Death Camps, Torture, Experiments on Children

Revealed: How Germany’s shame did not end with the Nazis

David Rose and Anthony Glees,
The Observer, UK,
August 10, 1997

The Nazis used to bring their prisoners to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp by train. There was no special siding at the camp itself, so the prisoners had to walk nearly a mile from the north Berlin commuter station at Oranienberg. Herded by the SS, their last glimpse of the outside world was of suburban avenues, lined with comfortable houses.

Neither the avenues nor the camp have changed much. If you go to Sachsenhausen today, you see what the prisoners saw: the watchtowers, the barracks, the parade ground. In the camp’s pathology unit, there are the raised, white-tiled tables with their gutters for blood and bodily fluids, where inmates endured horrifying “experiments.” The doctors’ serrated instruments are there too, arranged in glass cabinets. They stored the bodies in a catacomb beneath, and you can see the porters’ lifts used to lug them to the crematorium.

Sachsenhausen was the “model camp,” where techniques were perfected, and SS officers trained to employ them throughout the Third Reich. And when the Red Army liberated eastern Germany in 1945, it too found Sachsenhausen perfect for its needs. Together with other former Nazi camps and dungeons at Bautzen, Buchenwald, Frankfurt an der Oder, Fuenfeichen, Ketschendorf, Muehlberg and Torgau, Sachsenhausen stayed open for business into the Fifties. As under the Nazis, prisoners – at least 20,000 of them – died within its electrified walls from pestilence, hunger and inhuman brutality.

Hubert Polus was taken to Sachsenhausen in June 1946. The two years he spent there broke his physical and mental health. It was a warm day, but as Mr Polus showed us the site of his former barracks, he shivered. “People died of yellow fever, dysentery and tuberculosis,” he said. “They didn’t have to shoot us. One time in the terrible winter of 1947 they weighed me: I was 42kg (just over six stone). Every 10 days we had a shower. Then I would see that the other prisoners had no buttocks: their rectums stood out like little pipes. There was no difference between the walking skeletons we were here and the pictures of the camps under the Nazis.”

He gestured at the ruins of the crematorium, blown up by the SS in 1945. “There was only one big difference between the Nazis and the Communists. The Communists didn’t burn the bodies: they buried them in mass graves.”

Berlin, to become Germany’s capital again in under three years, is having a building boom, and mechanical diggers have unearthed three of these graves. Most of the occupants were buried with quicklime: all that remains are dark streaks in the soil.

Next to the crematorium is a vast memorial to those who died at Sachsenhausen under the Nazis: a soaring piece of Stalinist modernism, built in the Sixties. The only sign of the camp’s later victims is a white plaque, erected by survivors in 1990 in a far corner of the camp.

A familiar aspect of German history – the refusal to address past human rights atrocities – is repeating itself. For decades after the Second World War, the West Germans failed to deal with their poisoned inheritance. Between 1945 and 1992, war crimes and human rights investigators issued indictments against nearly 104,000 former Nazis, of whom only 6,400 were brought to trial. It is only with the passing from power of a tainted generation that the purging of the Nazi legacy has become a national obsession – evinced by the vast German sales of the American writer Daniel Goldhagen’s book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which accuses the entire nation of complicity in the Holocaust.

In the new united Germany, a process analogous to the past failure to denazify is deeply entrenched. The violations of human rights perpetrated in the name of Communism were not as great as the Nazis’. But they took place on a colossal scale, until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.

Sometimes, as with Sachsenhausen, there was continuity between the two tyrannies. Elsewhere, one finds grisly echoes of Nazi methods – until the end, the Sports Medical Service carried out experiments on children, intending to breed a race of Communist champions.

But there is near silence on these matters. Markus Wolf, the former number two in the Stasi secret police, appears on television chat shows to promote his autobiography. Erich Mielke, Wolf’s former boss, did stand trial for homicide – but for the shooting of a policeman in 1932, not the countless murders for which he was responsible after 1945.

The Communists had a motto to describe their attitude to those who did not share their goals: “Willst Du nicht mein Bruder sein, so schlag’ ich dir den Schaedel ein” (“If you don’t want to be my brother, I’ll smash your skull”). At least 100,000 people died at the hands of the state – nearly 1 per cent of the population.

Yet, a pleasant myth persists: that East Germany was merely boring, not brutal – Germans know the Stasi accumulated files, but have forgotten how this “intelligence” could be used. The survivors of atrocities committed a decade ago in what is now the heart of the European Union must struggle with the fact that in the era of freedom, no one wants to know.

At the end of this year, Zerv, the federal police unit of 270 detectives charged with investigating Stasi crime, will begin winding up. On 1 January a statute of limitations comes into force, making it impossible to bring prosecutions for any offence dating from the GDR except murder; thousands responsible for abductions, torture and medical experiments on children will be protected forever.

In the words of Manfred Kittlaus, Zerv’s chief: “The majority of human rights violations will be beyond the law. The perpetrators will soon be free to walk down Unter den Linden with impunity.”