During World War II the main camp was supplemented by about 150 branches scattered throughout southern Germany and Austria, all of which collectively were called Dachau. (This southern system complemented the camps for central and northern Germany, at Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen.) In the course of Dachau’s history, at least 160,000 prisoners passed through the main camp, and 90,000 through the branches. Incomplete records indicate that at least 32,000 of the inmates died there from disease, malnutrition, physical oppression, and execution, but countless more were transported to the extermination camps in German-occupied Poland.
By mid-1944 those Jewish communities within easy reach of the Nazi regime had been largely exterminated, in proportions ranging from about 25 percent in France to more than 90 percent in Poland. On 5 May Himmler claimed in a speech that "the Jewish question has in general been solved in Germany and in the countries occupied by Germany". As the Soviet armed forces advanced, the camps in eastern Poland were closed down, with surviving inmates shipped to camps closer to Germany. Efforts were made to conceal evidence of what had happened. The gas chambers were dismantled, the crematoria dynamited, and the mass graves dug up and the corpses cremated. Local commanders continued to kill Jews, and to shuttle them from camp to camp by forced "death marches". Already sick after months or years of violence and starvation, some were marched to train stations and transported for days at a time without food or shelter in open freight cars, then forced to march again at the other end to the new camp. Others were marched the entire distance to the new camp. Those who lagged behind or fell were shot. Around 250,000 Jews died during these marches.
Conditions in the camp were good by concentration camp standards, and most prisoners were not subjected to forced labor. However, beginning in the spring of 1944 the situation deteriorated rapidly. In March, Belsen was redesignated an Ehrholungslager [Recovery Camp], where prisoners of other camps too sick to work were brought, though none received medical treatment. As the German Army retreated in the face of the advancing Allies, the concentration camps were evacuated and their prisoners sent to Belsen. The facilites in the camp were unable to accommodate the sudden influx of thousands of prisoners and all basic services - food, water and sanitation - collapsed, leading to the outbreak of disease. Anne Frank and her sister, Margot, died of typhus in March 1945, along with other prisoners in a typhus epidemic.
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.
December 11, 1941 - Hitler declares war on the United States. President Roosevelt then asks Congress for a declaration of war on Germany saying, "Never before has there been a greater challenge to life, liberty and civilization." The U.S.A. then enters the war in Europe and will concentrate nearly 90 percent of its military resources to defeat Hitler.
One of the alleged survivors of Dachau is Martin Zaidenstadt, a Polish Jew born in 1911, who settled in the town of Dachau after the war and married a German woman. He lives in a very nice house in the heart of Old Town Dachau, and up until May 2003 he would come to the Memorial Site every day to talk with the tourists. As many American tourists learned, he expected a donation and would get angry if he was handed less than $20. Although Martin told the tourists that he was a prisoner at Dachau for 3 years before the camp was liberated, the staff at the Museum claims that there is no record of him being incarcerated there.
There were an additional 37,223 prisoners counted in the sub-camps near Dachau on April 26, 1945, the date of the last roll call. According to the US Army Report, there were approximately 7,000 prisoners who arrived at Dachau after April 26, 1945 who were not registered in the camp. They were prisoners from the sub-camps who had been evacuated to the main camp. One group of prisoners from a subcamp arrived on April 28th, escorted by Otto Moll, a notorious SS man who had formerly worked in the Auschwitz death camp.
On April 16, 1945 Soviets surrounded Berlin, Germany’s capital. When the Soviets began advancing towards the Reich Chancellery, Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945. Then on May 7th, Germany surrendered to the Western Allies in Reims, France and a few days later to the Soviets in Berlin. All told more than 60 million people, or about 3% of the world’s population at the time, were killed during the course of the Second World War.
Bergen-Belsen SS-women. On the right the notorious Herta Bothe, after the war charged with having committed war crimes. She had a good time shooting at weak female prisoners carrying food containers from the kitchen to the block with her pistol. And she often beat sick girls with a wooden stick. At the Bergen-Belsen Trial she got imprisonment for 10 years.
