Dachau Sign with Troops

Dachau was the only concentration camp that existed for the full 12 years of the National Socialist regime. During this period the number and composition of the prisoners changed fundamentally, as did the living conditions and chances for survival. On January 30, 1933 Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party assumed power in Germany. Shortly thereafter, at a press conference on March 20, 1933, Heinrich Himmler, then the Munich police president, announced the establishment of a concentration camp at Dachau. The camp was located in an abandoned munitions factory from the First World War, in Dachau, near Munich and which had a capacity to hold 5,000 prisoners. This was initially envisaged to serve as a holding centre for political opponents of the regime.

The first 100 'protective custody' prisoners, who arrived on March 22, were Communists. The first Jewish prisoners were also arrested as political prisoners. At first the prisoners were guarded by the Bavarian State Police. When the SS took over the camp on April 11, 1933, there began a campaign of terror from which the prisoners had no protection. The SS guards' hatred was directed in particular against Jewish prisoners. By the end of May 12, inmates had been either tortured to death or driven to commit suicide.

In June 1933, Heinrich Himmler, who was now Reichsführer of the SS, named SS-Oberführer  Theodor Eicke as commandant of Dachau. Eicke instituted an organisational scheme that included detailed regulations and instructions that were adopted later in all other concentration camps. His 'Disciplinary and Punishment Orders for the Prison Camps,' regulated methods of torture to be used as punishment, including methods of execution. Under Eicke's stewardship, Dachau became a 'School of Violence,' and a model for all concentration camps, established afterward.

Numerous groups of visitors were shown a staged demonstration of the supposed re-education of political prisoners. In the first few years numerous reports about the camp appeared in the German press. Even international delegations were fooled by the façade. Eicke divided the camps' administration into the commandant's headquarters, the commandant's adjutant, an SS guard detachment, the protective custody camp, the medical department, and the political department, as well as an administration unit for the commercial facilities.

In May 1934, Eicke began directing the creation of the Inspectorate of Concentration Camps, RFSS (IKL -RFSS), of which he became chief in 1939. Altogether there were seven commandants of Dachau Concentration Camp:

Hilmar Wackerle - April -June 1933 - Born 24 November 1899, Forcheim - Died 2 July 1941, near Lemberg

Theodor Eicke - June 1933 - July 1934 - Born 17 October 1892, Hudingen - Died 26 February 1943, Orelka, Russia

Heinrich Deubel - December 1934 - March 1936 - Born 19 February 1890, Ortemburg - Died 2 October 1962

Hans Loritz - April 1936 - July 1939 - Born 21 December 1895, Augsburg - Committed Suicide 31 January 1946

Alex Piorkowski - February 1940 - September 1942 - Born 11 October 1904, Bremen - Executed in Landsberg on October 22, 1948

Martin Weiss - September 1942 - November 1943 - Born 3 June 1905, Weiden.- Executed in Landsberg on 29 May 1946

Eduard Weiter -  November 1943 - April 1945 - Born 18 July 1889, Eschweg - Died 6 May 1945

eicke death notice -lemberger zeitung

Eicke's Death Notice - Lemberger Zeitung 9 March 1943

The first prisoners in Dachau established their accommodation in a single-storey stone barrack, along with supply facilities and a so-called 'Bunker,' the camp prison, in which the SS guards tortured individual prisoners to death or drove them to commit suicide. Workshops were established in the empty factory buildings, in which the prisoners worked as required by the SS. The SS originally intended that the prisoners would cultivate the surrounding moors, but the plan only reached partial fruition. In some work detachments, such as the feared gravel pit, the prisoners, which mostly consisted of Jews - were worked to death, or shot 'whilst trying to escape.'

The lives of the prisoners were regulated by a strict military code. The SS guarded the camp and the work detachments while the prisoners organised the supplies for the camp, the daily life in the camp with its roll calls, meals, and even the work. Gradually a hierarchy developed in the camp population, which became increasingly important among various national groups over the course of the war. The SS took pains to ensure that the prisoner -functionaries operated as spies and became the instruments of their crimes. Political prisoners in Dachau held the most important positions during its 12-year lifespan. Overwhelmingly, they tried to support their fellow prisoners against the SS.

After the political prisoners, Jehovah's Witnesses arrived in Dachau at the end of 1933. They were followed during the 1930's by the so-called 'work-shy' criminals who had served their prison terms. Other groups such as 'Gypsies,' homosexuals and others who for various reasons did not fit in with the National Socialists way of thinking. From 1937, onwards the prisoners wore striped prisoner clothing, to which a camp number was affixed, as well as a triangle, whose colour identified the category to which they belonged to. Jews were marked with the yellow star.

During 1937 and 1938, the prisoners constructed a completely new camp, whose 250 by 600 meter layout included in part the old camp. 30 of the 34 wooden barracks were used to hold the prisoners. They were called blocks and were divided into four sections, each of which held 52 men. A supply building was constructed as well as a new camp prison, with 134 single cells and an entrance building whose gate bore the inscription ' Work Will Make You Free.' Seven watchtowers outfitted with machine guns, a tall wall topped with electrified barbed wire, as well the so-called barrier, a strip of grass on which the prisoners were forbidden to enter on pain of death, which were supposed to make escape impossible. Once construction on the new camp was completed, the prisoners were compelled to prepare a plot of land to the east of the wall for the planting of a herb garden. This area was ready in 1939, and was incorporated into the SS - German Experimental Institute for Nutrition and Provisions Ltd.

Following the annexation of Austria in the spring of 1938, the first non-German prisoners arrived in Dachau,, these were Austrians. In addition to Jews, there were numerous prominent politicians of various political persuasions. Then, following the Kristallnacht pogrom which took place on November 9-10, 1938, more than 11,000 Jewish men from Germany and Austria were incarcerated in Dachau Concentration Camp. Most of them were released after a few weeks, on the condition that they left Germany, with their possessions seized. Until 1938, the number of prisoners fluctuated between 2,000 and 2,500 annually. Following the arrival of the Austrians in 1938, the number jumped to 6,000, and after the arrival of the Jews arrested after Kristallnacht in late 1938, the population jumped to 14,232. By the beginning of the Second World War, approximately 500 inmates had lost their lives in Dachau Concentration Camp.

At the end of September 1939, the concentration camp was cleared until February 1940, for the training of the SS-Totenkopf Division and the concentration camp prisoners were transferred to other camps such as, Buchenwald, Flossenburg and, Mauthausen. With this development saw the end of its pre-war history, as an instrument of Nazi terror, used against German political opponents, and then those that  'did not fin in.'  The prisoners in this first phase had been subjected to arbitrary ill-treatment by their guards, but as yet there had been no mass murders, no epidemics, to which thousands had died, and no deaths by starvation. The majority of the prisoners still clung to the hope that one day, they would leave the concentration camp alive.

With the advent of the Second World War, the exploitation of concentration camp labour assumed greater significance. The SS established its own commercial enterprises in Dachau, later known as the Deutsche Ausrustungswerke (German Equipment Works). The herb gardens were expanded. Many prisoners died during this phase of expansions. The prisoners' rations deteriorated dramatically during 1941 and 1942, and the death rate rose dramatically. The first epidemics broke out, with tuberculosis becoming the most common illness. At the same time, the number of punishments increased , including the infamous so-called post or tree-hangings. Both of these torture methods could result in permanent injuries or death to those who tortured thus. 

The composition of the inmate population changed continually throughout the war. From March 1940, to the end of the year, 13,377 Poles were forcibly taken to Dachau. They remained the largest national group until the liberation. Also, among the clergy who arrived in Dachau from all the other concentration camps, the Poles were the majority. The first Soviet prisoners, mostly young men, who had volunteered for work in Germany, arrived in the autumn of 1941. They remained the second largest group until 1943. In addition, from August 1941, to the middle of June 1942, some 4,000 Soviet Prisoners of War (POW's) from various POW camps were shot in Dachau.

As for the nations of Western Europe overrun by the Germans, initially only individual prisoners or small groups were sent to Dachau. In 1942, Yugoslav partisans began to arrive. They, like the veterans of the Spanish Civil War, were highly regarded by their fellow prisoners, because of their solidarity and their courageous attitude in the camp. The number of Jews was relatively small, after the release of the vast majority of them following the Kristallnacht influx. In November 1941, the order was given that all Jewish prisoners in camps in the 'Old Reich' were to be deported to Auschwitz. Only from the spring of 1944 onwards, were Jewish prisoners again sent in large numbers to the Dachau sub-camps.

