Places of memory in Germany
On 20 March 1933, Himmler ordered the construction of a concentration camp near Dachau, in the suburbs of Munich. Dachau was the first National Socialist concentration camp, serving as both a model for other concentration camps and as a training base - the 'school of violence' - for the SS. Whilst the first prisoners were primarily opponents of the National Socialist regime, an ever-growing number of persecuted groups were imprisoned at Dachau over the course of the 1930s, including Jews, Jehovah's witnesses, members of the Sinti and Romany communities and homosexuals. On 9 November 1938, following the 'Night of Broken Glass', 10,000 Jews were imprisoned at Dachau. Over the course of World War II, and with the extension of the areas under occupation, many opponents of the National Socialist regime were interned having refused to collaborate in their home countries. Many members of the Resistance were consequently imprisoned at Dachau, including Edmond Michelet and Joseph Rovan. As of November 1942, the majority of the Jews imprisoned at Dachau were sent to Auschwitz. As was the case at the other National Socialist concentration camps, prisoners were reduced to forced labour. Two underground factories were constructed, sheltered from the bombing, and from June 1944 to April 1945 30,000 prisoners were forced into slavery there, promising certain death. Whilst the death rate was already increasing owing to the dehumanised living conditions at the camp, a typhus epidemic claimed thousands more prisoners. On 26 April 1945, two days before the SS abandoned the camp, 7,000 prisoners were sent on a 'death march'. On 29 April, the American army released the 30,000 or so prisoners that remained at the camp. Between 1933 and 1945, nearly 200,000 people were interned at Dachau. Over 41,500 were killed there as a result of forced labour, during pseudo-medical experiments and owing to the dehumanised living conditions at the camp.
A memorial that notably housed a documentation centre was built in 1965 on the site of the former concentration camp at the initiative of former deportees who had formed the International Dachau Committee. In the 1970s and 1980s, the memorial became both a key place of remembrance and a space devoted to raising political awareness. Between 1996 and 2003, a permanent exhibition entitled 'The Prisoners' Pathway' was created and staged.
The camp was built in the town of Oranienburg, some 30km north of Berlin, at the time when the National Socialist regime was restructuring its concentration camp system. Like Dachau, the Sachsenhausen camp served as both an organisational model for the National Socialist concentration camp system and a training centre for the SS. Between 1936 and 1945, Sachsenhausen also served as an internment camp for some 200,000 people of 40 different nationalities. Over half of these, the majority of them political prisoners, perished at the camp. 90% of the prisoners at the camp in 1944 were foreign. Prisoners first had to be reduced to forced labour on behalf of companies that were directly managed by the SS. The German war economy was fuelled by the forced labour that took place within the 100 or so *Außenlagern* camps attached to Sachsenhausen. Alongside the yards where the prisoners worked under unbearable conditions until they died of exhaustion, the SS carried out brusque, targeted killings, notably involving Jewish prisoners. Over the winter of 1939-1940, the death rate at the camp, where hunger, epidemics, exhaustion and pseudo-medical experiments caused the mass and calculated deaths of prisoners until 1945, soared. Shortly before the camp was liberated by Soviet troops on 22 April 1945, the SS sent nearly 33,000 prisoners on a 'death march', during which some 6,000 deportees perished.
Between 1945 and 1950, the camp was used by the Soviet administration for the internment of National Socialist prisoners and later, more generally, for the imprisonment of those that opposed the burgeoning regime.
Following the withdrawal of Soviet troops and later the closure of the East-German police barracks, a memorial symbolising the 'victory of anti-fascism over fascism' was opened on 22 April 1961, prior to the subsequent staging of an exhibition dedicated to the Jewish victims of Sachsenhausen in former barrack No. 38. Since 1993, the memorial site has been based on a somewhat unusual concept whereby the inner workings of the camp and of the prisoners' lives are revealed and explained right there at the original site, in the remaining buildings and premises, precisely where the horrors occurred.
Between May 1939 and the end of April 1945, the Ravensbrück complex was used by the National Socialists as both a concentration camp and a centre for forced labour. Together with Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Ravensbrück camp was the largest detention camp for women, with up to 123,000 people, including some 8,000 French women, detained, exhausted, tortured and reduced to slavery there. In April 1941, a camp specifically for men and holding 20,000 prisoners was also built on the site. Between 1939 and 1942, concentration camp slaves were primarily put to work in the textile and agricultural industries, as well as in the twenty or so hangars built by German company Siemens in the areas surrounding the camp. The first mass imprisonment of prisoners from France began in April 1943. Between 1943 and 1944, Ravensbrück became a concentration camp hub, at a time when large-scale deportations were increasing. As a result, internment capacities were greatly exceeded, resulting in a rapid deterioration in the conditions under which prisoners were detained. The death rate at the camp consequently reached dizzying heights, triggering the first ‘selection’ processes whereby women who were declared unfit to work were singled out and killed. During the last months of the war, a gas chamber was built and the systematic extermination of prisoners increased at the Ravensbrück site. Of the camp’s 26,000 victims, nearly half were killed during the surge that took place in the final weeks of the war.
