1937 - Dachau

Those who have been imprisoned in the concentration camp at Dachau, ten miles from Munich, will not talk. The following account is derived from members of the SS guard revolted by the regime of systematised brutality.

Every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday the grey police van collects the men bound for Dachau from the police prison at Ettstrasse and from the headquarters of the Political Police at Brienerstrasse. On arriving within the walled camp, the men are collected in ranks and called in one after the other to the commandant's office. There they have to give their history. Next, the "bad cases", who are destined for special treatment in the cells near the commandant's headquarters, are separated from the others. Under the shouts of watching SS men the rest follow the storm-trooper in charge of barrack allotment. The prisoners are served out with prison uniform, boots, a black wool cap, covers for their straw mattress and pillow, an old tin bowl, spoon, fork and knife and a loaf of black bread. Thus equipped, they march to their respective barracks; their hair is cut, and camp life begins.

There are ten barracks and No 1 is the worst. Surrounded by barbed wire, it houses the "hopeless" cases, men who have come to the camp for the second time. No 9 is filled with old men and invalids. Jews and "race degraders" have a barrack separated from the other prisoners, so as "not to infect them". Another is allocated solely to arrested emigres, former members of the Nazi Party and homosexuals. No 10 contains a sort of hospital and a small library.

There are about 2,600 prisoners at Dachau. In summer they are awakened at 4am, in winter at 5am, by a siren. They have a quarter of an hour in which to wash, make their beds, put everything in order and await their morning coffee, which is fetched by special men. By 6.30 the barracks have to be cleared. At 6.45 the prisoners (except those in cells) assemble near the entrance gate, in their respective labour groups. The occupants of barrack No 1 leave first for their work. They have permanent hard labour, mostly in the so-called Abbruch-Kommando (breaking down of old buildings) or carrying coal in baskets on their shoulders from a van to the coal store at a distance of about three-quarters of a mile. SS men constantly beat and kick these prisoners, and report them as "saboteurs" if they drop any coal. A prisoner thus reported is usually fastened to a bench; two storm-troopers hold down his shoulders while others beat him with ox-tails.

The other prisoners build roads, cut wood, dig drains, erect new barracks, clean the barracks or work at a trade. Work lasts till noon and, after the midday meal, begins again at 2pm. The prisoners return for supper at a quarter past six, and are usually employed on lighter work again from seven to eight. Everybody has to be inside by eight. At 9pm lights are turned out and nobody is allowed to talk. A prisoner who leaves the barrack after this time is shot.

It is while they work that the prisoners are particularly maltreated. "Race degraders" come off worst. They are forced to sing songs like "My Heart is Full of Joy". Then, under some pretext, the storm-troopers kick or hit them. When work begins, the chosen victims are maltreated on the pretext that they are slacking. They have to lie face-downwards in mud or nettles, are kicked ("sex-offenders" especially on the testicles) or prodded with knives. Covered with mud, exhausted, bleeding, they return to the camp, where they are reported for laziness. In the evening they are brought into a special hut and beaten again by a whole troop of SS-men, while sometimes they have to count the blows in a loud voice. If a man is a "race degrader" he is usually locked up after the beating in a dark cell, chained, and kept on bread and water, except every third day.

The prisoners are not allowed to see any relatives or friends, and only in exceptional cases their lawyer. All letters they receive or write are censored. Prisoners are often killed. Recently one man in the cells was beaten by the storm-troopers and subsequently bitten to death by the bloodhounds. Another prisoner was beaten to death by SS men, while one of them burnt the victim in the face with his lighted cigarette.

The uncertainty of the duration of their confinement in Dachau makes many prisoners try to commit suicide. There is no rule: a man found guilty of a trivial offence, but with little influence outside the camp, may stay in Dachau for years.

This article first appeared in the 29 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An explosion of puffery