Hitler had a vision for an empire that would last a thousand years. It only lasted 12, but in those 12 years, he and his Nazi party did more damage than any empire before.
On 30 January 1933, Von Hindenburg have appointed Hitler chancellor. “It is like a dream. The Wilhelmstraße is ours,” Joseph Goebbels, the future Minister of Propaganda, wrote in his diary. Wilhelmstraße in Berlin was recognised as the centre of the government in Germany.
On 23 March 1933, the Reichstag met in Berlin. The main item on the agenda was a new law, the ‘Enabling Act.’ It allowed Hitler to enact new laws without interference from the president or Reichstag for four years. It gave Hitler and the NSDAP absolute power in Germany. The day before that on 22 March, in a picturesque town called Dachau—20 Kilometers north of Munich—the first concentration camp was opened.
A press release stated:
“On Wednesday the first concentration camp is to be opened in Dachau with accommodation for 5,000 people. All Communists and—where necessary—Reichsbanner and Social Democratic functionaries, who endanger state security, are to be concentrated here, as in the long run, it is not possible to keep individual functionaries in the state prisons without overburdening these prisons, and on the other hand, these people cannot be released because attempts have shown that they persist in their efforts to agitate and organize as soon as they are released.”
The camp stayed open until 29 April 1945, when it was liberated by the US Army.
In those 12 years, the camp had 10 camp commandants:
• SS-Standartenführer Hilmar Wäckerle (22 March 1933–26 June 1933)
• SS-Gruppenführer Theodor Eicke (26 June 1933–4 July 1934)
• SS-Oberführer Alexander Reiner [de] (4 July 1934 –22 October 1934)
• SS-Brigadeführer Berthold Maack (22 October 1934–12 January 1935)
• SS-Oberführer Heinrich Deubel (12 January 1935–31 March 1936)
• SS-Oberführer Hans Loritz (31 March 1936–7 January 1939)
• SS-Hauptsturmführer Alexander Piorkowski (7 January 1939–2 January 1942)
• SS-Obersturmbannführer Martin Weiß (3 January 1942–30 September 1943)
• SS-Hauptsturmführer Eduard Weiter (30 September 1943–26 April 1945)
• SS-Obersturmbannführer Martin Weiß (26 April 1945–28 April 1945)
Rudolf Höss, later commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau, learned much from Theodor Eicke at Dachau. Facing trial and likely execution in Poland for his crimes during World War II, Höss recounted a flogging he witnessed in Dachau. It was Eicke’s order, Höss remembered, that at least one company of SS personnel be there when the punishment was carried out:
“Two prisoners had stolen cigarettes from the canteen and were sentenced to twenty-five blows of the cane. The soldiers lined up in a U-shaped formation with their weapons. The punishment bench stood in the middle. The two prisoners were presented by the block leaders. The commandant put in his appearance. The camp commander and the senior company reported to him. The duty officer read the sentence and the first prisoner, a small, hardened, lazy man, had to lie down across the bench. Two soldiers from the troop held his head and hands firmly while two block leaders carried out the sentence, alternating after each blow. The prisoner didn’t utter a sound. It was different from the second one, a strong, broad-shouldered, political prisoner. After the first blow, he screamed wildly and wanted to tear himself loose. He continued screaming to the last blow, even though the commandant told him repeatedly to be quiet.”
In January 1941, the leader of the Dutch Nazi party, Mussert, was invited to Munich by Himmler. Goal: to enthuse the NSB leader to the SS. The Dutch NSB delegation included Mussert, Van Geelkerken, Rost, Feldmeijer and Zondervan. On 20 January 1941, a surprise tour awaited: a day at the Dachau concentration camp. The visitors were shown nice-looking aspects of the camp: model dormitories, good sanitary facilities, and a kitchen that produced good quality food that everyone tasted and thought was the usual prison fare. In March 1946, Mussert says in the cell barracks in Scheveningen: ‘So I was in Dachau in 1941. It was beautiful. People were in the free air: they painted, baked, and gardened. They looked good and smiled. Of course, I found that out later, I saw the exhibition section.’
Although they did not have the same level of evilness as the NSDAP, the NSB were nevertheless willing participants in the Holocaust. Mussert may not have been fully aware of what was going on in Dachau in January 1941, since it was reasonably early on in the war, but he knew exactly what the fate of the Jews was later on and he facilitated the occupying Nazi regime in any way he could.
Beginning in 1942, Nazi doctors performed medical experiments on prisoners in Dachau. Physicians and scientists from the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) and the German Experimental Institute for Aviation conducted high-altitude and hypothermia experiments, as well as experiments to test methods of making seawater potable. These efforts aimed to aid German pilots who conducted bombing raids or who were downed in icy waters. German scientists also carried out experiments to test the efficacy of pharmaceuticals against diseases like malaria and tuberculosis. Hundreds of prisoners died or were permanently disabled as a result of these experiments.
While these “medical experiments” happened behind closed doors, new evidence of ominous intent became visible in the layout of the camp itself. In 1942, a new crematorium was constructed, supplementing the existing one erected two years earlier. This new crematorium, named “Barrack X,” was fitted with four furnaces, a disinfection section, and, most chilling in retrospect, a gas chamber. Generally, the SS utilized the crematoria to immolate the bodies of inmates who died in the camp. They also hanged or shot inmates involved in resistance activity there (the whole area was separated from the prisoners’ barracks by a wall). Despite all the labour and resources expended, the SS thankfully never implemented the mass gassing of human beings at Dachau.
The number of prisoners incarcerated in Dachau between 1933 and 1945 exceeded 200,000.
The number of prisoners who were murdered in the camp and the subcamps between January 1940 and May 1945 was at least 28,000. This number does not include those who were killed there between 1933 and the end of 1939, as well as an unknown number of unregistered prisoners. Also, a great number committed suicide. It is unlikely that the total number of victims who died in Dachau will ever be known.
As late as 19 April 1945, prisoners were sent to KZ Dachau; on that date, a freight train from Buchenwald with nearly 4,500 was diverted to Nammering. SS troops and police confiscated food and water that local townspeople tried to give to the prisoners. Nearly three hundred dead bodies were ordered removed from the train and carried to a ravine over 400 metres away. The 524 prisoners who had been forced to carry the dead to this site were then shot by the guards, and buried along with those who had died on the train. Nearly 800 bodies went into this mass grave.
On 26 April 1945, prisoner Karl Riemer fled the Dachau concentration camp to get help from American troops and on 28 April, Victor Maurer, a representative of the International Red Cross, negotiated an agreement to surrender the camp to U.S. troops. That night a secretly formed International Prisoners Committee took over the control of the camp. Units of the 3rd Battalion, 157th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Division, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Felix L. Sparks, were ordered to secure the camp. On 29 April, Sparks led part of his battalion as they entered the camp over a side wall. At about the same time, Brigadier General Henning Linden led the 222nd Infantry Regiment of the 42nd (Rainbow) Infantry Division soldiers including his aide, Lieutenant William Cowling, to accept the formal surrender of the camp from German Lieutenant Heinrich Wicker at an entrance between the camp and the compound for the SS garrison. Linden was travelling with Marguerite Higgins and other reporters; as a result, Linden’s detachment generated international headlines by accepting the surrender of the camp. More than 30,000 Jews and political prisoners were freed, and since 1945 adherents of the 42nd and 45th Division versions of events have argued over which unit was the first to liberate Dachau. But one thing that can’t be argued, what the liberators found was something that stayed with them for life.
The disturbing aspect about all of this is that the torturing and killing all happened within the boundaries of German law.