Buchenwald: Legend and Reality
By Mark Weber
Buchenwald is widely regarded as one of wartime Germany's most notorious "death camps." In fact, though, this carefully cultivated image bears little resemblance to reality. Today, more than forty years after the end of the Second World War, the camp deserves another, more objective look.
History and Function
The Buchenwald concentration camp was located on a wooded hill outside of Weimar, in what is now East Germany. It was opened in July 1937. Until the war years, almost all the inmates were either professional criminals or political prisoners (most of them ardent Communists). Some 2,300 Buchenwald inmates were pardoned in 1939 in honor of Hitler's 50th birthday.
At the outbreak of war in September 1939 the camp population was 5,300. This grew slowly to 12,000 in early 1943, and then increased rapidly as many foreign workers, especially Poles, Ukrainians and Russians, were brought for employment in war production. (note l)
During the war years Buchenwald was expanded into a vast complex of more than a hundred satellite factories, mines and workshops spread across a large portion of Germany. The most important of these was probably the Dora underground plant, which produced V-2 missiles. In October 1944 it became the independent Nordhausen (Mittelbau) camp. (2)
Many thousands of Jews arrived at Buchenwald from Hungary and various eastern camps in 1944 and 1945. Most had been evacuated by railroad from Auschwitz and other camps threatened by the advancing Red Army. (3)
The number of inmates increased enormously during the final months of the war: 34,000 in November 1943, 44,000 in April 1944, and 80,000 in August 1944. A monthly peak was reached at the end of February 1945, when 86,000 inmates were crammed into the severely overcrowded camp. Almost 30,000 inmates were evacuated from Buchenwald during the week before the U.S. Army takeover on 11 April 1945. Altogether a total of 239,000 persons were interned in the camp between 1937 and April 1945. (4)
The Commandant and his wife
The first Commandant, Karl Koch, ran Buchenwald from 1937 until early 1942, when he was transferred to Majdanek. He proved a notoriously brutal and corrupt administrator who enriched himself with valuables stolen from numerous inmates, whom he then had killed to cover up his thefts. The camp physician, Dr. Waldemar Hoven, murdered many inmates in cooperation with Koch and the Communist underground camp organization. Koch was eventually charged by an SS court with murder and corruption, found guilty and executed. (5)
His wife, Ilse Koch, was involved in many of her husband's crimes, but the fantastic charge that she had lamp shades and other items manufactured from the skins of murdered inmates is not true. This allegation was made by the United States prosecution team at the main Nuremberg trial. (6)
General Lucius D. Clay, Commander in Chief of U.S. Forces in Europe and Military Governor of the U.S. Occupation Zone of Germany, 1947-49, carefully reviewed the Ilse Koch case in 1948 and found that, whatever her other misdeeds, the lampshade charge was baseless. He commuted her sentence from life imprisonment to four years and informed the Army Department in Washington "There is no convincing evidence that she [Ilse Koch] selected inmates for extermination in order to secure tatooed skins or that she possessed any articles made of human skin." (7) During a 1976 interview Clay recalled the case:
We tried Ilse Koch ... She was sentenced to life imprisonment, and I commuted it to three [four] years. And our press really didn't like that. She had been destroyed by the fact that an enterprising reporter who first went into her house had given her the beautiful name, the "Bitch of Buchenwald," and he had found some white lampshades in there which he wrote up as being made out of human flesh
Well, it turned out actually that it was goat flesh But at the trial it was still human flesh. It was almost impossible for her to have gotten a fair trial.
... The Germans picked her up and gave her 12 years for her treatment of her own people. But it wasn't really a war crime in the strict sense of the word.
And those are the kinds of things that we had to deal with all the time. (8)
The Inmates: Life and Death
There is no question that many atrocities were committed against Buchenwald inmates. However, at least a very large portion of them were committed, not by the German SS guards, but by the underground Communist camp organization that gained almost total internal control after 1943. This remarkable situation was confirmed in a detailed U.S. Army intelligence document of 24 April 1945 entitled Buchenwald: A Preliminary Report. (9) This confidential analysis remained classified until 1972.
