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.

There was always much pushing and shoving by the Kapos and their assistants to align the rows perfectly, just the way the SS liked them. Every man had to stand stiffly at attention and look straight ahead, his fingers straight, his thumbs lined up with the seams of his trousers, no matter if the day was warm and sunny, windy or rainy, or if it was freezing and snowing fiercely. Anyone who moved, coughed, sneezed, talked, urinated, or collapsed from the ordeal was beaten savagely.

From loudspeakers came the command “Mutze … ab!” (Caps off). The prisoners had to whip off their striped cotton caps with military precision and hold them against their right pant leg. Anyone slow in obeying the order could count on a beating with rubber hoses by the Kapos. The next order—“Mutze…auf!” (Caps on)—was similarly scrutinized. Again, slowness in executing the command would bring verbal and physical harassment.

As getting thousands of persons to perform this cap-off, cap-on maneuver with military precision was virtually impossible, it was repeated over and over again until everyone—thousands of sick, starved, and brutalized men—performed in unison, like a well-rehearsed drill team.

SS sergeants then counted the men assembled from each barracks. When the counting was finished, the scraps of paper on which the numbers had been written were gathered up and taken to the gatehouse, where SS men added up the numbers. Only during this time were the prisoners allowed to relax from their rigid postures. At this point the inmates were told to stand easy.

If the numbers were not correct, and seldom were they correct on the first count, the roll was retaken. This process, in every type of weather, normally took hours. The camp administration had a fetish for accuracy. If anyone died during the night, that person’s corpse had to be present as well, for no one was allowed to be officially declared dead until after the evening roll call.

Hunger and Slavery

After the morning counting, announcements, beatings, and hangings were concluded, the assembled group quickly broke down into their work groups, or Arbeitskommando, to begin another 12-hour day of deadly, backbreaking labor. Some prisoners worked in the quarry or on construction projects, others at administrative duties, while still others performed groundskeeping tasks. Other Kommando headed off to the laundry or the sanitation detail to clean out the latrines or the crematorium or infirmary or to work on a road-building project, or to their jobs as servants within SS households, or to some other make-work project the SS had dreamed up to keep the prisoners occupied and degraded.

At noon, work stopped for 30 minutes for lunch. The noon meal usually consisted of ersatz coffee or tea and a watery bowl of soup flavored with grass, turnip greens, or decaying vegetables. Then it was back to work until evening.

And so it went—first at Dachau, and then at all the other camps—the daily, dehumanizing routine never varying, a process that not only turned the inmates into automatons but also made it possible for the SS to regard the prisoners as less than human and thus permit the guards and administrators to mistreat them without feeling guilt or compassion.

At the end of the day, all prisoners were required once again to report to the Appellplatz and submit to another long, mind-numbing roll call. Once evening roll call was concluded, the prisoners were marched off to dinner. The evening meal was again the odd soup and perhaps some sort of salad made of moldy greens. Occasionally, as a form of group punishment for the transgressions of a few, the entire prisoner population of the camp would go without any food for an entire day.

Hunger reigned supreme. Romek Wajsman, 14 years old when he was locked up in Buchenwald, spoke for everyone when he said, “In the camps we used to fantasize of having enough bread and butter.”

Because word of Koch’s embezzlements and other administrative irregularities at Buchenwald (not connected with the mistreatment of prisoners) had reached higher ranks, Karl Otto Koch was secretly investigated by the SS. He was transferred to a new camp, Majdanek, near Lublin, Poland, in September 1941, but after only a few months he was arrested by the SS and placed on trial. Found guilty, he was imprisoned and was eventually shot by an SS firing squad at Buchenwald on April 4, 1945.

On December 20, 1941, a new administrator arrived to take command of Buchenwald, 56-year-old Oberführer (Senior Colonel) Hermann Pister. Although Pister was just as hard as Koch, he was not the sadist his predecessor had been. Life for the inmates continued to be difficult, however, and thousands continued to die from disease, starvation, and overwork.

