Buchenwald - To Each His Own

Trip Start May 20, 2005
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Trip End Jun 07, 2007


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Flag of Germany  ,
Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Sometime before the turn of the 19th century, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Germany's great poet and literary master, began a decade-long platonic affair with Charlotte von Stein, an unhappily-married lady, a member of the court of the Duke of Saxony and resident of Weimar. On occasion they would take excursions to the countryside and often would travel up to the far slopes of Ettersberg Hill, a hillock about 8 kilometers from the town.

Goethe wrote sentimentally of these expeditions and mentioned that one of their favorite places to stop and talk was under the branches of a large oak tree, later mentioned as the Thick Oak in the ordinance maps of the region. It is a supreme irony that around Goethe's Oak, almost within sight of the seat of High German Culture, the SS should build one of the most famous of the Nazi's concentration camps, Buchenwald.

You can get to the top of the hill in a variety of ways. You can take a taxi, but this is a bit pricey and then--how do you get home? The preferred way is to take the bus, and one leaves from Goetheplatz every couple of hours. I had been buzzing around town on a bike rented from the hotel and thought I would ride out there on the bike.

Bad news.

I thought I was in pretty good shape. If you aren't, DO NOT TAKE THE BIKE. You see, the road has been constructed in such a way as to be visually deceiving. German precision engineering has been employed to disguise an absolutely vertical wall as a road....of a deceptively 15% grade. I kept looking around for the railroad crossing until I realized all that wheezing and blowing was coming from me. The supreme insult came when this little German grandmother with calves the size of hamhocks, puttered right by the stupid American with the very red face. By the way, the ride down was wonderful. Wheeeeeeeeee.

FINALLY, it leveled off at the top and things became very sobering as you approach the camp along the so-called "blood road."

Among the camps in the Nazi gulag, Buchenwald was not a star. It was not a death camp likeDachau or Auschwitz-Birkenau. "Only" about 51,000 victims died there, but Buchenwald hammered itself into the imagination as the first of the concentration camps to receive international exposure. Ike and many of his Generals were photographed viewing the piles of bodies left by the SS in their rush to abandon the camp. Reporters, politicians, and aid workers spread the word and the world began to understand the extent of Nazi inhumanity.

Construction began in the late 1930s and it was built to stay. Permanent buildings of stucco and steel housed the camp administration, guards and later industrial facilities. The inmates were forced to live in rough, unheated wooden barracks. There they survived on meager rations, in conditions of absolute squalor and disease-ridden deprevation.

The inmates built the camp, provided basic services, worked and died in the nearby quarry, and slaved in the industrial facilities a short distance away. The SS tried to manufacture munitions there and eventually at an "external site," guidance parts for V-2 rockets. These efforts were not very successful because the inmates engaged in extensive industrial sabotage.

Camp victims included Jews, political prisoners, gypsies, homosexuals and other "undesirable" members of German society and those regions conquered by the Wehrmacht under the rule of Germany. They were subjected to a horrific camp internal structure in which the SS would recruit former criminals who were given privileges and a free hand to keep the rest of the inmates in line. Thus, the law of the jungle prevailed and over it all ruled the sadistic SS guards.

A section of the camp was devoted to scientific experiments on diseases such as typhoid fever and over 1000 inmates died or were seriously injured as a part of this work. To deal with the large number of people dying by exposure, hunger, work, and the rather capricious executions, the camp had to build a crematorium which was kept very busy from 1940 on.

One of the most interesting ways the SS developed for killing people was in an annex to the crematorium. They would bring the prisoner in, under the impression that he was to be examined in the infirmary area. He would stand against the wall and a rather crude device was used to measure his height. Directly behind the device was a long slit in the wall. As the prisoner stepped back to be measured a guard behind the wall would put a bullet though the victim's brain. The body would fall forward into a lift that would take it to the crematorium on the upper floor. Very efficient, but the numbers of bodies which required disposal outstripped the capacity of the operation. Soon bodies had to be dumped into mass graves on the periphery of the camp.

Buchenwald even had a VIP section where high profile prisoners such as French Premiers Daladier and Reynaud were kept for a period of time. Family members of those involved in the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler in July 1944 were housed there. Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent time at Buchenwald before being transferred to Flossenberg where he was executed.

An air raid in August 1944 did extensive damage to the production facilities and administration buildings. Many guards and some inmates were killed, but it signalled the beginning of the end. From that point, the camp began receiving more inmates from the eastern regions being overrun by the Soviet and the SS increasing lost control of the situation.

Buchenwald was liberated by the Third U.S. Army on April 11, 1945. In the aftermath, General Patton "invited" 1000 citizens of Weimar, the seat of German High Culture, to visit the camp, to help in burying the bodies of the victims, and to see just what their complicity in the crimes of Germany, their acquiescence in the demise of civilization, had wrought.

It is worth the trip to see what is left of Geothe's Oak (a stump since it succumbed to an incendiary bomb in the August 1944 raid) and take from that a reminder of how precious is civilization and freedom and how close humans can be to reverting to their "uncivilized" origins.
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