views updated May 21 2018



Dachau was the longest continually existing Nazi concentration camp. Of about 200,000 prisoners who were registered at the camp, more than 41,500 died there. Dachau attained especial notoriety as the camp where pseudo-medical experiments were conducted, where prominent prisoners were held, and where postwar trials took place.


The antecedents of the Dachau concentration camp date back to World War I. Prior to 1914 Dachau was a town of about five thousand residents located ten miles northwest of Munich. In 1915 the Bavarian government built a new munitions factory there because of the abundant supply of water. The nearly eight thousand munitions workers were demobilized in 1919 under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Many remained in the area, and in 1927 Dachau had the highest unemployment rate in Germany. In 1933—before Hitler became chancellor on 30 January—local officials requested that the Bavarian government set up a "militia or work conscription camp" on the abandoned factory grounds.

Heinrich Himmler (1900–1945), the head of Adolf Hitler's SS (Schutzstaffel), chose the Dachau munitions factory as the site of a prison camp to intern political opponents while the Nazis consolidated their power. (Such camps were anticipated in the Nazi constitution drafted for their November 1923 coup d'état attempt.) On 21 March 1933 newspapers announced that the next day a "protective custody camp" would be opened in Dachau. It could hold five thousand inmates, to include "all communist functionaries, and as necessary Reichsbanner [an organization of veterans that tried to curb the violence of the Nazi SA] and marxists" for "as long as necessary" to achieve the "pacification of the national populace."


Himmler's personal role in Dachau was crucial for the future of the Nazi concentration camp network. Initially Dachau was the only camp under SS control (the SA [Sturmabteilung] controlled other early camps). As the SS grew, it took over the entire camp system. Theodor Eicke (1892–1943), a World War I veteran Himmler named commandant in June 1933, became Inspector of the Concentration Camps in 1934. Eicke spread his system of organization with its draconian punishments to the entire camp system. He mentored Rudolf Höss, who became commandant of Auschwitz in 1940. A dozen camp commandants were trained in Dachau. Of Dachau's six main commandants, one was killed at the front, three committed suicide, and two were sentenced and executed after the war.


The early camps served to neutralize political opposition and utilized prisoner labor but mostly for make-work projects. Lethal violence was commonplace from the start. By the end of May 1933 a

Time periodNumber of deaths recorded by the Dachau campAdditional documented deathsTotals
March 1933–May 19381502,318
June–Nov. 193868
11 Nov. 1938–Feb. 1939243
Jan. –April 1939342
19412,576ca. 4,5009,546
19422,470(Soviet POWs)
Jan. –Aug. 19441,1542,9467,740
Sept. –Dec. 19443,640
Jan. –May 194515,3842,96618,350
Red Cross registered deaths not in col. 13,3093,309
YearNumber of branch campsApproximate total of inmates in new branch camps
Note: Most large branch camps continued to exist until 1945

dozen men had been tortured to death or murdered, with Jews being singled out for the most brutal treatment.

Dachau's inmate population rose from 2,000 to 2,600 by the end of 1933, then fell to 1,300 by the end of 1934. In early 1935 Himmler convinced Hitler to expand the camp system instead of dissolving it. Beginning in 1936 three camps were constructed with a design capacity of six to eight thousand inmates each. Dachau was completely rebuilt between January 1937 and August 1938. The prisoners' section was a 250-by-600-meter enclosure with thirty-four barracks and a service building, with a much larger compound for SS guards and troops in the adjacent munitions factory buildings. With the addition of two new categories of prisoner, "asocials" and "criminals," and the March 1938 annexation of Austria, the number of inmates rose to 3,500 by July 1938. The November 1938 Kristallnacht pogroms added 11,911 Jewish inmates to Dachau, so that 14,232 were imprisoned as of 1 December 1938. Large releases reduced the total to 3,300 to 3,900 after April 1939. From September 1939 to February 1940 all but about a hundred inmates were sent to other camps so that Dachau could be used to train SS combat troops.

During the war years the number of foreign inmates surpassed the number of Germans. Of the thirty-seven nations of origin represented in the camp, Poland had the largest total with about 35,000, followed by Russians and Hungarian Jews. In 1940 Dachau became the central camp for clergymen, with 2,720 ultimately registered. One barracks (later several more) housed the prisoner infirmary, others a camp store and library for German inmates. In the summer of 1940 a two-chamber crematory began operating in the camp. A much larger building with a gas chamber and an eight-chamber crematory was constructed between May 1942 and April 1943. Although there is no evidence that the gas chamber was used for the systematic mass murder for which it was designed, prisoner reports smuggled out at the time and testimony after the war indicate that experimental and test gassings were conducted there. Why was it never used for systematic gassings? Just as it was completed in 1943 prisoner labor for the war effort was given priority, then near the end of the war death by starvation and disease kept the eight ovens working at capacity.


