Liberation was a cathartic moment. Many inmates felt grief and rage for all they had lost, but also relief and euphoria. They were alive and the camps were gone. One could end the story here, with the embrace of Moritz Choinowski and Edgar Kupfer in Dachau encapsulating the suffering of prisoners and the hopes of survivors. But these hopes were often dashed, and this legacy of the camps is part of their history, too. In fact, some survivors never had any hope at all. Thousands of them were so sick they did not realize what had happened; as Choinowski and Kupfer hugged, prisoners nearby were dying and stared straight past the U.S. soldiers.1 Others observed the jubilation with incomprehension. One teenage survivor of Dachau, who had lost his father only weeks earlier, recalled that he “watched the people sing and dance with joy, and they seemed to me as if they’d lost their minds. I looked at myself and couldn’t recognize who I was.”2 Among the more ecstatic survivors, meanwhile, the initial excitement quickly waned as they emerged from the depths of the KL.

Take Moritz Choinowski himself. Released from an American-run hospital in Dachau in June 1945, he moved to a camp for displaced persons (DPs) and then, in early 1946, to a sparsely furnished room on the outskirts of Munich. For the next three years, he led a pitiful life. His body had been ruined by the camps; he could barely use his left arm and was in constant pain, not least from chronically infected scars left by SS whippings. Unable to work, he depended on welfare for his rent, food, heating, bedding, and clothes. “I have not received any shoes since 1946,” he pleaded with an aid organization in April 1948. He was all alone, assuming wrongly that his daughter and his ex-wife (their marriage had been annulled by a Nazi court because she was an “Aryan”) had died in a devastating bombing raid on Magdeburg that destroyed their home. His last hope was to join his brother in the United States, which appeared to many DPs like the promised land. Tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors headed for North America in the late 1940s, after the United States temporarily relaxed its immigration restrictions, and in June 1949 Choinowski boarded the navy shipGeneral Muir to cross the Atlantic. After spending some time with his brother in Detroit, he moved to Toledo, Ohio, where he married another survivor in 1952. But he could not remake his old life.

Before the Third Reich, Moritz Choinowski had been a vigorous self-made businessman, running a thriving tailor’s store and workshop. Now he was weak and ailing, with the SS tattoo on his pale arm a constant reminder of who had destroyed his existence. He could only work occasionally, and then only with painkillers. Employed mainly by a local dry cleaner and tailor, he earned an average of $125 a month by the mid-1950s, barely enough to live. Meanwhile, his claims for reparations, submitted years earlier, had come to nothing, despite the efforts of his daughter in Germany, with whom he had finally reestablished contact in 1953 (she had last heard from him nine years earlier, in a postcard from Auschwitz). In April 1957, Choinowski appealed directly to the president of the Bavarian Reparations Office, which had dragged out his case, to “save me from my hardship.” A few months later, he received a first payment, but he continued to live in humble circumstances. Despite his poor health he was grateful for having survived the camps, he told his daughter in one of his last letters, but he questioned what all the suffering had been for: “Humanity has learned nothing from the wars, on the contrary, almost all nations are arming once more for warfare and that will probably be the end for humanity.” Choinowski died in Toledo Hospital on the evening of March 9, 1967, aged seventy-two.3

By that time, his former Dachau comrade Edgar Kupfer was living as a recluse on the Italian island of Sardinia. He had also struggled in the early years after liberation. The bombing raid on Dachau had left him with a badly damaged foot and he suffered from a depression that pushed him to the edge of suicide. He felt like a stranger in his native Germany, and in 1953, after a spell in Switzerland and Italy, he gained entry to the United States, like Choinowski before him. But he never settled. He was plagued by pain and by nightmares about the KL, and following a breakdown in 1960, the destitute fifty-six-year-old told an acquaintance: “My life here in America has not been blessed by fortune: bellboy in a hotel, security guard in a warehouse, dishwasher, professional Santa Claus, and finally here [in Hollywood] doorman in a large cinema.”

Edgar Kupfer returned to Europe soon after and spent more than two decades in Italy, increasingly withdrawn and isolated. Bitter about the lack of interest in his chronicle of Dachau, he lived in abject poverty; again and again, he had to “tighten the belt, not to say starve,” as he put it. He had received some reparation payments in the 1950s, after a lengthy struggle in the courts. From the 1960s, he also drew a pension from the German authorities, though it was only small because unsympathetic assessors had minimized his mental anguish. The indignity was compounded by the authorities’ failure to ensure timely payments. After yet another late transfer, the normally reserved and formal Kupfer lost his composure. All these years after liberation and he still had to beg for every scrap. “Trust me, this life makes me sick,” he wrote to the Stuttgart Office for Reparations in November 1979, adding: “It would probably be best if I took my life, then you would have one troublemaker less and the German state would only have to pay for my funeral, nothing more. But I am not sure if I want to give this satisfaction to those responsible.” Kupfer eventually returned to Germany and died in a nursing home on July 7, 1991, in complete obscurity.4

All survivors had their own stories, some happier, some even more miserable than Kupfer and Choinowski. Whatever happened to them, they often faced similar hardships: the lasting pain of injury and illness, the search for a new home and job, the indifference of wider society, and the undignified struggle for compensation. And they were left with all the agonizing memories, the final cruelty of the camps. The memory of the crimes was far more torturous for survivors than for perpetrators, who often settled into quiet lives and forgot about the KL, as long as they could escape justice.5 Survivors could not hope for such oblivion.

First Steps

A few hours after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen on the afternoon of April 15, 1945, Arthur Lehmann clambered across the demolished fence that had enclosed his prisoner sector and rushed to the nearby compounds for women in search of his wife, Gertrude. The SS had ripped them apart in Vught more than a year ago, having already deported their two children to their deaths in Auschwitz. Since then, Lehmann, a middle-aged German Jewish lawyer who emigrated to the Netherlands before the war, had survived an odyssey through the KL complex that finally brought him, via Auschwitz, Mauthausen, and Neuengamme, to Bergen-Belsen. In the days after liberation, he continued to search in vain for his wife. Later he learned that she had died just after the arrival of the British troops: “And so the day that brought me freedom brought her death.”6

Gertrude Lehmann was one of an estimated twenty-five to thirty thousand prisoners who were freed in concentration camps in spring 1945, only to perish soon after; in all, at least ten percent of survivors had died by the end of May 1945.7 Mortality was highest in the largest camps, where misery had multiplied at the end of the war. And none of the liberated camps was bigger or deadlier than Bergen-Belsen. British troops found fifty-three thousand prisoners across two sites, with most inmates, including Lehmann and his wife, held on the grounds of the main camp. Here typhus and other illnesses still raged, and the sick and starved had received no food or drink for days. “The dying just continued,” Arthur Lehmann noted later.8

Emergency relief in the liberated KL fell to the individual Allied forces. The soldiers on the ground were poorly prepared for the humanitarian disaster. Whatever information had trickled down during the haphazard planning for the occupation—about the location of camps and conditions inside—was often outdated and inaccurate. Mostly, the troops did not even aim to liberate specific camps, they simply stumbled across them.9 Their initial reaction was shock. They were overwhelmed by the sight of skeletal survivors and decomposing bodies, and by the stench of waste and death.10Meanwhile, a few predatory soldiers, particularly from the Red Army, used the initial chaos to assault female inmates. “That was the worst, half-dead as I was,” testified Ilse Heinrich, who had survived as an “asocial” in Ravensbrück.11

With Allied commanders unable to provide immediate order and aid, as they scrambled for more staff and supplies, survivors took matters into their own hands. As soon as the Camp SS had departed, they stormed storerooms and depots; in Bergen-Belsen, Arthur Lehmann saw the night sky light up with fires of inmates cooking their first meals in freedom. But as some survivors celebrated, a few drunk on SS champagne, others felt the dark side of inmate self-help. As in the past, inmates fought over the spoils. The weakest often went empty-handed, while some of the stronger ones ate until they were sick. “Most [inmates] immediately gobbled down everything, and a new round of dying began,” Lehmann recalled.12 Survivors also looked beyond the camps in search of supplies, walking to nearby SS settlements, villages, and towns.

The need was greatest for all those prisoners liberated outside the KL, during death transports. Desperate for food, medication, and lodging, they could not count on help from passing Allied troops, and initially had to fend for themselves. For the most part, this meant asking locals, or taking from them. After Renata Laqueur was freed from one of the Bergen-Belsen trains destined for Theresienstadt, she walked to the nearby town of Tröbitz, some ninety miles south of Berlin, which was teeming with Soviet tanks and soldiers. Laqueur entered a German home and demanded food; she ate in silence, watched by the nervous occupants. Then she went to the local shops, which were being ransacked by other survivors of the death train (the Soviet military later gave them official permission to plunder). Packing as much as she could on a stolen bicycle, she slowly made her way back to the train and her gravely ill husband: “Paul’s face—as he saw the meat, bread and bacon, jam and sugar—was more than enough reward for all the effort and agony,” she wrote a few months later.13

Many Germans dreaded encounters with freed prisoners. Some offered help and assistance, including the women of Tröbitz, who later carried Paul Laqueur and other invalids from the train to a makeshift hospital—though it is unclear whether they acted out of charity or calculation.14 Many more stood back, looking at the survivors as a threat. A farmer from the village of Bergen, a couple of miles from the camp, spoke for many when he claimed that robberies by freed prisoners and slave laborers had spread “the greatest horror since the Thirty Years’ War.”15 When it became clear that ordinary Germans had little to fear from feeble survivors, who were often just as scared, the early panic gave way to disgust, with complaints about dirty foreigners defecating everywhere, and bitter resentment about their supposed privileges and profiteering. This hostility grew out of long-standing social and racial prejudices, as well as the more immediate impact of defeat and occupation. Wrapped up in their own sense of victimhood, most locals had little room for compassion.16

Adverse reactions were not restricted to former members of the Nazi national community. Allied officials, too, showed little sympathy at times. Amid all the dirt and disease, they found it hard to see the humanity in survivors, who appeared to them (to use the words of a U.S. congressman visiting Buchenwald) like “absent-minded apes.” They were particularly troubled by the survivors’ behavior. Some liberators had expected docile charges and now decried the inmates’ lack of hygiene, modesty, and morality. One British official in Bergen-Belsen complained that they made “an infernal mess of the camp,” and another recoiled at inmates fighting “for every morsel” like a “swarm of angry monkeys.”17 In part, the lack of empathy stemmed from the discrepancy between the norms of civil society, internalized by the liberators, and the norms of the camp, deeply ingrained in survivors. “Organizing,” for example, had been a basic rule of survival, and inmates naturally continued to “organize” (as they still called it) in the early days of liberation. When a baffled British soldier confronted a Polish boy, who was carrying a large sack of food during the early looting around Bergen-Belsen, and asked him if he knew that stealing was wrong, the boy answered: “Steal? We aren’t stealing, we’re just taking what we want!”18

Such tensions eased after the relief effort gathered strength and conditions gradually improved. In the largest camps, however, the situation remained critical for several weeks after liberation, as Allied officials struggled with the SS legacy of overcrowding, starvation, and epidemics. In Dachau, as French inmates reported on May 8, 1945, some of the barracks, built for seventy-five men, were still packed with up to six hundred sick inmates, who wasted away with little medical help, their bodies entangled with the dead; by the end of the month, 2,221 Dachau survivors had perished.19

The greatest challenge was Bergen-Belsen, where British forces faced an “almost superhuman task,” as Arthur Lehmann noted.20 Early on, they focused on the provision of food and water. Although the war was still raging, the British authorities quickly secured extra supplies. And as more relief workers arrived in late April, among them a group of British medical students, a more orderly refeeding routine could commence, using different diets. “Signs of humanity returning,” one student wrote in his diary on May 5. By then, a special unit had already completed the dusting of barracks and inmates with DDT, an antityphus measure that began here and elsewhere within days of liberation. Despite all these efforts, some thirteen thousand survivors of Bergen-Belsen had perished by the end of May 1945.21

The expansion of medical relief was accompanied by growing Allied control over the freed camps, though not all survivors welcomed this development. The greatest point of contention was the restriction on inmate movements. Several camps went into temporary lockdown, with the U.S. commander of Dachau threatening to shoot anyone who left without permission. The military authorities wanted to contain looting and infectious illnesses and prepare for orderly releases. The survivors, meanwhile, felt like free men caught behind KL wire.22

To maintain discipline, the military relied heavily on selected inmates, building on the existing structures (even terms like “block elders” remained in use in some camps). During the first days, organized inmate groups—often emerging from the prisoner underground—played the central role in many freed camps. With the blessing of the beleaguered liberators, they tried to distribute supplies, enforce discipline, and stop plunder. In Dachau, the camp elder proudly proclaimed the “self-administration of comrades” on May 1, 1945, which even envisaged the continuation of daily roll calls. Over in Buchenwald, armed inmates from the camp police guarded SS officials. They also patrolled the infernal “little camp,” seen by survivors outside as a source of illness and criminality, thereby prolonging the suffering of those still trapped inside; the compound resembled a “concentration camp that has not been liberated,” a U.S. army report found on April 24, 1945.23 Even as more power passed to the Allied commanders, organized inmates—often led by an international committee, as in Dachau, Buchenwald, and Mauthausen—remained a major force, working with the new administration and enforcing its calls for order. “No chaos, no anarchy!” read an appeal of the Dachau committee on May 8, 1945.24

The international committees were dominated by former political prisoners, who would shape the memory of the camps for years to come; most stood on the left of the political spectrum, leading to enthusiastic celebrations of the Day of Labor (May 1) inside the liberated camps. By contrast, social outsiders had no voice at all, and Jews were marginalized, too. Neither Allied commanders nor inmate leaders acknowledged them as a distinct group, at least not initially. In Dachau and Buchenwald, Jewish survivors had to fight for a place on the international committees. “We demand that Jewish affairs are dealt with by Jewish representatives,” a young Pole wrote in his Buchenwald diary on April 16, 1945.25

This was not the only clash between inmates under the frayed banner of international solidarity. Unresolved political conflicts poisoned the atmosphere, and would continue to do so in Cold War Europe, with entrenched battles between survivor groups over commemoration. Even more pronounced were the tensions between the national groups, yet another legacy of the KL. Nationality became the main marker of the postliberation inmate community, with separate barracks, organizations, and newspapers; during the May 1 celebration, most former prisoners marched under their own country’s flag. Conflicts soon flared up over old resentments and new problems, though they rarely turned as violent as in Ebensee, where Soviet and Polish survivors apparently shot at each other. Most precarious was the position of some German survivors, who faced intense hostility because of their comparatively privileged position in the wartime KL. “To be honest, we should be glad that they did not bash our heads in,” a German inmate wrote in Dachau on April 30, 1945.26

Even the timing of releases was determined by the inmates’ national background, at least in Dachau. Within days of the German surrender on May 7, 1945, U.S. forces started to transfer former prisoners to better-appointed SS barracks and buildings outside the camp compound, with one national group following another. The final communiqué of the international committee appeared on June 2, 1945: “We depart happy and full of joy from this hell: it is over.”27

Other liberated camps were quickly cleared, too. In Bergen-Belsen, British forces moved all survivors out of the main camp within four weeks, one barrack at a time, before burning the empty huts to the ground. The last one was torched in a ceremony on May 21, 1945; soldiers and former prisoners watched as the wooden hut, a large picture of Hitler pinned to one of its walls, was consumed by flames. Sick survivors, meanwhile, had been washed and disinfected, and taken to a huge and reasonably well-equipped British hospital area nearby, with enough space for ten thousand patients. One of them was Arthur Lehmann. He was operated on twice, delirious with fever. But he slowly got better and took great pleasure in the hot baths and clean beds. Most important was the care of the medical staff, especially by the matron on his ward, who sometimes sat down by his side and listened to his story. “I told her about my wife and my children,” he wrote the following year. “She stroked my head and told me that everything would be all right. And that made me believe it, too.”28


Trapped in the nightmare of the KL, prisoners had often daydreamed about a happy future. Some inmates longed for a peaceful life in the countryside, an Auschwitz prisoner wrote in 1942, whereas others imagined only parties and pleasure.29 After liberation, such visions of quiet contentment or hedonism quickly faded in the cold light of postwar Europe. The great majority of survivors were hoping to return home, though few were certain what would await them there. Once they left the compounds, they had to confront the reality of rebuilding their existence, often from Allied field hospitals and assembly centers crowded with others displaced by Nazi terror. “I have to begin to live again, without wife and family,” the Dutch Jew Jules Schelvis, who had lost his loved ones in Sobibor, wrote in a French military hospital on May 26, 1945, a few weeks after his liberation from a Natzweiler satellite camp.30

At the end of the war, the former territory of the Third Reich was awash with millions of uprooted men, women, and children. While some were making their own way home, the occupation forces discouraged such independent initiatives, concerned about obstructions of military movements, and about the spread of disease and social disorder. Instead, the Allies set a vast repatriation program in motion, moving fast to reduce the number of DPs in their care. Among the first to return were former KL prisoners.31

Although the way home was hard for all survivors of the concentration camps, it proved harder for some than for others. On the whole, western Europeans had better prospects. True, their journey through the war-torn landscape was arduous, traveling on packed trains and trucks, but it rarely lasted for longer than a few weeks. Renata Laqueur and her convalescing husband, for example, left a reception camp near Dresden on July 4, 1945; three weeks later, she was sitting on her sofa in Amsterdam, still wearing a Hitler Youth shirt she had “organized” in Tröbitz. By that time, Arthur Lehmann had been back in the Netherlands for a month, having been flown out from Germany because of his poor health (he weighed just eighty-two pounds). The quickest to be repatriated were probably French inmates, almost all of whom were back home by mid-June, where many received a hero’s welcome. A large group arrived in Paris on May 1, 1945, and marched in formation down the Champs-Élysées—past a tearful crowd, as one of them recalled—to be greeted at the Arc de Triomphe by General de Gaulle, who used the occasion to cement the image of a united “other France” of Nazi resisters, which became the focus of early postwar French national memory; later that year, de Gaulle appointed one of the survivors, Edmond Michelet, as his minister of armed forces.32

The situation was very different for most eastern European survivors. Inside the former camp compounds, Soviet inmates heard alarming rumors about what would happen to them, prompting a Dachau bulletin (run by loyal Stalinists) to issue an emphatic denial: everyone will be welcomed home “with care and love,” a Red Army captain promised. Even skeptics had little choice, however, as the western Allies, on whose territory most displaced Soviets lived, had agreed to repatriate them, even if it meant using force. Between spring and autumn 1945, tens of thousands of KL survivors arrived in Soviet filtration and assembly camps, where they were received with suspicion and hostility. Alleged cowards, deserters, and traitors were quickly drafted into forced labor or sentenced to the Gulag. “It is difficult for me to talk about it,” recalled a Ukrainian survivor of Dachau, who had been sent to the coal mines in the Donets Basin upon his return. “We survived the concentration camps and then some of our comrades died here in these mines.” Those who escaped punishment often faced prejudice in Soviet society and stayed silent about their experiences in the KL.33

Eastern European Jews also endured great adversity after they returned from the camps. Within weeks of being freed, many tens of thousands had come home (most of them to Hungary).34 Their first goal was to find missing relatives, but all too often, hope turned to despair. Lina Stumachin, a survivor of several KL, walked back from Saxony to Poland as fast as her swollen legs would take her. “In my imagination,” she said later, “I saw my house, and those that I had lost would come back to me.” When she finally arrived in the spa town of Zakopane, where she had run a shop before the war, goats were grazing where her house had once stood. There was no sign of her husband or child, either: “I waited for long days and weeks for nothing.”35 There was little local support for survivors like Stumachin. The Nazis had eradicated traditional Jewish culture, together with most Polish Jews. Local Poles, meanwhile, often refused to return homes and other possessions they had taken over after the deportation of the Jewish owners (the same happened in Hungary and the Baltic States). A wave of anti-Jewish discrimination and violence soon drove many concentration camp survivors back to the west, mainly to the U.S. zone of occupied Germany, together with Jews who had sheltered on Soviet territory during the war.36

Almost all foreign KL survivors who still lived on German soil in 1946 came from eastern Europe, and some stayed in permanent DP camps until well into the 1950s. Many were organized in survivor committees—mostly along national lines—that documented their suffering and promoted their interests. Among those resisting repatriation were thousands of Ukrainian and Baltic nationals who had no desire to live under Soviet rule. The same was true for some Poles from areas swallowed up by the USSR. Other Poles worried about the growing Communist domination over their country, which would eventually claim the lives of survivors like Witold Pilecki, who had played a significant part in the Auschwitz prisoner underground; arrested by the Polish secret police, he was executed in 1948 for his anticommunist activities.37

Then there were those Jewish KL survivors without anywhere to return to. Most vulnerable were the children. Thomas (Tommy) Buergenthal was lucky, being reunited with his mother (herself a survivor of Auschwitz and Ravensbrück) in late 1946 in Göttingen, Germany. Many others never saw their parents again and stayed in orphanages. It was in one such home in Paris that Lina Stumachin worked, after she had left Zakopane and Poland for good. Looking after the orphans, she told an interviewer in September 1946, helped her to fill the emptiness in her life and to forget “that you once had your own home, your own family, that you once had your own child.” As for the future, she wanted to accompany the orphans to Palestine. Other Jewish DPs also headed there, especially after the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948; even here, though, they faced a difficult start to their new lives, overshadowed by the past, poverty, and the mistrust of earlier Jewish settlers. Of course, by no means all survivors were Zionists, and many thousands were admitted to countries like Britain and the United States; among them was Buergenthal, who arrived in New York in 1951, now aged seventeen, and embarked on a distinguished legal career culminating in his appointment to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.38

Wherever they lived, and however successful they became, the survivors bore scars that never healed. “No one came out as he went in,” wrote Eugen Kogon.39 Most noticeable were the physical wounds. Former prisoners left the camps marked by illness and infirmity, and most never regained their full strength. When Hermine Horvath, who had been dragged to Auschwitz and Ravensbrück as a Gypsy, was interviewed in January 1958, she explained how infections, frostbite, and medical experiments had left her unable to work. “I would like to start [my life] again from the beginning,” she said, “if only I could be healthy”; she died two months later, just thirty-three years old. Many other survivors died by their own hand, sometimes decades after liberation, like Jean Améry, shining a glaring light on the mental scars left by the KL.40

The “memory of the offense” stayed with survivors for decades, Primo Levi wrote shortly before his own apparent suicide in 1987, “denying peace to the tormented.”41 Many were traumatized by what they had seen, what they had suffered, and what they had done. At the end of his anguished 1946 memoir, Miklós Nyiszli, the prisoner who had assisted Dr. Mengele in Auschwitz, swore that he would never again lift a scalpel.42 More generally, former prisoners often felt that their survival was somehow undeserved, given the deaths of so many others. They suffered from apathy and anxiety, and their condition was further aggravated by the limited mental health provision of the 1950s and 1960s. The doctors only diagnosed his physical problems, one survivor complained at the time, “but what I need is a person who understands my trouble.”43

Former inmates bore the burden of the camps in different ways. Some dedicated their lives to the legacy of the KL, by commemorating them in survivor associations and publications, by becoming politicians to right society’s wrongs, or by pursuing the perpetrators. Barely recovered from his ordeal, which had left him close to death in Mauthausen, Simon Wiesenthal offered his services to the local U.S. commander on May 25, 1945, because “the crimes of these men [the Nazis] are of such magnitude that no effort can be spared to apprehend them”; this became Wiesenthal’s mission until his death sixty years later.44 Other survivors, too, helped to convict Camp SS men.45 Others again, like David Rousset and Margarete Buber-Neumann, spoke out against political violence and terror more widely, even though their vigorous campaign against the Soviet Gulag in the late 1940s and 1950s lost them many friends on the left, including fellow survivors.46

Far more former prisoners withdrew into their private lives, returning to their careers, resuming their education, rebuilding families. Still, they often shared their experiences in private with other survivors (often spouses or close friends). This was true for several hundred Jewish children, almost all of them orphans, who were brought to Britain in 1945–46, settled there, and never lost touch. “We were better than blood brothers,” recalled Kopel Kendall (born Kandelcukier) more than five decades later. “That saved me.”47

Finally, there were those who wanted to erase the camps from their mind. This impulse was forcefully expressed by Shlomo Dragon in May 1945, at the end of a long testimony about his time in the Special Squad. “I desperately want to return to a normal life,” he told Polish investigators, “and forget everything I experienced in Auschwitz.” Like Dragon, some survivors tried to repress their memories and focused only on the present, often burying themselves in work.48 But even when the past did not haunt them during the day, it came back at night. According to a 1970s survey of Auschwitz survivors, most of them frequently dreamed about the camps.49 Shlomo Dragon himself, who emigrated to Israel with his brother in late 1949, suffered from nightmares, too. Only after many years of silence, enforced by the stigma surrounding the Special Squad, did the two brothers begin to speak about the inferno of Birkenau.50

Other survivors had to confront the past in the courtroom, as they testified against their former tormentors. Not everyone had the will to do so. “If my nightmares could be used as evidence in court, I would no doubt be an important witness,” wrote one Auschwitz survivor in 1960, as he declined the invitation of a German court to testify.51 But many more did appear, driven by a desire for justice, as well as by a sense of duty, both to history and to the dead.52 The experience was harrowing. As soon as they stepped onto the stand, they had to relive the worst moments of their lives. Asked by a judge in 1964 whether he was married, Lajos Schlinger replied: “Well, I have no wife. She stayed in Auschwitz.”53 The pressure of the courtroom, heightened by skeptical judges, hostile lawyers, and brazen defendants, proved too much for some. During the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial, one survivor leaped out of the witness box and hit one of the accused, who had tortured him during the Dachau seawater experiments. “This bastard has ruined my life,” he screamed as guards led him away.54 Former prisoners were also frustrated by their inability to recall crimes in sufficient detail. Most unnerving of all, though, was the outcome of many judicial investigations, especially in later years, when fewer cases came to court and sentences grew more lenient.55 This was not the kind of justice that inmates had imagined as they clung to their lives inside the camps.


Prisoners often fantasized about revenge. Dreams of vengeance sustained them during their darkest days in the KL, and still gripped them in the face of death. Expecting to perish in the 1944 Special Squad uprising, one Birkenau prisoner expressed his regret that he could not “take revenge as I would like to.”56 After liberation, some survivors released their pent-up thirst for vengeance. In the first hours of freedom, they humiliated, tortured, and killed SS personnel, and defiled their corpses; in Dachau, a U.S. official watched an emaciated inmate urinate on the face of a dead guard.57Since most SS staff had slipped away, however, it was hated Kapos who bore the brunt of mob violence. Many hundreds were battered, strangled, and trampled to death, including notorious figures like the former Auschwitz camp elder Bruno Brodniewicz. Fellow survivors felt that justice was being done; after all, the right to kill cruel Kapos had long been a basic law of the camp. “It was dreadful and inhumane, and still just,” Drahomír Bárta wrote about a massacre at Ebensee, which may have claimed over fifty former prisoner functionaries.58

Despite the inmates’ suffering and habituation to violence, such revenge killings remained relatively rare.59 Many survivors were too weak, or found no targets for their fury; others, including some senior inmates, urged moderation. “We should not act as they [the Germans] acted toward us,” one Buchenwald survivor counseled, otherwise “we would have been just like them in the end.”60 Equally important was the restraint exercised by the Allied forces. True, some soldiers stayed on the sidelines early on, happy for prisoners to exact revenge. In the heat of the moment, a few went even further and shot SS men and Kapos; overwhelmed by the sight of the corpses on the Dachau death train on April 29, 1945, some U.S. soldiers executed the first SS men they met and then mowed down dozens more, lined up against a wall, before an agitated officer intervened.61 But this was an isolated incident. The Allies guarded the great majority of captured perpetrators and put a stop to further outbreaks of violence.62 The accused would be judged not by their victims, but by the courts.

The punishment of Nazi criminals had been a major war aim, and the Camp SS was among the main targets in spring 1945. Soon after Allied troops had liberated the last large camps, American, British, and Soviet war crimes investigators arrived on the scene, and collected evidence for military trials. The most prominent court was established on a site that the SS had once revered—Dachau. In a highly symbolic move, the U.S. army turned the birthplace of the camp system into a center for war crimes trials (there were practical reasons, as well: the site was used since summer 1945 as a U.S. internment camp). Up to the end of 1947, the Dachau court prosecuted some one thousand defendants for KL crimes.63

The first of these Dachau trials began on November 15, 1945, inside a former slave labor workshop. In the dock were forty men from KL Dachau, led by Commandant Martin Weiss. Designed to dispense swift justice, the court found all the defendants guilty in less than a month and sentenced the vast majority to death. They were convicted for participating in a “common design” to commit war crimes against enemy civilians and POWs since January 1942 (the date of the Declaration of the United Nations), a legal construct that made them liable even if there was no evidence for their involvement in individual killings. This served as the legal model for later prosecutions in Dachau, which included principal trials of staff from other main camps liberated by U.S. troops (Mauthausen, Buchenwald, Flossenbürg, and Dora), as well as some 250 successor trials, mostly involving staff from attached satellite camps. Death sentences were carried out in Landsberg prison and the impenitent Commandant Weiss was one of the first to die, hanged in May 1946. “It is worth dying for your fatherland,” he wrote in a farewell letter to his infant sons.64

While the U.S. court in Dachau was the most prolific, it was not the first Allied military court to convict concentration camp perpetrators. The earliest British case—against men and women accused of concerted war crimes in Bergen-Belsen—had been heard between September and November 1945 in Lüneburg. In the end, thirty defendants were convicted (fourteen were found innocent), of whom eleven were sentenced to death by hanging; one of those executed in Hameln prison on December 13, 1945, was Josef Kramer, the former commandant. Others followed over the coming months, as British military courts sentenced more perpetrators from main and satellite camps.65 French military courts also prosecuted KL crimes; one of these trials led to the execution in June 1950 of the former Ravensbrück commandant Fritz Suhren, who had lived under a false name in Bavaria until he was recognized by his former secretary.66 Soviet military tribunals, too, punished KL perpetrators. The most high-profile case was the Berlin trial of Sachsenhausen staff, which ended in November 1947 with life terms for fourteen defendants (the USSR had temporarily abandoned capital punishment), among them “Iron” Gustav Sorge and Wilhelm “Pistol” Schubert; within less than a year, six of the defendants, including the former commandant Anton Kaindl, had perished in Soviet labor camps.67

In addition to Allied courts in occupied Germany, former Camp SS staff faced justice in Poland, which had been the major site of KL crimes. In fact, it was a Polish special court, set up by the provisional Communist government, that presided over the first trial and execution: in late 1944, five men from Majdanek were publicly hanged next to the former crematorium. After the war was over, more proceedings followed. Numerous cases came before special courts, including a trial in Gdańsk that ended in summer 1946 inthe public hanging of Stutthof officials, with eleven former prisoners, dressed in their old uniforms, acting as executioners. The most high-profile cases came before the new Polish Supreme National Tribunal in Krakow. On September 5, 1946, it condemned Amon Göth, the commandant of Plaszow, to death. On December 22, 1947, it convicted thirty-nine Auschwitz perpetrators; the twenty-three defendants who received the death penalty included Arthur Liebehenschel, Hans Aumeier, Maximilian Grabner, and Erich Muhsfeldt (Dr. Johann Paul Kremer’s death sentence was later commuted because of his advanced age). And on April 2, 1947, it sentenced the Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss, who had been tracked down the previous year on a remote farm by a British war crimes unit. Two weeks later, Höss stood on a scaffold erected at the former Auschwitz main camp and gazed beyond a group of spectators across the grounds of the concentration camp he had established almost seven years earlier. In a typically bold gesture, he moved his head to adjust the noose. Then the trapdoor opened.68

Before Höss had left occupied Germany, as one of many hundreds of KL perpetrators extradited to Poland by the Allies, he testified before the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal for leading Nazi perpetrators. The concentration camps had already featured during the first of these trials against major war criminals: Hermann Göring was charged with setting up the KL system, the former RSHA chief Ernst Kaltenbrunner with helping to run it, and Albert Speer with directing forced labor inside (the SS, meanwhile, was declared a criminal organization). One of the most poignant moments came on November 29, 1945, when U.S. prosecutors showed a one-hour film about KL atrocities. Some of the defendants seemed shocked, for the first time, while public sentiment against them hardened. “Why can’t we shoot the swine now?” one spectator exclaimed.69

The camps occupied an even more prominent place in subsequent Nuremberg tribunals. In the IG Farben trial (August 1947–July 1948), senior managers stood accused of exploiting prisoners from Auschwitz-Monowitz. Although the proceedings demonstrated that the complicity for KL crimes extended deep into “respectable” German society, the punishments were mild, as the judges were inclined to see the defendants as errant businessmen, not murderous slave drivers.70 In the Doctors’ Trial (November 1946–August 1947), the human experiments took center stage. Several defendants were sentenced to death, among them Dr. Hoven, the bungling Buchenwald physician, and Professor Gebhardt, the man behind the Ravensbrück sulfonamide trials.71 Finally, there was the WVHA case (April–November 1947) against senior SS managers of the camp system. Most of them received lengthy jail terms, and one was executed—Oswald Pohl. Prior to his death in June 1951, Pohl converted to Catholicism (like Rudolf Höss and Martin Weiss) and published a remarkable tract about his religious awakening, remarkable not for its contrition, but its utter lack of insight.72

Denial was the default mode of Camp SS captives.73 In its most extreme form, it culminated in the claim that all had been well in the KL. “Dachau was a good camp,” proclaimed Martin Weiss before his trial, and Josef Kramer protested that he had “never received any complaints from the prisoners”; former inmates who talked about abuse and torture were pernicious liars.74 The core teachings of the Camp SS had not been forgotten, with the defendants still picturing prisoners as deviants and themselves as decent. “I have served as a professional soldier,” declared Oswald Pohl from the scaffold.75

The self-image as regular soldiers, ubiquitous among KL defendants, was just another form of denial. After all, local initiatives by devoted Camp SS men—who aspired to the ideal of the fanatical “political soldier”—had done much to escalate terror inside. Now many defendants portrayed themselves as underlings without ideological convictions, just as Adolf Eichmann would do in Jerusalem several years later: they had only done their duty. While this tale of the obedient soldier was gender-specific, female SS defendants made a similar point. The former chief of the Ravensbrück bunker, for example, claimed in court that she had been “a small inanimate cog in a machine.” Inevitably, defendants also turned on one another, shifting responsibility up and down the chain of command. True, some old accomplices stuck together, still committed to the ideal of SS comradeship. But these bonds, always brittle, frayed in court. After his former WVHA managers had blamed everything on him, Oswald Pohl was left to lament the demise of the SS motto “My honor is loyalty.”76

Although denials of personal responsibility made little impression on Allied courts pursuing charges of common conspiracy, Camp SS defendants resorted to ever more outrageous lies. Mass murderers denied everything, like Otto Moll, the head of the Birkenau crematoria (he claimed to have worked only as a gardener) and leader of a mobile killing squad (“I didn’t shoot anybody. I was a German soldier, not a murderer”).77 Senior officers feigned ignorance, too. Arthur Liebehenschel said that he had signed IKL directives without reading them and was unaware of any gassings in Auschwitz. His lies were so transparent that even his interrogator lost his cool. “You are like a little child,” he chided one day. But Liebehenschel was undeterred. In a final plea for mercy to the Polish president, he denied all guilt, blamed his superiors, and suggested that he had always helped prisoners.78

Such falsehoods were more than desperate defense strategies. Of course, many defendants lied to save themselves. But the most devoted Camp SS members had become so used to the normality of evil that they continued to believe in the righteousness of their actions, justifying the murders of the sick as a humanitarian act and SS violence as a disciplinary measure. Even outsiders were still infused with this SS spirit. The veteran professor of tropical medicine Claus Schilling, at seventy-four probably the oldest accused at any of the Dachau trials, not only defended his murderous malaria experiments, he asked the court to let him complete his research, for the greater good of science and humanity. All he needed, he said, was a chair, a table, and a typewriter; he got the gallows instead.79

Hidden among the defendants’ delusions and lies were occasional half truths. Only a few came close to making full confessions. Rudolf Höss was the most voluble witness, speaking and writing with surprising candor. At the same time, Höss remained committed to Nazi ideology, and his greatest regret was not his crimes, but his failure to have become a farmer.80 If confessions were rare, remorse was even rarer. One reluctant penitent was the former Auschwitz camp compound leader Hans Aumeier. Arrested in June 1945 in Norway, he soon dropped his most obvious lies and gave a detailed account of the Holocaust; he also lectured unbelieving German army officers about SS deeds. Before the Polish court in 1947, Aumeier conceded his crimes and his hardening toward prisoners,which he put down to his long years in Dachau—where he first caught the eye of Theodor Eicke back in 1934—and to the daily mass extermination of Jews in Auschwitz. In his last plea for clemency, he spoke of his “feeling of greatest remorse.” He was executed in early 1948, just like the unrepentant Liebehenschel.81

How, then, should we judge the early postwar trials of KL perpetrators? Given the immense difficulties facing Allied courts—the chaos in occupied Germany, the absence of legal precedent, the shortages of time, staff, and resources—it is easy to see why most commentators have reached a positive verdict.82 After all, many leading Camp SS men were punished. They included most of the top WVHA officials, with Gerhard Maurer, the powerful manager of slave labor, the last to be tried; he was executed in Poland in 1953. In addition, they included most of the surviving wartime KL commandants. Between 1945 and 1950, fourteen former commandants were sentenced to death by military courts and executed (Hans Loritz hanged himself in British captivity in 1946); at the end of the decade, only seven wartime commandants were still alive.83

But these sentences cannot obscure the serious shortcomings of the Allied trials, as basic legal standards were sacrificed in the search for swift sentences. The hasty preparation caused procedural nightmares, including wrongful prosecutions and convictions, while numerous confessions were extracted through improper means.84 Few of the accused could mount a meaningful defense, either, with some trials lasting no more than a day. Then there was the haphazard selection of defendants, especially among lower-ranking SS captives. Some were quickly sentenced, others waited for trials that never came—not to mention the Nazi doctors and engineers who were whisked away as technical experts by the Allies, despite their implication in KL abuses.85

There were also major inequities in sentencing. Several senior WVHA and IG Farben managers received far milder sentences than ordinary guards and sentries, even though they bore a greater share of the overall responsibility.86 The timing of trials was crucial here. Initially, Allied judges aimed at strict deterrence and retribution, reflecting the clamor back home for the harsh punishment of KL perpetrators. But by 1947–48, when the former managers were tried, the early outrage had dissipated. As the Cold War turned divided Germany into a strategic ally of both East and West, sentencing for Nazi crimes became more lenient and more defendants were cleared altogether.87

The most troubling aspect of Allied trials was their failure to distinguish between SS officials and prisoner functionaries. From the beginning, the two were often tried together. Unfamiliar with the basic organizational structures of the camps, or unwilling to grasp the many “gray zones” inside, Allied jurists saw Kapos as part of the wider criminal conspiracy (and occasionally as SS members), helping to cement the caricature of Kapos that has endured to this day.88 This approach led to some extraordinary scenes. In the first Belsen trial, for instance, a Jewish survivor, who had acted for two days as a lowly block elder, was forced to sit in the dock with career SS men like Commandant Kramer.89 The number of Kapos on trial was high—in the U.S. proceedings at Dachau, almost ten percent of defendants were former KL inmates—and the sentences severe.90 Indeed, former Kapos were often punished harder than the SS, probably because they had stuck more vividly in the minds of fellow prisoners than the more anonymous guards. They were less likely to be pardoned, as well; the last defendant from the Belsen trial to be released from prison was not an SS official but a Polish Kapo.91

Most Kapos had a mixed reputation among survivors, reflecting earlier divisions between prisoners. Since it was possible for the same person to be lauded as a hero by one group, and reviled as a henchman by another, any notion of perfect justice was illusory.92But even in the case of universally reviled Kapos, one has to ask whether their punishment fitted their crime. Take Christof Knoll, a particularly vicious Dachau overseer, who made an impassioned plea in December 1945. “A Kapo is a prisoner,” he exclaimed in court, and enumerated the SS threats, abuses, and beatings he had suffered during almost twelve years in Dachau. After his death sentence, Knoll received unexpected support from Arthur Haulot, the Belgian political prisoner who now acted as president of the Dachau International Committee. Whatever the crimes of a Kapo like Knoll, Haulot explained in the name of fellow survivors, he was primarily a victim of the camp, and it was wrong to punish him as severely as an SS volunteer. The U.S. authorities were unmoved, and hanged Knoll in Landsberg in May 1946, together with another Kapo and twenty-six SS men.93

Even if one comes to a more positive conclusion about the Allied trials, there is the sobering fact that the great majority of KL perpetrators went unpunished.94 Many cases dealt solely with crimes committed against Allied (or non-German) nationals between 1942 and 1945, letting off a large number of Camp SS officials.95 Other suspects committed suicide in Allied captivity, like Dr. Ding, the man behind the Buchenwald typhus trials, and the Auschwitz chief physician Dr. Wirths, who hanged himself in September 1945, shortly after he described the gassing of Jews as an “unpleasant” but “acceptable solution” for illness and overcrowding.96 Many more simply slipped through the net. Some fled overseas, among them Dr. Mengele, who used the same escape route to Latin America as Adolf Eichmann and lived largely undisturbed until his death in February 1979, when he drowned at a Brazilian holiday resort.97 Most fugitives stayed on the territory of the former Third Reich, and once the Allied war crimes trials ended in the early 1950s, their punishment depended, above all, on German and Austrian courts.

German courts had started in summer 1945 to prosecute violent Nazi crimes against German nationals, with Allied authorization, and the judges had heard hundreds of cases involving KL crimes by 1949, when the two rival German states were founded; in addition to SS men and Kapos accused of wartime crimes in satellite camps and on death marches, the courts pursued perpetrators from the early camps and the prewar KL. Some defendants were severely punished, including the verbose “euthanasia” physician Dr. Mennecke, who was sentenced to death in December 1946 (his old friend Dr. Steinmeyer had killed himself in May 1945). But one could see warning signals in the early postwar years, as well, such as superficial investigations and soft sentences.98 The sameapplied to proceedings across the border, before Austrian Peoples’ Courts. In 1952, for example, Innsbruck judges dismissed the murder charges against a Plaszow SS man after they discounted the “hate-filled” testimonies of former Jewish prisoners; it was “inconceivable,” the court found, that the picture of daily violence the survivors had painted was actually true.99 Such judgments reflected popular views of the KL at the time, though these views were never uncontested in postwar Austria and Germany.


Around midday on Monday, April 16, 1945, a large procession of one thousand or more men, women, and children set off from Weimar city center and slowly wound its way through the countryside, up the Ettersberg and past the gates of Buchenwald. They were assembled here on orders of the U.S. liberators, who led the locals through the camp. The Weimar citizens were spared none of the horrors, from the starved survivors in the barracks to the charred remains in the crematorium, while American officers lectured them about their guilt.100 Similar scenes took place in other liberated camps in spring 1945, as the Allies forced ordinary Germans to confront the KL. This included the exhumation of mass graves inside camps and on the trails of death marches; locals had to dig up the dead, wash the corpses, and attend ceremonial burials. During the mass funeral of two hundred Wöbbelin victims, who were lined up in long rows on a nearby town square, a U.S. chaplain accused local citizens on May 7, 1945, of being “individually and collectively responsible for these atrocities” because of their support for Nazism.101

Concentration camps like Buchenwald and Wöbbelin were highly visible in the first weeks and months after the war. During a hard-hitting Allied reeducation campaign, graphic details flashed across occupied Germany, on posters, leaflets, and pamphlets, in newspapers, newsreels, and radio broadcasts. According to one observer, the whole country was “deluged with photographs of corpses.” The campaign in occupied Germany climaxed in 1946, when well over one million viewers saw the harrowing twenty-two-minute U.S. documentary Death Mills, which also placed the blame on the shoulders of the wider population.102 Further details emerged from survivor memoirs and perpetrator trials, which received significant media coverage.103

The public picture of the concentration camps was incomplete, however. The history and function of the KL remained hazy, while the perpetrators were largely depicted as beasts—especially women, whose violent acts were explained as a perversion of female nature. The media obsession with female perpetrators culminated in the 1947 Buchenwald trial in Dachau, where reports centered on the widow of the first commandant, Ilse Koch, even though she had held no SS rank and played only a peripheral part in the crimes (the U.S. authorities later reduced her life sentence to four years’ imprisonment).104

