Dachau prisoners parade on the Appelplatz (Roll Call Square) before assembled SS men. Image Wikimedia Commons
During the 20s and early 30s the inhabitants of Dachau liked nothing better than to enjoy a relaxed Sunday lunch at a picturesque little country inn. Set amidst acres of lush forest, some two miles out of town, the inn served traditional Bavarian dishes, such as Schweinshaxn and Steckerlfigsch, washed down with potent local wheat beer.
The Inn is Demolished to Make Way for a Munitions Factory
In 1916 the ancient Inn was knocked down and an armament’s factory constructed on the swampy ground where it had once stood.
It comprised sixty buildings, partly hidden among the trees. These included production plants, vehicle repair shops, a large administration block and dormitories for 8,000 workers.
Restrictions on munition production, imposed by the Treaty of Versailles, meant the factory was obliged to close in 1920.
For the next thirty years it remained derelict. The forest gradually took over and the buildings fell into increasing disrepair.
Dachau Becomes the Nazi’s First Permanent Concentration Camp
All this changed after March 20, 1933, when the Nazis converted the dilapidated administration building, with its high surrounding stone walls, into a concentration camp.
It was not their first such camp. There had been others at Nohra and Plaue, for example, but these had been only temporary places of imprisonment.
The former munitions factory outside Dachau, was intended to become a permanent place of incarceration for all those the Nazis regarded as their enemies.
Initially this meant Communists, Social Democrats and Trade Union leaders but soon included homosexuals and religious leaders, Gypsies, Soviet prisoners of war and anyone else who in some way displeased Germany’s new masters.
During the camp’s early years there were relatively few Jewish prisoners. Following the widespread arrest of Jews during Kristallnacht, (The Night of the Broken Glass) between the 9th and 10th of November 1938, around seven thousand were sent there. The majority stayed for only a few weeks before being moved on to other camps or permitted to leave Germany. Usually with no more than the clothes they wore.
The First Prisoners Arrive
On Wednesday, March 22nd, the first prisoners arrived, in police vehicles, guarded by regular Bavarian constabulary. They were escorted to the first floor of the former administration building whose only furnishings were straw mattresses placed on the concrete floor.
The Camp’s Opening Was Widely Publicised
Local and National papers carried reports claiming that the prisoners were being well and humanely treated. They would, journalists wrote, receive substantial daily meals and be given cigarettes to celebrate Hitler’s birthday. Their work, the farming of peat moss, also sounded pleasant and untaxing.
‘Lectures in local history and religion are planned for the prisoners spare time,’ reported the Münchner Neueste Nachrichten. ‘It is hoped that work, and the tasty meals and fair treatment will make the internees usable again for patriotic ideas.’
The Regime Rapidly Changes
In the first few weeks, Dachau did indeed provide acceptable treatment. The civilian guards were largely humane and never went out of the way to abuse or humiliate their prisoners.
It did not last long.
On April 1 Heinrich Himmler was appointed Commander of the Political Police in Bavaria. The following day he placed the camp under his own authority.
The SS Take Control
On the evening of April 10, prisoners watched as a company of SS auxiliary police marched into the camp and formed ranks on the parade ground. There they were addressed by their commander SS-Oberführer von Malsen-Ponickau.
In a voice loud enough to be clearly heard by the prisoners, he told his troops:
‘Any man amongst you who thinks that the prisoners are people like yourselves should immediately step to the left. Anyone who can’t stand the sight of blood is unfit for service in the camp.’
Unsurprisingly not a single SS man moved an inch.
From childhood they had been brought up to believe prisoners were Untermensch, inferior people, and worthy only of their hatred and contempt. As for not being able to stand the sight of blood, all were eager to spill as much of it as possible as soon as possible.
The New Regime Begins
The type of regime SS-Oberführer von Malsen-Ponickau intended to afflict upon the prisoners became clear the very next day.
