen hatte? Rührte Auschwitz vielleicht in seinen Ursprüngen aus einer Vergangenheit her, die nicht vergehen wollte?"
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.
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.
On 6 January 1942, the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vyacheslav Molotov, sent out diplomatic notes about German atrocities. The notes were based on reports about bodies surfacing from poorly covered graves in pits and quarries, as well as mass graves found in areas the Red Army had liberated, and on witness reports from German-occupied areas. The following month, Szlama Ber Winer escaped from the Chełmno concentration camp in Poland, and passed detailed information about it to the Oneg Shabbat group in the Warsaw Ghetto. His report, known by his pseudonym as the Grojanowski Report, had reached London by June 1942. Also in 1942, Jan Karski sent information to the Allies after being smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto twice.[s] On 27 April 1942, Vyacheslav Molotov sent out another note about atrocities. In late July or early August 1942, Polish leaders learned about the mass killings taking place inside Auschwitz. The Polish Interior Ministry prepared a report, Sprawozdanie 6/42, which said at the end:
Here, seven decades after the April 1945 liberation of Bergen-Belsen by British troops, LIFE.com presents a series of photographs made at the camp by the great George Rodger (later a founding Magnum member). In an issue of LIFE published a few weeks later, in which several of the pictures in this gallery first appeared, the magazine told its readers of a "barbarism that reaches the low point of human degradation."
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.
1945 Photo by George Rodger: "It wasn't even a matter of what I was photographing, as what had happened to me in the process. When I discovered that I could look at the horror of Belsen --4000 dead and starving lying around-- and think only of a nice photographic composition, I knew something had happened to me and I had to stop. I felt I was like the people running the camp --it didn't mean a thing." George Rodger in "Dialogue with photography", Dewi Lewis Publishing.
There are different methods of execution. People are shot by firing squads, killed by an "air hammer", and poisoned by gas in special gas chambers. Prisoners condemned to death by the Gestapo are murdered by the first two methods. The third method, the gas chamber, is employed for those who are ill or incapable of work and those who have been brought in transports especially for the purpose/Soviet prisoners of war, and, recently Jews.
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.