Even in an age of glasnost, hardly anyone troubles to recall that when the Soviet Union occupied East Germany in 1945 it kept two Nazi concentration camps in full use for nearly five years, till February 1950, and at their old task of death.
Soviet Buchenwald comes as a surprise, and that surprise is perhaps a tribute to the power of propaganda in general and of Soviet censorship in particular. Imagine the outcry if any Western nation had kept a single Nazi camp in use, for more than a few weeks—an American Dachau, perhaps, or a British Belsen; picture the indignation it would arouse in the Western world, the shame Western man to this day would be called upon to feel, the anguish of the survivors and the friends of the dead. Censorship works, it is worth remembering, and not least the state censorship of the socialist world. If it does not kill the truth, it can certainly smother it for years. When I stood in Buchenwald camp recently, on a lecturing visit to East Germany, I had to evoke not one killing field but two: a Nazi camp that lasted for eight years, from 1937 till its liberation by American troops in the spring of 1945; and the camp the Soviets ran there—one of about a dozen they maintained in the conquered German lands—after certain territories the Red Army had not liberated were handed over by Allied agreement.
Such a visit is doubly sobering. Buchenwald stands in thick woods on a hilltop in East Germany some four miles above Weimar, an idyllic little town set in the Thuringian hills where Goethe’s house, and Schiller’s, are still shown to eager tourists. The camp is invisible from below, and always was, being densely surrounded by trees, except that the Soviets in 1958 built a tall stone bell tower to commemorate their dead. It was not, to speak relatively in Nazi terms, a death camp. Of the quarter of a million prisoners held there over eight years—men and women of many nationalities—about a quarter are thought to have died, or some 65,000. For two years, from April 1943, their number included Léon Blum, a former French premier held as hostage in isolation and in superior conditions with his third wife, Janot, who heroically volunteered to join him there from Paris and married him in the camp. Even on a warm summer day the place seems bleak and sunless, as if conscious of its own infamy, though visitors are a normal and daily event, including parties of schoolchildren. Outside the wire, nowadays, there is even a hotel among the trees.
What remains of the camp, in its third life, is a perimeter fence, once electrified, which still stands entire surrounding many acres of waste ground—concrete posts about 12 feet high carrying miles of barbed wire. The gateway, too, is still in place, with its ironwork lettering “Jedem das Seine”—to each his own; so is the railhead just outside the gate, built by forced labor during the war. But only the administrative block still stands as a building, apart from the guardhouse, and it is now used as an exhibition center. The rest calls for some imagination. The parliamentary delegation that Winston Churchill sent as prime minister in April 1945 speaks in its report of verminous huts without windows, four-tiered with bunks, and only recently holding 80,000 prisoners. This is where Use Koch, wife of the Nazi commandant, collected articles made of human skin, including a famous lampshade. This is where survivors, half naked skeletons walking as if on stilts, told the British delegation that they had heard of camps further east where conditions were still worse, and paid tribute to the precision of RAF bombing, which (they said) had killed about 200 Nazis, 400 prisoners, and 150 Nazi women residing nearby.
The huts themselves, which once numbered over 50, have now been razed, leaving only concrete foundations marked with information about those who lived in them, or ceased to live. The crematorium, too, is marked on the ground. There were no gas chambers at Buchenwald, and killing was mainly by shooting or hanging. But the central area has been laid waste. Essentially, as it stands today, Buchenwald is a huge empty space surrounded by wire.
The exhibition is instructive, in a misleading sort of way, and remarkable for its effrontery. A film shows something of Nazism, as you would expect—but much too about American atrocities, real or alleged, in Vietnam. Though the exhibition tells the story of the rise of Hitler, there is no word of the Hitler-Soviet pact of 1939-41—a topic still largely taboo east of the Iron Curtain, even after Gorbachev’s visit to Poland in July 1988, a nation that the pact dismembered—and nothing about the genocidal theories of Marx and Engels where Hitler probably found in print the idea for his Final Solution. Still less is there any hint that Buchenwald, along with Sachsenhausen and other camps in former German lands, were used for years by the Soviets after 1945 for a similar purpose. It is admitted that the camp was liberated by the US and not by the Red Army. But the American liberators are reviled for having failed to support “the only consistent resistance among the prisoners,” which means that they did not promptly hand over the camp to its Communist underground. The hero of the display is Ernst Thälmann, leader of the German Communist Party, though the truth is that he was never a prisoner here, having been brought in one morning in August 1944 to be shot. Nazis are not called that; still less are they called National Socialists, since socialism is officially a sacred name throughout eastern Europe, and its moral authority is not to be sullied or questioned. So, as elsewhere in East Germany, they are called fascists—a name they never used.
