May 7, 1915: A German U-boat sinks the RMS Lusitania.
The sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania was one of the most infamous events of World War I, carried out by the SM U-20 as part of Germany’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare against Great Britain and its allies. The event, which took the lives of nearly 1,200 people (including 128 American citizens), enraged the British and Americans, provided the basis for effective war and recruitment propaganda in the future, and turned public opinion in the United States against Germany so quickly that the country’s carefully preserved neutrality threatened to collapse. It did not, at least not until 1917, when Germany declared its intention to resume its practice of unrestricted submarine warfare, which reignited Americans’ lingering anger over the Lusitania.
At the time of its sinking, the Lusitania had officially been carrying as cargo war materials (ammunition, fuses, artillery shells), making it, in the eyes of the Germans, a legitimate military target, despite the fact that the ship was also at the time carrying 1,959 people. Of that number, 1,198 died when the ship was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland. The ship sank in 18 minutes, as opposed to the 2 hours 40 minutes it took for Lusitania’s White Star Line Rival, RMS Titanic, to sink, but like with Titanic, most of the deaths probably resulted from hypothermia, as survivors of the initial torpedoing awaited rescue floating for hours in the waters of the North Atlantic. In addition, the manner in which the Lusitania sank rendered most of its lifeboats unusable. The commander of the German U-boat, Walther Schwieger, was labeled by some a war criminal, although despite sparking outrage in the United States, the attack was not on its own enough to bring the country into the war. Three days later President Wilson made this comment in a speech:
There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight. There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.
Russian soldiers and a civilian attempt to move a bronze eagle that had previously been installed above a doorway of the Reich Chancellery, Berlin, 1945.
May 2, 1945: Berlin falls to Soviet forces.
The next day, General Wilding, the commander of the German troops in Berlin, finally surrendered the entire city to the Soviet army. There was no radio or newspaper, so vans with loudspeakers drove through the streets ordering us to cease all resistance. Suddenly, the shooting and bombing stopped and the unreal silence meant that one ordeal was over for us and another was about to begin. Our nightmare had become a reality. The entire three hundred square miles of what was left of Berlin were now completely under control of the Red Army. The last days of savage house to house fighting and street battles had been a human slaughter, with no prisoners being taken on either side. These final days were hell. Our last remaining and exhausted troops, primarily children and old men, stumbled into imprisonment. We were a city in ruins; almost no house remained intact.
Eyewitness account of the end of the Battle of Berlin
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)
March 22, 1933: Dachau concentration camp opens.
Dachau concentration camp, located in the southern German state of Bavaria, was completed and opened less than two months after Adolf Hitler was named Chancellor or Germany, making it the earliest built of the Nazi concentration camps. The construction of Dachau took place amidst the Nazis’ consolidation of power in the German government (and very soon over all aspects of German life), and its initial purpose was to suppress any potential opponents of the new regime - political prisoners, often communists and social democrats. Later, the camp’s prisoner population came to include common criminals and religious dissidents; in 1935, Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals arrived as prisoners to Dachau; in 1938, after the annexations of Austria and the Sudetenland, 11,000 Jews were deported to the camp; and throughout the war, more prisoners from all across Europe came to Dachau. In 1939 its prisoners were relocated to Buchenwald, but by 1944 thousands of people had been packed together into this overcrowded, disease-ridden camp.
As the first camp to be established by the Nazis, Dachau served as the model for later concentration camps and a testing ground for techniques that would be used at those other sites. Theodor Eicke was made commandant of the camp in June of 1933, and it was he more than anyone who devised the system and regulations of Dachau and most later Nazi camps. His Lagerordnung served as the camps’ disciplinary code, laying out the various punishments, ranging from hard time to flogging to death, to be doled out to prisoners who violated dress codes or attempted to agitate revolt. Although distinct from the extermination camps of Poland, whose main purpose was to kill as many people as possible as efficiently as possible, Dachau claimed thousands of lives due to poor sanitation, starvation, overworking, outbreaks of typhus, and other factors.
Dachau, its subsidiary camps, and the approximately 60,000 people imprisoned within them were liberated in April of 1945 by American soldiers, who, after seeing the horrific conditions of the camps and the railroad cars piled high with bodies, killed a number of German guards. In May, the 7,000 prisoners (mostly Jews) who had been forced by their guards on a death march to Tegernsee were also liberated.