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.

Those Germans with weak stomachs and tender dispositions wept and vomited. Others remained stone-faced, masking their emotions behind impassive glances at the corpses, the gallows, the ovens, the very visible evidence of torture, abuse, and crimes against humanity.

Army photographer Walter Halloran said, “The first group was the men, and of course they were older men because all the young men were in the army. We were so angry we wanted to shoot some of them. They were just rigid and they looked straight forward, not a glance at what was there. Everybody, of course, said they had no idea this was going on.”

One GI noted that, after the tour was concluded, the group marched out through the gate and back down the road to Weimar under American escort. The soldier recalled that he was told, “There was a large patrol of our troops marching them, some on either side of the road. As they were moving back to Weimar, not even out of sight of the camp, a number of Germans in the group found something to laugh about. The commander of the American troops heard them and became livid with anger. He turned them around and marched them back through the camp again. This time they went through much more slowly.”

Buchenwald After the War

In coming days, following a request by Eisenhower to Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall, groups of American newspaper editors and members of Congress also visited the camp to see firsthand the atrocities committed by the Nazis.

Eventually, Buchenwald was emptied of former inmates as members of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration moved in. Many of the ex-prisoners tried to return to their homes and families only to find that their homes and families no longer existed (Robert Max Widerman, for example, learned that practically his entire family had been wiped out). Some emigrated to Palestine (where the new state of Israel would be created three years later), others to the United States, Britain, and France. Others, from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and other East European nations, did not wish to go to their former homes because the Soviet Union had taken control of those countries.

In fact, during the partition of Germany, Buchenwald fell within the Soviet sector. With no little irony, Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union used Buchenwald for many years as a concentration camp for its political prisoners.

Thirty-two of the perpetrators of the crimes at Buchenwald were hunted down and put on trial in 1947. Hermann Pister was tried and sentenced to death but died of a heart attack while in prison. Ilse Koch was also found guilty and sentenced to life in prison, but her sentence was commuted in 1949 by General Lucius D. Clay, the United States high commissioner for Germany. The West German government, however, rearrested and retried her in 1951. Sentenced again to life in prison, she committed suicide in her cell in 1967.

In October 1990, after the fall of communism and the reunification of Germany, the former camp, with most of its buildings torn down, was opened to visitors from the West and elsewhere as a memorial to the victims of Nazism. It remains a chilling reminder of man’s inhumanity to man.

It is also a warning that such terrible things must never be allowed to happen again—a warning that the world has yet to heed.

Denver resident Flint Whitlock has written several books on World War II and is a frequent contributor to WWII History. This article is an excerpt from his upcoming book on Buchenwald.

This article first appeared at the Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikipedia.