While the names of the extermination camps further east – such as Auschwitz and Treblinka – are etched in the dark annals of human history as centres of the Holocaust, it was in the so-called ‘protective custody camps’ and killing facilities on German soil, such as the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, that the Nazi plans for divide and rule, annihilation through work, and industrial mass murder, were first implemented.
Predating the invasion of Poland and the implementation of Aktion Reinhardt, a series of detention facilities were built in Germany to house political prisoners, subversives, and perceived enemies of the Nazi regime. In the south of Germany – the infamous Dachau camp, near Munich – in the centre, near Weimar, the Buchenwald facility – and north, near Hitler’s capital, the camp that would grow to become the most significant of the three major German political penitentiaries – Sachsenhausen.
The camp is situated on the outskirts of the sleepy village of Oranienburg, that was for a long time unremarkable except for its name – an illustration of the connection between the Imperial German and Prussian Hohenzollern royal family and the Dutch House of Orange.
Passing through its streets and amongst its commonplace tenements now, it may seem an unlikely location for a Nazi camp. Except for its close proximity, a mere 35km north, to the city of Berlin – the one time Nazi Reichshauptstadt – and significantly on the important Baltic railway line leading to Rostock.
Following its inception in 1936, around 200,000 enemies of the National Socialist Weltanschauung and so-called ‘people’s community’ (Volksgemeinschaft) would pass through the gates of this Nazi concentration camp. The iconic ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ lettering, a mocking gesture designed to send the message that with good behaviour and dedication to reform the prisoners would be granted their freedom – where the only freedom guaranteed was in death.
Around half of the individuals who would pass through these gates and enter this camp would perish over the nine miserable years of its operation.
While the early prisoners would be detained for political crimes and forced to endure brutal forced labour and wretched conditions, the net cast across German society by National Socialist policy would eventually widen to include homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the work-shy, so-called race traitors (Rassenschänder) – and from 1938, Jewish citizens.
From the gated entrance to the camp at Tower A, to the isolation barracks, the special prison, the infirmary, kitchen, and industrial yard – used for executions – this camp would be designed with one purpose in mind, to ensure the forced subjugation of the prisoners.
And to create a geometry of terror – ensuring that the minimal amount of pressure applied could result in the maximum amount of pain and control.
One of the largest counterfeiting operation in history (Operation Bernhard) took place at Sachsenhausen: with inmates forced to produce over one billion British pounds in the hope of undermining the Allied economies.
Beyond its unassuming facade as a detention facility – where unlike a normal prison, the prisoners were denied due process and the right to a fair trial but rather apprehend and incarcerated into protective custody (Schutzhaft) – Sachenhausen would also serve as a proving ground for the hundreds of perpetrators who would find gainful employment with the Nazi regime.
A system that would seek out and reward men like Karl Otto Koch, the camp’s second Commandant, and Rudolf Höss, who would serve as Administrator of prisoners’ property. Both men would advance their careers through the SS concentration camp hierarchy, with Koch progressing to serve as Commandant of Buchenwald, while Höss would become the longest standing Commandant at Auschwitz – overseeing the implementation of the industrial mass killing process using Zyklon B gas at the camp.
Unlike the early detention facilities opened in Nazi Germany following Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933, the later camps, such as Sachsenhausen would fall under the administration of Adolf Hitler’s personal bodyguard and the ideological force of the Schutzstaffel (SS) – headed by Heinrich Himmler.
SS jurisdiction over the camps, such as Sachsenhausen, would mean that prisoners would be systematically worked to death – or “Annihilated through work” as stated by Himmler. As beyond the triangle-shaped layout of the central part of Sachsenhausen, this facility also included several subcamps and factories where prisoners would be exploited of their most valuable resource – their labour. Several prominent German companies would profit from this slave labour industry: including aircraft manufacturer, Heinkel, AEG, and Siemens.
Although conceived by the Nazis, the camp would be liberated and inherited by the Soviets in 1945 – only to be reopened as an NKVD/KGB detention camp for political prisoners and inmates sentenced by Soviet Military Tribunals. Some 60,000 people would be interned here over five years, with Sachsenhausen growing to become the largest of three special camps in the Soviet Occupation Zone.
Eventually, following the establishment of the East German state, Sachsenhausen would be opened in 1961 as a memorial – focused mainly on the suffering of political prisoners, such as the Communist and Social Democrat inmates. Its present day form as a museum can be seen as a direct consequence of German reunification in 1990.
Sachsenhausen is noteworthy now for its factual assessment of the darkest chapter in German history and lasting role as a place of remembrance for the people the National Socialist regime would have much rather be forgotten.