The Nazi Arbeitlager and death camps were overrun and liberated during late 1944 and 1945. Most were reached
The liberation of the camps exposed the full horror of the Final Solution and Nazi ethnic cleansing.
In the summer of 1944, as Soviet forces in central Poland advanced into Nazi-held territory, they closer to the network of SS concentration camps. The Soviets were closer to the six notorious ‘death camps’: Belzec, Treblinka, Sobibor, Majdanek, Chelmno and Auschwitz-Birkenau. The first three of these were already closed, shut down by the Nazis in the summer and autumn of 1943. Belzec, where up to 500,000 Jews and Romany were killed using carbon monoxide gas generated by petrol engines, was closed in June 1943. Belzec was a victim of its own efficiency: it had killed so many so quickly that the south-east sector of Poland was virtually cleared of Jews. At Treblinka, more than 800,000 Jews were gassed and cremated, before it was liquidated in August 1943 following a prisoner riot. At Sobibor, the easternmost of the six death camps, more than 250,000 Jews were killed, before a successful mass break-out saw it closed down in October 1943.
Surrender is out of the question! The camp is to be evacuated immediately. No prisoner is to fall into the hands of the enemy alive.
Heinrich Himmler, April 1945
By mid-1944, as the Soviets displaced the Nazis from central Poland, Berlin attempted to conceal the worst of the Final Solution. Orders were issued for the liquidation of concentration camps. Camp facilities were to be dismantled, and any evidence of genocide – surviving prisoners, gas chambers, crematoria, corpses, inmates’ belongings and written records – were to be burned. But delays in receiving these orders, the speed of the Soviet advance and panic amongst Nazi troops meant they were rarely carried out in full. The first major concentration camp to be liberated by the Soviets was Majdanek in central Poland, in late July 1944. Majdanek’s guards had set fire to the crematoria before fleeing, however most of the camp was left intact, with ample evidence of the murder which had occurred there. On January 17th 1945 Russian troops also captured Chelmno, the smallest of the extermination facilities, however the Nazis had destroyed most of the camp. There were no surviving prisoners.
On the same day as the Soviets were inspecting the debris at Chelmno, SS guards were commencing the evacuation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Almost 60,000 surviving prisoners were forced to march for days to the Czechoslovakian border, as many as one-quarter of them dying en route. Those who survived this death march were then redistributed to other concentration camps across Germany and Austria. Most ended up in Bergen-Belsen, including teenage diarist Anne Frank and her sister Margot (both died there from typhus in March 1945). Around 7,000 prisoners who were too ill or malnourished to march were left behind at Auschwitz, unguarded and without food. Soviet soldiers found these prisoners when they entered the complex on January 27th 1945. With the assistance of Russian soldiers, some emaciated prisoners found and feasted on stores of German tinned meat; several of them died because their deprived digestive systems could not cope. Shortly before evacuating Auschwitz the Nazis had started fires in all three camps, but with limited success: a few warehouses were destroyed and there was partial damage to some gas chambers and crematoria. There was still evidence of genocide and atrocities all over the compound, including piles of bodies buried under snow or crammed into storerooms.
Concentration camps in Germany itself were liberated by soldiers from the United States and Britain. The first to be liberated by American troops was Buchenwald, near Weimar. The Nazis began to evacuate Buchenwald in early April 1945, forcing thousands of prisoners to relocate further out of Allied reach. On April 11th, a group of prisoners seized control of the camp, fearing that the retreating SS guards would attempt to slaughter them. The Americans arrived later that day. They were followed by several American press men, who filed harrowing reports about the condition of Buchenwald’s surviving 20,000 inmates. Edward R. Murrow’s radio report, broadcast back in America three days later, described them as “human skeletons, walking around” (click on audio symbol, above). US soldiers also liberated Dachau on April 29th, finding horrific scenes, such as railway cars full of corpses which had been decaying for weeks. So angered and disturbed were some American troops that they murdered between 30 and 100 of the SS guards, who had surrendered. US commanders later forced civilians from the nearby town to inspect the camp, to witness what they had tacitly supported. The British also liberated concentration camps and labour camps in northern Germany, such as Bergen-Belsen (April 15th) and Neuengamme (May 4th).
1. The invasion of the Soviet Union (1941) and the Allied D-Day landings saw Germany fighting a two-front war.
2. As Soviet forces pushed from the east, they approached the Nazi death camps operating in Poland.
3. The SS attempted to ‘cover up’ their genocidal activity by evacuating inmates and destroying evidence.
4. Soviets liberated Majdanek in July 1944, then Chelmno and Auschwitz in January 1945, exposing Nazi atrocities.
5. In 1945 US and British troops liberated concentration camps in Germany, such as Buchenwald and Dachau.