Go ahead and doubt it. Dachau? The poster boy for Nazi atrocities? Innocent? Misunderstood? You are certainly wondering what I am smoking, aren’t you? Well, the last time I smoked anything at all was a very long time ago. So, no, that isn’t it.
I do mean exactly what I say. Dachau has gotten a bad rap. Dachau was not an Auschwitz, nor was it a Bergen-Belsen.
“Ach du lieber!” you are saying, “Ziss guy iss a holocaust denier!”
If I was, I wouldn’t have all kinds of trepidations about posting this. But, having found out what I found out, I feel obligated to relate it to the wider world. This post is the first of my attempts to do so. Please bear with me, be at least a little open-minded, and trust that I have, in fact, looked quite carefully into this and that what I relate here is essentially the truth of the matter.
If you follow that link you will find that it discusses one of the blights on modern human history, the concentration camp at Dachau, in Bavaria just northwest of Munich.
Did I stumble upon a denier site? Or was it a straight-shooting site?
I remember when I was starting my research on my historical novel about some evacuees from Dachau and first ran across scrapbookpages.com. There were a lot of links, and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. But then I saw one page that talked about something nasty that U.S. GIs had done there, and I immediately recoiled, thinking, “Ah, shit, it’s a denier or neo-nazi site!” That sucked because the earlier pages I’d read seemed to really have their shit together.
(Comment: Pardon the French, but that is the way real people talk, and if you the reader/visitor haven’t heard four-letter words before, you need to get a life and join the real world, methinks.)
So, knowing that part of the subject of my book was going to possibly bring some people’s ire down on me, I thought I would avoid the site in the future.
But then, another site (I think it was off Google Earth somewhere), one with links to many authorized Holocaust links listed, listed scrapbookpages.com and said it was a very thorough and extensive source for solid material. That got me to reconsider it, and I went back and read quite a bit more.
I did have to admit that the site had a lot of info, and it seemed, on second look, to have a pretty neutral position telling of nasty things the Nazis did, and not shying away from things that reflected poorly on the Allies, too. As I read more, I was a bit exasperated at their being a lack of footnotes/sources cited, or very many links. I eventually decided to write the site’s contact email and suggest footnotes and more links. The site’s manager and author explained to me the reasons and pointed out that in quite a few instances sources were mentioned within the text of the pages. The manager said that with over 1,000 pages within the site, it would be a monumental task to footnote every fact presented. My arguments that it would lend credence to the site was rebuffed, but gently. So, the site is what it is.
That first contact became an ongoing exchange, with me asking questions and occasionally throwing a new factoid at the site author, and the author offering many a tip and generously answering my questions, frankly and usually with links to sub-pages I’d not found.
My focus was not on the Dachau KZ (Konzentrationslager) Camp, but on the individuals in my story. My story more or less begins in the Dachau KZ Camp, so I did need to know as much as possible about it, in order to write intelligently about it. Toward that end, every tidbit could be something to add reality to my story.
I was under the distinct impression throughout my life that Dachau’s concentration camp was an extermination camp.
I was literally shocked to find out this is not the case.
I need to spell that out clearly: DACHAU KZ WAS NOT A DEATH CAMP.
If that flies in the face of all you think you know about Dachau, I ask you to not declare me to have been taken over by the Dark Side, and please do not think I am a Neo-Nazi or a Holocaust denier.
I am neither.
I am open to facts, and have found out over the years that the “facts” I’ve learned in several fields turned out not to be so factual, after all. That said, the Holocaust is something that people tread VERY carefully around. No one – including me – wants to EVER be labeled a Holocaust denier.
All that being the case, I decided I MUST tread lightly and be very suspect about any facts that came my way – and that approach would have to included facts that fly in the face of everything we all “think we know.” I am an out-of-the-box thinker, as anyone who knows me is aware of . But I also do not want to burn any bridges with my book that preclude me from having a possible career as a writer.
So, some of the facts that will make their way into my book may be controversial. I hope that is not the case, however.
And if the facts do bring controversy, I will know I have used solid ones, ones I can substantiate and ones about which I have been able to document my sources. (In this post I will not, though, list my sources. I am just broaching the subject, for now.
So, now you know that my research has shown that Dachau was not a Death Camp. If not that, then what was it?
Dachau KZ was a Labor Camp. ALL the camps within contiguous Germany were, first and foremost, labor camps. Slave labor was a huge part of the German war economy. Slave laborers may not be the most efficient workers, but dead laborers are as inefficient as you can get – nothing is less than 0%, after all. There was a definite effort to keep workers alive, albeit on starvation rations. With a ready supply of laborers, it was not thought too important to feed them too well, since many of the jobs could be filled fairly readily. At least in the main labor camps there were medical facilities for keeping the workers working. I cannot say that this was true for a fact in the sub-camps, as information on sub-camps is very hard to find. My guess is that some had them and some didn’t. Dachau KZ did have a sizable medical effort. Prisoners did get treated for illnesses, some of them quite severe.
Dachau KZ was also the main camp for nearly 200 sub-camps, all of which were labor camps as far as I have been able to learn (with the possible exception of Hartheim castle, which essentially was a death camp, the only one under Dachau as far as I’ve been able to discover.) Many of the sub-camps made parts for the V-1, V-2 and their jet plane program (there are a LOT of parts in jet planes and rockets).
DID they kill people at Dachau?
