Sunday, April 04, 2010

New York Times on the establishment of Dachau, March, 1933.

In my Jews in the Contemporary World course we are discussing the Holocaust this week, and I took a look at some New York Times articles, first about the establishment of Dachau as a concentration camp for political prisoners in March 1933, then about how it was freed by the American Seventh Army on April 30, 1945, and then another article which seems to give one of the first estimates of the numbers of Jews killed in the Holocaust. I think it would be appropriate to reproduce these articles, as Yom Ha'Shoah is coming up in a week.

The first one is a report by a Times reporter about Dachau a couple of months after it had been established, when most of the prisoners were Communists who had been rounded up by the Nazis soon after their takeover of Germany. When compared with the article about the liberation of the camp in 1945, the camp seems to have become a much more harsh and dreadful place in the ensuing twelve years.
Taken through entire place at Dachau in Bavaria except possibly disciplinary cells
2,000 inmates gloomy
Incautious word has landed many there – machine guns and rifles bar escape

From a special correspondent
Wireless to the NEW YORK TIMES

DACHAU, Bavaria, July 25. The name of this idyllic little town, situated about a half-hour’s automobile ride from Munich, has become a word of dread throughout Bavaria.

All the Bavarians, noted for their racy unreservedness of speech, pray these days with a mock drollery designed to beguile genuine apprehension:
“Please, Lord, make me dumb,
So I won’t to Dachau come.”

For high on the edge of Dachau is the big Bavarian concentration camp for political prisoners. Many a man has landed there, because of an incautious word or too much confidence in supposed comrades or friends. The Nazi Secret State Police, like the Cheka of Russia, has agents everywhere, and any criticism of the new regime and even lack of proper enthusiasm for it are punished as “sabotage” of the Nazi up-building program.

Sentences Indefinite

Such “saboteurs and killjoys” are sentenced to an indefinite period of training and education in the new and only true dogma of national salvation and for this purpose are sent to what are euphemistically called “educational camps,” where in rigid discipline and hard labor they are converted from egotistical Marxists or liberals to good Nazis who place service to the State above service to themselves.

Your correspondent spent a day at the “educational camp” at Dachau, where there is a steady coming and going, but where the average number of prisoners remains around 2,000. He inspected the whole camp, except possibly the disciplinary cells, of which he got a hint; he talked with them and heard their grievances, at least in so far as they dared express them in the presence of the camp’s deputy commander, who showed the correspondent around.

It is necessary to distinguish between a system that imprisons men for their political opinions and the methods with which the imprisonment is administered. In the latter respect the prisoners might have repeated the famous saying of the man about to be hanged that he was as well off as could be expected under the circumstances.

Clashes at the outset

This, both the prisoners and the camp’s commander, Herr Eicke, agreed, was truer now than before; when the concentration camps were first opened, the political passions still aflame led to numerous clashes between the prisoners and guards in which the guards naturally had the advantage.
Now camp life has settled into the organized routine of any penal institution, the guards consist of approximately 275 men, and Chancellor Hitler’s black-uniformed elite guards and not the ordinary brown-shirted storm troops perform this duty. It is somewhat boring but not much different from regular army life.

The prisoners accept their confinement as a blow of revolutionary fate against which it is futile to rave. The older prisoners and “trusties” soon break in the new ones and the latter quickly learn that, in view of the indefiniteness of their stay, good behavior and the quickest possible conversion to Nazism are their only chance of release. The intellectually honest are out of luck.

The camp is located on the site of huge war-time munition works. The machine shops and machinery were blown up on the orders of the Allies. Scattered remnants of these are mute testimony of Germany’s defeat and additional confirmation to the Nazis that they are right.

Assails destruction of works

“The senseless destruction of such tremendous values belonging to the German people is a shame,” exclaimed Deputy Commander Michael Lippert, the correspondent’s guide. “It is an object lesson for our Communists which they quickly comprehend.”

Some of the sheds of the administration building, especially the concrete one-story barracks which formerly housed the munition workers, were left standing and they constitute the concentration camp. In this respect the Dachau prisoners are probably better off than in most camps.

Surrounding the camp is a seen-foot wall topped off with barbed wire and a short distance beyond have been placed barbed-wire entanglements. Between the wall and the entanglements there are patrols of guards clad in gray green service denim. They are armed with rifles while machine guns are strategically placed and manned by alert crews with fingers at the triggers ready to mow down the rebellious or check any flight.

Asked whether there had been many escapes the guide said: “No, only one that was staged from a workshop outside the camp.”

Labor gangs repair road

Dachau is ruled by both prison regulations and rules of military discipline. That is apparent on every hand. On approaching the camp, after satisfying the challenging patrols with a pass obtained from the secret State Police, the correspondent saw labor gangs at work repairing a road under the supervision of armed guards and under the muzzles of machine guns. It was a blazing hot day and the men were stripped to the waist. Most of them were sunburned a dark brown, but the red of some betrayed recent arrivals.

They seemed to work with a sort of fury within them, betrayed in part by the vehemence with which they dug up the earth, but most of all by the tortured looks on their faces, which ranged all the way from rage and bitterness to bewildered hopelessness.

Later your correspondent learned that most of them had been put to work under the burning sun as a disciplinary measure, for the day was so hot that most of the prisoners had been relieved of all outside work. This was evident as soon as the camp gates were passed. Stretched out over the entire campground were about 1,500 idling men. They ranged from boys of 17 to white-haired old men.
All types were represented – sturdy peasants, manual laborers and bespectacled intellectuals, and there were also faces usually attributed to a city’s underworld. All were clad only in grey trousers or just in bathing suits, having taken off as much of the grey prison uniform as possible.

Most Do Nothing

Most of them were lying in the grass and some were in the shade of the few available trees. A few were bathing in a makeshift swimming pool. The rest were visible between the rows of barracks, some playing chess, a few reading books, most simply doing nothing. It was an almost idyllic picture of a rest camp. That it was not a rest camp, however, was evident very soon.

The disillusioning thing, besides the grim, efficient-looking guards and their rifles, was in the faces of the prisoners. Under a smiling sky, there was not a smile in the 2,000. They looked sour, grim, sullen, sad or merely apathetic. Thoughts of other things than the beauty of nature and the peacefulness of scene obviously engaged their minds. And dark were the looks which greeted the Deputy Commander accompanying the correspondent.

Nevertheless, as soon as they were approached, all groups quickly sprang to attention. Caps were whipped off the many heads and heels clicked. When the correspondent and his guide entered a barracks room, corporals bawled out, just as in the army, “Attention!” Then reported “Corporalship So-and-So. Twelve men. Everything in order.”

Herr Lippert explained that the prisoners were organized in companies and corporalships, each under a leader selected among the prisoners themselves, who were responsible for the order of the men and the cleanliness of the barracks.

“For their own comfort, the men see that any pig among them is cleaned up and stays clean,” Herr Lippert asserted.

Barracks are clean

Indeed, the barracks were as clean as a whistle. Each room contained four tiers of three bunks each, one atop another, crude wooden affairs filled with straw, but covered by clean, blue-white bedclothes neatly folded.

The correspondent found the guards had precisely the same accommodations. In fact, their quarters were more cramped, the rooms smaller and lower, allowing only two bunks atop each other.
Both prisoners and guards eat the same kind of food. That is a principle Chancellor Hitler is enforcing for himself as well as his men, namely, that all Germans are comrades, even if political enemies, and should live more or less alike. Some of Herr Hitler’s lieutenants are less meticulous than others in carrying out the principle, but it is certainly enforced at Dachau.

All was not idleness within the camp. Some sheds had been converted into artisan shops, and here the skilled prisoners worked. Tailors sewed grey prisoners uniforms, bootmakers built boots, carpenters made doors and windows and locksmiths made the necessary fastenings. Even an arts shop was created where woodcarvers and sculptors were busy and a studio with a proper skylight housed an artist making crayon sketches. But all the art work had reference to the Nazi movement – there were Hitler and Goering medallions, swastika cross emblems and Hitler and Goering pictures, sold at fifty pfennings apiece. Other art work apparently is prohibited as contrary to Nazi pedagogics. Yet the artist was among the most satisfied-looking in the entire camp.

The Order of the Day

Following is the order of the day: 5 A.M. arising time, 5:30 coffee, 7 to 10:30 work, including a twenty-minute pause; then the midday meal and a rest; 2 P.M. to 5 work, including a twenty-minute pause; 6 supper, 8 counting assembly when every prisoner must be accounted for, and 9 lights out and bed.

The prisoners may write two letters a month, although there is no limit on letters addressed to the prisoners and they may receive two parcels a month, but only clothes and laundry. Food shipments, except sweets, are prohibited because of the danger of smuggling arms. The prisoners may also receive money from home, but only up to 5 marks a week, with which they may buy additional food from the canteen. This sells everything, including near beer, but no alcohol. Finally, good work is rewarded by an additional allotment of bread.


  1. You have posted some interesting material. As always, thank you.

    It is worth underlining the fact that The New York Times was not great at shedding light on the threat that came from the Nazis. By contrast, it is my understanding that the paper's coverage of the Armenian genocide was typically front page news. At least that is what appears in Peter Balakian's excellent book, The Burning Tigris. So, had The New York Times wanted to cover what was happening to Europe's Jews - and not just after the fact -, the paper could have made it front and center.

    Likewise, today, The New York Times downplays the virus running within the great Muslim regions. As a result, one is forced to dig deep - and often onto websites with nasty agendas to find links to news reports - to learn about how Christians in the Muslim regions are under assault and, in fact, exiting the Muslim regions in a great Exodux. Yet, without this bit of context, our understanding of the Muslim regions is skewed dishonestly. As with its burial of stories about the nasty nature of the Nazi regime towards Europe's Jews, the burial of stories today makes us all poorer.

  2. It is interesting to see what the Times actually covered about the Nazi regime and the Holocaust, however. This article that I first quoted seems to me to give an overly rosy picture of Dachau, but then it was at the very beginning of its existence, and the article about its liberation gives lots of nasty details not present in the first one.

  3. Hi Rebecca,

    You make a good point. By the way, were these articles front page stories? Or, like so much else about the Nazi regime, was it all buried inside?

    I mentioned, in connection with another of your excellent posts, William Hitchcock's excellent book, The Bitter Road to Freedom: The Human Cost of Allied Victory in World War II Europe. A good chunk of the book is devoted to the liberation of the camps and the actual conditions discovered (and what occurred before such people were able, to the extent such things later became possible, to move on with lives). Everything was infinitely worse, on his telling - which I believe to be a straight telling -, than what appeared in the papers (or in most other reports). The survivors were so reduced at the time that any notion of retained dignity, even humanity, was destroyed. They were walking flesh, even willing to defecate in public. The Times presented a sanitized version of reality. The Times deserves rather little credit for its coverage although, as you note, there is some detail.

    Today - and, I mention this because we all should learn from past errors -, the Times (among a number of other papers), is sugarcoating what is going on in the Muslim - and most especially Arab - regions. Such papers are rationalizing a truly vicious reality and movement out of deference to who knows what. I like to think that, like with the use of euphemistic terms such as "militant," such papers know some semblance of the reality they have chosen to obscure. However, I rather suspect that they often believe (or have come to believe) their sanitized version of reality.