In A Nutshell
In April 1945, the Allied Forces began to liberate concentration camps. Determined to show the world just how heinous the Nazis were, General Dwight Eisenhower opened the camps up for tours, which were given to journalists, soldiers, politicians, and local Germans. After seeing the horrors of the Ohrdruf concentration camp, the mayor of nearby Gotha, Germany committed suicide.
The Whole Bushel
To say that governments, on the whole, have a poor record of maintaining transparency with their citizens is probably the greatest sociopolitical understatement of all time. This likely goes double for fascist dictatorships. During the Nazi regime, the German people were certainly aware that selected minorities were being shipped off, but few realized what terrible fates waited at the destination of those train cars.
In 1945, Allied Forces rolled over continental Europe. Smelling defeat, the Nazis attempted to hide the proof of the horrifying human rights violations that went on in their concentration camps. Their efforts were futile. On April 4 (about four weeks before Adolf Hitler would commit suicide), the Allies liberated their first concentration camp—Ohrdruf in southwestern Germany, a subcamp of Buchenwald. While they had some advanced knowledge of the large-scale genocide that was going on under the Third Reich, they had no way of preparing themselves for the horrors they would encounter.
The SS had evacuated most of the camp’s estimated 11,700 living prisoners prior to the arrival of the 4th Armored Division, leaving behind a charnel house of bodies. Those too weak to make the journey were murdered on the spot. They’d hastily attempted to remove the evidence, burning hundreds of corpses in a pyre and dousing others in lime. The few prisoners left behind were little more than walking skeletons. The camp featured a butcher block used to crush teeth with gold fillings and a “punishment shed,” where unfathomable atrocities were carried out.
When General George Patton (whose nickname was “Old Blood and Guts” and who didn’t tend to swoon easily) visited the camp, he was chilled to the bone, later writing the place was “one of the most appalling sights that I have ever seen.” When describing Ohrdruf, Supreme Commander for the Allied Forces in Europe Dwight Eisenhower wrote “The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty, and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick.”
Eisenhower was determined to expose the carnage to the world. He requested permission to allow journalists and members of Congress to tour the grounds and ordered that every soldier not active on the front lines see what had gone on in the Buchenwald compound, stating “We are told the American soldier does not know what he is fighting for. Now, at least, he will know what he is fighting against.” Eisenhower would go on to order all the able-bodied citizens of nearby Gotha, Germany to go to Ohrdruf and dig graves for the hundreds of bodies left behind. After witnessing this scene firsthand, the mayor of Gotha and his wife hanged themselves.
Show Me The Proof
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: Holocaust Encyclopedia—Ohrdruf
Featured image via The Ohrdruf Photos
Georgia Tech Library: Ohrdruf