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.
Historians are divided about the motivations of the members of these mobile killing units. American historian Christopher Browning described one such unit, Police Battalion 101, as ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances in which conformity, peer pressure, careerism, obedience to orders, and group solidarity gradually overcame moral inhibitions. American writer Daniel Goldhagen viewed the very same unit as “willing executioners,” sharing Hitler’s vision of genocidal anti-Semitism and finding their tasks unpleasant but necessary. The diversity of the killers has challenged Goldhagen’s view that the motivation was a distinct form of German anti-Semitism. Yet both Browning and Goldhagen concurred that none of these killers faced punishment if he asked to be excused. Individuals had a choice whether to participate or not. Almost all chose to become killers.
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.
November 4, 1943 - Quote from Nazi newspaper, Der Stürmer, published by Julius Streicher - "It is actually true that the Jews have, so to speak, disappeared from Europe and that the Jewish 'Reservoir of the East' from which the Jewish pestilence has for centuries beset the peoples of Europe has ceased to exist. But the Führer of the German people at the beginning of the war prophesied what has now come to pass."
The Germans invaded the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, and France in May 1940. In the Netherlands, the Germans installed Arthur Seyss-Inquart as Reichskommissar, who quickly began to persecute the approximately 140,000 Dutch Jews. Jews were forced out of their jobs and had to register with the government. Non-Jewish Dutch citizens protested these measures, and in February 1941 they staged a strike that was quickly crushed. After Belgium's surrender at the end of May 1940, it was ruled by a German military governor, Alexander von Falkenhausen, who enacted anti-Jewish measures against the country's 90,000 Jews, many of whom were refugees from Germany or Eastern Europe.
Though at the time of liberation the death rate had peaked at 200 per day, after the liberation by U.S. forces the rate eventually fell to between 50 and 80 deaths per day. In addition to the direct abuse of the SS and the harsh conditions, people died from typhus epidemics and starvation. The number of inmates had peaked in 1944 with transports from evacuated camps in the east (such as Auschwitz), and the resulting overcrowding led to an increase in the death rate.
The American Military Tribunal proceeding against the Waffen-SS soldiers who were accused of shooting American POWs at Malmédy was also held at Dachau, as were the proceedings against the accused guards and staff at the Buchenwald, Mauthausen, Flossenbürg and Nordhausen concentration camps. The proceedings against the infamous Ilse Koch, dubbed the "Bitch of Buchenwald" by the press, also took place in Dachau. As the wife of the Commandant at Buchenwald, she was accused of selecting tattooed prisoners to be killed by her alleged lover, Dr. Waldemar Hoven, so that their skin could be made into human lamp shades to decorate her home.
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.
When the wagons were forced open, a terrible sight was revealed. The Schindlers took charge of the 107 survivors, with terrible frostbite and frightfully emaciated, arranged for medical treatment and gradually nourished them back to life. Schindler also stood up to the Nazi Commandant who wanted to incinerate the corpses that were found frozen in the boxcars, and arranged for their burial with full Jewish religious rites in a plot of land near the Catholic cemetery, which he had especially bought for that purpose.
By the late 1930s there was a desperate search for countries of refuge. Those who could obtain visas and qualify under stringent quotas emigrated to the United States. Many went to Palestine, where the small Jewish community was willing to receive refugees. Still others sought refuge in neighbouring European countries. Most countries, however, were unwilling to receive large numbers of refugees.
Concentration camps began to incarcerate ‘habitual criminals’ in addition to political prisoners. Goebbels stepped up anti-Semitic propaganda with a traveling exhibition which cast Jews as the enemy. Nearly half a million people attended. Some guessed worse would come. Winston Churchill criticised British relations with Germany, warning of ‘great evils of racial and religious intolerance’, though many colleagues complained of his ‘harping on’ about Jews.
The British Army immediately began to organise the relief effort. Their first priorities were to bury the dead, contain the spread of disease, restore the water supply and arrange the distribution of food that was suitable for starving prisoners in various stages of malnutrition. Additional military and civilian medical personnel were brought in to support the relief effort. The British faced serious challenges in stabilising conditions in the camp and implementing a medical response to the crisis. Nearly 14,000 prisoners would die after liberation.
At the Bergen-Belsen camp, a sign had been put up outside the gate to warn the British liberators that there was typhus in the camp, but there was no sign at Dachau since there was no danger to the Americans who had all been vaccinated against typhus and other diseases before going overseas. The American liberators assumed that the emaciated bodies that they found piled up in the camp were the bodies of prisoners who had been deliberately starved to death.
Demographic statistics vary but they are in the same general range. History will likely never know how many people were interned or died there, due to periods of disruption. One source gives a general estimate of over 200,000 prisoners from more than 30 countries for the Third Reich's years, of whom two-thirds were political prisoners, including many Catholic priests, and nearly one-third were Jews. 25,613 prisoners are believed to have died in the camp and almost another 10,000 in its subcamps, primarily from disease, malnutrition and suicide. In late 1944, a typhus epidemic occurred in the camp caused by poor sanitation and overcrowding, which caused more than 15,000 deaths. It was followed by an evacuation, in which large numbers of the prisoners died. Toward the end of the war, death marches to and from the camp caused the deaths of numerous unrecorded prisoners. After liberation, prisoners weakened beyond recovery by the starvation conditions continued to die. Two thousand cases of "the dread black typhus" had already been identified by 3 May, and the U.S. Seventh Army was "working day and night to alleviate the appalling conditions at the camp". Prisoners with typhus, a louse-borne disease with an incubation period from 12 to 18 days, were treated by the 116th Evacuation Hospital, while the 127th would be the general hospital for the other illnesses. There were 227 documented deaths among the 2,252 patients cared for by the 127th.
December 8, 1941 - In occupied Poland, near Lodz, Chelmno extermination camp becomes operational. Jews taken there are placed in mobile gas vans and driven to a burial place while carbon monoxide from the engine exhaust is fed into the sealed rear compartment, killing them. The first gassing victims include 5,000 Gypsies who had been deported from the Reich to Lodz.
As a member of the Nazi Party and the Abwehr intelligence service, Schindler was in danger of being arrested as a war criminal. Bankier, Stern, and several others prepared a statement he could present to the Americans attesting to his role in saving Jewish lives. He was also given a ring, made using gold from dental work taken out of the mouth of Schindlerjude Simon Jeret. The ring was inscribed "Whoever saves one life saves the world entire." To escape being captured by the Russians, Schindler and his wife departed westward in their vehicle, a two-seater Horch, initially with several fleeing German soldiers riding on the running boards. A truck containing Schindler's mistress Marta, several Jewish workers, and a load of black market trade goods followed behind. The Horch was confiscated by Russian troops at the town of Budweis, which had already been captured by Russian troops. The Schindlers were unable to recover a diamond that Oskar had hidden under the seat. They continued by train and on foot until they reached the American lines at the town of Lenora, and then travelled to Passau, where an American Jewish officer arranged for them to travel to Switzerland by train. They moved to Bavaria in Germany in the fall of 1945.
David M. Crowe’s book Oskar Schindler: The Untold Account of His Life, Wartime Activities and the True Story Behind The List should be considered a classic in investigative and historical research. Based on interviews with dozens of Holocaust survivors saved by Oskar Schindler and with access to documents unavailable to Schindler’s List author Thomas Keneally, Crowe sheds light on one of the most dramatic and important stories to come out of World War II.
I was surprised to find records, going back for two or three years, of large quantities of food cooked daily for distribution. I became convinced, contrary to popular opinion, that there had never been a policy of deliberate starvation. This was confirmed by the large numbers of well-fed inmates. Why then were so many people suffering from malnutrition? [...]
