Dachau, located ten miles north of Munich, Germany, was the first concentration camp built by the Nazis and served as a model for all later camps. By 1937, it held 13,260 prisoners, including German communists and social democrats as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma (Gypsies), and homosexuals. Dachau also served as the central camp for Christian religious prisoners.
A training center for SS concentration camp guards, Dachau’s organization and routine became the model for all Nazi concentration camps. Between 1933 and 1945, Nazi Germany and its allies established more than 44,000 camps and other incarceration sites (including ghettos). They used these sites for a range of purposes, including forced labor, detention of people thought to be enemies of the state, and extermination.
At Dachau, a crematorium area was constructed in 1942 to dispose of the increasing number of casualties of typhoid, starvation, and executions. Dachau’s prisoners were used as subjects of medical experiments and hundreds of prisoners died or were permanently crippled as a result of these experiments.
Although the crematorium was kept busy disposing of the remains of prisoners who died at Dachau, most prisoners who were terminally ill or sentenced to death were sent to the Hartheim euthanasia center near Linz, Austria, to be gassed. Prisoners were executed at Dachau by a gallows or by firing squads located near the crematorium.
When the 42nd U.S. Infantry Division liberated Dachau on April 29, 1945, there were 67,665 registered prisoners in Dachau and its sub camps. American soldiers nearing the camp were appalled at the more than 30 railroad cars filled with bodies brought to Dachau. Inside the camp, the Americans discovered approximately 32,000 prisoners, crammed 1,600 to each of 20 barracks designed to house only 250 people.
The camp’s liberation was marked by the best and the worst of behavior by its victorious American liberators. Crazed by grief and anger at the appalling scenes on the day of the camp’s liberation, U.S. soldiers and camp inmates summarily executed some 520 of the camp’s German soldiers who had surrendered. After senior officers restored order, U.S. medical personnel began lifesaving measures for the most severely ill prisoners, and soldiers shared their rations and cigarettes with emaciated survivors.
Today, the camp is a monument visited by thousands of people of all nationalities, a tangible reminder of the best and worst of human nature.