"The prisoners rise before dawn, as they do every morning ... After the frantic rush - jostling in the washrooms, devouring some bread, cleaning the barracks - they march in strict military formation to the roll call square. Nearly four thousand men with cropped or shaven heads stand to attention in stripped uniforms, dreading another day of forced labour. ... Behind the rows of prisoners stand rows of one-story prisoner barracks. Each of the thirty-four purpose-built huts is around 110 yards long: the floors are gleaming and the bunks are meticulously made up. Escape is almost impossible: the rectangular prisoner compound, measuring 637 by 304 yards, is surrounded by a moat and concrete wall, watchtowers and machine guns, and barbed and electric wire. Beyond lies a huge SS zone with over 200 buildings. ... Stationed here [on 31 August 1939] are some three thousand men from the Camp SS, a volunteer unit with its own ethos, which puts prisoners through well-reharesed routines of abuse and violence" (Wachsmann 2016, p. 4).
Located about 10 miles from Munich, Dachau was the first of many concentration camps to be built throughout the 1930s and the war years (see Yad Vashem).
The National Socialists (‘Nazis’) came to power on 30 January 1933 – and Dachau began internment of political prisoners in March of that year.
Initially, the Dachau Konzentrationslager (the KZ/KL) imprisoned ‘Communists’ and ‘Social Democrats’ – who were viewed as opponents of the Nazi regime. It was to become the model on which the concentration camp system would be based across the Third Reich territories.
Dachau was run by Theodor Eicke: he was later to run the Death’s Head Formation – a concentration camp guard unit that operated across the Reich from 1936.
On 1 July 1934, Eicke was appointed as Inspector of Concentration Camps: his guards were trained “to destroy any feelings of humanity they might have had towards their prisoners” (Burleigh and Wippermann 1997, p. 62).
In order to achieve this, Eicke introduced new rules and regulations: those who discussed politics or spread propaganda were hanged; assault of a guard, sabotage, or insubordination resulted in death by firing squad. Other punishments included solitary confinement on bread and water, corporal punishment, punishment drills, being tied to a post for a number of hours, and hard labour (Evans 2006, pp. 82-83).
Eicke intended to protect the guards from punishment, in part, and the regulations thus included the stipulation that beatings, for example, should be undertaken by several officers and in front of other prisoners, with all punishments recorded in writing. The guards were trained to behave in a military manner, to keep their distance from prisoners, and to observe minute details of roll-call, supervision, commands, and punishment.
According to Rudolf Höss, “It was Eicke’s intent that his SS-men, by means of continuous instruction and suitable orders … should be made basically ill-disposed toward the prisoners. They were to ‘treat them rough’, and to root out once and for all any sympathy they might feel for them” (quoted in Evans 2006, p. 83).
Here and at other camps, quarries and brickworks were established in close proximity to this free source of labour in order maximise its potential. Many German construction (and later, armaments) companies were to benefit from this slave labour source.
"Cell 6: approximately 5 m. high, window approx. 40 x 70 cm at a height of 4 meters, which gives a feeling of a cellar ... Wooden plank with straw mat and two blankets, a wooden bucket, a jug, a basin, soap, a towel, no mirror, no toothbrush, no comb, no brush, no table, no book from January 12  until my departure on September 18; no newspaper from January 12 to August 17; no bath and no shower from January 12 to August 10; no leaving of the cell, except for interrogation, from January 12 to July 1. Incarceration in an unlighted cell from April 16 to May 1, then from May 15 to August 27, a total of 119 days." (1) From an account by Leopold Obermayer, a wine merchant, on his first imprisonment in Dachau: a 17-page report dated 10 October 1935. Obermayer was initially arrested two days after he had complained of his post being opened, accused of spreading lies about the regime. He was imprisoned again in mid-October 1935 for making repeated complaints, and was sent to trial behind closed doors. He was incarcerated in Dachau until 1942, when he was sent to Mauthausen, where he died in February 1943. (1) From Martin Broszat and Elke Fröhlich, Alltag und Widerstand: Bayern im Nationalsozialismus (Munich 1987), p. 434, in Friedländer 1998, pp. 113-114, 206.
The early 1930s
While the first prisoners held at Dachau were ‘political’ – Communists and Social Democrats – within a year they included homeless people taken from the streets, and others termed ‘asocials’. As the reach and power of the SS grew, these prisoners included Siniti and Roma people, whose persecution was now under the aegis of the Criminal Police. Jews were also imprisoned here from the start – often under the excuse of being ‘communists’ or ‘politicals’ in some form.
People who were imprisoned here in the early 1930s were generally there for about a year. On release, prisoners had to sign to say they would not tell anyone about their experiences: if they broke this pledge, they were to be re-arrested (Rees 2006, p. 49).
"What happened in the camps was a nameless horror that was all the more potent because its reality could only be guessed at from the broken bodies and spirits of inmates when they were released. There could be few more frightening indications of what would happen to people who engaged in political opposition or expressed political dissent" (Evans 2006, p. 95).
By the late 1930s, approximately 6,000 SS men were stationed in Dachau (Evans 2006, p. 94). Most had little education and were trained to be violent – they were cursed and abused during training and punished in humiliating ways for perceived failures. In turn, they treated prisoners with extreme brutality, subjecting them to the harshest of punishments for minor ‘infringements’ of the camp rules.
By the outbreak of war in 1939, Heinrich Himmler was in charge of this “vast operation” running the concentration camp system. He was appointed Commissar of the Strengthening of Ethnic Germandom on 7 October 1939 (Burleigh and Wippermann, p. 66).
As time went by, Jews and Poles were ‘resettled’ (forcibly moved) away from occupied territories adjacent to Germany. They were replaced by ‘German’ (‘Aryan’) people. In part, the KZ system helped the National Socialists to enforce this policy of extending the available lebensraum (‘living space’ for Aryans).
By 1944, all kinds of people were interned at Dachau (and in other camps, of course), including men and women, the very young, the very elderly, people with mental or physical health problems, people who were homosexual, as well as those from cultures or religions deemed to be ‘inferior’, or in some way seen as posing a threat to the National Socialist state.
The vast majority across the KZ system, however, were Jews.
In November 1938, around 30,000 Jewish men were sent to one of three main camps (there were also some other smaller prison destinations). Dachau was one of these three, and around 10,000 men were imprisoned here at this time.
"The transports were terrifying. When Dr Adler and other Jews were locked into a special train in Frankfurt, late on November 10, they were warned that they would be shot if they tried to open the windows ..." (Wachsmann 2016, p. 180).
The camp was not large enough to hold all the people who were suddenly arriving. Conditions were terrible and on arrival many had to sleep outside or in a large tent, in freezing November conditions. There were not enough latrines, insufficient food, few beds, and little by way of washing facilities.
Jewish prisoners were robbed at every turn – having to pay to avoid further punishment, and pay to obtain release. In the meantime, they had to buy the most basic goods for their survival, such as water, food, clothing, shoes, and blankets. After a few days, all bore “serious wounds, both physical and psychological. There was a spate of suicides … ‘Just let them get with it,’ Theodor Eicke told his men” (Wachsmann 2016, p. 184). During November and December, there were 114 deaths in Dachau alone.
Letter extract (translated from German), from Werner Weissenberg to a relative in the USA, Frau Sack, reflecting on his experiences in Dachau, sent on 9th June 1939
"If [his uncle Kurt] has to return to Germany the consequences are unimaginable; he doesn’t really know how terrible they will be. Apart from the fact that he would be unable to feed himself or his family there, because there are no employment opportunities for Jews, he would surely end up in a concentration camp, as has happened to the Jews who have arrived there from other countries. I can tell you from my own experiences what that would entail in all its gory detail, but I don’t think I need to tell you that. Those who get away with their lives can talk about being lucky. We have suffered much of its consequences on our health and our life."
There are many witness accounts of conditions at Dachau that were recorded in the months following the November 1938 pogroms. These sources have recently been translated into English and published by the Wiener Library. Pogrom – November 1938: Testimonies from ‘Kristallnacht’ is available in book and digital formats. This project is the result of an extraordinary labour of dedication, and is searchable by keyword on the library website: “In the months following November 1938, Alfred Wiener and his colleagues at the JCIO in Amsterdam collected over 350 contemporary testimonies and reports of the November Pogrom in Germany and Austria.”
[The following original information and documents can be viewed by visiting the Wiener Library November Pogrom website at: http://wienerlibrarycollections.co.uk/novemberpogrom/testimonies-and-reports]
"During admission to the camp everyone was treated in the most humiliating way. We had to line up in rows. Everybody received terrible flogging and slaps round the face from various SS men. Countless people came away from that with blackened and swollen eyes. ... we were led to the large square and had to stand there from 10 in the morning to half past 12 o’clock at night. It was cold (those who arrived after us did not receive caps and so their shorn heads froze). The standing was dreadful. During this time SS men always went around the sections and beat one or the other person dreadfully. The manner of treatment was bestial. ... We had to suffer from the cold above all, and especially those who were already suffering when they were admitted; most of them have already died meanwhile and more will die. ... After various terrible cases became known, nobody in the camp has the confidence to report to the Revier [sick bay], i.e., the doctor." Arthur Berg, Testimony: Transcript, 22 November 1938. Doc * [B65],translated from the German by the Wiener Library, http://wienerlibrarycollections.co.uk/novemberpogrom/testimonies-and-reports/b51-b100/b.67, 2016.
"The worst sadist appears to be the deputy of the Lagerkommandant [camp commandant]. He approached a troop of newly arrived Jews from behind. He gave one of them, who seemingly had not stood completely still, a horrible punch. The man fell down, was perhaps unconscious and could not get up. Thereupon the Kommandant's deputy trampled around on the man, and when he still did not get up, had him laid on the Bock [whipping block] and whipped with the bullwhip. After that the man was certainly unconscious. (The worst punishment in and of itself is the frequent threat of whipping the naked body. And everyone has utter dread of that.)" Unknown, Testimony: Transcript, 21 November 1938. Doc * [B69],translated from the German by the Wiener Library, http://wienerlibrarycollections.co.uk/novemberpogrom/testimonies-and-reports/b51-b100/b.69, 2016.
