The Last Days of World War II
"Monday, 19 March - Another nightmarish day. This time a so-called Bombenteppich (carpet bomb) dropped onto the hospital compound. [...] Seven other bombs landed in the hospital grounds. One hit the surgery and went through three floors before coming to rest. [...] One American plane crashed in the Türkenshanzpark nearby and some of our staff were sent out to bring in the crew. [....] Things have become particularly uncomfortable because the town has been virtually without water for several weeks now. [....] There is still no light and I am rapidly using up the Xmas candles Sisi gave me. In the evenings I sit in my room in the dark and practice the accordion." Marie Vassiltchikov, nurse, Berlin Diaries 1940 - 1945
On June 6, 1944, Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy and invaded Europe. The Rhine river was Germany's ancient line of defense; when American troops crossed the Rhine on March 7, 1945 at Remagen near Cologne, it was all over for the Nazis. General George S. Patton showed his contempt for the Germans by pissing into the river.
By the Spring of 1945, the whole country of Germany lay in ruins with every major city destroyed by Allied bombs. Churches that had taken 200 years to build were now empty shells. Bridges had been blown up, train tracks had been bombed and every road was clogged with German refugees. Thousands of women in eastern Germany were drowning themselves, rather than submit to rape by the Russian soldiers, who were advancing towards the capital city of Berlin.
Boys of 14 and old men of 60 years of age were fighting in a hopeless last ditch effort to save their country from Communism. German soldiers, who had survived the bloody conflict on the Eastern front, were stripping off their uniforms and jumping into the Elbe river to swim naked across to the west side so that they could surrender to the American Army. Whether soldiers or civilians, the German people were deathly afraid of the Russians, who already had a reputation for committing unspeakable atrocities, even before they reached Berlin.
There was complete chaos in Germany: the infrastructure of the country had been destroyed, the cities were nothing but huge piles of rubble, and everywhere there was complete devastation. Animals in the Zoo in Berlin had to be shot when they escaped after a bomb attack. German citizens were cowering in underground bomb shelters in the cities or waving white flags of surrender from the windows of their homes in the small towns. Former prisoners, who were now free because some of the concentration camps had been abandoned by the guards, were wandering aimlessly through the countryside, looting and stealing from the German civilians who still had a home left after repeated Allied bombing raids.
Subways were flooded; phone lines were down; electricity was off. The water supply of the bombed cities was contaminated or non-existent.
Thousands of homeless German civilians had taken shelter in the bombed-out shells of the churches, and were cooking over open fires in the streets of every major city. Refugees trying to flee from the war zone sat for days beside the railroad tracks waiting for trains which never came. Others were on the road, trying to escape on foot, carrying a few meager possessions, but there was nowhere to go.
Allied planes were strafing everything that moved, including cows grazing in the fields and trains that were evacuating concentration camp prisoners in an effort to keep them from being released. Former concentration camp prisoners, bent on revenge, attacked the German civilians as they tried desperately to escape. Everything was in short supply, including food, clothing, medicine, coal and even wood to make coffins.
The stench was unbearable; everything smelled of smoke from the charred remains of burned buildings. Corpses were dragged out of the bomb shelters and buried in shallow graves in the gardens of destroyed homes. Thousands of dead bodies of German civilians were still buried under the collapsed buildings in every large city. In the historic city of Nuremberg, there were 20,000 bodies still buried under the rubble when the trial of the German war criminals began in November 1945.
The Nazi war machine, that had once rolled ruthlessly across Europe and smashed every country in its path, was now suffering a crushing defeat by the superior forces of the Soviet, British and American armies. Soon the world would learn of the Nazi atrocities in the concentration camps and forced labor camps all over Germany. Dachau, the name of the worst camp of them all, would soon become a household word in America.
In the last days of the war, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Nazi concentration camp system, had taken it upon himself, without the authorization of Hitler, to attempt to negotiate a surrender of the German army to the Americans, but not to their Communist allies, the Russians. The American army had stopped at a predetermined line and waited for the Soviet army to catch up so the Communists could take eastern Germany and Berlin, as agreed upon by President Roosevelt and "Uncle Joe" Stalin at the Yalta conference.
By this time, 60% of the soldiers in the Waffen-SS, the elite volunteer Army, were from countries other than Germany and Austria, as almost every nation in Europe, including Russia and Great Britain, had volunteer Waffen-SS soldiers in the fight against Communism. After the death of President Roosevelt, Himmler had the vain hope that the Germans could now become Allies with the Americans against Communism. The Nazis had always referred to Roosevelt as Rosenfeld and believed that he was not only a Communist sympathizer, but also a Jew.
Himmler was the one who had the overall responsibility for the Nazi atrocities in the camps, and he was probably thinking about how he could save himself from charges of being a war criminal. As part of his unauthorized negotiations with the Allies in the last days of the war, Himmler agreed to release a few thousand Jewish prisoners to neutral countries. He was undoubtedly hoping to use more Jewish concentration camp prisoners as bargaining chips in future negotiations with the Allies. America had just built an atomic bomb, with the initial purpose of dropping it on Germany, and had no intention of negotiating anything.
