Even After Years Of Brutal War, The Allies Were Not Prepared For Buchenwald's Horrors

September 13, 2020 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: HolocaustNazi GermanyGenocideConcentration CampWorld War II

Even After Years Of Brutal War, The Allies Were Not Prepared For Buchenwald's Horrors

The hilltop compound near Weimar was one of the Nazis' most notorious WWII concentration camps until its liberation on April 11, 1945.

“I do not think there is anything fascinating [about tattooed skin] for a normal functioning brain; though, it was fascinating for these people, the SS. Our SS officers and guards always wanted to see these skins when they came to the pathology department. Frequently they brought visitors to the camp, led them around, and we had to explain what we were doing; how the skins were made, and they always stayed long with this collection.”

Dr. Sitte was convinced that the SS’s interest in tattooed skin was strictly for ornamental, not scientific, reasons. “You would not need hundreds and hundreds of such skins for research purposes,” he told the senators.

Koch’s underlings were just as cruel as their master. One of them was the camp’s chief jailer, 23-year-old Hauptscharführer (master sergeant) Gerhard Martin Sommer, who had previously served under Koch at Sachsenhausen.

Sommer had a favorite torture—tying prisoners’ wrists together behind their backs and then hanging them a few inches off the ground from cell bars, stanchions, or the limbs of trees until their arms became dislocated. This punishment earned him the nickname “the Hangman of Buchenwald.” When this particular form of punishment was carried out against groups of prisoners in the woods around the camp, the screams of the unfortunates were so intense that the other inmates soon gave the sound a name—the “singing forest.”

Among all the sadists at Buchenwald, and there were countless numbers, no one could approach Sommer in terms of cruelty. His office in the camp jail, known as the bunker, held various instruments of torture that would have seemed appropriate during the Spanish Inquisition, along with instruments of death—needles he used to inject air and carbolic acid into the veins of his victims.

Sommer seems to have had a special dislike for clergymen and went out of his way to abuse them on the slightest excuse, or even none at all. For example, after learning that an inmate priest had heard another Catholic’s confession, he beat the priest to death.

Slave Labor and Atrocities

If Sommer had a rival for the title of most hated and feared, it was the camp adjutant—an Obersturmführer (First Lieutenant) named Heinrich Hackmann. As Koch’s right-hand man, Hackmann was given free rein to personally administer any type of punishment he wanted on any inmate for any reason.

The stories told of Hackmann’s cruelty are legion. On one occasion, he noticed spittle on the ground, a violation of one of Koch’s sacred rules, and forced the nearest inmate to lick it up. Hackmann was especially fond of pouncing on inmates during roll call and punching them or striking them savagely with a leather whip he constantly carried.

At times the entire camp was made to witness beatings and hangings. For beatings, a special wooden table known as a bock was used, and for hangings a portable gallows, with ropes enough for five, was set up near the gatehouse. Such demonstrations told the inmates that even petty violations of camp rules would be met with the harshest punishment.

The Nazis learned early on that prisoners needed to be kept busy at hard labor in order to prevent rebellions and escapes, and soon a granite quarry was opened at Buchenwald in which almost the entire inmate population was set to work. The backbreaking labor of chopping blocks of stone was hard enough, but the SS guards and their Kapo assistants (ordinary prisoners, mostly hardened criminals, made into supervisors and given power over the other inmates) were not content with simply working the inmates to exhaustion. Many a poor soul was whipped or beaten when he could not work fast enough to please his overseers, and deaths occurred daily in the quarry—some accidental, some intentional.

Tales are told of heavy carts full of rocks being pushed up a steeply graded track only to be pushed back down at breakneck speed until they derailed or crashed into inmates working at the bottom, or of prisoners being shot or pushed off the lip of the quarry, or of prisoners being held in the branches of a bent sapling at the surface, which was then allowed to spring upright like a catapult, launching the helpless man to his death on the rocks below.