From the spring of 1941, onwards, inmates in concentration camps were included in the so-called euthanasia programme, which had been aimed primarily at murdering the mentally ill and the handicapped. In September 1941, a medical team headed by Professor Werner Heyde arrived in Dachau under the code name 'Aktion 14F13'. A number of psychiatrists sat in the open with tables and carried out a selection. Those found incapable of working were eventually sent in a so-called invalid transport to Hartheim Castle, near Linz, in Austria, where they were gassed on arrival. During the course of that year, 2524 Dachau inmates were gassed in Hartheim. In addition from the autumn of 1942, sick prisoners who did not recover within three months were murdered in the camp by SS doctors or prisoner-functionaries, using lethal injections.

Medical care for the inmates in Dachau was completely inadequate. The SS doctors had no interest in healing the sick, who therefore avoided the infirmary for as long as possible. From 1941, onwards, the prisoners feared that they might be used in gruesome medical experiments there. In the spring of 1942, Luftwaffe physician Doctor Sigmund Rascher received permission from RFSS Heinrich Himmler to investigate, using prisoners, the stresses that Luftwaffe pilots were exposed to during aircraft crashes or parachute jumps. Of the approximately 200 prisoners placed in a pressurised chamber, in which they were exposed to sudden and painful drops in air pressure, at least 70 to 80 people lost their lives. From the middle of August until October 1942, experiments were carried out in co-operation with the Luftwaffe entailing immersion in freezing water, in an effort to find out if pilots who ditched in the water could be saved. Doctor Rascher directed the experiments, with the support of Himmler until May 1943. According to eyewitness statements, between 80 and 90 people died out of 360 to 400 prisoners used during these experiments.

From February 1942, to March 1945, Professor Doctor Claus Schilling, the renowned researcher of tropical diseases, infected approximately 1,100 prisoners with malaria, although it was not possible to determine the number of victims as the 'test-patients' were released back into the camp, after the experiments had taken place. In addition Sinti and Roma Gypsies were the subject of experiments in the conversion of sea-water to drinking water, as well as the effectiveness of a blood coagulation agent. Some prisoners were artificially subjected to septicaemia and phlegmone so that the effect of various treatments could be tested on them.

During the war, the infirmary, which the SS avoided for fear of infection, developed into the most important centre for international solidarity and clandestine support for ill and endangered prisoners, next to the work detachments in the record office and the work allocation office. Open resistance was impossible under the conditions in the concentration camp. The secret distribution of news about the course of the war, strengthened the inmates resolve, as did music, literature, or the arts, but those were only available to a limited circle of prisoners.

As the number of dead climbed ever higher, a crematorium with one oven was constructed on the west side of the camp compound, close to the camps' prison, in the summer of 1940. From May 1941, onwards, prisoners deaths were recorded in the camp's own death register. Construction of a new crematorium with four ovens  and a gas chamber began in the spring of 1942. From the spring of 1943, the dead were cremated in this new facility. The gas chamber was not used for mass killings.

During March 1942, the IKL became part of the recently established SS-Business Administration Main Office (WVHA), which attempted to improve the inmates living conditions in order to reduce the death rates and so obtain more output, but these improvements, such as additional food, reached only a limited number of prisoners. The expansion of the Dachau camp complex during 1943, began with the establishment of sub-camps at large production sites. The SS hired out the prisoners to Messerschmidt, Dornier, and Bayerische Motoren Werke (BMW). Prisoners who fell sick were returned to the main camp.

The majority of the Dachau sub-camps were established however, during the course of 1944 and the beginning of 1945. The largest project was the relocation of fighter-plane production into camouflaged underground factories in order to protect the industry from Allied bombing raids. In early 1944, the German authorities planned the creation of a new 'Jagerstab' (Fighter Staff) administrative complex, including representatives from the armaments industry, the SS, and the Armaments Ministry for the Dachau region, to be housed in three underground bunkers located in Landsberg am Lech and in Muhldorf am Inn. Some eleven camps were located near Landsberg and four camps near Muhldorf, to which some 39,000 prisoners were brought. The vast majority of these prisoners were Jewish. Their living and working conditions were by far the worst in comparison to other sub-camps under Dachau Main Camp's control. One estimate claims that half of these prisoners lost their lives in the 10 months they were there. Also, in both Landsberg and Kaufering, there were camps for women, in which primarily Hungarian Jews were held.

According to a clandestine report by Polish born camp recorder Jan Domagla, 78,635 prisoners were registered in 1944, that is 38 per cent of the total of 206, 206 who entered the camp between 1933 and 1944. The majority of transports, each with several thousand prisoners from Eastern and Western Europe, arrived in the early summer of 1944. Poles, Hungarian Jews, French resistance fighters - many of which were deported under the 'Night and Fog' (Nacht und Nebel) decree. Soviet forced labourers and Italian Prisoners of War formed the largest national groups. By the spring of 1945, there were prisoners in Dachau from 37 countries, several of which were represented by only 1 prisoner.

During the last months before liberation, the camp was catastrophically overcrowded, due to the constantly arriving transports, from other camps that were evacuating ahead of advancing Allied forces. The food supply and hygienic conditions continually deteriorated. There were no medicines and in November 1944, a typhus epidemic broke out in which 3,000 prisoners died in January 1945, alone, and which cost the lives of approximately 15,000 prisoners before the liberation.

In the last days of April 1945, on Himmler's orders, the evacuation of the main camp and the sub-camps began. On April 26, 1945, 2,000 Jewish prisoners left the main camp by train, and 6,887 prisoners were forced to march in a southerly direction. Any prisoner who could not continue was shot and killed. Not until the first days of May were the last survivors of the march liberated by American troops, after the guards had fled. A group of 137 prominent hostages, including Leon Blum, the former French president, and Franz von Schussnigg, the former Austrian chancellor, was also transported in a southerly direction. They were handed over to the Allies in the Tirol on May 4, 1945, in good condition.

In Dachau Concentration Camp the SS personnel fled the camp on April 27 -28, and on the same day, a group of 20 -30 citizens from Dachau, together with a few prisoners who had fled from the camp, attempted to occupy Dachau's Rathaus. A retreating SS unit shot 6 of the 'insurgents,' which included 3 of the camp's prisoners.

The liberators from the 42nd and 45th Infantry Divisions of the US Seventh Army entered Dachau Concentration Camp on April 29, 1945, where they stumbled across a transport of several thousand corpses, before they reached the approximately 32,000 survivors. Several thousand dead lay on the camp grounds. More than 2,000 prisoners died in May 1945.

By 2002, the Red Cross International Tracing Service (ITS), put the number of deaths at the Dachau Concentration Camp at 32, 099, but that number should be increased to over 40,000, as the deaths of prisoners brought to Dachau for execution were never registered, and the deaths in the sub-camps and during the evacuation have never been precisely determined.

In July 1945, after the last survivors had left the Dachau Concentration Camp, the American military authorities established an internment camp for those suspected of involvement in war crimes and crimes against humanity. The first large military trial began on November 15, 1945, against 40 men accused of committing crimes in the Dachau Concentration Camp. This trial would serve as the model for subsequent trials; 36 of the accused were sentenced to death; 28 of them were executed in Landsberg prison. Further trials followed, up until 1948, dealing with crimes committed in Dachau and its sub-camps, and other concentration camps such as Buchenwald, Flossenburg, Mauthausen and Mittelbau. War Crimes Trials covering SS crimes against Allied soldiers were also held there. Altogether there were 489 trials in Dachau, with 1,672 accused. There were 462 death sentences, but not all were implemented. There were 256 acquittals. During the 1950's those sentenced to long terms of imprisonment had their sentences reduced or were released.  


Encyclopaedia of Camps and Ghettos 1933- 1945, USHMM, Indiana University Press Bloomington and Indianapolis 2012

French L. Maclean, The Camp Men, Schiffer  Publishing Ltd 1991

G. Reitlinger, The Final Solution, Vallentine Mitchell, London 1953

Photograph -Tall Trees Archives  

Newspaper Clipping - Chris Webb Archive

Wiener Library, London, UK

Brian Woods for inspiration

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