The Liberation of the Nazi Concentration Camps

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Andrew Santora
April 29, 2020

As Allied forces advanced deeper into German territory, they encountered sites of unspeakable horror and human suffering: the Nazi concentration camps. On April 29, 1945, American soldiers liberated Dachau, one of many concentration camps to be liberated by the end of the war. These camps revealed to the world the scope of Nazi horrors and gave new meaning to the war.

When Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933, he and his Nazi Party began implementing a heavily racialized set of policies. Within this Nazi framework, the German “Aryan” was viewed as “racially superior,” and other races, including Slavic peoples, blacks, and the Roma-Sinti became “inferior.” This worldview also deemed communists, socialists, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and people with physical and mental disabilities as “undesirable” to German society. Most notably, Nazi racial theory conceptualized Jews as an “inferior race” that, to Nazi theorists, posed an existential threat to the survival of the German people. Once in power, the Nazis began persecuting these groups in the name of German security. In March 1933, the first concentration camp, Dachau, was opened near Munich, originally for political rivals. Many other camps—like Buchenwald—opened in the following years, first as detention centers for those deemed enemies of the state. Soon, a series of laws, including the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, institutionalized legal persecution of many of these groups—most notably Jews—into Germany’s legal codes, systematically stripping their civil rights. By 1938, Jews were routine targets of stigmatization and persecution, the worst being the vandalizing and burning of synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses as part of the “Night of the Broken Glass” (Kristallnacht). In the fall of 1939, Nazi officials began to gas the mentally ill and those with disabilities, a grim warning of worse killings to come. When the German war machine began rolling swiftly across Europe, more people fell under German occupation and soon suffered similar violence. By 1941, Jews and others across Europe were forced into ghettos, as Nazis removed them from German society. That same year, Nazi officials mandated that all Jews in German-held territories wear a yellow Star of David on their clothes at all times. Nazi anti-Semitism had become law for huge portions of Europe.

People walking past the broken windows of the Lichtenstein store, following a night of wanton vandalism and attacks by Nazi mobs targeting Jewish businesses and properties, November 1938.

By 1942, Nazi racial hatred transformed into full-blown genocide, as its leaders talked about a “Final Solution” to the “Jewish problem.” Their “solution” began the institutionalized killing of Jews and other “undesirables” across occupied Europe on a massive scale. Units of Einsatzgruppen, mobile killing squads, were in full operation across the east with the primary mission of killing Jews they encountered. The first Jewish prisoners were murdered in gas vans by December 1941; before long, six death camps, including Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau, were established across the east specifically for the gas extermination and cremation of thousands of people. Within months, Germans began mass transports of millions of Jews from ghettos to concentration camps across Europe. In the camps, they were subjected to physical and mental brutalities, severe malnutrition, disease, cruel medical experimentation, and unspeakably vile living conditions at the hands of their German captors. Many were beaten, shot, hanged, and starved to death. Those viewed physically fit and therefore “useful” to the Nazi state were assigned forced labor in industries vital to the war effort, where many were literally worked to death. Countless others, including the old, young, sick, and weak, went straight to gas chambers. These collective aspects of genocidal horror came to be known as the Holocaust.

Jewish men being transported from the Warsaw ghetto by Wehrmacht soldiers to work at various sites. 1941.

Between 1933 and 1945, Nazi Germany and its allies established more than 44,000 camps and other incarceration sites (including ghettos). The perpetrators used these locations for a range of purposes including forced labor, detention of people deemed to be “enemies of the state,” and mass murder.

Concentration camps: For the detention of civilians seen as real or perceived “enemies of the Reich”

Death camps or killing centers: Established primarily or exclusively for the assembly-line style murder of large numbers of people immediately upon arrival to the site. There were 5 killing centers for the murder primarily of Jews. The term is also used to describe “euthanasia” sites for the murder of disabled patients.

Forced-labor camps: In these camps, the Nazi regime brutally exploited the labor of prisoners for economic gain and to meet labor shortages.

Transit camps: These functioned as temporary holding facilities for Jews awaiting deportation. These camps were usually the last stop before deportation to a killing center.

Prisoner-of-war camps: For Allied prisoners of war, including Poles and Soviet soldiers.

For more detailed information on the camps and the Holocaust in general, we recommend going to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website.

As Allied forces pushed across Europe and into Germany, they encountered these sites of unspeakable evil along the way. Liberators discovered mass graves, horrific scenes of torture, and mounds of bodies and personal items once belonging to the victims. To hide their crimes, as Allied forces closed in on concentration camps, their guards tried to destroy as much of the camps as possible, yet the scars remained. Guards also evacuated their prisoners to other camps farther away from the front through forced marches. High casualty rates due to cold, hunger, and executions of those that could not keep up dubbed these actions death marches. Soviet forces were the first to encounter concentration camps as they advanced across Germany’s eastern front, since the majority of camps were constructed there as a result of the large populations of Jews and Slavs living in the region. In July 1944, Soviet forces liberated Majdanek near Lubin, Poland, the first death camp to be liberated. Through that summer, Soviet troops liberated many other concentration camps across Poland and the Baltics and captured the death camps of Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. In January 1945, Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviets, the largest concentration camp and extermination center in the Reich. While German guards destroyed many of the camp’s warehouses, those remaining held the personal items left behind: hundreds of thousands of abandoned men’s suits, over 800,000 women’s outfits, over 14,000 pounds of human hair, 88 pounds of eyeglasses, hundreds of prosthetic limbs, over 44,000 pairs of shoes, and over 12,000 pots and pans, all left behind by the victims of Nazi genocide. Over 6,000 emaciated prisoners remained in the camp, while the rest were either killed or forced on death marches. By war’s end, other camps were liberated by the Soviets, including Ravensbrück, a concentration camp designed exclusively for women.

Soviet soldiers liberating Auschwitz concentration camp.

Allied forces in the west liberated their fair share of concentration camps as they advanced towards Berlin. The first was Ohrdruf, a subcamp of Buchenwald located near the German town of Gotha. On April 4, 1945, the 4th Armored Division liberated the camp. When they entered, American troops discovered piles of bodies, some covered in lime and others partially incinerated. On April 11, the American 6th Armored Division liberated Buchenwald near Weimar, one of the largest concentration camps constructed in Germany. At Buchenwald, whose main camp contained over 110,000 prisoners by February 1945, many prisoners were forced to work in a factory onsite. Here, some were subjected to medical experimentations aimed at testing the efficacy of disease treatments and even “curing” homosexuality. When US forces entered Buchenwald, they found over 21,000 prisoners, each resembling skeletons due to maltreatment and many so weak or sick that they could not move. That same day, the 3rd Armored Division and the 104th Infantry Division liberated Dora-Mittelbau near Nordhausen, where few prisoners remained. During the war, this concentration camp forced prisoners to build V2 rockets intended to serve as “wonder weapons.” An estimated 20,000 prisoners were worked to death in its factories. On April 15, the British liberated their first concentration camp: Bergen-Belsen. Within this overcrowded camp, British troops found thousands of unburied bodies around a barracks of some 60,000 starving and mortally ill prisoners packed in without food or water. As British troops tried to help these prisoners by providing food, this nourishment often proved fatal for those whose bodies were too weak to digest it. On April 23, members of the US 90th Infantry Division liberated 1,500 prisoners from the Flossenbürg camp. After the 12th Armored Division and the 101st Airborne Division liberated the Kaufering subcamp days before, on April 29, the 42nd Rainbow Division, 45th Infantry Division, and 20th Armored Division liberated Dachau. During the war, Dachau prisoners were forced to work in armaments production, and the camp was the first to implement medical experiments on prisoners. In Dachau alone, an estimated 32,000 prisoners died. Countless more were sent on to death camps to be killed. When American troops entered the camp, they found 30 railroad cars on its outskirts filled with bodies in various stages of decomposition. Inside the camp were even more bodies, as well as 30,000 emaciated survivors. German citizens from the nearby town were ordered to bury the roughly 9,000 inmates found in the camp. On May 5, the 11th Armored Division liberated 81,000 men, women, and children from Mauthausen, the central concentration camp for Austria where prisoners were forced to work in a quarry onsite. Days later, Germany surrendered to Allied forces, marking the official end to Nazi tyranny.

Inmates at Dachau concentration camp enthusiastically greet American soldiers in a photo taken the day after its April 29, 1945, liberation.

By war’s end, the Holocaust had claimed the innocent lives of an estimated six million Jews and at least five million others. Families were torn apart, and entire towns and populations across Europe were wiped off the face of the earth. Survivors would face a long and painful road to recovery, both physically and mentally. The camp’s liberators, who confronted unexpected and unspeakable scenes of human suffering as they entered, would bear their own scars for having to witness the effects of this unimaginable evil firsthand. In freeing concentration camp prisoners, some of whom had been in captivity for years, the liberation of these camps exposed to the world the full extent of Nazi horrors, granting new meaning to the war in Europe.

75 years later, we remember the victims of the Holocaust and the soldiers who liberated them.

Prisoners cheer 11th Armored Division on May 6, 1945, at Mauthausen Concentration Camp.