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.

Returning to Hottelstedt, Keffer told Bennett what he had found and requested that food, water, and medical help be dispatched to the camp as soon as possible. Bennett radioed higher headquarters of the discovery of Buchenwald. The electrifying news that 21,000 sick and starving prisoners were still alive atop the Etterberg (some 24,000 had been evacuated a few days earlier and either put on trains to other camps or sent on death marches to wander the countryside) but needed an enormous amount of help—and quickly—was passed up the line. In short order, mobile hospitals and field kitchens were dispatched to Buchenwald.

“We Expected to Defend Ourselves”

The prisoners at Buchenwald had been waiting years for this day. A secret “international committee,” headed mostly by incarcerated communists from several nations, had squirreled away weapons made from parts stolen from the on-site armaments factory or purchased clandestinely from bribed guards. The overriding fear was that, once the SS knew that the Allies were about to uncover Buchenwald, they would massacre all of the inmates.

A former prisoner noted, “Only a limited number of inmates were aware of the planned uprising, but the SS, in some way or another, had learned of the existence of the camp’s ‘underground.’ However, they were never able to find out who the leaders or members of the underground were.”

One of the inmates, Max Feuer, recalled that the prisoners had been arming themselves since 1943. “We expected to defend ourselves,” he said. “We counted now that the guards will try to exterminate the camp. For this moment we were prepared to fight the guards.”

When firing was heard in the direction of Hottelstedt, the leaders of the international committee knew that the Americans were nearby and sprang into action; weapons were handed out (in addition to their smuggled weapons, the now-free inmates broke into the guards’ armory and grabbed 1,500 rifles, 18 light machine guns, four heavy machine guns, and 180 PanzerFaust antitank weapons) and rushed to their preassigned stations around the camp.

A very brief firefight, lasting no more than 15 minutes, broke out between guards and armed inmates. Most of the guards fled with inmates in pursuit. One hundred and twenty guards and other personnel were rounded up that day and brought back to the camp, where they were kept under armed guard in a barracks. They were later turned over to the Americans.

One of the inmates, a French teenager named Robert Max Widerman (he would later change his name to Robert Clary and be one of the stars of Hogan’s Heroes, a television situation comedy set in a World War II POW camp), who had already been in Auschwitz and Gross-Rosen, recalled the day of liberation: “We tore off our shirts and waved them…. Inmates hugged each other, jumping up and down, dancing, laughing with tears running down their cheeks, and shouting with incredible joy. Those too ill and weak could only smile; they understood what was happening. It was almost impossible to fathom that this day had actually arrived, that our miseries had come to an end, that we had survived.”

After the arrival of the Americans, the heavy mantle of death had been lifted off the camp as if by magic, transfiguring the grim, monochromatic landscape into a bright and hopeful vision. Robert Max Widerman noted, “Flags from all European nations had appeared, flying from the tops of the barracks. The whole camp took on a different tone. There was constant laughter, mixed with the eerie feeling we had of believing without believing what had just happened to us. The GIs [later] distributed food—things we hadn’t seen for years, and in large quantity. The tragedy is that many survivors died from overeating food too rich for them after such a long time of starvation.”

Over the next few days, as medical teams worked to stabilize the survivors, streams of GIs visited the camp and could not comprehend what they saw.

Allied Ignorance of the Camps: “It Came Out of the Blue”

It is curious that American soldiers and officers have professed a definite lack of knowledge of the camps and the persecutions that had been taking place in Europe since 1933. None of the officers or men of the advancing American units in 1945 apparently knew anything about the Nazi concentration camps they would soon encounter. As a consequence, the soldiers were completely unprepared psychologically for the experiences that would haunt them for the rest of their lives.

In the writings of the generals and statements of those GIs who came across the camps it appears that all were ignorant as to what was happening in the camps they uncovered. For example, although he recalled reading countless newspaper stories about the Nazi persecution of the Jews, Captain Mel Rappaport, 6th Armored Division, who arrived at Buchenwald on or about April 16, insisted that neither he nor the Army “knew in advance about the concentration camps, the killing centers, the gas chambers, the ovens, the hanging bars, the shooting grounds, etc. The big brass hats never told us that we would someday overrun these camps. Not even Patton knew.”

Merrill C. Burgstahler, an enlisted man with the 6th, also claimed no prior knowledge of the atrocities that were being committed. “It came out of the blue,” he said.

The reason why most soldiers have professed an ignorance of the persecutions being heaped upon the Jews of Europe may seem puzzling at first, but the answer may be quite simple. Millions of young men who may have been accustomed to reading a daily newspaper in their hometowns were suddenly plucked, either by the draft boards or by their own enlistment, from their homes and transported hundreds or thousands of miles away to a military base. A young man from, say, Brooklyn, who regularly read The New York Times, might have found himself in 1942 or 1943 at some backwater Army installation where The New York Times was not sold. The local newspaper likely did not carry many stories about the treatment of European Jews and, in any case, the average soldier, even if he had been aware of the situation overseas before entering the military, was too busy with his training duties and too concerned about his upcoming deployment to a combat zone to spend much time reading newspapers and attempting to educate himself on the larger picture and the plight of others. His primary focus was on preparing himself for battle.

Furthermore, there is no evidence that the average American soldier received any official Army instruction, either in basic training, advanced infantry training, or at briefings in the field once deployed to the European combat zone that would have educated him about concentration camps or readied him for the possibility of encountering such places. Members of specialized military government units were schooled in how to govern towns and cities captured from the enemy and how to deal with large numbers of civilian refugees but not concentration camps and concentration camp inmates. And, although the average American soldier was issued numerous training and field manuals on scores of subjects, there were no manuals that told him what to expect or how to conduct himself if he should unexpectedly encounter a camp filled with tens of thousands of sick and starving persons, or mountains of skeletal corpses that had been systematically slaughtered.

Even the acclaimed documentary film series Why We Fight by Frank Capra, which was shown to all U.S. Army inductees as indoctrination, did not dwell on the plight of European Jewry. In fact, in the entire seven hours of film, the Jews are mentioned only once. In the first film, Prelude to War, over a montage of images of churches and a synagogue, the announcer intones, “Thousands of other men of God—Protestant, Catholic, Jewish—were persecuted, arrested, confined in concentration camps.” The scene takes less than 15 seconds—15 seconds out of seven hours. There is not a single mention of Kristallnacht, ghettos, persecutions, medical experiments, gas chambers, or any explanation of what the narrator’s offhand reference to “concentration camps” meant.

It is no wonder, then, that the average American soldier in 1945 was totally at a loss when he came face to face with the shocking reality of the camps.

Showing the Atrocities to the People of Weimar

On April 16, Third Army commander Patton paid a visit to Buchenwald. Not only was Patton shocked by the stacks of corpses scattered around the camp, their dead eyes staring at him; he was also incredibly angry. He was angry that the Nazis could do this to other human beings and even angrier that the townspeople of Weimar, who undoubtedly knew what had been going on atop the Etterberg hill for eight years, silently condoned it and even profited from it.

To “rub their noses” in the rotting flesh and scenes of atrocities, Patton ordered a thousand citizens of Weimar to march up the hill and forced them to take a guided tour of the camp and view the crematorium with its charred skeletons still in the ovens, the piles of decomposing corpses, the hanging gallows, the whipping bench, the jars from the pathology lab filled with human organs, and the samples of shrunken heads and lamp shades made from tattooed human flesh.