Designed as a place of remembrance by former prisoners in the immediate aftermath of the war, the Ravensbrück camp memorial was opened by the GDR on 12 September 1959 based on the Buchenwald model devoted to the resistance of Communist prisoners, whilst the rest of the complex was used by the Soviet Army and later CIS forces. The refurbishment of the permanent exhibition was accompanied by the creation of special exhibition rooms dedicated to the memory of the Jewish victims (1992) and victims belonging to the Sinti and Romany communities (1995). 2013 saw the opening of a new permanent interactive exhibition entitled Das Frauen-Konzentrationslager Ravensbrück. Geschichte und Erinnerung (Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp - History and memory).
(cc)Wim van der Grinten
The main Buchenwald camp was created on 15 July 1937 on the outskirts of Weimar and initially served as a place for the internment of political opponents to the National Socialist regime, common-law convicts, individuals identified as ‘asocial’, homosexuals and Jehovah’s witnesses before becoming inhabited by Jewish prisoners, along with members of the Sinti and Romany populations, by the eve of World War II. Following the pogroms and spoliations perpetrated in Germany during the ‘Night of Broken Glass’ on 9 November 1938, nearly 10,000 Jews were imprisoned at Buchenwald, where they were the group most at risk of being punished, tortured and killed. After the war started, Buchenwald became the crossroads of the National Socialist concentration camp system, a real meeting point for those arriving en masse from all four corners of Europe, and France in particular. A number of politicians, such as Léon Blum, academics, such as Maurice Halbwachs, and members of the Resistance, such as Stéphane Hessel, were also detained at Buchenwald. Over 250,000 prisoners were interned at the main Ettersberg site and its 136 annexes. SS surveillance forced prisoners to work in the arms factories and quarries bordering the camp. Over 56,000 people died from exhaustion or as a result of being tortured during pseudo-medical experiments. The Buchenwald camp was liberated by American troops in April 1945.
In 1958, the Nationale Mahn- und Gedenkstätte (NMG) Buchenwald was opened as a national monument to the German Democratic Republic, a monument that was primarily dedicated to the resistance of Communist prisoners. At the time of the reunification of Germany, the apparent lack of remembrance of the many other categories of prisoners tortured and killed at Buchenwald sparked a controversy, and there were calls to restore the memory of prisoners persecuted on ‘racial’ grounds (Jewish, Sinti and Romany), prisoners condemned for being ‘asocial’, homosexuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as women reduced to forced labour in the arms factories. The concept of the Buchenwald memorial was gradually reviewed over the course of the 1990s, which notably involved restoring of a number of buildings, highlighting the variety of the groups interned at the camp, and reflecting upon the way in which the memory of Buchenwald was dealt with by the GDR and upon the long-taboo subject of Speziallager Nr. 2, which was used as an internment camp by the Soviets after the war.
As of 1936, prisoners systematically endured forced labour within National Socialist concentration camps. KZs
were built close to quarries and factories, as was the case of Neuengamme, which remained an Außenlager
, that is a camp attached to Sachsenhausen, between 1938 and 1940 before later becoming one of the largest concentration camps in the National Socialist network. Between 1938 and 1945, 105,000 men and women of different nationalities were interned at the Neuengamme concentration camp in the southern suburbs of Hamburg, with 80 outlying camps connected to the main site, 20 of which were reserved for women. Over 13,000 prisoners were Jewish and around 11,500 French. Reduced to slavery and forced to endure unbearable living conditions, the criminal arbitrariness of the SS and deadly medical experiments, over 55,000 prisoners perished. The town of Hamburg wanted to become an advanced showcase for the Reich in the Baltic, meaning that the banks of the Elbe, in the Altona district of the city, had to be entirely redeveloped to make way for a series of grandiloquent architectural projects, and the forced labour of Neuengamme prisoners was required to make this project a reality. The liberation of the camp was preceded by one final tragedy that occurred on 3 May 1945, when the Neuengamme prisoners had been forced to reach the port of Lubeck following a ‘death march’, and the British air forces mistakenly bombed the ships carrying the prisoners, wiping out virtually all of the prisoners trapped in the midst.
The first memorial dedicated to the thousands of victims of Neuengamme was erected on the site of the camp in 1965. This memory work took a decisive turn in 1981 when a major centre for documentation on the National Socialist concentration camps and associated areas was opened. Since 2005, the memorial to the Neuengamme concentration camp has housed a permanent themed exhibition dedicated to the camp’s history and operation. The memorial has notably been extended to the former SS camp and to the explanation of the forced labour that prisoners endured within the various industrial complexes that were dependent upon the camp.
