03 November 2019

Sachsenhausen was
the first concentration
camp in Nazi Germany

The concentration camp at Sachsenhausen dates from 1933, and was the first camp set up by the Nazis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Remembrance Day this month has an added poignancy in its commemorations as this year marks the eightieth anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, the 75th anniversary of D-Day, and the centenary of the official end of World War I with the Versailles Peace Treaty 1919.

During a recent visit to Berlin, I also visited Sachsenhausen, a former concentration camp in Oranienburg 35 km north of Berlin, where 200,000 people were imprisoned between the years of 1936 and 1945.

The local Nazi ‘Brown Shirt’ paramilitaries set up the first concentration camp in Prussia in a vacant factory in the centre of Oranienburg on 21 March 1933. In the months after the Nazis seized power, Oranienburg took on a key role in the persecution of political opponents, especially in Berlin. It became one of the earliest concentration camps and it was used primarily for political prisoners from 1936.

Arbeit Macht Frei, ‘Work Makes Free’ … the slogan on the gates of Sachsenhausen (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The camp was unique as the administrative centre of all concentration camps and a training centre for SS officers. The political prisoners included Centrists, Social Democrats, pacifists, priests, poets and even dissenting voices among the Nazis.

Other prisoners included Jews, Sinti, Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and people branded as ‘career criminals’ and ‘anti-socials.’

Sachsenhausen was used primarily for political prisoners from 1936 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

‘First they came for …’

Prominent prisoners in Sachsenhausen included Pastor Martin Niemöller, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi, the fascist former Austrian chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg, Stalin’s eldest son Yakov Dzhugashvili, the former Spanish Prime Minister Francisco Largo Caballero, Trygve Bratelli, later Prime Minister of Norway, and Bismarck’s grandson, Count Gottfried von Bismarck-Schönhausen, a former SS officer.

The cell where Pastor Martin Niemöller was held in isolation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Niemöller is often remembered for his poem:

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

The number of Jewish prisoners in Sachsenhausen was 21 in 1937 and 11,100 by 1945. During Kristallnacht (‘Night of Broken Glass’) on 9-10 November 1938, Himmler ordered the arrest of up to 30,000 Jews. The SS transported almost 6,000 Jews to Sachsenhausen in the days after Kristallnacht.

The trees and forests screened Sachsenhausen from view (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Executions and gassings

The Main Gate or Guard Tower ‘A,’ with its 8 mm Maxim machine gun, housed the offices of the camp administration. On the entrance gates to Sachsenhausen is the infamous slogan Arbeit Macht Frei, ‘Work Makes (you) Free.’

About 200,000 people were held as prisoners in Sachsenhausen between 1936 and 1945. The site was triangular in shape, focused on the large Appellplatz, where tens of thousands of prisoners lined up for morning and evening roll calls. The barracks of custody zone which fanned out from the base of the Appellplatz.

The site was triangular in shape, and tens of thousands of prisoners lined up twice a day for roll calls on the large Appellplatz (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Sachsenhausen was intended to set a standard for other concentration camps, both in its design and the treatment of prisoners. The camp perimeter is an equilateral triangle with a semi-circular roll call area centred on the main entrance gate in the boundary running north-east to south-west. Barrack huts lie beyond the roll call area, radiating from the gate.

The layout allowed the machine gun above the entrance gate to dominate the camp. But additional watchtowers were built on the perimeter.

The camp’s capacity became inadequate and it was expanded in 1938 by adding a rectangular area known as the ‘small camp,’ north-east of the entrance gate and the perimeter wall was altered to enclose it.

There was an additional area outside the main camp perimeter. There two huts, Sonderlager ‘A’ and ‘B,’ were built in 1941 for special prisoners held in isolation.

According to SS files, more than 2,000 women were held at Sachsenhausen, and there were several subcamps for women in Berlin.

Prisoners who stepped into the ‘neutral zone’ at the perimeter were shot without warning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

At first, executions at the camp were carried out by taking individual prisoners to a small room, where they were told they were to have their height and weight measured but were shot in the back of the neck through a sliding door.

This became time-consuming and was replaced by shooting prisoners in a trench or hanging them. But panicking prisoners were hard to control, and small-scale tests began of what later became the gas chambers in larger camps. By September 1941, when the first trials of gas chambers were beginning in Auschwitz, Sachsenhausen had already been the scene of gassings.

There were few successful escapes from the camp. The perimeter consisted of a 3-metre-high stone wall on the outside. The space inside the wall was patrolled by guards and dogs. This space was bordered by a lethal electric fence. Inside that space was a gravel ‘death strip’ forbidden to the prisoners: any prisoner stepping onto the ‘death strip’ was shot without warning.

At an early stage, prisoners were shot in trenches and hanged (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Forgeries and forced labour

Sachsenhausen was the location of Operation Bernhard, one of the largest-ever currency counterfeiting operations. Prisoners were forced to produce forged US and British banknotes in a plan to undermine the British and US economies. Over £1 billion in counterfeit banknotes were recovered. The fake £5, £10, £20 and £50 notes went into circulation in 1943 and there were plans to drop forged notes over London by plane.

Heinkel, the aircraft manufacturer, was a major user of Sachsenhausen labour, with 6,000 and 8,000 prisoners forced to work on their He 177 bomber planes.

