The concentration camp at Dachau was the first “official” facility of its kind in Nazi Germany, created just a few weeks after the Nazis came to power. Created by restructuring an abandoned munitions factory, the camp was originally projected to hold 5,000 prisoners. It was a “model camp”, in which methods for the psychological and physical destruction of political opponents were tested and refined. The fact that the original inmates were political opponents of the Nazis explains why the camp was for a time known as a centre for “political re-education”.
Its first inmates were the functionaries and leaders of the German Communist Party, followed by those of the Social Democratic Party, and the Catholic Centre. But whenever one of these political inmates also happened to be Jewish, then the treatment handed out to him became particularly vicious and lethal.
From the very start of the camp’s existence, Dachau featured a “punishment block”, housed in a separate barracks from the rest of the inmates. Later, this was expanded to two barracks, as the numbers in the “punishment blocks” progressively grew. The ill-treatment of prisoners became ever harder, as did the work they were forced to do, and so daily life inside the camp became unbearable. All the prisoners suffered from hunger, but many also suffered from the violence of the punishment block: many languished inside its walls for months (if they did not succumb to death sooner), chained and fed only bread and water, and forced to stay on their feet for hours on end in cubicles that measured only 60cm square, without air or light. Such was the treatment reserved for enemies of the regime, and such was the system used to eliminate them.
Initially, prisoners were set to work on completing the construction of the camp itself, also working on road construction and organising the area around it. Later, they were detached from the camp, and were set to work in various companies that produced materials for the German war machine, which had been set up in the meantime in the surrounding area.
The internal management of Dachau was handed over to the prisoners themselves. Since the camp held so many political detainees, it was easy for them to unite under the banner of anti-fascism all the different prisoners who had been rounded up and sent to Dachua from the various European countries that fell one by one to German invasion. In a short space of time, Dachau became a genuine “Babel”: the humiliations, the tiredness and the violence of the guards were meted out alike to German prisoners, to Austrians, Soviets, Poles, French, Italians, Czechs and Hungarians. Under the slogan of “solidarity”, a secret anti-Nazi committee of all the various nationalities was created inside the camp. Many priests were also incarcerated inside the camp, housed in the so-called “Priests’ block”.
But Dachau was also the site of infamous “scientific” experiments, which were intended to develop ways to help save the lives of German soldiers injured in combat, but which cost the lives of hundreds of its opponents.
Originally intended and designed to hold a maximum of 5,000 prisoners, the camp in fact was continually extended (and branched out into numerous sub-camps), such that it became completely over-crowded: three prisoners were now forced to sleep in one bed, sharing the same number of sanitary facilities and the same small quantity of terrible food. Around 200,000 people were officially registered at Dachau (including over 10,000 Italians), but in reality, there were many, many more prisoners than this. The US soldiers who liberated the camp on 29 April 1945 counted 31,432 prisoners in the main camp itself, plus another 36,246 in its sub-camps and related facilities. It is not known how many prisoners were sent on forced “death-marches” to Mauthausen or Buchenwald shortly before the camp fell to Allied troops.
It is still not possible to reach an exact figure for the number of prisoners killed in Dachau, which holds the dubious record of being the longest-lasting and most brutal of the regime’s detention centres. The camp records note around 45,000 deaths, but this figure is without question far short of the tragic reality of the camp.