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A short ride on the S-Bahn north-east of Berlin brings you to Oranienburg, a quiet, semi-rural village with cute houses, a beautiful centuries-old palace and Sachsenhausen – a well-preserved Nazi concentration camp which was the centre of innovation for the Final Solution during World War II.

On a languid summer afternoon a couple of weeks ago I visited the sprawling camp. I felt very self-conscious in doing so. As I walked through the township I felt the eyes of villagers upon me. They go about their business, these Germans, seemingly with quiet resignation as a stream of people traipse through on their way to the town’s main attraction.

Here somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 people were murdered by the Nazis and then by the Soviet Union, which in a perversely ironic move, carried on the torture and murder at Sachsenhausen after the war. A lot less people died at Sachsenhausen, which was primarily used for housing political dissidents, prisoners of war and other assorted enemies of the state, than at the better-known camps tasked with liquidating the Jews.

But Sachsenhausen is of historical interest as it was the site where many of the techniques of torture, medical experimentation and mechanized killing where perfected before Heinrich Himmler rolled them out across the concentration camp network – and beyond.

Death camp tourism is booming – hundreds of thousands of people visit the remnants of camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka every year. Why do we do it? Apart from those who go to honour and remember the dead, many I suspect go to try and understand how the Nazis executed the Holocaust.

I came away from Sachsenhausen feeling a little queasy and no wiser as to why a group of intelligent and in many ways progressive men and women in the 1930s set out to systematically exterminate millions of people. But my afternoon at Sachsenhausen gave me an insight into how they did it and the efficiency with which they went about their col-blooded task.

The ultimate concentration camp design

Sachsenhausen was set up by the Nazis in 1936 after Adolf Hitler had cemented his power and turned his attention to rivals and enemies who stood to challenge it. The Nazi architects gave great though to the camp’s construction, building it in the shape of an equilateral triangle.

From Guard Tower A, which contains the central gate through which all of Sachsenhausen’s 200,000 prisoners passed between 1936 and 1945, you are given a commanding view of the camp – initially this was the only guard tower as it offered such a good view. During the war, a machine gun was fitted to the top floor of the tower and its arc covered the entire camp.

Camp barrack huts were built in a semi-circular pattern so that from Guard Tower A, the guards had a clear line of sight between the huts. Directly in front of the tower was the Apelplatz where roll call was taken morning and night. This massive area was necessarily large as Sachsenhausen housed tens of thousands of people at any one time during the war.

The camp perimeter was lined with a large wall and an inside electric fence topped with barbed wire. Between the wall and the fence prowled guards and dogs. A wide strip of gravel directly in front of the barbed wire was the “death zone” for prisoners – if they stepped on to this space, guards were free to shoot them on the spot and indeed were incentivised to do so. Many inmates ended their suffering by throwing themselves at the electric fence.

The design was so secure that virtually no one escaped from the camp during the war. But the camp design had a serious flaw – it couldn’t be easily expanded. Increasing the size of the triangle would have meant realigning the camp walls. When the Nazis did expand the camp in 1938, they instead tacked on a rectangular area, called the “small camp”. Other such add-ons and new buildings destroyed the clean lines of the triangle, which led to the erection of eight or nine guard towers around the camp, the type of which you’d normally associate with pictures of concentration camps.

Perfecting the killing machine

Hanging and shooting were the primary forms of execution at Sachsenhausen in the early days. Prisoners would be ordered to assemble on the Apelplatz for public executions. The gallows were slotted into a hole in the ground, which the guards would also stand a pine tree in at Christmas time.

But the volume of executions was growing as the number of inmates did, leading to the creation of the execution trench at the back of the camp. This was a narrow dug-out lined with logs and sand bags and into which doomed prisoners descended. At one end was a gallows where four or five people could be hanged at one time. Here, shootings were also carried out. A partial roof was build over the execution trench to try and muffle the noise of the gun shots. Thousands were killed in the execution trench.

Such was the level of killing that the Nazis were having a hard time figuring out what to do with the bodies. Initially they were sent to mortuaries around Berlin but that required the issuing of a death certificate. Instead, the Nazis changed the regulations and in 1943 constructed a crematorium at the rear of Sachsenhausen near the execution trench to dispose of bodies. The ashes of the dead were spread in a mound behind the camp.

While death from malnutrition, disease, exposure and beatings meant a constant flow of bodies, the number of executions accelerated towards the end of the war, culminating in the gruesome massacre of around 10,000 Russian prisoners of war. How this was done, was particularly deceptive and cruel. The prisoners were escorted one by one to “Station Z”, a series of rooms only the subsided foundations of which remain.

Here they would enter a tiny room alone on the premise of being measured up for a uniform or undertaking a medical examination. They were confronted by an SS officer in a white coat, who would even fake some simple health checks. Meanwhile, a hatch at the back of the room would open and the prisoner would be shot in the back of the head. Military marching songs would be played loudly on a gramophone to mask the noise of the gun shots.