Eicke urged his SS men to treat all inmates as dangerous "Enemies of the State." He repeatedly lectured them: "There behind the barbed-wire lurks the enemy and he watches everything you do. He will try to help himself by using all your weaknesses. Don't leave yourself open in any way. Show these 'Enemies of the State' your teeth. Anyone who shows even the smallest sign of compassion for the 'Enemies of the State' must disappear from our ranks. I can only use hard men who are determined to do anything. We have no use for weaklings."
The prisoners are divided into three classifications, each treated differently. The first class is picked at random. These men act as firemen, and their only routine consists of some drilling. The second class is made up of the majority of the prisoners, who receive the treatment outlined above. The third class is composed of leading Communists and all the Jews. This class performs the hardest work on the smallest rations. They receive no sheets to cover their straw sacks. For a long time they were confined to dilapidated barracks where on rainy days the water would stand six inches deep on the floor. They are beaten more than the other prisoners, and nearly all of the murders are perpetrated on members of this class. Even within the last-mentioned class, the Jews are segregated, because no Aryan is allowed to share sleeping accommodations with a Jew. The Jews are refused cigarettes, and the other prisoners are forbidden to converse with them. However, the solidarity among the prisoners makes it impossible to put this rule into effect: camaraderie between the Jews and the other confined men is very strong. The prisoners are allowed to write one letter, or postcard, a week, which has to be turned in to the authorities unsealed. Any remarks about the conditions at the camp means daily beatings and severe punishment in dark cells.
Most of the survivors in the DP camp at Bergen Belsen were young people. They found themselves entirely alone, having lost their parents, spouses, children and siblings during the Holocaust. They commonly chose to establish a feeling of normality and fight despair by marrying in the DP camp. During the first year after liberation, in the Bergen Belden DP camp, there were often six weddings a day, and up to fifty weddings a week. During 1946, there were 1,070 weddings at Bergen Belsen.
In early 1937, the SS, using prisoner labor, initiated construction of a large complex of buildings on the grounds of the original camp. The construction was officially completed in mid-August 1938 and the camp remained essentially unchanged and in operation until 1945. A crematorium that was next to, but not directly accessible from within the camp, was erected in 1942. KZ Dachau was therefore the longest running concentration camp of the Third Reich. The Dachau complex 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 camp at that time was called a "protective custody camp," and occupied less than half of the area of the entire complex.
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.
Eventually the studio bought the rights to the book, and when Page met with Spielberg to discuss the story, the director promised the Holocaust survivor that he would make the film adaptation within 10 years. The project languished for over a decade because Spielberg was reluctant to take on such serious subject matter. Spielberg’s hesitation actually stopped Hollywood veteran Billy Wilder from making Schindler’s List his final film. Wilder tried to buy the rights to Keneally’s book, but Spielberg and MCA/Universal scooped them up before he could.
The gates of the camp had been locked again, and the liberators of the first hour, on their way again, were already far off, toward Munich, toward the south, pursuing their war. Guards had been placed on the other side of the barbed wire. No one was allowed out any more, Already, at the end of this first day, the Americans wondered what they would do with his rabble of lepers.
Many of the former SS staff who survived the typhus epidemic were tried by the British at the Belsen trial. Over the period in which Bergen-Belsen operated as a concentration camp, at least 480 people had worked as guards or members of the commandant's staff, including around 45 women. From September 17 to November 17, 1945, 45 of those were tried by a military tribunal in Lüneburg. They included former commandant Josef Kramer, 16 other SS male members, 16 female SS guards and 12 former kapos (one of whom became ill during the trial). Among them were Irma Grese, Elisabeth Volkenrath, Hertha Ehlert, Ilse Lothe [de], Johanna Bormann and Fritz Klein. Many of the defendants were not just charged with crimes committed at Belsen but also earlier ones at Auschwitz. Their activities at other concentration camps such as Mittelbau-Dora, Ravensbrück, Neuengamme, the Gross Rosen subcamps at Neusalz and Langenleuba, and the Mittelbau-Dora subcamp at Gross Werther were not subject of the trial. It was based on British military law and the charges were thus limited to war crimes. Substantial media coverage of the trial provided the German and international public with detailed information on the mass killings at Belsen as well as on the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau.