Between the end of 1944 and the first months of the 1945, when war was evidently lost for Germany, the Nazis did not surrender to the idea that all prisoners inside the concentration camps could have been freed by the enemy forces. All the prisoners kept in lagers outside Germany were soon forced to march back into the Nazi country with the famous “Death Marches”, in which many prisoners died of starvation, cold, exertion, and killed as soon as they were slowing down the pace.
On the 8th of April 1945, from the camp of Buchenwald the “Train of the Death” left, heading to the lager of Dachau where the ones who survived arrived on the 27th of April. Dachau, the first concentration camp ever built by the Nazis, in 1933 was not too far from Munich, the city where the 45th Infantry Division of the US was going. Once at the camp, on the 29th of April 1945, the allies figured out what the consequences of the Nazi ideology were.
39 wagons into which they had placed around 2,000 dead men, bodies which were skeletons even before dying.
Even though the mere view of all that was left was enough to raise anger, dismay and scepticism amongst the American soldiers, the smell of the putrefaction mixed with their excrement caused, to veterans used to see bodies dismantled in the mines, burnt alive or killed in other horrendous ways, a heavy reaction:
Vomit, crying and hysterical outburst
Below: prisoners shacks in Dachau. Picture taken on the day of the liberation
Inside the camp there were rooms full of corpses piling up one over the other and the stench of death was pervading the air in the whole lager. The America soldiers asked to the SS to give up but it took a couple of hours of battling before the two German officers would come forward with a white flag. What happened after the surrender of the Nazis is still not officially verified in details. It is clear though that the liberators reacted to the horror by killing many soldiers and officers in the camp, setting in motion that which was later on described as “Dachau liberation reprisals” or “Dachau massacre”.
Below: the bodies of the SS who had shot the American forces with their machine guns
The results of the investigation was supposed to clarify the Americans behaviour, going against the Geneva Conventions (on the treatment of prisoners of war) were kept hidden, while the people involved in the event have always been reluctant when it came to talk about it. One of the American officers present at the episode, Felix Sparks, wrote:
“the total number of German guards killed in Dachau during that day certainly does not exceed 50, and 30 is probably a more realistic figure”.
After 40 years from the events, the medical officer Howard A. Buechner published a book titled “Dachau: The hour of the Avenger” in which he expressed his version of the events on that 29th of April 1945. In particular of “the deliberate killing of 520 prisoners of war by the American soldiers”.
Basically mass executions to which he did not partake nor attend though
According to Buechner, at the massacre there were 19 American soldiers present, at the time of the book publication all dead by 3, in 1986. However, when the results of the official investigation were made public in 1991, the sworn statements made by Buechner did not match what he had written on his book.
Another witness, Abram Sachar, wrote a report of the events as well in his “The day of the Americans”. Some of the Nazis were gathered and summarily executed along with the guard dogs. Two of the most famous guards had been undressed before the arrival of the Americans to prevent them from leaving unnoticed. They were killed too.
Below: Nazi soldiers execution in Dachau
But that 29th of April was also the day of revenge for two prisoners. After the liberation many SS were executed by the prisoners:
“In all those years we had been animals for them, and that day was our day of rebirth”. Walenty Lenarczyk
Below: coloured picture of a prisoner in Buchenwald pointing at a SS
Jack Goldman was freed in Dachau and afterwards he joined the American army. While pondering over the happening of that day and the concept of revenge, Goldman said to have understood the sentiments of those prisoners:
“I knew the men of the camp who had sworn on all that was sacred from them that, if they had ever managed to leave that place alive, they would have slayed all the Nazis in sight. They had to see their wives being mutilated. They had to watch while their children were thrown in the air and shot to death”.
In between all that horror, Goldman still remembered with sentiment that, after the liberation, the American soldiers were registering the dead with their own names.
“For the first time in ages they were not numbers anymore”.
Below: Dachau prisoners freed by the American troops
The investigation led by the American Armed Forces could take the officers involved in front of a court martial but the General Patton, nominated military governor of Bavaria, decided to push away the accusations. Even though a violation of the Geneva Conventions has possibly happened, by the end of 1945 “in the light of the conditions which appeared to the first troops”, the substituted military prosecutor affirmed that it was at that point “a complex and perhaps impossible task being able to establish the individual responsibility”.
What happened on that 29th of April 1945, day of liberation and revenge, it will probably never emerge completely. The respect for the international conventions and right of the tribunal has certainly be stepped on, perhaps considering that a non expected type of justice had been applied there.
Maybe in everyone’s heard, (almost) everyone believes that, at least in this case, the arbitrary executions were justified and justifiable
Yet it cannot be this way: nobody has the right to take the place of justice.
All pictures are in the Public Domain