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The liberation of Dachau

Caution: This article contains graphic content and photos
The prisoners’ entrance with the infamous “Arbeit macht frei” slogan (Photo: Author’s own)
The prisoners’ entrance with the infamous “Arbeit macht frei” slogan (Photo: Author’s own)

Today marks the 77th anniversary of the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp by American forces on April 29, 1945. It was the first Nazi concentration camp opened shortly after Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 (Read our earlier article – Becoming Führer) and served as a model for other concentration camps. Its inmates went through unimaginable horrors over the twelve years of its existence. In this article, we will look at story of the camp, the last chaotic days before the liberation and the aftermath thereof.
Dachau is a small town of approximately 47,000 inhabitants, founded in the 9th century. It lies just 10 miles (16 km) from Munich, the capital of the state of Bavaria, north of the Bavarian Alps in southern Germany. The Nazis used to call Munich the "Capital of the Movement" due to its importance in the rise of National Socialism. Hitler attempted the unsuccessful Beer Hall Putsch here in 1923, which resulted in the death of 16 Nazis and 4 policemen, adding another “heroic” event to the Nazi mythology. The headquarters of the Nazi Party, the National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei - NSDAP in German), was also here. Munich had an important role again when the Nazis rose to power in 1933, and immediately started to get rid of the “enemies of the Reich” (Communists, Social Democrats, etc.) or anyone else who they thought to endanger their plans. Against this background, it is not surprising that the Munich Police President and Head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, opened the first state concentration camp on the grounds of an unused gunpowder and munitions factory in the northeastern part of Dachau on March 22, 1933.

SS leader Heinrich Himmler visiting Dachau in 1936 (Photo: Wikipedia)
SS leader Heinrich Himmler visiting Dachau in 1936 (Photo: Wikipedia)

Its original purpose was to imprison political opponents, and to function as a labor and re-education camp. Later, the camp was enlarged and held Jews, Roma, priests, homosexuals, criminals, Freemasons, foreigners from the countries the Third Reich attacked (the Polish inmates constituted the largest group), and even Nazis, since it served as an SS penal camp, too. The camp became the center of more than 100 subcamps, located sometimes even 120-190 miles (200-300 km) away from Dachau, providing workforce to armaments factories through forced labor.
The second commander of the camp, SS-Gruppenführer Theodor Eicke, reorganized the camp which served as a model for other concentration camps when he became Chief Inspector of the concentration camps. The training of the new guards included also the intention to make them feel a total disdain for human life. Eicke used the slogan "Arbeit macht frei" (“Work sets you free”) for the first time on the building of the prisoners’ entrance, also known as the Jourhaus (where the officer of the day and his staff are stationed), which was later copied in other camps like Auschwitz. The camp consisted of 34 barracks and was surrounded by an electrified barbed-wire fence, a ditch, and a wall with seven guard towers. The guards automatically shot those prisoners who got too close to the fence (the so-called “neutral zone”).

SS-Gruppenführer Theodor Eicke, Chief Inspector of the concentration camps (Photo: Wikipedia)
SS-Gruppenführer Theodor Eicke, Chief Inspector of the concentration camps (Photo: Wikipedia)

Prisoners lived in constant fear. With the ultimate goal of breaking their personality, the inmates were subjected to severe maltreatment, humiliation, forced labor, corporal punishment, insufficient food rations, medieval torture methods (pole hanging, standing cells, etc.), standing at attention for hours on the roll-call square, medical experiments without consent, and eventually extrajudicial killings (known as “special treatment”). Many of the prisoners committed suicide just to put an end to the unbearable suffering. For instance, they deliberately entered the “neutral zone” or threw themselves against the high-voltage barbed-wire fence. At the same time, many murders committed by the guards were disguised as suicide. Some inmates were shot “while trying to escape." Others were assigned to defuse bombs and remove debris after the Allied bombing raids.
Because of the unhygienic conditions and inadequate food rations, many prisoners were sick but the SS doctors of the camp, many of whom had no medical training, never really intended to heal the patients, they rather executed medical experiments on them. The dentists collected the gold teeth from the dead prisoners. Hundreds died as the result of the experiments lead by SS-Untersturmführer Dr. Sigmund Rascher. Most of the human experiments were conducted for the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe. Hypothermia experiments involved exposure to baths in icy water to see how pilots shot down would react in the ice-cold sea and how they could be rescued. For the same purpose, they also executed seawater-drinking experiments. In the high-altitude experiments, in order to see how jet fighter pilots would react, victims were subjected to rapid decompression, and experienced convulsions, breathing problems, and eventually death. Under the leadership of the former tropical disease expert of the Robert Koch Institute, Prof. Dr. Klaus Schilling, malaria experiments were conducted for the planned occupation of the southern parts of the Soviet Union by German settlers. He infected more than 1000 prisoners with malaria to analyze the symptoms.

