As of 04/11/2020 06:03 p.m.
Built by the SS on Ettersberg near Weimar in July 1937, the Buchenwald concentration camp with its 139 satellite camps became the largest concentration camp in the Third Reich until the end of the war. Almost 280,000 people are interned within eight years, more than 56,000 are murdered or die as a result of torture, starvation or medical experiments. 75 years ago, on April 11, 1945, US troops reached the camp. The prisoners had previously made a risky cry for help.
“Comrades, we have the camp in our hands”, it sounds in the early afternoon of April 11, 1945 over the camp site of the Buchenwald concentration camp, located on the Ettersberg near Weimar. The voice comes from the same loudspeaker from which the SS used to give its orders loudly until then. “‘Comrades,’ said this voice – unbelievable. The SS had never used this word,” Rolf Kralovitz, a former prisoner in Buchenwald, describes this moving moment in his memoirs.
After that, he couldn’t stand it anymore in the block where he was hiding and ran to the roll call place. “There I saw the first American tank. On it stood an American soldier who spoke to the surrounding prisoners. Someone translated: ‘Don’t be afraid, the war will soon be over,” said Rolf Kralovitz. The end of the camp comes so surprisingly to Kralovitz, who is imprisoned as a Jew, and to his surviving fellow prisoners that they only gradually understand that the horror has come to an end – that they are free.
Death marches and deportations: The atrocities committed by the SS
Before that, in the last days of the Buchenwald concentration camp, the mood among the prisoners in the camp was already unbearably tense. In April 1945 there were still around 48,000 prisoners in the camp. It has been clear since mid-March 1945 that the Western Allies are on the march towards Central Germany. Since April 5, 1945, the camp SS has been preparing to clear the Buchenwald concentration camp. On April 6, Himmler gave the order to evacuate the camp. The SS sends several thousand Jewish prisoners on the first evacuation march. Anyone who can escape the raids of the SS goes into hiding – a game of chance. Rolf Kralovitz, prisoner “TenNullNinety”, is also hiding and can escape the SS and the march, which was so deadly for many.
A few days before the liberation by the Americans, the command begins to deport all prisoners. On a total of 60 march routes – mostly on foot – around 28,000 prisoners from the main camp and at least 10,000 prisoners from the satellite camps have to leave the camp in the last days of its existence. Most find death on the infamous death marches of the SS to Theresienstadt or southern Germany – they are shot or die of hunger and exhaustion.
Resistance to the Nazis in Buchenwald concentration camp is growing
The Buchenwald concentration camp is getting out of control bit by bit these days. The SS command apparatus is increasingly losing its ability to act. An internal resistance movement has long been organized, which is able to mislead the SS and is difficult to control. It creates chaos, hides persecuted prisoners, opposes the orders, calls for disobedience and unity among the prisoners. In a bombing raid on the concentration camp in August 1944, this illegal camp committee took advantage of the chaos that had arisen and acquired weapons from an SS camp that were hidden, buried or walled up in the blocks.
Cry for help via secretly installed transmitter
The resistors are not planning an armed uprising, however. Rather, they can make themselves known and wait for the support of the Allies: In the cinema barrack of the camp, two electricians secretly install a transmitter on behalf of the illegal camp management to inform the approaching US troops. “To the Allies! To the army of General Patton! SOS! We ask for help. We want to be evacuated. The SS wants to destroy us,” reads the radio message on April 8th under General Georg Smith Patton comes in.
Rescue by the Americans
The Americans reach the main camp in Buchenwald on April 11th. In camp report no. 1, inmates of the concentration camp record the events of the day. The tanks of the US troops roll into the SS area at around 2:30 p.m. A short time later, the prisoners start their campaign to disarm the remaining SS people and take over the camp. At 3:00 p.m., groups of prisoners took control of the SS command tower after fighting with the guards.
The camp was liberated. Around 21,000 prisoners can be released. For many political opponents of the Nazis – Jews, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, so-called gypsies, “professional criminals” and “anti-socialists”, the liberation comes too late. More than 56,000 people were murdered from the foundation of the concentration camp in Buchenwald in 1937 until the end of 1945. A total of almost 280,000 detainees had passed through the main camp or the 139 subcamps.
The myth of the liberation of Buchenwald concentration camp
Self-liberation or external liberation? The resistance movement in Buchenwald concentration camp is later heroized in the history of the GDR. The myth of self-liberation dominates socialist historiography. In fact, there was an illegal camp committee that also organized resistance to the SS. Without the help of the US Army, however, the prisoners would not have had a chance. They had few weapons. According to estimates by Buchenwald memorial there were about 70 with whom they would never have been able to overpower the SS.
Buchenwald: From the concentration camp to the Soviet internment camp
From August 1945, the camp on Ettersberg was set up as a Soviet “special camp 2”, as an internment camp of the Soviet secret service NKVD for Nazi and war criminals. It is considered a “silent camp” and is completely isolated from the outside world. A total of 28,455 people were interned there until the camp was closed in 1950 and the inmates were handed over to the GDR judiciary. In addition to Nazi and war criminals and small and medium-sized officials of the NSDAP and Military and HJ members include many who come to the camp as a result of denunciations, confusion and arbitrary arrests, according to Soviet sources 7,113 people die there and are buried in mass graves the Soviet Union is deported, and relatives should never receive official notification.
Buchenwald Memorial: New concept after the fall of the Berlin Wall
These special camps serve to enforce the Soviet occupation policy. The topic was taboo until the end of the GDR. Instead, the site served from 1958 with the inauguration of a monumental memorial as the “Buchenwald National Memorial and Memorial”, in which only the Nazi concentration camp and heroic self-liberation are remembered – as it were the founding myth of the GDR.
That should change with the fall of the wall. In November 1989, employees began to redesign the memorial and to open the memorial to the other groups of victims. Other permanent exhibitions are added. Today the place of remembrance only bears the name Buchenwald Memorial.