*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
While chasing Nazi units in full retreat through central Germany, the United States came across a grisly discovery on April 11, 1945: Buchenwald. The concentration camp, a sprawling site carved into the forests five miles outside the town of Weimar, was one of the largest and oldest labor prisons under German control. As the horrors of Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution” came to light after World War II, Buchenwald would be revealed to be among the worst locations in all of Nazi Germany.
For centuries, the Weimar region served as a cultural center for Germans, home to philosophers Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich von Schiller, not to mention composers Franz Liszt and Johann Sebastian Bach. In the wake of the post-World War I revolution, the new German government was formed at this tiny town in 1919, leading the new system to be called the Weimar Republic. After centuries of being the enlightened heart of the country, it might have seemed as though the picturesque town made an unlikely home for a forced labor camp.
In July 1937, four years after Hitler abolished the Republic and declared himself der Fuhrer, soldiers began clearing the forest on the northwestern edge of Etterberg mountain to make room for the concentration camp. Buchenwald, so named for the tall beechwood trees surrounding the site, received the first of nearly 240,000 prisoners that passed through its heavy iron gates within days, a few dozen men used to build fences and outbuildings.
By the following April, the population had grown significantly, with most of the prisoners sentenced to work for being political dissidents. In November 1938, however, that all changed with Kristallnacht. After the “Night of Broken Glass,” inflicted on Jewish businesses and places of worship, Buchenwald suddenly received a train loaded with 10,000 Jews rounded up during the pogrom.
Along the edges of the camp, an electrified fence topped with rows of barbed wire hemmed in the prisoners, with guard towers strategically placed to ensure machine gun fire from above could cover every square inch of the yard. When Nazi doctors arrived to conduct experiments in 1941, they found a wide variety of ethnicities within the camp for their horrifying tests: Jews, Russians, Germans, Romanians and Slovenians, as well as foreign leaders from conquered territories.
For the next four years, Buchenwald became the site of a sickening spectacle of human malice. Doctors used prisoners as subjects in grotesque studies of the effects of disease and hormonal “therapies.” Ilse Koch, wife of camp Commandant Karl Otto Koch, frequently beat the starving prisoners for her own pleasure, going so far as to have some of their remains transformed into lampshades and gloves.
Despite the mistreatment of those being held at Buchenwald, the camp became central to the German fighting effort. Prisoners worked long shifts in support of the Nazi-owned Deutsche-Ausruestungs-Werke to make weapons and load supply trains. Overseeing some 88 subcamps, administrators regularly walked through the population to dispatch those too weak to work with a simple shot of phenol into the bloodstream.
Though not an extermination site like the better-known Auschwitz, an exorbitant number of the camp population — some of them eventually women and Allied prisoners of war — fell victim to the abuse and neglect of Nazi officials. According to estimates, more than 56,000 people died within the confines of the Buchenwald system, a fact made all the more remarkable considering there were no gas chambers.
In February 1945, there were 112,000 prisoners on site, many of them stacked up in makeshift bunks hastily built in old horse stables. As the American 3rd Army under General George S. Patton approached two months later, the Germans started moving captives out of the camps in order to hide reality from the Allied advance. Many of the weakened prisoners died quickly, unable to keep pace with the retreating Nazi soldiers.
Of those who remained, members of the Resistance Movement worked fervently to contact the liberating forces. A pair of inmates used a radio transmitter cobbled together from parts manufactured in the work sites to send a message via Morse code:
“To the Allies. To the army of General Patton. This is the Buchenwald concentration camp. SOS. We request help. They want to evacuate us. The SS wants to destroy us.”
When the reply arrived offering encouragement and promising a swift rescue, a number of prisoners used weapons they had hidden to kill the remaining guards just hours before the 6th Armored Division arrived during the afternoon of April 11, 1945.
Greeted by rapturous celebrations, 3rd Army units quickly secured the camps and ordered medical supplies rushed to the front. The following day, several journalists arrived, among them the respected reporter Edward R. Murrow, who told CBS Radio of a prisoner quarters that “had once stabled 80 horses. There were 1,200 men in it, five to a bunk.”
With the war over, the Red Army moved in and turned Buchenwald into Soviet Special Camp 2, making it the final resting place for anti-Stalin politicians and Nazi sympathizers until January 1950. Nine months later, much of the site was torn down after the camp was closed.
Now a memorial to the victims, the Buchenwald site was the concentration camp Elie Wiesel, author of the Holocaust memoir Night, was liberated from. He would go on to win the 1986 Nobel Prize for Peace.
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