Over the decades that followed, ordinary Germans struggled with the Holocaust’s bitter legacy, as survivors and the families of victims sought restitution of wealth and property confiscated during the Nazi years. Beginning in 1953, the German government made payments to individual Jews and to the Jewish people as a way of acknowledging the German people’s responsibility for the crimes committed in their name.
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 the main camp too, conditions at the end of the war were horrendous. Dachau was unbearably overcrowded as a result of the influx of prisoners evacuated from the camps that were being closed ahead of the Allied advance. Thousands of prisoners fell victim to a typhus epidemic. On the 29th of April 1945, 30 000 thousand prisoners at the camp were liberated by US army units without any fighting.
In 1942, a network of auxiliary camps was created at Dachau, their prisoners being used above all for slave labour in the German weapons industry. Up to 37 000 people were imprisoned in Dachau. Underground factories were created at the largest complex of auxiliary camps at Landsberg am Lech, with mostly Jewish prisoners being deported from the camps in the east to help build them. In late 1944 and early 1945, some 30 000 prisoners worked there under deadly conditions.
During the era of the Holocaust, German authorities also targeted other groups because of their perceived racial and biological inferiority: Roma (Gypsies), people with disabilities, and some of the Slavic peoples (Poles, Russians, and others). Other groups were persecuted on political, ideological, and behavioral grounds, among them Communists, Socialists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and homosexuals.
Once Germany took over Poland in 1939, it created forced-labor camps. Thousands of prisoners died from working conditions, exhaustion, and starvation. After the outbreak of World War II, the number of concentration camps increased exponentially. The number of prisoners of war camps also rose, but after the first years of the war most were converted into concentration camps. Nazis forcibly relocated Jews from ghettos to concentration camps.
While concentration camps were meant to work and starve prisoners to death, extermination camps (also known as death camps) were built for the sole purpose of killing large groups of people quickly and efficiently. The Nazis built six extermination camps, all in Poland: Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Auschwitz, and Majdanek. (Auschwitz and Majdanek were both concentration and extermination camps.)
Established in March 1933, Dachau was the first Nazi concentration camp.12 The camp originally housed political prisoners and those opposed to the Nazi regime. Individuals and groups who were considered inferior to Germans, such as Jehovah Witnesses, Gypsies and homosexuals were sent to Dachau. The first Jews imprisoned at Dachau were sent there because they were considered enemies of the Reich.13 Over time, more Jews were sent to Dachau than any other group.
Außenlager Hambühren-Ovelgönne (Lager III, Waldeslust) at Hambühren south of Winsen was in use from August 23, 1944 to February 4, 1945. It was an abandoned potash mine, now intended as an underground production site for Bremen plane manufacturer Focke-Wulf. Around 400 prisoners, mostly female Polish or Hungarian Jews, were forced to prepare the facility and to help lay train tracks to it. This was done for the company Hochtief.:204
In the final months of the war, SS guards moved camp inmates by train or on forced marches, often called “death marches,” in an attempt to prevent the Allied liberation of large numbers of prisoners. As Allied forces moved across Europe in a series of offensives against Germany, they began to encounter and liberate concentration camp prisoners, as well as prisoners en route by forced march from one camp to another. The marches continued until May 7, 1945, the day the German armed forces surrendered unconditionally to the Allies.
In 1942, the crematorium area was constructed next to the main camp. It included the old crematorium and the new crematorium (Barrack X) with a gas chamber. There is no credible evidence that the gas chamber in Barrack X was used to murder human beings. Instead, prisoners underwent “selection”; those who were judged too sick or weak to continue working were sent to the Hartheim “euthanasia” killing center near Linz, Austria. Several thousand Dachau prisoners were murdered at Hartheim. Further, the SS used the firing range and the gallows in the crematoria area as killing sites for prisoners.
Italy introduced some antisemitic measures, but there was less antisemitism there than in Germany, and Italian-occupied countries were generally safer for Jews than German-occupied territories. In some areas, the Italian authorities even tried to protect Jews, such as in the Croatian areas of the Balkans. But while Italian forces in Russia were not as vicious towards Jews as the Germans, they did not try to stop German atrocities either. There were no deportations of Italian Jews to Germany while Italy remained an ally. Several forced labor camps for Jews were established in Italian-controlled Libya. Almost 2,600 Libyan Jews were sent to camps, where 562 died.
Only one trial was ever held by a German court for crimes committed at Belsen, at Jena in 1949; the defendant was acquitted. More than 200 other SS members who were at Belsen have been known by name but never had to stand trial. No Wehrmacht soldier was ever put on trial for crimes committed against the inmates of the POW camps at Bergen-Belsen and in the region around it, despite the fact that the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg had found in 1946 that the treatment of Soviet POWs by the Wehrmacht constituted a war crime.:39
Paradoxically, at the same time that Germany tried to rid itself of its Jews via forced emigration, its territorial expansions kept bringing more Jews under its control. Germany annexed Austria in March 1938 and the Sudetenland (now in the Czech Republic) in September 1938. It established control over the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (now in the Czech Republic) in March 1939. When Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, the “Jewish question” became urgent. When the division of Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union was complete, more than two million more Jews had come under German control. For a time, the Nazis considered shipping the Jews to the island of Madagascar, off the southeast coast of Africa, but discarded the plan as impractical; the Nazis had not prevailed in the Battle of Britain, the seas had become a war zone, and the resources required for such a massive deportation were scarce.
