Mittelbau Main Camp: In Depth
Millions of people suffered and died in camps, ghettos, and other sites during the Holocaust. The Nazis and their allies oversaw more than 44,000 camps, ghettos, and other sites of detention, persecution, forced labor, and murder. Among them was the Mittelbau main camp, also known as Dora.
The Mittelbau (Central Construction) concentration camp was the last main camp created by the SS-WVHA, and the only one not named after a specific place.
Although the camp officially came into being on October 28, 1944, its origins stretched back to the founding of a subcamp of Buchenwald, codenamed Dora, on August 28, 1943. On that date, the SS trucked 107 Buchenwald prisoners to tunnels in the southern Harz mountains, near the small central German city of Nordhausen. These unlucky individuals were to pave the way for the thousands more tasked with converting a central petroleum reserve for the Reich into a secret factory for the A-4 ballistic missile, later christened the Vengeance Weapon (Vergeltunswaffe-) 2 or V-2.
Dora was not the first instance where prisoners were sent out of a main camp to be used in the armaments industry, rather than exploited in SS camp industries. However, it proved to be a highly influential model for the many new and often grotesquely unrealistic underground projects that the Nazi leadership ordered in response to the Anglo-American strategic bombing offensive. The Nordhausen region got a number of such projects. Mittelbau emerged as the camp system that embodied in its purest form the final phase of the SS concentration camps: that of large-scale exploitation of prisoners for work in the war economy.
In the end, Mittelbau proved true to its name. In a system of up to 40 subcamps attached to Dora, most of the prisoners worked in construction of underground and aboveground facilities under murderous conditions. Other than the V-2, and later V-1, missiles that came out of the underground plant, very few weapons were actually produced. Thus the emphasis on Mittelbau as a weapons-production complex in much of the historiography is certainly exaggerated, as the German scholar Jens-Christian Wagner has pointed out.
In fact, out of the approximately 40,000 prisoners in Mittelbau in March 1945 (of whom approximately 16,000 were in the main camp), less than 6,000 at the main camp and those at a few small subcamps were actually employed in production. The majority were construction workers and miners, supplemented by thousands of ill and exhausted survivors of the evacuations of Auschwitz and Gross-Rosen since the beginning of the year.
The first seven months of Dora's existence were devoted entirely to the conversion into a V-2 factory of tunnels owned by the Wifo (Wirtschafliche Forschungsgesellschaft mbH—Economic Research Co. Ltd.), a state-owned enterprise devoted to strategic underground war reserves.
A British air raid against the German Army rocket research center at Peenemünde on the Baltic on August 17/18, 1943, had provoked action on the part of Hitler, Speer, and Himmler to evacuate rocket production to an underground site. The assembly line machinery had to move to the Nordhausen region from Peenemünde and also from two other unfinished V-2 assembly plants at Friedrichshafen and Wiener Neustadt. Along with them eventually came the SS prisoners who had been in subcamps at Peenemünde and the Raxwerke in Wiener Neustadt, along with civilian personnel.
On September 21, Speer's Armaments Ministry created a state-owned firm, Mittelwerk GmbH (Central Works Ltd.—a veiled reference to the geographic location) to assemble the missiles, and together with the Army, struggled to maintain the upper hand vis-à-vis the SS. During the discussions at Führer headquarters immediately after the Peenemünde raid, Himmler had named as his key man SS-Brigadeführer Dr.-Ing. Hans Kammler, the head of WVHA Amtsgruppe C, Construction. Kammler was an exceedingly energetic, ambitious, and ruthless man. While the Mittelwerk company would never formally leave the control of Speer's ministry, and the camp reported to Buchenwald and later directly to the camp inspectorate, WVHA Amtsgruppe D, Kammler would be the decisive personality throughout the history of Mittelbau.