Absolutely. But nothing on a scale to match the camps in Poland and the East. I thought it was a misprint when I read that about 31,000 people died at Dachau KZ in its 12 year history. As a portion of 6 million, that is a very small number. I thought someone was pulling my leg. But it turned out to be essentially true. They kept pretty thorough records, and those records survived. Yes, the 31,000 sounds terrible by any comparisons except the Nazi death camps. But the number who died was not the umber killed, not by a long shot.
The Great Dachau Epidemic of 1944-1945
There was a typhus epidemic from November 1944 until May of 1945. It actually did not end until a month after the liberation of the camp (April 29, 1945). That one epidemic killed over 15,000. Basically half of all who died at Dachau in its 12 years died in the last 7 months. And there wasn’t much they could do to stem the tide on that epidemic, because supplies became almost non-existent in that period.
Overcrowded with Evacuees from Other Camps
Totally exacerbating the problem of disease was the fact that Dachau was the “end of the line” for the KZ camps as the war wound down. As the Allies invaded, the northerly camps were all evacuated, in a bucket brigade kind of way. Evacuees went sent from camp to camp to get them further away from the front lines. The last one in the line was Dachau, and it absorbed them as well as it could, given that they had no medicines, almost no food, and no fuel. How many came to Dachau KZ? There were over 30,000 present at its liberation, and it was only designed for 5,000, which was its normal complement of prisoners. This number does not even include the several thousand who were evacuated to the south in what are known as the Dachau Death Marches. Even Dachau was being evacuated, but that was only partially possible because the Americans advanced so quickly as Germany collapsed.
The overcrowding was incredible, with thousands of people sleeping outside, in make-do shelters. The arrivals came not only from the north, though. The typhus arrived with a shipment of evacuees from the Balkans. More than 14,000 prisoners arrived just in March and April of 1945, the last two months before liberation.
“Bodies Stacked Like Cordwood”
So, what about the bodies stacked in the crematorium? Weren’t there many thousands of them? First of all, they couldn’t cremate anyone for months before the liberation, due to a lack of fuel. Burning the bodies was the best way to stem the tide of disease, and they would have done so, if they could. Those bodies that so offended the American GIs would not have been there hd there been enough fuel.
The “Death Train”
There was another, much larger, batch of skeletal bodies that aggrieved the GIs. Those actually were the first things one of the groups of GIs saw upon arrival, since they approached the camp from the northwest and along the NW wall was exactly where there was a trainload of cars, some open gondolas and some boxcars, with about 2,000 bodies (accounts vary from 760 to 2,500). These are prisoners who had never even seen the inside of Dachau KZ before they died. The train had come from Buchenwald, and had taken 27 days to make the 200 mile journey, in mostly freezing weather (it had been a very cold spring). One account from a prisoner said that 1,300 prisoners from that train had been counted as they entered the Main Gate. So, basically about 2/3 of the arriving evacuees on that train died on the way or were too weak to walk the half mile to the prisoner’s compound.
The pertinent fact is that the dead were not dead from what happened to them at Dachau, yet it is Dachau which has always borne the blame for their deaths, both at the time and until the present day. Dachau KZ received all the living prisoners into its walls. It did not kill the people on the Death Train.
Because of the circumstances those GIs who saw it had a terrible time controlling their emotions. They misunderstood both the overall situation – overcrowding, typhus, almost no supplies or food, and one train that arrived with many dead on it who could not be burned or buried fast enough – and concluded that Dachau KZ SS guards had done heinous things to the dead found there.
Murders at Dachau
Besides those who were killed at Hartheim Castle (2,100 mentally handicapped and crippled) near Linz, in Austria, who had been sent there from Dachau, some unknown number of prisoners, mostly Soviets, had been taken to an area NE of the camp and shot over the course of the war. The number is certainly in the thousands, but how many is speculation. Some records remain attesting to a few hundred here and there. It is alleged that many, many were shot without documenting the murders, and there is little or no reason to doubt that it is essentially true.
Individuals and small groups of people also are documented to have been executed. With about 16,000 who died at the camp between March 1933 and November 1944, the documented deaths averaged about 1300 per year, about 25 per week. How many of those were from disease or natural causes or from starvation, and how many were executed is not known exactly, and the estimates vary widely.
For my part, I look at the record of Dachau and conclude that it was relatively clean compared to the death camps, and yet worse than the American prison at Guantanamo. The author of the scrapbookpages.com site differs with me on this, concluding that Dachau was not as bad as Guantanamo, and we agree to disagree on that. The scrapbookpages.com author is much more widely read on the subject than I am. The author has a degree in journalism from the best journalism school in the U.S., so my credentials (none except what I have read and assimilated) are next to non-existent by comparison. I am convinced that the author’s intent is to furnish a balanced and factual reporting of Dachau KZ, letting the chips fall where they may, with some violent actions of some of the Americans thrown right in with the severe treatment the SS guards laid in the prisoners and the generally very harsh conditions the prisoners had to endure.
All in all, I can say with a straight face that Dachau was not the heinous camp that Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen and other death camps were. It does not deserve what history has laid at its feet. It was a “perfect storm” of events and misinterpretations of what was seen by American GIs, reporters, Generals, and politicians shortly after the war ended that assigned guilt for which the Dachau camp wasn’t culpable. Dachau then became part of the P.R. campaign to more or less demonize the Germans. Most of that demonization was absolutely warranted, with the SS, the death camps, the Nazis’ extermination campaign and mass executions in the East. One singular place that didn’t deserve such a reputation was Dachau. It deserved a bad reputation, but not the degree that has been laid at its door for all these years.