"Releases occurred according to the following considerations: * People aged over 60, though not all of them, only some. * People who had finalised their emigration and who would be allowed to leave Germany within a short deadline. * People who had been recorded as essential for performing business sales * (This was, however, only in the final days before my own release) People of special merit and the wounded of the World War. Upon release, emigrants were made aware of the fact that they and their families would be in a concentration camp for life if they were ever seen on German soil again. The emigration of Bavarian prisoners was ‘eased’ by the fact that the appropriate notary came to Dachau with a Party lawyer, and all of those who possessed property, businesses and suchlike had to give full authority to the lawyer to sell these at the best possible rate, so that any effort needed for the elimination of their property was removed from them." Unknown, Report to Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities: Transcript, 19 December 1938. Doc * [B184],translated from the German by the Wiener Library, http://wienerlibrarycollections.co.uk/novemberpogrom/testimonies-and-reports/b151-b200/b.184?searchterms=dachau+releases+occurred, 2016.
"I remember one incident in which a Jew with a fever of 40 degrees had to appear at an Appell in these circumstances with pieces of wood that he had tied under his feet. There were 13,000 Jews and 4,500 Aryans in the camp. The oldest were 84 and 87 years old. 40 people died on one day." Unknown, nd: Transcript. Doc * [B227],translated from the German by the Wiener Library, http://wienerlibrarycollections.co.uk/novemberpogrom/testimonies-and-reports/b201-b250/b.227?searchterms=Dachau+tied+feet, 2016.
"The situation with the latrines was particularly bad, they were simply dug out pits over which wide bars had been laid. More than once people drowned in the latrine. I also saw an SS man push a Jew in." Dr Willy Schiller, Syndics [Counsel], Hindenburg, Upper Silesia: Transcript, nd. Doc * [B193],translated from the German by the Wiener Library, http://wienerlibrarycollections.co.uk/novemberpogrom/testimonies-and-reports/b151-b200/b.193?searchterms=Dachau+latrines+pits, 2016.
"Dawn was breaking ... One had to report for Appell [roll call] again. At 9 o’clock there was some coffee and a small piece of mouldy bread; and then something else happened, which bears witness to the subhuman nature of the SS. From 9 o’clock in the morning until 7 o’clock in the evening they had us sit on the wet, soggy ground, legs crossed. Being excused to relieve ourselves was forbidden. One simply had to do it in one‘s trousers. No lavatories were in place and so-called latrines were only set up after a few days. There was no water for washing either. During imprisonment one was therefore forced not to wash and one had no other clothes either, so that one never got out of one’s clothes for the whole period of one’s imprisonment. The result of these appalling conditions can be vividly imagined. At 8 o’clock one was again chased into one‘s barrack, and the same sad scenes as during the night of Sunday to Monday were repeated. ... Some people were dragged by the SS into the so-called washhouse, which in reality resembled a torture chamber where people were simply tortured and bullied to death." Unknown: Transcript, nd. Doc * [B213],translated from the German by the Wiener Library, http://wienerlibrarycollections.co.uk/novemberpogrom/testimonies-and-reports/b201-b250/b.213?searchterms=dachau+mouldy+coffee, 2016.
The war years
As the war years progressed, although Jews were not directly the first targets for imprisonment in Dachau, there is general agreement among historians that they were treated the worst.
Once the mass killings across the Reich territories got underway in 1942, Jews were sent from Dachau to extermination camps across occupied Poland, but many thousands had died here from starvation and maltreatment long before that more systematic state murder got underway.
Just over a year after our fathers and grandfathers were released and found safe haven in Kitchener, for example, between September and December 1940 alone, more than one thousand prisoners died in Dachau. The ill and dying from many other camps were now being sent here in large numbers: “Yellow skeletons with big, sad eyes. They looked at us” (Adam Kozlowiecki, a polish priest who was himself a prisoner in Dachau, quoted in Wachsmann 2016, p. 244).
Heinrich Himmler visit the camp in January 1941. Concluding that this level of disease and dirt was not what he expected of the KZ system, he ordered the systematic murder of thousands of work-weakened and ill prisoners. The sick, those with disabilities, and the dying were ‘selected’ in peremptory fashion (“in less than three minutes”), and within months they were sent to one of a number of death camps, where they were gassed (Wachsmann 2016, pp. 244-248).
In Dachau, between 1933 and 1945, around 40,000 prisoners died or were killed (Wachsmann 2016, p. 5).
After the war, Dachau was used as the site for trials of German war criminals, and there is considerable documentation of this period in the International Tracing Service database.
For further information on the origins and history of Dachau, see information held on the Yad Vashem website, extracted in PDF form here – Dachau_YadVashem.
There is some information about Buchenwald here; in due course, I will also add information about the other main camp (Sachsenhausen) to which men were sent in the context of Kitchener camp.
Editor: Clare Weissenberg
For an overview of the wider concentration camp system throughout the war years, see the following CIA document on ‘German Concentration Camps’: