Scrapbookpages Blog

February 7, 2010

Have You Ever Heard of Sachsenhausen?

The three major concentration camps in Germany were Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen.  The names Dachau and Buchenwald have become household words, but have you ever heard of Sachsenhausen?

Sachsenhausen was set up in 1933 in an old brewery in Oranienburg at the same time that Dachau was set up on the grounds of an abandoned factory in Dachau.  The camp in Oranienburg was not called a Konzentrationslager, so Dachau became the first German concentration camp, using the British name for a camp for civilians in South Africa during the Boer war.

Heinrich Himmler called a press conference to announce the opening of Germany’s first concentration camp at Dachau, but there was little fanfare for the opening of the camp in Oranienburg.  J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI in America, allegedly sent a telegram of congratulations on the opening of Dachau.

Prisoners at Sachsenhausen concentration camp worked in a large brick factory

In 1936, both Dachau and the Oranienburg camp were completely rebuilt.  The name Sachsenhausen was given to the Oranienburg camp. In January 1941, both Dachau and Sachsenhausen were designated Class I camps, where political prisoners were sent to be rehabilitated and then released.  Buchenwald became a class II camp where hard-core political prisoners had little chance of being released.

Entrance into Sachsenhausen concentration camp

Both Dachau and Sachsenhausen had a gatehouse with the words “Arbeit macht Frei” on the gate, but the sign at Buchenwald said “Jedem das Seine,” or everyone gets what he deserves.  Also, sometimes translated as To each his own.

As a child of 12 in 1945, I saw all the newsreels about the gas chamber at Dachau and the human lampshades and shrunken heads at Buchenwald, but there was nothing about Sachsenhausen in the news.

Arson damage at Sachsenhausen has not been repaired

The first time I ever heard of Sachsenhausen was in September 1992 when I saw a small news item in my local newspaper, which reported on a fire that was set by “right-wing extremists” in the Jewish Museum at Sachsenhausen.  I hastened to look up Sachsenhausen in the only Holocaust book I owned at the time, Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners.  But there was no mention of Sachsenhausen in the index.

There is not a nickel’s worth of difference between Dachau and Sachsenhausen.  Both are near a major city: Dachau is close to Munich and Sachsenhausen is not far from Berlin. Both were mainly camps for political prisoners.  Both were set up shortly after the burning of the Reichstag in Berlin on the night of February 27, 1933; the first prisoners at each of these two camps were some of the 2,000 men who were arrested, following the fire, because they were suspected of planning to overthrow the democratically elected German government.

Entrance to Sachsenhausen gas chamber from SS garage

Both camps received around 10,000 Jewish prisoners who were arrested on the night of November 9, 1938, which is called Kristallnacht. Both had a gas chamber.

So why does Sachsenhausen get no respect?

Well, the Sachsenhausen camp was liberated by soldiers in the army of the Soviet Union and they didn’t carry movie cameras around with them. There were no American reporters accompanying the Soviet troops.

Dachau and Buchenwald were liberated by American soldiers who had photographers in the Army Signal Corps and lots of reporters traveling with them. George Stevens, a famous Hollywood director, arrived a couple of days after Dachau was liberated and made a professional quality movie about the camp, including some color footage.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower famously said that the American soldiers didn’t know what they were fighting for, but after they saw Dachau and Buchenwald, they knew what they were fighting against.  Eisenhower didn’t visit Dachau or Buchenwald himself, but he ordered that as many American soldiers as possible should be brought from the battlefield to see these two camps.  These soldiers went home and told their families about what they had seen in the camps.

America didn’t send soldiers from the battlefield to see Sachsenhausen, nor any of the camps that were  liberated by the Soviet Union.  That’s why Sachsenhausen is mostly unknown in America, even to this day.


  1. […] The Sachsenhausen camp was mainly a concentration camp for political prisoners, not a death camp for Jews.  I previously blogged about the Sachsenhausen camp here. […]

    Pingback by Jews from the Netherlands were killed in the Sachsenhausen gas chamber… who knew? | Scrapbookpages Blog — March 9, 2013 @ 10:32 am

  2. The main reason Sachsenhausen is so little known in the States is that at war’s end, it was in East Germany and the Soviets restricted access.

    And they had good reason to restrict access, since they were still operating Sachsenhausen as a concentration camp between 1945 and 1950. Five years after the world thought this nightmare was over, people were still dying in Sachsenhausen and other former German camps.

    Comment by galan05 — February 16, 2010 @ 9:18 pm

    • You are correct that the Sachsenhausen camp became a Soviet prison for Germans after it was liberated. But Buchenwald was also in the Soviet zone and it was also set up as a prison for Germans. Dachau was in the American zone, and it was a prison camp for German war criminals for three years after the camp was liberated. The main difference between these camps is that Sachsenhausen was LIBERATED by the Soviets, and they were remiss in telling about the atrocities that happened there. Dachau, Buchenwald and Mauthausen were all liberated by Americans who immediately told the world about the abuse and murder of the prisoners there. American soldiers are still telling school kids about what they saw at the camps that they liberated.

      Comment by furtherglory — February 16, 2010 @ 10:11 pm

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