Some of these aircraft crashed unexpectedly around Stalingrad and it is thought the prisoners had sabotaged them. Other firms to use camp labour included AEG and Siemens.

Prisoners also worked in brickworks supposed to supply the building blocks for Hitler’s dream city, Welthauptstadt Germania, planned by Albert Speer as the capital of a world-wide Nazi empire.

The gas chambers in larger camps were first tested and used in Sachsenhausen (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In the harsh regime in the camp, prisoners were often forced to assume the ‘Sachsenhausen salute’ where a prisoner would squat with his arms outstretched in front. There was a marching strip where prisoners marched on a variety of surfaces to test military footwear, sometimes marching 25 to 40 km a day.

Prisoners of war were made to run up to 40 km a day with heavy packs, sometimes after being given performance-boosting drugs like cocaine, to test military boots for shoe factories.

Gay prisoners were often suspended from posts by their wrists strapped behind their backs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Public executions

Some prisoners kept in isolation, especially gay men, were suspended from posts by their wrists strapped behind their backs. In cases of attempted escape, public hangings took place in front of the prisoners.

Wolfgang Wirth carried out experiments with the lethal sulphur mustard gas, and prisoners were used to test experimental drugs designed to increase stamina and endurance.

Seven British commandoes captured after Operation Musketoon were executed at Sachsenhausen on Hitler’s orders on 23 October 1942.

A memorial to Jewish prisoners in Sachsenhausen (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Four Special Operations agents led by Mike Cumberlege, who were captured in Greece in 1943 were executed at Sachsenhausen in 1945. At the same time, John Godwin and the survivors of ‘Operation Checkmate’ in 1942 were executed at Sachsenhausen. Godwin wrestled the pistol of the firing party commander from his belt and shot him dead before being shot himself.

At least 30,000 prisoners died in Sachsenhausen from exhaustion, disease, malnutrition, pneumonia and poor living conditions. Many were executed or died because of brutal medical experimentation.

About 13,000 Soviet soldiers arrived as prisoners at Sachsenhausen towards the end of World War II. Over 10,000 were executed and their bodies were then incinerated in a crematorium.

An obelisk with 18 red triangles, the Nazi symbol for political prisoners, usually Communists (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Soviet liberation

With the advance of the Soviet army in 1945, Sachsenhausen was prepared for evacuation. The SS ordered 33,000 prisoners on a forced march. Most of the prisoners were physically exhausted and thousands did not survive this death march. Those who collapsed on the way were shot by the SS.

On 22 April 1945, the camp’s remaining 3,000 prisoners were liberated by Soviet and Polish troops, and the forced march ended on 2 May 1945 when 18,000 remaining prisoners were liberated by Soviet tanks.

After World War II, Oranienburg was in the Soviet Occupation Zone that became East Germany. It was used by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police that later became the KGB, as a special camp until 1950.

Fifteen camp officials and two former prisoner kapos were put to trial before a Soviet Military Tribunal in Berlin in 1947. All 17 were found guilty, 14 were given life sentences with hard labour, and two were sentenced to 15 years imprisonment with hard labour.

The museum exhibits depict life in the camp (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

After World War II, the Netherlands sought the extradition from Czechoslovakia of Antonín Zápotocký, who became President of Czechoslovakia, for his alleged role in the murder of Dutch prisoners during his time as a kapo at the camp.

Sachsenhausen had become the largest of three special camps in the Soviet zone by 1948. Over five years, 60,000 people were held in the camp, and by the time it closed in 1950, at least 12,000 had died of malnutrition and disease.

For some years, Sachsenhausen was used by East Germany's Kasernierte Volkspolizei, a police division that became the nucleus of the East German army in 1956.

The compound has been vandalised by neo-Nazis on several occasions (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Modern museum

The Sachsenhausen National Memorial Site opened in 1961. The first director, Christian Mahler, had been a prisoner in Sachsenhausen in 1938-1943.

Many of the original buildings were removed and the East German government emphasised the suffering of political prisoners. A memorial obelisk is marked by 18 red triangles, the Nazi symbol for political prisoners, usually communists.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of East Germany, excavations found the bodies of 12,500 victims at Sachsenhausen; most were children, adolescents and elderly people.

After German unification, the camp was given to a foundation that opened a museum on the site. The museum exhibits include artwork by prisoners, scale models of the camp, pictures, documents and other displays depicting life in the camp – and a 30 cm high pile of gold teeth extracted from prisoners. A separate museum documents the camp’s Soviet-era history.

The main street from Oranienburg to Sachsenhausen has been named in honour of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The compound has been vandalised by neo-Nazis on several occasions. Barracks 38 and 39 of the Jewish Museum were severely damaged in an arson attack in 1992. The perpetrators were arrested, and the barracks were reconstructed by 1997.

However, a decision was taken not to rebuild buildings on the site built during the Nazi regime. The destroyed section of the huts is now a Jewish museum with the surviving section left as it was immediately after the fire with the paint still blistered from the flames.

The main street leading from Oranienburg to Sachsenhausen, once lined with the homes of camp officers and officials, has been named in honour of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, who died there in 1945.

Flowers remember the prisoners and victims of Sachsenhausen (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This feature was first published in November 2019 in the ‘Church Review,’ the Dublin and Glendalough diocesan magazine

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