Scrapbookpages Blog

April 11, 2010

The execution of Soviet POWs at Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen

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?

Soviet Prisoners of War at Mauthausen concentration camp

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.

Body of German soldier in Russian POW Camp 2, Stalag 305, 1941

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.

Measuring stick with a slit through which shots were fired

Shooting booth behind the measuring stick

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.

Rifle range at Herbertshausen where Soviet POWs were shot

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.

Horst Dittrich, on the right, testifies at American Military Tribunal

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.

Hermann Helbig identifies execution location at Buchenwald

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.

Hermann Helbig executed Soviet POWs at Buchenwald

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 explains the operation of the Sachsenhausen gas chamber

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!


  1. The Germans invaded the Soviet Union and therefore should have been bound by the Geneva Convention which they signed. Germany was the aggressor and should not have expected mercy after their unprovoked criminal invasion.

    Comment by david smith — December 12, 2014 @ 11:52 pm

    • That is amusing. If only the one party who signs it should be bound by it, WHY sign it at all! Its quiet stupid. The point of even signing it is that others will also abide by the same rules of war you are. IT doesn’t matter who invaded who, war is war, and in a war situation if they abide by certain rules, yet the enemy doesn’t even acknowledge these rules it would be self-destructive to follow them to the benefit of the enemy. THAT is criminal. Moreover, the Soviet themselves were aggressors and criminals, and should NOT have expected mercy from Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian and Ukrainian Wehrmacht Volunteers which the Soviets abused, invaded and deported millions to Siberia.

      Comment by Mike — February 12, 2015 @ 8:15 pm

  2. Thanks. I hope Sakowski is good and dead.

    Comment by paulosilv — April 15, 2010 @ 11:05 pm

    • The accused in the tribunals held by the Soviet Union were forced to confess to their alleged crime before the proceedings began and their confession was then read in court. If the accused did not confess, they were not brought into court until they did confess. Paul Sakowski was a prisoner in the camp who was in charge of executions. He was just following orders. If he hadn’t followed orders, he would have been killed.

      Comment by furtherglory — April 15, 2010 @ 11:41 pm

  3. Paul Sakowski testified about the gas chamber at Sachsenhausen, but not about the execution of Soviet POWs by shooting.

    Paul Sakowski was a former camp inmate who was the foreman of the crematorium and operator of the gas chamber; he was one of the 12 men that were sentenced to life in prison.

    The convicted men were sent to the NKVD prison in Berlin-Schönhausen, where they were imprisoned for four weeks following the verdict. They were then taken to the Workuta camp complex on the Polar Sea where they were forced to work in the coal mines. Within five short months, by the Spring of 1948, Anton Kaindl, the camp Commandant, and 5 of the 12 staff members were dead.

    On January 14, 1956, the surviving SS men who had been convicted and sentenced to life in prison, were released and they returned to West Germany, then officially known as the Federal Republic of Germany. Paul Sakowski, who was not a member of the SS, stayed in East Germany where he served the remainder of his sentence which had been reduced to 15 years, in the Brandenburg Penitentiary, finally being released in 1972.

    After their return to West Germany, most of the convicted war criminals from “the Berlin trial” were put on trial again in German courts for crimes against German nationals. Those who were convicted were not sent to prison because they were considered to be unfit for imprisonment again after their ordeal in the NKVD prison.

    Comment by furtherglory — April 15, 2010 @ 7:30 am

  4. What about the testimony of Paul Sakowski? Does this stand? Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be much news about whatever became of him.

    Comment by paolosilv — April 14, 2010 @ 11:40 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: