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Buchenwald: History & Overview

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.

During World 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.

In the summer of 1944, American airmen shot down over France were sent to Buchenwald for nine weeks before being transferred to a POW camp.

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.

Survivors gathered on April 11, 2022, to commemorate its liberation exactly 77 years earlier by Allied forces. There are only 16 remaining survivors of the camp

Sources: U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Mitchell Bard, Forgotten Victims: The Abandonment of Americans in Hitler's Camps, (Westview Press: 1994).
Survivors mark 77 years of liberation of Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp, DW, (April 11, 2022).