Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen and Dachau were the three major concentration camps in Nazi Germany. The fourth major camp was Mauthausen in Austria. During World War II, all four of these camps held Soviet Prisoners of War, and at all four camps, Soviet POWs were executed according to the Commissar Order (Kommissarbefehl) issued by the supreme commander of the German army, Adolf Hitler.
At Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald, the Soviet POWs were shot in the neck through a hole in a measuring stick mounted on a wall. Curiously, this execution method was not used at Dachau or Mauthausen. Hmm, I wonder why?
Germany had signed the Geneva Convention of 1929, which laid out the rules pertaining to the treatment of captured Prisoners of War. The Soviet Union had not signed the Geneva Convention of 1929 and was not following its rules, so Hitler did not feel that Germany was required to follow the rules of the Convention with regard to Soviet POWs.
The photo above shows the half-eaten body of a German soldier in a Soviet POW camp. Can we really blame the Germans for not following the Geneva Convention with regard to Soviet POWs?
After World War II ended, the SS staff members of Buchenwald, Dachau and Mauthausen were prosecuted as war criminals by an American Military Tribunal; they were charged with participating in a “common design” to commit war crimes, including the execution of Soviet POWs. Staff members of the Sachsenhausen camp were prosecuted by the Soviet Union. Both the American prosecutors and the Soviet prosecutors held the Germans to be responsible for following the Geneva Convention with regard to the Soviets, even though the Soviet Union was not a party to the Convention and was not following the rules of the Convention.
Rudolf Hoess, the former Commandant of Auschwitz, wrote the following in his autobiography, regarding the execution of Soviet POWs who were Communist Commissars:
“The reason for this action was given as follows: the Russians were murdering any German soldier who was a member of the Nazi party, especially SS members. Also, the political section of the Red Army had a standing order to cause unrest in every way in any POW camp or places where the POWs worked. If they were caught or imprisoned, they were instructed to perform acts of sabotage.”
The Buchenwald camp guidebook says that 8,000 Soviet Prisoners of War were executed at Buchenwald. At Dachau, the Museum at the Memorial Site says that 6,000 Soviet Prisoners of War were executed. At Sachsenhausen, thousands of Soviet POWs were executed by a shot in the neck and in a gas chamber, according to the Museum there. Thousands more were executed at Mauthausen.
The photo above shows a booth behind the wall where a stick for measuring height was mounted. The executioner stood in the booth and shot POWs through a slit in the wall. Eight thousand Soviet POWs were executed in this manner at Buchenwald, according to the Memorial Site, which I visited in 1999. After each POW was executed, the floor had to be cleaned before the next POW was shot.
The Soviet POWs at Buchenwald could have just been lined up and shot by a firing squad, the way it was done at Dachau, where 6,000 Soviet POWs were shot at the Herbertshausen rifle range, according to the Dachau Museum.
Soviet POWs were allegedly shot for target practice at the Herbertshausen rifle range near the Dachau concentration camp, although this was not proved at the proceedings of the American Military Tribunal against the SS staff at Dachau. The SS men at Dachau were only convicted of participating in a common plan to execute 90 Soviet POWs at Dachau.
We know that the measuring stick device was used at Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen because SS men in those camps confessed to this crime.
At the American Military Tribunal proceedings at Dachau in April 1947 against the staff of the main Buchenwald camp, SS man Horst Dittrich testified for the prosecution. Under interrogation, Dittrich had confessed to the crime of executing Russian POWs at Buchenwald and was awaiting his own trial in a subsidiary case.
During his testimony, Horst Dittrich had no explanation for why this surreptitious and inefficient method of killing was allegedly used to murder 8,000 Russians at Buchenwald, even though the execution of the Commissars had been ordered by the Reich Security Main Office on the authority of Adolf Hitler himself. Dittrich testified that the room had to be cleaned with a water hose after each execution.
In the photograph above, Hermann Helbig (the bald guy on the right) identifies the stable where Russian Commissars were shot. Helbig was one of the executioners. Helbig’s defense was that he had been a soldier for 25 years, and that he was only carrying out orders from his superiors. He said that he had no reason to question the legality of the order. If he had refused to carry out an order given by Hitler, Helbig would have been executed himself, but this was not a defense according to the American Military Tribunal.
The measuring device which was allegedly used to kill Russian Commissars at both Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen was invented by the Commandant at Sachsenhausen, who confessed to this crime. A film of the Sachsenhausen camp was made by the Russians in which this method of execution was explained. The horse stable at Buchenwald has long since been torn down, but a reconstruction of the measuring device is currently shown at the Buchenwald Memorial Site. The measuring device used at Sachsenhausen is also long gone, and there was no reconstruction of it when I visited in 1999.
On the second day of the proceedings against the staff at Sachsenhausen by a Soviet tribunal, a film made in 1946 by the Soviets, entitled “Sachsenhausen Death Camp,” was shown in the courtroom. Similar to the film made by the Americans at Dachau, the Sachsenhausen movie showed how poison gas was introduced into the Sachsenhausen gas chamber through large pipes with control wheels. The Sachsenhausen gas chamber was disguised as a shower room, just like the gas chamber at Dachau, and the pipes resembled water pipes going into a real shower room. Paul Sakowski was shown in the film, as he explained how the gas flowed through the pipes.
Paul Sakowski was a prisoner whose job was foreman of the crematorium at Sachsenhausen until 1943, when the gas chamber was built. The accused in the Sachsenhausen proceedings were not charged with murdering Jews in the Sachsenhausen gas chamber, but rather with the gassing of Soviet Prisoners of War, since the Jews at Sachsenhausen had been transported to Poland, beginning in February 1942, before the gas chamber was built.
At the proceedings against the Dachau staff members by an American Military Tribunal, there was no accusation of gassing Soviet POWs.
After World War II was over, Dachau was in the American zone of occupation while Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen and Mauthausen were in the Soviet zone of occupation.
Why the inconsistencies in the execution procedure at Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen, compared to the procedure at Dachau and Mauthausen? Whenever I see inconsistencies like this, the expression “Something wrong,” famously said by Dr. Henry Lee at the O.J. Simpson trial, enters my mind. Especially when the description of the executions at Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen came from confessions by the accused, I begin to suspect “Something wrong.” The execution devices at Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen were never found, and one of them had to be reconstructed. Something definitely wrong!