On January 20, 1942, several top officials of the German government met to officially coordinate the military and civilian administrative branches of the Nazi system to organize a system of mass murder of the Jews. This meeting, called the Wannsee Conference, "marked the beinning of the full-scale, comprehensive extermination operation [of the Jews] and laid the foundations for its organization, which started immediately after the conference ended" (Yahil, The Holocaust, p. 318).
Meanwhile, beginning in the fall of 1939, Nazi officials selected around 70,000 Germans institutionalized for mental illness or disabilities to be gassed to death in the so-called Euthanasia Program. After prominent German religious leaders protested, Hitler put an end to the program in August 1941, though killings of the disabled continued in secrecy, and by 1945 some 275,000 people deemed handicapped from all over Europe had been killed. In hindsight, it seems clear that the Euthanasia Program functioned as a pilot for the Holocaust.
The opening of the camp, with a capacity for 5,000 prisoners was announced by Heinrich Himmler, Reichsfuhrer SS at a press conference held on 20 March 1933. The first group of so-called protective-custody, consisting mainly of Communists and Social Democrats was brought to the camp on 22 March 1933. They were guarded by Bavarian state police until the camp was taken over by the SS on 11 April 1933.
The Holocaust was the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. Holocaust is a word of Greek origin meaning “sacrifice by fire.” The Nazis, who came to power in Germany in January 1933, believed that Germans were “racially superior” and that the Jews, deemed “inferior,” were an alien threat to the so-called German racial community.
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.
In 1944, Plaszow transitioned from a labor camp to a concentration camp and all Jews were to be sent to the death camp at Auschwitz. Schindler requested Göth allow him to relocate his factory to Brnĕnec, in the Sudetenland, and produce war goods. He was told to draw up a list of workers he wanted to take with him. With Stern’s help, Schindler created a list of 1,100 Jewish names he deemed “essential” for the new factory. Permission was granted and the factory was moved. Not wanting to contribute to the German war effort, Schindler ordered his workers to purposefully make defective products that would fail inspection. The employees spent the remaining months of the war in the factory.
Although the prisoners deployed at Emalia were still subject to the brutal conditions of the Plaszow concentration camp, Schindler intervened repeatedly on their behalf. He used bribes and personal diplomacy both for the well-being of Jews threatened on an individual basis and to ensure, until late 1944, that the SS did not deport his Jewish workers. In order to claim the Jewish workers to be essential to the war effort, he added an armaments manufacturing division to Emalia. During the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto in March 1943, Schindler allowed his Jewish workers to stay at the factory overnight.
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.
The first major camp to be encountered by Allied troops, Majdanek, was discovered by the advancing Soviets on 25 July 1944. Treblinka, Sobibór, and Bełżec were never liberated, but were destroyed by the Germans in 1943. Auschwitz was liberated, also by the Soviets, on 27 January 1945; Buchenwald by the Americans on 11 April; Bergen-Belsen by the British on 15 April; Dachau by the Americans on 29 April; Ravensbrück by the Soviets on 30 April; and Mauthausen by the Americans on 5 May. The Red Cross took control of Theresienstadt on 4 May, days before the Soviets arrived.
In early 1937, the SS, using prisoner labor, initiated construction of a large complex of buildings on the grounds of the original camp. Prisoners were forced to do this work, starting with the destruction of the old munitions factory, under terrible conditions. The construction was officially completed in mid-August 1938 and the camp remained essentially unchanged until 1945. Dachau thus remained in operation for the entire period of the Third Reich. The area in Dachau included other SS facilities beside the concentration camp—a leader school of the economic and civil service, the medical school of the SS, etc. The KZ (Konzentrationslager) at that time was called a “protective custody camp,” and occupied less than half of the area of the entire complex.
In the first half of 1944, the “star camp” also took in small transports of Jews from various other countries. These included 200 Jews from Tunisia, Tripoli, and Benghazi , who until then had been held in the Fossoli di Carpi camp in Italy: 200 Jewish women from the Drancy transit camp in France, whose husbands were French prisoners-of –war, being held by the Germans, and several hundred Jews from Yugoslavia and Albania.
