60 years ago today: The liberation of Dachau

Sixty years ago today, the Third Reich was collapsing. British and American forces were advancing from the West, and had met at the Elbe River four days prior on April 25, cutting German forces in the north off from those in the south. The Soviets had completed their encirclement of Berlin and were well into the final assault, advancing slowly through the outskirts of the ruined city towards the Reichstag itself. From his bunker, surrounded by sycophants (as well as connivers desperate to avoid capture by the Russians), Hitler gave grandiose orders for elaborate counterattacks to armies and divisions that no longer existed, and Berlin's defenders desperately threw untrained and poorly armed 14 year old boys from the Hitler Youth into the fray to take on Soviet tanks, artillery, and Red Army soldiers battle-hardened from years of savage warfare on the Eastern Front.

As Allied forces advanced from both the East and the West, they encountered evidence of Nazi brutality towards their enemies. In January, the Soviets had captured Auschwitz (and here) as they stormed through Poland, but it would be almost three more months before American and British forces started to see firsthand evidence of Nazi atrocities in the name of their war on the the Jews and any enemy of the Reich they perceived. In April, in rapid succession, U.S. and British forces liberated Mittelbau-Dora, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, Flossenbürg, and other camps.

60 years ago today, the U. S. Seventh Army entered Dachau.

Dachau was the oldest of Nazi concentration camps. It was officially opened for business on March 22, 1933, a mere seven weeks after Hitler had become Chancellor on January 30, 1933. Its opening was preceded by notices in major newspapers that enemies of the new regime could end up there. By May, there were well over 1,000 prisoners in the camp; by the end of 1933, over 4,800. In June 1933, Theodor Eicke was appointed commandant of Dachau and over time developed organizational methods and plans that later became the template for future concentration camps. But Dachau was the prototype, the "granddaddy" of all Nazi camps. Indeed, it later became a major training site for SS concentration camp guards. In the early days of Dachau, those imprisoned there were mostly political prisoners, including political opponents of the regime, Communists, Social Democrats, trade unionists, and occasionally members of conservative and liberal political parties who spoke out too vigorously against the Nazi regime. The first Jewish prisoners were also sent to the Dachau concentration camp because of their political opposition. In the following years new groups were sent to Dachau, including more Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, Jehovah's Witness, and Catholic priests who would not accommodate themselves to the Nazi line to the satisfaction of the regime. In the wake of Kristallnacht, more than 10,000 Jews were sent to the Dachau concentration camp. Once war broke out, Dachau became a prisoner of war camp, as well. Over time, German prisoners, once the vast majority of inmates at Dachau, were outnumbered by Poles, Russians, and various other types of prisoners. From 1933 to 1945, over 200,000 prisoners from over 30 nations were imprisoned at Dachau, with a total death toll of at least 30,000. However, this is almost certainly an underestimation of the true death number, given the large numbers of Soviet prisoners who were summarily executed there in 1941. Deaths in Dachau resulted from starvation, disease, overwork, shooting, hanging, lethal injection, and (although there has been controversy over whether the gas chamber at Dachau was ever used in the manner of the one at Auschwitz or other death camps, or how often) occasionally by gassing.

And, like the case at Buchenwald, there were also twisted medical experiments, mainly conducted by Dr. Sigmund Rascher, including low temperature experiments, in which prisoners were immersed in freezing water to determine how long humans could survive in frigid water and high altitude experiments in which patients were subjected to low atmospheric pressure until they died. Another set of experiments were conducted in which prisoners were given only salt water, with the goal of determining how long they could survive.

On the morning of April 29, 1945, U. S. forces entered Dachau. In the weeks prior to the arrival of U. S. troops, the Germans had been transporting concentration camp prisoners out of camps close to the front to camps in Germany proper, and thousands of prisoners had arrived at Dachau, emaciated, ill, and dying, to be added to the thousands of similarly ill prisoners remaining at Dachau and its subcamps, and at the time U. S. forces arrived there were approximately 30,000 prisoners remaining. Indeed, according to some accounts (and here), the horror that greeted U. S. forces at Dachau was even worse than that at Buchenwald or Bergen-Belsen, as hard as it is to believe. The stench of death was everywhere, and scenes like this greeted American soldiers as they explored the camp. Most of the guards had fled, but a few remained, and, unfortunately, although accounts of the circumstances surrounding the incident vary, between 20-30 SS guards were reportedly gunned down by American troops after surrender, so disgusted were the American forces that entered the camp, while a few were killed by former prisoners. One particularly horrific find was a string of over thirty railway cars filled to capacity with the emaciated corpses of men, women, and children, many in advanced states of decomposition. So debilitated were the remaining prisoners that, despite the best efforts of American forces to help them, over the two months following the liberation of Dachau, 2,400 inmates died of starvation and disease. However, given the desperate conditions that greeted American forces, it is actually probably amazing that more didn't die. (An interesting account of the administrative and logistical nightmare that the Americans in charge of post-liberation Dachau had to deal with can be found in this Masters thesis.)

A few firsthand accounts of the horror and chaos that greeted American liberators follow.

Brigadier General Felix L. Sparks, AUS (Ret.):
The scene near the entrance to the confinement area numbed my senses. Dante's Inferno seemed pale compared to the real hell of Dachau. A row of small cement structures near the prison entrance contained a coal-fired crematorium, a gas chamber, and rooms piled high with naked and emaciated human corpses. As I turned to look over the prison yard with unbelieving eyes, I saw a large number of dead inmates lying where they had fallen in the last few hours or days before our arrival. Since all the many bodies were in various stages of decomposition, the stench of death was overpowering.

