The Nazi Arbeitlager camps and death camps were liberated by Allied forces during late 1944 and 1945. In most cases, these camps were partially destroyed and abandoned by the fleeing SS. The liberation of the camps exposed the full horror of the Nazi Final Solution and the mass killing of Jews and other minorities.
The Allies approach
The liberation of the camps began with the Allied landing in Normandy on D-Day. From this point, the Nazis were caught between two fronts: the Americans, British and others moving towards Germany from the west and the Soviet Red Army advancing from the east.
In the summer of 1944, Soviet forces in central Poland advanced west into Nazi-occupied territory.
The Soviets were closer to the six most 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 had been 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.
By late 1944, as the Soviets displaced the Nazis from Poland, Berlin moved 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.
Later, similar orders were given for camps elsewhere. SS Reichsfuhrer Himmler issued the following directives for camps in southern Germany:
To the camp commandants of Dachau and Flossenbuerg:
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
Delays in receiving these orders, the speed of the Soviet advance and panic amongst Nazi troops meant these orders were rarely carried out in full.
The first major camp liberated by the Soviets was Majdanek in central Poland in late July 1944. Majdanek’s guards had set fire to the crematoria before fleeing, but most of the camp was left intact, along 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, though the Nazis had destroyed most of the camp. There were no surviving prisoners.
On the same day the Soviets were inspecting Chelmno, SS guards were beginning to evacuate 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 SS started fires in all three camps but with only partial success. A few warehouses were destroyed and there was some damage to gas chambers and crematoria. There was still considerable evidence of genocide and atrocities around 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 east 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.
US soldiers liberated Dachau on April 29th, finding horrific scenes such as railway cars full of corpses that had been decaying for weeks. So angered were some American troops that they murdered between 30 and 100 of the SS guards who had surrendered. Later, US commanders forced civilians from the nearby town to inspect the camp, to inspect what they had either tacitly supported or turned a blind eye too.
The British also liberated concentration camps and labour camps in northern Germany, such as Bergen-Belsen (April 15th) and Neuengamme (May 4th).
When the American and British forces liberated these camps, they were often accompanied by civilian journalists. American war correspondent Edward R. Murrow was one of the first journalists to arrive at Buchenwald. He later described some of its horrors to his listeners on CBS, closing with the statement: “I have reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it. For most of it, I have no words.”
British reporter Richard Dimbleby with soldiers at the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. Dimbleby filed a 14-minute radio report in which he broke down several times. So graphic and unbelievable was his report that the BBC initially refused to broadcast it, later putting to air an editing version.
In April 1945, the British government assembled a filmmaking crew, headed by Sidney Bernstein and Alfred Hitchcock, to produce an extensive documentary record of the Nazi death camps. They visited 14 different locations and shot hours of film, some of which was later used at the Nuremberg trials. The final film, “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey” was never completed or shown to the public until 2014.
The US and Soviet Union also produced documentary films of the camps and their human suffering. “Death Mills”, a 22-minute film by American Billy Wilder, was created for the purpose of showing Germans what had taken place at the hands of their government.
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 conceal 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.