Established in 1937, Buchenwald Concentration Camp was located in the forest of Ettersberg, near Weimar. Buchenwald became symbolic of the Nazi camp system, becoming the largest concentration camp within the Reich. It was created to hold people who opposed the Nazi regime, Jewish people, Gypsies, homosexuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Initially, the concentration camp only held men, however women were also later held there.

At least 250,000 people were imprisoned in Buchenwald from 1937 to 1945. Over 56,000 people were murdered within the Concentration Camp. 


The first people to arrive at the Buchenwald site came from Sachsenhausen Concentration camp; 149 individuals were transported to the camp by train, followed by remaining prisoners of both Sachsenhausen and Lichtenburg Concentration camps. These people were forced to work clearing the site and building Buchenwald Concentration camp. By August 1937, three rows of barracks were ready for occupation.

As a result of the high mortality rate, a crematorium was constructed on the site in 1940, prior to this the SS had used local crematoria in Weimar. The scale of murder within Buchenwald necessitated expansion of the crematoria in 1942, especially following the rise in executions of Soviet Prisoners of War. Most of the ashes produced within the crematoria were dumped in the River Saale, which ran close to the camp. Due to shortages during the latter stages of the Second World War, fuel for the crematoria became limited in 1945. As a result the Nazis disposed of bodies in mass graves.

The Camp Complex

Buchenwald Concentration Camp was split into two sections, the ‘main camp’ where prisoners were held and the ‘administration area’, which housed barracks for the SS guards, and all aspects of Buchenwald’s administration system. It was surrounded by barbed wire fences, several watch towers and sentry posts, all of which were fitted with machine guns to prevent any prisoners from attempting to escape.

Within the ‘main camp’, a barrack called the ‘Bunker’ became a centre for suffering. It was a detention area, where people were tortured and punished for arbitrary reasons labelled violations of camp rules. Punishments included standing for days at a time without sleep, and deprivation of food and water. Many prisoners were executed within the ‘bunker’.

At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, a ‘special camp’ with tents was set up with in Buchenwald on the muster ground. Jewish people and Poles were held in this area, within which, people were left to die from exposure during the winter, as well as facing forced labour and execution.

In 1941, a Prisoner of War camp was created, the arrival of 2,000 Soviet prisoners of war necessitated expansion. Many Prisoners of War were executed at Buchenwald, most of these people were never officially recorded.


Between 1942 and 1945, 136 sub-camps were established and operated as part of Buchenwald. They were created in the area surrounding the camp, across Germany, in areas of Bohemia and Moravia, and the Rhineland.

Firms owned by both the SS, and private firms within the Third Reich, all utilised slave labour from the camps to produce materials for use within the Third Reich. Originally prisoners were used as forced labour in the German Equipment Works, operated and owned by the SS. As the Second World War progressed, more factories were created to make use of slave labour from the camps. In 1942 the first sub-camp, Gustloff-Werke, is created around an armament factory. Living quarters were not built on the site until 1943, meaning people assigned to the sub-camp were marched there every day.

A ‘Quarantine Camp’, or ‘Little Camp’, was created from a stable block in 1944 to house the many people who had been held prisoner in other camps, such as Auschwitz. The ‘Little camp’ had horrific conditions, particularly exacerbated by overcrowding, on occasions over 2,000 people were crammed into space intended to hold fifty horses. Tents were also erected within the ‘Little camp’ as an increasing number of people were sent to this sub camp. No sanitary facilities were available, leading to high mortality rates from disease and exposure.

In 1943, following Allied air raids, the Dora sub-camp was created to facilitate armament manufacture near to the town of Nordhausen. This camp would became part of the Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp in its own right in 1944.

For more on Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp, click here.

In 1944, a compound was created to hold prisoners of particular interest to the Nazi Regime. These were important political prisoners, mostly of German origin. Individuals including Ernst Thalmann, leader of the Communist Party until Hitler’s rise to power, were held in this part of the camp.

Buchenwald also held people the Nazi regime considered to be ‘workshy’, they were people who did not fit in with Nazi ideals.

Camp Life

Transportations from Dachau Concentration Camp arrived at Buchenwald in 1938, predominantly bringing Jewish people. Following the November Pogrom (Kristallnacht) in 1938, almost 10,000 Jewish people were sent to Buchenwald. At the outbreak of the Second World War, 8,500 men were deported to the camp, mostly of Czech, Polish or Gypsy descent. In 1943, French prisoners were deported to Buchenwald from the Compiègne Transit Camp. The majority of people who arrived from this camp were part of the French resistance movement.

People held in Buchenwald were forced to work as slave labourers producing equipment for the Nazi army, excavating quarries for stone used within the Third Reich, and in workshops surrounding the camp creating products for the Third Reich. Forced labour murdered many people through the combination of exhaustion and malnourishment. People who became too weak to work were murdered, with many being deported to places such as Bernberg Killing Centre.

Roll call required all those within the Concentration Camp to be rounded up on the muster ground. This happened twice daily, and people were required to stand for hours. During roll call, people held in the camp were witness to the SS guards carrying out corporal punishment and executions.

Food and water were limited within the concentration camp, meaning dehydration and starvation murdered many people. Four buckets of water per barrack became the daily ration. In 1941 a small ‘canteen’ was created by the SS to take any funds sent to people by their families. Money and cheap goods produced in the camp were exchanged for ‘camp currency’ which had no monetary value.

In 1942, unethical and cruel medical testing using human subjects began in the ‘main’ camp area, mostly through infecting people with epidemic diseases. Diseases included typhus, typhoid, and cholera, after which subjects would face experimental vaccines and treatments intended for use within the Nazi army. In 1944, an SS doctor by the name of Carl Vaernet began testing treatments on people held in Buchenwald which were intended to cure homosexuality. All medical experiments that took place within the camp were brutal, and caused extreme suffering in their victims. Most of the experiments resulted in the deaths of the subjects.


From January 1945, in the face of advancing Allied forces, many thousands of people were forced out of the camps closest to advances in order to prevent their liberation. Hundreds of Jewish people arrived at Buchenwald, being housed within the ‘Tent camp’. By April 1945, the SS staff at Buchenwald began evacuating people from the camp complex. From the main camp, 28,250 prisoners were evacuated, with at least 8,000 people dying during this process. From the sub-camps, figures are not confirmed, but it is believed that approximately 25,000 people were murdered during the forced evacuation of Buchenwald.

American forces liberated Buchenwald on April 11, 1945, they found around 21,000 people. Around 1,000 children were amongst those liberated, many of whom were Jewish.

Between July and August 1945, the remains of Buchenwald Concentration Camp were transferred to Soviet administration. The Soviets created ‘Special Camp no. 2’ for the housing of German prisoners arrested by the occupying Soviet army.


The first Camp Commandant of Buchenwald was Karl Koch, who left Buchenwald in 1941 to become Commandant at Majdanek. After Koch, Hermann Pister became Camp Commandant. Following the liberation of Buchenwald, Pister was tried and sentenced to death by an American Military Tribunal in Dachau. However he died in his cell of a heart problem before he could be hung.


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