Sunday 14 April 2019

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp and the Topography of Terror Museum.

Sachsenhausen was the first permanent concentration camp set up by the Nazis and was originally intended to hold political opponents of the regime or undesirables, such as Communists, Socialists Jehova's Witnesses, intellectuals and homosexuals. As the camp expanded and with the onset of war Jews, Russian POWs, captured resistance fighters and various 'special' prisoners (including Jack Churchill of longbow and broadsword fame) found themselves sent here. By the liberation of the camp on April 1945 over 35000 inmates had been murdered out of a total of 200000 who passed through the system. A drop in the ocean when one compares the numbers murdered at Auschwitz and the other death camps, but ruthless, brutal and systematic murder nonetheless. More info here. Interestingly after the war the camp was used for a few years by the NKVD for much the same purpose as the Nazis.

I didn't take many photographs, but here are a few.

A plan of the camp. The original camp is the triangular area bottom right.
The main gates. Work makes you free.
In the 'special prisoners' block a memorial to seven men from No 2 Army Commando who were held at the camp before being murdered as part of the implementation of Hitler's Commando Order demanding that all commandos captured should be summarily executed. Other commandoes later suffered the same fate at the camp as did several SOE operatives.
The running track. Inmates were forced to walk round this track for 12-14 hours day clocking up to 50km a day testing boots and shoes for the army. There were even different road surfaces over which they had to walk in order to assess the capabilities of differing materials. Life expectancy for those assigned to the project was measured in days. The exception were the British commandos mentioned above who kept going for several weeks until their execution.
The parade ground. It was bitterly cold on the day we visited, and that was when we were well wrapped up unlike the inmates who were dressed in thin cotton uniforms and made to stand here for hours on end.
Memorial to the inmates from 20 different countries imprisoned in the camp.
One of the most notorious atrocities was the execution of 13000 Russian POWs over the course of  a matter of a few days. Each was photographed before being sent for a 'medical'. When standing having their height measured they were each shot  in the neck through a small hole in the wall behind them. The murders were carried out by  just 24 SS men, working in pairs, who were handsomely rewarded for their actions with medals and special leave. The seven men above were possibly only minutes from death when they were photographed.
The execution trench where many more prisoners were shot. 
Monument to those murdered at the camp. In addition to the systematic execution of inmates by shooting, others were  killed in gas chambers or were used in horrific medical experiments. 
Much of the camp was destroyed after the war but enough remains or has been rebuilt to portray a cold bleak and soulless place. It was certainly a thought provoking trip, but not an especially emotional one, which surprised me.

We also visited the Topography of Terror Museum in Berlin. here

The permanent exhibition documents the rise of the Nazis and the SS, SD, Gestapo and Einsatzgruppen from 1933 until the fall of Berlin. It is an excellent museum (built on the site of the HQ of the above organisations) with a tremendous amount of often graphic pictorial material and documents on show. Full marks for the shear volume and breadth of information as well as the resources available for researchers, but less so for other aspects. For me maybe the museum needs humanising and I felt it failed to adequately communicate the brutality and savagery of the Nazi regime or of the German people's acquiescence or acceptance of their crimes. It was another deeply thought provoking experience that reinforced for me the fragility of democracy and how much of the success of the growth of the Nazis lay in their divide and rule approach. Why have we not learnt?

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

(Martin Neimoller 1892-1984) here


  1. I remember visiting Bergen Belsen and the Ann Frank exhibition there. Although nothing remained it was the profound silence there which I remember even now.

  2. We visited a camp outside of Linz in Austria and it was the utter silence of the place that was remarkable. No body talked whilst in there, just taking in the awfullness of what happened there.

  3. Thought provoking indeed. With the passing of the generation that witnessed this, and fought against it , it seems to me we are heading towards having to fight it again . Democracy is feeling fragile .