In a short preface, Army intelligence chief Alfred Toombs called this secret report "one of the most significant accounts yet written on an aspect of life in Nazi Germany" because it "tells how the [Buchenwald] prisoners themselves organized a deadly terror within the Nazi terror." The general accuracy of the report had been independently confirmed, Toombs added.
As large numbers of foreigners began arriving at the camp during the war years, the confidential report noted, the understaffed SS found it necessary to turn over an ever larger share of camp administration to the inmates themselves. In practice this meant that by 1943 the well-organized and disciplined Communist inmate organization had taken virtually total control of the camp's internal operation. As the report explained:
The trusties had wide powers over their fellow inmates. At first they were drawn almost exclusively from the German criminals. This period lasted until 1942. But gradually the Communists began to gain control of this organization. They were the oldest residents, with records of 10-12 years in the concentration camps ... They clung together with remarkable tenacity, whereas the criminal elements were simply out for their own individual welfare and had little group cohesiveness. The Communists maintained excellent discipline and received a certain amount of direction from outside the camp. They had brains and technical qualifications for running the various industries established at the camp.
Their advances were not made without resistance from the criminals, but gradually the criminals were eliminated from power, partly by intimidation, partly with the aid of the SS. Numbers of the criminals were killed by beatings, hangings or injections of phenol into the heart or of air or milk into the veins. The injections were a specialty of the camp doctor [Hoven], who became a partisan of the Communist faction.
Besides the top positions in the trusty organization, there were a number of key Communist strongholds in the administration of the camp. One was the food supply organization, through which favored groups received reasonable rations while others were brought to the starvation level. A second was the hospital, staffed almost exclusively by Communists. Its facilities were largely devoted to caring for members of their party ... Another Communist stronghold was the Property Room ... Each German trusty obtained good clothing and numerous other valuables. The Communists of Buchenwald, after ten or twelve years in concentration camps, are dressed like prosperous business men. Some affect leather jackets and little round caps of the German navy, apparently the uniform of revolution.
As a result of all this:
... Instead of a heap of corpses or a disorderly mob of starving, leaderless men, the Americans [who captured the camp] found a disciplined and efficient organization in Buchenwald. Credit is undoubtedly due to the self-appointed Camp Committee, an almost purely Communist group under the domination of the German political leaders.
... The trusties, who in time became almost exclusively Communist Germans, had the power of life and death over all other inmates. They could sentence a man or a group to almost certain death ... The Communist trusties were directly responsible for a large part of the brutalities committed at Buchenwald.
Communist block chiefs, the report stated, would personally beat their charges and "sometimes forced whole blocks to stand barefoot in the snow for hours, apparently on their own initiative." The Communists killed "large numbers" of Polish inmates who refused to submit to their rule. They forced French inmates to give up thousands of Red Cross parcels. The report mentioned several particularly brutal Communist camp leaders by name.
It confirmed that the camp physician, Dr. Hoven, had been an important Communist ally who killed numerous criminal and anti-Communist political prisoners with lethal injections. An SS investigation team uncovered his activities during the war and sentenced him to death for murder. However, because of the critical wartime shortage of doctors, he was reprieved after 18 months in jail. After the war the Communists tried to protect their ally, but Hoven was sentenced to death for a second time by a U.S. military tribunal and executed in 1948.
Camp Communists maintained close relations with the well-organized underground Communist party on the outside. "From Buchenwald an inmate went out regularly to establish contact with a Communist courier bringing news and instructions. Bound by his loyalty to the Party, the contact man never made use of his opportunity to escape personally." The Communist camp military organization had three machine guns, fifty rifles and a number of hand grenades. The German Communists lived better than any other group. "Even now," the report noted, "they may be distinguished from the rest of the inmates by their rosy cheeks and robust health, though they have been in concentration camps for much longer than the others."
