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On 27th February, 1933, someone set fire to the Reichstag. Several people were arrested including a leading, Georgi Dimitrov, general secretary of the Comintern, the international communist organization. Dimitrov was eventually acquitted but a young man from the Netherlands, Marianus van der Lubbe, was eventually executed for the crime. As a teenager Lubbe had been a communist and Hermann Goering used this information to claim that the Reichstag Fire was part of a KPD plot to overthrow the government.
Adolf Hitler gave orders that all leaders of the German Communist Party should "be hanged that very night." Paul von Hindenburg vetoed this decision but did agree that Hitler should take "dictatorial powers". KPD candidates in the election were arrested and Goering announced that the Nazi Party planned "to exterminate" German communists.
Thousands of members of the Social Democrat Party and Communist Party were arrested and sent to Germany's first concentration camp at Dachau, a village a few miles from Munich. Theodor Eicke was placed in charge of the first camp and eventually took overall control of the system.
Originally called re-education centres the Schutz Staffeinel (SS) soon began describing them as concentration camps. They were called this because they were "concentrating" the enemy into a restricted area. Hitler argued that the camps were modeled on those used by the British during the Boer War.
After the 1933 General Election Hitler passed an Enabling Bill that gave him dictatorial powers. His first move was to take over the trade unions. Its leaders were sent to concentration camps and the organization was put under the control of the Nazi Party. The trade union movement now became known as the Labour Front.
Soon afterwards the Communist Party and the Social Democrat Party were banned. Party activists still in the country were arrested and by the end of 1933 over 150,000 political prisoners were in concentration camps. Hitler was aware that people have a great fear of the unknown, and if prisoners were released, they were warned that if they told anyone of their experiences they would be sent back to the camp.
It was not only left-wing politicians and trade union activists who were sent to concentration camps. The Gestapo also began arresting beggars, prostitutes, homosexuals, alcoholics and anyone who was incapable of working. Although some inmates were tortured, the only people killed during this period were prisoners who tried to escape and those classed as "incurably insane".
Inmates wore serial numbers and coloured patches to identify their categories: red for political prisoners, blue for those who were foreigners, violet for religious fundamentalists, green for criminals, black for those considered to be anti-social and pink for homosexuals.
As well as the one built at Dachau concentration camps were also built at Belsen and Buchenwald (Germany), Mauthausen (Austria), Theresienstadt (Czechoslovakia) and Auschwitz (Poland). Each camp was commanded by a senior Schutzstaffel (SS) officer and staffed by members of the SS Death's Head units. The camp was divided into blocks and each one was under the charge of a senior prisoner.
As well as using members of the SS the camp commander often recruited Baltic or Ukrainian Germans to control inmates. As they had previously been minorities of repressed communities, they were particularly good at dealing harshly with Russians, Poles and Jews.
By 1944 there were 13 main concentration camps and over 500 satellite camps. In an attempt to increase war-production, inmates were used as cheap-labour. The Schutzstaffel (SS) charged industrial companies around 6 marks for each prisoner working a twelve-hour day.
At the Wannsee Conference held in January 1942 it was decided to make the extermination of the Jews a systematically organized operation. After this date extermination camps were established in the east that had the capacity to kill large numbers including Belzec (15,000 a day), Sobibor (20,000), Treblinka (25,000) and Majdanek (25,000).
It has been estimated that between 1933 and 1945 a total of 1,600,000 were sent to concentration work camps. Of these, over a million died of a variety of different causes. During this period around 18 million were sent to extermination camps. Of these, historians have estimated that between five and eleven million were killed.
(1) After the war George Topas recalled meeting for the first time Reinhold Felix, the commandant of the camp in Budzyn.
"You are fortunate to have come here. This is a good camp. Here you will work and get fed. Of course, if you expect to eat, you will have to work for it and as long as you work, you will get along fine. Now, it is prohibited to possess any silver, gold, money, or jewelry - therefore, if you turn it in now, you will not be punished."
Just at this moment, someone moved in the ranks. Felix whipped out his gun and shot him on the spot, then resumed without a pause: "Now, when I finish speaking, I want you to turn in your valuables, such as gold, silver, diamonds, and currency."
(2) Wilhelm Jäger, a doctor working for Alfried Krupp at his fuse factory at Auschwitz, reported about conditions in the camp on 15th December, 1942.
Conditions in all camps for foreign workers were extremely bad. They were greatly overcrowded. The diet was entirely inadequate. Only bad meat, such as horsemeat or meat which had been rejected by veterinarians as infected with tuberculosis germs, was passed out in these camps. Clothing, too, was altogether inadequate. Foreigners from the east worked and slept in the same clothing in which they arrived. Nearly all of them had to use their blankets as coats in cold and wet weather. Many had to to walk to work barefoot, even in winter. Tuberculosis was particularly prevalent. The TB rate was four times the normal rate. This was the result of inferior housing, poor food and an insufficient amount of it, and overwork.
(3) Witold Pilecki, an officer in the Tajna Armia Polska, the Polish Secret Army, began sending out information on what was happening in Auschwitz in October 1940.
On the way one of us was ordered to run to a post a little off the road and immediately after him went a round from a machine-gun. He was killed. Ten of his casual comrades were pulled out of the ranks and shot on the march with pistols on the ground of "collective responsibility" for the "escape", arranged by the SS-men themselves. The eleven were dragged along by straps tied to one leg. The dogs were teased with the bloody corpses and set onto them. All this to the accompaniment of laughter and jokes.
(4) Tadeusz Goldsztajn, a sixteen year old Jewish boy from Poland, began work at Alfried Krupp's fuse factory at Auschwitz in July, 1943.
At work we were Krupp's charges. SS guards were placed along the wall to prevent escape, but seldom interfered with the prisoners at work. This was the work of the various 'Meisters' and their assistants. The slightest mistake, a broken tool, a piece of scrap - things which occur every day in factories around the world - would provoke them. They would hit us, kick us, beat us with rubber hoses and iron bars. If they themselves did not want to bother with punishment, they would summon the Kapo and order him to give us twenty-five lashes. To this day I sleep on my stomach, a habit I acquired at Krupp because of the sores on my back from beating.
(5) Rudolf Vrba, I Cannot Forgive (1963)
We marched into the commercial heart of Auschwitz, warehouses of the body-snachers where hundreds of prisoners worked frantically to sort, segregate and classify the clothes and the food and the valuables of those whose bodies were still burning, whose ashes would soon be used as a fertilizer.
It was an incredible sight, an enormous rectangular yard with a watchtower at each corner and surrounded by barbed wire. There were several huge storerooms and a block of what seemed like offices with a square, open balcony at one corner. Yet what first struck me was a mountain of trunks, cases, rucksacks, kitbags and parcels stacked in the middle of the yard.
Nearby was another mountain, of blankets this time, fifty thousand of them, maybe one hundred thousand. I was so staggered by the sight of these twin peaks of personal possessions that I never thought at that moment where their owners might be. In fact I did not have much time to think, for every step brought some new shock.
(6) Rudolf Höss initially concentrated on killing Red Army prisoners-of-war at Auschwitz. Later he was instructed to murder all the Jews sent to his camp.
The gassing was carried out in the detention cells of Block II. Protected by a gas-mask, I watched the killing myself. The Russians were ordered to undress in the anteroom; they then quietly entered the mortuary, for they had been told they were to be deloused. The doors were then sealed and the gas shaken down through the holes in the roof. I do not know how long this killing took. For a little while a humming sound could be heard. When the powder was thrown in, there were cries of "Gas!," then a great bellowing, and the trapped prisoners hurled themselves against both the doors. But the doors held. They were opened several hours later, so that the place might be aired. It was then that I saw, for the first time, gassed bodies in the mass.
The killing of these Russian prisoners-of-war did not cause me much concern at the time. The order had been given, and I had to carry it out. I must even admit that this gassing set my mind at rest, for the mass extermination of the Jews was to start soon and at that time neither Eichmann nor I was certain how these mass killings were to be carried out.
In the spring of 1942 the first transports of Jews, all earmarked for extermination, arrived from Upper Silesia.
It was most important that the whole business of arriving and undressing should take place in an atmosphere of the greatest possible calm. People reluctant to take off their clothes had to be helped by those of their companions who had already undressed, or by men of the Special Detachment.
Many of the women hid their babies among the piles of clothing. The men of the Special Detachment were particularly on the look-out for this, and would speak words of encouragement to the woman until they had persuaded her to take the child with her.
I noticed that women who either guessed or knew what awaited them nevertheless found the courage to joke with the children to encourage them, despite the mortal terror visible in their own eyes.
One woman approached me as she walked past and, pointing to her four children who were manfully helping the smallest ones over the rough ground, whispered: "How can you bring yourself to kill such beautiful, darling children? Have you no heart at all?"
One old man, as he passed me, hissed: "Germany will pay a heavy penance for this mass murder of the Jews." His eyes glowed with hatred as he said this. Nevertheless he walked calmly into the gas-chamber.
(7) Report sent to Alfried Krupp about conditions at Auschwitz (19th May, 1944)
At Auschwitz the families were separated, those unable to work gassed, and the remainder singled out for conscription. The girls were shaved bald and tattooed with camp numbers. Their possessions, including clothing and shoes, were taken away and replaced by prison uniform and shoes. The dress was in one piece, made of grey material, with a red cross on the back and the yellow Jew-patch on the sleeve.
(8) In April 1944, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler escaped from Auschwitz. Two months later they were able to publish the Vrba-Wetzler Report providing details of conditions in the camp.
The crematorium contains a large hall, a gas chamber and a furnace. People are assembled in the hall, which holds 2,000. They have to undress and are given a piece of soap and a towel as if they were going to the baths. Then they are crowded into the gas chamber which is hermetically sealed. Several SS men in gas masks then pour into the gas chamber through three openings in the ceiling a preparation of the poison gas maga-cyclon. At the end of three minutes all the persons are dead. The dead bodies are then taken away in carts to the furnace to be burnt.
(9) Walter Kramer, statement made at American Military Headquarters in Marburg, Germany (September, 1945)
In Danzig we were unloaded onto old barges in which the water was twenty centimetres deep. One tugboat drew the four barges up the Vistula to the notorious concentration camp of Stutthof. The camp S.S. immediately took us into custody. They took everything from us; we didn't keep even a belt and had to fasten our pants with twine. They led us to Compound Three, designed for two hundred fifty men, but we filled it with nine hundred. There were only three-level bunk beds - four men on the bottom, three in the middle and three more on the top. I always slept at top, for at least up there you don't get whipped so easily by the compound superior. The first two days we got nothing at all to eat.
In a camp such as Stutthof where there were forty-five thousand prisoners nine hundred didn't matter very much. Everything to speed our deaths.... One evening we had just lain down in our bunks when we had to line up for roll call. We simply stormed out of the barracks and the billy clubs did their work. Then right about face and to the gallows; forty-five thousand men were kicked out of bed to watch a prisoner being hanged for violation of camp rules.
(10) Richard Dimbleby, BBC radio broadcast from Belsen (19th April 1945)
I picked my way over corpse after corpse in the gloom, until I heard one voice raised above the gentle undulating moaning. I found a girl, she was a living skeleton, impossible to gauge her age for she had practically no hair left, and her face was only a yellow parchment sheet with two holes in it for eyes. She was stretching out her stick of an arm and gasping something, it was "English, English, medicine, medicine", and she was trying to cry but she hadn't enough strength. And beyond her down the passage and in the hut there were the convulsive movements of dying people too
weak to raise themselves from the floor.
In the shade of some trees lay a great collection of bodies. I walked about them trying to count, there were perhaps 150 of them flung down on each other, all naked, all so thin that their yellow skin glistened like stretched rubber on their bones. Some of the poor starved creatures whose bodies were there looked so utterly unreal and inhuman that I could have imagined that they had never lived at all. They were like polished skeletons, the skeletons that medical students like to play practical jokes with.
At one end of the pile a cluster of men and women were gathered round a fire; they were using rags and old shoes taken from the bodies to keep it alight, and they were heating soup over it. And close by was the enclosure where 500 children between the ages of five and twelve had been kept. They were not so hungry as the rest, for the women had sacrificed themselves to keep them alive. Babies were born at Belsen, some of them shrunken, wizened little things that could not live, because their mothers could not feed them.
One woman, distraught to the point of madness, flung herself at a British soldier who was on guard at the camp on the night that it was reached by the 11th Armoured Division; she begged him to give her some milk for the tiny baby she held in her arms. She laid the mite on the ground and threw herself at the sentry's feet and kissed his boots. And when, in his distress, he asked her to get up, she put the baby in his arms and ran off crying that she would find milk for it because there was no milk in her breast. And when the soldier opened the bundle of rags to look at the child, he found that it had been dead for days.
There was no privacy of any kind. Women stood naked at the side of the track, washing in cupfuls of water taken from British Army trucks. Others squatted while they searched themselves for lice, and examined each other's hair. Sufferers from dysentery leaned against the huts, straining helplessly, and all around and about them was this awful drifting tide of exhausted people, neither caring nor watching. Just a few held out their withered hands to us as we passed by, and blessed the doctor, whom they knew had become the camp commander in place of the brutal Kramer.
(11) Peter Combs was a British soldier who witnessed the liberation of Belsen. He wrote about what he saw in a letter to his wife in April 1945.
The conditions in which these people live are appalling. One has to take a tour round and see their faces, their slow staggering gait and feeble movements. The state of their minds is plainly written on their faces, as starvation has reduced their bodies to skeletons. The fact is that all these were once clean-living and sane and certainly not the type to do harm to the Nazis. They are Jews and are dying now at the rate of three hundred a day. They must die and nothing can save them - their end is inescapable, they are far gone now to be brought back to life.
(12) Manchester Guardian (1st May, 1945)
The capture of the notorious concentration camp near Dachau, where approximately 32,000 persons were liberated, was announce in yesterday's S.H.A.E.F. communiqué. Three hundred S.S. guards at the camp were quickly overcome it said.
A whole battalion of Allied troops was needed to restrain the prisoners from excesses. Fifty railway trucks crammed with bodies and the discovery of gas chambers, torture rooms, whipping posts, and crematoria strongly support report which had leaked out of the camp.
An Associated Press correspondent with the Seventh Army says that many of the prisoners seized the guards' weapons and revenged themselves on the SS men. Many of the well-known prisoners, it was said, had been recently removed to a new camp in the Tyrol.
Prisoners with access to the records said that 9,000 died of hunger and disease, or were shot in the past three months and 4,000 more perished last winter.
(13) Martha Gellhorn was with the United States troops that liberated Dachau in 1945. She later wrote about it in her book The Face of War (1959)
I have not talked about how it was the day the American Army arrived, though the prisoners told me. In their joy to be free, and longing to see their friends who had come at last, many prisoners rushed to the fence and died electrocuted. There were those who died cheering, because that effort of happiness was more than their bodies could endure. There were those who died because now they had food, and they ate before they could be stopped, and it killed them. I do not know words to describe the men who have survived this horror for years, three years, five years, ten years, and whose minds are as clear and unafraid as the day they entered.
I was in Dachau when the German armies surrendered unconditionally to the Allies. We sat in that room, in that accursed cemetery prison, and no one had anything more to say. Still, Dachau seemed to me the most suitable place in Europe to hear the news of victory. For surely this war was made to abolish Dachau, and all the other places like Dachau, and everything that Dachau stood for, and to abolish it for ever.