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April 11th 1945: US Army reaches Buchenwald

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The site of former concentration camp Buchenwald. Photo: DPA
10:30 CEST+02:00
On April 11th 1945, the 6th Armoured Division of the US army liberated Buchenwald concentration camp, making its inmates the first on German soil to be freed from the grip of the Nazis.

By the end of the war, Buchenwald and its surrounding sub-camps made up the largest camp in Germany.

Over 250,000 inmates were imprisoned over an eight-year period and the death toll is estimated around 56,000.

A week earlier on April 4th, the US 89th Infantry Division had overrun Ohrdruf, a sub-camp of Buchenwald. It was the very first camp to be liberated by American troops.

A few days before, SS guards had already ordered the evacuation of Ohrdruf prisoners to Buchenwald, and forced inmates to burn any evidence of the crimes, including exhumed corpses.

On April 6th the Buchenwald commander ordered the evacuation of the main camp. Inmates were deported eastwards by train or forced to march on foot, part of a pattern of "death marches" repeated across Germany which cost many thousands of lives.

By the time the American soldiers arrived at the main camp, most of the SS guards had fled and inmates had taken control of the camp after storming the watchtowers and killing the remaining sentries. 

Even though more than 28,000 inmates had been evacuated from the camp, US troops still discovered more than 21,000 left at the site.

But Buchenwald's liberation did not bring its sinister purpose to an end, as it became a Soviet concentration camp from 1945 to 1950.

According to Soviet records, 28,000 inmates were incarcerated and 7,000 people died during this period.

In October 1950 the camp was finally demolished after being handed over to the East German authorities earlier that year. The main gate, the crematorium, the hospital block, and two guard towers were preserved.

Dealing with the past

Although Buchenwald was a work camp rather than an extermination camp under the Third Reich, many inmates died of starvation, disease, and torture, or were simply worked to death.

US soldiers found records stating that between the beginning of 1945 and the liberation, 14,766 people had died in the camp.

When it was built in 1937, Buchenwald was intended as a place to incarcerate political prisoners.

But by the time it was liberated, it held Jews, homosexuals, prisoners of war, mentally ill people, homeless people, Slavs, Roma and Sinti as inmates.

It was one of the only camps to imprison "asocials", or those considered to be work-shy. Doctors and scientists also carried out medical experiments on inmates, including hormonal transplants aiming to "cure homosexuality".

Historian Neil Macgregor argues that while Buchenwald may not have been as bad as somewhere like Auschwitz, it was a "critical step on the way to Hitler's final solution".

MacGregor organised a popular exhibition on German history last year at the British Museum, which is the most visited tourist attraction in Britain - and even drew a visit from Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Angela Merkel and David Cameron visit the British Museum exhibition in January 2015. Photo: DPA

It was also the subject of an acclaimed BBC radio series and an accompanying book.

In an episode of the series on Buchenwald, Macgregor describes it as a "place of national shame and international reflection".

After liberation, the Americans brought over a thousand citizens from nearby Weimar to see what had been done in the name of the Third Reich.

General Eisenhower wanted Germans to witness first-hand the grim evidence of atrocities that he and his troops had seen.

This policy of explicitly fixing the crimes of the Third Reich in memory was adopted by the East German government from the 1950s onwards.

After it was finally shut down, the camp was declared a memorial to the victims of Nazi terror by the East German regime, a practice which was less common in West Germany.

Macgregor uses the comparison between Buchenwald and Dachau in Bavaria to show the different ways the two nations dealt with the Holocaust in the immediate aftermath.

Dachau was not immediately declared a memorial because it was used to house German refugees expelled from Eastern Europe in the years after the war.

Buchenwald's location also has symbolic importance, because it is situated near the city of Weimar, the home of the ultimate German cultural icon: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

The place best known for cultural traditions like Goethe, the Bauhaus school, and the German Enlightenment is now forever linked to the atrocities committed at the nearby camp.

Motto misused

Another example of Germany's noble cultural history being tainted by the crimes of the Third Reich is the motto used for the gates of Buchenwald.

"Jedem das Seine", which translates as "to each what they are due", has been used to represent a high ideal of justice, and was adopted by the likes of Martin Luther and Johann Sebastian Bach.

The Nazis painted it on the Buchenwald gates as a grim reminder to the inmates that any crime committed against them could be justified. The gate was also on display at Macgregor's exhibition at the British Museum.

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Historian Mary Fulbrook, who is also a member of the Buchenwald Memorial Foundation, explains the inward focus of the motto: "The side facing the inmates was repainted annually - red to make it visible for everyone inside but the outside was only painted when it was first put up", she said.

Macgregor suggests a hidden meaning: "The motto was intended to support the SS claim to have the right to brutalize or to murder whom they chose.

"But the lettering, designed on the orders of the SS by a camp inmate, was a subtle coded protest against this monstrous assumption." he said.

It was designed by Franz Ehrlich, a communist who had studied at the Bauhaus, He was ordered to design a font for the motto during his time as an inmate at Buchenwald.

Fulbrook argues that the fact that, "Ehrlich specifically chose for his design this really artistic, beautiful font, taking strong Bauhaus influences, which was in the Nazi view degenerate art", was an act of "subtle subversion".

There have already been commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz back in January.

German President Joachim Gauck said: "There is no German identity without Auschwitz".

"The memory of the Holocaust remains a matter for every citizen who lives in Germany. It belongs to the history of this country."

Gauck stressed the continued importance of the holocaust in German collective memory and something that you can't simply draw a line under. Buchenwald is no different.

By Matty Edwards

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