The first barracks at Buchenwald camp were constructed by a squad of around 300 prisoners, gathered from the defunct camp at Lichtenburg (located near Leipzig), using primitive and inadequate tools; the timber used in the construction was sourced from the nearby forest at Ettersberg, an area once loved by Goethe.
In September of that year (1937), Buchenwald housed 5,382 prisoners, but by the end of that same month, the numbers had already risen to 8,634. At the end of December 1943, registered prisoners totalled 37,319, a number that would rise to 63,084 at the end of December 1944, later growing to as many as 80,436 towards the end of March 1945 (just months before the end of the war). In total, 230,000 people entered the camp, with known deaths believed to be 56,554. As always, death figures are inexact, given that summary (and so unrecorded) executions took place in Buchenwald as at so many camps.
Buchenwald was one of the first camps to be effectively run by the so-called “green triangle” prisoners, that is ordinary criminals. After bitter power struggles, the political prisoners (identified by the “red triangle” on their camp uniform), took control from the criminal element, who had conducted affairs within the camp with all the customary Nazi violence.
Buchenwald differs from the other Nazi camps in that it was here that the concept of “extermination through work” was most heavily applied. From the initial creation of the camp itself (including its roads and its various outbuildings), construction work was deliberately organised in such a way as to kill huge numbers of prisoners, but the verifiable numbers of prisoners murdered in this manner is only one part of the reality of this story.
Aside from the construction of the camp itself, prisoners were also set to work in 130 affiliated camps and sub-camps, including industrial production sites of all types. Mainly, this slave labour was deployed in construction of military material: the arms manufacturers involved had accepted the very economical contracts on offer to them from the SS for the use of Buchenwald prisoners, mainly for financial reasons.
The fact that there were many political detainees among the prisoners, particularly Communist operatives, encouraged contacts between the various nationalities amongst the camp population; this in turn created a support network used to protect the weakest and most vulnerable prisoners, some even being saved from otherwise certain death. Some prisoners who had been sentenced to death by the camp guards (usually for very minor reasons) were protected and hidden in ingenious ways.
Slowly, this support network developed in a full-blown resistance movement inside the camp that allowed for the creation of a secret international committee, with its own military arm. Thanks to the brave efforts of prisoners who worked in the offices and munitions factories on the outskirts of the camp, the prisoners inside the camp were supplied with stolen weapons equipment that were then secretly assembed, intended for the day when the resistance decided to launch an armed uprising.
That moment arrived in the first days of April 1945, when the SS decided to dismantle the facility, and sent an intial batch of 28,000 prisoners to other camps. The secret international committee, using a radio transmitter that had been covertly constructed, made contact with the American troops known to be in the vicinity of the camp: they asked for their assistance and then launched their uprising. As a result, when the Allied troops arrived at Buchenwald on 13 April 1945, they found that the facility had already been liberated and and that the international committee had already organised a democratic camp structure.