The reactions of ordinary Germans to the KL crimes varied, as they had done throughout the Third Reich. Some continued to look away, preoccupied with their own lot. But it was hard to avoid the topic in 1945–46 and there was plenty of talk, arising from both Allied pressure and personal interest. Some Germans expressed shame and outrage, coupled with the demand for the harsh punishment of perpetrators.105 On the other side of the debate stood those who dismissed stories about the atrocities as Allied propaganda, and defended the KL as well-run institutions for the detention and reeducation of dangerous outcasts, giving a new lease on life to Nazi propaganda.106

Most Germans probably found themselves somewhere in-between. They acknowledged that terrible things had happened, and sometimes expressed genuine revulsion, but they denied any responsibility. First, they claimed that the crimes had been carried out behind their backs by Nazi fanatics. This was the myth of the invisible camp, which expunged all memories of the pervasive (if partial) popular knowledge of the KL, from the open terror of the early camps to the death marches at the end. Second, many Germans relativized the crimes by equating the fate of prisoners with their own. This was the myth of German victimhood: both prisoners and ordinary Germans, it was said, had suffered under the Nazis and the war. Many Germans therefore bristled at charges of collective guilt, leading to an exculpatory campaign spearheaded by senior politicians and clergymen. As early as Sunday, April 22, 1945, just six days after the U.S.-led tour of Buchenwald, a proclamation read in Weimar churches declared that locals held “no blame whatsoever” for crimes that had been “entirely unknown.”107 These myths became entrenched in the late 1940s, aided by the Allies’ abandonment of denazification, and formed a major part of early German postwar narratives about the Third Reich.108

In the young Federal Republic of Germany, the memory of the KL was initially marginalized, reflecting a wider social and political consensus to leave the Nazi past behind. It was time to move on, most Germans felt, and focus on rebuilding their lives and their country.109 The widespread amnesia in the early 1950s benefited the remaining KL perpetrators. It emboldened calls for amnesties, amid mounting cries of Allied “victors’ justice.” Under pressure from the new West German government, a strategic ally in the escalating Cold War, the U.S. authorities released most SS prisoners; the last Camp SS defendant from the U.S. Dachau trials walked free in 1958. British and French courts also enacted amnesties (as did the Polish and Soviet authorities).110 Some convicts returned to their old vocations. Professor Otto Bickenbach, for one, was allowed to practice as a physician after a tribunal accepted his claim that Natzweiler prisoners had volunteered for his deadly phosgene experiments. Many former Camp SS professionals, meanwhile, found new jobs: having been released in 1954, the Gross-Rosen commandant Johannes Hassebroek earned his living as a salesman.111

With little political pressure on the prosecution authorities, there were few systematic investigations, and convictions for Nazi crimes dropped dramatically; in 1955, just twenty-seven defendants were charged by West German courts, down from 3,972 in 1949. The trials were coming to an end, it seemed, and anyone who had not yet been sentenced would probably never face justice.112 Crucially, most SS fugitives stayed under the radar by adjusting to the postwar norms of liberal society, pointing once more to the importance of socio-psychological causes of KL crimes; in a different environment, these former Camp SS perpetrators kept their heads down and led law-abiding lives.113 While their behavior altered, their convictions often remained unchanged. Remnants of the core Camp SS networks survived, with former staff and their families held together by nostalgia for the past. Interviewed by the Israeli historian Tom Segev in 1975, the ex-commandant Hassebroek scoffed: “The only thing I regret is the collapse of the Third Reich.”114

While the memory of the camps faded in the early Federal Republic, it did not disappear altogether. This was partly due to the contentious issue of reparations, which vexed leading West German politicians and industrialists during the 1950s and 1960s. Keen to draw a line under the past, the German authorities reluctantly offered direct compensation to some victims and made lump-sum payments to Israel, Western European states, and Jewish organizations (represented by the Claims Conference). Designed to help West Germany gain admission to the international community, rather than to help all victims, these measures resulted in a system riddled with inequities, injustices, and indignities (as we saw in the case of Edgar Kupfer and Moritz Choinowski). Those left completely empty-handed included many former slave laborers, as German industrialists argued that the Nazi regime had compelled them to deploy KL prisoners.115 One survivor who challenged this falsehood was Norbert Wollheim, a German Jew who had survived working for IG Farben at Auschwitz-Monowitz. In 1951, he brought a civil case against the chemicals giant, which turned into a long-running political and legal drama, and ended in 1957 with an out-of-court settlement of thirty million DM paid to the Claims Conference (other big German corporations criticized the agreement, and successfully fought civil actions by survivors).116

Criminal trials also kept the KL in the public eye in the 1950s. The press still reported on proceedings, which now mostly concerned Kapos and low-level SS officials, such as Private Steinbrenner, the would-be murderer of Hans Beimler in Dachau, who was sentenced to life by a Munich court in 1952.117 Toward the end of the decade, in particular, individual cases gained extensive media exposure, stimulating more critical engagement with the camps. This included the trial of Gustav Sorge and Wilhelm Schubert. Both had survived the Siberian coal mines and returned to West Germany in 1956. But they were not among those Nazi perpetrators embraced on their return from Soviet captivity. Quickly rearrested, they were tried once more, under the spotlight of the national and international press, and sentenced to life (for a second time) in early 1959.118 Sorge died in prison in 1978, one of a few Camp SS convicts who faced up to the past (“We had lost our sense of right!” he once shouted at a psychologist). Schubert, by contrast, stayed true to his cause. Released in 1986, he built a shrine in his flat with an SS picture of himself surrounded by images of Hitler and other Nazi leaders; his funeral in 2006 drew a crowd of neo-Nazis.119

Popular attitudes in West Germany continued to change in the 1960s. This was due, in part, to the renewed interest in survivor memoirs. In 1960, the longtime chancellor Konrad Adenauer himself used the foreword to a memoir to criticize those compatriots who wanted to burnish the nation’s image by burying memories of KL horrors committed by Germans.120 Even more important were high-profile court proceedings that signaled a more systematic judicial approach, propelled by the creation of the Central Office for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes in 1958. Most significant was the first Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt between December 1963 and August 1965. In the dock stood twenty defendants, headed by two of the former adjutants (Commandant Richard Baer, arrested in 1960, died of a heart attack before the trial). The accompanying media storm, with almost one thousand articles in national newspapers alone, as well as programs on radio and television, caught the attention of most Germans. “Damn it!” one reader wrote to a Frankfurt paper in December 1964, “give it a rest with your reporting about Auschwitz already.”121

The West German proceedings resulted in imperfect justice, as perpetrators often benefited from the kind of legal protection they had denied their victims.122 The trials also produced imperfect history lessons. Media reports were irregular, in particular in mammoth cases like the trial of Majdanek staff, which opened in Düsseldorf in November 1975 and concluded five years and seven months later, setting a record for the longest and most expensive West German trial.123 What is more, the reporting only scratched the surface. This was most obvious, perhaps, in the continued treatment of defendants as an abnormal species. Here, the tone had been set by the Allied proceedings and the early West German cases, including the second trial of Ilse Koch—dubbed by the press as the “red-headed green-eyed witch of Buchenwald”—who was rearrested after her release from U.S. detention and sentenced to life in 1951 by an Augsburg court (she later suffered from mental illness, convinced that former KL prisoners would abuse her in her cell, and committed suicide in 1967).124

Popular reactions to the West German trials of the 1960s and 1970s were mixed; the Auschwitz trial, in particular, briefly galvanized the opposition to further proceedings against Nazi perpetrators. At the same time, however, the cases confronted the population with more detailed images from the KL than ever before and gave a vital impetus to pedagogical and cultural initiatives, often led by a younger generation, which did much to generate a more differentiated memory culture.125

By the 1980s, the distorted picture of the KL, as painted in the early Federal Republic, had developed many cracks. In particular, the myth of the invisible KL lost its power after local activists uncovered the myriad links between SS camps and the wider population. Historians and campaigners also began to turn a spotlight onto victim groups who had been obscured in public memory. Just as there had been prisoner hierarchies in the Nazi period, there were survivor hierarchies after the war. From the start, social outsiders—including homosexuals and Gypsies—were pushed to the bottom, by prevailing prejudices and also by former political prisoners determined to dissociate themselves from more unpopular victim groups. As early as 1946, some “asocial” and “criminal” survivors joined together to protest against their marginalization in a short-lived journal of their own. Suffering in the camps, they announced, should not be measured by the color of a survivor’s triangle. But they were not heard. Social outsiders were widely excluded from compensation and commemoration, and it took decades before they were recognized as KL victims.126

It would be wrong to paint the 1980s as a golden period. The Nazi past was still contentious in the Federal Republic and popular memory of the camps remained patchy. Few Germans fully understood the operation of the KL system or its dimensions; many main camps and almost all satellite camps remained obscure. There was also confusion over who had suffered inside and over who had run the camps, as one-dimensional perpetrator images persisted. Nonetheless, public memory had shifted significantly since the foundation of the Federal Republic. Above all, most Germans now accepted a moral obligation to commemorate the camps and their victims.127

