Visiting Sachsenhausen

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.

An exchange of views on the French Presidential election

The following is a short exchange of views on Facebook on the French Presidential election which is taking place today:

LMcQ – See if you can guess which candidate’s leaflet has three explicitly racist pledges.  I’m struggling with this “they’re as bad as each other in the final analysis” line of argument.

Sráid Marx:  I don’t think that’s the argument being put. What about – how will Macron defend workers against fascism (or however one wants to characterise the FN) by implementing an austerity offensive against them, pushing them even further into the pursuit of bad alternatives (like FN)? And how will you explain to them that when you said they should vote for this offensive you didn’t actually mean you supported this offensive. I seem to remember we have been here before with a Le Pen and some geezer called Chirac and voting for the less worst alternative has just brought us to here. At what point, or how bad, would the lesser alternative have to be before you said – stop! The workers cannot lend support to those who simply prepare the way for the fascists and who you must at all times regard as your enemy. And if this is a frightening prospect to you that is only because your only defence ultimately is your own strength and this you cannot delegate – and certainly not to shits like Macron!

RM: Macron is an immediate short term defence against fascism simply because he is the only possible non-fascist outcome at this point. Everything starts from the present. The Chirac argument here is interesting. Yes, voting Chirac to defeat le Pen brought us to ‘now’ but that is surely a better option than to be looking back after 15 years of fascism in power!

Sráid Marx:  Everything starts from when it starts, which at any point in time is usually not the present. Today the weakness of the workers’ movement arises from its failure to successfully oppose austerity and build its own alternative political position in the past. This weakness is not addressed one iota by voting for Macron, in fact it is set back and will always be set back as long as the Macron’s of this world win and the likes of a Le Pen can be waived in front of us to get everyone to vote for the lesser evil. We know this because, as I said, it has happened before. An immediate defence against fascism? But the present passes into what we view now as the future and we will be weaker because we believed that Macron is some sort of defence. If he is one at the election then by definition his success is also a continuing defence, or do we only oppose and fight him unless there is an election. At what point do we say that workers must create their own alternative and cannot support the politicians and policies that brought us to this horrible choice? That is the political choice that we must take; that it is not on the ballot paper is more than unfortunate but that is the case nevertheless. Having our political choices determined by electoralism is not the way forward but is often a trap.


SD: In an election which can only have one of two outcomes the alternative to the lesser evil is the greater evil.

Sráid Marx: Of course you are correct, but the question is whether the lesser EVIL is actually too high a price to pay.

F-CL: Well, if you don’t go with the lesser, surely the question is, is the greater evil too high a price to pay?

Sráid Marx:  Yes, a very good answer. But it still leaves you with the option of determining that both evils cannot be endorsed and that the elections leave you with no acceptable choice and to reject the choice given to you. Or do you believe that in all elections one must vote and endeavour to find the lesser evil?

F-CL:  It depends on circumstances … if there is a real, public abstain campaign and a refusal to vote can be seen to have meaning in the election then I think not voting could be the best option. And having “None of the above” on the voting paper – so you can actually show rejection of all – would be good (in fact, I think we should have a policy of including this option in all votes). But in my experience it is very rare for this to be the case, and going for “None of the above” would encourage people to not maximise the opposition to the greater evil, so even if “None” were an option I think I would usually come down in favour of lesser evil

The other alternative justifying not voting is for the candidates to be as close to as awful as each other to make any differentiation pointless. But this awfulness also involves assessment of the perceived consequences of who gets voted in. Even if Macron and Le Pen are close to each other (in fact I don’t think they are), Le Pen getting in would boost the far right far more than Macron would and you have to take that into account as well as the politics of the candidates

SD:  Surely the issue is about which outcome leaves the working class best placed to fight. In almost all circumstances the working class and the oppressed are going to be able to resist a lesser evil better than they could resist a greater evil, otherwise it wouldn’t be a greater evil.

Sráid Marx:  Not if they are disarmed politically by believing their class enemy is in any sense their protector against reaction. Workers must be taught again and again that they share interests as a class and not with liberals or other bourgeois figures.

SD: That’s quite a big if that you have inserted there. You think it is possible to convince people threatened by the rise of the FN to abstain, yet you don’t believe it possible to convince people that voting for a lesser evil still means they need to organise against that lesser evil?