Léon Blum has left a detailed account of life and death inside Nazi Buchenwald during the last two years of world war. Shortly after his liberation, in an article called “The Last Month,” he described his careful segregation in the camp from the thousands of prisoners who, as he at first failed to guess, were dying around him. A camp was a strictly compartmentalized organism, and you could spend months, even years in one without knowing its full purpose. The hut Blum shared with his wife was on the edge of the officers’ quarters: Blum scarcely left it for two years, and never wandered into the camp at large; and no one entered it but the SS. On a rare visit to the dentist, he would be taken by car as a privileged prisoner, talk to no one in the hospital and return in equal solitude. The huts for special prisoners were continuously patrolled by SS men with dogs and machine guns, some of them always to be seen between the huts and the perimeter fence, night and day, and the Blums survived in their tiny cabin as if in a tomb. In fact there were old friends in neighboring huts of whose very existence they remained unaware for nearly a year.
That segregation, as Blum insists, explains his ignorance of what the camp was largely for. The first hint, he tells, was the strange smell which we often had at evening through the open windows, enveloping us all night long when the wind persisted in the same direction. It was the smell of the crematorium.
Though there was a lot of death at Buchenwald, “we never knew exactly what one died of, or how one died.” The Blums were to understand better in August 1944 when, after an American bombing raid on the camp, ordinary prisoners were brought in to clear up the mess. Blum’s description is unforgettable:
their faces gaunt, hollow and furrowed, their bodies floating under striped smocks, their feet bare inside their wooden clogs . . . They passed us harnessed like draft animals to a cart loaded with rocks and sands; or in long lines, their shoulders bent under a long tree trunk, like captives in some Egyptian or Assyrian frieze.
The Blums contrived to exchange a few words with French and Belgian prisoners, learning about friends in the camp, and realizing from their talk how vastly different the life of ordinary prisoners was from their own. And they heard, too, of even worse sectors elsewhere, reserved for Russians, Poles, and Jews. But it is astonishing to record that it was only after his liberation, when he heard the testimony of other survivors, that the great Léon Blum—the most famous of all residents of Buchenwald in its first stage, and a resident there for nearly two years—realized that he had lived in a charnel house.
Blum’s intuition that Nazi cruelty must be infectious was to prove true.
“You are already conquerors in this sense,” he wrote bitterly after the war of his Nazi captors. “You have succeeded in communicating to the world your cruelty and your hatred.” The world, he predicted, would respond, and it did—”waging war like you, in exasperated rage.” Blum trembled at the thought, in his liberty, and with reason. For though Buchenwald in its second life, under the Russians, may have killed only 13,000 prisoners, they represented over a third of the camp population of those years, or far more than the proportion of Nazi dead. It is a curious detail of the British parliamentary report of 1945 that the prisoner who had been in charge of cremating bodies in the Nazi period was a thirty-year-old Berlin Communist called Kurt Faulhaber, who told them that no Jewish prisoner would have been allowed to hold a post as privileged as his. As Hitler remarked during the war to Albert Speer, Communists were to be trusted, in the Nazi system, and allowed responsibilities.
To learn of Buchenwald’s second life I had to travel west, since the matter is seldom spoken of, and never written about, in East Germany. In 1948 a Group Against Inhumanity was set up in West Berlin by survivors of Soviet Buchenwald, which in the event was to last from August 1945 down to February 1950, and their publications tell a revealing story of contrasts in totalitarian styles.