On February 19, 1945, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler met with Count Folke Bernadotte in Berlin; Bernadotte was acting on behalf of the Swedish Red Cross in negotiations to release the Scandinavian prisoners from the concentration camps. Himmler was very receptive because he wanted to open negotiations with the West. They reached an agreement by which all the Scandinavian prisoners would be evacuated to one camp, Neuengamme, via "White Buses" which would be supplied by Sweden. Norwegian resistance fighters, who had been evacuated from Natzweiler-Struthof to Dachau in September 1944, were transferred to Neuengamme where they were cared for by the Red Cross in the last days of the war.
When around 15,000 prisoners, who had been evacuated from other camps in the war zone, began arriving at Dachau, the camp became seriously overcrowded. In March 1945, Martin Gottfried Weiss, who was the commander of the five sub-camps of Mühldorf, came back to Dachau when the prisoners of his sub-camps were evacuated to the main camp.
A typhus epidemic was out of control in the Dachau main camp and up to 400 prisoners were dying each day from this disease. Weiss immediately proposed to turn the camp over to the Allies, but this idea was vetoed by the head office in Oranienburg. Weiss had previously been the Commandant of Dachau from September 1, 1942 to the end of October 1943; he was replaced by Wilhelm Eduard Weiter who was the last commandant of Dachau. When Weiter left the Dachau camp with a transport of prisoners on April 26, 1945, Weiss became the acting commandant.
In the final weeks of World War II, the American public was bombarded with one horrendous news story after another. Almost every day, it seemed, there were huge banner headlines about another earth-shattering event.
On April 4, 1945, American soldiers stumbled upon Ohrdruf, an abandoned sub-camp of Buchenwald, and were sickened by the sight of the decaying bodies of dead prisoners in a shed, and the smoking remains of other bodies that had been recently burned.
On April 11, 1945, soldiers in General George S. Patton's Third Army discovered the Buchenwald concentration camp near the city of Weimar, and were astounded when they were shown lamp shades allegedly made from human skin. What the newspapers didn't report was that the liberated prisoners were given guns by the Americans and allowed to ride in American Jeeps to Weimar where they terrorized the population, raping, pillaging and killing civilians at random. When Hitler learned of this, he became enraged. As the former home of Goethe, Schiller and Nietzsche, the city of Weimar was revered by German nationalists as the center of German culture.
On April 12, 1945, our beloved American president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, died suddenly after 12 years in office.
On April 14, 1945, soldiers of the 102nd Infantry Division of the US Ninth Army discovered the horrible scene of a barn, just outside the town of Gardelegen in eastern Germany, where concentration camp prisoners on a death-march had been herded into a stone barn the night before and 1016 men were burned to death or shot when they tried to escape.
On that same day, the 14th of April, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler authorized SS Colonel Kurt Becher to negotiate the surrender of Dachau and other camps to the Allies because conditions in the overcrowded camps were now totally out of control. Becher had previously been involved in negotiating with the Allies in the infamous "Blood for Goods" deal in which the Nazis offered to trade a million Hungarian Jews for 10,000 trucks.
Allegedly, Himmler immediately rescinded his order in a note hurriedly written by hand on plain paper, dated 14 April 1945 and 18 April 1945. The hand-written note from Himmler is now stored in the files of the International Red Cross Tracing Service and news of the existence of the note was released to the public in March 2007.
The note which was signed "Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer SS" read as follows:
A handover is out of the question. The camp must be evacuated immediately. No prisoner must be allowed to fall into the hands of the enemy alive. The prisoners have behaved horribly to the civilian population of Buchenwald.
Buchenwald was the name of a concentration camp, not the name of a town, and there was no "civilian population of Buchenwald," which Himmler, of all people, should have known. There were around 25,000 prisoners at Dachau at that point, and thousands more arriving every day, as the prisoners from the sub-camps were brought to the main camp. Keeping this mass of prisoners out of the "hands of the enemy" would have been virtually impossible.
Arthur Haulot, a Belgian political prisoner at Dachau, wrote in his diary that he heard about this order, one hour after it arrived in Dachau, allegedly by telex. Haulot referred to the order as a "pessimistic rumor." He had heard about it from a German nurse in the camp, who was his lover.
However, Marcus J. Smith wrote in his book "Dachau: The Harrowing of Hell" that the Dachau main camp had no telephone or telegraph service on April 27, 1945 so that acting Commandant Weiss was unable to contact headquarters in Oranienburg for permission to allow a Red Cross man to enter the camp; Weiss was forced to give permission on his own authority. The lack of telephone and telegraph service was due to damage caused by the Allied bombing of the camp on April 9, 1945, so presumably there was no telegraph service on April 14th or 18th.
Smith wrote that, in the last days before the American liberators arrived, the electricity in the kitchens was off and the food was being cooked over wood-burning stoves; the water main was broken and water was being brought into the camp by trucks because there was no running water. The showers had not been operable for three weeks, according to Smith, who also wrote that latrines had been dug because the toilets could no longer be flushed.
