Buchenwald was one of the largest concentration
camps established by the Nazis.
The camp was constructed in 1937 in a wooded area on the northern slopes of the Ettersberg, about five
miles northwest of Weimar in east-central Germany.
Before the Nazi takeover of power, Weimar was best known as the home
of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who embodied the German enlightenment
of the eighteenth century, and as the birthplace of German constitutional
democracy in 1919, the Weimar Republic. During the Nazi regime, “Weimar”
became associated with the Buchenwald concentration camp.
Buchenwald first opened for male prisoners in July
1937. Women were not part of the Buchenwald camp system until 1944.
Prisoners were confined in the northern part of the camp in an area
known as the main camp, while SS guard barracks and the camp administration compound were located in
the southern part. The main camp was surrounded by an electrified barbed-wire
fence, watchtowers, and a chain of sentries outfitted with automatically
activated machine guns. The jail, also known as the Bunker, was located
at the entrance to the main camp. The SS carried out shootings in the
stables and hangings in the crematorium area.
Most of the early inmates at Buchenwald were political
prisoners. However, in 1938,
in the aftermath of Kristallnacht,
German SS and police sent almost 10,000 Jews to Buchenwald where they
were subjected to extraordinarily cruel treatment. 600 prisoners died
between November 1938 and February 1939.
Beginning in 1941,
a varied program of involuntary medical
experiments on prisoners took place at Buchenwald in special barracks
in the northern part of the main camp. Medical experiments involving
viruses and contagious diseases such as typhus resulted in hundreds
of deaths. In 1944, SS Dr. Carl Vaernet began a series of experiments
that he claimed would “cure” homosexual inmates.
Also in 1944,
a “special compound” for prominent German political prisoners
was established near the camp administration building in Buchenwald.
Ernst Thaelmann, chairman of the Communist Party of Germany before Hitler's
rise to power in 1933,
was murdered there in August 1944.
War II, the Buchenwald camp system became an important source of forced labor. The prisoner
population expanded rapidly, reaching 110,000 by the end of 1945. Buchenwald
prisoners were used in the German Equipment Works (DAW), an enterprise
owned and operated by the SS; in camp workshops; and in the camp's stone
quarry. In March 1943 the Gustloff firm opened a large munitions plant in the eastern part
of the camp. A rail siding completed in 1943 connected the camp with
the freight yards in Weimar, facilitating the shipment of war supplies.
Buchenwald administered at least 87 subcamps located
across Germany, from Duesseldorf in the Rhineland to the border with
the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia in the east. Prisoners in the
satellite camps were put to work mostly in armaments factories, in stone
quarries, and on construction projects. Periodically, prisoners throughout
the Buchenwald camp system underwent selection. The SS staff sent those
too weak or disabled to continue working to the Bernburg or Sonnenstein euthanasia killing centers,
where they were killed by gas.
Other weakened prisoners were killed by phenol injections administered
by the camp doctor.
As Soviet forces swept through Poland,
the Germans evacuated thousands of concentration camp prisoners from
western Poland. After long, brutal marches, more than 10,000 weak and
exhausted prisoners from Auschwitz and Gross-Rosen, most
of them Jews, arrived in Buchenwald in January 1945.
In early April 1945,
as American forces approached the camp, the Germans began to evacuate
some 28,000 prisoners from the main camp and an additional 10,000 prisoners
from the subcamps of Buchenwald. About a third of these prisoners died
from exhaustion en route or shortly after arrival, or were shot by the
SS. Many lives were saved by the Buchenwald resistance,
whose members held key administrative posts in the camp. They obstructed
Nazi orders and delayed the evacuation.
On April 11, 1945, starved and emaciated prisoners
stormed the watchtowers, seizing control of the camp. Later that afternoon, American forces entered Buchenwald. Soldiers from the Third U.S. Army division found more than
20,000 people in the camp, 4,000 of them Jews. Approximately 56,000
people were murdered in the Buchenwald camp system, the majority of
them after 1942.