The first prisoners arrived in Dachau on March 22, 1933, two days after the acting Munich Chief of Police and Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler announced the camp’s creation. Many of the initial prisoners were Social Democrats and German Communists, the latter group having been blamed for the February 27 fire at the German parliament building, the Reichstag.
Also set for extermination were members of any group considered by Hitler to be ill-equipped to reside in the new Germany. Among them were artists, intellectuals and other independent thinkers; communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others who were ideologically opposed to the Nazi Party; homosexuals and others who were viewed as sexually deviant; Gypsies; the physically and mentally handicapped; and anyone else considered to be racially or physically impure. (Between 1941 and 1944, several thousand sick and handicapped Dachau prisoners were sent to a Nazi “euthanasia” center in Hartheim, Austria, where they were put to death by exposure to lethal gas).
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Estimates of the number of people who died in Bergen-Belsen have ranged widely over the years. Many have been irresponsible exaggerations. Typical is a 1985 York Daily News report, which told readers that "probably 100,000 died at Bergen-Belsen." /39 An official German government publication issued in 1990 declared that "more than 50,000 people had been murdered" in the Belsen camp under German control, and "an additional 13,000 died in the first weeks after liberation." /40
On April 26, 1945, as American forces approached, there were 67,665 registered prisoners in Dachau and its subcamps. More than half of this number were in the main camp. Of these, 43,350 were categorized as political prisoners, while 22,100 were Jews, with the remainder falling into various other categories. Starting that day, the Germans forced more than 7,000 prisoners, mostly Jews, on a death march from Dachau to Tegernsee far to the south. During the death march, the Germans shot anyone who could no longer continue; many also died of hunger, cold, or exhaustion.
In September 1939, the German army occupied the western half of Poland. German police soon forced tens of thousands of Polish Jews from their homes and into ghettoes, giving their confiscated properties to ethnic Germans (non-Jews outside Germany who identified as German), Germans from the Reich or Polish gentiles. Surrounded by high walls and barbed wire, the Jewish ghettoes in Poland functioned like captive city-states, governed by Jewish Councils. In addition to widespread unemployment, poverty and hunger, overpopulation made the ghettoes breeding grounds for disease such as typhus.
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.
Uprisings broke out in some extermination camps. The few remaining Jews kept alive to dispose of bodies and sort possessions realised the number of transportees was reducing and they would be next. Civilian uprisings occurred across Poland as mainly young Jews, whose families had already been murdered, began to resist Nazi oppression. With reports of rebellion and mass murder in the British press, the situation in the camps could no longer be be ignored.
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.
A tablet at the camp commemorates the liberation of Dachau by the 42nd Infantry Division of the U.S. Seventh Army on 29 April 1945. Others claim that the first forces to enter the main camp were a battalion of the 157th Infantry Regiment of the 45th Infantry Division commanded by Felix L. Sparks. There is an on-going disagreement as to which division, the 42nd or the 45th, actually liberated Dachau because they seem to have approached by different routes and by the American Army’s definition, anyone arriving at such a camp within 48 hours was a liberator. General Patton visited the Buchenwald camp after it was liberated, but not Dachau.
The photo above shows some of the members of the International Committee of Dachau. The second man from the left, who is wearing a cardigan sweater and a coat, is Albert Guérisse, a British SOE agent from Belgium, who was hiding his identity by using the name Patrick O'Leary. He was one of five British SOE agents who had survived the Nazi concentration camps at Mauthausen in Austria and Natzweiler in Alsace before being transferred to Dachau. Guérisse greeted Lt. William P. Walsh and 1st Lt. Jack Bushyhead of the 45th Infantry Division and took them on a tour of the camp, showing them the gas chamber and the ovens in the crematorium.
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.