Dachau (Konzentrationslager Dachau): An Overview
“May the example of those who were exterminated here between 1933-1945 because they resisted Nazism help to unite the living for the defense of peace and freedom and in respect for their fellow men” – inscription on a memorial at Dachau
Today all one has to say is Auschwitz to conjure up horrific images of Nazi privation, torture and murder. The Operation Reinhard camps are typically the first to come to mind when one mentions the Holocaust. However, the Nazi camp system started long before the outbreak of World War II. Konzentrationslager Dachau in Upper Bavaria was “the first large-scale concentration camp in Germany, converted from an old gunpowder factory by the Nazi regime in [March] 1933.”
On 21 March 1933, The Munich Latest News reported, “The Munich Chief of Police, Himmler, has issued the following press announcement: On Wednesday the first concentration camp is to be opened in Dachau with an accommodation for 5000 persons. ‘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 organise as soon as they are released.’”
“Camps then were set up throughout Germany by Himmler in his capacity as head of the Bavarian police, the first at Dachau. By the summer of 1933 there were ten or more camps and detention centers…with over 25,000 inmates,” including Jews. Martin Brozat characterized these early camps as “wild improvisations,” but that would soon change with the appointment of Brigadier General Theodor Eicke who Himmler appointed as commandant of Dachau. It was June 1933 and Himmler now had complete control over the camps which “operated outside the ordinary processes of law.” By May the following year, he had promoted Eicke to a position over all camps. “Eicke’s reorganization led to consolidation of the smaller camps into larger ones with uniform procedures and administration.” Of the ten consolidated camps in operation by March 1935, Dachau had the largest inmate population at 2,500.
Dachau was the genesis point for the much feared Death’s Head Units, the Totenkopfverbande-SS. It was ground zero for the Holocaust. Eicke’s model camp became the blueprint for all future camps, including the killing centers in Poland. From September 1939 – February 1940, the Death’s Head Units, which became part of the armed, or Waffen-SS, were trained at Dachau while prisoners were temporarily housed at Mathausen.
“Inside Dachau the prisoners lived in long wooden huts (blocks) with each hut housing 270 inmates. The interior of each hut was divided into five rooms, each containing two rows of bunks, stacked three-high, sleeping a total of 54 persons. The huts lacked adequate sanitary facilities, containing only twelve lavatory bowls for all 270 men. Each morning at roll call, the 54 men of each room paraded together as a platoon. The five rooms, or groups of men, formed a company, with a ‘sergeant’ prisoner responsible for discipline. Every aspect of a prisoner’s daily life at Dachau was regulated, from how guards were to be saluted, to the required precise alignment of the blue and white checkered bed sheets to form perfect parallels with the sides and ends.”
In total, over 200,000 prisoners from more than 30 countries were housed in Dachau of whom two-thirds were political prisoners and nearly one-third were Jews. In total, 25,613 prisoners are believed to have died in the camp and almost another 10,000 in its subcamps, primarily from disease, malnutrition and suicide. In early 1945, there was a typhus epidemic in the camp followed by an evacuation, in which large numbers of the weaker prisoners died. Dachau holds a significant place in public memory because it was the second camp to be liberated by Allied forces. Therefore, it was one of the first places where the West was exposed to the reality of Nazi brutality through firsthand journalist accounts and through newsreels.
“In early 1937, the SS, using prisoner labor, initiated construction of a large complex of buildings on the grounds of the original camp. Prisoners were forced to do this work, starting with the destruction of the old munitions factory, under terrible conditions. The construction was officially completed in mid-August 1938 and the camp remained essentially unchanged until 1945. Dachau thus remained in operation for the entire period of the Third Reich.”
“The camp was divided into two sections–the camp area and the crematoria area. The camp area consisted of 32 barracks, including one for clergy imprisoned for opposing the Nazi regime and one reserved for medical experiments. The camp administration was located in the gatehouse at the main entrance. The camp area had a group of support buildings, containing the kitchen, laundry, showers, and workshops, as well as a prison block (Bunker). The courtyard between the prison and the central kitchen was used for the summary execution of prisoners. An electrified barbed-wire fence, a ditch, and a wall with seven guard towers surrounded the camp.”