The Bergen-Belsen camp was located in northern Germany, 40km from Hanover, and was primarily used to intern prisoners of war. In 1940, the camp was notably home to French and Belgian prisoners, before it was expanded in 1941 to accommodate the deportation of prisoners from the Eastern Front. By 1942, nearly 18,000 prisoners, that is 92% of the camp’s population, had died as a result of starvation, the cold or illness. In autumn 1941, Jewish prisoners were systematically ‘selected’ and sent to the Sachsenhausen camp, where the majority of them were executed with a bullet to the neck. Only a few were taken hostage as ‘Jews for exchange’ in return for German prisoners interned abroad. Ultimately, a very small minority of the 6,000 or so Jewish prisoners held at Bergen-Belsen were released. Over the years, living conditions worsened significantly, especially with the arrival of growing numbers of prisoners transferred from the Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Ravensbrück and Mauthausen camps. A crematorium furnace was also built. The camp had 15,000 prisoners in November 1944 and 60,000 in April 1945. During this period, overcrowding gave rise to disease outbreaks, including typhus. 35,000 people died, including Anne Frank and Hélène Berr. Prior to the liberation of the camp by the British Army on 15 April 1945, thousands of prisoners perished during ‘death marches’. British soldiers discovered 56,000 sick and starving prisoners, along with 10,000 dead bodies piled on the ground. Three months after the camp was liberated, 13,000 former deportees died as a direct result of their deportation. Of the 125,000 or so deportees that passed through Bergen-Belsen, a total of around 70,000 died. Simone Veil and Jean Mattéoli were among those who survived, the latter going on, in 1997, to lead a working party on the spoliation of Jews in France from 1940 to 1944, consequently recommending the introduction of a compensation commission that resulted in the formation of the CIVS.
As of November 1945, the slaughter site was transformed into an initial site of remembrance, with Jewish survivors erecting a memorial to the deceased. Between 1946 and 1947, German prisoners of war constructed what became the international Bergen-Belsen memorial, consisting of a 24 metre-high obelisk. 1966 saw the construction of the first documentation centre housing a permanent exhibition, before a new building spanning some 200m² and hosting a larger, updated exhibition was opened in 2007.
Neue Wache – New Guardhouse
(cc)Luis Villa del Campo
Neue Wache is the FRG’s central memorial to the ‘victims of war and tyranny’. Built between 1816 and 1818 in homage to victims of the Napoleonic Wars, the memorial is located on Berlin’s famous Unten den Linden avenue, between the German Historical Museum and Humboldt University. Over the years, and across various political contexts, the Neue Wache has provided the backdrop to a number of contradictory memorial speeches. In the days of the German Reich, architect Heinrich Tessenow transformed the monument into a memorial to the victims of World War I, with a ray of light formed by a circular opening in the ceiling casting light upon the bareness of a black granite block. Under the National Socialist regime, the Neue Wache witnessed various propaganda rallies before it was destroyed in the bombing. The GDR government restored the site of remembrance, dedicating it to the ‘victims of fascism and militarism’, with an inextinguishable flame flickering above the ashes of an unknown soldier and a prisoner of the concentration camps. At the time of the reunification of Germany, Chancellor Helmut Kohl influenced the renovation of the memorial, the size of which was consequently increased. Lying in the circle of light at the centre of the single empty room, a pieta sculpted by Käthe Kollwitz of a mother holding her murdered son in her arms outlines the new memorial symbol of the Neue Wache, embodying the constant recurrence of the tragedy caused by war and tyranny.
Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas – Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
Designed by New York-based architect Peter Eisenman, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was opened in Berlin on 10 May 2005 and dedicated to the memory of the more than six million Jews murdered by the National Socialist regime. The open-air memorial, which is located close to the Bundestag and the Brandenburg Gate, spans some 19,000 m² and comprises a rolling maze of 2,700 concrete steles. Visitors are invited to walk among the steles, surrendering themselves to the concrete and the unevenness of the architecture. By stimulating suggestion and encouraging direct confrontation with the raw material, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe breaks with conventional memorial concepts, fuelling, although not without controversy, reflection on the very notion of memory itself. An information centre alongside the Memorial houses a permanent exhibition tracing the history of the persecution and genocide of Europe’s Jews.
Places of memory in Poland
Oświęcim (Auschwitz in German) is located 60 km to the west of Krakow in Upper Silesia, a region that was annexed by Nazi Germany in 1939 after it conquered Poland. In April 1940, the Germans decided to open a concentration camp here, a camp that was originally intended to be used as a temporary base for Polish political prisoners but that quickly became a centre for permanent internment.