Camp commandant throughout most of the short history of Dora and Mittelbau was SS-Sturmbannführer Otto Förschner, who had served in subsidiary positions at Buchenwald since February 1942, after service on the Eastern Front. Förschner was an NCO in the Reichswehr before transferring to the SS in 1934 as a military instructor. He was thus not of the cadre of long-serving camp SS officers schooled at Dachau and elsewhere, and was not noted for particular cruelty—but neither did he care much about the horrendous suffering at Dora in the early months. On the Buchenwald model, he relied on "red triangle" German political prisoners in non-SS administrative positions, notably Communists like Albert Kuntz, who supervised camp construction, Georg Thomas, and Ludwig Szymczak, the camp elder (Lagerälteste). When the latter two refused to carry out an execution of a prisoner in March 1944, they were removed from their post and thrown in the Bunker, and a "green triangle" criminal prisoner, Willi Zwiener, was briefly put in their place. But Thomas and Szymczak were released back to the barracks, and Förschner put other political prisoners, notably Christian Beham, into the position of Lagerälteste again in the summer and fall of 1944.
During the first phase of Dora, Kammler placed little emphasis on the above-ground camp on the south side of Kohnstein mountain, next to the tunnel exits, because it diverted labor from the building of infrastructure and the conversion of the tunnels, both subcontracted through the local Wifo office. Thus the unfortunate inmates of Dora were forced to sleep and live underground, in some cases not seeing daylight for months.
Early arrivals from Buchenwald lived in tents near the entrance to main tunnel B, but by the end of September 1943 the ever-growing number of prisoners were bedded on straw on the bare rock of cross-tunnel 39 until wooden bunks four levels high were built into dead-end tunnels 43 to 46 at the south end of main tunnel A. (The tunnel system formed a ladder-like network connecting the north and south sides of the mountain, with 46 cross-tunnels between the two main tunnels.) Tunnel A had not been completed when the Mittelwerk took over, so mining and blasting operations to break through to the south side of the Kohnstein continued right next to the "sleeping tunnels" (Schlafstollen).
The noise, dust, and noxious gasses from the blasting and from trains hauling rock exacerbated an already catastrophic health situation for the prisoners. Water was in short supply. The only toilets were oil barrels cut in half with boards over them, but they were too few in number; many relieved themselves in the tunnels. The stench became intolerable, and disease and vermin proliferated. Soon, cases of pneumonia, tuberculosis, typhoid, and dysentery took a dreadful toll, combined with total exhaustion inflicted by 12-hour days of backbreaking labor with poor sleep and minimal equipment. Registered deaths shot up from five in September 1943 to 669 in January 1944.
By the end of January 1944 there were 12,682 registered prisoners, the highest total in the early history of Dora; and eight to ten thousand of them still lived underground. The catastrophic death rate continued in February and March 1944, and three transports, each of one thousand extremely ill and dying prisoners—to Lublin-Majdanek on January 15 and February 6, and to Bergen-Belsen on March 27—raised the de facto death toll to nearly six thousand by the beginning of April. The camp population in these months was all-male and non-Jewish; the predominant prisoner groups in order of size were Soviet, Polish, French, German, Belgian, and Italian.
From the standpoint of Kammler, Speer, and others, however, the catastrophic working conditions of the winter of 1943/44 served their purpose: V-2 assembly began in late December. But production numbers only slowly rose in the spring and quality was poor. “Sabotage” inevitably became a great concern; prisoners were hanged for it, often with little proof. It appears, however, that the mostly individual attempts at sabotage do not explain the frequent failures of the V-2s, which were riddled with technical problems.
With the arrival of better weather, the evacuation of the remaining prisoners from the tunnels into the barracks camp, and the beginnings of V-2 production in the Mittelwerk, the situation in Dora much improved; the death rate fell dramatically. At the same time, Kammler's many new underground projects in the Harz region necessitated the creation of new subcamps, the largest of which were Ellrich (“Erich”) and Harzungen (“Hans”). Although subordinate to Buchenwald, they increasingly came under the control of Dora, to which they were closely tied, in part because they gave Förschner a new mechanism for ridding Dora of exhausted and unskilled inmates.
The best educated and technically qualified prisoners, primarily from Western Europe, were selected to serve on the missile assembly line, while the others were put on the harsher outdoor, transport, and construction Kommandos. In the words of Jens-Christian Wagner, the SS in Mittelbau-Dora developed a system of “mobile selection,” where inmates who were worn out or less valuable were transferred to Kommandos, subcamps, infirmaries or “death blocks” of increasing harshness, so that the weakest died off.
In this system the best-treated inmates, other than the mostly German and Czech “reds” and “greens” in administrative and Kapo positions, were the assembly-line workers for the Mittelwerk company, which employed between five and six thousand prisoners (and two to three thousand German civil workers) on two 12-hour shifts, six days a week. (A roughly equal number of Dora prisoners worked on Wifo construction projects.) In an effort to secure better labor, Mittelwerk supplied shoes and other items to the SS camp, and instituted a premium wage system, where chits could be earned for use in the camp canteen.
Yet however much the factory came to resemble a modern high-technology enterprise, as demonstrated in color propaganda photos from mid-1944, it remained a fundamentally barbaric production site. In June, the company directors found it necessary to issue a confidential decree to the German civilian workers forbidding them from beating the prisoners and even stabbing them “with sharp instruments.”1 Cold, hunger, accusations of sabotage, and the threat of violence were constant companions for the Mittelwerk prisoner work force.
As time went on, and sub-assembly production was evacuated into the tunnels because of Allied air attacks, the number of prisoners working for companies other than Mittelwerk GmbH increased to several hundred in number. Askania was among the firms with Kommandos. V-2 production was disrupted, however, by political interventions because of the slowness of the weapon to mature technically, but also by a takeover of 40 percent of the tunnel area by the state-owned Junkers Aircraft Co., which set up the Nordwerk (North Works) aircraft-engine plant in the northern part of the tunnel system in late spring.
With a tiny number of exceptions, Junkers did not employ SS prisoners, but rather moved its civilian forced laborers to the Nordhausen area. Mittelwerk then consolidated its V-2 production line into tunnels 21-42, and in August 1944 accepted a contract for production of the V-1 cruise missile. The former “sleeping tunnels” (43-46) were outfitted for this purpose, and three hundred skilled Hungarian Jewish SS prisoners were transferred from the Volkswagen company, which ultimately lost the V-1 lead contractor role to Mittelwerk GmbH in October. Earlier in the summer, Dora got one thousand other Hungarian Jews from Auschwitz via Buchenwald, but these Jews were employed primarily in the worst construction jobs in Dora, Harzungen, and Ellrich.
The creation of the Junkers Nordwerk and the rise of the Mittelbau subcamps beginning in March 1944 were provoked by the same phenomena: near-panic in the Nazi leadership as a result of American daylight assaults on the aircraft industry in late February. On March 1, Speer created a “Fighter Staff,” led by the Armaments and Air Ministries, with its primary goal the rapid increase in fighter production for air defense. This gave powerful backing to plans already underway to evacuate aircraft production underground; SS General Hans Kammler thus came to play a central role through his new Sonderstab Kammler (Special Staff Kammler). He supervised a number of underground projects given “A” or “B” numbers, as well as some of the SS Construction Brigades (Baubrigaden) that were transferred to the region beginning in May 1944 for various road- and railroad- building projects.
The prisoners of the Baubrigaden were subordinated to Dora/Mittelbau until January 1945, at which time they were put under the jurisdiction of Sachsenhausen. The largest and most important underground projects in the Nordhausen region were on either side of the valley on the northeast side of the Kohnstein, especially B3 near Woffleben, and B11 and B12 on other side of the existing Mittelwerk tunnels. On April 1, 1944, the SS founded Harzungen, which supplied laborers to B3, and later also to B11. It was originally built as a civilian labor camp, and was thus better outfitted; the SS guard force was also supplemented with transfers from the Luftwaffe, which lessened the brutality, but certainly did not eliminate it.
The main camp for B3, however, was founded on May 2 at the town of Ellrich in the Juliushütte, an abandoned gypsum factory which had processed the anhydrite rock mined from the original tunnels. The conditions in this camp were especially disastrous, and the treatment of the prisoners especially brutal. Further subcamps in the region proliferated to the end of the war, for the Mittelwerk, for the Geilenberg program of underground oil production, but mostly for Kammler's various projects.
