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What Most Germans Knew about Concentration Camps - IV

Updated on April 14, 2013
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Theresa Ast, PhD in Modern European History, has taught at Reinhardt University for 25 years. "Confronting the Holocaust" @ AMAZON Books.

World War II Photographs


German Cilivian Responses

Across Germany at concentration camps large and small, American soldiers proceeded to round up German civilians, men and women, and compel them to march through the concentration camps, past mass pit graves, and through cemeteries where bodies still lay uncovered in recently and hastily dug graves.[1]

Martin Blumenson, author of The Patton Papers: 1940-1945, was present at Buchenwald, took photographs and sent them home in a letter. He wrote, “I was so deeply moved by this thing [inmate atrocities and deaths in a concentration camp] that I had the leading citizens of Weimar, to the extent of some 1500 [people], marched through the camp and made to look at the spectacle.”[2]

Delbert Kuehl of the 82nd Airborne Division wrote, “[After seeing the concentration camp], we were very angry – our general …made all the people of the city march past all the dead.”[3] Gerald McMahon knew a “Captain who required the entire city of Muhldorf, exempting only the very young, the very old and the infirm, to tour the site of a mass grave …where over 200 inmates from Dachau were shot or garroted by SS guards just days before our forces reached the area.”[4]

American troops at Gunskirchen Lager “went into the nearest town Lambach, knocked on doors, [and] made every citizen that could walk go to the camp to see.”[5] Captain Soldinger, with units of the 8th Infantry Division at Woebbelin wrote, “the entire population were made to walk around the graves to show them what happened a few miles from their homes. This was the best lesson that could have been taught.”[6]

News of the forced tours of camps and gravesites also surfaces in military intelligence reports. An April 1945 intelligence memorandum contained the following. “German civilians were directed to view actual conditions in prison camps at Bergen- Belsen, Nordhausen, and others of notorious reputation.”[7]

GIs noticed the good physical condition of most German civilians in contrast to the starved and emaciated condition of the camp survivors.[8] According to Alvin Weinstein the German people looked very healthy “proving they’d been eating well….” He was surprised to see plenty of cows and chickens and no immediate food shortage.

[9] After seeing Nordhausen Sergeant Malachowsky reported, “Here was all this food stocked in warehouses and yet three miles away there were [survivors] eating horses’ heads, because that was all they had.”[10] A Civil Affairs report generated by 1st Army personnel noted that German civilians were not starving.[11]

In a reconnaissance report from April 1945 Brigadier General Wood commented on the condition of the German countryside outside of industrial cities which were heavily bombed. “The fundamental body of Germany, its smaller cities, its towns and villages, its farmlands, its forests, its orchards, its vineyards, is not merely substantially undamaged, but it is fat and prosperous. The people are fat, well-dressed, and smug with good living. Even the dogs are fat….Their barns, storehouses, and cellars are full of foods and wines….”[12]

The situation in some regions of Austria was the same, as an intelligence report about Mauthausen indicated. “Milk, meat, and vegetables were plentiful in this area, yet thousands of inmates died in this camp of starvation…apparently no efforts were ever made by the local populace to supply this camp with vitally needed food.”[13]

At times GIs were enraged by the sight of well-fed Germans, warehouses of food, and emaciated camp internees. They began to commandeer German houses so that survivors would have shelter rather than lay down in the fields and streets.[14] German civilians were ordered to provide food, clothing, and shelter for survivors.[15]

PFC Wright was at Landsberg and wrote, “near a German house, I saw two inmates practically crawling [toward] it. I picked them up one by one and brought them into this house, right into the kitchen. I told the owner…to get a large mattress, and build a fire in the kitchen stove….I only had C rations….The warmth from the stove kept them nice and comfortable and I had the owner cover them with blankets.”[16]

When PFC Pisik ordered a German family out of their home, they asked where they should go. Pisik told them that after seeing Dachau, he didn’t give a damn. He said that if it were up to him, he would put them all out, even little old grandmothers, into the rain.[17]

Soldiers from the 71st Infantry Division would drop by German homes where liberated inmates have been quartered, with their M-1 rifles clearly visible, to make sure the survivors were being treated well.[18]

Some Germans appealed to American troops for protection. They wanted the GIs to protect their property and they resented having to provide food, clothing, or shelter for the survivors.[19] Other Germans were afraid that survivors might physically abuse them.

