Dachau was a Nazi concentration camp located in Bavaria in Southern Germany. In the 1930s, SS leader Heinrich Himmler conceived Dachau as the model example for the Nazis' network of labor and death camps throughout Europe. A small facility relative to other well-known concentration camps, Dachau operated as a training facility for camp guards, a labor camp, and a major center for the Nazis' notorious and inhumane medical research initiatives. With a focus on enemies of the Third Reich, Dachau's population -- in addition to Jews -- consisted of religious minorities and clerics, Roma (Gypsies), and political dissidents.
Adolf Hitler's political leviathan was obsessed at all levels with perfecting a white Aryan society in what he believed to be German lands. Hitler's regime placed emphasis on the euphemistically termed "removal" of non-Aryan populations. Removal actually meant elimination, and Germany's Nazi party went to unfathomable lengths to weed out anyone deemed to be an enemy of the state. This included, but was not limited to, ethnic groups including Jews and Roma, religious minorities such as Catholics and Jehovah's Witnesses, gays, the mentally handicapped and any individual who outwardly criticized Hitler's government.
The Nazis established concentrations camps across their conquered demesne between Hitler's ascent to power in 1933 and the conclusion of World War II with the Allies' victory in Europe in 1945. Concentration camps essentially served two purposes: one, to exterminate vast numbers of prisoners with minimal external attention; and two, to exploit prisoners as fully as possible for their labor and as subjects for the Nazis' unprincipled and cruelly torturous medical experiments. Camps varied in size depending on the size of the local target populations. Concentration camps operated with systematic efficiency to kill prisoners in gas chambers and destroy the remains in large ovens.
At its inception in 1933, Dachau's overseeing commandant was Theodor Eicke. He was chosen by Himmler who believed that Eicke embodied the ideal character that was associated with the role of a concentration camp guard. As commandant, Eicke transformed Dachau from what some might have merely considered a penal colony into a ruthless venue for punishment and execution.
Eicke instituted a regimented training program for camp guards that not only desensitized them to human suffering, but also conditioned them to see prisoners as enemies who posed a danger to the well-being of the state. Dachau served as a model training center for this purpose. The government later appointed Eicke to oversee the operation of all of the concentration camps.
As an operational facility, Dachau has a two-sided story that has baffled and frustrated historians. While in operation, the role of Dachau's prisoners was similar to other labor camps. Due to its small size, of the hundreds of thousands that were held at Dachau, a disproportionate number survived in contrast to other camps. Moreover, a number of prisoners reported having been treated in an unusually humane way from 1942 forward with the appointment of a man called Martin Weiss.
Under Weiss's leadership, Dachau's prisoners were exposed to a variety of recreational activities in addition to work. Prisoners were also allowed to send and receive limited amounts of money as well as two letters of suitable content each month. Reading material was made available through newspapers and the camp's own library. The camp also arranged theater and sports events. These seeming niceties, however, failed to detract from the recurring brutality of the camp guards for the slightest disobedience.
Dachau's darker dimension lay in its "scientific" role as a facility for human experimentation. This was in large part because Dachau's prisoner population comprised a disproportionate number of individuals who had been deemed physically or mentally unfit for productive labor. These individuals were chosen as subjects for a variety of sadistic and painful "studies" that nearly always resulted in death. Much of this work focused on the limits of the human body to endure all manner of physical traumas.
In one such instance, Nazi doctors, curious to know how long the body could survive extreme conditions of cold, placed several prisoners in a pool of water containing ice. Camp doctors waited until the subjects' body temperatures had dropped sufficiently and then recorded how long it took for them to die. In a similar experiment for finding better ways to treat hypothermia, doctors first exposed subjects to extreme cold in an ice filled pool. The doctors removed them and placed them in physical contact with prisoners with a normal body temperature and recorded the time until subjects returned to a normal body temperature.
The U.S. Army liberated Dachau in late April 1945. The camp's staff were subsequently convicted at the Nuremberg trials and executed for crimes against humanity. By the 1960s, the premises at Dachau had been refurbished and made into a memorial to the victims who suffered through its horrors.