It was a somewhat different story in the Austrian Republic across the border. Building on the myth of Austria as the first foreign victim of Nazi tyranny, the political and social elites evaded a full confrontation with Austria’s Nazi past until well into the 1980s. While the West German legal apparatus coordinated its pursuit of KL perpetrators, Austria went the other way and effectively abandoned prosecutions in the early 1970s. One of the last trials, against two SS architects involved in the construction of the Birkenau gas and crematorium complex, ended in a travesty of justice in 1972. Not only did the jury find the defendants innocent, it awarded them damages. Most Austrians ignored this case and others like it, leaving the national Communist newspaper to fume about scandalousjudgments that turned Austria into a “sanctuary for Nazi mass murderers.”128

This chimed with the views of Communist leaders in the German Democratic Republic in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe, who rarely passed up the chance to castigate others for letting Nazi criminals off the hook, all the better to burnish their own antifascist badge of honor. In reality, the number of trials in East Germany, extensive early on, had also declined sharply by the mid-1950s. GDR leaders wanted to move on, too, and released convicted criminals, while many former Nazi supporters were silently integrated into the new state. Prosecutions for KL crimes edged up again in the 1960s and became more coordinated, partly to keep step with West Germany. Among the defendants was Kurt Heissmeyer, the physician behind the tuberculosis trials on Georges Kohn and other children in Neuengamme, who had lived as a respected lung specialist in Magdeburg, tacitly protected by the local elites; he was sentenced to life in 1966 and died soon after. However, such proceedings were highly politicized and did little to stimulate a more direct confrontation with the Nazi past, as they gradually did in West Germany.129

Since the GDR proclaimed itself as the successor to the resistance against Nazism, concentration camps gained a central place in the national narrative. The Socialist Unity Party (SED) took ownership of their commemoration, drawing on self-glorifying accounts by Communist survivors like Rudi Jahn, who boasted in an early mass publication that Buchenwald had been a “headquarter in the fight to free Europe of Fascists.” The conversion of such hyperbole into official history was facilitated by the influx of former KPD prisoners into state positions (though none reached the highest offices of state, unlike in Poland, where the Socialist Józef Cyrankiewicz, a major player in the Auschwitz underground, became prime minister in 1947). As living embodiments of the antifascist spirit, former Communist prisoners held a special status and were expected to bolster the official version of the camps, popularized in a spate of memoirs in the 1960s and 1970s (alleged renegades, meanwhile, were written out). The approved GDR account of the camps was also enacted during ceremonies at memorials, above all at Buchenwald, which was transformed into a shrine to the Communist resistance.130

Sites of Remembrance

On September 14, 1958, the GDR political elite celebrated one of its most solemn acts of state: the dedication of the Buchenwald national memorial complex. By the following year, the new memorial, which reminded some critics of monumental Nazi architecture, already drew more than six hundred thousand visitors, including children on mandatory school trips. It encompassed burial grounds, pylons, a huge bell tower, and a sculpture depicting inmates standing tall against the SS—an allusion to the mythical self-liberation of Buchenwald, the fictional focus of the official Communist narrative, which discounted the decisive role of U.S. liberators. Further national memorials followed in Ravensbrück (1959) and Sachsenhausen (1961). All three sites sought to legitimize the East German state by celebrating international solidarity and the heroics of the Communist prisoners; just as resistance fighters had supposedly overcome Nazism in the camps, the GDR would defeat contemporary incarnations of Fascism. During his speech in Buchenwald on September 14, 1958, Prime Minister Grotewohl promised to “fulfill the legacy of the dead heroes,” a reference to the estimated fifty-six thousand victims of the KL. What he did not say was that another seven thousand or more prisoners had died in Buchenwald after the demise of the Third Reich, not as victims of the SS, but at the hands of the Soviet occupation forces.131

Between August 1945 and February 1950, Buchenwald had served as one of ten Soviet special camps on German soil. Red Army guards took over the Camp SS buildings, as they did in Sachsenhausen and Lieberose, which also became special camps. The old prisoner barracks filled up with new inmates, rounded up in ad hoc arrests and condemned by military tribunals or interned without trial. Most prisoners were middle-aged German men who had once belonged to the Nazi movement. But they were not detained as war criminals—few had been senior officials or violent perpetrators—but as alleged threats to the current Soviet occupation. They even included some former resisters against Nazism, like Robert Zeiler, a survivor of KL Buchenwald who found himself back inside the camp in 1947 on trumped-up charges as an alleged U.S. spy.

In general, there was nothing unusual about the temporary transformation of former KL sites into Allied internment camps. In the early postwar years, Dachau and Flossenbürg were used by the U.S. military, Neuengamme and Esterwegen by the British, Natzweiler by the French. But the western Allies quickly released most prisoners and held the remaining war crimes suspects under mostly adequate conditions. Not so the Soviet authorities, who neglected the special camps and their often harmless inmates. Indifference and ineptitude bred terrible conditions, with hunger, overcrowding, and illness resulting in mass death. Out of one hundred thousand prisoners taken to the three former concentration camps turned into Soviet special camps, well over twenty-two thousand perished inside.132

The use of former KL for Allied internment hampered early survivor efforts of on-site remembrance. In many camps, inmates had come together immediately after liberation to honor the dead. In Buchenwald, survivors held an impromptu service on the roll call square on April 19, 1945, gathering around a wooden obelisk (elsewhere, survivors built more permanent memorials). But the Buchenwald grounds were soon out of bounds, following the establishment of the special camp, and former inmates had to direct their commemorative efforts elsewhere. When the site was designated as a national memorial, in 1953, the initiative came not from survivors but from the SED, which elbowed the inmate association aside. By then, the appearance of the former concentration camp had already altered dramatically. Some parts had collapsed; some had been torn down; and some had been taken away by the Soviet troops and German locals, who departed with machines, pipes, and even with the windows of the crematorium. More alterations and demolition work followed to prepare the ground for the memorial and museum. By the time of the opening, much of the old camp was gone, replaced by the new GDR version of Buchenwald.133

KL memorials in other countries also reflected the commemorative concerns of the respective political authorities, who tried to stamp the dominant national narrative of the Nazi past onto these sites. True, survivor organizations played an important role, but the appearance of museums and monuments, and the speed of their construction, was largely determined by wider social forces.134 In Auschwitz, for example, a state museum opened in 1947 in the former main camp under the auspices of the new Polish government, and it has been expanded and revamped ever since (the grounds of the former IG Farben plant at Dwory, by contrast, belong to the Polish chemicals giant Synthos and remain off-limits to commemoration and conservation). For decades, public memory in Auschwitz was dominated by national Polish narratives. As the main memorial of the Polish People’s Republic, Auschwitz marked the patriotic resistance against Germany, national suffering, socialist solidarity, and Catholic martyrdom—themes that resonated with large sections of the Polish population. By contrast, the memory of Jewish prisoners, who made up the vast majority of the dead, was sidelined, as symbolized by the progressive decay of the Birkenau compound. Memory has become far more diverse in recent decades, linked in part to the fall of Communism at the end of the 1980s, though this did not put an end to political controversies over the memorial.135Such commemorative conflicts were grounded in the history of the camps themselves. The KL system had always fulfilled multiple functions, allowing individual interest groups to emphasize separate elements in their narratives.

This is evident in Mauthausen, too, where a vast memorial park has grown along the road to the former camp. Starting with a granite monument dedicated to French freedom fighters in 1949, more than a dozen national memorials followed, each mirroring aspects of public memory prevailing in the sponsoring state. As for the Austrian authorities, they opened a memorial in 1949, encompassing some restored KL buildings (though most prisoner barracks were sold off and dismantled). In keeping with the official Austrian account of the Nazi period, the memorial was primarily designed as a site of national martyrdom, with a Catholic chapel in the former laundry and a stone sarcophagus on the roll call square. A museum was not added until 1970, with an exhibition focusing on Austrian victimhood. Since then, commemoration in Mauthausen has changed, reflecting the growing engagement with the past since the 1980s. Memorials for forgotten victims have been added, remembering homosexuals (1984), Roma (1994), and Jehovah’s Witnesses (1998), and a more nuanced history of the camp is told in a new visitor center (2003). Popular interest has sharply risen, with the number of visiting Austrian students expanding from just six thousand (1970) to over fifty-one thousand (2012).136

The memorial landscape in the neighboring German Federal Republic has also shifted since the early postwar years. The long and rocky path can be best illustrated by the development of Dachau, the birthplace of the KL system. Following the end of the U.S. military trials, the Bavarian authorities turned the former prisoner compound into a housing project for ethnic German refugees from Eastern Europe (other KL sites became DP camps, too, among them Bergen-Belsen and Flossenbürg). The Dachau prisoner barracks were used as apartments, the infirmary as a kindergarten, and the delousing block as a restaurant, later called “At the Crematorium.” For years, the history of the KL was obscured by the settlement, and between 1953 and 1960 there was not even a rudimentary museum on the site. Most locals ignored the camp in their midst, or distorted its history. The Dachau mayor, who had already served as deputy mayor during the Nazi years, told a journalist in 1959 that many inmates had been rightly detained as criminals. Local politicians around other KL sites were equally reluctant to face the truth. In 1951, the Hamburg mayor opposed plans for a French memorial in Neuengamme, because “everything should be done to avoid opening old wounds and reawakening painful memories”; instead, the former KL grounds were used for decades as a prison, built with bricks from the Neuengamme SS works.