When a group of new arrivals reached Dachau by train, their SS guards beat them every yard of the way to the camp. Then, ordering the four Jews among them to step aside, brutalised the already bruised and bloodied men still further.
At roll call, the following morning, the same four received further ‘special’ treatment.
In his book That Was Dachau, the Czech writer Stanislav Zámecník, described what that involved.
‘While continuously being hounded and beaten they had to load rubbish onto an enormous stretcher and, using the last out of their strength, carried it off to the gravel pit. After evening roll call three Jews were taken to the gate. Half an hour later, gunfire was heard and all the other prisoners within driven into the barracks. The next day the Lagerverwalter (camp administrator) announced that four ‘Jewish swine’ had been shot dead while attempting to escape.
The Camp Expands
Over the years Dachau grew considerably, as the plan below shows.
Using the prisoners as slave labour, the factory buildings were demolished and an extensive farm and herb gardens, which I described in last week’s Blog, created.
A training school for the SS, constructed outside the concentration camp grounds. This had its own firing range, the SS-Schiessplatz, where hundreds of prisoners, including some 6000 Russian prisoners of war, were executed.
The crematorium, built by slave labour in 1940, soon proved too small to cope with the ever-rising mortality. It was replaced, in 1942, by Barracks X. A much larger Krematorium within the camp itself.This is still standing I can be seen by visitors to what is now the Dachau Memorial Site.
The Krematorium as it is today
On the direct orders of the SS-Economic Administrative Main Office (SS-Wirtschaftsverwaltungshauptamt) a gas chamber, disguised as a shower room, was added but never used.
Prisoners selected for gassing were transferred from the camp to Hartheim Castle outside Linz, in Austria. Between January 1942 and November 1944, 3,166 Dachau prisoners were killed in that way at Hartheim. I shall be telling the terrible story of Hartheim Castle in the future Blog.
The Design of Dachau
The plan below, from the Comité International de Dachau in Brussels, shows the camp layout.
There was a total of thirty-two barracks, known as Blocks, in two rows, either side of a poplar tree lined Lagerstraße (camp road) (marked 1 on the plan).
Thirty of the Blocks were Wohnbaracken (barracks for housing prisoners). One of them, known as the Priesterblock, (9 on the plan) housed only clergy who had spoken out against the Nazis.
Another Block (7 on the plan) was reserved for medical experiments. This formed part of the infirmary barracks (6 on the plan). Initially only two barracks were set aside for the sick but, after 1939, disease rates rose so sharply they had to be increased to thirteen.
Infirmaries of Death
The Infirmary Blocks were not, despite their name, places where even the sickest inmate ever wanted to go.
Without drugs or equipment, the prisoner doctors could do little except watch their patients die, often in agony. There was also a serious likelihood that prisoners in the infirmary would be accused on malingering by the SS guards and either savagely beaten or summarily executed.
In Block 7, Dr Sigmund Rascher conducted brutal, painful and frequently lethal experiments on prisoners. These were designed to study the stresses to which Luftwaffe pilots would be exposed during crashes, when parachuting from their aircraft at high altitudes or after ditching in the sea.
The research involved placing prisoners in a pressurised chamber and exposing them to sudden drops in air pressure. As many as eighty people lost their lives in these experiments.
Later Rascher investigated the effects of immersion in ice-cold water for prolonged periods in order, he claimed, to discover the survival chances of Luftwaffe pilots who crashed into the sea and how best they could be revived. One method he tried involved placing the naked and half frozen prisoner between two naked Jewish girls to see if their body heat could restore him to life.
Between 1942 and 1945, Professor Claus Schilling – a Nazi doctor specialising in tropical diseases – infected around thousand prisoners with malaria. Later, using primarily Gypsy prisoners, he conducted studies into the effects of drinking seawater and blood coagulation.
In other studies, he deliberately infected prisoners with septicaemia in order to test the effectiveness of various type of drugs.