  Dr. Sigmund Rascher, the SS doctor in charge of the human experiments (Photo:
Dr. Sigmund Rascher, the SS doctor in charge of the human experiments (Photo:

During the months shortly before the liberation the conditions got even worse. In November 1944, a typhus epidemic broke out in the camp due to poor sanitation and overcrowding, causing around 14,000 deaths. Because of shortages in coal from February 1945 and the high number of the dead, the camp personnel were not able to cremate the dead for months and thus buried 4,318 bodies in eight mass graves on the Leitenberg, a nearby hill. Many of the dead were simply lying around in the open on the grounds of the camp. Death became a daily experience that no one cared about after a while.

An 18-year-old Russian Jew prisoner, suffering from dysentery (Photo: AFP)
An 18-year-old Russian Jew prisoner, suffering from dysentery (Photo: AFP)

As the fronts got closer and closer, Himmler decided to evacuate the camps close to the front and to cover up any evidence related to the camps. Some inmates were executed already before the evacuation. For instance, Georg Elser, the carpenter who carried out an unsuccessful assassination attempt against Hitler in 1939 (Read our earlier article – The carpenter who almost killed Hitler), was quietly shot dead on April 9, 1945. His files claimed he was killed in an Allied bombing attack. At the same time, thousands of prisoners were sent on “death marches”, many of whom died during the marches from exhaustion, hunger or were executed by the guards. Inmates of Dachau were sent to the south to the Alps where the Nazis planned to fight until the end at the Eagle’s Nest (the so-called National Redoubt). After a while, their guards got so alienated that they shamelessly crushed the skulls of the prisoners with the butt of their guns in the middle of crowded streets. The commander in charge of the camp, SS-Hauptsturmführer Eduard Weiter fled with the guards and joined the march of around 6000-7000 prisoners on April 26. The same day, prisoner Karl Riemer managed to escape from the camp to get help from the advancing American troops in Pfaffenhofen (the order to liberate the camp had already been given). Days before, the commander intended to hand over the camp to the American forces but Himmler refused his proposal and underlined that no prisoner should be handed over alive to the Allied. Weiter died on May 2, 1945 at the Itter castle, a sub-camp of Dachau, in Austria. He either committed suicide or was killed by a fellow SS. When he left Dachau, he entrusted the young SS-Hauptsturmführer Heinrich Wicker, aged 23, with leading the camp. He had around 130 men. Wicker’s plan was to surrender to the Americans with the help from a delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Victor Maurer. The latter convinced him not to desert and evacuate the prisoners (which would have meant their inevitable death) but to hand over the whole camp to the U.S. Army.

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A photo of SS-Hauptsturmführer Heinrich Wicker, the last commander of the camp (Photo:
A photo of SS-Hauptsturmführer Heinrich Wicker, the last commander of the camp (Photo:

On April 28, 1945, one day before the arrival of the Americans, a revolt broke out in the town of Dachau. Former and escaped inmates, and a group of Volkssturm (national militia) members occupied the town hall. The Nazis suppressed the revolt in a couple of hours and executed the members of the insurgence.
Dachau was liberated by U.S. forces on April 29, 1945. On the day of the liberation, there were 32.000 inmates in the overcrowded camp that was built for 6.000. Two American divisions of the 7th Army, the 42nd “Rainbow” Infantry Division and the 45th “Thunderbird” Infantry Division were mainly involved in the liberation of the camp. There are different versions which division was the first to liberate Dachau.

The insignia of the 42nd Infantry Division (Photo: Wikipedia)
The insignia of the 42nd Infantry Division (Photo: Wikipedia)

Interestingly, the original shoulder patch of the 45th Infantry Division used to be a yellow swastika on a red background, a Native American symbol. In light of the Nazi’s widespread use of the swastika, this was abandoned in 1939 and replaced by another Native American symbol, a thunderbird.

The 1924-39 (left) and the later insignia (right) of the 45th Infantry Division (Photo: Wikipedia)
The 1924-39 (left) and the later insignia (right) of the 45th Infantry Division (Photo: Wikipedia)

Around noon, a U.S. task force led by Lt. Col. Felix Sparks of the 45th Infantry Division approached the camp from the southwest and got into a gunfight with the Germans, then they discovered 39 railway boxcars full of corpses. These rail cars arrived from another camp, Buchenwald, with around 5,000 prisoners. It took them three weeks to get to Dachau, they received hardly any food and water. Around half of them died during the journey and the rail cars were loaded with their naked, skin and bones bodies. Many of them were shot in the head. The American soldiers were furious and disgusted by the horrors they experienced as they advanced further into the camp and found the building of the crematorium with rooms full of naked and barely clothed decomposing dead bodies piled floor to ceiling. The assistant chaplain of the 42nd Infantry Division, Rabbi Eli Bohnen, wrote the following in a letter sent home a couple of days later about the impression he and other soldiers had when they discovered the corpses: “Nothing you can put in words would adequately describe what I saw there.”

U.S. soldiers looking at the piles of dead prisoners on rail cars (Photo: AFP)
U.S. soldiers looking at the piles of dead prisoners on rail cars (Photo: AFP)

At 3 p.m., U.S. Brigadier General Henning B. Linden, Assistant Division Commander of the 42nd Infantry Division arrived in Dachau with his men on jeeps, joined by war correspondent Marguerite Higgins and other reporters. He was ordered to examine the situation in the concentration camp. Between 4:30 – 5:00 p.m., in front of the gatehouse of the SS camp, the unarmed commander Wicker handed over the camp in the presence of the Red Cross delegate holding a white flag on a broomstick and Wicker’s aide. Then, Wicker, Maurer and Linden inspected the “death train” in front of the southwest entrance of the concentration camp. American soldiers and journalists accompanying Linden entered the prisoner camp through the Jourhaus building. They were greeted jubilantly by the prisoners. Due to the presence of the journalists, Linden's actions and the situation in the camp were extensively reported in the international press. At 5:30 p.m., General Linden arrived at the Jourhaus. The prisoners were pushed back into the prisoner camp which was then placed under quarantine. Linden and Sparks, the officers in charge of the two competing divisions, met in front of the Jourhaus where a tense debate over jurisdiction unfolded between them which almost ended up in a gunfight. Linden and his men left. In a couple of minutes, shots were fired from one of the watchtowers. After the watchtower guards surrendered and guns went silent, Linden organized the takeover of the camp: the 42nd Division guarded the prisoner camp, while the 45th Division guarded the camp of the SS. Linden left the camp to report to the divisional headquarters at 9:30 p.m. The day after, on April 30, 1945, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin, and the soldiers of the two divisions were already fighting in Munich.

Linden (on the bridge) giving orders at the Jourhaus, with Wicker and Maurer on the left (Photo: New York National Guard)
Linden (on the bridge) giving orders at the Jourhaus, with Wicker and Maurer on the left (Photo: New York National Guard)

During the takeover, some unfortunate events unfolded, ending in the killing of camp guards, their guard dogs, sick and wounded German soldiers from a nearby hospital, and some of the collaborator prisoners holding special functions in the camp. The exact numbers are unknown. It included the execution of guards wanting to surrender by American soldiers, who sometimes acted upon the initiative of their commanding officers. Prisoners also took revenge on their captors either by beating them to death or by shooting them with weapons lent by American troops. GIs rounded up and summarily executed 17 SS soldiers in the coal yard of the SS camp (this was stopped by Lt. Col. Sparks when he got back to the site). Around 17 more were killed when the personnel of one of the watchtowers surrendered. The same happened to four German prisoners of war at the railway wagons with the corpses. Shortly after the handover of the camp, SS-Hauptsturmführer Heinrich Wicker, the commander of the camp surrendering to the Americans was also killed, probably by inmates using an American rifle. Since these actions executed by a minority of U.S. soldiers overwhelmed by unimaginable horrors and weeks of fighting, clearly constituted war crimes, the Army considered court-martialing those involved. Parallel with the procedures, General Patton had been appointed Military Governor of Bavaria and was said to have intervened to stop the investigation. Whatever the truth may be, no American proceedings were ever held to hold the soldiers responsible before court for what happened in Dachau that day.

The alleged execution of German POWs by American soldiers at the coal yard (Photo: U.S. Army)
The alleged execution of German POWs by American soldiers at the coal yard (Photo: U.S. Army)

Over the twelve years of its existence, over 200,000 people from all over Europe were held captive in Dachau and its subcamps. Approximately 41,500 of them were murdered, but many were undocumented. This also includes the over 4,000 Soviet prisoners of war who were executed at a nearby SS shooting range at Hebertshausen between 1941-43. Following her execution on September 13, 1944, the body of Noor Inayat Khan (Read our earlier article – The princess spy) was burned in the crematorium. She was the first female radio operator of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), the secret service set up by Churchill, in occupied France. Her network was betrayed, and she remained the only agent to communicate between the Allies and the Resistance in Paris until she was captured by the Germans. After months in prison, Noor was moved to Dachau on September 11, 1944, where she was one of four SOE women executed shortly after on September 13. According to eyewitness accounts she was tortured and beaten but refused to give any information on her work or fellow agents. Eventually, she and the three other women were shot from behind in the back of the head close to the crematory.

Jubilant prisoners after the liberation on the roll call square (Photo: Ullstein Bild)
Jubilant prisoners after the liberation on the roll call square (Photo: Ullstein Bild)

Approximately 10,000 of the 32,000 prisoners were sick at the arrival of the Americans. Despite the medical care and food provided by the liberators, an average of hundred prisoners died each day during the first month from typhus, dysentery, and weakness. Out of pure goodwill, some GIs, not knowing how to care for people in grave stages of starvation, gave their food rations and chocolate bars to the prisoners who ate up everything as fast as they could. Unfortunately, their weak digestive system couldn’t manage solid food and, in several cases, resulted in their death due to overfeeding. For these health and sanitation reasons, the former inmates had to be quarantined in the camp. It took months until the last prisoners were allowed to leave. The U.S Army forced the locals to view the crematorium, while former SS members and local farmers were forced to bury the dead.

Ovens of the crematorium, some prisoners were hanged on the support beams before cremation (Photo: Author’s own)
Ovens of the crematorium, some prisoners were hanged on the support beams before cremation (Photo: Author’s own)

After the war, the former concentration camp was used as an internment camp for around 25,000 arrested Nazi party functionaries, bureaucrats and member of the SS awaiting trial. In the Dachau war crimes trial, 42 officials of Dachau were tried at the end of 1945. 36 of the defendants were sentenced to death, of whom 23 were hanged on May 28–29, 1946, including camp doctor Karl Schilling and former commander of the camp, Martin Weis. Due to the escalation of the Cold War, many of the internees were released and remained unpunished or their sentences were reduced.

U.S. personnel prepare to hang Dr. Klaus Schilling on May 28, 1946 (Photo:
U.S. personnel prepare to hang Dr. Klaus Schilling on May 28, 1946 (Photo:

From 1948, the site served as a refugee camp for ethnic Germans who had been expelled from eastern Europe and were waiting for their return. The settlement existed for nearly 20 years. The current Memorial Site was opened on May 9, 1965. Over the years, several religious places have been built on the site: a Catholic chapel called “Mortal Agony of Christ” in 1960, a Protestant Church of Reconciliation and a Jewish memorial in 1967, and a Russian Orthodox chapel in 1994. Today, only two replica barracks out of the 34 are still standing, the rest of the buildings have been demolished and only their foundations can be seen.

A passage leading to the Catholic chapel between the remaining barracks (Photo: Author’s own)
A passage leading to the Catholic chapel between the remaining barracks (Photo: Author’s own)

Entering and walking through the Memorial Site is a heartbreaking and sobering experience, a powerful reminder to every visitor of what unimaginable horrors and bestiality mankind is capable of in the name of an ideology, and what should be prevented from happening again.
If you want to learn more about the true nature of the Nazi regime and pay tribute to its victims, join us on our tours that visit Munich and the nearby concentration camp in Dachau.

A recent satellite picture of the Memorial Site (Photo: Google)
A recent satellite picture of the Memorial Site (Photo: Google)
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