Following the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Einsatzgruppen and, later, militarized battalions of Order Police officials, moved behind German lines to carry out mass-murder operations against Jews, Roma, and Soviet state and Communist Party officials. German SS and police units, supported by units of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS, murdered more than a million Jewish men, women, and children, and hundreds of thousands of others.
The economic strains of the Great Depression led some in the German medical establishment to advocate murder (euphemistically called "euthanasia") of the "incurable" mentally and physically disabled as a cost-saving measure to free up funds for the curable. By the time the National Socialist German Workers' Party, or Nazi Party,[j] came to power in 1933, there was already a tendency to seek to save the racially "valuable", while ridding society of the racially "undesirable". The party had originated in 1920 as an offshoot of the völkisch movement, and it adopted that movement's antisemitism. Early antisemites in the party included Dietrich Eckart, publisher of the Völkischer Beobachter, the party's newspaper, and Alfred Rosenberg, who wrote antisemitic articles for it in the 1920s. Rosenberg's vision of a secretive Jewish conspiracy ruling the world would influence Hitler's views of Jews by making them the driving force behind communism. The origin and first expression of Hitler's antisemitism remain a matter of debate. Central to his world view was the idea of expansion and lebensraum (living space) for Germany. Open about his hatred of Jews, he subscribed to the common antisemitic stereotypes. From the early 1920s onwards, he compared the Jews to germs and said they should be dealt with in the same way. He viewed Marxism as a Jewish doctrine, said he was fighting against "Jewish Marxism", and believed that Jews had created communism as part of a conspiracy to destroy Germany.
The Nuremberg Laws, issued on Sept. 15, 1935, was designed to exclude Jews from public life. The Nuremberg Laws stripped German Jews of their citizenship and prohibited marriages and extramarital sex between Jews and Gentiles. These measures set the legal precedent for anti-Jewish legislation that followed. Nazis issued numerous anti-Jewish laws over the next several years. Jews were banned from public parks, fired from civil service jobs, and forced to register their property. Other laws barred Jewish doctors from treating anyone other than Jewish patients, expelled Jewish children from public schools, and placed severe travel restrictions on Jews.
In the 1930s, the political landscape of Europe changed dramatically with the rise of Adolf Hitler and the German Nazi Party. Sensing the shift in political momentum, Schindler joined a local pro-Nazi organization and began collecting intelligence for the German military. He was arrested by Czech authorities in 1938, charged with spying and sentenced to death but was released shortly thereafter, when Germany annexed the Sudetenland. Schindler would take advantage of this second chance.
A training center for SS concentration camp guards, Dachau’s organization and routine became the model for all Nazi concentration camps. A new crematorium area was constructed in 1942 to dispose of the increasing number of casualties of typhoid, starvation, and executions. Dachau’s prisoners were used as subjects of medical experiments and hundreds of prisoners died or were permanently crippled as a result of these experiments.
Following the German invasion and occupation of Poland, Schindler moved to Krakow from Svitavy in October 1939. Taking advantage of the German occupation program to “Aryanize” and “Germanize” Jewish-owned and Polish-owned businesses in the so-called General Government (Generalgouvernement), he bought Rekord Ltd., a Jewish-owned enamelware manufacturer, in November 1939. He converted its plant to establish the Deutsche Emalwarenfabrik Oskar Schindler (German Enamelware Factory Oskar Schindler), also known as Emalia.
On April 28, 1945, the day before the liberation of the camp, Dachau citizens joined with escaped prisoners from the camp in an uprising led by Georg Scherer, a former prisoner who had been released, but was still working in a factory at the Dachau complex. Their attempt to take control of the town of Dachau failed; 3 of the prisoners and 4 of the locals were killed in a battle that took place in front of the Dachau town hall. Georg Scherer survived and later became the mayor of Dachau.
At the dawn of World War II, Hitler came to believe that restricting the daily activities of Jews in Germany and the countries annexed by the Nazis would not resolve what he considered to be his “Jewish problem.” Nor would isolated acts of violence against Jews serve a purpose. Instead, the chancellor determined that the sole solution would be the elimination of every European Jew.
Solidarity among the prisoners is strong. Although at every cross-examination the prisoners are tortured, the Nazis never succeeded in obtaining any traitorous information. Despite the fact that several attempts were made by the Commander to stir up hatred between the Christian prisoners and the Jewish minority, and although the Commander promised that any prisoner who harmed a Jew would be released, the Jews receive every encouragement, kindness and consideration from other prisoners.
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.
In December 1944 SS-Hauptsturmführer Josef Kramer, previously at Auschwitz-Birkenau, became the new camp commandant, replacing SS-Hauptsturmführer Adolf Haas [de], who had been in post since the spring of 1943. In January 1945, the SS took over the POW hospital and increased the size of Bergen-Belsen. As eastern concentration camps were evacuated before the advance of the Red Army, at least 85,000 people were transported in cattle cars or marched to Bergen-Belsen. Before that the number of prisoners at Belsen had been much smaller. In July 1944 there were 7,300; by December 1944 the number had increased to 15,000; and by February 1945 it had risen to 22,000. Numbers then soared to around 60,000 by April 15, 1945. This overcrowding led to a vast increase in deaths from disease: particularly typhus, as well as tuberculosis, typhoid fever, dysentery and malnutrition in a camp originally designed to hold about 10,000 inmates. At this point also, the special status of the exchange prisoners no longer applied. All inmates were subject to starvation and epidemics.