Finally, the report's authors warned against the simplistic and naive notion that former inmates should be trusted and helped just because they had been interned in German camps. "Some are in fact 'bandits,' criminals from all Europe or foreign workers in Germany who were caught stealing ... They are brutalized, unpleasant to look on. It is easy to adopt the Nazi theory that they are subhuman."
A book published in 1961 by the Communist-run "International Buchenwald Committee" of East Berlin proudly describes the wartime activities of the camp's Communist underground. It ran an underground camp newspaper, an illegal radio transmitter, an inmate orchestra (which played Communist songs), a large library and even a military organization. It held Communist ceremonies and political meetings, and carried out extensive sabotage of German war production. (note 10)
Former Buchenwald inmate Ernst Federn, a Jew, explained after the war how the Communist camp organization cooperated with the SS to increase its own power and eliminate opponents and undesirables. He recalled that the leader of the Jewish section of the Communist camp organization, Emil Carlebach, declared quite frankly that for him only his [Communist] friends counted, that everybody else might as well perish." Federn reported that he personally witnessed two acts of brutality by Carlebach, who was a Block Senior from 1942 until 1945. In one case he ordered the death of a fellow Jewish inmate for allegedly mistreating inmates at another camp. On another occasion Carlebach personally beat an elderly Jewish inmate from Turkey to death because he had unavoidably relieved himself in the barracks. (11)
Similarly, an Englishman who spent 15 months in Buchenwald reported after the war that the Communist camp organization did not consider the Jewish inmates particularly worth trying to keep alive. (l2)
In recent years some homosexual organizations have claimed that thousands of homosexuals were "systematically exterminated" in the German concentration camps. While it is true that many were interned as criminals, no homosexual was ever killed by the Germans for that reason alone. It is also worth recalling that during the 1930s and 1940s, homosexual behavior was considered an odious crime in most of the world, including the United States.
A former Buchenwald inmate recalled in 1981: "... Homosexuals were oppressed by the Nazis because of their social mores ... In Buchenwald, a great number of them were not killed by the Nazis, but by political prisoners [Communists], because of the homosexuals' aggressive and offensive behavior." (l3)
Day-to-day conditions were much better than most portrayals would suggest. Inmates could both receive and send two letters or postcards monthly. They could receive money from the outside. Inmates were also paid for their labor with special camp currency, which they could use to purchase a wide variety of items in the camp canteen. They played soccer, handball and volleyball in their spare time. Soccer matches were held on Saturdays and Sundays on the camp playing field. A large camp library offered a wide range of books. A motion picture theater was very popular. There were also variety shows, and musical groups put on regular concerts in the central square. A camp brothel, which employed 15 prostitutes when the Americans arrived, was available to many inmates. (l4)
The Americans who arrived at Buchenwald in April 1945 found hundreds of sick inmates and many unburied corpses in the camp. Horrific photos of these gruesome scenes were immediately circulated throughout the world and have been widely reproduced ever since, giving the impression that Buchenwald was a diabolical mass killing center.
The American government encouraged this impression. A U.S. Army report about Buchenwald prepared for the Supreme Allied Headquarters in Europe and made public at the end of April 1945 declared that the "mission of the camp" was "an extermination factory." (15) And two weeks later a U.S. Congressional report on German camps, later used as a Nuremberg trial document, was issued which likewise described Buchenwald as an "extermination factory." (l6)
This superficially plausible description is, however, completely wrong. The great majority of those who died at Buchenwald perished during the chaotic final months of the war. They succumbed to disease, often aggravated by malnutrition, in spite of woefully inadequate efforts to keep them alive. They were victims, not of an "extermination" program, but rather of the terrible overcrowding and severe lack of food and medical supplies due to a general collapse of order in Germany during the tumultuous final phase of the war.
