In 1995, Andrzej Szczypiorski, a survivor of the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, said, profoundly, “And I know one thing more – that the Europe of the future cannot exist without commemorating all those regardless of their nationality, who were killed at that time with complete contempt and hate, who were tortured to death, starved, gassed, incinerated and hanged.” His words are engraved as part of the memorial to those who suffered those fates at Sachsenhausen.
Only a short distance from Berlin, a visit to Sachsenhausen is oddly reassuring that, not only are those who died commemorated, but that the past won’t be easily forgotten. At a time of growing right wing extremism and xenophobia across Europe, that shouldn’t be taken for granted, and Sachsenhausen is a stark reminder of the depths of depravity of which humanity is capable. It’s all the more striking for the fact that the camp sits in picturesque countryside on the edge of a pleasant town, as it did 70-years ago.
In all honesty, even today it’s a shocking contrast to walk through pleasant suburban streets then to find yourself at the entrance gates to a Nazi Concentration Camp. Only after walking from the train station was I able to fully appreciate that the many horrors perpetuated here took place within a few hundred yards of family homes, people tended their gardens, children played nearby, and normal lives went on unperturbed. The camp gates, like those at Auschwitz, carry the slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei”.
I’d imagined the camp isolated from society, but Sachsenhausen wasn’t only located on the fringe of a town, it was a Nazi showpiece. In the 1930s the Nazi authorities brought foreign observers and journalists to Sachsenhausen to admire their handiwork. True, most visitors didn’t see the whole camp and weren’t privy to the worst depravities that took place, but some saw through the facade. Many didn’t though, and lent credibility to Nazi claims that it was just a model and modern ‘re-education’ camp.
The suffering endured by more than 200,000 people interned at the camp between 1936 and its liberation in 1945 is heart wrenching. Tens of thousands died of disease, starvation, forced labor and medical experiments, or were the victims of systematic extermination. It’s hard to read about the medical experiments inflicted on prisoners, including with mustard gas and hepatitis experiments on Jewish children. The camp was also notorious for its ‘shoe testing‘ punishment detail, with prisoners forced to walk up to 40km a day around a track carrying heavy loads.
Few survived more than a few weeks of such punishment. Perhaps the most diabolical act came in 1941, when at least 10,000 soviet prisoners, many of them Jewish, were murdered by shooting and gassing. It was at Sachsenhausen that gas experiments took place, the most lethal were adopted throughout the entire camp system. This is where the Nazis trained camp commanders, and it acted as a testing ground for other terrors. A gas chamber was built here in 1942, as was a special area for executing prisoners by shooting or hanging.
Prisoners of many nationalities were interned and murdered in Sachsenhausen. This included one hundred Dutch resistance fighters, seven British Commandos captured wearing uniforms but not treated as prisoners of war, and Norwegian opponents of Nazi occupation. As the Nazi conquest of Eastern Europe took place, the number of prisoners from those countries increased. There was a special Jewish section in the camp, although many Jews were sent to be murdered at death camps elsewhere.
As the Red Army approached Sachsenhausen in 1945, some 33,000 prisoners were forced onto a death march. Many thousands died of exhaustion, starvation or were shot. Only 18,000 survived to be liberated. When Russian and Polish troops arrived at the camp itself, only around 3,000 inmates remained to be liberated. In total, less than a tenth of the number who passed through the camp. It would be nice to report that this was the end of the horrors of Sachsenhausen.
Sadly, it wasn’t long before the Soviet secret police reopened the camp. It would house 60,000 prisoners over the next five years, including former Nazis, German soldiers, anti-Communists and Soviet soldiers who had been captured in the war and were now considered traitors. Terrible things happened under Russian control, but only when the Berlin Wall fell in 1990 were the mass graves of Soviet victims discovered.
Visiting a place where such suffering happened isn’t comfortable, but I’m increasingly certain of the necessity to not only commemorate and understand how these things were allowed to happen, but to try to make a human connection to the people who suffered such horrors. Those who don’t understand their history may not be doomed to repeat the failures of the past, but why take the chance?