David Icheslon stated that he and his men felt absolutely no obligation or responsibility to protect German civilians.[20] Master Sergeant Keithan wrote, “There were German civilians outside of [Dachau]. Their reaction was one of great concern for their physical well-being, for I can remember going through a number of homes beside the camp and meeting civilians who urged me to stand guard over them as they [feared] retribution from camp inmates. I was not ordered to protect them from violence, nor did I stand guard as requested.”[21]

Corporal Motzko encountered a hysterical German woman just outside a small camp, who begged him not to release the inmates as they would kill German civilians. Motzko told her he did not care if the inmates retaliated. Then he suggested that the local people give the freed inmates whatever they needed as they had suffered terribly in the camps.[22]

Second Lieutenant Gibson who was at Ohrdruf summed up the attitude of many GIs. “We were front line combat troops and protecting Kraut civilians was not part of our mission. Also, we did not care what happened to the civilians in the event some of the inmates became unruly and bestowed their righteous wrath upon the [Germans].”[23]

Most American soldiers who saw the concentration camps disbelieved German civilians who claimed ignorance of them. And the obvious disparities between the comfortable condition of many Germans and the desperate condition of camp internees, served only to increase the GIs dislike and distrust of the German people.


[1] Marc F. Griesbach, editor, “Combat History of the 8th Infantry Division in World War II, 1945, 8; Matthew B. Ridgeway, Soldier: The Memoirs of Matthew B. Ridgeway, (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956), 147-148; Walter Gray, interview, HMFI, (354th Regiment, Headquarters Company, 89th Infantry Division); Marshall Mantler, 10, Charles Reiner, 4, interview transcripts, Emory (3rd Army/aid to Patton; 9th Infantry Division); Theodore Pohrte, Ralph MacKenzie, interviews, DMC, (261st Regiment, 65th Infantry Division; European Civil Affairs-Military Government); Horace Berry, 1, Ast Project, (71st Infantry Division); Allen, Lucky Forward, 369-370.

[2] Martin B. Blumenson, The Patton Papers: 1940-1945, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1957), 692.

[3] Delbert Kuehl, World War II Survey, MHI, (82nd Armored Division).

[4] Gerald McMahon, Gunskirchen Lager, 3.

[5] Horace Berry, 1, Ast Project, (71st Infantry Division).

[6]Reuben J. Soldinger, World War II Survey, MHI, (8th Infantry Division).

[7] G-2 Basic Intelligence Directive, “German Concentration and Prison Camps,” April 1945, Record Group 165, NARA.

[8] Ernest James, interview, USHMM; Donald Nost, interview transcript, 8, JCRC, (23rd Armored Infantry Battalion); James Gavin, On to Berlin: Battles of an Airborne Commander, 1943-1945, (New York: Vanguard Press, 1978), 289; Alvin A. Weinstein, report, “Death Trains of Dachau,” (1994), (hereafter cited as “Death Trains”), 208, 216; Joseph Pulitzer, “A Report tot eh American People,” (1946), 42.

[9] Alvin A. Weinstein, “Death Trains,” 208, 216.

[10] Malachowsky, Days, (229th Medical Battalion, 104th Infantry Division), 31.

[11] G-5 Problems in 1st US Army, 9 Mat 1945, Record Group 407, NARA.

[12] Brigadier General Eric F. Wood, Prisoner of War and Displaced Persons Division, Reconnaissance Report, April 1945, Record Group 332, NARA.

[13] G-2 Basic Intelligence Directive Report, Mauthausen Concentration Camp, Record Group 319, NARA.

[14] Leon Freedman, interview, ILC, (304th Regiment, 17th Infantry Division); George Pisik, interview, USHMM, (16th Armored Battalion, 13th Armored Division); Donald Nost, interview, JCRC; H. D. Stoneking, interview, DMC; W. B. Lovelady, interview transcript, 5, Emory, (Combat Command B, 3rd Armored Division); Joseph Wright, cited in Liberators, 32.

[15] Peretz Milbauer, interview, USHMM; H. D. Stoneking, interview, DMC; Edmund Motzko, interview, JCRC, (Anti-Aircraft Weapons Battalion, 102nd Infantry Division); Leon Freedman, interview, ILC.

[16] Joseph Wright, cited in Liberators, 32.

[17] George Pisik, interview, USHMM, ( 16th Armored Battalion, 13th Armored Division).

[18] The 71st Came to Gunskirchen Lager, (US Army, 71st Infantry Division, 1945), 21.

[19] Arnold Miller, interview, Gratz; Ernest James, interview, USHMM; Edmund Motzko, interview transcript, 3, JCRC; Gerald McMahon, Gunskirchen Lager, 3.

[20] David Ichelson, I Was There, 162.

[21] John William Keithan, interview transcript, 2, Emory, (232nd Regiment, 42nd Infantry Division).

[22] Edmund Motzko, interview transcript, 3, JCRC.

[23] Floyd Samuel Gibson interview transcript, 2, Ast Project, (353rd Regiment, 89th Infantry Division).


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