Together with its many satellite camps, Buchenwald was one of the largest concentration camps established within the German borders of 1937.
Location of the Camp
The Buchenwald concentration camp was constructed in 1937 about five miles northwest of the city of Weimar in east-central Germany. It was located in a wooded area on the northern slopes of the Ettersberg, a hill north of the city of Weimar.
Before the Nazis rose to power, Weimar was primarily associated with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). Goethe was a leading European literary figure and a product of German liberal tradition in the 18th and early 19th centuries. It was in Weimar that Goethe made his home.
Weimar was also known as the birthplace of German constitutional democracy, the Weimar Republic (1918–1933).
During the Nazi regime, Weimar became associated with the Buchenwald concentration camp.
Prisoners lived in the Buchenwald main camp. This area was surrounded by an electrified barbed-wire fence, watchtowers, and a chain of sentries outfitted with automatic machine guns.
Inside the main camp, there was a notorious punishment block, known as the Bunker. It was located at the entrance to the main camp. This is where prisoners who violated camp regulations were punished and often tortured to death.
In addition to the punishment block, the main camp included
- 33 wooden barracks
- 15 two-story stone buildings
- a prisoners’ infirmary
- disinfection buildings
It also eventually had a railway station, brothel, and crematorium. SS guard barracks and the camp administration compound were located in the southern part of the camp.
SS authorities opened Buchenwald for male prisoners in July 1937.
Women were not part of the Buchenwald camp system until 1943. The presence of female prisoners significantly increased in 1944. At that time Buchenwald took over subcamps from the Ravensbrück concentration camp, which primarily imprisoned women.
Political Prisoners: Most of the early inmates at Buchenwald were political prisoners, people who had been arrested for some form of political opposition to the Nazi regime. Given their long-term presence at the site, these "politicals" played an important role in the camp's prisoner infrastructure.
In 1944, camp officials established a "special compound" for prominent German political prisoners near the camp administration building in Buchenwald.
One of the most prominent political victims of Buchenwald was Ernst Thälmann. Before Hitler's rise to power in 1933, Thälmann had been the chairman of the Communist Party of Germany. In 1933, he was arrested by the Nazi regime. In August 1944, the SS staff murdered Thälmann in Buchenwald after holding him there for several years.
Jewish Prisoners: In 1938, in the aftermath of Kristallnacht, German SS and police sent almost 10,000 Jews to Buchenwald. There, camp authorities subjected them to extraordinarily cruel treatment upon arrival. Over 250 of these prisoners died as a result of injuries incurred during their arrest or from their initial mistreatment at the camp.
Other Prisoner Groups: In addition to political prisoners and Jews, the SS also interned the following groups of people at Buchenwald:
Furthermore, Buchenwald was one of the only concentration camps that held so-called “work-shy” individuals. These were people whom the regime incarcerated as “asocials” because they could not, or would not, find gainful employment.
In the camp's later stages, the SS also incarcerated
- prisoners-of-war from various nations, including the United States
- resistance fighters
- prominent former government officials of German-occupied countries
- foreign forced laborers
Starting in late summer 1941 until 1943, a special guard unit named "SS Kommando 99" shot 8,000 Soviet prisoners-of-war at an SS stable adjacent to the camp. The SS often shot prisoners in the stables and hanged other prisoners in the crematorium area.
Medical Experiments at Buchenwald
Beginning in 1941, a number of physicians and scientists carried out a program of medical experimentation on prisoners at Buchenwald. These experiments took place in special barracks in the northern part of the main camp. Medical experiments aimed at testing the efficacy of vaccines and treatments against contagious diseases, such as typhus, typhoid, cholera, and diphtheria. They resulted in hundreds of deaths.
In 1944, Danish physician Dr. Carl Vaernet began a series of experiments that he claimed would "cure" inmates who had been imprisoned for homosexuality. In particular, these were prisoners who had already served prison sentences for violating Paragraph 175 and were sent to a concentration camp instead of being released. These experiments involved transplanting an artificial male sex gland. The experiments proved a failure. Vaernet quickly lost favor with Nazi officials.
Forced Labor and Subcamps
During World War II, the Buchenwald main camp administered at least 88 subcamps. These subcamps were located across Germany, from Düsseldorf in the western part of Germany to Germany’s eastern border with the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.
While some subcamps were state-owned, others were private enterprises. For example, in February 1942, the Gustloff firm established a subcamp of Buchenwald to support its armaments works. In March 1943, the company opened a large munitions plant adjacent to the camp. A rail siding completed in 1943 connected the camp with the freight yards in Weimar, facilitating the shipment of war supplies.
In these subcamps, the Nazi regime used prisoners in the Buchenwald camp system as forced laborers. SS authorities and firm executives (both state-owned and private) deployed Buchenwald prisoners to
- the German Equipment Works (Deutsche-Ausrüstungswerke; DAW), an enterprise owned and operated by the SS
- camp workshops
- armaments factories
- stone quarries
- construction projects
Periodically, the SS physicians conducted selections throughout the Buchenwald camp system and dispatched those too weak or disabled to work to so-called euthanasia facilities such as Sonnenstein. At these facilities, euthanasia operatives gassed them as part of Operation 14f13, the extension of euthanasia killing operations to ill and exhausted concentration camp prisoners. SS physicians or orderlies used phenol injections to kill other prisoners unable to work.
Evacuation and Liberation of Buchenwald
As Soviet forces entered German-occupied Poland, the Germans evacuated thousands of prisoners from Nazi German concentration camps. After long, brutal marches, more than 10,000 weak and exhausted prisoners from Auschwitz and Gross-Rosen, most of them Jews, arrived in Buchenwald in January 1945. By February, the number of prisoners in Buchenwald reached 112,000.
In early April 1945, as US forces approached the camp, the Germans began to evacuate some 28,000 prisoners from the main camp and an additional several thousand prisoners from the subcamps of Buchenwald. There are no records of the deaths resulting from starvation, exposure, exhaustion, or murder by guards.
The underground resistance organization in Buchenwald, whose members held key administrative posts in the camp, saved many lives. They obstructed Nazi orders and delayed the evacuation.
On April 11, 1945, in expectation of liberation, prisoners stormed the watchtowers. They seized control of the camp. Later that afternoon, US forces entered Buchenwald. Soldiers from the 6th Armored Division, part of the Third Army, found more than 21,000 people in the camp.
Between July 1937 and April 1945, the SS imprisoned some 250,000 persons from all countries of Europe in Buchenwald. Exact mortality figures for the Buchenwald site can only be estimated, as camp authorities never registered a significant number of the prisoners. The SS murdered at least 56,000 male prisoners in the Buchenwald camp system. Some 11,000 of them were Jews.
Barack Obama's 2009 Visit to the Site
Then President Barack Obama visited Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany on June 5, 2009. In a speech at the site, he repudiated Holocaust denial. June 6, 2009, marked the 65th anniversary of D-Day. Obama’s great-uncle Charlie Payne, with the US Army in 1945, was one of the liberators of Ohrdruf, a satellite forced-labor camp close to Buchenwald.