Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, Oranienburg, Germany
Sachsenhausen concentration camp, located at Oranienburg, just outside of Berlin, Germany, was one of the first and most notorious Nazi concentration camps established during World War II.
Sachsenhausen was primarily a labour camp, but did have a number of sub-camps, a gas chamber and medical experimentation section. Despite not being primarily an death camp, it was used kind of testing ground by the Nazis to work out the most efficient means of murdering prisoners.
The establishment of Sachsenhausen can be traced back to the early days of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. After coming to power in 1933, the Nazi regime quickly began implementing its anti-Semitic policies and persecuting those considered undesirable by the Nazis, including Jews, communists, trade unionists, and other opposition groups. The existing prison facilities in Germany soon became overcrowded with these “enemies of the state,” and the need for a new, dedicated facility to detain and eliminate them arose.
In 1936, Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS (Schutzstaffel), ordered the construction of Sachsenhausen concentration camp. The camp was initially intended to be a model camp, showcasing the brutality and superiority of Hitler’s “master race.” It was strategically located just outside of Berlin, making it easily accessible for the SS and other Nazi officials.
Sachsenhausen served as a training ground for SS guards who would go on to serve in other concentration camps, spreading the brutality and violence of the Nazi regime. Many of the SS guards at Sachsenhausen were known for their brutality and sadism, perpetrating horrific acts of violence against prisoners. Oranienburg was also the administrative centre for all the concentration camps in the Reich and this further enhanced the importance of the camp.
The camp was designed with a rigid layout, consisting of a main camp with administrative buildings, barracks for prisoners, and various support facilities, as well as an extended camp known as the “protective custody camp” where political prisoners were held. Sachsenhausen was also equipped with watchtowers, electrified fences, and other security measures to prevent escapes.
Sachsenhausen initially housed political prisoners, including communists, social democrats, trade unionists, and other opposition figures. However, over time, the camp’s purpose expanded to include other groups considered “undesirable” by the Nazis, such as Jews, homosexuals (600 killed between 1939 and 1943), Romani people, disabled people, and others. The camp also held prisoners of war including Soviet prisoners (over 10,000 killed) and those from the Western powers.
The conditions in Sachsenhausen were notoriously harsh, with prisoners subjected to forced labour, torture, medical experiments (including the testing of cocktails of stimulants and psychedelics), and various cruel punishment. One of the most chilling features of Sachsenhausen was the infamous slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei” or “Work Sets You Free” displayed at the entrance gate, which deceived prisoners into believing that they could gain their freedom through labour. However, this was a cruel and false promise, as most prisoners faced immense suffering and had little hope of survival.
The prisoners in the camp were primarily used as slave labourers. They worked in a brick factory and in large war industries such as aircraft manufacturer Heinkel and for conglomerates AEG and Siemens. Prisoners were also forced to take part in forced running around a specially constructed circuit to test boots for the army over different surfaces with the starving inmates forced to cover up to 25 miles per day.
Sachsenhausen was also the site of the Nazi operation to forge Bank of England notes, known as Operation Bernard. This hugely sophisticated forgery operation was designed to produce huge quantities of forged notes which would be dropped over Britain to cause the collapse of the economy. The operation produced between £132.6 million and £300 million before it ceased at the end of the war.
Executions at the camp were completed in a number of ways. Unlike at ‘Death Camps’, shootings were one of the most common methods of execution at Sachsenhausen. Prisoners were taken to execution sites, such as the “Station Z” area, where they were lined up in front of a firing squad and shot in a specially constructed ‘execution trench’. The prisoners were often forced to kneel or stand with their hands tied behind their backs before being shot. The firing squad would then shoot the prisoners, typically in the back of the head, killing them instantly. The shooting of prisoners was also completed in the camp medical facility, where prisoners went through a pretend medical examination before being asked to stand against a measure line on a wall, at which point a hidden window opened behind them and they were then executed being being shot in the back of the neck.