Along with these indirect victims of the war were many healthy inmates. B.M. McKelway inspected Buchenwald shortly after the U.S. takeover as one of a group of American newspaper editors and publishers. He reported that "many of the hundreds of inmates we saw appeared to be healthy while others suffering from dysentery, typhus, tuberculosis and other diseases were living skeletons." (17)
One striking indication that Buchenwald was not an "extermination" camp is the fact that some of the internees were children too young to work. An estimated one thousand boys, aged two to 16, were housed in two special children's barracks. Train transports of Jewish children arrived from 1942 to 1945. Some arrived from Auschwitz in 1943. Other Jewish children came from Hungary and Poland. (18) The confidential U.S. Army report of April 24, 1945, noted the "most remarkable sight of the children" who "rush about, shrieking and playing." (l9)
Thirty years after the war, even famed "Nazi hunter" Simon Wiesenthal conceded that "there were no extermination camps on German soil." (20)
The Gas Chamber Lie
Perhaps the most vicious lie circulated after the war about Buchenwald is the charge that the Germans exterminated inmates there in gas chambers. An official French government report submitted to the Nuremberg tribunal as a prosecution exhibit imaginatively stated: "Everything had been provided for down to the smallest detail. In 1944, at Buchenwald, they had even lengthened a railway line so that the deportees might be led directly to the gas chamber. Certain [of the gas chambers] had a floor that tipped and immediately directed the bodies into the room with the crematory oven." (21) The chief British prosecutor at the main Nuremberg trial, Sir Hartley Shawcross, declared in his closing address that"murder [was] conducted like some mass production industry in the gas chambers and the ovens" of Buchenwald and other camps. (22)
In a book published in 1947, French priest Georges Henocque, former chaplain of the Saint-Cyr Military Academy, claimed to have visited the inside of a Buchenwald gas chamber, which he described in detail. This particular story has been cited as a good example of the kind of Holocaust lies which even prominent personalities are capable of inventing. (23)
Another French priest and former inmate, Jean-Paul Renard, made a similar claim about the camp in his own book published shortly after the war: "I saw thousands and thousands of persons going into the showers. Instead of liquid, asphyxiating gases poured out over them." When fellow Frenchman and former Buchenwald inmate Paul Rassinier pointed out to the priest that there was no gas chamber in the camp, Renard replied: "Right, but that's only a figure of speech ... and since those things existed somewhere, it's not important." (24)
In a book published in 1948, Hungarian Jewish writer Eugene Levai charged that the Germans killed tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews at Buchenwald in gas chambers. (25)
A widely distributed booklet issued by the Jewish Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith also spread the tale that people were gassed at Buchenwald. (26)
In 1960 the Buchenwald gassing story was officially declared a fable. In that year, Martin Broszat of the anti-Hitler Institute for Contemporary History in Munich specifically stated that no one was ever gassed at Buchenwald. (27) Professor A.S. Balachowsky, a member of the Institut de France, likewise declared in November 1971: "I would like to confirm to you that no gas chamber as such existed at Buchenwald ..." (28) Holocaust writer Konnilyn Feig conceded in her book, Hitler's Death Camps, that Buchenwald did not have a gas chamber. (29) Today no serious historian still claims gassings there.
How Many Perished?
The numbers of persons estimated to have perished at Buchenwald while it was under German control vary tremendously. According to former inmate Elie Wiesel, the prolific Jewish writer and 1986 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, "In Buchenwald they sent 10,000 to their deaths every day." (30) This wildly irresponsible statement is, unfortunately, all too typical of the the rhetoric of the man who was also chosen to head the U.S. government's official Holocaust Memorial Council.
