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.
Most of the prisoners in the sub-camps of Dachau were Jews who had survived Auschwitz and had been brought on trains to Germany in January 1945 after a 50-kilometer death march out of the camp. By the time that the survivors staggered into the Dachau main camp in the last weeks of April, they were emaciated, sick and exhausted. Other Jews at Dachau in 1945 had been brought from the three Lithuanian ghettos in the Summer of 1944 to work in the Dachau sub-camps. The American liberators got most of their information about the Dachau camp from these Jews who had only recently arrived and were eager to tell their stories about abuse at the hands of the Nazis.
Hitler was obsessed with the idea of the superiority of the “pure” German race, which he called “Aryan,” and with the need for “Lebensraum,” or living space, for that race to expand. In the decade after he was released from prison, Hitler took advantage of the weakness of his rivals to enhance his party’s status and rise from obscurity to power. On January 30, 1933, he was named chancellor of Germany. After President Paul von Hindenburg’s death in 1934, Hitler anointed himself as “Fuhrer,” becoming Germany’s supreme ruler.
His tasks for the Abwehr included collecting information on railways, military installations, and troop movements, as well as recruiting other spies within Czechoslovakia, in advance of a planned invasion of the country by Nazi Germany. He was arrested by the Czech government for espionage on 18 July 1938 and immediately imprisoned, but was released as a political prisoner under the terms of the Munich Agreement, the instrument under which the Czech Sudetenland was annexed into Germany on 1 October. Schindler applied for membership in the Nazi Party on 1 November and was accepted the following year.
The first thing that the American liberators saw at Dachau was the "death train" filled with the dead bodies of prisoners who had been evacuated three weeks before from Buchenwald; the train had been strafed by American planes, but the soldiers assumed that these prisoners had been machine-gunned to death by the guards after the train arrived. After the war, Hans Merbach, the German soldier who was in charge of this train was put on trial by an American Military Tribunal at Dachau.
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.
The Nazis then combined their racial theories with the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin to justify their treatment of the Jews. The Germans, as the strongest and fittest, were destined to rule, while the weak and racially adulterated Jews were doomed to extinction. Hitler began to restrict the Jews with legislation and terror, which entailed burning books written by Jews, removing Jews from their professions and public schools, confiscating their businesses and property and excluding them from public events. The most infamous of the anti-Jewish legislation were the Nuremberg Laws, enacted on September 15, 1935. They formed the legal basis for the Jews' exclusion from German society and the progressively restrictive Jewish policies of the Germans.
The story of the negotiations is curious. Two German officers presented themselves before the British outposts and explained that there were 9,000 sick in the camp and that all sanitation had failed. They proposed that the British should occupy the camp at once, as the responsibility was international in the interests of health. In return for the delay caused by the truce the Germans offered to surrender intact the bridges over the river Aller. After brief consideration the British senior officer rejected the German proposals, saying it was necessary that the British should occupy an area of ten kilometers round the camp in order to be sure of keeping their troops and lines of communication away from the disease. The British eventually took over the camp.
At Auschwitz, after the chambers were filled, the doors were shut and pellets of Zyklon-B were dropped into the chambers through vents, releasing toxic prussic acid, or hydrogen cyanide. Those inside died within 20 minutes; the speed of death depended on how close the inmate was standing to a gas vent, according to the commandant Rudolf Höss, who estimated that about one-third of the victims died immediately. Johann Kremer, an SS doctor who oversaw the gassings, testified that: "Shouting and screaming of the victims could be heard through the opening and it was clear that they fought for their lives." The gas was then pumped out, the bodies were removed, gold fillings in their teeth were extracted, and women's hair was cut. The work was done by the Sonderkommando, work groups of mostly Jewish prisoners. At Auschwitz, the bodies were at first buried in deep pits and covered with lime, but between September and November 1942, on the orders of Himmler, they were dug up and burned. In early 1943, new gas chambers and crematoria were built to accommodate the numbers.
The most famous American at Dachau was Rene Guiraud. After being given intensive specialized training, Lt. Guiraud was parachuted into Nazi-occupied France, along with a radio operator. His mission was to collect intelligence, harass German military units and occupation forces, sabotage critical war material facilities, and carry on other resistance activities. Guiraud organized 1500 guerrilla fighters and developed intelligence networks. During all this, Guiraud posed as a French citizen, wearing civilian clothing. He was captured and interrogated for two months by the Gestapo, but revealed nothing about his mission. After that, he was sent to Dachau where he participated in the camp resistance movement along with the captured British spies. Two weeks after the liberation of the camp, he "escaped" from the quarantined camp and went to Paris where he arrived in time to celebrate V-E day.
^ Jump up to: a b Zamecnick, Stanislas (2013). C'était ça, Dachau: 1933–1945 [This was Dachau: 1933–1945] (in French). Paris, France: Cherche midi. ISBN 9782749132969., page 71: 2,903 deaths from typhus in January 1945, 3,991 in February, 3,534 in March, 2,168 in April before the liberation. 14,511 registered typhus deaths since it began to spread in October 1944.
In 1985, international attention was focused on Bergen-Belsen. The camp was hastily included in Ronald Reagan's itinerary when he visited West Germany after a controversy about a visit to a cemetery where the interred included members of the Waffen SS (see Bitburg controversy). Shortly before Reagan's visit on May 5, there had been a large memorial event on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the camp's liberation, which had been attended by German president Richard von Weizsäcker and chancellor Helmut Kohl.:44 In the aftermath of these events, the parliament of Lower Saxony decided to expand the exhibition centre and to hire permanent scientific staff. In 1990, the permanent exhibition was replaced by a new version and a larger document building was opened.
In March 1944, part of the camp was redesignated as an Erholungslager ("recovery camp"), where prisoners too sick to work were brought from other concentration camps. They were in Belsen supposedly to recover and then return to their original camps and resume work, but many of them died in Belsen of disease, starvation, exhaustion and lack of medical attention.