In time, two factories were built at Buchenwald to supplement the work that was going on in the quarry—work that never ceased. One was known as Deutsche Ausrüstungswerke GmbH (German Military Equipment Works, Inc., abbreviated DAW, an SS-run enterprise formed in 1939), which made rifles, panzerFausts (antitank rocket launchers), and other weapons, while the other, which opened in early 1943, was created for the assembly of gyroscopes intended to be installed in Wernher von Braun’s V-2 rockets. The rocket-testing facility at Peenemunde and the underground manufacturing works at Nordhausen, along with a camp known as Mittelbau-Dora, all made extensive use of slave labor from Buchenwald. Inmates from the camp were also drafted to work in various other German industries, including the Krupp steel works in Essen.

Experimentation on the Prisoners

In 1943, Buchenwald, along with many of the other camps, became a site for gruesome medical experiments conducted on live patients by Nazi doctors. Poisons were tested on live subjects, as were various pathogens such as typhus. Some inmates were intentionally wounded and their injuries allowed to become infected so that various types of treatment could be tried on them.

If the victims did not die during the experiments, they were killed so that their bodies could be autopsied. The internal organs of some of the victims from these experiments were preserved in jars at Buchenwald’s pathology department in the “name of science.”

One of the major problems within the concentration camps was endemic typhus, a louse-borne disease that not only affected the prisoners but could easily spread to the guards, administrators, and the nearby civilian population. Shortly after the camp was opened, a large tank of delousing solution was installed. Whenever a transport of new prisoners arrived, they were ordered to strip naked and line up to have all their body hair shorn. The hair was collected and used for stuffing mattresses.

One prisoner at Buchenwald recounted the barbering ritual: “My barber started by placing clippers on my forehead and running them to the base of my neck. Five strokes and the job was done…. With dull clippers, underarm, genital, and anal hair were also removed, leaving us nicked and bleeding. From here we were led to a pool filled with creosote and ordered to get in. I groaned with pain; every nick and cut stung like hell.”

Life in the Buchenwald Camp

A typical day in the life of a Buchenwald inmate began at, or before, dawn when the prisoners were rousted out of their bunks with shouts from their barracks chiefs known as Blockälteste. The inmates scrambled to the latrine and washroom, where they were allotted only a few minutes to take care of their personal business. There, a pitifully weak stream of cold water was all the men could use to wet their faces and perhaps splash onto their stinking bodies.

Once the morning ablution was finished, it was off to the mess hall, where thousands of famished men, their stomachs growling audibly, fought over the meager scraps of food provided to them by their masters. It was a stretch to even call it food, for rarely was it fit to feed even barnyard animals. One small loaf of sawdust laced bread might be divided among five or more men, each one thinking the man next to him received a slightly larger slice than did he; fights over a scrap of bread broke out often. A lukewarm cup of ersatz coffee or tea and a bowl of thin, nearly inedible soup usually made from grass and turnips was ladled out. On rare occasions, if the SS men were feeling generous, there might be a small piece of sausage, which was often rotten and made from “condemned” meat.

The inmates then rushed back to their barracks to sweep them clean and ensure that every bed was made and every bunk was perfectly aligned. If anyone had defecated in his bed during the night (a not-uncommon occurrence, given the high incidence of dysentery), the bed had to be scrubbed clean. And if so much as one piece of straw was found on the floor or one bunk was out of alignment, beatings by the Kapos would be meted out to the innocent and guilty alike.

Roll Call at the Camp

Then the entire population of each barracks double-timed to the Appellplatz, or roll-call square, adjacent to the main gate, running a gauntlet of Kapos and guards with rubber hoses who lashed out at them as they dashed past. Anyone who tripped and fell to the ground was subjected to a real beating. Guards with weapons at the ready watched over the square from their towers.

Roll call was a twice daily exercise in terror and intimidation. At the Appellplatz, where inmates from all of the barracks were gathering, prisoners too weak or ill to run were carried by their blockmates, and it was common for the SS man in charge of the roll call to beat any inmates claiming to be sick. Inmates too ill to work (and an inmate needed to be near death to be excused from work details) reported to the infirmary, a place of horror from which very few inmates ever returned alive.