General George S. Patton at Buchenwald

General George Patton visited the Buchenwald concentration camp for the first time on April 15, 1945, according to his autobiography, but he didn't make a special trip to see it. It was only a side jaunt, suggested by General Walton Walker, after Patton had flown to Weimar to visit what he thought was going to be his next Command Post. On the day of Patton's visit, thousands of German civilians from Weimar were being marched through the camp at gun point, on the orders of General Walker.

In his book, General Patton wrote with great insensitivity that "The inmates looked like feebly animated mummies and seemed to be of the same level of intelligence."

Harry Peters, a Jewish soldier from Chicago, who was with Patton's Third Army, told his nephew, Phil Cohen, that "Patton was more concerned with saving the Lipizanner Horses in Austria than the Jews left in the camp." According to Cohen, "Patton had to be ordered to go to the concentration camps because he considered the horses more valuable." Cohen wrote in an e-mail to me that his uncle, Harry Peters, had told him that "Patton admired the SS because he said they were the real fighting men. When they caught an SS, they were ordered to place them in separate camps as Patton wanted to train them to fight the Russians." Because he spoke Yiddish, Peters was assigned to interview the Buchenwald survivors about war crimes committed in the camp. Peters lived for only 6 years after the war and had nightmares about the Buchenwald camp each night, according to his nephew, Phil Cohen.

On the same day that General Patton visited Buchenwald, the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was voluntarily turned over to the British, after several days of negotiations. A British film crew, which arrived at Bergen-Belsen a day or two later, captured the unforgettable sight of thousands of bodies, which were nothing but skin and bones, being shoved into a mass grave with a bulldozer, and horrified American movie-goers were treated to the worst spectacle of the whole Nazi ignominy.

General Patton wrote that the Buchenwald prisoners were being fed 800 calories per day, although he says in another passage that the American POWs in another camp were subsisting on food supplied by the Red Cross because the Germans had no food to give them. During the war, the American Red Cross published a monthly Prisoners of War Bulletin which was sent to families of American POWs in German and Japanese camps. The March 1945 issue, which is Vol. 3, No. 3, describes the "Transportation Crisis in Germany," and details the problems the Red Cross had in getting food packages to the camps because of the disruption of the German transportation system by Allied bombing raids.

The following quote is from an article in the Red Cross publication:

For four years the Germans maintained a rather unusual record in delivering punctiliously the relief supplies for war prisoners in Germany. Whether the particular German officials who established this record will have the strength to prevail over present less organized conditions remains to be seen.

Regarding the conditions in the Buchenwald camp, General Patton wrote the following in his autobiography:

If a sufficient number (of the Buchenwald prisoners) did not die of starvation or if, for other reasons, it was desirable to remove them without waiting for nature to take its course, they were dropped down a chute into a room which had a number of hooks like those on which one hangs meat in a butcher shop, about eight feet from the floor.

From the execution room in the Buchenwald set-up there was an elevator, hand operated, which carried the corpses to an incinerator plant on the floor above.

Pictured below is the basement execution room, which the Germans referred to as a morgue, where bodies were stored before they were cremated. The "chute," which General Patton described, had been designed to drop corpses down into the basement room. At Sachsenhausen, there is a corpse slide which was used to roll bodies down into a morgue that was not used as an execution room.

In the photograph below, you can see exposed black water pipes and hooks along the ceiling.

"Execution room" in basement of crematorium building

As shown in the recent picture above, tourists can see the infamous meat hooks, which are about the size and shape of horseshoes, attached to the wall of the "execution room."

According to the Buchenwald Report, before they fled the camp in fear of their lives, the Nazis tried to cover up their atrocities.

The following quote is from the Buchenwald Report:

They removed the meat hooks used for hanging bodies, cemented in the holes, and covered up the blood-spattered walls with a fresh coat of white paint. In their haste, however, they did not completely finish the job of hiding the evidence: After liberation, an American medical officer reported seeing four hooks still in the wall and partially filled holes for forty-four more, as well as a bloodstained club.

There are now at least two dozen hooks on the wall, some of which are in a section of the room that is not shown in the photograph above. Some of the Buchenwald prisoners told the American liberators that the hooks were used to hang the bodies to keep them straight before rigor mortis set in. At Dachau, the bodies were hung in front of the ovens to keep them straight before they were cremated.

The photograph below shows the crematorium with the ovens where the bodies were burned. The Germans had run out of coal and there were partially burned bodies found in the ovens. In the background of the photo, you can see the door of the elevator, which is on the right. Next to the elevator, on the left, is the door into a small room with one toilet and an open shower stall just big enough for two people.

Incinerator plant with elevator in right hand corner

In the following quote from his autobiography, General Patton explained his understanding of the Nazi system of killing prisoners at Buchenwald, as told to him by the former inmates:

One of the most horrible points about this place was that all these executions were carried out by slaves. There was a further devilish arrangement of making the various groups select those who had to die. Each racial group had a certain number of men who represented it. These men had to select those from their group who would be killed locally, or sent to camps like Ohrdruf, which were termed "elimination camps."

Ohrdruf, a sub-camp of Buchenwald, was a forced labor camp, not "an elimination camp" nor a death camp. It had underground factories where prisoners were forced to work in the German war industry. Although Ohrdruf was not designed for systematic killing, many of the prisoners there did die from typhus, as the epidemic spread throughout Germany in the last months of the war. Ohrdruf had been abandoned on April 2, 1945, nine days before Buchenwald was liberated. Most of the prisoners had been marched to Buchenwald, leaving behind only a few, that had escaped the march, who greeted the American troops on April 4, 1945.

