A visit into Germany’s dark past

An imposing memorial on a hilltop stands as a vivid reminder to the horrors of Germany’s dark past.  In a pretty beech forest just a few kilometres outside of Weimar, a town famous for its cultural life and ironically where Germany’s first democratic constitution was signed, the Nazis established the concentration camp of Buchenwald. In July 1937, Buchenwald became the first and largest of the concentration camps on German soil.  Between April 1938 and April 1945, some 238,380 people of various nationalities and groups were incarcerated in Buchenwald. The camp was operational until its liberation in 1945. Between 1945 and 1950 the former camp was used by the Soviet Union as a special camp for Nazis. On 6 January 1950, the Soviets handed over Buchenwald to the East German Ministry of Internal Affairs who then demolished most of the buildings.  Today the remains of Buchenwald serves as a memorial and permanent exhibition and museum.

I must admit I had mixed feelings about visiting a concentration camp. In the end, I decided it was important to face this part of Germany’s past.  The first thing I noticed when we drove into the memorial site is how isolated and densely wooded the area is.  It would be easy to carry on all kinds of atrocities in secrecy here.

After collecting our audio guides and maps, we headed off in the direction of the camp for a self directed walking tour.  The whole camp was dismantled in 1950 except for a few buildings that stand to this day:  the main gate, the crematorium, the hospital block, and two guard towers.  Passing through the main gate, you enter into the camp compound which today is a large field of rubble outlining the foundations of the barracks since all prisoner barracks and other buildings were razed. It is eerily quiet and disturbingly peaceful.

As I walked through the camp, listening to the audio guide information, I was overcome with emotion as I heard about some of the most  outrageous acts of cruelty imaginable.  In fact, it is quite unimaginable. It is beyond me how human beings are capable of such horrors. Technically speaking, Buchenwald was not an extermination camp.  It was a forced labour camp and yet about 56,000 people lost their lives here.  One of the primary causes of death was illness due to the harsh camp conditions.  Starvation, disease, malnourishment not to mention the fact that many were literally “worked to death” under the Vernichtung durch Arbeit policy (extermination through labor).  Many died as a result of human experimentation such as testing new vaccines.  Others were simply murdered.

As I walked through one of the few remaining buildings next to the crematorium, I was surprised that one room looked like a clinic.  Rather than get medical treatment here, I was shocked to learn that this was where prisoners were brought  to be killed.  Apparently, the appearance of the room was a mere ruse to keep the inmates calm and unsuspecting when they entered the building.  The inmate would be asked to stand against the wall next to a measuring stick under the guise of measuring his height.  Meanwhile, in a hidden room behind the wall, a guard was posed to shoot the inmate in the nape of the neck. This was just one example of the cruelty meted out at Buchenwald.

The room with the measuring stick.

Behind the wall with the measuring stick from where the prisoner was shot.

There are two museums within the camp perimeter, both of which were closed on the day we visited.  Apparently, museums are closed in Germany on Mondays and that just so happened to be the day we visited Buchenwald.  I’m sure we would have seen more graphic examples of the horrors of the camp.  Honestly, I think I had seen and heard enough through the existing displays and the audio guide.

Throughout the camp, various memorials have been installed commemorating the different groups of people who perished.  The largest memorial is the one mentioned earlier, located on a hilltop which can be seen from miles away.  It is a grim reminder of some of Germany’s darkest moments.

Category: Europe, Germany
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2 Responses
  1. Marc says:

    I have heard about people visiting labor and concertation camps, Aushwitz in particular, and the emotions of rage, anger, disbelief and disgust they felt at the thought of what happened there… also came an overwhelming sense of sorrow and dispare you can still feel when you are there. It really is a dark page of not only Germany’s history, but also of all humanity.


  2. Angus says:

    Pretty intense place to visit but important “lest we forget”. What struck me as I read your account was that the camp started in 1937 whereas the war as we know it started in 1941 about 4 years later. It shouldn’t take so long for the world to respond to people being oppressed.