I was debating writing on such a morose topic, but I felt that given how frequently Nazis have been front and foremost in the media recently, it was important to revisit history and remind ourselves as to what Nazis really did. The Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp tour is an 8 hour walking tour just a short bus ride away from Berlin, and it’s the tour I recommend above all the rest.
Sachsenhausen is very important because, given its proximity to Berlin, it was basically the only concentration camp that high ranking Nazis could visit with any regularity, and thus it became a model for all other concentration camps. Most people don’t realize that not all concentration camps had extermination facilities. The Nazis felt having extermination camps on German soil would ruin the morale of the men and would not be a clean practice. Thus, while many deaths did occur from malnutrition, overwork, and zealous guards punishing prisoners, Sachsenhausen was not an extermination camp in the same way Auschwitz or other facilities were - these were mostly located in Eastern Europe.
Most concentration camps were based off of English prisons, which all had a triangle shape because it was easy to monitor the entire camp from a central tower at the base of the triangle, called Tower A. It was a great solution until the prison got too cramped, at which point they had to destroy the triangular shape to extend the capacity. Sachsenhausen was also used to train SS guards who worked in the concentration camps.
The initial plans for Sachsenhausen, following the traditional English model of a prison, with Tower A at the base of the triangle.
It’s an absolutely surreal walk as you get off the train station and walk in through town. Meandering through relatively normal streets, you don’t get the feeling that you’re walking towards a concentration camp at all. Instead, all of a sudden, the row of houses simply ends and you see these large gates. On the left is the concentration camp, and on the right (separated by a very large fence,) is the building that housed the SS guard training facility - which is now, wait for it, a police training building.
Normal houses with actual people living in them quite literally across the street from Sachsenhausen.
In general, this is the attitude I see throughout Germany. Many countries hide from their problems and try to deny or cover up the black marks on their history. Every country has its problems. The US is still struggling with its legacy of slavery - and far too many people refuse to acknowledge it. India has its caste problems which many seem to prefer talking around it rather than making any meaningful progress.
But Germany puts it right front and center. I asked the tour guide, given the history of that building, why they train police officers there now, and her response was that it was precisely for that reason. The German people - Jewish or otherwise - can never be the enemy. The police are meant to serve, and what better place to teach them to serve than a place where they messed up so horribly in the past. I have not seen very many countries who have the strength to do something like that.
Inside the concentration camp, there was a strict hierarchy among the prisoners. Jewish prisoners would wear yellow triangles on their uniforms, homosexual prisoners would wear pink triangles (this is actually why the gay rights movement took up pink - as an effort to re-appropriate pink and make it positive), Sinti and Roma people would wear brown triangles, catholic priests and Jehovah’s Witnesses would wear purple, and so on and so forth. Not only did this make the guards’ lives easier, but it also formed a hierarchy and prevented the prisoners from ever unifying to rebel. A homophobic Jew would never help a prisoner with a pink triangle, for example, regardless of whether they were both being treated badly.
The SS mess hall is also a kind of work detail for prisoners. Survival in a camp mostly depended on the kind of work detail a prisoner received - inside workers are clean and sheltered, which helps, but there are also psychological issues. SS guards are being taught the entire time to see you as non-human, so not only are you being treated as worse than an animal, but you also have to see the guards eat meals far better than you could ever eat. In fact, there are accounts of guards stabbing people to death, and none of the others helping to stop it.
A picture of the actual mess hall, now restored.
The Nazis often utilized violent criminals like murderers and rapists as enforcers in the concentration camps because the psychopaths could often be more cruel than the SS guards ever could be.
Sachsenhausen had a ‘joy division’ where women were forced to service men. Prisoners who worked especially hard or did something to please the guards could be given one of two rewards - either extra food rations or a visit to the joy division. If any of the women got pregnant, they were killed on the spot.
The most famous words hanging above every concentration camp - “Work sets you free”. Nazis would often use the words mockingly because most prisoners would die from the work and would be free in the afterlife.
Himmler wanted people to see it as a noble retraining camp - in fact, foreign diplomats would often get tours of the concentration camp, and they were led to believe that these people would be released back into society after being retrained. Prisoners were also meant to see it as hopeful to work harder, but the guards would often taunt them with its true meaning - working so hard that you die is the only way to truly get free.
The clock tower was frozen at 11:05 AM because supposedly that’s when the Soviets freed the camp.
The laundry was initially done via fumigation, using Zyclon B. Workers had to wear expensive gas masks because it was so poisonous, and at the time killings at the extermination facilities were being done with the extremely expensive liquid cyanide. Eventually, the Nazis decided to use Zyclon B for killing instead of laundry, and this facility was used to test it as an extermination method.
Much of the camp was burned down - the camp was filled with extremely contagious diseases given the general condition of the prisoners overall. In fact, only two barracks still remain to this day. The one on the left is burned, and this has a very interesting backstory to it. In the early 90s, the prime minister of Israel was going to visit Sachsenhausen camp for the first time, and this was a very important time in German history. The country wanted to prove that it was beyond its horrible past. Unfortunately, just days before the PM was meant to look at the camp, a group of Neo Nazis set fire to one of the barracks. Luckily, the fire was put out, and the group was apprehended before they could do too much damage.
The German government decided to let the burned building stay as is rather than remodel as a lesson to the future generations that such an ideology is still very much alive and well.
Inside the buildings, you can find many harrowing tales. This one struck me in particular.
Frankly, this attitude blew me away. The KKK is still alive in the US. There are still debates about whether or not hate crimes exist or whether police brutality figures are exaggerated. We, the supposed bastion of Western democracy, cannot come to terms with our own horrid history after 200 years, and here we have an example where in fifty years the Germans have not only admitted to everything they did, but paid reparations and done everything they can to prevent deniers from side-stepping the truth.
There aren’t many other countries that have such a mature attitude.
1938, 32 leaders from 32 countries met to discuss the Jewish refugee crisis. All but 2 countries (the Dominican Republic which would accept only wealthy Jews, and the UK which accepted children) turned their back and closed borders. (Syria anyone?) This gave Hitler the reassurance that he would not face international retaliation if he moved against the Jews.
When, several weeks later, a German diplomat was killed by a Polish Jew, there was a countrywide looting of Jewish businesses. By 1942, the final solution was proposed and Himmler gave the famous order that no Jews should set foot on German soil. After this, any Jewish prisoners to Sachsenahusen were killed on sight.
Prisoners could only use toilets twice a day, and many were killed in the stampede to use the toilets alone. The camp recorded roll call twice a day, and if anyone was missing, every prisoner would stand outside until the prisoner was found. The longest recorded roll call was 10 hours during a -20 degree centigrade weather. 600 people died. Such tactics were to dissuade people from even trying to escape. Similarly, if a prisoner did successfully escape, it was widely known that his friends and family would be killed in his stead.
The prisoners’ barracks, of which only two remain. The rest are demarcated with large rectangular blocks of gravel. The one on the left was set on fire due to Neo-Nazis, as described above.
Sachsenhausen held a variety of famous prisoners.
Georg - the most famous attempted killer of Hitler - was held here. Hitler was giving a speech at the time, and Georg had infiltrated and gotten a job at the bar. He planted a bomb that was meant to kill Hitler. Unfortunately, a storm was coming, and Hitler decided to end his speech early to miss the storm. The bomb exploded just minutes after Hitler had left the bar. Georg fled but had kept all the equipment to later take credit for it. He was caught at the Swiss border and brought here. The only thing that kept him alive was that the Nazis thought he was working for and had intelligence on an underground Communist resistance movement. In reality, he simply didn’t like the fact that Hitler was pushing the country to war. Unfortunately, he was killed just before the Soviet liberation.
Martin Niemöller was held here as well for speaking out against the discrimination of Jehovah’s witnesses and Catholic priests. He wrote the famous poem that, translated, reads “First they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew…”
But most famously, of course, was Stalin’s son. The Nazis thought they had struck gold when they captured him, but of course if you know Stalin, you know he was not a family man. They wrote a letter detailing their demands, but Stalin famously responded saying that his son was of low rank and of little importance, and that as of this moment, he had no son. Stalin’s son committed suicide two weeks later.
A monument to the homosexuals who were treated worse than most prisoners, kept in solitary nearly the entire time.
The most common punishment was solitary confinement, which homosexuals were subjected to because, at the time, they were concerned that it was a disease that could spread through the camp. Being gay was illegal, and thus they were sent to prison. That law was not repealed in Germany until 1994, and the victims were not pardoned until 2002.
The plaque says “Beaten to death, silenced to death” because unlike many of the other victims (Communists, Jews, etc) there was no advocacy group for the homosexual victims. For this very reason, in Amsterdam we saw a monument for the LGBT victims of the Holocaust.
It’s estimated that prisoners got about 600 calories a day by the end of the war, since the Nazis sent most of the food to the front lines for war efforts. And this was with hard labor.
The punishment posts known as ‘the singing forest’.
The singing forest punishment was another particularly brutal one. Prisoners would hang with their hands behind them, and the Nazis would kick the platform out to dislocate the arms. They would hang for several hours, howling in pain all the while. Of course, this would make the prisoner useless for labor, so they would be killed after wards.
A monument erected by the communist East German government.
In 1961, this memorial was built by the East German communist government to commemorate the Communist prisoners, disregarding everyone else kept at this concentration camp. The communists of course had their own prisoners, and thus this camp continued to function as a concentration camp - just for a different set of people.
The statue of 3 men depicts the liberation by the Soviets. Notice how they’re all standing proud.
SS Guards were aware that the Soviets were about to reach them, and to hide the evidence, they lined up all healthy prisoners and had them march to the coasts, where presumably they were to board boats what were going to be set on fire. In reality, these ‘death marches’ never made it to the coast, with most people dying well in advance.
3000 prisoners were left to rot and die in the prisons because they were too sick to walk. These were the prisoners the Soviets found - not the noble prisoners with their heads held high that the statues depict. To symbolize the victory over fascism, this statue was built higher than tower A, originally the highest point in the camp.
Throughout East Berlin’s life, this was used for communist propaganda. The East Berlin marathon would end here, and if you were particularly high up in the communist party, you could even have weddings and other celebrations here.
Station Z, Sachsenhausen’s extermination facility, where numerous experiments were conducted to find the most efficient ways to dispose of prisoners.
Station Z was the extermination facility at Sachsenhausen.
Before 1941, it was just a trench used for firing squads or hangings, after which bodies were stored into rooms and loaded into trucks which went to a crematorium. But one day, a truck fell over in Berlin, and people saw a truck full of bodies, and the populous got very nervous. Himmler decided that they needed to have crematoriums on site, and built a small one.
Lots of guards, however, were turning to alcohol and drug use to escape the reality that they were killing people day in and day out. Himmler wanted a more impersonal killing method. Of course, the gas chamber would be the method he came up with for most extermination facilities, but not at Sachsenhausen. At Sachsenhausen, they devised the neck shot method.
The inside remains of Station Z, famous for the neck-shot method.
They set up a fake medical facility where prisoners, dressed as doctors, would greet other prisoners. They would check their mouths for any gold teeth, and mark a blue cross on their cheek if there were any present. People would stand at a wall, as if a doctor was going to measure their height. When the measuring stick fell, it would reveal a hole in the wall at the base of their neck. The SS guard would shoot the whole without knowing or seeing what was going on beyond them. And later, the prisoner would extract the gold teeth from the corpse’s mouth.
They would then be cremated on sight, and then sell the ashes to other people claiming it was the ashes of long-lost relatives or friends. Of the 5 million Soviets taken into captivity, 3.5 million died. 10-12k were murdered via the neck shot facility.
The cruelty of Nazis is not easily matched, and we would be making fools of ourselves to compare each and every little thing inconvenience to Nazis. The fact that we’ve even given a name to Godwin’s Law, never mind actually coining it a law, proves this more than anything else. But conversely, the specter of Nazism is not one that can be taken lightly. The sort of brutality and hatred this ideology inspires is not one that should ever be forgotten. I applaud the German people for not shying from their past or trying to cast a better light on it. Throughout my time in Germany, there was never an excuse made or an attempt to cast themselves in a better light. Other nations could learn much from their strength.