“In the summer and fall of 1944, to increase war production, satellite camps under the administration of Dachau were established near armaments factories throughout southern Germany. Dachau alone had more than 30 large subcamps in which over 30,000 prisoners worked almost exclusively on armaments. Thousands of prisoners were worked to death.”
Though there was a large gas chamber built for the purpose of extermination, most sources say that it was never used to kill prisoners. However, one website contends that, at a minimum, prisoners were used as guinea pigs to test gassing methods here (See http://www.holocaust-history.org/dachau-gas-chambers/). What has been documented are the death rates at the camp. “From 1940 to 1943 the annual death toll ranged between 1,000 and 3,000 prisoners; it exceeded 400 per month only twice. In 1944, the Dachau death rate skyrocketed from 403 in October, to 997 in November, to 1,915 in December. In the first four months of 1945 it ranged from 2,625 to 3,977 per month, with fully half of all documented deaths in the camp occurring in the last six months before liberation…an average of over 100 people died each day in Dachau.”
“A new stage of deadly evacuation marches began in March 1945, with long treks of prisoners leaving Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald by cargo train and on foot for Bergen-Belsen…Flossenburg, Dachau and their branch camps…Dachau, because it was located in southern Germany farthest from the advancing Allied armies…” On 14 April 1945 “a telegram from SS headquarters to the commanders of the concentration camps ‘that no prisoner shall be captured alive by the enemy’…The Dachau SS drew up a plan for the aerial bombardment of the camp.”
By April 1945, death marches had become the preferred method of “evacuating” camp inmates from all the Nazi camps. One story clearly illustrates the frantic movement of inmates. The eyewitness account of Dachau surivior Dr. Ali Kuci recalls that an order to evacuate the camp was given 26 April at 9 a.m. “By 8:00 p.m., more prisoners had gathered…There were now 6,700…Just as the assembled inmates were ready to leave the camp, the front gate opened and 120 barefoot women with swollen legs stumbled in the prison area. They were all that remained of 480 women who had walked all the way from the Auschwitz concentration camp; the others had died along the way or had been shot by their guards because they could not keep up with the main group.” The 6,700 Dachau inmates left the camp two hours later.
“On [Sunday] 29 April 1945, the liberation of the Dachau Concentration Camp…presented to the Allied Armies a gruesome spectacle of wholesale bestiality and barbarism.” Jack Hallett, an American soldier who helped liberate Dachau, noted that the “first thing I saw was a stack of bodies–oh, 20 feet long and about, oh, as high as a man could reach….And the thing I’ll never forget was the fact that closer inspection found people whose eyes were still blinking maybe three or four deep inside the stack.”
“Sunday, just after the noon meal, the air was unusually still. The big field outside the compound was deserted. Suddenly someone began running toward the gate at the other side of the field. Others followed. The word was shouted through the mass of gray, tired prisoners. Americans! That word repeated, yelled over the shoulders in throaty Polish, in Italian, in Russian and Dutch and in the familiar ring of French.” The American troops were totally unprepared for what they saw upon arrival—half starved, shadows of people in the camp, piles of corpses, smoldering ovens, train cars with their decomposing cargo abandoned by the SS. At least the horror was over for about 35,000 camp inmates.
For further study:
Modern Panoramic Photos – VERY cool!
 Wikipedia article, accessed 16 October 2009, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dachau_concentration_camp
 Translation of The Munich Latest News, March 21, 1933, accessed from Wikipedia 16 Oct 2009, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dachau_concentration_camp#cite_note-1).
 “The Early Days of Dachau,” ©1997 The History Place: World War II in Europe, http://www.historyplace.com/worldwar2/timeline/dach-early.htm
 “Dachau,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, © USHMM, accessed 16 Oct 2009, http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/article.php?lang=en&ModuleId=10005214
 Ibid, p. 49
 The Holocaust Chronicle, accessed 16 Oct 2009, http://www.holocaustchronicle.org/StaticPages/609.html
 G-2 Section U.S. Seventh Army, p. 41