On 29 April 1945 the prisoners of Dachau were liberated by US Army soldiers. Dachau was the first concentration camp to be constructed by the Nazis and one of the last to be liberated. Over 180,000 individuals had been imprisoned in the camp by the time it was liberated.
After Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor of Germany in 1933, the Nazis set about imprisoning their political enemies. They established a slave labour camp to detain their opponents in Dachau, a small town ten miles northwest of Munich in southern Germany. Initially the camp hosted mainly political opponents of Nazism, such as trade unionists and communists. As Nazi persecution increased in the 1930s, many more groups would be incarcerated in Dachau, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, gay men and Gypsies. Large numbers of Jews were also interned at Dachau. In the days following Kristallnacht in November 1938, over 10,000 Jewish people were imprisoned in the camp.
As the first concentration camp, Dachau’s design was copied across occupied Europe. The mocking ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (work makes you free) sign above the gates and separate barracks for medical experiments became the brutal blueprint for the suffering of millions detained under the Nazi regime. When Allied troops approached Dachau in 1945, the SS guards responded by forcing over 7,000 prisoners to take part in a death march. When the Americans entered the camp, they found thousands of weak and starving inmates, and an entire train full of bodies. These were deportees to Dachau who had been left to die of starvation and disease.
Days after the liberation of the camp, Allied forces liberated survivors of the death march. Within weeks, Germany had surrendered to the Allies. For over 12 years – nearly the entirety of the Nazi regime – prisoners of Dachau had been used as forced labour in conditions of never-ending cruelty. It is estimated that between 28,000 – 41,000 had been murdered at Dachau by the liberation on 29 April 1945.