Atrocities on Trial: Historical Perspectives on the Politics of Prosecuting War Crimes

By Patricia Heberer; Jürgen Matthäus | Go to book overview

The Sachsenhausen Trials
War Crimes Prosecution in the
Soviet Occupation Zone
and in West and East Germany

JONATHAN FRIEDMAN

On 18 June 1936, less than two months before the staging of the summer Olympics in Berlin, Gestapo officials informed the Prussian Forestry Office that a new concentration camp was to be built in the outskirts of the city of Oranienburg—in the suburb of Sachsenhausen, some thirty miles from Berlin.1 On 12 July, fifty prisoners from the Esterwegen concentration camp (located in the moor lands of northwest Germany) began construction on the 160,000-squaremeter triangular site. Prisoners were to be interned in sixty-seven barracks built to hold between 100 and 120 individuals (but that ultimately held over 600 each). A main cell block (Zellenbau), with seventy cubicles, became the central torture chamber, while two open areas served as the official execution grounds. A 2.7-meter-high brick wall enclosed the camp, and it was guarded by between 1,500 and 3,000 SS-men from eighteen different companies of the SS Death's Head Divisions.

Sachsenhausen opened in September 1936 with a total of 2,000 inmates, all of them male and most of them political prisoners, such as Communists and Socialists. Members of other groups eventually found themselves incarcerated as well, including Jews, “Gypsies” (Roma and Sinti), homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, resistance leaders, and Soviet prisoners of war. Some of the more notable prisoners included pastor Martin Niemöller, former Austrian premier Kurt von Schuschnigg, Nobel laureate Carl von Ossietzky, and onetime Nazi diplomat Dr. Martin Luther. By March 1945, one month before its liberation by a unit of the Soviet 47th Army, the number of inmates in the camp had swollen to over 95,000. It is estimated that over 200,000 individuals passed through the camp between 1936 and 1945. Half of them perished, through disease and starvation, by shooting and hanging, through deadly medical experimentation, and some by gassing, which was instituted at Sachsenhausen in March 1943.

One of the goals of this essay is to investigate these atrocities from the per-

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