Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Today marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Dachau, the model concentration camp of the the Nazi SS State.
On March 20th 1933, barely a month and a half after the Nazi takeover of the German government and three days before the passage of the Enabling Act the Police President Of Munich, SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler ordered the establishment of the Dachau Concentration Camp. He appointed SS Standartenführer Hilmar Wäckerle as Commandant and the first 200 political prisoners from Munich’s Stadelheim prison arrived at Dachau on March 22nd.
The first SS guards assigned to Dachau were given the following instruction:
“Comrades of the SS!
You all know what the Fuehrer has called us to do. We have not come here for human encounters with those pigs in there. We do not consider them human beings, as we are, but as second-class people. For years they have been able to continue their criminal existence. But now we are in power. If those pigs had come to power, they would have cut off all our heads. Therefore we have no room for sentimentalism. If anyone here cannot bear to see the blood of comrades, he does not belong and had better leave. The more of these pig dogs we strike down, the fewer we need to feed.”
Wäckerle’s brief tenure as Commandant was marked by extraordinary brutality on the part of his staff, so much so that charges were brought against him by the Munich courts which resulted in his relief by SS Gruppenführer Theodore Eicke in July 1933. Eicke would establish the regulations which governed all the later Concentration Camps, and make Dachau the model camp for all others.
Among the later SS killers of the Holocaust who served at Dachau were Adolf Eichmann, and the Commandant of Auschwitz, Rüdolf Höss. It became a training ground for other Concentration Camp commanders and staff. Others would become leaders in the Waffen SS and the Einsatzgruppen death squads.
The announcement of Dachau’s Opening was reported by the German press in this release:
On Wednesday the first concentration camp is to be opened in Dachau with an accommodation for 5000 people. ‘All Communists and—where necessary—Reichsbanner and Social Democratic functionaries who endanger state security are to be concentrated here, as in the long run it is not possible to keep individual functionaries in the state prisons without overburdening these prisons, and on the other hand these people cannot be released because attempts have shown that they persist in their efforts to agitate and organize as soon as they are released.
Dachau began as a political prisoner camp for the Nazis to imprison Socialists, Communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, some Jews, and other dissidents. It wasn’t a “death camp” designed to exterminate people even though tens of thousands of people died or were executed there. It was designed to terrorize, dehumanize, and destroy the souls of its inmates.
It was a place of inhuman medical experiments, a place of terror, and the administrative center of a network of over 30 large and 100 small sub-Camps which were used as sources of slave labor for the German armaments industry. But one has to remember that the SS was not simply an instrument of terror, but an institution also devoted to profit. Prisoners were valued in what their lives equated in profits. A prisoner was valued in what he or her could produce versus the expenses of keeping them alive for a period of 6 to 12 months. Under Himmler and his assistant for production and profits, ObergrüppenfuhrerOswold Pöhl the Concentration Camps, as well as the death camps became centers of profit for the SS in collaboration with German industrial concerns and industries owned by the SS itself.
Dachau was not one of the Death Camps, although it was a place of incredible cruelty, extraordinary suffering, brutality, and death. While not a “death camp” per say, an estimated 40,000 or more prisoners were murdered there. For tens of thousands of others it served as a transit camp from which they were sent to the death factories in Poland, including Auschwitz, or other work camps, where many died of being worked to death, malnutrition, disease, or the simple cruelty and maltreatment inflicted on them by the guards.
Holocaust survivor Yehuda Bauer wrote: “The horror of the Holocaust is not that it deviated from human norms; the horror is that it didn’t. What happened may happen again, to others not necessarily Jews, perpetrated by others, not necessarily Germans. We are all possible victims, possible perpetrators, possible bystanders.”
The picture that you see above is the memorial to the Unknown Prisoner at Dachau. The words: “Den Toten zur Ehr, den Lebenden zur Mahnung” [To Honor the Dead, to Warn the Living] are engraved at its base.
I have been to Dachau at least a half dozen times beginning back in 1996. For me as a historian of the period the trip is both for learning and for meditation, for beyond its historical significance this is a holy place, a place made holy by the blood of tens of thousands of victims of one of the most evil regimes in history. The crimes committed by the staff of Totenkopfverbande SS guards from it’s inception were intended to terrorize and dehumanize the inmates who included political prisoners, religious objectors, Jews, and homosexuals. The inmates were not there because they were convicted of any crimes, in fact many had actually been exonerated by courts. In the case of those who had been convicted by courts, all had served what ever sentence they had been convicted of, but upon their release from prison were picked up by the SS and taken to Dachau where they were imprisoned without being charged with a crime, and an indefinite period and no date of release. Sometimes prisoners would suddenly and without warning be released, but they remained under observation by the local police and Gestapo. If they talked about their experience they were quite often sent back.
Prisoners were told on arrival:
Here you are, and you’re not in a sanatorium! You’ll have got that already. Anyone who hasn’t grasped that will soon be made to. You can rely on that . . . You’re not prison inmates here, serving a sentence imposed by the courts, you’re just ‘prisoners’ pure and simple, and if you don’t know what that means, you’ll soon find out. You’re dishonourable and defenceless! You’re without rights! Your fate is a slave’s fate! Amen.
In the Camp the prisoners were subject to punishment for even the most minor or perceived infractions, beatings, and whippings. Other punishments were meted out by guards who themselves were punished if they showed any mercy or human kindness to a prisoner. “While an offender sentenced to a term in prison knew when he was going to get out, release for the concentration camp inmate was determined by the whim of a quarterly review board, and could be delayed by the malice of any of the SS guards.”
Theodore Eicke, the commandant who systematized the Concentration Camp system created a world that his subordinate, and the later Commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoess described:
“It was Eicke’s intention that his SS-men, by means of continuous instruction and suitable orders concerning the dangerous criminality of the inmates, should be made basically ill-disposed towards the prisoners. They were to ‘treat them rough’, and to root out once and for all any sympathy they might feel for them. By such means, he succeeded in engendering in simple-natured men a hatred and antipathy for the prisoners which an outsider will find hard to imagine.”
Even a brutal man like Hoess found the brutality hard to watch, he recalled the:
“malicious evil-minded, basically bad, brutal, inferior, common creatures’ amongst the guards, who compensated for their sense of inferiority by venting their anger on the prisoners. The atmosphere of hatred was total.”
In the twelve years of its existence the staff of Dachau, through mistreatment, execution by bullet, gallows, through being used as subjects in grotesque medical experiments, by “execution by work,” or untreated illness and disease, murdered 41,566 prisoners. The point to be remembered is that despite this incredible number of murders that Dachau was not an extermination camp.
As the Third Reich crumbled the Nazis attempted to hide their crimes. Many inmates from Dachau were sent to other camps, by train or forced marched hundreds of miles. During these transits many, already shells of humanity due to maltreatment, disease and malnourishment. Even as this was happening trains from other camps were arriving at Dachau.
On 29 April 1945 units of the U.S. Army 45th and 42nd Infantry Divisions liberated Dachau, which was surrendered by its senior remaining officer, a mere SS 1st Lieutenant, as the commandant and o ther senior officer had already fled. Most to be captured within days or weeks. The liberators were shocked by what they saw, the piles of dead, the bones in the crematoria, the emaciated prisoners, and a train car full of dead, and some soldiers took their revenge on some of the guards, and massacred an estimated 20-50 of the surrendered SS men. Although charges were preferred, they were dropped.
The Execution of SS Guards at Dachau
Regardless of the actions of the American liberators, even those who took justice into their own hands, the fact is that the Dachau guards all knew what was going on and had each to some degree participated in the atrocities at Dachau and in some cases other camps, or on the Eastern Front.
You may wonder why I took the time to go into such detail about my visits to Dachau and its terrible legacy. The answer is the same why I choose to walk American Civil War battlefields, it is to being to try to understand what the people there were seeing and experiencing.
Of course there were the prisoners who were so savagely treated by their jailers. Then there were the bystanders, the citizens of Dachau and other German cities who watched as Jews, political enemies, and others were marched to the camp, which was not a secret installation. Finally, there were the perpetrators, very few of whom were punished for their actions.
But another reason is that the survivors, be they victims, perpetrators, or bystanders are rapidly passing away
Soon none will be left. When that happens it is up to us the living to ensure that this is not forgotten and that those murdered at Dachau, the other Concentration Camps, the extermination camps, and those killed by the murder squads that went from one end of Europe to the other in a systematic attempt to wipe every Jew that they could find off of the face of the earth. Yes, there were other victims, but the Nazi crusade against the Jews knew no boundaries, physical or time included. Unlike every other genocide it extended beyond national borders, or time; it was an eschatological crusade that by the will of Hitler was limited by only one factor, the complete military defeat that was inflicted on Nazi Germany by those who she attacked.
Finally, the story must be told because there are those who either claim it didn’t happen, or are tired of talking about it. In Germany those include leaders of the new-Nazi AfD (Alternative for Germany) Party. In the United States, Britain, and other nations there are members of many new-Nazi and Alt-Right groups who desire very much the same thing. But if decent people decide not to speak out, if we remain silent, there is nothing anywhere that will keep these ideological descendants of Hitler from beginning it again, if not to the Jews, to other despised racial, religious, ethnic, or ideological groups. We live in a world where demagogues take advantage of people’s legitimate anxieties and deeply ingrained prejudices to stir up ungodly anger and hatred in order to both gain new followers and to incite those followers to a campaign of violence.
Doctor Timothy Snyder wrote:
“The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.”
But I know why, there are some people who are sociopaths, who though they seem ordinary have no empathy for others, and they are more numerous than we might ever suspect. Captain Gustave Gilbert, a psychologist assigned to the major war crime defendants at the Nuremberg war crimes trials noted:
“In my work with the defendants (at the Nuremberg Trails 1945-1949) I was searching for the nature of evil and I now think I have come close to defining it. A lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants, a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow men. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.”
That absence of empathy runs strong among Trump supporters and others of the religious and political right today. For the rest of my life I will fight them and expose them.
So until tomorrow I wish you all the best and ask that no matter what the leaders of your state say, to obey common sense and facts and be as careful as you can, as the COVID 19 pandemic is far from over.