During the early period of our entry into the camp, a number of Company I men, all battle hardened veterans became extremely distraught. Some cried, while others raged. Some thirty minutes passed before I could restore order and discipline. During that time, the over thirty thousand camp prisoners still alive began to grasp the significance of the events taking place. They streamed from their crowded barracks by the hundreds and were soon pressing at the confining barbed wire fence. They began to shout in unison, which soon became a chilling roar. At the same time, several bodies were being tossed about and torn apart by hundreds of hands. I was told later that those being killed at that time were "informers." After about ten minutes of screaming and shouting, the prisoners quieted down. At that point, a man came forward at the gate and identified himself as an American soldier. We immediately let him out. He turned out to be Major Rene Guiraud of our OSS, He informed me that he had been captured earlier while on an intelligence mission and sentenced to death, but the sentence was never carried out. I sent him back to regimental headquarters.

Within about an hour of our entry, events were under control. Guard posts were set up, and communications were established with the inmates. We informed them that we could not release them immediately but that food and medical assistance would arrive soon. The dead, numbering about nine thousand, were later buried with the forced assistance of the good citizens of the city of Dachau.

1st Lt. William Cowling:
A man lay dead just in front of the gate. A bullet through his head. One of the Germans we had taken lifted him out of the way and we dismounted and went through the gate into a large cement square about 800 squares surrounded by low black barracks and the whole works enclosed by barbed wire. When we entered the gate not a soul was in sight. Then suddenly people (few could call them that) came from all directions. They were dirty, starved skeletons with torn tattered clothes and they screamed and hollered and cried. They ran up and grabbed us. Myself and the newspaper people and kissed our hands, our feet and all of them tried to touch us. They grabbed us and tossed us into the air screaming at the top of their lungs. I finally managed to pull myself free and get to the gate and shut it so they could not get out. Then I felt something brush my shoulder and I turned to the left of the two block house guarding the gate to find a white flag fluttering square in my face and on the end of it inside the house eight Germans.

I looked around the house and entered. I got the same question, are you an American Officer and said Yes. They turned over their arms, pistols and rifles to me and I told them to sit tight. I then went back outside and sent my driver to get the Jeep. Then I went back into the Germans and took their arms and sent the pistols to my Jeep (I gave all away but two). When I came back out the General was there and the people inside the enclosure were all in the large square shouting and crying. Then a terrible thing happened. Some of them in their frenzy charged the barbed wire fence to get out and embrace us and touch us. Immediately they were killed by an electric charge running through the fence. I personally saw three die that way. Our troops arrived about that time and took the rest of the guards, Germans (who during all this time had remained in the towers around the prison.) A number of them and I sincerely regret that I took the eight prisoners that I did after a trip through Camp which I shall describe in a minute.

Well the General attempted to get the thing organized and an American Major who had been held in the Camp since September came out and we set him up as head of the prisoners. He soon picked me to quiet the prisoners downs and explain to them that they must stay in the Camp until we could get them deloused, and proper food and medical care. Several newspaper people arrived about that time and wanted to go through the Camp so we took them through with a guide furnished by the prisoners. The first thing we came to were piles and piles of clothing, shoes, pants, shirts, coats, etc. Then we went into a room with a table with flowers on it and some soap and towels. Another door with the word showers lead off of this and upon going through this room it appeared to be a shower room but instead of water, gas came out and in two minutes the people were dead. Next we went next door to four large ovens where they cremated the dead. Then we were taken to piles of dead. There were from two to fifty people in a pile all naked, starved and dead. There must have been about 1,000 dead in all.

1st Lt. Chuck Ferree, USAAF (For personal reasons, I conclude with this account, noting that Chuck died in 1999. I had carried on an e-mail correspondence with him for several months before his death and knew him as an ally on alt.revisionism, where he was a staunch fighter of Holocaust denial. He brought to the table his firsthand accounts of the horrors that Holocaust deniers were trying to minimize. Sadly, I never got to meet him in person.):
Leaving the gas chamber we found further proof of the Nazi claim to everlasting infamy---human bodies heaped hodge-podge filling two rooms and sprawling out the doors. It was here that the cold weather worked to the advantage of the witnesses. The stench of the bodies and the accompanying filth would have been unbearable under other conditions. The odor permeated right through my heavy leather jacket.

Between these crowded morgues was the creamatorium where four yawning doors stood open and eagerly consumed more victims. Outside there was much evidence of bones and ash where the furnaces had been emptied many times of their gruesome contents. Beyond this scene was a stall which had been used as an execution chamber where many had met death by the firing squad.

This death farm was separated from the main stockades by a high wire fence and a moat. Swarming along the fence were hundreds of the more fortunate prisoners who were now liberated and expressing their gratitude.

Beneath the murky waters of the moat were the features of several SS guards and on the opposite bank was a fitting monument to the depth of the Nazi culture. Frozen on the ground were the bodies of several SS troopers who had been slain by their liberated captives before they could surrender to the Americans. At the bottom of each of the many high watch towers, more bodies lay. SS guards who had tried to put up a fight and were killed by the Infantrymen of the 45th. Division. After seeing many more horrors of Dachau it was small wonder that the only superman who still held his head up high was the larger-than-life-sized statue of the SS trooper on the wall.

After 3-4 days touring Dachau, the SHAEF officer and the others in our group flew back to Frankfurt. My passenger commented to me as we settled into our seats: "Jesus Christ, I wonder how many more of these fucking places we're going to find."
Unfortunately, there still remained a few more such "fucking places" to be discovered, but, even if not another concentration camp had been found, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, and Dachau alone were far more than enough to show the depths of depravity to which humans could sink. Fortunately, the author of this horror had only one more day to live, and the totalitarian nation he had created only slightly more than a week.


  1. Reading such accounts filss me with even more digust of people who wants to trivialize or deny the Holocaust.

    Thank you for doing this.


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