The 1980 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia claimed that "more than 100,000" died in the camp. (31) The Encyclopaedia Judaica put the number at 56,549. (32) Raul Hilberg, writing in the 1982 edition of the Encyclopedia Americana, stated that "more than 50,000 died in the Buchenwald complex." (33)
The U.S. Army intelligence report of April 24, 1945 (cited above) noted that the total number of certified deaths was 32,705. (34) A detailed June 1945 U.S. government report about Buchenwald put the total at 33,462, of whom more than 20,000 died in the chaotic final months of the war. (35)
The authoritative International Tracing Service of Arolsen, an affiliate of the International Red Cross, stated in 1984 that the number of documented deaths (of both Jews and non-Jews) at Buchenwald was 20,671, with another 7,463 for Dora (Mittelbau). (36)
While even these lower figures are regrettably high, it is important to realize that the great majority of those who died at Buchenwald were unfortunate victims of a catastrophic war, not German policy. Most of the rest were murdered by order of the Communist underground camp organization. Several hundred were also killed in Allied bombing attacks.
In one air raid against a large munitions factory near the main camp, British bombers killed 750 persons, including 400 inmates. (37)
American and Soviet Atrocities
Following the American takeover of Buchenwald in April 1945, about 80 remaining German guards and camp functionaries were summarily murdered. Inmates brutally beat the Germans to death, sometimes with the aid and encouragement of American soldiers. (38) Between 20 and 30 GIs took turns gleefully beating six young Germans to death. (39) Inmates also commandeered American jeeps and drove to nearby Weimar, where they looted and randomly killed German civilians. (40)
After the war the Soviet secret police operated Buchenwald as a concentration camp for "potential class enemies" and other "possibly dangerous" German civilians. In September 1949, more than four years after the end of the war, there were still 14,300 inmates in the "special camp." (While Buchenwald was under German control, the number of inmates did not reach 14,000 until May 1943.) Conditions were horrible. Even the Soviet official in charge of the concentration camps in Germany, General Merkulov, acknowledged the severe lack of order and cleanliness, particularly at Buchenwald. At least 13,000 and as many as 21,000 persons died in Soviet-run Buchenwald, but no one has ever been punished for the deaths and mistreatment in this notorious postwar camp. (4l) One former inmate described his "five years of horrible seclusion, humiliations, interrogations and annihilation" in the Soviet-run camp in these words:
People were mere numbers. Their dignity was consciously trampled upon. They were starved without mercy and consumed by tuberculosis until they were skeletons. The annihilation process which had been well tested over decades was systematic. The cries and groans of those in pain still echo in my ears whenever the past comes back to me in sleepless nights. We had to watch helplessly as people perished according to plan -- like creatures sacrificed to annihilation.
Many nameless people were caught up in the annihilation machinery of the NKVD [Soviet secret police] after the collapse of 1945. They were herded together like cattle after the so-called liberation and vegetated in the many concentration camps. Many were systematically tortured to death. A memorial was built for the dead of the Buchenwald concentration camp. A figure of death victims was chosen based on fantasy. Intentionally, only the dead of the 1937-1945 period were honored. Why is there no memorial honoring the dead of 1945 to 1950? Countless mass graves were dug around the camp in the postwar period. (42)
In an act of stunning hypocrisy, the Communist rulers of the postwar "German Democratic Republic" have turned the Buchenwald camp area into a kind of secular shrine. Every year, hundreds of thousands visit the sites, complete with museums, bell tower, monumental sculpture and memorials dedicated, ironically enough, to the "victims of fascism." (43) There is nothing to remind visitors of the thousands of forgotten Germans who perished miserably during the years after the war when the camp was run by the Soviets.
The story of Buchenwald, like the story of virtually every German wartime concentration camp, is a microcosm of the entire Holocaust tale. The widely-accepted portrayal of Buchenwald, like those of the other German camps, contrasts sharply with the little-known reality.
1. The information in this section is from two sources: "Buchenwald," Encyclopaedia Judaica (New York and Jerusalem: 1971), Vol. 4, pp. 1442, 1445; and U.S. government report B-2833 of 18 June 1945. Document 217I-PS, published in the "red series," Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression (NC&A) (Washington, DC: 1946-48), Vol. 4, pp. 800-833.