Hitler’s worldview revolved around two concepts: territorial expansion (that is, greater Lebensraum—“living space”—for the German people) and racial supremacy. After World War I the Allies denied Germany colonies in Africa, so Hitler sought to expand German territory and secure food and resources—scarce during World War I—in Europe itself. Hitler viewed the Jews as racial polluters, a cancer on German society in what has been termed by Holocaust survivor and historian Saul Friedländer “redemptive anti-Semitism,” focused on redeeming Germany from its ills and ridding it of a cancer on the body politic. Historian Timothy Snyder characterized the struggle as even more elemental, as “zoological,” and “ecological,” a struggle of the species. Hitler opposed Jews for the values they brought into the world. Social justice and compassionate assistance to the weak stood in the way of what he perceived as the natural order, in which the powerful exercise unrestrained power. In Hitler’s view, such restraint on the exercise of power would inevitably lead to the weakening, even the defeat, of the master race.
In the last months of Hitler’s Reich, as the German armies retreated, the Nazis began marching the prisoners still alive in the concentration camps to the territory they still controlled. The Germans forced the starving and sick Jews to walk hundreds of miles. Most died or were shot along the way. About a quarter of a million Jews died on the death marches.
In the summer of 1941, the camp physician at Dachau was ordered to register those prisoners who were sick or unable to work. Some weeks later, a medical commission from Berlin arrived to pass judgement, and during the winter of 1941 -1942 “invalid transports” departed from Dachau in quick succession to the Hartheim castle, near Linz. Hartheim was one of the murder facilities included in the euthanasia programme. There 3166 inmates from Dachau were gassed.
In October 1980, Australian novelist Thomas Keneally had stopped into a leather goods shop off of Rodeo Drive after a book tour stopover from a film festival in Sorrento, Italy, where one of his books was adapted into a movie. When the owner of the shop, Leopold Page, learned that Keneally was a writer, he began telling him “the greatest story of humanity man to man.” That story was how Page, his wife, and thousands of other Jews were saved by a Nazi factory owner named Oskar Schindler during World War II.
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.
Policies differed widely among Germany’s Balkan allies. In Romania it was primarily the Romanians themselves who slaughtered the country’s Jews. Toward the end of the war, however, when the defeat of Germany was all but certain, the Romanian government found more value in living Jews who could be held for ransom or used as leverage with the West. Bulgaria deported Jews from neighbouring Thrace and Macedonia, which it occupied, but government leaders faced stiff opposition to the deportation of native Bulgarian Jews, who were regarded as fellow citizens.
SS Officer Hosler, under arrest, stands in front of a truck which is loaded with corpses at Belsen concentration camp © The Final Solution moved into its last stages as Allied forces began to close in on Germany in 1944. The Project Reinhardt camps were razed. A prisoner work-gang called the Blobel Commando began digging up and burning the bodies of those killed by the Einsatzgruppen. Prisoners remaining in Auschwitz and other concentration camps were transported or force-marched to camps within Germany. Hardly fit for such an effort, thousands of prisoners on these death marches succumbed to starvation, exhaustion and cold, or were shot for not keeping up the pace.
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.
In the fall of 1939, at the start of World War II, Dachau’s prisoners were relocated to Buchenwald and the concentration camps at Mauthausen and Flossenbuerg. For the time being, Dachau was used as a training site for members of the newly established “Waffen-SS,” an elite SS combat unit whose troops also helped run concentration camps. By early 1940, Dachau had been reconverted into a concentration camp. Conditions at the camp were brutal and overcrowded. The facility had been designed to house some 6,000 detainees, but the population continued to rise and by 1944 approximately 30,000 prisoners were packed into the camp.
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.
Mr. Le Drieullenac said that as he helped to drag the bodies he noticed many had wounds at the top of the thigh. “First I thought they were gunshot wounds,” he told. the court to-day. “Then I saw that they could not be and a friend told me that men were cutting bits out of the bodies to eat them. When I went into the but to another body I saw a man take a knife and, looking to see if he was unobserved, cut a piece of flesh from the body and put it in his mouth. You can imagine the condition to which the men had been reduced to run the risk of eating flesh taken from a body turned black.”
The camp was liberated on April 15, 1945, by the British 11th Armoured Division. The soldiers discovered approximately 60,000 prisoners inside, most of them half-starved and seriously ill, and another 13,000 corpses, including those of Anne and Margot Frank, lying around the camp unburied. The horrors of the camp, documented on film and in pictures, made the name "Belsen" emblematic of Nazi crimes in general for public opinion in many countries in the immediate post-1945 period. Today, there is a memorial with an exhibition hall at the site.