Concentration camp crematorium being shown to a US soldier © Organised killing began with the outbreak of war in September 1939, but the first victims were not Jews. The Nazis set about killing people with physical and mental disabilities, whom they regarded as a burden on the state and a threat to the nation's 'racial hygiene'. About 170,000 people were eventually killed under this so-called Euthanasia programme, which also pioneered techniques and employed many of the people later used to kill Jews.
On April 15, 1945, the British army liberated Belsen. However, it was unable to rescue the inmates. On that liberation day the British found 10,000 unburied corpses and 40,000 sick and dying prisoners. Among the 40,000 living inmates, 28,000 died after the liberation. The inmates were abandoned in Bergen-Belsen by the Germans, left behind for death to come.
In the major Dachau war crimes case (United States of America v. Martin Gottfried Weiss et.al.), forty-two officials of Dachau were tried from November to December 1945. All were found guilty – thirty-six of the defendants were sentenced to death on 13 December 1945, of whom 23 were hanged on 28–29 May 1946, including the commandant, SS-Obersturmbannführer Martin Gottfried Weiss, SS-Obersturmführer Freidrich Wilhelm Ruppert and camp doctors Karl Schilling and Fritz Hintermeyer. Camp commandant Weiss admitted in affidavit testimony that most of the deaths at Dachau during his administration were due to "typhus, TB, dysentery, pneumonia, pleurisy, and body weakness brought about by lack of food." His testimony also admitted to deaths by shootings, hangings and medical experiments. Ruppert ordered and supervised the deaths of innumerable prisoners at Dachau main and subcamps, according to the War Crimes Commission official trial transcript. He testified about hangings, shootings and lethal injections, but did not admit to direct responsibility for any individual deaths. An anonymous Dutch prisoner contended that British Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent Noor Inayat Khan was cruelly beaten by SS officer Wilhelm Ruppert before being shot from behind; the beating may have been the actual cause of her death.
In his 1965 essay "Command and Compliance", which originated in his work as an expert witness for the prosecution at the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials, the German historian Hans Buchheim wrote there was no coercion to murder Jews and others, and all who committed such actions did so out of free will. Buchheim wrote that chances to avoid executing criminal orders "were both more numerous and more real than those concerned are generally prepared to admit", and that he found no evidence that SS men who refused to carry out criminal orders were sent to concentration camps or executed. Moreover, SS rules prohibited acts of gratuitous sadism, as Himmler wished for his men to remain "decent"; acts of sadism were carried out on the initiative of those who were either especially cruel or wished to prove themselves ardent National Socialists. Finally, he argued that those of a non-criminal bent who committed crimes did so because they wished to conform to the values of the group they had joined and were afraid of being branded "weak" by their colleagues if they refused.
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.
Peter Hayes (How Was It Possible? A Holocaust Reader, 2015): "The Holocaust, the Nazi attempt to eradicate the Jews of Europe, has come to be regarded as the emblematic event of Twentieth Century ... Hitler's ideology depicted the Jews as uniquely dangerous to Germany and therefore uniquely destined to disappear completely from the Reich and all territories subordinate to it. The threat posted by supposedly corrupting but generally powerless Sinti and Roma was far less, and therefore addressed inconsistently in the Nazi realm. Gay men were defined as a problem only if they were German or having sex with Germans or having sex with Germans and considered 'curable' in most cases. ... Germany's murderous intent toward the handicapped inhabitants of European mental institutions ... was more comprehensive ... but here, too, implementation was uneven and life-saving exceptions permitted, especially in Western Europe. Not only were some Slavs—Slovaks, Croats, Bulgarians, some Ukrainians—allotted a favored place in Hitler's New Order, but the fate of most of the other Slavs the Nazis derided as sub-humans ... consisted of enslavement and gradual attrition, not the prompt massacre meted out to the Jews after 1941."
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.
Menachem Rosensaft's parents, Josef Rosensaft (1911-1971) and Hadassah Bimko (1910-1997), were important leaders of the DP community. Josef Rosensaft was born in Bedzin, Poland. He was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in April 1944, after a number of escapes from the Nazis. He ended up at Bergen Belsen two weeks before its liberation. After liberation, Josef remained at Bergen Belsen and served as Chairman of the Central Committee of the British Zone. In this position, he led all attempts to improve the lives of the Jewish survivors in the DP camps in British-occupied Germany. He possessed natural wisdom, a keen sense of justice and a fine sense of humor.
Schindler’s story remained largely the province of Holocaust scholars until the publication in 1982 of Schindler’s Ark, a Booker Prize-winning novelization by Thomas Keneally. The novel, which became a canonical text of Holocaust literature, was later used as the basis for Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List (1993), which starred Liam Neeson as Schindler and Ralph Fiennes as Göth.
Several thousand Catholic clergy members were also incarcerated at Dachau. One was Titus Brandsma (1881-1942), a Carmelite cleric, philosopher, writer, teacher and historian as well as an avowed anti-Nazi. Brandsma arrived at Dachau in June 1942, and died the following month after being given a lethal injection. In 1985, he was beatified by Pope John Paul II (1920 -2005). MichaÅ‚ Kozal (1893-1943), a Polish priest, arrived at Dachau in 1941, and for two years, he attended to the spiritual needs of his fellow prisoners. In January 1943, Kozal perished from a lethal injection. Pope John Paul II beatified him in 1987.
New arrivals at Dachau were never told how long they would be imprisoned, a factor that weakened their morale and left them more vulnerable to the remolding that would follow. Often, their journey to Dachau marked the first time they had ever been arrested or involved with police. Many had been sent there by the Gestapo upon vague accusations or denunciations by persons who simply disliked them or who wanted to settle an old score. Some were even arrested on suspicion they might commit a crime in the future.
The camp’s liberation was marked by the best and the worst of behavior by its victorious American liberators. Crazed by grief and anger at the appalling scenes on the day of the camp’s liberation, U.S. soldiers and camp inmates summarily executed some 520 of the camp’s German soldiers who had surrendered. After senior officers restored order, U.S. medical personnel began lifesaving measures for the most severely ill prisoners, and soldiers shared their rations and cigarettes with emaciated survivors.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1940, the German army expanded Hitler’s empire in Europe, conquering Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. Beginning in 1941, Jews from all over the continent, as well as hundreds of thousands of European Gypsies, were transported to the Polish ghettoes. The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 marked a new level of brutality in warfare. Mobile killing units called Einsatzgruppenwould murder more than 500,000 Soviet Jews and others (usually by shooting) over the course of the German occupation.
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.