Buchenwald, with its many ancillary camps, was one of the largest concentration camps established by the Nazis, according to the Holocaust Encyclopedia.
The camp opened in July 1937, about 8 kilometers north-west of Weimar in central-eastern Germany. The prisoners were confined in the northern part of the camp (the “main camp”), while the guards’ barracks and the camp administration were located in the southern part. The main camp was surrounded by an electric barbed wire fence, watchtowers and sentries armed with machine guns.
SS soldiers often shot prisoners in the stables or hung them in the crematorium area.
The camp’s first inhabitants were political prisoners, but in November 1938, after Kristallnacht, the German SS and police authorities deported nearly 10,000 Jewish men to Buchenwald, where the staff treated them with extreme cruelty. They also brought in criminals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma and Sinti peoples, and German military deserters. Later, prisoners of war from many nations (including the United States), resistance fighters, and former government officials from occupied countries were also brought here.
From 1941 onwards, several doctors and scientists carried out medical experiments on prisoners at Buchenwald, mainly in relation to infectious diseases, killing hundreds of people.
The complex also became an important source of labor for the German war effort.
In 1942, for example, the Gustloff company set up a sub-unit adjacent to the camp to support its arms factory, and SS authorities and company managers (both public and private) employed prisoners in at least 88 facilities, mainly arms factories, quarries and construction sites. The prison population grew rapidly, reaching 112,000 by February 1945.
SS personnel periodically “sorted” and sent those too weak to work to the so-called euthanasia centers, where they were killed with poison gas.
In Buchenwald, doctors also used phenol injections to kill people unable to work.
As Soviet forces swept across Poland, the Germans evacuated thousands of prisoners from concentration camps. After a long, brutal march, more than 10,000 Auschwitz and Gross-Rosen prisoners, mostly of Jewish origin, arrived in Buchenwald in January 1945. In early April 1945, at the news of the approach of American troops, the Germans evacuated some 30,000 people from here too, about a third of whom were either killed by exhaustion or shot by SS officers. The secret resistance movement of the Buchenwald camp inhabitants, however, saved many lives by preventing the execution of Nazi orders and delaying the evacuation.
On April 11, 1945, in the hope of forthcoming help, the starving prisoners stormed the watchtowers and took control.
The US 6th Armored Division soldiers occupied the area that same day and liberated its more than 21,000 prisoners.
Between July 1937 and April 1945, the SS interned some 250,000 people from all over Europe in Buchenwald, but as the camp authorities did not keep accurate records, the number of victims can only be estimated. The SS killed 56,000 male prisoners, about 11,000 of whom were Jews.