10 August 2010
Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg was a major concentration camp used by the Nazi regime from 1936 through to Soviet liberation in 1945, the Soviets then used it as a NKVD Special Camp until 1950. In 1956 the East German (DDR) government set up a national memorial on the site giving emphasis to political resistance (Against Fascism). In the 1990’s following German reunification the camp was entrusted to a foundation which established a museum on the site, over time this has been expanded to provide the vast amount of information available today.
The camp is easy to reach via train from Berlin (Catch the S1 to Oranienburg) which takes approximately one hour. I highly recommend renting an audio guide as written information is minimal, give yourself a full day to take everything in and bring your own food and drink.
The Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp is infamous for being architecturally designed as a ‘model’ concentration camp which other Nazi camps could follow. The perimeter follows an equilateral triangle shape which was intended to allow it to be fully covered by one tower armed with a machine gun. In practice they found that other guard towers needed to be erected and as the prisoner numbers grew it was not easy to expand the camp within the initial architectural framework. However from the Nazi perspective it was a very secure camp which resulted in hardly any successful escape attempts. The perimeter consisted of a three metre high stone wall inside of which was a fatal electric fence and in front of the electric fence was a gravel ‘death strip’. Officers were instructed to ‘shoot to kill’ any prisoners without warning who stepped onto the strip; guards were even rewarded for successfully shootings.
The Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp was used as a ‘training camp’ for SS officers who would later be sent to other concentration camps. On the audio guide and in written statements there are various accounts of inhumane cruelty and murder which was commonplace in the camp; these were the officers who were then spread throughout the European Nazi concentration camp system and committed the atrocities we now know of.
The Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp was not designed as an ‘extermination camp’ but the SS did practice methods of mass killings which were later implemented in other camps. I heard accounts of loading a van up with prisoners, feeding the exhaust fumes into the sealed back and driving around until all the inmates were dead from carbon monoxide poisoning. They setup a room with a measuring ruler against a wall and inmates were asked to stand against the wall under the notion that they were being measured for clothing, they were then shot in the back of the neck through a small hole from the other room. 10,000 Red Army POW’s were executed near the end of the war in this way. A specific trench was setup for shooting and hanging prisoners. In 1943 gas chambers and a crematorium were established.
The Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp was the location of the largest known counterfeiting operation in history. There is an Academy awarded 2007 film titled ‘The Counterfeiters’ which fictionalises this aspect of the camps history. Essentially prisoners with special skills were housed and tasked with the replication of British and American bank notes with the intention of flooding the market and undermining the British and American national economies.
With the end of the war nigh and the Red Army approaching 33,000 prisoners were evacuated from the camp and force marched by the SS Northeast. These prisoners were malnourished, maltreated and exhausted; it is referred to as the ‘death march’ and thousands didn’t survive. When the Red Army liberated the Sachsenhausen camp on April 22, 1945, they only found the three thousand odd prisoners who were too old, too sick or too weak for the SS to bother trying to march out; and no doubt just those that they couldn’t find the time to kill.
It is a place with a horrific history and occasionally I get asked why I wanted to visit, or why I will always recommend others visit too. I remember as a young lad my father trying to teach me some history, no doubt I found it boring but I remember him saying that history has an unfortunate habit of repeating itself. Knowledge and understanding of history is the best way we can stop historical atrocities being repeated today.
Food for thought: Nazi students burnt books in Berlin, one of the books burnt was by the German writer Heinrich Heine where in is 1821 play ‘Almansor’ he wrote “Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings.” This is quoted on the memorial to the books burnt in Berlin which you can see photos of on my post on Backpacking Berlin.
Heinrich Heine’s quotation was referring to the burning of the Muslim holy book (the Qur’an) during the Spanish Inquisition. Unfortunately a few days ago a traveller I met in Krakow (Poland) referred me to the following CNN link where Christian extremists in America want to hold an annual burning of the Qur’an day on the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “Pastor says armed militia to protect church during Quran-burning event”