Sráid Marx:  First I think that the threat that they will most likely face is Macron and his reactionary agenda and a vote for him is a statement that ‘it could be worse’! If such a view is justified in the election – why not afterwards? Fighting the FN is not the only issue in this election. In fact the rise of the FN is due to the policies now being pursued by Macron, policies that the FN say they have an alternative and a left that simply wants to fight the FN and votes for Macron and his policies makes their pretence all the stronger. The message for an active abstention is that you cannot rely on a simple vote to stop the FN, that the FN will get stronger if everyone else rows behind Macron and his reactionary policies and only the FN is seen to stand against them all the way. It’s a message that if you hate or fear the FN there is no solution but your own activity and a workers’ alternative to the policies that Macron will pursue, which the FN will feed off and attempt to continue to grow from.

SD: But “active abstentions” don’t actually exist, except in the heads of ultra lefts who try to comfort themselves that doing nothing out of sectarianism is a political act. Voting or not voting won’t make an iota of difference as to whether people fight back after the election. It just might be slightly harder to do so with an FN president.

Sráid Marx:  Let’s assume for one moment you are right – this would still not justify support for Macron, nor would it invalidate the objections to such support. But while living in Belfast I have seen a number of active abstention campaigns where leafleting, postering and canvassing were all carried out to encourage abstention. It is not even a merely ‘ultra-left’ notion – the greatest number of posters I ever saw in an election in West Belfast was when the Provos wanted an abstention when Bernadette McAliskey stood for the European parliament and the republicans still opposed participation in Brit elections. As to whether voting will affect how people will behave after the election, it must be clear that a working class vote for Macron will strengthen him. It would really be a sort of ultra-leftism to believe workers will vote for a bourgeois candidate but mobilise against him the day after, on the understanding that he is the lesser evil. Of course I have seen a similar view that they would immediately mobilise against a Le Pen victory dismissed, although you only claim it might be slightly harder.



Visiting Dachau

Some years ago I read a book ‘Against all Hope’, by Hermann Langbein, an Austrian who had fought in the Spanish civil war against the fascists.  It was the story of resistance in the Nazi concentration camps by one who had been prisoner, including in Dachau and Auschwitz.  I had anticipated being inspired by stories of this resistance but was instead humbled by the most common of all resistance activities – the struggle to survive.  So when I went on holiday to Germany I wanted to visit a concentration camp and did so by going on a guided tour to Dachau, just a short trip outside Munich.

There it was driven home that such was the indescribable oppression, for some survival was not the form of resistance taken.  Instead a number of prisoners ran onto the grass at the perimeter of the camp and were literally cut to pieces by heavy machine guns from the guard towers.  As our guide explained, this was not so much suicide as the one and only act of self-affirmation some prisoners felt they could take.  In every other respect they were crushed; ripped of dignity and of control of every aspect of their lives.  Every part of existence conspired against all hope.  For survivors this choice of their fellow captives was not an act of cowardice but an assertion of the only freedom they felt that they had left.

Our guide was a young Irishman who was serious and perceptive and through the numerous answers to our questions demonstrated a deep knowledge of not only the Dachau camp but the associated history, including that after liberation.  His intelligence was demonstrated not only in the questions he answered but those he did not.

He pointed out that the pictures on display were taken by the SS guards.  In these the viewer looks down on the prisoners who are in regular rows with adequate clothing.  We cannot see their eyes which are in shadow.  We see shaven heads.  As he later explained; when prisoners first arrived they took their clothes off, were doused in  often searing pesticide, had their hair cut by blunt shears so ineffective the prisoners doing the cutting often simply ripped the hair off.  Then they were shaved.  If they did not work quickly enough their hands would be tied behind their back and they would be hung from beams in the shower room. Only the location of the beams’ insertion into the wall is now still visible.  In this position their shoulders, elbows, wrists and arms would often break.  In a camp dedicated to work or death this, I imagine, could only have one outcome.

The new prisoners would then have to rush to grab clothing and clogs before leaving this area.  Our guide gave the example of one young prisoner who grabbed a jacket so small only one button could be closed, trousers too short by a distance and two clogs, one which was half the size of the correctly fitting one.  This prisoner described his clothing as continued torture throughout his captivity.  Worse, such circumstances increased the danger.  Anyone that stood out in any way; who attracted the notice of an SS man for any reason – an unfastened button or a new high number – risked the danger of deadly attention. This could, for example, mean an SS guard throwing a prisoner’s cap onto the grass and being ordered to retrieve it.  Stepping onto the grass meant machine-gunning from the guard tower while refusal to follow an order meant death.

He explained that we could not go into the guard towers because the survivors of the camp, responsible for its existence today, require that visitors cannot go anywhere prisoners could not go.  It would not be possible to view the camp from the viewpoint of the guards, not because the experience of prisoners in some way was to be recreated, but because no facility that would allow neo-Nazis to seek some sick thrill would be provided.

He told the story of the three hundred Luxembourg policemen who refused to swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler and who were sent to Dachau as punishment.  When they arrived they were ordered to do so again in the main square.  When they again refused seventeen were selected at random and executed.  The same ritual was held every year.

He told the story of Hans Beimler, the Communist Party member, who became a special prisoner held in the ‘Bunker’, one of the few remaining original buildings in the camp.  He escaped by killing his SA guard, putting on his uniform and walking out of the camp.  A few years later he died in the battle for Madrid during the Spanish Civil War.

He told the story Johann Georg Elser, a religious worker who was a keen defender of workers’ rights who had voted for the Communist Party until 1933. In 1939 he planted a bomb in a Munich beer hall where Hitler was due to speak.  Hitler was due to fly back to Berlin that night but because of fog it was thought he should take the train so he left earlier than planned.  The bomb missed Hitler by 13 minutes.  Elser was caught, severely tortured by the Gestapo, and incarcerated in Dachau.  Hitler planned that when the war was won he would be put in front of a show trial and executed.  Just a few short weeks before the end of the war Hitler ordered the killing of Elser and he was shot in the bunker at Dachau.

Our guide did not sentimentalise the camp or its prisoners. He pointed out the hierarchy within the camp and the persistent policy of dividing the prisoners.  What was most new, to me at least, was the history of the camp since the end of the war.

This was symbolised by an art work in the camp showing the different symbols – pink , red or green triangles or two different coloured triangles overlapping each other so that they looked like the star of David, used to identify and mark the different categories of prisoner.  Our guide cautioned us not to regard the prisoners in this way or to take the view that this was in many ways an accurate categorisation, even in its own degenerate terms.  Unfortunately this art work has some missing coloured triangles because of current objections to their inclusion in the memorial.  I can’t claim to have a confident recollection of what these were but they may have included the black and green triangles of ‘asocial’ and criminal prisoners.

Our guide pointed out that the concentration camp was only a relatively small part of the whole and the much larger part was the SS training camp.  Today it is a training camp for the German police.  In 1972, for the Munich Olympic Games and because of the widespread media attention this would bring, the authorities knocked down parts of the site and built a mound between this training camp and the concentration camp.  In this way it would not be possible to view the training camp and it would perhaps not arouse questions.  This is now covered in grass and trees today.  A campaign involving survivors succeeded in getting part of this removed so that today you can see, but not enter, this camp, and see one of the original but otherwise unremarkable buildings still in existence.

At the far end of the concentration camp lie three churches as memorials to the victims.  Due to cold war politics the thousands of Soviet Union soldiers possibly murdered at the camp are represented by a Russian Orthodox church outside the perimeter.  The Jewish religious site is smallest and situated in the farthest corner from the entrance.  The Protestant one is in the other corner to the left, larger but low level and of a similar grey concrete colour as the foundations of the barracks in their two rows, which are all that is left of the original buildings.  The Catholic church is by far the largest, siting in the middle of the other two in a grass site with trees.  Our guide pointed out that plans were afoot at one time to cover the rest of the site with grass and trees but again campaigners stopped this.  While not explicitly expressing this, the contempt for this attempted simultaneous appropriation and erasure was clear.

The final part of the visit was to the new crematorium which contained a gas chamber.  Our guide stated that historians disagreed whether this chamber was actually used but that survivors affirm that is was used on a number of prisoners.  What is not in doubt is that so many were murdered in Dachau that the original policy of carrying many of the dead in trucks into Munich for burning could not be continued and new crematoria needed to be built to destroy the thousands killed.

Beside the gas chamber and crematoria was a memorial in three languages vowing never again.  As our guide thanked everyone for coming to visit Dachau he noted that in Bosnia it happened again.  For me the danger of it happening again is an inescapable potential within capitalism.

Holidays are a time to recharge the batteries.  There is more than one way of renewing the energy to continue the struggle for socialism and forever making never again a reality.