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April 11, 2012

The “Liberation” of Buchenwald 67 years ago today

Filed under: Buchenwald, Germany, World War II — Tags: , , — furtherglory @ 10:30 am

American soldiers arriving at the entrance to Buchenwald camp

I put the word “liberation” in quotes in the title of my blog post today because the Buchenwald concentration camp was not actually liberated.  Four American soldiers in the Sixth Armored Division of the US Third Army arrived at the main Buchenwald camp around 5 p.m. on April 11, 1945 AFTER the Communist prisoners, who ran the camp, had already taken over, killing some of the guards and forcing the rest of the guards to flee into the surrounding forest.  The photo above shows American soldiers arriving at Buchenwald to tour the camp a few days after the camp was taken over by the inmates.

Regarding the liberation of Buchenwald on April 11, 1945, Robert Abzug wrote the following in his book Inside the Vicious Heart:

The Americans were met by reasonably healthy looking, armed prisoners ready to help administer distribution of food, clothing, and medical care. These same prisoners, an International Committee with the Communist underground leader Hans Eiden at its head, seemed to have perfect control over their fellow inmates.

Pfc. James Hoyt was driving the M8 armored vehicle which brought Capt. Frederic Keffer, Tech. Sgt. Herbert Gottschalk and Sgt. Harry Ward to the Buchenwald camp that day.

Communist prisoners at Buchenwald had disarmed the guards and stacked the weapons outside the camp before American liberators arrived

The following quote is from a CNN news story on the occasion of the death of James Hoyt on August 14, 2008 at the age of 83:

According to military records, Keffer was the officer in command of the six-wheeled armored vehicle that day. The soldiers were part of the Army’s 6th Armored Division near the camp when about 15 SS troopers were captured. It was mid-afternoon.

“At the same time, a group of Russians just escaped from the concentration camp, burst out of the woods attempting to attack the SS men. The Russians were restrained and interrogated,” Maj. Gen. R.W. Grow, the American commander of the 6th Armored Division, wrote in a 1975 letter about the Buchenwald liberation.

Keffer was ordered to take his three comrades and two of the Russian prisoners “as guides to investigate, report and rejoin as rapidly as possible.”

“I took this side journey of about 3 km away from our main force because we kept encountering SS guards and prison inmates, and the latter told us of the large camp to the south,” Keffer wrote in a letter around the 30th anniversary of the liberation.

“We had been told by our intelligence that we might overrun a large prison camp, but we — or at least I — had no idea of either the gigantic size of the camp or of the full extent of the incredible brutality.”

Keffer and Gottschalk, who spoke German, entered the camp through a hole in an electric barbed wire fence. Hoyt and Ward initially stayed at the vehicle.

“We were tumultuously greeted by what I was told were 21,000 men, and what an incredible greeting that was,” Keffer wrote. “I was picked up by arms and legs, thrown into the air, caught, thrown again, caught, thrown, etc., until I had to stop it. I was getting dizzy.

“How the men found such a surge of strength in their emaciated condition was one of those bodily wonders in which the spirit sometimes overcomes all weaknesses of the flesh. My, but it was a great day!”

Keffer said the prisoners, through an underground system, had already taken control of the camp. The four soldiers notified division command to get medical help and food to the prisoners as soon as possible.

The 6th Armored Division newspaper “Armored Attacker” ran a headline on May 5, 1945: “Four 9th AIB Doughs Find Buchenwald.” The article described the discovery as “the worst concentration camp yet to be uncovered by west wall troops.”

Hoyt, a Bronze Star recipient and veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, was the last of the four original liberators to die.

Note that the headline in the 6th Armored Division newspaper said: Four 9th AIB Doughs (doughboys) FIND Buchenwald.  Credit for finding Buchenwald goes to the 6th Armored Division.  Credit for liberating Buchenwald goes to the Communist prisoners in the camp.

The typical American soldier in World War II was a 19-year-old youth, fresh from the farms and small towns of a country that was less than 200 years old. Most of them had never been outside their home state and the closest they had ever come to the kind of sights they were seeing in Germany was a picture in an encyclopedia. Some of the towns and villages they were marching through had been in existence for 700 years before America had even been seen by a white man. The war-time destruction of this ancient culture, which they were participating in, must have been mind-boggling. Most of these soldiers had no clear idea of why they were fighting the Germans, as General Dwight D. Eisenhower admitted.

After crossing the Rhine river, Germany’s ancient line of defense, on the night of March 22, 1945, the US Third Army, commanded by General George S. Patton, was advancing through the middle of Germany toward a pre-determined line where they would stop and wait for the Russian troops advancing from the east. In their path were four charming old towns laid out like a string of pearls in a straight line through the Horsel Valley on Highway F7: Eisenach, Gotha, Erfurt, and Weimar.

This was the heartland of German culture, the old stamping grounds of such German greats as Goethe, Schiller, Liszt, Herder, Nietzsche, Cranach, Luther, and Bach. Today these four cities draw millions of tourists who want to follow in the footsteps of the famous on “the Classics Road.” The area has long been known for its well preserved medieval villages and its gemütliche German people.

By April 1st, which was Easter Sunday, the American soldiers were approaching the first town, Eisenach, on the northwestern edge of the Thuringian Forest. Eisenach has been at the center of German culture since the Middle Ages; it is where Johann Sebastian Bach was born and the place where Martin Luther holed up in a castle to translate the Bible. A few miles down the road is the town of Erfurt, the place from which St. Boniface set out on his mission to convert the Germans to Christianity.

The Buchenwald concentration camp was located 5 miles from the town of Weimar.  It was at Weimar that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Germany’s most famous writer, had lived from 1775 until his death in 1832. The area, where the concentration camp now stood, had been his favorite forest retreat, where he had sat under an oak tree. When a spot in the forest on the Ettersberg was cleared for the Buchenwald camp, Goethe’s oak was left standing, and when the tree was killed in an Allied bombing raid on the camp on August 24, 1944, the Nazis cut it down but carefully preserved the stump.

The stump of Goethe's oak tree inside the Buchenwald camp

The 6th Armored Division of General Patton’s US Third Army had approached Weimar from the northwest, when they discovered Buchenwald, which was on a wooded hill called the Ettersberg, 8 kilometers north of the historic town of Weimar. The prisoners had already hoisted a white flag of surrender by the time the Americans arrived. The soldiers in the Sixth Armored Division would not see the ruins of Weimar, the citadel of German culture, until the following day.

Weimar was the last residence of Friedrich von Schiller, a German writer whose patriotism and nationalism had encouraged the unification of Germany in 1871. The famous composers, Franz Liszt and Johann Sebastian Bach, had both lived for a time in Weimar, and the famous philosopher, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, had spent his last days there. In April 1945, Germany had long been recognized as the most cultured country in the Western world, as well as the most technically advanced.  But all anyone cares about today is the Buchenwald concentration camp; you never hear about the destruction of the city of Weimar by American bombs.  There were no factories in Weimar and there was no reason to bomb the city, except to destroy German landmarks.