Hangings were also carried out at Sachsenhausen using gallows within the camp. This was often used in instances were prisoners had been caught having escaped. In some cases, multiple prisoners were hanged at once, and their bodies would be left hanging for hours as a form of intimidation. Pole hanging was also used, where prisoners were suspended from a pole by their arms until they died from exhaustion or asphyxiation.
The camp did have gas chambers which were also used in some instances and experimented with the use of gas vans. In accordance with the role of the camp in the system, the authorities were trying to establish the most effective method to murder the inmates – it was the trial of using gas chambers that was found to induce the least amount of panic amongst detainees and which then became the method of choice in other camps during the war.
After the execution, the bodies of the prisoners were often taken to the camp’s crematorium, where they were incinerated. This was done to eliminate any evidence of the executions and dispose of the bodies.
Towards the end of the war, at the end of 1944, Himmler ordered that the camp be closed and all the inmates were to be executed. This was in common with other camps as the Nazi regime sought to hide evidence of it’s crimes or to eliminate any remaining enemies in a last gasp of destruction. The order from Himmler instigated the mass execution of sick prisoners at the camp, the transfer of 2000 inmates to death camps and a further 1,300 to be killed during the evacuation of one of the sub-camps.
On 21st April 1945, with the Red Army fast approaching, the Germans ordered the forced march of the inmates – 33,000 prisoners were order to head towards the north-west and away from the approaching Soviets. Any prisoners who fell on the march were executed on the spot and thousands of the prisoners, in their exhausted condition did not survive. The day after the prisoners headed out, the camp was liberated by the Soviet 2nd Belorussian Front and Polish 2nd Infantry Division. These soldiers found 3,400 prisoners who had been left behind and who did not have the strength to march away. These prisoners remained often were in such poor condition that they died after their liberation.
Some of the notable prisoners held at Sachsenhausen during World War 2:
- Tadeusz Banachiewicz, a Polish professor, astronomer, mathematician and geodesist. He was among 184 academics arrested on 6 November 1939, during Sonderaktion Krakau, professors, lecturers, doctors from Jagiellonian University (UJ), AGH University of Science and Technology, Kraków University of Economics (AE) and others.
- Captain Sigismund Payne Best and Major Richard Henry Stevens, British intelligence agents kidnapped during the Venlo Incident, detained at Sachsenhausen before transfer to Dachau concentration camp.
- Willem Frederik Karel Bischoff van Heemskerk, Dutch Resistance Fighter.
- Trygve Bratteli of the Norwegian Labour Party, later prime minister of Norway.
- Taras Bulba-Borovets, Andriy Melnyk and Oleh Stuhl (briefly), Stepan Bandera and Yaroslav Stetsko, Ukrainian nationalist leaders imprisoned until September–October 1944
- Francisco Largo Caballero, Spanish Prime Minister (1937) and trade unionist, arrested in France, he spent most of World War II imprisoned at Sachsenhausen.
- Jack Churchill, placed at Sachsenhausen, later transferred to Tyrol.
- Johnny Jebsen, British double agent
- Peter Churchill, British SOE agent, later transferred to Tyrol.
- Leo Clasen, a homosexual survivor of the Holocaust who published an account of his ordeal in 1954 under the pseudonym L. D. Classen von Neudegg.
- Wing Commander Harry Day, Flight Lieutenants Bertram James and Sydney Dowse, RAF pilots, who had escaped during The Great Escape from Stalag Luft III, sent to Sachsenhausen as punishment, where with Jack Churchill and Major Johnnie Dodge escaped via a tunnel built by James and Dowse in September 1944. Recaptured and held in solitary confinement, later returned to the Sonderlager (special camp); transferred to Tyrol.
- Major Johnnie Dodge, a British Army Officer and relation of Winston Churchill who had escaped during The Great Escape from Stalag Luft III. In February 1945, was removed from solitary confinement and sent back to Britain, via Switzerland, to act as a peace envoy to the British Government, arriving just before VE Day.
- Heinrich Düker political supporter of German resistance, survived.
- Yakov Dzhugashvili, Joseph Stalin’s eldest son, was briefly imprisoned and died there in 1943 under unclear circumstances.
- Georg Elser, opponent of Nazism who attempted to kill Adolf Hitler on his own in November 1939; later moved to Dachau concentration camp.
- Heinrich Feisthauer, political opponent of the Nazi regime and a survivor of Sachsenhausen.
- Einar Gerhardsen of the Norwegian Labour Party, later prime minister of Norway
- Hans Grundig, German artist.
- Herschel Grynszpan, whose 7 November 1938 assassination of the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath served as a pretext for Kristallnacht, 1940 until he was moved to Magdeburg.
- Hans Hers, Dutch Resistance.
- Bayume Mohamed Husen, a black man from Tanganyika (today Tanzania), died in the Sachsenhausen camp.
- Dmitry Karbyshev, Red Army general and posthumous Hero of the Soviet Union briefly imprisoned before he was moved to Mauthausen concentration camp.
- Józef Klukowski, Olympic medal-winning Polish sculptor.
- Olaf Kullmann, Norwegian pacifist imprisoned April 1942 and perished there in July of the same year.
- Aksel Larsen, Danish Communist leader, imprisoned 1943 to 1945.
- Josef Lainck, deported in 1938 from Canada for criminal activity.
- Julius Leber, German SPD politician, 1933 until 1937, having been declared a “dangerous opponent of the regime”.
- Arthur Löwenstamm, rabbi of Spandau Synagogue.
- Georges Mandel, Minister of Overseas France, 1942–1943.
- Henry Moskowitz, New York based real estate investor and founder of the real estate company The Argo Corporation
- Odd Nansen, Norwegian architect, author and humanitarian. Credited as co-founder of UNICEF and humanitarian efforts on behalf of Jews in the early years WWII. Released his camp diaries post war.
- Reverend Martin Niemöller, a critic of the Nazis and author of the statement “First they came …”.
- Oleh Olzhych, a Ukrainian poet tortured to death in June 1944.
- Arnulf Øverland, Norwegian anti-fascist poet.
- Paul Reynaud, the penultimate Prime Minister of France before its defeat by Germany, 1942–1943.
- Jules Charles Emil Riotte, Lutheran pastor, Sorbian activist, evacuated to England after D-Day, returned to Roman Catholic Church and became Ukrainian Catholic priest, entomologist.
- Stefan Rowecki, chief commander of the Polish Armia Krajowa, imprisoned 1943 and probably executed there in 1944.
- Kurt Schuschnigg, the penultimate Chancellor of Austria before the Anschluss.
- Fritz Thyssen, German businessman who emigrated from Germany, imprisoned in Sachsenhausen and later transferred to Dachau.
- Madeleine Truel, Peruvian writer. Author of “The Boy of the Subway”. Member of the French Resistance.
- Gottfried Graf von Bismarck-Schönhausen, grandson of Otto von Bismarck, an SS officer aware of the preparations for the 20 July plot to assassinate Hitler, was imprisoned in Sachsenhausen until its liberation by Soviet forces.
- Hasso von Boehmer, German Lieutenant Colonel on the General Staff and 20 July plotter, temporarily detained in the camp’s clinic in 1944 due to illness. He was then moved to Berlin.
- Hans von Dohnányi, a German jurist, rescuer of Jews, and resistance fighter against the Nazi German regime, 1944 until his execution in April 1945.
- Prežihov Voranc, Slovene writer and communist imprisoned in January 1943 until the end of the War.
- Leon Wachholz, Polish scientist and medical examiner.
- The wife and children of Rupprecht, Crown Prince of Bavaria, members of the Wittelsbach family, October 1944 to April 1945, before being transferred to Dachau concentration camp.
- Reinhold Wulle, monarchist and former German National People’s Party leader.
- Antonín Zápotocký, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (later Prime Minister and President), from 1940. He became a Kapo, which ultimately helped him survive the war.
- Jozef (Joop) van Elsen (Rotterdam, March 22, 1916 – Oegstgeest, January 8, 2006) was a Dutch Army General, Politician and Resistance fighter.