Only in the 1960s did Dachau become a major site of remembrance. Under pressure from survivors’ organizations, the Bavarian state finally relocated the residents from the camp grounds, with the last ones leaving just before the opening of the state memorial in spring 1965. As elsewhere, this process was accompanied by major changes to the site. Against the wishes of survivors, the authorities razed many of the remaining KL buildings, leaving behind a vast, clean, and barren area. Fresh foundations indicated where the barracks had once stood. Around the former roll call square, two newly built huts were meant to illustrate everyday prisoner life and a museum charted the rise of Nazism and the history of the camp. This was still a partial history, though, foregrounding political prisoners. The same applied to a new monument on the square, erected by the main survivor association, which included a chain with colored triangles worn by different inmate groups: red (political prisoners), yellow (Jews), purple (Jehovah’s Witnesses), and blue (returned emigrants). The colors denoting social outsiders, however, were all missing: there was no black (asocials), green (criminals), pink (homosexuals), or brown (Gypsies). At the far end of the site, meanwhile, several new buildings sprang up, with a large Catholic chapel and convent, a Jewish monument, and a Protestant church aiming to give religious meaning to the prisoners’ suffering. The expanding Dachau memorial attracted more and more visitors, and by the early 1980s, annual figures had risen from around four hundred thousand (1965) to nine hundred thousand. The growing visibility of the site generated some hostility among local politicians, who still preferred to gloss over the past. Their opposition only abated from the 1990s, when Dachau and other German KL memorials entered a new phase of commemoration.137

Unification in 1990 had a major impact on German memory culture, above all in former East Germany. Over the coming years, the national concentration camp memorials were stripped of GDR propaganda and remodeled, not least by commemorating the Soviet special camps. This process proved particularly painful in Buchenwald, where clashes between the new curators and the Socialist-led KL survivor association degenerated into a public row over the actions of Communist Kapos.138 But unification affected memory in western parts of Germany, as well. The suffering of German Communists and their fellow travelers, previously marginalized by the prevailing Cold War mind-set, gradually received greater recognition.139 Similarly, the fate of Soviet KL prisoners came into sharper focus, and they also finally received some compensation as forced laborers, following a second wave of German reparations (though this came too late for most).140

The end of the Cold War intensified public engagement with the Third Reich more generally, not least to assuage anxieties outside Germany about a possible resurgence of radical nationalism. Since the 1990s, the German government has taken an active lead in the commemoration of Nazi crimes, from the designation of the Auschwitz liberation date as the Day of Remembrance for the Victims of National Socialism, to the construction of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in the heart of Berlin. Similarly, the national government has started to support KL memorials directly, providing an important catalyst for changes in official commemoration.141 Previously neglected sites, like Dora (in the shadow of Buchenwald) and Flossenbürg (in the shadow of Dachau), have been remade in recent years; in Flossenbürg, the former prisoner kitchen and laundry—used commercially by a private company until the 1990s—now houses an exhibition about the camp.142 And new monuments and museums on the sites of long-ignored satellite camps and death marches make the immense spread of the KL system more visible.143 Even established memorials like Dachau have been redesigned once more in light of new research and changing public perceptions.

*   *   *

Dachau, March 22, 2013. It is a bright, cold spring day, much as it was exactly eighty years ago, when the concentration camp first opened. The site is easy to find, with plenty of signs pointing the way (until the 1980s, the city authorities kept its profile low). Anyone arriving by train can walk along a Path of Remembrance, adorned with multilingual panels, to the memorial. At the entrance stands a new visitor center, opened in a state ceremony in 2009, broadcast live, and attended by the Bavarian political establishment, which had long shunned the memorial. “We don’t forget, we don’t suppress, we don’t relativize what happened here,” the prime minister pledged. As prisoners did in the past, visitors pass through the doorway of the old SS gatehouse, following a path reopened in 2005 despite local opposition. The wrought-iron gates with the inscription ARBEIT MACHT FREI lead directly onto the roll call square, where several large visitor groups are gathered. It is a quiet day, like most Fridays, but there are still some 1,500 visitors. To the left of the square they see the two reconstructed barracks and the outlines of the others, bisected by the camp street that leads toward the crematorium. On the right stands the museum, overhauled in 2003. And straight ahead lie the offices of some thirty academic, archival, and pedagogic staff. Their task, the director says in a newspaper interview to mark Dachau’s anniversary, “is to tell the history of this camp free from all political slant.”144 The memorial has clearly come a long way. This is far from suggesting a sense of closure, though. Commemoration will keep on changing, here and at other former KL sites. Neither will the history of the camps ever come to an end. Blind spots remain. New sources, approaches, and questions will make us reconsider what we thought we knew; on March 22, 2013, for example, none of the historians in Dachau could pinpoint with certainty the building where it had all begun eighty years earlier.

In the same way, our search for deeper meaning in the KL will go on, even though efforts to extract a single essence are destined to come up short. As we have seen, the concentration camps meant different things at different times of Nazi rule. Even Auschwitz cannot be reduced to its genocidal function alone, as the SS also used it to destroy the Polish resistance and to forge a closer collaboration with industry. Neither was its place as the most deadly site of the Nazi Final Solution preordained. It emerged only graduallyover several fateful months in 1942, at a time when hundreds of thousands of Jews had already been killed elsewhere; the path of Auschwitz to the Holocaust was long and twisted.145 And yet, the inadequacy of simple answers should not stop us from asking bigger questions about the nature of the concentration camps. The KL were patently products of modernity, for example, with their reliance on bureaucracy, transport, mass communication, and technology, as well as industrially manufactured barracks, barbed wire, machine guns, and gas canisters. But does that make them paradigms of the modern age, as some scholars have suggested, any more than, say, mass vaccination or universal suffrage? As the historian Mark Mazower pointedly asks: “What makes one choice of historical symbol … better than another?”146 Then there is the question of the camps’ origins. Of course, the KL were products of German history; they emerged and developed under specific national political and cultural conditions, and drew inspiration from the violent practices of Weimar paramilitaries, as well as the disciplinary traditions of the German army and prison service. But does that make them “typically German,” as some prisoners argued?147 It seems doubtful. After all, the men behind the KL system were far more invested in radical Nazi ideology than most ordinary Germans, who felt more ambivalent about the camps. More generally, the KL shared some generic features with repressive camps established elsewhere during the twentieth century. That said, their development still diverged from other totalitarian camps, raising perhaps the most important issue: How best to understand the course of the Nazi concentration camps?

As this integrated history has shown, there was nothing inevitable about the trajectory of the KL. Looking at the horrors of the wartime years, it is hard not to see them as the inevitable conclusion of the early camps. But there was no direct trail from Dachau in 1933 to Dachau in 1945. The concentration camps could well have taken a different direction, and in the mid-1930s, it even looked as if they might disappear. They endured because Nazi leaders, above all Adolf Hitler himself, came to value them as flexible instruments of lawless repression, which could easily adapt to the changing requirements of the regime. The specific character of individual camps owed much to the initiative of the local SS. But these officials operated within wider parameters set by their superiors, and in the end, the KL acted much like seismographs, closely attuned to the general aims and ambitions of the regime’s rulers. The reason they oscillated so much was that the priorities of Nazi leaders changed over time, and as the regime radicalized, so did its camps.

Despite some sharp turns, however, the path of the concentration camps unfolded without sharp breaks. The successive stages of the camps might appear like different worlds, as we saw at the beginning of this book, but these worlds were connected nonetheless. The basic rules, organization, and ethos of the Camp SS were already in place by the mid-1930s, and remained largely unchanged thereafter. Similarly, pioneering SS programs of mass extermination, which claimed tens of thousands of infirm prisoners and Soviet POWs in 1941, left an important legacy for the Holocaust, including the use of Zyklon B in Auschwitz. The continuities between the different stages of the camps are personified by core SS professionals like Rudolf Höss, a man who learned about prisoner abuse in Dachau at the start of the Third Reich, graduated to systematic murder in Sachsenhausen early in the war, moved on to genocide in Auschwitz, and then oversaw the final slaughter in Ravensbrück. Throughout his career, new outrages broke new ground, and each transgression made the next one easier, inuring him, like other SS perpetrators, to acts that would have been unthinkable a little earlier. The KL system was a great transformer of values. Its history is a history of these mutations, which normalized extreme violence, torture, and murder. And this history will continue to be written and it will keep on living, and so will the memory of those who were its witnesses, its perpetrators, and its victims.

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