Michael Hirsh has interviewed dozens of GIs who had a part in the Allied liberation of the German concentration camps in 1945. Out of those interviews he has ascertained that the concentration camps had multiple purposes. They were never part of a static system. And they were still being built and closed in the last years of the war. For one thing the Russian army had broken the back of the Wehrmacht, and as the Russian armies moved west, the Germans moved their prison population west, ahead of the Russians. They were intent upon hiding evidence of the terrible condition that the camps were in at that point in the war.
There is considerable speculation by Hirsh and other historians of the War about what the German citizens knew of these camps, often located in wooded areas near them. More to the point: How much did the American military leadership know of the camps, where they were located, and the conditions under which the inmates were being held? And transferred to other camps?
There is the famous story of Generals Eisenhower, Bradley, and Patton visiting the concentration camp at Ohrdruf in Thuringia, part of the Buchenwald camp network intended for political prisoners. Prisoners of War were kept in Stalags, military prison camps, though they were later mixed in with political prisoners in the concentration camps.
(The smell; everyone mentions the smell. Of rotting corpses. General Patton’s response was to go off and regurgitate.)
The Allied military leadership has often been criticized for not having prepared the front-line soldiers likely to encounter these camps,as their visit to Ohrdruf revealed. But they were in a hurry. The British and American armies were occupying the German heartland, and they wanted that momentum to continue. Hirsh makes the point that the future of Occupied Germany was at risk. We were staking out the American Zone of Occupation; the Russians their zone.
As they were moved west, many of the camps’ inmates were packed into railway cattle cars. (Standing room only!) And since these trains packed with prisoners had a low priority, they were sometimes parked for days on rail sidings. And when unsealed, they were found to contain hundreds of dead and dying men. As more inmates were moved west and railway cars weren’t available, the result was another horror; the death marches.
The flight of the German guards in these prisons was often preceded by a final orgy of indiscriminate torture and killing. Many of the camp guards, members of the SS, Schutzstaffel, were shot or beaten to death by their former wards. They were often toughs, who had guarded Nazi party rallies.
There is the oft-told story of the dead being stacked like logs, awaiting their cremation. And locals, often young men, were drafted to dig the graves for their charred remains.
Retribution on the part of the inmates was an understandable response to the way they had been treated, but this free-for-all was not the kind of justice that the Anglo-American leadership intended for post-war Germany. The camp inmates often expressed the hope that the liberators would stay on to look after them but also to protect them against the possibility of a return of the camp guards.
It is interesting to note how frequently the gates to the concentration camps became symbols of the entire prison system. Perhaps the most famous is the entrance to Auschwitz, where the wrought-iron gate reads Arbeit macht Sie frei. “Work makes you free.”
Germany surrendered unconditionally on 7 May 1945. The war was over, and the liberators and their stories returned to this country. But much was left to be sorted out in Germany. Polish Jews who attempted to return to Poland found the same antisemitism that had forced them to leave their homeland.
For this book, Hirsh interviewed many American veterans who had been part of the liberation of the concentration camps. Many had trouble talking about their experience. They got over it; there were lots of opportunities to talk to American high school students about the Holocaust and their part in the liberation.
Most of these veterans are now approaching the age of 100. They will soon disappear from the ‘memory bank’ along with their aging memories. How will memories of World War II be altered once these liberators are dead?
The camps will, however, remain always a world of anger and remorse, for the historians of WWII and their readership to shape and reshape over time.