From 1933 until 1938, most of the people held in concentration camps were political prisoners and people the Nazis labeled as "asocial." These included the disabled, the homeless, and the mentally ill. After Kristallnacht in 1938, the persecution of Jews became more organized. This led to the exponential increase in the number of Jews sent to concentration camps.
Between April and June of 1940, Germany invaded Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg consolidating power across neutral Western Europe. On June 22, 1940, France signed an armistice with Germany, which divided France between the German-occupied territory in the north and the Vichy regime in the south. Although officially neutral, the French state during this time was generally pro-Nazi and cooperated with Germany’s racial policies.
Nolte's views were widely denounced. The debate between the "specifists" and "universalists" was acrimonious; the former feared debasement of the Holocaust and the latter considered it immoral to hold the Holocaust as beyond compare. In her book Denying the Holocaust (1993), Deborah Lipstadt viewed Nolte's position as a form of Holocaust denial, or at least "the same triumph of ideology over truth". Addressing Nolte's argument, Eberhard Jäckel wrote in Die Zeit in September 1986 that "never before had a state, with the authority of its leader, decided and announced that a specific group of humans, including the elderly, women, children and infants, would be killed as quickly as possible, then carried out this resolution using every possible means of state power".[h] Despite the criticism of Nolte, Dan Stone wrote in 2010 that the Historikerstreit put "the question of comparison" on the agenda. He argued that the idea of the Holocaust as unique has been overtaken by attempts to place it within the context of early-20th-century Stalinism, ethnic cleansing, and the Nazis' intentions for post-war "demographic reordering", particularly the Generalplan Ost, the plan to kill tens of millions of Slavs to create living space for Germans. The specifist position continued nevertheless to inform the views of many specialists. Richard J. Evans argued in 2015:
Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which. ... The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them ... Babies had been born here, tiny wizened things that could not live. ... A mother, driven mad, screamed at a British sentry to give her milk for her child, and thrust the tiny mite into his arms. ... He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days. This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.
Anti-Jewish measures were introduced in Slovakia, which would later deport its Jews to German concentration and extermination camps. Bulgaria introduced anti-Jewish measures in 1940 and 1941, including the requirement to wear a yellow star, the banning of mixed marriages, and the loss of property. Bulgaria annexed Thrace and Macedonia, and in February 1943 agreed to deport 20,000 Jews to Treblinka; all 11,000 Jews from the annexed territories were sent to their deaths, and plans were made to deport an additional 6,000–8,000 Bulgarian Jews from Sofia to meet the quota. When the plans became public, the Orthodox Church and many Bulgarians protested, and King Boris III canceled the deportation of Jews native to Bulgaria. Instead, they were expelled to the interior pending further decision. Although Hungary expelled Jews who were not citizens from its newly annexed lands in 1941, it did not deport most of its Jews until the German invasion of Hungary in March 1944. Between 15 May and 9 July 1944, 440,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz. In late 1944 in Budapest, nearly 80,000 Jews were killed by the Hungarian Arrow Cross battalions.
A German mother shields the eyes of her son as they walk with other civilians past a row of exhumed bodies outside Suttrop, Germany. The bodies were those of 57 Russians killed by German SS troops and dumped in a mass grave before the arrival of troops from the U.S. Ninth Army. Soldiers of the 95th Infantry division were led by informers to the massive grave on May 3, 1945. Before burial, all German civilians in the vicinity were ordered to view the victims. #
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.
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.
Accompanied by Communist political prisoners, who served as guides, the Americans toured the prison camp and were shown the building, just outside the barbed wire enclosure, which housed the homicidal gas chamber disguised as a shower room. The Americans heard eye-witness accounts from Dachau survivors who said that prisoners had been gassed to death in the fake shower room; they also heard stories of how prisoners had been shoved into the crematory ovens while still alive. Bodies of fully-clothed dead inmates were found piled inside the new crematorium building and many more naked corpses were piled up outside. Outside the disinfection chambers, there was a huge pile of clothing waiting to be fumigated with Zyklon-B gas pellets.
These experiments were usually exceptionally painful and unneeded. For example, Nazi Dr. Sigmund Rascher subjected some prisoners to high altitude experiments using pressure chambers, while he forced others to undergo freezing experiments so that their reactions to hypothermia could be observed. Still, other prisoners were forced to drink saltwater during efforts to determine its drinkability.
German-occupied Denmark rescued most of its own Jews by spiriting them to Sweden by sea in October 1943. This was possible partly because the German presence in Denmark was relatively small. Moreover, while anti-Semitism in the general population of many other countries led to collaboration with the Germans, Jews were an integrated part of Danish culture. Under these unique circumstances, Danish humanitarianism flourished.
It is frequently stated that such cruelties as are outlined above are due to certain deficiencies in the character of the German people. I am strongly opposed to this view, having observed that even among this selected group of Special Police, only about five percent take an active part in, or favor, the brutalities inflicted upon the prisoners. The atrocities committed are the work of a few criminal types who are strongly backed by their superiors. This substantiates the statement made by Dimitroff during the Reichstag trial, that “neither the Bulgarian nor any other people is barbaric, but fascism is barbaric wherever it appears.” The happenings in Dachau were not the uncontrolled actions of minor officials. The camp was continually visited by leading members of the Nazi party and government, among them being Heinrich Himmler, Commander of the Special Police; General Von Epp; Bavarian Minister of the Interior Wagner and others.
Antisemitism, the new racist version of the old Jew-hatred, viewed the Jews as not simply a religious group but as members of a 'Semitic race', which strove to dominate its 'Aryan' rivals. Among the leading ideologues of this theory were a French aristocrat, the Comte Joseph de Gobineau, and an Englishman, Houston Stewart Chamberlain. Antisemitism proved a convenient glue for conspiracy theories - since Jews were involved in all sorts of ventures and political movements, they could be accused of manipulating all of them behind the scenes. Thus Jews were held responsible for Communism and capitalism, liberalism, socialism, moral decline, revolutions, wars, plagues and economic crises. As the Jews had once been demonised in medieval Europe, so the new antisemites (including many Christians) found new, secular ways of demonising them.
Though the Nazis tried to keep operation of camps secret, the scale of the killing made this virtually impossible. Eyewitnesses brought reports of Nazi atrocities in Poland to the Allied governments, who were harshly criticized after the war for their failure to respond, or to publicize news of the mass slaughter. This lack of action was likely mostly due to the Allied focus on winning the war at hand, but was also a result of the general incomprehension with which news of the Holocaust was met and the denial and disbelief that such atrocities could be occurring on such a scale.
On March 7, 1933, an important law was passed by the newly-elected German Congress, which called for all high-level government officials in the German states to be appointed by the Nazis and for all state government positions to be supervised by the Nazis in the event of an emergency. Germany was already in an emergency situation and Article 48 of the German Constitution had already been invoked. Under this new law, Heinrich Himmler was appointed the acting Chief of Police in Munich, although his real job was Reichsführer-SS, the leader of Hitler's elite private Army.
In spite of the Jewish "holy war" against the Nazis, there were no Jews sent to a concentration camp solely because they were Jewish during the first five and a half years that the Nazi concentration camps were in existence. Jews were sent to Dachau from day one, but it was because they were Communists or trade union leaders, not because they were Jewish. The first Jews to be taken into "protective custody," simply because they were Jews, were arrested during the pogrom on the night of November 9th & 10th in 1938, which the Nazis named Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass).
Over a short period of time, Bergen Belsen became the largest DP camp in Germany. In 1946, more than 11,000 Jews lived there. Some survivors succumbed to their despair in the DP camp. After years of forced labor, some survivors refused to work at all. Others developed a Black Market at Bergen Belsen, trafficking in anything that would earn them a penny. However, the majority of survivors at Bergen Belsen were able to gather emotional energy and channel it towards rebuilding their lives.
The Nazis also used Dachau prisoners as subjects in brutal medical experiments. For example, inmates were obligated to be guinea pigs in a series of tests to determine the feasibility of reviving individuals immersed in freezing water. For hours at a time, prisoners were forcibly submerged in tanks filled with ice water. Some prisoners died during the process.
The Nazis used the phrase Lebensunwertes Leben (life unworthy of life) in reference to the disabled and mentally ill. On 14 July 1933, the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring (Gesetz zur Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses), the Sterilization Law, was passed, allowing for compulsory sterilization. The New York Times reported on 21 December that year: "400,000 Germans to be sterilized". There were 84,525 applications from doctors in the first year. The courts reached a decision in 64,499 of those cases; 56,244 were in favor of sterilization. Estimates for the number of involuntary sterilizations during the whole of the Third Reich range from 300,000 to 400,000.
Around 50,000 German gay men were jailed between 1933 and 1945, and 5,000–15,000 are estimated to have been sent to concentration camps. It is not known how many died during the Holocaust. James Steakley writes that what mattered in Germany was criminal intent or character, rather than acts, and the "gesundes Volksempfinden" ("healthy sensibility of the people") became the guiding legal principle. In 1936, Himmler created the Reich Central Office for the Combating of Homosexuality and Abortion. The Gestapo raided gay bars, tracked individuals using the address books of those they arrested, used the subscription lists of gay magazines to find others, and encouraged people to report suspected homosexual behavior and to scrutinize the behavior of their neighbors. Lesbians were left relatively unaffected; the Nazis saw them as "asocials", rather than sexual deviants. Gay men convicted between 1933 and 1944 were sent to camps for "rehabilitation", where they were identified by pink triangles. Hundreds were castrated, sometimes "voluntarily" to avoid criminal sentences. Steakley writes that the full extent of gay suffering was slow to emerge after the war. Many victims kept their stories to themselves because homosexuality remained criminalized in postwar Germany.
In the second phase of the evacuation, in April 1945, Himmler gave direct evacuation routes for remaining camps. Prisoners who were from the northern part of Germany were to be directed to the Baltic and North Sea coasts to be drowned. The prisoners from the southern part were to be gathered in the Alps, which was the location in which the SS wanted to resist the Allies. On 28 April 1945, an armed revolt took place in the town of Dachau. Both former and escaped concentration camp prisoners, and a renegade Volkssturm (civilian militia) company took part. At about 8:30 am the rebels occupied the Town Hall. The advanced forces of the SS gruesomely suppressed the revolt within a few hours.
Welter was among the 40 staff members who were put on trial by an American Military Tribunal at Dachau in November 1945. Dr. Franz Blaha, a Communist prisoner at Dachau, testified that Wilhelm Welter was responsible for the deaths of prisoners at Dachau, but he also stated that the only deaths that he could remember had occurred in 1944, which was a year after Welter had left the Dachau main camp to work for six months in the Friedrichshafen sub-camp of Dachau. Welter was found guilty by the American Military Tribunal and was executed by hanging on May 29, 1946.
All prisoners underwent the same fate when they entered the camp, they lost their legal status, their remaining possessions were confiscated, their hair was shaved off, and they were dressed in striped clothes. They were allocated a number as well as a coloured triangle, indicating what type of category they belonged to. The daily routine was filled with work, hunger, exhaustion, and fear of the brutality of the sadistic SS guards.
Further trials at Nuremberg took place between 1946 and 1949, which tried another 185 defendants. West Germany initially tried few ex-Nazis, but after the 1958 Ulm Einsatzkommando trial, the government set up a governmental agency to investigate crimes. Other trials of Nazis and collaborators took place in Western and Eastern Europe. In 1960, Mossad agents captured Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and brought him to Israel to stand trial on 15 indictments, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes against the Jewish people. He was convicted in December 1961 and executed in June 1962. Eichmann's trial and death revived interest in war criminals and the Holocaust in general.
On April 29, 1945, SS 2nd Lt. Heinrich Wicker surrendered the camp to the 42nd Rainbow Division of the US Seventh Army, which had found the camp on its way to take the city of Munich, 18 kilometers to the south. Accompanied by Red Cross representative Victor Maurer, 2nd Lt. Wicker surrendered the Dachau concentration camp to Brigadier General Henning Linden, commander of the 42nd Rainbow Division, under a white flag of truce. The 45th Thunderbird Division of the US Seventh Army also participated in the liberation of Dachau, arriving at the nearby SS garrison before the 42nd Division approached the installations's main entrance on the south side of the Dachau complex where 2nd Lt. Wicker was waiting to surrender the camp.
Dan Stone, a specialist in the historiography of the Holocaust, lists ethnic Poles, Ukrainians, Soviet prisoners of war, Jehovah's Witnesses, black Germans, and homosexuals as among the groups persecuted by the Nazis; he writes that the occupation of eastern Europe can also be viewed as genocidal. But the German attitude toward the Jews was different in kind, he argues. The Nazis regarded the Jews not as racially inferior, deviant, or enemy nationals, as they did other groups, but as a "Gegenrasse: a 'counter-race', that is to say, not really human at all". The Holocaust, for Stone, is therefore defined as the genocide of the Jews, although he argues that it cannot be "properly historically situated without understanding the 'Nazi empire' with its grandiose demographic plans".[d] Donald Niewyk and Francis Nicosia, in The Columbia Guide to the Holocaust (2000), favour a definition that focuses on the Jews, Roma, and Aktion T4 victims: "The Holocaust—that is, Nazi genocide—was the systematic, state-sponsored murder of entire groups determined by heredity. This applied to Jews, Gypsies, and the handicapped."
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.