The Overcrowded Blocks
A Wohnbaracken comprised four Stuben, each containing a living room and sleeping quarters. Two Stuben, originally designed to accommodate 104 prisoners, shared a single washroom and a lavatory.
As ever more countries were Occupied so many prisoners were sent to Dachau that up to 1600 were being crammed into barracks designed to take no more than 208.
Twice a day, morning and evening, inmates had to parade on the Appelplatz (Roll Call Square’ (3 on the plan).
If a prisoner managed to escape, they were all punished. A ‘Strafappell,’ or punishment rollcall, meant standing to attention, without food, drink or sanitary breaks for an entire night and half the following day.
The large building to the right of the entrance the Wirtschaftgebåude (5 on the plan), housed the kitchen, laundry and rooms where the prisoners’ personal belongings and clothing were stored. It also contained the so called ‘shower rooms’ in which prisoners were savagely flogged on the ‘Bock’.
This was a wooden frame on which the victim was forced to lie down and whipped on his bare buttocks by two SS-men wielding ox-whips. Each SS man had to deliver 25 strokes which the prisoner had to count loudly. If he missed a stroke the flogging would start again.
After a flogging, during which the skin would burst, an SS doctor splashed iodine over his wounds before the victim was half-carried back to his Block
A Prison Within A Prison
Directly behind the Wirtschaftgebåude stood the notorious Strafblöcke or ‘Bunker’ (1on the plan). This ‘prison within a prison’ held five small concrete floored cells, with a single boarded up window high up on the wall and a wooden bunk.
On arrival in his cell, each prisoner was handed a rope with a noose at one end and ordered to tie it to one of the water pipes. They were also given a knife and told by the SS that it was not for slicing bread.
Every night SS men would enter the cells, torture the men and warn them that if they had not hanged themselves, or slit their wrists by the following morning, they could expect even worse treatment.
Works Make One Free
Each side of the camp’s only entrance, the Jourhaus (4 on the plan), were the SS guard rooms with an administrative office located on the first floor.
Across the entrance gate were the words Arbeit macht frei (work makes one free).
The Jourhaus today. SS guard houses were located either side of the gate with administration offices above
Triple Barriers to Freedom
Surrounding the camp was a high stone wall, brightly illuminated at night, with seven high guard towers. In front of it was an electrified, barbed wire, fence, a deep, water filled, ditch and an eight-metre-wide strip of grass.
The SS, keeping watching from guard towers, had orders to shoot without warning any prisoner who stepped on this grass.
The ditch, electrified fence and wall separating prisoners from freedom. Any inmate who stood on the grass would be shot Image Wikimedia Commons
Life in Dachau – Often Brief and Always Brutal
From the moment they entered the camp to the day they left, often only through death, prisoners were subjected to relentless mental and physical abuse, torture and humiliation.
One survivor, Ferdinand Berger, a twenty-year-old gay Austrian vividly recalled two incidents which reveal the sadism of the SS guards.
On arrival in the camp, every prisoner was photographed by an SS cameraman before being sent to the baths. Ferdinand observed that, the moment their picture had been taken, the prisoner would leap from the armchair, in which he had been ordered to sit, with a shriek of pain
‘Consequently,’ he later wrote, ‘I sat down on the edge of the chair and got up immediately after the last picture and turned around – a needle of about 20 cm in length protruded from the seat, which the SS man, who sat behind the camera, was operating via a foot pedal. This needle has caused bad injuries to the buttocks and the anus, which have healed poorly, especially because of the conditions in the camp.’
Slicing off the Buttons
On another occasion, Ferdinand remembers encountering an SS officer.
‘We have always tried to avoid encounters with SS people,’ he recalled many years later. ‘One evening, after dinner, I was walking down the Lagerstraße (camp road) and in a place where I could not turn around and disappear, I ran into an SS man.