Soviet Buchenwald was in all likelihood a deadlier place than the Nazi camp, in the sense that a higher proportion of its prisoners died. But they died not quickly, by shooting and hanging, but by starvation and above all disease, tuberculosis being the greatest of all killers. Soviet Buchenwald was preeminently a place of chaos and neglect, and far unlike the military precision of its former self A prisoner seldom even saw a Russian soldier, unless in the distance on one of the control towers preserved from Nazi times, or at one of the endless parades that made up camp life. Even the robbing of prisoners had already occurred before arrival, so that they were forced to survive in the camp with the few garments they had managed to keep, the best having been seized by Red Army soldiers at the moment of arrest. There were no prisoners’ uniforms now, little sense of order, and few exits by the bullet or the noose. If Nazi cruelty was active, Communist was passive. One died, after 1945, unregarded and by sheer inadvertance.
Prisoners included anyone known to have a history of dissent or an instinct for free debate, and the death toll was huge. One survivor reports that, of the 29 in his group, only 5 survived to be released in 1948. The daily diet amounted to 800-900 calories; enough to sustain life if you sit or lie, but not if you move. Only 10 percent of the prisoners worked, within the electrified perimeter fence once built by the Nazis; the rest were confined, parades apart, to crowded barracks. The NKVD inherited from the Nazis 15 two-storied stone barracks and 32 one-storied barracks, and the third and more who died at their hands were buried in mass graves near the camp. Daily parades took two hours, during which time prisoners were forced to stand or march. It was against the rules to die inside the barracks, and prisoners were forced to carry dying comrades to a sick bay, once they were declared unfit by Soviet doctors, where they received no treatment and were left to their fate. One survivor speaks of faces like masks. As they were taken out, companions seized their spoons and their garments as objects too precious to lose.
That the Soviets were running concentration camps in their zone of Germany was public knowledge in postwar years, though it is a fact now widely forgotten. There were occasional protests, at the time, in the West. An AFL official, for example, speaking on behalf of American labor, demanded that the United States should refuse to treat with the Soviet Union for so long as Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen were kept at their old task; and rumors of his speech, brought to Soviet Buchenwald by a new prisoner, gave the inmates a breath of hope. Thomas Mann’s record is less heroic. A resident by then of California, he revisited his native Germany for the first time in 16 years in July and August 1949, including Weimar in the Russian zone, and was urged by the Group Against Inhumanity to ask permission to visit the Buchenwald camp. He declined to ask; and in an article in the Frankfurter Rundschau (July 28, 1949) he pleaded that his visit to Weimar was to commemorate the bicentenary of Goethe’s birth and to receive the Goethe prize there: “To make demands . . . that the German officials inviting me cannot fulfill is out of the question, and the society making the request knows that as well as I.” Like the first Buchenwald, as he rightly guessed, the second was not for tourists. Mann breakfasted with the Soviet commander in Weimar, General Tulpanov, gave a speech at the National Theater there, and took his prize; but he did not go up the hill. Plainly the Soviet use of Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen was not a secret after 1945: in fact the death in Sachsenhausen of Heinrich George, a famous actor, was widely reported. The world has simply chosen to forget.
Whether it now chooses to remember is a question entirely for us. Beyond the Iron Curtain such decisions are not for individuals but for governments, but even there the atmosphere may now be clearing. Poles are allowed to hint, even occasionally to proclaim in print, that the massacres at Katyn, near Smolensk, of some five thousand Polish officers in April 1940 was a Soviet and not a Nazi atrocity. Since the party conference in Moscow in June 1988, crimes like the starvation of the Ukraine are publicly admitted even inside the Soviet Union. There is seldom a breath of public admission that the Soviet Union was Hitler’s ally, however, for two years after August 1939; or that with the fall of France in May 1940 Stalin willingly supplied Hitler with materials for his planned invasion of England and, a year later, for his actual invasion of the Soviet Union; or that after 1945 the Soviets used some of the Nazi camps, year after year, to an even deadlier effect than the Nazis.
Some day, perhaps, if glasnost spreads, such matters will be spoken of, even written about, in eastern Europe. And that, as they say, will be the day.