Chapter 4: The last months
Autumn, 1944 – Allied troops are advancing on the German Reich from the west and the east alike. The Wehrmacht is on the retreat. Although the war has long been lost, the regime continues the fighting by all available means. German sentiment is characterized by a mixture of fanaticism, war-weariness, illusions about the “final victory” and fear of retaliation by the Allies. There is no wide-scale protest.
The SS clear the camps and detention sites near the front. The inmates are transported to the concentration camps in the Reich interior. In the east, the SS cover up traces of the extermination system and murder inmates too weak for transport or leave them behind to die. Many do not survive the transports; others arrive in the overcrowded camps weakened to the brink of death. In order to keep forced labour in operation, the SS set up zones for dying inmates who can no longer be deported elsewhere. The death toll multiplies.
As the Allies advance on the concentration camps in the Reich interior, the SS clear these camps as well. During the marches, they murder the exhausted inmates, in part before the eyes of the German population or even with their aid. It takes the Allied soldiers to put a stop to the crimes.
24 August 1944
On 24 August 1944, American bombers attack the armament factory and SS area of the Buchenwald concentration camp. The Americans correctly suspect the existence of facilities for the manufacture of control parts for the A4 rocket here – one of the “wonder weapons” with which the Nazi regime hopes to achieve the “final victory”.
The bombardment lasts only thirty minutes. Nevertheless, it is a visible sign of the decisive turning point that ushers in the final phase of the camp. The SS lose more than 100 men; for the first time they are no longer in control of the situation. Not only production facilities but also Gestapo buildings are destroyed in Buchenwald. Nearly 400 inmates die and more than 2,000 are injured because they are not permitted to leave the factory during the attack.
The clearance transports
Inmates and Jewish forced labourers from the dissolved camps are to be sent to the concentration camps in the Reich interior. However, not only are there no means of transport, but the remaining camps are already filled beyond capacity. After miserable marches on foot or odysseys in open freight waggons frequently lasting for days, the inmates reach the Buchenwald concentration camp enfeebled and often completely exhausted. Three months before the end of the war, as a result of the overly hasty clearance of the Auschwitz extermination camp and the Gross-Rosen concentration camp, Buchenwald becomes the largest concentration camp in the German Reich.
Mass death in the Little Camp
The SS isolate the survivors of the clearance transports in the Little Camp, which is situated downhill from the main camp. Established as a quarantine zone at the end of 1942, it lacks everything. In the last three months before liberation, more than 6,000 die in the Little Camp. The SS not only take the mass death in stride but regularly kill sick and weak persons. In the midst of these horrors, political and Jewish inmates create a protected space for adolescents and children in Block 66. More than 900 young people are thus rescued.
American troops reach Central Germany in March 1945. The SS drive the inmates of Buchenwald’s subcamps back to the parent camp. From 7 April onward, evacuation marches also leave the Buchenwald concentration camp. Thousands die en route due to enfeeblement; the accompanying guard units shoot those who can no longer keep pace.
In the final weeks of the war, long processions of inmates make their way along roads and through towns and villages. The German population bears witness to these death marches. Hardly anyone offers help. Members of the Volkssturm and Hitler Youth often participate in the pursuit and murder of inmates who try to escape.
April 1945 – the final days before liberation
The last ten days in the Buchenwald concentration camp are extremely tense. On the one hand the SS accelerate the evacuation process, inciting all the more fear in the inmates. On the other hand, inmate functionaries and the International camp Committee delay the organization of the marches, thus contributing to the inmates’ rescue. They also try to establish contact to the Americans. Nobody knows what will happen on the day of the liberation; the inmates are afraid there will be a massacre. They are not strong enough to liberate themselves on their own.
The last evacuation march leaves Buchenwald on the night of 10 April. At 2:30 pm the following day, American tanks reach the SS area and the SS flee. Fifteen minutes later, armed members of the inmate resistance force begin capturing and disarming the remaining SS men. Buchenwald is free.
The International Camp Committee
In July 1943, German Communists organize the first meeting with like-minded inmates from other countries. After that, regular meetings take place. The camp committee is made up of Communists from Germany, Belgium, France, Italy, Yugoslavia, the Netherlands, Austria, Poland, the Soviet Union, and Czechoslovakia. The founding of the committee ensures the primacy of the German Communists even though Germans make up only a tiny minority in the camp.
The committee prevents open conflicts between the different national groups and protects members of Communist parties as well as other resistance fighters. It coordinates help and gets foreign political inmates assigned to functionary positions. Members of the camp committee obtain information about the course of the war and form groups especially for the purpose of defence against the massacre they fear the SS will carry out before liberation. To this end, they succeed in concealing several dozen weapons and material for dressing wounds.