A year after it was created, the camp was home to some 11,000 prisoners. German Minister of the Interior and head of the SS and later the Gestapo Heinrich Himmler, who was also responsible for the structure of the concentration camp system, decided to expand the site in June 1941. The work that followed made Auschwitz the largest concentration camp complex of the Third Reich and later the largest planned extermination camp.
The complex comprised the base camp (Auschwitz I), designed to hold 20,000 prisoners, the Birkenau camp (Auschwitz II), designed to hold 100,000 prisoners, and the Buna-Monowitz camp (Auschwitz III), which was opened to provide labour for the synthetic rubber and fuel plants located close to the site.
The first prisoners were gassed at the site in December 1941. The dead bodies were first buried in pits and later destroyed in four crematorium furnaces as of the 2nd quarter of 1943.
A total of 1.1 million men, women and children from 15 European countries, 90% of whom were Jewish (and 69,000 French), died in the gas chambers, and tens of thousands as a result of starvation, the cold, illness, brutality, gunfire or even hanging.
Auschwitz was also the scene of various pseudo-scientific experiments, notably the sterilisation of both men and women, and so-called studies on twins, infants and dwarves.
On 18 January 1945, before the arrival of the Red Army, the Germans evacuated the camp, forcing 60,000 prisoners to endure a ‘death march’, during which a large number of them died from the cold and exhaustion. On 27 January 1945, Soviet soldiers entered Auschwitz and liberated the 7,000 or so survivors, who were by now sick and exhausted.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, which opened in July 1947, now commemorates Auschwitz camps I and II. Having been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, the memorial site attracts a million visitors every year and is now Poland’s most popular cultural institution.
The Belzec camp opened on 1 November 1941 and was the first of the three camps, along with Sobibor and Treblinka, constructed as part of Operation Reinhard with the aim of exterminating all members of the Jewish, Romany, Sinti and Yenish communities in the General Government district of Poland.
Between March and December 1942, wooden and later brick and concrete-built gas chambers were used to kill some 500,000 people, the majority of them Jewish.
By the end of 1942, the Jewish population in the General Government district had been virtually wiped out, meaning that the Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka camps became obsolete.
In spring 1943, the bodies of the victims were exhumed and burned in the open air. The camp was then destroyed and replaced by a farm, before the Soviet troops arrived in 1944.
The Belzec memorial museum, which was founded in 2004 and is connected to the Majdanek museum, houses a permanent exhibition on the history of the site, along with a memorial erected on the site of the former camp.
Like the Belzec and Treblinka camps, Sobibor was part of Operation Reinhard
and its construction began in March 1942. Between 1942 and 1943, 250,000 people were killed in the gas chambers, the existence of which has been proven by recent archaeological excavations. Two convoys were used to transport Jews from France to Sobibor, these being convoys No. 52 and No. 53, which took place on 23 and 25 March 1943. Only five deportees survived. On 14 October 1943, 600 prisoners revolted, with 200 of them managing to escape. The camp was demolished following the revolt.
A monument commemorating the victims of Sobibor was opened in 1965 and a museum located within the site of the former camp, tracing the tragic story of the prisoners interned and killed there, was opened in 1984.
Located around 100 km from Warsaw, Treblinka was initially a forced labour camp, as of summer 1941, before becoming an extermination camp a year later, as part of Operation Reinhard. In the space of just 16 months, 900,000 Jews from Poland, the Czech Republic, France, Greece, Yugoslavia, the USSR, Germany and Austria perished in the gas chambers created for this purpose.
With the approach of the Allied Forces in 1943, the order was given to eliminate any trace of the very existence of Treblinka. Despite efforts on the part of the Nazis to demolish and camouflage the site, archaeologists have confirmed the presence of two gas chambers.
The Treblinka Museum of Struggle and Martyrdom is located on the site of the former forced labour (Treblinka I) and extermination (Treblinka II) camps and notably comprises a symbolic burial ground consisting of some 17,000 stones. Since February 2006 the museum has housed a permanent exhibition tracing the history of the complex.
Majdanek, a concentration and extermination camp created in October 1941 at the initiative of Heinrich Himmler, was the headquarters of Operation Reinhard. Over the course of 1942, a series of crematoriums and gas chambers were created at the site, the latter remaining in operation until autumn 1943. The camp closed on 17 July 1944, with many of its buildings having been burnt down and the majority of its prisoners transferred to Auschwitz. Nevertheless, upon their arrival at the site on 23 July 1944, the soldiers of the Red Army discovered the remains of a gas chamber and a series of bunkhouses.
500,000 people from 50 different countries were interned at Majdanek, half of whom, including 118,000 Jews, 18,000 of whom had been transferred following the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto in May 1943, were killed there.
The Majdanek museum was created in November 1944 on the site of the former camp and a monument commemorating the victims was opened to mark the 25th anniversary of its liberation in July 1969.