When I visited Dachau concentration camp, I was shown round by a young Irishman. When I visited Sachsenhausen I was given the tour by a German man in his sixties, who said he was among the first to have the story of the camps and the Nazis taught at school. It should be remembered that Sachsenhausen was in the old German Democratic Republic.
The visitors to the camp on a dreary and damp day were made up of groups of tourists like myself and school parties of German teenagers; some of whom were having chats with their friends, but most of whom were in various states of interest, dismay and shock, while their teachers explained the exhibits and left them to wander round the various displays.
The camp had a small bookshop at the entrance, featuring ‘Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp 1936 – 1945 Events and Developments’, which notes correctly that the buildings that survive in the camp do not divulge its history.
The short book quotes a Dutch camp survivor – Ab Nikolaas – that the camp was primarily screaming, stench, cramped conditions and the violence that existed in and around the prisoners. Everyday life resembled a perpetual succession of exceptional circumstances, despite, or rather because of, the daily routine imposed by the SS guards, dictated by them to the smallest detail. Total control and order was accompanied by arbitrary terror, torture and murder in a hierarchy within what was the “most extremely class-ridden society.” (Primo Levi)
It is therefore impossible to appreciate the horrors of the concentration camps by visiting them. Even visitors at the time of their operation were met with blooming flowers and well-tended lawns, with one newly arrived prisoner admitting in 1939 that “I thought I was going to go mad over it.”
Inside the overcrowded barracks lay the reality of foul and diseased bodies, eating rotting food and throwing up in the process while still starving, leaving prisoners to steal food from each other. In 1941, when a young French prisoner took two carrots from a sheep pen he was battered to death by the SS. The alternative of starvation however, could lead to exhaustion, illness, disease, punishment and then death.
Sachsenhausen concentration camp was built less than 25 miles north of Berlin in Oranienburg in 1936 following visits to the site by Heinrich Himmler, the first of many such camps that also included Buchenwald, Flossenbürg, Mauthausen and Ravensbrück. It came to rival that of Dachau as the new model for such camps, specifically built to function as sites of terror, and was originally planned to hold six thousand prisoners at a time when the entire existing system held less than five.
The camp also contained the infamous wrought-iron slogan “Work makes Free” on its gates, as in Dachau, Flossenbürg and Auschwitz, while the guards would taunt prisoners by pointing to the crematorium – “there is a path to freedom, but only through the chimney!”
While some Sachsenhausen camp prisoners would be released, some would never, especially including those infected with the “poison of Bolshevism.” Some were former SS guards, fallen from grace, who were housed in relatively lenient conditions and who were often employed to attack other prisoners.
The camp was infamous for its death squad, made up of SS NCOs – block leaders who supervised prisoners in their barracks and in labour details. Death came to one prisoner because he was too slow to greet a guard and to another because he stumbled, while others were killed because of who they were. The Austrian state prosecutor Karl Tuppy, who had tried the Nazi killers of the Austrian chancellor Dollfuss in 1934, was beaten for twenty minutes until another prisoner was called in to drag him away – “His face was gone. Just a piece of completely undefined meat, full of blood, cuts, the eyes completely swollen up.”
Another prisoner in 1939, a former union official, told his guards that he was previously a Prussian officer in the First World War who now had two sons fighting at the front. He was battered for days, dying after only two weeks in the camp.
Along with Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen became a centre of violence following the invasion of Poland, an invasion the Nazis blamed on Poland itself, accusing the Poles of horrific war crimes – Hitler for example claimed that the Poles had butchered ethnic Germans “like animals”.
One Polish-born Jew from Berlin became incarcerated in Sachsenhausen after first managing to board a plane to London without a visa, arriving in the city only to be sent back by the British immigration authorities, and finding himself a prisoner in the camp only two weeks later. He later became one of the last Jewish prisoners to be released by the Nazis, following the order from Himmler in March 1940 that no more could be released except those with valid visas who could emigrate by the end of April.
Many other Jews died in the camp within days or weeks of arrival. Extermination of European Jews thus became a reality within the concentration camps before it became Nazi policy outside, although the camps at this time held only selected Jews and did not yet become the centre of anti-Jewish policy.
Mass murder became common just later, with the first coordinated killing across several of the camps in November 1940, when more than 200 Poles were murdered in Sachsenhausen, Mauthausen and Auschwitz.
In July 1941 the Nazi occupiers of France repressed a mass strike of one hundred thousand in the Pas-de-Calais coalfield, as workers protested against poor working conditions, unpaid wages and starvation. Of the 430 miners arrested, 244 were sent to Sachsenhausen with more than 100 of them failing to survive their incarceration.
The first Soviet prisoners of war arrived in early autumn 1941 following the German invasion, many dying in the trains that brought them to the camps from the East. Their treatment, some of which came to public attention, was so bad that one SS boss thought it might sully the reputation of the SS among local public opinion. For him the transports were unnecessary, since they were “going to die anyway”, as many of them did upon arrival. So quickly that the SS did not even bother to register them.
The mass murder of the prisoners in Sachsenhausen, as usual justified by claims that German prisoners had been killed by the Soviets, was planned in August and required construction of a special killing chamber. The first of these prisoners arrived on 31 August, disoriented, dishevelled and dirty, young and worn out. The photographs taken for an SS publication ‘The Subhuman’ were published to show that their appalling condition was proof of their subhuman nature.
In the separated section of the camp the Soviet prisoners were told that they were to be medically examined, and therefore had to undress before being led individually to what looked like a doctor’s surgery, within which was an SS man dressed in a white coat. After appearing to carry out some medical checks that were designed to discover any gold fillings, the prisoner was led to a smaller room with an upright length of wood fixed to the wall, which appeared to be used to measure height and to which the prisoner would stand with his back to the wall.
A small slit in the wall at the wooden pole was used to shoot the unsuspecting prisoner in the back of the neck, sometimes with a dum dum bullet, while a gramophone playing in the first room helped cover the noise of the shot in the execution room, which was itself sound-proofed. Within ten weeks in the autumn of 1941 over 10,000 had been shot. The newly arrived prisoners rarely lived longer than a couple of days.
After two weeks, some SS bigwigs were shown the set-up in action; the new operation recommending itself to Himmler because the murderers did not have to look their victims in the eye. However, the enthusiasm of the killers varied, with those less enthused branded as a ‘limp dick.’
Faced with growing labour shortages, Nazi policy moved away from these mass killings to using the prisoners as slave labour, although by this stage the capture of Soviet prisoners on the scale witnessed during the first months of the war was not to be repeated.
At this time, while death among the Polish and Jewish prisoners was common, there were no plans to kill all of them, while the opposite was the case for the Soviet POWs who arrived between September and November 1941. When gas chambers were introduced in 1943 the first victims were again Soviet prisoners. The camp had come a long way since 1937 when in one month only one prisoner had died.
On May 2 1942 Sachsenhausen again became the site of mass execution, this time of 71 Dutch resistance fighters. Two hundred and fifty Jews were also murdered between May 28 and 29, most having been taken from Berlin, while some were selected randomly from the prisoners inside the neck-shooting barracks built for the Soviet POWs. A month later, during a visit to the camp, Himmler ordered that the remaining Jewish prisoners be deported from German soil.
Some however were retained because of their skills and were also freed from the worst treatment they could normally have expected being Jewish. A small group, employed to forge foreign banknotes and stamps, grew from 29 to more than 140, most of whom had arrived from Auschwitz. The better treatment made them feel “as if I had come from hell onto heaven”, as one prisoner put it. Since the project had to be kept secret, the SS considered Jews perfect for it since they could be killed as necessary. The prisoners did however survive, as did their banknotes, which continued to circulate for years afterwards.
By this time Sachsenhausen had already provided prisoners for the construction in 1938 of what was planned to be the largest and most advanced brick factory in the world. But this most advanced factory was built in the most primitive circumstances imaginable and in working conditions brutal even by concentration camp standards. It was built and operated on the basis that the dead could easily be replaced.
In the end this massive SS project was a disaster and not a single usable brick was manufactured. The SS covered up its incompetence by demolishing and rebuilding the factory and killing yet more prisoners in the process, even eventually producing usable bricks from clay pits described as “hell inside hell” by the prisoners forced to work in them, though never making near the original targeted quantity.
Those too ill to work or simply not employed were sometimes crammed into barracks where they had to stand all day, with just a brief break at lunch time; pressed like sardines, forbidden to move, talk, sit or lean against a wall, with no motion at all permitted and quickly punished if it was attempted.
From 1942 collaboration between the SS and capitalist industry accelerated as prisoners increasingly worked in factories outside the camps, in Dachau with BMW, and in Sachsenhausen with Heinkel. The camp became a model of such cooperation, with capitalist enterprises such as AEG and Siemens involved. Prisoners were also increasingly employed in clearing bomb damage, building shelters and burying the dead outside the camp. By summer 1943 however no more than perhaps thirty thousand, of two hundred thousand prisoners, were working in satellite camps engaged in war production or clearing war damage.
As Soviet forces drew near in 1945 the SS began to prepare evacuation of the camp with large groups of prisoners being brought to Sachsenhausen from the subsidiary camps, many dying on the way or being killed when they got there. On 21 April, the first of over 33,000 were marched 20 to 40 kilometres a day from the main camp towards the Baltic sea on a ‘death march’ that many thousand did not survive. Eventually the SS guards ran off and the remaining prisoners were found by units of the Soviet and US armies. In the main camp 3,400 were found by Soviet and Polish troops, although even with medical care at least 300 did not survive.
Upon liberation the camp stayed open, as did others that were used by the Americans, British and French, although the new Stalinist regime kept Sachsenhausen open until 1950, to house those seen as posing a threat to the new regime, including not only Nazis but also some of their former opponents. Neglect, indifference and ineptitude led to twenty-two thousand deaths among the one hundred thousand prisoners kept in three of the former concentration camps, including Sachsenhausen.
In 1961, the Stalinist regime erected its own memorial, built on the grounds of ‘Station Z’, the site of the crematorium ovens, gas chamber and firing squad area that had been built in 1942, and previously blown up by the East German authorities in 1952/53. In erecting its memorial the authorities consolidated the foundations and remains of the ovens and erected a large monumental roof, which was demolished and replaced in 2004/05 due to its deterioration. ‘Station Z’ was the cynical SS term for the site of a prisoner’s last moments of life.
Further photographs of my visit are on the Facebook page.