The formal subordination of these new camps to Buchenwald did not prevent the growing centralization of authority under commandant Förschner in Dora in order to save resources and gain flexibility. On June 8, the main camp received the designation “Mittelbau I,” while Harzungen and Ellrich-Juliushütte were grouped as “Mittelbau II”; in mid-July the SS guard force at the various subcamps in the region was unified into one Mittelbau Kommando under the supervision of Buchenwald Death's Head unit. On September 10, Förschner renamed Ellrich “Mittelbau II” and Harzungen “Mittelbau III” and reorganized the subordination of various Kommandos. The official WVHA order creating Mittelbau, which was made on September 30, and came into effect on October 28, 1944, was thus almost a formality.
On November 1, the SS counted 32,471 prisoners in the system, of which 13,738 were in the main camp still informally known as Dora; over half were Soviet and Polish.
During the last phase of Mittelbau's existence, the production lines in the Mittelwerk continued to run smoothly almost to the last day before evacuation, but the persecution and suffering of the prisoners in the main camp, not to mention the subcamps, increased dramatically. Although the Mittelwerk never reached its specified output of 900 V-2s per month, beginning in September it produced between 600 and 700 monthly—over 20 complicated ballistic missiles per day.
Between November and March, the company also assembled 6,000 much simpler V-1s, about equivalent to its total production of V-2s during the war. The death toll in Dora did not begin climbing again until after the beginning of the year, when large numbers of evacuated prisoners from Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen, and other eastern camps began arriving, but November marked a significant change in atmosphere. An alleged plot among the Soviet prisoners to stage an armed uprising on the anniversary of the October Revolution provoked the Gestapo to arrest not only alleged ringleaders, but also to smash the informal resistance leadership in the camp, which included the German Communists Thomas, Kuntz, Szymczak, and Beham, as well as prominent French prisoners.
Those arrested were thrown in the Dora bunker and other local Gestapo prisons and tortured. The pace of executions increased. Förschner and his SS subordinates now permanently installed "green" criminal prisoners in positions of responsibility, including Roman Drung as Lagerälteste.
The repression was ratcheted up yet further when on February 1, 1945, Himmler replaced Mittelbau commandant Otto Förschner with Richard Baer, the last commandant of Auschwitz. The Gestapo-SD security apparatus had criticized Förschner for his reliance on Albert Kuntz and other "reds" who turned out to be resistance leaders, but the last straw was the discovery that he failed to report a 10,000 Reichsmark bonus he had received from the Mittelwerk GmbH.
The evacuation of Auschwitz in late January left many hardened SS camp officers without posts, and Baer promptly installed his former subordinates throughout the Mittelbau hierarchy. Yet the great increase in executions in February and especially in March, including a number of mass hangings in the camps and in the tunnels, was largely the responsibility of SS-Obersturmbannführer Helmut Bischoff, the head of security for the Mittelwerk and the V-weapons program. Effectively Bischoff reported directly to Kammler.
The executions reached grotesque proportions after an attempted breakout of about 20 Soviet prisoners in the Dora bunker on the night of March 9. Two days later, 57 Soviets were hung, and on March 21 and 22, 30 again each day. The German Communist leaders who had survived torture were shot in the last days of the camp.
At about the same time as Baer became commandant, evacuation trains began arriving from Auschwitz and later from Gross-Rosen, which had the most profound impact on the Mittelbau camp system of all events of the last few months. Over 16,000 inmates, many in disastrous condition, were dumped into the Mittelbau system by the end of March, 10,000 of them from Gross-Rosen alone and a large percentage of them Jewish.
These trains also had many dead who were not even registered; the corpses were piled up and when the crematoria could not cope, were burned in piles. Dora's population temporarily shot up from fourteen to twenty-one thousand in February, before many were transported to Ellrich-Juliushütte and other subcamps, including a new location for mass suffering, the former Luftwaffe base in Nordhausen, the Boelcke Kaserne. The seriously ill were dumped onto straw laid out in the airplane hangers and left to die. Even before the final evacuation, 2,250 from there and Ellrich were shipped off to Bergen-Belsen in an "annihilation transport."2
The end came at the beginning of April. On April 1, work stopped in the Mittelwerk. On April 3 and 4, the Royal Air Force burned down much of Nordhausen in two raids that also killed up to 1,500 at the Boelcke Kaserne. Baer and the camp leadership began the evacuation on April 4 by train and foot, abandoning only several hundred seriously ill in Dora and the Boelcke Kaserne. The ensuing death marches and trains had the same catastrophic and senseless pattern seen elsewhere; surviving Mittelbau inmates ended up at Bergen-Belsen, Ravensbrück, and many other places as far away as Austria, with a death toll in the thousands.