The VIP Political Prisoners of Buchenwald

Buchenwald was almost exclusively a camp for men and boys; only a handful of women were ever held there. One of the few was Princess Mafalda Maria Elisabetta Anna Romana of Savoy, one of the daughters of Italian King Victor Emmanuel III. Her husband, Philipp of Hesse, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel, was a German nobleman and Hitler’s art agent in Italy. But, as Hitler pressured Mussolini to crack down on the Italian Jews and ship them to the death camps in Poland, Mafalda became more vocal in her opposition to the Hitler regime, causing her husband to fall out of favor with the Nazis. Believing she was working against him, Hitler made plans to do away with Mafalda, calling her “the blackest carrion in the Italian royal house.” In September 1943, she was arrested and sent to Buchenwald, where she lived in one of the VIP homes outside the barbed wire.

Princess Mafalda was not the only politically important prisoner at Buchenwald. An area known as the Fichtenhain Special Camp and its adjacent isolation barrack located between the SS barracks and the Gustloff-Werk II also held a variety of men, women, and children who were not allowed to mingle with the general concentration camp population.

French politicians, especially, were “guests” of the Nazis at Buchenwald. Léon Blum, a Jew and the former premier of the French Popular Front government from 1936 to 1938, was imprisoned here after the French Free Zone was occupied by the Germans in November 1942, following the Allied invasion of North Africa. Other members of the French government held at KL Buchenwald included Édouard Daladier (prime minister in 1940); Georges Mandel (the last minister of the interior before the fall of France in 1940); and General Maurice Gamelin (commander in chief of French and British forces in 1940). Also incarcerated atop the Etterberg were Reserve Division General Andre Challe and his son; Professor Alfred Balachowsky, director of the Pasteur Institute; and a Mssr. Clin, director of the National Library of France.

Here also was kept Dr. Rudolph Breitscheid, former chairman of the German Social Democrat Party, and his wife. In the cellar of one of the SS troop barracks was a special row of cells known as the SS detention area, where the Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was kept. Later evacuated to Flossenbürg, Bonhoeffer was hanged on April 9, 1945, just days before the camp was liberated.

KL Buchenwald did not discriminate when it came to the nationalities of its prisoners. Buchenwald also held as inmates Anton Falkenberg, head of the Copenhagen police; Petr Zenkl, the former mayor of Prague; British Wing Commander Forest Yeo-Thomas; and a former prime minister of Belgium, Paul-Emile Janson, who died at Buchenwald in 1944.

The Children and Families of Buchenwald

The Nazis were particularly hostile toward writers and intellectuals who did not toe the Nazi Party line—even if they were foreigners. Leon Jouhaux, recipient of a Nobel Prize in literature, was imprisoned at Buchenwald, as were other French writers, including Jean Améry and Robert Antelme. Held, too, were the German author Ernst Wiechert; Ernst Thälmann, the leader of the KPD (German Communist Party); and Curt Herzstark, an Austrian and the father of the pocket calculator. Konrad Adenauer, the former mayor of Cologne, was also jailed atop the Etterberg; he would be the first postwar chancellor of West Germany. Two children who would grow up to be famous authors—Elie Wiesel and the Hungarian Imre Kertész—were also inmates at Buchenwald.

Other formerly prominent individuals who spent time at Buchenwald included General Friedrich von Rabenau, implicated in Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg’s July 20, 1944, attempt to kill Hitler (von Rabenau was executed April 15, 1945, at Flossenbürg). Also included in custody was the wife of Generaloberst (Colonel General) Franz Halder, Hitler’s former chief of the general staff, suspected of involvement in the plot. Halder himself was arrested and later held at Flossenbürg and Dachau.

When the Nazis could not arrest their enemies, they often arrested the family members of their enemies. Ten members of von Stauffenberg’s family were held in the isolation barracks, as were industrialist-turned-Hitler-opponent Fritz Thyssen and his wife. Also jailed was the sister of anti-Hitler German diplomat Hans Bernd Gisevius, who had been involved in the July 20 plot and had fled Germany for Switzerland.