In March 1933, as the Police President of Munich, SS leader Heinrich Himmler, and the Nazis open the Dachau concentration camp near Munich for political enemies of the Third Reich. It was constructed at an unused munitions factory located twelve miles northwest of Munich on the Amper River. Himmler chose Theodor Eicke to organize Dachau, which became the model for all future SS concentration camps. Eicke became known as the “Father of the Concentration Camp System.”
Before the formal concentration camp system began, conventional prisons were becoming overwhelmed with political prisoners of the Nazis and early crude camps known as “wild” concentration camps were quickly constructed. They were often simply stockades surrounded by barbed wire. Prisoners were subjected to military-style drills, beatings, and torture. Often, prisoners were held for ransom and were released upon payment.
At Dachau, each prisoner passed through an iron gate, arriving under the Nazi slogan, “Arbeit Macht Frei.” Work sets you free. The prisoners were presented with another slogan painted inside the camp. “There is one way to freedom. Its milestones are: obedience, zeal, honesty, order, cleanliness, temperance, truth, sense of sacrifice and love for the Fatherland.”
In the early days of Dachau, most were political prisoners who were not told how long they would be imprisoned. For most, it was the first time they had ever been in trouble with the police or arrested. Upon being detained, they were told, “Based on Article One of the Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State of 28 February 1933, you are taken into protective custody in the interest of public security and order. Reason: suspicion of activities inimical to the State.”
The prisoners worked twelve-hour days in a camp workshop or outside along the camp grounds. Their health declined quickly due to the long work hours, poor nutrition, and inadequate sanitation.
The harsh forced labor system became the model for all subsequent concentration camps as Himmler and the SS took advantage of a ready supply of slave labor.
Under Theodor Eicke, SS guards at Dachau underwent rigorous military training in addition to their camp guard duty. Eicke convinced them to treat all inmates as dangerous enemies of the state and to not harbor any sympathy for the prisoners. The guards had to witness or participate in acts of cruelty against the prisoners, who were treated as numbers, not persons, stripped of everything human.
The existence of Dachau and other early concentration camps instilled fear in all Germans and effectively suppressed any political opposition to Hitler and the Nazi regime.
The History Place World War II in Europe
© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2018