Important Battle: The Liberation of Dachau and the Holocaust

The Holocaust, or Shoah in Hebrew, was the systematic and brutal genocide perpetrated by Nazi Germany and their collaborators of somewhere between 11 and 14 million people between 1933 and 1945. This is the same as the populations of Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, and Iowa, combined. The two largest groups targeted by the Nazi Regime were Slavic speaking people from Poland and the USSR, and people of Jewish heritage. The Nazi SS, or Schutzstaffel (Protection Squadron, in English), was the paramilitary group primarily responsible for carrying out the genocide on behalf of the Nazi government, though they would not have been so successful without the aid of civilian and military collaborators throughout Europe.

The camps found in Nazi Germany were forced-labor concentration camps. The death or extermination camps, like Auschwitz, were all located outside of German borders. In a forced labor camp, Nazi perpetrators subjected prisoners to terrible and cramped living conditions, substandard food, and random acts of torture and murder. All of the prisoners were expected to work in support of the Nazi war effort, either making weapons and ammunition or building roads and structures. Many of the people who died in these camps starved to death, while others were summarily executed for being too weak or sick to work.

Konzentrationslager Dachau was the first concentration camp established by the Nazi party in 1933. At first, Dachau held only 4,800 prisoners, but by the end of the war the camp at Dachau and all of its satellite camps throughout southern Germany held approximately 67,000 prisoners, which is 13,000 people more than the population of Midwest City. Of those prisoners, 21,000 were Jewish. Over the years, more than 188,000 prisoners stayed at Dachau, which is equal to the populations of Edmond and Norman, combined. Between 1940 and 1945, at least 28,000 of those prisoners died of disease, starvation, or execution. Today, there are 26,000 people employed at Tinker Air Force Base. There are no accurate records for those who died between 1933 and 1939, so the total number of those who died at Dachau is unknown to this day.

On April 29, 1945, orders came down for the 45th Infantry Division to occupy and secure the concentration camp at Dachau, 10 miles northwest of Munich. While other units in the Allied forces had found other, smaller camps, the men of the 45th had only heard rumors about what they might find in the camps. Most of the soldiers thought they were just like POW camps they had liberated before. All of them were unprepared for what they found at KZ Dachau.

While most of the 45th controlled the area around the camp and the town of Dachau that is west of the camp, I Company and elements of M Company of the 157th Regiment moved to secure the camp. The men took over the camp in short order but were horrified by what they found. All of the living prisoners were starving, and many were sick with or dying of typhus. Thousands of prisoners were dead, stored in boxcars, or stacked in rooms next to the crematorium. Journalists traveling with the 45th took photos or shot film of everything they saw, under orders from General Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander:

“The same day I saw my first horror camp. It was near the town of Gotha [in Germany]. I have never been able to describe my emotional reactions when I first came face to face with indisputable evidence of Nazi brutality and ruthless disregard of every shred of decency. Up to that time I had known about it only generally or through secondary sources. I am certain however, that I have never at any time experienced an equal sense of shock.

I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify at first hand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that "the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda". Some members of the visiting party were unable to go through with the ordeal. I not only did so but as soon as I returned to Patton's headquarters that evening I sent communications to both Washington and London, urging the two governments to send instantly to Germany a random group of newspaper editors and representative groups from the national legislatures. I felt that the evidence should be immediately placed before the American and the British publics in a fashion that would leave no room for cynical doubt.”

The 45th held the camp as it was so that doctors could treat the prisoners and investigators could document the atrocities for the war crimes trials that took place in Nuremburg after the war before moving on to take the city of Munich.

A photo of an SS map of the KZ Dachau forced labor camp. The large rectangular area in the lower-right is the prisoner camp, where over 30,000 prisoners were cramped into inadequate housing at the main camp. An almost equal number of prisoners lived dispersed in 30 “satellite” camps throughout southern Germany.
Image courtesy of the Oklahoma Museum of History

Photo #208-AA-206K-11
These soldiers are guarding the main gate to the SS compound that surrounded the concentration camp shortly after its liberation.
Image courtesy of the National Archives Records of the Office of War Information
www.archives.gov

All of the prisoners liberated at KZ Dachau were in various stages of starvation.
Image courtesy of the Oklahoma Museum of History

Even though Allied forces had freed the prisoners of KZ Dachau, there was no medical facility large enough in the area to help the more than 30,000 people suffering from starvation and typhus. Unfortunately, the former prisoners had to recuperate in the same barracks where the Nazis had sought to work them to death only weeks before. This time though, the Allies gave them proper bedding, clothes, food, water, and medical care before eventually releasing them.
Image courtesy of the Oklahoma Museum of History

The Nazis used guards, attack dogs, barbed wire, cement walls and moats, machine-gun towers, and electrified fences to keep the prisoners inside the concentration camps. Here, a US soldier is on guard to protect the former prisoners and keep others out to prevent the typhus epidemic from spreading.
Image courtesy of the Oklahoma Museum of History