Negotiations for the handover of Bergen-Belsen to the British Army had already been in progress for several days. A cease fire was ordered on April 12th and on April 15, 1945, British soldiers entered the Bergen-Belsen camp. Hungarian troops were sent to Bergen-Belsen to keep order during the transfer of the camp; they were promised that they could return to their lines after six days, but some of them were shot by the British. A week or so later, horrifying movie clips of over 10,000 emaciated bodies being shoved into mass graves by British bulldozers were shown in the newsreels in every American theater.
On April 20, 1945, Adolf Hitler appeared for the last time in public; he awarded combat decorations to a group of young boys, not yet in their teens, who had fought bravely in battle to save the Fatherland from the Communist Soviet Union.
The photo above is a still shot from a film made by the Nazis; it shows der Führer gently stroking the cheek of a child soldier. The photo below is a still shot from the movie "Downfall" which recreates the scene, showing Hitler's hand behind his back as he tries to hide the tremors caused by Parkinson's disease.
April 20th was Hitler's 56th birthday. While he was eating his cake in his underground bunker in Berlin, American soldiers of the 3rd, 42nd and 45th Infantry Divisions of the US Seventh Army were celebrating their conquest of Nuremberg, the most German of all cities, considered to be the capital of German nationalism. Where Hitler's soldiers, a hundred thousand at a time, had once goose-stepped past the reviewing stand at the Zeppelin Field in Nuremberg, American soldiers were now doing a victory march and mocking Hitler with a stiff-armed salute from the speaker's platform.
At the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin, 33,000 inmates were being marched out of the camp, on the orders of Hitler himself; when Russian troops arrived on April 22, 1945, they found only 3,000 sick and weak prisoners who had been left behind.
On April 26, 1945, Commandant Eduard Weiter began the evacuation of the Dachau concentration camp. Jewish prisoners and Russian POWs, who were considered the most dangerous if they were to be released by the Americans, were the first to be evacuated. The efforts to evacuate all the inmates were thwarted by the Communist prisoners, who had organized themselves in September 1944 into the Comité International de Dachau under the leadership of Albert Guérisse; the Comité had already taken control of the camp and were giving orders to the prisoners.
On April 27, 1945, American troops advancing eastward across Germany linked up at the Elbe river with the soldiers of the Soviet Union, who were marching west across Poland, and newspaper photographs showed smiling American soldiers embracing their Communist Allies. On that same day, soldiers of the 12th Armored Division discovered the Kaufering IV sub-camp in the vicinity of Landsberg am Lech, and were shocked to see the condition of the sick and dying prisoners that had been left behind. Kaufering IV had been designated as the "sick camp" where prisoners from the eleven Kaufering sub-camps were sent when they could no longer work.
Also on April 27, 1945, a Red Cross representative arrived at the Dachau Concentration Camp to help with the surrender of the camp to the Allies; Commandant Eduard Weiter had left the camp the day before. The next day, on April 28, 1945 Martin Gottfried Weiss and most of the regular SS guards abandoned the camp, after turning the warehouses over to the Comité International de Dachau. Waffen-SS and Wehrmacht soldiers had already been brought from the battlefront to surrender the camp and the SS garrison to the Americans who were fighting in the vicinity of the camp. 128 SS men who had been imprisoned at Dachau were set free and ordered to man the guard towers until the Americans arrived.
That same day, on April 28th, the Italian Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, was executed by Communist partisans and the next day his body was hung upside down in the main square in Milan. Soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division arrived at the Kaufering IV camp on April 28th and were astounded at the horrible conditions in the abandoned camp.
On April 30, 1945, Adolf Hitler put a gun to his head and blew his brains out in his bunker under the city of Berlin, where hardly a building was left standing after repeated Allied bombing.
After celebrating the capture of the bombed-out historic city of Nuremberg for four days, the next assignment of the US Seventh Army was to take Munich, the birthplace of the Nazi party.
On April 29, 1945, the 42nd and 45th divisions were racing toward Munich with the 20th Armored Division between them. Many of these young American soldiers had never heard of the concentration camps in Europe, but that day they would discover the most mind-boggling atrocity in the civilized world: the gas chambers at Dachau.
Today no one commemorates the demise of the two Fascist dictators, Mussolini and Hitler, but the liberation of Dachau is remembered and celebrated with special ceremonies each year at the Dachau Memorial Site which honors the Communist political prisoners who were the victims of Fascism.
To the American veterans of World War II, the liberation of the Communist and Jewish prisoners at Dachau has become symbolic of what they were fighting against. As General Eisenhower said, the American soldier might not have known what he was fighting for, but at least, after seeing the concentration camps, he knew what he was fighting against.
The news of the liberation of Dachau was incomprehensible to most Americans: stories of gas chambers, torture and starvation would have a profound impact on people the world over for many years to come, as the word Dachau became just another word for evil. Today, the German people are condemned for being "bystanders" who did nothing to stop the gassing of the concentration camp prisoners.
This page was last updated on November 23, 2007