2. U.S. Army report of 25 May 1945. Document 2222-PS. Published in NC&A, Vol. 4, pp. 86p864; "German-Born NASA Expert ...," The New York Times, 18 October 1984, pp. Al, A12: "Ex-Nazi Denies Role ...," The New York Times, 21 October 1984, p. 8.
5. Nuremberg testimony of Günther Reinecke, 7 August 1946. Published in the IMT "blue series," Trial of the Major War Criminals Before the International Military Tribunal (IMT) (Nuremberg: 1947 49), VoL 20, pp. 438, 441 142; SS indictment brief against Karl Koch, 11 April 1944. Document NO-2360.
8. Interview with Lucius D. Clay. Official Proceedings of the George C. Marshall Research Foundation. Transcript of a videotape interview shown at the conference "U.S. Occupation in Europe After World War II," 23- 24 April 1976 at Lexington, Va., sponsored by the George C. Marshall Research Foundation, pp. 37-38. (I am grateful to Robert Wolfe of the National Archives for bringing this interview to my attention.)
9. Egon W. Fleck and Edward A.t Tenenbaum, Buchenwald: A Preliminary Report, U.S. Army, 12th Army Group, 24 April 1945. National Archives, Record Group 331, SHAEF, G-5, 17.11, Jacket 10, Box 151 (8929tl63-8929/180). I am grateful to Mr. Timothy Mulligan of the Military Branch of the National Archives for bringing this report to my attention. See also: Donald B. Robinson, "Communist Atrocities at Buchenwald," American Mercury, October 1946, pp. 397-404; and Christopher Burney, The Dungeon Democracy (New York 1946), pp. 21, 22-23, 28-29, 32, 33, 34, 44, 46, 49.
14. John Mendelsoln; "Sources," Prologue (Washington, DC: National Archives), Fall 1983, p. 180; Konnilyn G. Feig, Hitler's Death Camps (New York 1981), p. 96; K. Morgen testimony, 7 August 1946, IMT, Vol. 20, p. 490; testimony by former Buchenwald inmate Arnost Tauber at Nuremberg "I.G. Farben" trial, 12 Nov. 1947. Printed in: Udo Walendy (ed.), Auschwitz im IG-Farben Prozess (1981), p. 119; Roger Manvell and H. Fraenkel, The Incomparable Crime (New Yorlc 1967), p. 155; Buchenwald Camp: The Report of a Parliamentary Delegation (London: HMSO, 1945), pp. 4, 5.
19. E.W. Fleck and EA. Tenenbaum, Buchenwald: A Preliminary Report, 24 April 1945 (Cited above), p. 14; see also the photo of Jewish children inmates at Buchenwald in: Robert Abzug, Inside the Vicious Heart (New York: Oxford, 1985), pp. 148-149.
26. Earl Raab, The Anatomy of Nazism (New York ADL, 1979), photo caption opposite page 21. The Buchenwald gassing myth was also propagated in: Francis Tomczuk, "Days of Remembrance," American Legion Magazine, April 1985, p. 23.
41. "Bis 1950: Buchenwald und Sachsenhausen," Amerika Woche (Chicago), 11 May 1985, p. 3; "Im Todeslager der Sowjets." D. National-Zeitung (Munich), Nr. 47, 15 Nov. 1985, p. 4; "Soviet Camps Busy, Berlin Paper Says," The New York Times, 10 Sept. 1949, p. 6.
42. Letter by E. Krombholz of Aschaffenburg, "Erlebnisbericht aus einem Sowjet-KZ," D. National-Zeitung (Munich), Nr. 11, 9 March 1984, p. 10; see also sketches of conditions in Soviet-run Buchenwald by former inmate Dr. Heinz Moller in: D. National-Zeitung (Munich), Nr. 6, 3 Feb. 1984, p. 5.
From The Journal of Historical Review, Winter 1986-87 (Vol. 7, No 4), pages 405-417.