In this way, the Nazi guards disposed of a huge number of prisoners, day after day leading Russian POWs to Station Z. The literature at Sachsenhausen talks about SS leaders descending on Sachsenhausen during the war for the demonstration of the “head shot” technique.
But the mass shootings weren’t enough, despite the efficiency with which the Sachsenhausen guards carried them out. The camp also featured a gas chamber where a routine played out on a larger scale at Auschwitz was employed. Prisoners would be led to a “shower block” only to enter a room where the deadly gas Zyklon B was vented into the room. Sometimes they even ran the showers as well, as it was thought this helped disperse the gas more quickly.

The foundations of Station Z

The building of the gas chamber was preceded by the arrival of mobile gassing vans, which were trailed at Sachsenhausen and used by mobile Nazi killing units on the Eastern front as German soldiers advanced into Russia.

From the gassing and cremations to the rapid-fire executions, many of the techniques used at Sachsenhausen were learnt by SS officers who went on to implement them at other concentration camps.

A hive of industry

If Sachsenhausen was primarily used for detaining and killing enemies of the state, it was also a useful source of slave labour for the Nazis, who put tens of thousands of people to work each day.

While the camp is relatively small, it is backed onto by a large complex of workshops that prisoners would occupy in various jobs connected to the war effort. In the lead up to war, Sachsenhausen had a productive “kilnkerworks” were bricks were churned out for building projects in Berlin. Later, prisoners switched to making bombs. Krupps, plane maker Heinkel and AEG all used Sachsenhausen labour for their war-related production.

Prisoners at the camp were at one stage involved in a bizarre SS counterfeiting scheme, in which billions worth of US and British banknotes were produced, with the aim of introducing them into circulation to collapse the value of the dollar and the pound. An apparently excellent film about this little-known affair has been produced.

One research and development project carried out at Sachsenhausen deserves particular mention. The edge of the Apleplatz is lined with rough and varied surfaces which I just put down to the ravages of age. However, the ground was intentionally varied by the Nazis to test the soles of boots to perfect the best design for the German army. According to Sachsenhausen guide material, prisoners were assigned boots and made to march over these varying surfaces for hours at a time. Many of the prisoners were given ill-fitting boots, leading to nasty injuries to their feet.

Human guinea pigs

Elsewhere in the camp, in a series of tile-lined barracks, another series of far more sinister experiments was going on. Here SS doctors started out dissecting prisoners who had died of disease or exposure to learn more about how they had died. However this morphed into an unethical and monstrous programme of experimentation on living prisoners.

Many were intentionally infected with diseases, sterilised, given experimental drug treatments or had limbs removed. Dr Mengele, the notorious SS doctor at Auschwitz has become synonymous with the depraved scientific experiments carried out on prisoners by the Nazis. The same type of activity was going on at Sachsenhausen conducted by lesser known doctors.
A roster of psychopaths

While innovative in their designs and techniques and the ways in which they worked and killed their prisoners, key to Sachsenhausen’s operation was the brutality of its leadership.

Audio commentary at Sachsenhausen featuring interviews with those who were imprisoned recalls stories of the brutal block furhers. Numerous mentions are made of Iron Gustav, a particularly psychopathic camp commander who was notorious for beating people to death. Gustav would ride his bicycle at high speed into the lines of prisoners during roll call, mowing down people, while beating them with an iron bar, managing all the time to remain on his bicycle.

While random, brutal and chaotic, even the behaviour of the guards was by design – the SS knew ruling by fear would mean more compliant prisoners. Most of the camp commandants were executed or imprisoned after the war or committed suicide. Iron Gustav was imprisoned first by the Russians, then the Germans and died in the 1970s.

The misery continues

The Red Army liberated Sachsenhausen as it rolled towards Berlin in 1945, but not before the SS had forced thousands of prisoners on a death march north, during which many died of hypothermia and exhaustion.

Sachsenhausen became special camp number 7 under the Russians and was promptly filled with former Nazi officers, anti-communists and political prisoners, overseen by the NKVD, Russia’s Gestapo-like secret service. While the gassings and gruesome experiments ended, guard brutality and horrendous living conditions were features of the Russian camp too and around 12,000 people died at the camp between 1945 and 1950.

The importance of Sachsenhausen

Sachsenhausen is an amazing place and has been thoughtfully preserved to act as both memorial and museum. Standing in the execution trench or in front of the autopsy table in the pathology building it is hard to comprehend the evil that was done there 60 – 70 years ago. The scale of the killing and its clinical nature is unfathomable.

As I wrote above, I’m no closer to understanding what made seemingly civilised people undertake these crimes against humanity. As I sat in the sun at Sachsenhausen in the shade of the massive Soviet-inspired memorial to the camp’s victims, I tried to put myself in the shoes of an SS doctor or camp commandant.

Himmler, even Hitler it is rumoured visited Sachsenhausen in 1938 and a constant stream of other senior Nazis and their allies passed under tower block A at Sachsensausen, over the same stones I did as a tourist.

What made them do it? Rabid ideology? The lure of money, power, control? The freedom of ethical constraints? I struggle to comprehend it in any shape or form, which is perhaps the only comforting thing you feel as you exit Sachsenhausen’s gates and board the train back to Berlin – that what happened there would be unlikely to be allowed to happen again in this age of globalisation and increased transparency. It is our collective responsibility as members of a global community to make sure it doesn’t.