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The Inmates' Camp - The Grounds

Aerial view of the liberated Buchenwald Concentration Camp. The inmates’ camp is seen at the centre, to the right in the background the SS area, to the left behind it the Gustloff Works destroyed by an air raid on 24 August 1944, April 1945. Behind the camp gate, the so-called "protective custody camp" spread out, built by inmates under duress in terraces cut into the north slope of Ettersberg Mountain. The incline of some 70 m (230') determined the layout of the entire facility. In order to achieve maximum surveillance with a minimum of personnel, the grounds were designed so that the three entrances to the camp – the western, main and eastern gates – were located along the line of highest elevation in the "protective custody camp". From the wooden superstructure on the main gate, the SS thus had a complete overview of the camp. From the spring of 1938 onward the camp was surrounded by an electric barbed-wire fence 3 m (9' 10") in height and charged with 380 volts; nobody could survive the attempt to scale it. Photo: National Archives, Washington

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Accommodations

Guarded by members of the SS, the first "protective custody" inmates take up quarters in one of the newly completed wooden barracks. The majority of the inmates were housed in primitive wooden barracks measuring 53 m (174’) in length, just over 8 m (26' 3") in width and 2.65 m (8' 8") in height. In the centre of these so-called "blocks", where the entrance was located, were toilets and washrooms, which were hardly used before 1939, however, due to the continual water shortage. At the end of 1937 the camp consisted of 18 blocks of this type; in the years that followed, thousands of inmates were crammed into 25 to 28 constantly overcrowded wooden barracks. Adverse hygiene conditions and absolutely insufficient rations, heavy physical labour and tyranny on the part of the SS led to the prevalence of severe hunger and the spread of diseases such as typhus and dysentery in the camp. In 1938, inmates built a special camp to the west of the muster ground for Jews arrested in the German Reich following the pogroms. This section was closed off from the rest of the barrack camp by a barbed-wire fence. In the fall and winter of 1939/40, another special camp was located to the east of the muster ground and was the site where hundreds of Viennese Jews and Poles died miserable deaths. Only one third of them lived to see the dissolution of this "special camp". The accommodations in these enclosed sections of the camp consisted of tents or barn-like structures built from wooden boards. Memorial stones today commemorate the histories of these two special camps. The Soviets used the barracks of the main camp for Soviet Special Camp No. 2, which was in operation from August 1945 to February 1950 in the former Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Photo: Kriminalpolizei Weimar, 1937. SGBuMD

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The Grounds Since 1950

View of the gate building shortly after the disassembly of the main camp, April 1952. As per orders issued by the secretariat of the central committee of the GDR’s ruling Socialist Unity Party on 9 October 1950, a Thälmann Memorial was to be built on the former grounds of Buchenwald Concentration Camp: whereas the crematorium – the site of the death of Ernst Thälmann, chairman of the Communist party in the Weimar Republic – and the gate building with the western and eastern towers were to be left standing, the order provided for the removal of all other buildings. The grounds were moreover to be reforested in their entirety and landscaped as a "grove of honour". It was not the subjugation of the inmates associated with the barracks that was to be remembered, but the heroic resistance effort congealed in stone in the monumental memorial on the southern slope of the Ettersberg. Only after the wooden barracks had been completely disassembled were the protests (by French survivors and their families, among others) heard, leading the persons responsible in the GDR to reconsider the plans. Rather than introducing a parklike area in which the camp would no longer have been visible (as for example in Bergen-Belsen), it was now decided to design the grounds as an empty, rough, grey open space. Photo: SGBuMD

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The Grounds Since 1950

This idea would come to serve as a model for the design of former concentration camps throughout Germany. In 1974, the outlines of the barracks in the main camp were marked with copper slag. According to one interpretation, the black colour of this material was intended to symbolize the defeat of fascism. Despite these measures, more than half of the camp grounds, particularly the Little Camp, were left to be overgrown by vegetation. Photo: Peter Hansen. SGBuMD