While the names of the extermination camps further east – such as Auschwitz and Treblinka – are etched darkly in the annals of human history as centres of the Holocaust, it was at the concentration camps and killing facilities on German soil, such as Sachsenhausen, that the Nazi plans for divide and rule, annihilation through work, and industrial mass murder, were first implemented.
Predating the invasion of Poland and the implementation of Operation Reinhardt, a series of detention facilities were built in Germany to house political prisoners, subversives, and perceived enemies of the Nazi regime. To the south of Germany – the infamous Dacha camp, near Munich – in the centre, near Weimar, the Buchenwald facility – and north, near Hitler’s capital, the camp that would grow to become most significant of the three major German ideological penitentiaries – Sachsenhausen.
The camp is situated on the outskirts of the sleepy village of Oranienburg, that was for a long time unremarkable except for its name – an illustration of the connection between the Imperial German and Prussian Hohenzollern royal family and the Dutch house of Orange.
Passing through its streets and amongst its commonplace tenements now, it may seem an unlikely location for a Nazi camp. Except for its close proximity, a mere 35km north, to the city of Berlin – the one time Nazi Reichshauptstadt – and significantly on the important Baltic railway line leading to Rostock.
From its inception in 1936, around 200,000 enemies of the National Socialist Weltanschauung and so-called ‘people’s community’ (Volksgemeinschaft) would pass through the gates of this Nazi concentration camp. The iconic ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ lettering, a mocking gesture designed to send the message that with good behaviour and dedication to reform the prisoners would be granted their freedom – where the only freedom guaranteed was death.
Around half of the individuals who would pass through the gates of the camp would perish over the nine miserable years of its operation.
While the early prisoners would be detained for political crimes and forced to endure brutal forced labour and wretched conditions, the net cast across German society by National Socialist policy would eventually widen to include homosexuals, Jehovah’s witnesses, the work-shy, so-called race traitors (Rassenschander) – and from 1938, jewish citizens.
From the gated entrance to the camp at Tower A, to the isolation barracks, the special prison, the infirmary, kitchen, and industrial yard – used for executions – this camp would be designed with one purpose in mind, to ensure the forced subjugation of the prisoners. And to create a geometry of terror – ensuring that the minimal amount of pressure applied could result in the maximum amount of pain and control.
One of the largest counterfeiting operation in history (Operation Bernhard) took place at Sachsenhausen with inmates forced to produce over one billion British pounds in the hope of undermining the Allied economies.
Beyond its simple role as a detention facility – where unlike a normal prison, the prisoners were denied due process and the right to a fair trial but rather apprehend and incarcerated into protective custody (Schutzhaft) – Sachenhausen would also serve as a proving ground for the hundreds of perpetrators who would find gainful employment with the Nazi regime.
A system that would seem men like Karl Otto Koch, the camp’s first commandant, and Rudolf Höss, who would serve as administrator of prisoners’ property. Both men would advance their careers through the SS concentration camp hierarchy, with Koch continuing to attain the commandant position at Buchenwald, while Höss would become the longest standing commandant at Auschwitz – overseeing the implementation of the industrial mass killing process using Zyklon B gas at the camp.
Unlike the early detention facilities opened in Nazi Germany following Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933, the later camps such as Sachsenhausen would fall under the administration of Adolf Hitler’s personal bodyguard and the ideological force of the Schutzstaffel (SS) – headed by Heinrich Himmler. While Himmler was known to visit the facilities and take a hands on approach to overseeing the implementation of the Nazi plans, there is no evidence that Hitler ever stepped foot in Sachsenhausen – or any of the concentration camps.
SS jurisdiction over the camps, such as Sachsenhausen, would mean that prisoners would be utilised for labour – or “Annihilation through work” as stated by Himmler. Beyond the triangle-shaped layout of the central part of Sachsenhausen, this facility also included several subcamps and factories where prisoner labour would be utilised. Notably the aircraft manufacturer, Heinkel, was a major user of Sachsenhausen labour, as were AEG and Siemens.
Although built by the Nazi, the camp would be liberated and inherited by the Soviets in 1945 – only to be reopened as an NKVD/KGB detention camp for political prisoners and inmates sentenced by Soviet Military Tribunals. Some 60,000 people would be interned here over five years, at the largest of three special camps in the Soviet Occupation Zone.
Eventually, following the establishment of the East German state, Sachsenhausen would be opened as a memorial – focused mainly on the suffering of political prisoners, such as the Commuist and Social Democrat inmates. Its present day form as a museum is a consequence of German reunification in 1990. And while several buildings and structures survive or have been reconstructed, such as the guard towers, the camp entrance, crematory ovens and the camp barracks – it is most noteworthy for its factual assessment of the darkest chapter in German history and lasting role as a place of remembrance for the people the National Socialist regime would much rather be forgotten.