The most infamous crime of the evacuation took place at the village of Gardelegen, where 1,016 marchers from Mittelbau and Neuengamme subcamps were locked in a barn and burned alive, or shot if they tried to escape. Only 20 to 25 survived. Wagner estimates that over 8,000 died during the evacuations, raising the final Mittelbau toll to over 20,000.
Aftermath and Trials
On April 11, 1945, elements of the US 3rd Armored and 104th Infantry Divisions reached Nordhausen and discovered the horrific situation at the Boelcke Kaserne, where sick and dying survivors lay with the corpses of the prisoners burned in the air raids. Not much later, the liberators also found the Mittelwerk tunnels and Dora.
The scene in Nordhausen provoked outrage among the occupiers; the US Army made a propaganda film that made the name of the city briefly infamous. But soon afterward came a different set of US Army personnel who were only interested in the technology. Before the Soviets could move forward into their prescribed occupation zone, US forces removed large numbers of missile parts and personnel. The operation to exploit German science and technology that came to be known as Operation Paperclip had one of its most important origins here. After the Soviets moved forward on July 5, they too were eager to grab the fruits of German rocket and missile technology, and used some Mittelwerk facilities to assemble and refurbish some V-2s, and later sent many German engineers and technicians to the USSR.
The first SS functionaries from the camp to be tried were 12 charged by the British in the Bergen-Belsen trial of fall 1945; 3 were hanged, including the last Mittelbau Schutzhaftlagerführer, Franz Hössler, better known for his role at Auschwitz. The long-time commandant, Otto Förschner, was executed in May 1946 by the US Army for his actions in the Dachau subcamps at the end of the war.
At Dachau in late 1947, the Army also held the only dedicated Allied trials for Dora/Mittelbau; of the 18 SS members and 5 Kapos tried, 1 was executed and 18 received prison terms. Also tried was the General Director of Mittelwerk GmbH from May 1944 to the end, Georg Rickhey, but he was acquitted because of the narrow focus on individual mistreatment of prisoners.
In the Soviet zone and GDR, 1 SS officer was sentenced to 20 years, another executed, but during most of the 1950s, little further interest was paid to the issue on either side of the border.
After the founding in 1958 of a central authority in West Germany for investigating war crimes, however, renewed investigations were made into the Mittelbau story. Ultimately they led to the "Dora trial" in Essen from 1967 to 1970. Richard Baer had earlier been discovered living under an assumed name during the investigations for the Auschwitz trial, and committed suicide in prison in 1963. So the court tried Helmut Bischoff, security chief of the Mittelbau region, Erwin Busta, an infamous SS guard, and Ernst Sander, a Gestapo officer. Just before the announcement of the sentencing on May 8, 1970, Helmut Bischoff was released on grounds of poor health (yet lived to 1991); Busta and Sander got terms of 7.5 and 8.5 years respectively, but were also allowed on health grounds to escape further imprisonment.
Thus ended the last trials on this subject, but the name "Dora" has lived on because of its connection to the group of German rocket engineers around Dr. Wernher von Braun who became so prominent in the US space program. The case of Arthur Rudolph, a close subordinate of von Braun and a key figure in the Apollo lunar landing project, has attracted particular attention; he left the United States in 1984 rather than fight a denaturalization hearing initiated by the Justice Department for his role as production manager for Mittelwerk. Rudolph settled in Hamburg, but the German prosecutor decided that there was no longer sufficient evidence to make a case; he died at the beginning of 1996. One thing definitely came of the Rudolph case: the story of Mittelbau-Dora can no longer be left out of the history of the German rocket program, as it was for much of the Cold War.
The first person to take a scholarly interest in the Mittelbau camp was a native of the Nordhausen region, Manfred Bornemann. His article with Martin Broszat, "Das KL Dora-Mittelbau," Martin Broszat (ed.), Studien zur Geschichte der Konzentrationslager(Stuttgart: Deutsche-Verlags-Anstalt 1970), 154-98; and his book, Geheimprojekt Mittelbau (1971; repr., Bonn: Bernhard & Graefe, 1994), focus on the underground plant, V-2 production, and Dora, the primary emphasis of most historians until recently.
The literature on the rocket program is large; see especially Michael J. Neufeld, The Rocket and the Reich (New York: The Free Press, 1995), which was translated as Die Rakete und das Reich. For V-1 production in the Mittelwerk, see the relevant sections in Hans Mommsen and Manfred Grieger, Das Volkswagenwerk und seine Arbeiter im Dritten Reich (Düsseldorf: ECON, 1996).
Recently discovered, stunning color photographs of the underground plant, and French prisoner art from Dora, are featured in the exhibition catalog of Yves Le Maner and André Sellier, Images de Dora 1943-1945 (St. Omer: La Coupole, 1999), which has appeared in translation as Bilder aus Dora.
Recently three new histories of the camp and camp system have ushered in a new era of scholarly work on Mittelbau. Joachim Neander's Das Konzentrationslager "Mittelbau" in der Endphase der nationalsozialistischen Diktatur (Clausthal-Zellerfeld: Papierflieger, 1997) is strongest for the evacuation of the camps. A French survivor of Mittelbau-Dora, André Sellier, has published Histoire du camp de Dora (Paris: Éditions la découverte, 1998), translated as Zwangsarbeit im Raketentunnel, which emphasizes the experience of French workers in the Mittelwerk. In English it is available as A History of the Dora Camp, trans. Steven Wright and Susan Taponier, foreword by Michael J. Neufeld, afterword by Jens-Christian Wagner (Chicago: Irving R. Dee, published in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2003).
But the standard scholarly work on the camp is that of Jens-Christian Wagner, Produktion des Todes: Das Kz Mittelbau-Dora (Göttingen: Wallstein-Verlag, 2001), which is superbly researched and for the first time sets the whole Mittelbau camp system in balanced perspective. This book is based upon the author's dissertation, “Verlagerungswahn und Tod: Die Fiktion eines Rüstungszentrum und der KZ-Komplex Mittelbau-Dora 1943” (dissertation, Göttingen, 1999).
Only remnants of KL Mittelbau and Mittelwerk GmbH records survive, most notably in the BA-BL in RG NS 4 Anhang, but also in R 121, Industriebeteiligungsgesellschaft, which includes Mittelwerk GmbH, and R 125, Wifo. There are also Mittelbau-Dora records in the ThHStA-W, RG NS 4/Bu, in the Buchenwald records. For the Nordhausen trial at Dachau in 1947, see NARA, United States of America vs. Kurt Andrae, et. al., Microfilm Publication M-1079, 16 reels (originals in RG 238, NARA); and for the Essen trial of 1967-1970, NWHStA-D, Zweigarchiv Kalkum, Gerichte Rep. 299; duplicates of the latter are in the ZdL (now BA-L). Also useful are the Peenemünde correspondence with Mittelwerk GmbH, in the DMM, Peenemünde records, file GD 638.8.2, and ITS records on Buchenwald and Mittelbau in the YVA, Microfilms BD3-Bu19-44 and BD11-Do1-6.
Critical Thinking Questions
- To what degree was the local population aware of this camp, its purpose, and the conditions within? How would you begin to research this question?
- Did the outside world have any knowledge about these camps? If so, what, if any, actions were taken by other governments and their officials?
- What choices do countries have to prevent, mediate, or end the mistreatment of imprisoned civilians in other nations?
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945. Vol 1, Early Camps, Youth Camps, and Concentration Camps and Subcamps under the SS-Business Administration Main Office (WVHA), ed. Geoffrey Megargee. Bloomington: Indiana University Press in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2009.
Rickhey and Kettler, “Sonder- Direktions- Anweisung,” June 22, 1944, BA- BL, NS 4 Anh./3.
Jens-Christian Wagner, “Verlagerungswahn und Tod: Die Fiktion eines Rüstungszentrum und der KZ- Komplex Mittelbau- Dora 1943” (Ph.D. diss., Göttingen, 1999), p. 223.