He waved me over and pulled a knife out of his trouser pocket. The thought flashed through my head: ‘He will not stab me on the camp road – that never happened in Dachau before.’
He neatly cut my inmate jacket buttons one after another, threw them at my feet, and said, ‘You dirty sow, why don’t you have buttons on your jacket? In ten minutes, you’ll report back to me with sewn buttons!’
I ran in the block and managed to report in time with the buttons sewn on. He gave me a punch in the face and a kick with his foot and said, ‘let this not happen again.’’
This lack of any justice was the worst – to suffer the absolute injustice or to see how it was done to others without being able to do anything about it.
Dachau is Liberated
On Sunday, April 29th, 1945, a group of American soldiers from the U.S. Seventh Army’s 45th Infantry Division, were travelling by rail to Munich when they stopped off at Dachau.
On the railway siding, adjacent to the camp, they came across 40 railway wagons containing more than 2000 emaciated corpses.
Outraged by what they had seen on the death train, and in Dachau itself, a few American soldiers went on a killing spree.
Lining up between 30 and 50 SS guards against a wall they gunned them down at point-blank range.
Other guards were beaten and knifed to death by the inmates themselves. By the time the Americans arrived, two of the most notorious SS men had been stripped naked, to prevent them from escaping. They too were shot dead by the US troops.
American soldiers shoot SS guards after liberating Dachau . Image Wikimedia Commons
A War Crime Hushed Up
Although this was a war crime, and against the Geneva Convention, none of the soldiers concerned was ever brought to trial and an enquiry into the executions was hushed up.
Without in any way condoning such ‘lynch law’ justice one can, I think, understand the mixture of fury, disgust and disbelief that must have overwhelmed the American troops on discovering the horrors of Dachau.
The bodies of executed SS men after the camp had been liberated . Image Wikimedia Commons
The End of a Hell on Earth
For more than a decade, Dachau had been a hell on earth for around 190,000 prisoners and resulted in at least 30,000 deaths. Although, because so many recently arrived prisoners had never been registered the exact number will probably never be known.
A place where the SS men tortured and killed with impunity. Where, daily, they inflicted pain and humiliation in order to demonstrate that they were the Herrenvolk – the Master Race- and the prisoners sub-human Untermensch.
In this, necessarily, short blog, I have been able to describe only a small part of the horrors that took place in the man created hell that was Dachau. For more information I strongly suggest you read:
That Was Dachau: 1933 -1945 by Stanislav Zámecník (le cherche midi, Paris, 2004) History of Nazi Concentration Camps, Studies, Reports, Documents, Wolfgang Benz and Barbara Distel, eds. Verlag Dachauer Hefte, Dachau and published for the Comité International de Dachau.
There are also several very detailed and reliable websites.
One I recommend, which describes all the Nazi camps is https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/dachau
Ferdinand Berger survived the camps. After liberation he studied law and became a high-ranking Austrian police officer. He died in Vienna in 2004. His story can be found at https://www.comiteinternationaldachau.com/en/people/518-ferdinand-berger-english
In my next blog I will be explain the crucial role played in the Nazi blitzkrieg 1940 by a remarkable and unique confectionary. A tasty treat the German troops called ‘tank chocolate.’
Wow. Nicely written. Without understanding the history and truth of what occurred in Dachau and places like it, the world will never be able to prevent it from happening again somewhere else in the world. I visited Dachau in 2019 in an effort to try to understand how something so evil could have occurred in a modern civilization. My grandparents lived in the Black Forest Region of Germany during the war and they always said they didn’t know what was going on in the camps, but I needed to see for myself how that would be possible. Your description and blog is extremely insightful and it describes well, the horrible suffering innocent people had to endure without any reason. Keep up the good work in shedding a bright light onto the truth of what inhumanities can be perpetrated on fellow humans, and hopefully, just maybe, cause someone to show a random act of kindness to another person in today’s difficult society. Thanks for writing about this!!!!
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