In 1943 living conditions were improved so that inmates could contribute to the war effort. External sub-camps were set up to utilize prisoner labor at more distant locations. Of 188 total work detachments, only thirty were based in the main camp. Eleven of the external camps were for women only (on 24 November 1944, 5,044 women were registered). Thirteen of the external camps had 1,000 to 4,300 inmates; ninety-one had fifty or fewer. The BMW plant in Allach was one of the largest external labor camps, averaging 3,800 inmates from March 1943 until the end of the war. One inmate worked for the mayor of Dachau, and two for the mayor of Munich. On 22 April 1945 there were 27,649 prisoners registered in the main camp, 37,964 in subcamps. About 43,000 were categorized as political prisoners, 22,000 as Jews. At liberation some of the barracks, designed to accommodate 360 inmates, held nearly 2,000.

Doctors conducted lethal human experiments in Dachau. From February 1942 to April 1945 about a thousand inmates were infected with malaria, from April to August 1942 inmates were subjected to ultra-low air pressure, from August 1942 to May 1943 others were frozen in ice baths, and from July to September 1944 they were forced to drink seawater. An inmate brothel was set up in 1944.


Brutal punishments and a system of spies made prisoner resistance essentially impossible. However, political prisoners (mostly communists) managed to occupy most of the crucial administrative positions delegated to inmates. These included the labor detachment office and the infirmary, as well as the positions of barracks- and room-elders for most barracks. They used informal networks of personal trust to improve and save the lives of many inmates, especially in comparison with camps where criminals fulfilled the prisoners' administrative functions. There was also a network of clandestine radios, and prisoners participated in secret religious and cultural activities, such as the ordination of a priest and literary discussion groups. In the spring of 1945 prisoners in the various national groups came together to form an international camp leadership that took over the running of the camp after liberation. Survivors in this Comité International de Dachau fought to preserve the camp as a memorial site, and still participate in its administration.


On 26 April 1945, the SS began the evacuation of the camp with a march of 7,000 inmates, south toward Hitler's "Alpine redoubt" (which did not exist). On 28 April some escaped inmates joined with townspeople to take over city hall, but the uprising was put down by the camp's SS garrison. On 29 April the U.S. army's Forty-fifth and Forty-second Divisions arrived within hours of each other and liberated the camp, killing forty to fifty of the 560 surrendering SS men. Of the 3,000 corpses found in the camp, about 2,200 were added to a mass grave of 4,000 that the SS had started, and 700 to 800 were cremated. Another 2,200 who died after liberation were buried in the town cemetery.


In July 1945 the U.S. army used the prisoner and SS compounds to intern up to thirty thousand German suspects. From November 1945 to December 1947 eleven concentration camp and atrocity trials were conducted in Dachau. The last internees were released in August 1948. The Bavarian state took over the camp and converted it into a residential settlement for two thousand refugees from Eastern Europe. A museum set up in the large crematory building in 1945 was removed in May 1953, but re-established in 1960 after heavy lobbying by survivors. A memorial site with a much larger museum opened in 1965 after the last refugees were moved out. The museum was renovated and expanded from 1995 to 2003.

See alsoAuschwitz-Birkenau; Buchenwald; Concentration Camps; Holocaust.


Distel, Barbara, et al. The Dachau Concentration Camp, 1939 to 1945: Text and Photo Documents from the Exhibition. Munich, 2005. This richly illustrated catalog of the memorial site museum begins with four scholarly essays about the camp's history.

Kimmel, Günther. "Das Konzentrationslager Dachau." In Bayern in der NS-Zeit, edited by Martin Broszat, vol. 2, pp. 349–413. Munich, 1979. Scholarly overview.

Marcuse, Harold. Legacies of Dachau: The Uses and Abuses of a Concentration Camp, 1933–2001. New York, 2001. The most comprehensive account available in English.

Zámečník, Stanislav. Das war Dachau. Luxembourg, 2002. This meticulous historian-survivor's monograph is the most reliable scholarly work about the camp.

