On a bright hot July day, Bill Paulsen and I took the S Bahn from Berlin out to Oranienburg, the last stop, to see Sachsenhausen, the memorial and concentration camp.
Few of the barracks were left standing at the end of the war. Their sites are marked with areas of gravel like this.
Behind that is the site of the brickworks that employed the prisoners as slave labor.
My tour of this place was very moving and deeply disturbing.
Sachsenhausen was a large concentration camp north of Berlin with several smaller satellite camps. It began in 1936 as a camp for political prisoners. Political prisoners long made up the bulk of the camp's population. A large Jewish population entered the prison in the wake of Kristallnacht in 1938. Jews confined at Sachsenhausen mostly served as slave labor in nearby Berlin and were kept in separate barracks. Most of them were later sent to Auschwitz to be killed. During the Second World War, a large population of Soviet POWs entered Sachsenhausen. There was a small attached camp for British and American POWS too.
Most reputable sources, including the US Holocaust Museum and Memorial, estimate that between 30,000 to 50,000 people died in Sachsenhausen in its 9 years of operation under the Nazis. While that number is small compared to the estimated 1 million to 1.5 million estimated to have perished at Auschwitz, or the millions more who died in other death camps or at the hands of Einsatzgruppen commando units, the fatalities in Sachsenhausen exceeded the estimated death tolls of Dachau and Flossenburg (30,000 each). The spread in these estimates, even from the most reputable sources, is very wide. The camps were large complex operations with satellite units through which thousands upon thousands of people passed. The Nazis destroyed a lot of records and evidence in the last months of World War II as Allies advanced. The camps did not even bother to keep records for most prisoners in the last years of the war when places like Sachsenhausen took in tens of thousands of people. Most of those were Jews and Soviet POWs on their way to be exterminated in Poland. Many were killed immediately at Sachsenhausen. A small gas chamber was installed in Sachsenhausen in about 1943. How many people died in it remains unknown. Many more prisoners died of brutality, starvation, and disease. The SS guards capriciously murdered thousands more. Others died during medical "experiments" conducted here. All kinds of sadistic medical "treatments" were performed on unwilling prisoners whose survival was not expected or required. Nazi scientists studied the effects of mustard gas and phosphorus on living prisoners. All kinds of drug tests were performed here, especially amphetamines to be given to weary German soldiers on the front. Sachsenhausen and many other such camps had high rates of suicide as despairing prisoners threw themselves against the electric fences or deliberately walked into gunfire in the "neutral zone" around the perimeter.
People who decide to divide people into “winners” and “losers,” and to declare that parts of the population are disposable create places like Sachsenhausen. People committed atrocities and perpetrated acts of astonishing sadism because Those People simply don't matter. They are not like you or I, and so they are either a burden or a threat. Those People don’t qualify to be human. They failed the test to be considered part of the Nation and the human family. So, why not use them up and throw them away? Because they are of no account. They don’t matter. They are costs, not benefits; and it would be far more cost effective to kill them.
The 12 years of Nazi rule were a holiday for sociopaths. The ranks of the SS were full of criminals. But the majority of people who perpetrated these crimes, who worked in places like Sachsenhausen, thought of themselves as public servants and soldiers in the Cause, not as criminals. How ordinary people were persuaded to commit such monstrous acts is one of the enduring topics of Holocaust studies. And yet, maybe it’s not that mysterious. If people believe that whole populations are disposable, then maybe it isn’t quite so hard to persuade people to dispose of them. Civil servants and professionals will do such things, especially if they can be convinced that it’s for a higher cause and will advance a career.
It is a longtime commonplace to ask if Hitler was insane. A historian whose name I can't remember pointed out that such a question doesn't matter. What matters is that sane or not, Hitler sold an entire population on his apocalyptic vision of a race war for domination of the planet. Hitler had the full resources and power of one of the most advanced countries on earth at his disposal. Generals and field marshals took orders from a man who rose no higher in rank than corporal. Scientists and scholars deferred to the opinions of someone who was largely self-taught.
Hitler exploited opportunities created by a unique moment in German history that is unlikely to be repeated. And yet, his regime rose not out of some state emerging from medieval backwardness and riven by tribal warfare, but in the midst of one of the most modern and technologically advanced countries in the world. Germany had one of the world's most literate and educated populations, even in the Great Depression. That is something for us Yanks to think about as we face radical challenges to the liberal democracy that is at the heart of our country from extremists who put loyalty to tribe above respect for neighbors and duty to country.
Hans Von Dohnanyi, the son of the composer Ernst Von Dohnanyi, was a lawyer active in the resistance against Nazi rule and evacuated Jews to Switzerland. He was a close friend of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and like Bonhoeffer was involved in plots to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the Nazi regime. He was executed at Sachsenhausen April 6, 1945; hung with piano wire on Hitler's orders.
Stalin's eldest son Yakov Dzhugashvili died in Sachsenhausen in 1943 under mysterious circumstances. The Germans captured him on the front in 1941 (he is photographed here shortly after his capture). They hoped to use him as a very valuable bargaining chip to persuade Stalin to release Friedrich Paulus the Field Marshal in command at the Battle of Stalingrad. Stalin famously replied that he would not trade a field marshal for a lieutenant. The official German account of his death said that Dzhugashvili died when he ran into the electrified fence at Sachsenhausen, perhaps a suicide. Records discovered after the war indicate that a guard shot him either for disobeying an order or for trying to escape. He was simply of no more value to anyone, so he was disposed of.
The Lutheran pastor and anti-Nazi activist Martin Niemöller was confined in Sachsenhausen from 1938 to 1945. He was the one who famously said
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—Niemöller remains a controversial figure. He began as a political conservative from a very conservative Westphalian family. He initially supported Hitler, even his anti-semitism, but began to change his mind when the Nazi regime began interfering in church affairs.
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 for me.
He deeply regretted that earlier support and confessed as much to a Jewish fellow inmate at Sachsenhausen, Leo Stein.
After the War, Niemöller faced repeated accusations of Nazi support, a charge that he did not deny. His 8 years in Nazi prisons, 7 in Sachsenhausen, changed his mind about a lot of things. Niemöller was one of the prime movers behind the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt in 1945 by the German Evangelical Church (Lutheran) that it did little to resist, Nazi rule or the extermination of the Jews. Niemöller criticized the Declaration for not going far enough and for lacking real contrition.