- Commandos from Operation Musketoon.
- August Dickmann, a German Jehovah’s Witness publicly shot on 15 September 1939 for conscientious objection to joining the armed forces.
- John Godwin (Royal Navy officer), a British Naval Sub-Lieutenant who managed to shoot dead the commander of his execution party before he was himself killed, for which he was posthumously mentioned in despatches.
- William Grover-Williams, Grand Prix motor racing champion.
- Franz Kaufmann, German jurist, former Chief Secretary of the Reich Public Accounts Office and head of an underground group that supplied counterfeit documents to underground Jews, including certificates of Aryan descent, driving licenses, and food ration cards. Arrested in 1943 and executed in 1944.
- Heinrich Koenen, an NKVD spy captured in Berlin, executed in 1945.
- Willi Lehmann, NKVD spy, probably cremated December 1942.
- Friedrich Weißler, German lawyer active in the resistance movement against National Socialism.
- Albert Willimsky, German Roman Catholic priest active in the resistance movement against National Socialism.
- Stanisław Kubista, Polish SVD Priest.
Post War – NKVD Special Camp No. 7 / Soviet Special Camp No. 1 (1945 – 1950)
After the liberation of Sachsenhausen concentration camp by the Soviet Red Army in April 1945, the camp was taken over by the Soviet authorities and used as a detention center for political prisoners until 1950. During this period, Sachsenhausen witnessed a new chapter in its history, as the Soviets implemented their own policies and practices in dealing with prisoners.
After taking control of Sachsenhausen, the Soviet authorities used the camp to detain Nazi officials and collaborators who had been responsible for heinous crimes during the Holocaust and the Nazi regime. Many high-ranking Nazi officials, SS officers, and Gestapo members were interned at Sachsenhausen, awaiting trial and punishment for their actions.
The Soviet authorities repurposed the facilities at Sachsenhausen for their own purposes. Barracks that were once used to house prisoners under the Nazis were now used to house Soviet prisoners, who were detained for various reasons, including political dissidence, alleged collaboration with the Nazis, or other perceived threats to the Soviet regime.
In total around 60,000 people were held at the camp by the Soviets during the five year period with around 16,000 inmates at some points including a separate female camp of around 2,000 prisoners.
Interrogations and investigations of the prisoners held at Sachsenhausen were completed with typical Soviet brutality. Prisoners were often subjected to harsh interrogation techniques, including torture, as the Soviets sought to uncover alleged Nazi collaborators and other political enemies.
The Soviet authorities also implemented a policy of forced labour at Sachsenhausen, similar to the practices employed by the Nazis during their occupation of the camp. Prisoners were forced to perform labour in nearby factories and workshops, as well as engage in other types of work, as a form of punishment and re-education.
The Soviet authorities were known to have executed prisoners at Sachsenhausen during their occupation of the camp. Many prisoners were sentenced to death after being found guilty of collaboration with the Nazis or other perceived crimes against the Soviet regime. Some prisoners were executed by firing squads or other methods, while others died due to harsh conditions and mistreatment in the camp. In total the Soviets oversaw a further 12,000 deaths at the site, either through execution or neglect.
In 1950, the Soviet authorities transferred the remaining prisoners from Sachsenhausen to other detention facilities or released them. The camp was officially closed, and the buildings were turned over to the East German authorities.
The period from 1945 to 1950 at Sachsenhausen concentration camp under Soviet occupation was marked by a continuation of detention, interrogations, forced labour, and executions. The Soviet authorities utilized the camp to detain and punish Nazi officials and collaborators, as well as political enemies.
Today the camp is easily accessed from Berlin by train and operates as a museum and place of remembrance – the author visited in March 2022.
– The White Rose Movement (Article about German student resistance movement)
– Timeline of World War II (Article with detailed timeline of WW II)
– The Katyn Massacre 1940 (Article about massacre of Polish citizens by Soviet forces)
– World War II Collection (World War II themed merch from High Speed History)