Harold Marcuse


views updated May 29 2018


DACHAU , town near Munich, Bavaria, where the nearby concentration camp was established on March 10, 1933. It was the first of the *ss-organized concentration camps and became the model and training ground for all other camps when they were taken over by the ss in April 1933. The Dachau camp was established within 40 days of Hitler's ascent to power; it operated

until the day before he died, less than ten days before the end of the war, when it was captured by the Americans on April 29, 1945. During World War ii, approximately 150 branches of the main camp established in southern Germany and Austria were also called "Dachau." The main camp consisted of 32 huts in two rows, surrounded by an electrified fence, in which there was a gate surmounted by the slogan Arbeit macht frei ("Labor Liberates"). The camp's first commandant was Theodor Eicke, who planned and organized the brutal Dachau regime. He later went on to become inspector general for all camps. It was at Dachau that permission was first given to the guards to shoot a prisoner approaching the barbed-wire fence, and this practice was encouraged by granting leave to guards who hit their target. Dachau produced commandants for other camps, including Rudolph *Hoess.

From the first, Dachau was used to incarcerate "enemies of the regime," trade unionists, and political opponents. The Nazis used Dachau as an execution site for the SA Storm Troopers caught in the 1934 purge. Later gypsies, German – and after 1938 Austrian – male homosexuals, and Jehovah's Witnesses were imprisoned there. As the Germans invaded countries, Dachau continued to serve a political function as political opponents were imprisoned there. The Jews who first came to Dachau were incarcerated for their opposition to the regime, not because they were Jewish. In fact, Jews were a distinct minority of the prisoners at Dachau though their percentage in the general population varied with the general conditions of Jews under the Third Reich. After the Anschluss (annexation) in March 1938, thousands of Austrian Jews were sent to Dachau. Eleven thousand were sent there from Germany and Austria in the wake of *Kristallnacht but nearly all of them were released if they could leave the country. No Jews were released, however, after the outbreak of World War ii. Late in the war, the Jewish population again increased when Dachau received Jews on the death marches. The exact number of those who passed through Dachau is unknown. In the main camp 160,000 prisoners were registered on the files and about 90,000 in the camp's branches; but, during the last several days of the camp's existence, many transports of prisoners arrived which were not registered in the file. Some inmates remained in Dachau or one of its branches; others were sent further in "death transports"; most were murdered or died from starvation. Of the more than 200,000 prisoners at Dachau, at least 32,000 died of starvation and disease, many after the typhus epidemic that broke out during the extreme overcrowding in the winter of 1945.

It was at Dachau that German doctors and scientists first experimented on prisoners. Sigmund Rasher conducted experiments on decompression, high altitude, and freezing, ostensibly to find a way to help German fliers. Of the 200 inmates whom Rasher experimented upon, 4 in 10 died. Dr. Claus Schilling conducted malaria experimentation. Many died as a result of these pseudo-scientific experiments, and those who survived were often maimed for life. Dachau claimed many victims of want and starvation. From time to time there was also a "selection" in which the weak and crippled were sent to the gas chambers in other camps. Gas chambers were built in Dachau in 1942 but were never used. The exact number of people killed in Dachau is not known.

Dachau was used as a transit center. Mentally retarded and physically infirm Germans – whose Aryan status was never questioned – were incarcerated there and sent from there to Hartheim castle, where they were gassed as part of the "euthanasia operation." Jews were deported from Dachau to the death camps in German-occupied Poland, where they were subsequently gassed after "the Final Solution" became operational in 1942. In the waning hours of the camp, seven thousand Jews were forcibly evacuated from the camp in a planned death march. They were overtaken by American troops.

Prisoners were used for labor; at first the arrangement was local, but it was later consolidated by ss industries. The ss was paid for the laborers by German industries, particularly the armament industry. The prisoners were not paid.

As American troops approached Dachau on April 29, 1945, they found 30 coal cars filled with bodies, all in an advanced state of decomposition. The doors had been locked, and they were left to die. When Dachau was occupied by the American army, one of the uses made of the camp was for the concentration of German prisoners of war and war criminals, who were to be tried in the town of Dachau. The Americans tried 40 of the concentration camp officials; 36 were sentenced to death. Of the other war criminals, 260 were sentenced to death, and 498 to imprisonment. The camp was later a transit camp for refugees and foreign citizens freed from concentration camps. Part of the camp is preserved as a memorial.


E. Kupfer-Koberwitz, Die Maechtigen und die Hilflosen, 2 vols. (1957–60); Law Report of Trials of War Criminals, selected and prepared by the un War Crimes Commission, 11 (1949), case no. 60, 5–17.

[Nachman Blumental /

Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)]


views updated May 29 2018

Dachau Town in Bavaria, sw Germany, site of the first Nazi concentration camp established in March 1933. Up to 70,000 people died or were murdered here before liberation in 1945. The site is preserved as a memorial.



views updated May 17 2018

Dachau a Nazi concentration camp in southern Bavaria, from 1933 to 1945, in allusive use, a place of desolation; the slogan ‘Arbeit macht frei [Work liberates]’ was inscribed on its gates (and later on those of Auschwitz).