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The History of Buchenwald


    • The camp was first established in July 1937 near the German city of Weimar. Buchenwald means "beech tree forest" in German, reflecting its location. It originally housed political prisoners, mostly members of the Communist Party, Jehovah's Witnesses, and homosexuals. From 1938 onward, Jewish prisoners were also sent there. The first commandant from 1937 to 1942 was Karl Koch. His wife, Ilse, was renowned for her cruelty and became known as "the Bitch of Buchenwald."

    Development as a Work Camp

    • During the war years Buchenwald was steadily expanded into an industrial complex with major German companies, including IG Farben, BMW and Krupp operating factories and workshops. Medical personnel also conducted experiments on prisoners to find vaccines and cures for diseases such as typhus and cholera. Dr. Carl Vaernet tested "cures" for homosexuality through hormonal transplants.

    Final Years and Liberation

    • In 1944, there was a major influx of Jewish prisoners from Hungary to Buchenwald. In 1945, prisoners were brought from the camps to the east threatened by the approaching Red Army. Among these was future Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel. The last months of the camp's existence were the deadliest as chaotic conditions amplified the ill-treatment, starvation and disease that ravaged the camp. Prisoners overpowered the remaining guards and took control of the camp on April 11, 1945. U.S. forces entered the camp later that same day.

    Buchenwald Special Camp

    • With the division of Germany into four occupation zones, the Soviets used ready-made camps in their zone such as Buchenwald to house their own political prisoners, mostly but not exclusively Germans. The so-called Special Camp set up within Buchenwald for the purpose contained political and other prisoners from 1945 to 1950, some 7,100 of whom died.

    Buchenwald as a Museum

    • The German Democratic Republic, a Soviet satellite state, demolished most of the camp and set up a museum on the site to celebrate the "victims of fascism." Highly propagandized, the museum emphasized the massacre of Russian prisoners of war and the execution of former German communist leader Ernst Thaelmann there in August 1944, downplayed the atrocities suffered by other groups and ignored the Special Camp.


    • After the reunification of Germany, the museum was updated and both the post-war Special Camp and its mass graves were memorialized. But debate continues to rage among the many diverse groups who suffered in the camp from 1937 to 1950 as to the most appropriate way to mark the suffering of all.

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