In the official Army report on Buchenwald, the main camp was called an "extermination factory." At the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal, the chief prosecutor for the British, Sir Hartley Shawcross, mentioned in his closing argument that Buchenwald was one of the camps which had a gas chamber.

Today few people believe that there was a gas chamber at Buchenwald. Jewish survivors of the death camps in what is now Poland were brought to Buchenwald after all the camps in the east had been abandoned. A great number of the prisoners died on the way, either in the forced marches to Buchenwald or in the open railroad cars of the transport trains. Elie Wiesel and his father were among the Jewish prisoners who survived the Auschwitz death camp and then survived the death march and train ride to Buchenwald.

General Patton also mentioned that Buchenwald had "a number of allegedly eminent physicians" who were performing "some very abominable experiments on their fellow inmates."

The only medical experiment that Patton cited as an example was one in which 800 prisoners in the camp were "inoculated with anti-typhus vaccine and then inoculated with the typhus bug." The vaccine was a failure, and 700 out of the 800 died of typhus.

America had a typhus vaccine and all the American soldiers had been vaccinated before going overseas. According to the March 1945 issue of the Red Cross monthly bulletin, American soldiers held as POWs in German camps were given booster shots of typhus vaccine, which was delivered by the Red Cross and distributed by the Germans. Since this vaccine was only given to Americans, the Germans were working to develop their own vaccine for the rest of the prisoners and for the German Army.

This quote is from Wikipedia:

One of the early Auschwitz memoirs, written in 1947, recounts an episode with camp doctor Josef Mengele, later to become known as the "Angel of Death" for his medical experiments. Mengele was disturbed about the typhus epidemic. The former prisoner wrote: "Alas, typhus epidemics did rage in the camp, but at this time we had comparatively few victims. The same day he [Mengele] sent us a large quantity of serum and directed mass vaccinations." [35] Petro Mirchuk, a Ukranian prisoner, wrote that a delousing in August 1942, the worst month of the epidemic, "eliminated the epidemic and the billions of fleas and lice ceased to exist." [36]

[35] Olga Lengyel, Five Chimneys (NY:1983), 146. First published in 1947.

[36] Petro Mirchuk, In the German Mills of Death( NY:1976), 56. First published in 1957.

General Patton's observation that the camp was run by the "slaves" was basically correct. When the camp was originally opened, the Nazis brought convicted criminals from the Sachsenhausen camp near Berlin to run the camp internally. But after the first Commandant, Karl Otto Koch, was relieved of his duties and sent to Majdanek, the new Commandant, Hermann Pister, allowed the Communist prisoners to take over the internal administration of the camp.

The following quote is from Robert Abzug in his book Inside the Vicious Heart:

Meanwhile, in all this upheaval, the new commandant Hermann Pister allowed a German Communist prisoner group, some of them original inmates of the camp, to wrest power from the 'greens.' (The greens were common criminals who wore green triangles.) The Communist prisoners reduced the amount of black marketeering and other common corruption, cut down the amount of wanton sadism on the part of prisoner trustees (or Kapos), and made plans for the ultimate takeover of the camp in case of Nazi defeat. But in other ways the Communists merely shifted the ground of corruption to the assignment of work details, food, medical care, and ultimately life. From their takeover until the end of the war, favored treatment was often received on the basis of political loyalties. The Nazis for their part, gained from the Communist regime a more predictable work force and a greater sense of order.

On July 3, 1945, Weimar and the Buchenwald camp were turned over to the Russian Communists by prior agreement. Before the American Army turned the Buchenwald and Mittlebau-Dora camps over to the Soviet Union, they removed as much as they could from the V-2 rocket factories and recruited the best of the German engineers who were sent to America. German doctors were recruited from the Buchenwald camp to do medical experiments in America.

The Soviet Union wasted no time in turning Buchenwald into an internment camp for their political enemies. On August 20, 1945, Buchenwald ceased to be a prison camp for the Communists and became Special Camp Number 2, a prison camp for the defeated Nazis. Buchenwald was now in the Soviet zone of occupation, behind the Iron Curtain.

By July 1945, General Patton had already turned against our Communist allies and had become pro-German. After a trip to Berlin where he saw the horrendous damage done by Allied bombing and the battle for Berlin, Patton sent a letter to his wife on July 21, 1945 in which he wrote:

Berlin gave me the blues. We have destroyed what could have been a good race, and we are about to replace them with Mongolian savages. And all Europe will be communist.

"Mongolian savages" was a reference to the Russians of Asian heritage, while a "good race" was Patton's term for what he thought the Germans could have been.

In August 1945, Patton wrote in another letter to his wife:

Actually, the Germans are the only decent people left in Europe. It's a choice between them and the Russians. I prefer the Germans.

By 1948, America was an Ally of Germany and the Cold War between America and the Communist Soviet Union had begun. The atrocities committed by the Germans were no longer in the news, and the proceedings of the American Military Tribunal at Dachau had stopped. Convicted German war criminals, who were awaiting execution, were released from prison. No peace treaty between the Allies and Germany was ever signed and the country remained occupied. In 1949, Germany became two separate countries, one Communist and one democratic.

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This page was last updated on August 1, 2012