April 11, 1945: Buchenwald concentration camp is liberated.

Buchenwald was established in 1937 near Weimar, making it one of the earliest concentration camps constructed within German borders. During its years of operation, Buchenwald served primarily as a source of slave laborers – political prisoners, Poles , Jews, Romani, criminals, prisoners of war, etc. – who worked to support German factories and production, and who died in massive numbers from their working and living conditions, although Buchenwald and camps like it were technically not considered “extermination camps” (these camps, equipped with gas chambers and crematoriums, were mostly located in Poland). Buchenwald was also made notorious by the brutality of its guards and overseers, most famously Ilse Koch, the “Bitch of Buchenwald”, who allegedly collected the tattoooed skins of camp prisoners. Tens of thousands of prisoners died at Buchenwald and in its subcamps by the time of its liberation by a detachment of American troops, while some 28,000 were evacuated and forced on a death march just days before the troops arrived.

Margaret Bourke-White, a war correspondent who was present at Buchenwald around the time of its liberation, wrote in her 1946 memoir Dear Fatherland, Rest Quietly on the German citizens from nearby Weimar who were made to walk through the camp and look upon the atrocities committed by their countrymen:

This whiteness had the fragile translucence of snow, and I wished that under the bright April sun which shone from a clean blue sky it would all simply melt away. I longed for it to disappear, because while it was there I was reminded that men actually had done this thing — men with arms and legs and eyes and hearts not so very unlike our own. And it made me ashamed to be a member of the human race.

The several hundred other spectators who filed through the Buchenwald courtyard on that sunny April afternoon were equally unwilling to admit association with the human beings who had perpetrated these horrors. But their reluctance had a certain tinge of self-interest; for these were the citizens of Weimar, eager to plead their ignorance of the outrages.

When US forces arrived at Buchenwald, the 21,000 prisoners who had been left behind had taken control of the camp after their SS guards fled, aware of the inevitable arrival of Allied forces. 

LIFE Behind the Picture: The Liberation of Buchenwald, April 1945 (graphic images)

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