And I know one thing more - that the Europe of the future cannot exist without commemorating all those, regardless of nationality, who were killed at that time with complete contempt and hate... Andrzej Szczypiorski, Prisoner
|Sachsenhausen main gate|
The first thing that is difficult to comprehend about Sachsenhausen strikes you before you get to it: this is no isolated space tucked away from prying eyes. The camp is situated in the small town of Oranienburg, 22km or less than an hour's train journey from the centre of Berlin. High-ranking officers lived in mansions around the perimeter and a large SS housing estate bordered the camp - local girls married the men who served there and families lived backing onto the walls and within earshot of the camp's brickworks and shooting gallery. Prisoners were marched through the town between the camp and forced labour details and there are accounts of the residents closing their doors and shutters at the sound of marching feet. The Camp Commandant's office was landscaped with trees and a duck pond and the barracks for the guards were surrounded by gardens. It is almost surreal how much part of the local fabric the camp was and how much of a village feel was created for the men who ran it.
|Plan of the camp showing its triangular shape|
Sachsenhausen was established in 1936 and was initially used to imprison "undesirables" during the prettifying of Berlin that formed the background to the 1936 Olympics. Between then and 1945, over 200,000 people were interned there, including Jews, Sinti and Roma, homosexuals, “career criminals” and “antisocials”. By 1944, about 90 % of the internees were non-Germans, primarily citizens of the Soviet Union and Poland. The camp quickly became the model of what the National Socialists believed a concentration camp should be: an expression of absolute power. The barracks' triangular placement, fanning out from the parade ground, means that every aspect was overlooked by a huge machine gun set on top of the gate. If the prisoners faced the other way they were confronted by a gallows and the roll-call area is bordered by a running track where shoes were tested on a variety of materials, including cinders and cracked stones, by men carrying heavy packs of sand on their backs. Few survived this treatment for more than a matter of days. Visitors (including the industrialists who used its forced labour) were offered tours, the SS were trained there and, in 1938, the “Inspection of the Concentration Camps”, the central administrative office for all concentration camps in the territories controlled by Germany, was moved here.
Due to its proximity to Berlin, Sachsenhausen was a key
forced labour camp. As well as the details in the camp itself, prisoners made up the workforce for the massive Klinkerwerk brickworks on the nearby lock, as well as the munitions factories operated by AEG and Siemens. By 1942, more than 100 satellite details and satellite camps worked out of Sachsenhausen. Tens of thousands of internees died from this forced labour, or from hunger, disease, and the medical experiments which were a feature of the site. In addition many were deliberately murdered, either in a specifically-built “neck shot unit” (the fate of 13,000 Soviet POWs in 1941) and, from 1943, in a purpose built gas chamber. When asked at his trial why he introduced the mass extermination facility, Commandant Anton Kaindl responded "because it was a more efficient and more humane way to exterminate prisoners." On a busy day with school parties everywhere on site I have never been anywhere so silent as the remains of that chamber.
|Memorial to the dead|
In 1945, with the war nearing its end, Sachsenhausen,
along with the rest of the camps, was cleared. In February an SS special unit headed by Otto Moll murdered 3,000 internees who were considered dangerous (which could mean because they had military training) or were declared unfit and another 13,000 were taken to be killed at Mauthausen and Bergen-Belsen. On the 21 April more than 30,000 remaining internees were marched off on Death Marches towards the north-west, the intention, according to Kaindl's trial transcripts, being "to drive them onto barges out to sea and let them sink." The number who died remains unknown. On 22 April 1945, units of the Soviet and Polish armies liberated the 3,000 prisoners left behind due to sickness. 300 of the camp’s former inmates did not survive their liberation and died, and are buried, there.
|Soviet barracks for German prisoners|
This, however, was not the end of Sachsenhausen's story. From August 1945, Sachsenhausen became Special Camp No 7: an internment camp for German officers and political prisoners held by the Soviet Union. By 1948, the site, by now renamed Special Camp No.1, was the largest of three special camps in the Soviet Occupation Zone which together held over 60,000 prisoners. Information at the site describes the conditions during this period as inhuman: "Hunger and cold prevailed in the Special Camp. The inadequate hygienic and sanitary conditions and the insufficient nourishment led to disease and epidemics." By 1950 when the camp closed, another 12,500 men were added to the role of Sachsenhausen's dead.
The first memorial at Sachsenhausen was inaugurated in 1961
by the pre-reunification East German government. In line with their thinking, the main emphasis then was on the role of political resistance. An obelisk was erected in the middle of the site which carries 18 red triangles, to commemorate the 18 nationalities of the political prisoners held there between 1936-45. Post reunification, along with other sites of this nature, the emphasis was on the victims who suffered and died. That two systems remembered Sachsenhausen in different ways caused problems for the site and how it was to be used and there are still visitors today who find the juxtaposition of Soviet and German memorials complicated. It is, I think, to the site's credit that the question of what it exists for is still under scrutiny. The historian Gunther Morsch, a previous director of the Sachsenhausen memorial and museum, has been very vocal about the need to re-examine how we approach these places, particularly in a political climate which is seeing a rise in populism and the right. "We want to keep honoring the victims. And most exhibitions are about their fate. But it has become clear that the emphasis must be shifted to the perpetrators' motives and the structures that enabled these crimes to be committed. More and more visitors were rightly asking, "How could such a thing happen?" and "Is it possible today?" Unfortunately, the second question had to be answered in the affirmative, because "National Socialism actually showed in its most radical form what people are capable of – even today."
|The red triangle memorial|
Sachsenhausen does not shy away from exploring the systematic extermination policy of the Nazis and its impact on individuals. The site is full of personal testimony which makes the numbers real and an art exhibition by former inmates which is both heart-breaking and hopeful. It is a brave place to visit - both for what it is trying to tell and what it demands from its visitors. If you go, don't take a tour - they'll whisk you through and serve you a potted version. Get the train from Berlin and walk from the station, it's horribly close. I spent a day there, too much in some ways, not enough in others. I wish I could go back and drag everyone who doesn't get the need for humanity and a united Europe with me. I defy even the toughest nut not to crack.