In front of the barbed-wire fence and iron gate of Buchenwald concentration camp stands a refurbished bear house, part of what once was the Buchenwald Zoological Garden for Nazi guards and their children in World War II.
In the forest behind the wind-swept camp, temporary crosses and stones mark mass graves for thousands of inmates who died in Buchenwald after the war, when Soviet occupation forces held prisoners there.
These new markers signal a sweeping renovation of Buchenwald memorials, one that historians say will give a broader and more accurate view of the camp near this historic German town about 150 miles southwest of Berlin.
The current displays were designed by the Communist government of the former East Germany and tend to glorify German Communist inmates’ resistance to the Nazis while giving short shrift to the plight of Jews, Gypsies and other people who were imprisoned in the camp during World War II.
There is no mention at all of the Soviet-era camp operation in the displays.
“We want a historically true, proportional picture of the concentration camp to be presented to the public,” said Stuttgart University historian Eberhard Jaeckel, chairman of the committee overseeing the changes. “There was an over-accentuation of Communist prisoners (under the East German administration). The commission realized early on that the role of Jewish inmates was neglected, that, in the last years of the war, more than 90% of the inmates were foreigners--Poles and Russians.”
Under the new plan announced last month, the East German portrait of Buchenwald will itself become an exhibit, Jaeckel said, “to show how the camp was used to produce legitimacy for the regime of the German Democratic Republic.”
Politics, as before, will play a role in the depictions of what happened at Buchenwald. This renovation has been controversial, particularly among former Communist inmates who believe rightists are rewriting their history to play down the resistance, and among Jews who fear that Nazi and Soviet crimes will be put on a par; about 56,000 people died in Buchenwald under the Nazis and about 7,100 under the Soviets, but many of the latter victims were Nazis.
Museum officials have tried to assuage these concerns. The new museum plan calls for three separate exhibits: the principal exhibit on the Nazi camp from 1937 to 1945; a smaller one on the Soviet era from 1945 to 1950, and a third on East Germany’s use of Buchenwald as a museum until 1989.
The museum will be shut down in the fall for renovation and reopen next April for the 50th anniversary of the camp’s liberation by Allied forces.
Rikola Luettgenau, a historian who has helped to shape the concept for the new museum, says that East German curators operated under the motto “Preserve the fire from the past, not the ashes.” Consequently, he says, the museum did not adequately show the horrors of World War II Buchenwald, the SS officers and how the camp fit into the Nazi state.
Buchenwald was not only a prison and sometime execution camp. It was also a training center for 3,000 to 4,000 Waffen SS troops, and it provided forced labor for V-2 rocket production in an underground factory at an adjacent camp, Mittelbau-Dora. Waffen SS men and their families lived just outside the perimeter of Buchenwald; the zoo was established to provide them with amusement and relief from job stress.
“For the SS, it was not a problem to have a zoo 20 meters in front of a crematory. We want visitors to ask these questions: Why did the SS have a zoo? How did they live in two worlds, a zoo and a concentration camp?” Luettgenau said.
Buchenwald was built in 1937 to imprison Nazi political enemies. The following year, ethnic inmates--Jews, Poles and others who did not fit into the Nazi scheme--were locked behind the gate with iron letters spelling “Jedem Das Seine” (“To Each What He Deserves”). More than 250,000 people passed through Buchenwald under the Nazis.
The camp was not a mass extermination center on the scale of Auschwitz, but thousands were executed. At least 8,484 Soviet prisoners of war were shot; other prisoners were shot, hanged or received lethal injections; many more died of hunger and disease.
Under East German curators, the crematory became a memorial to Ernst Thaelmann, “a leader of the German working class” shot in front of the building on Aug. 18, 1944. The plaque honoring him will remain under the new plan but with additional information, such as the fact that he also was a member of the prewar German Parliament.
Because Communists were among the first prisoners in Buchenwald, they held positions of power within the camp organization. They organized secret resistance groups that experimented with making explosives in a camp cellar, collected weapons and saved hundreds of children from starvation and death. At the end of the war, they helped keep prisoners from being marched out of the camp with fleeing SS troops.
But not all Communist inmates will be treated as heroes. Communist Party files opened after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 suggest that some prisoners collaborated with the SS. Others apparently put the names of Jews and Gypsies on lists of inmates to be shipped out of Buchenwald, replacing their own comrades.
Another exhibit will mention that some inmates working at the camp hospital used lethal injections to kill prisoners whom they believed to be spies, and that power struggles between inmate groups also led to killings.
The history of the liberation of the camp, and of Germany, also is being broadened. Communist camp survivors talk of the camp’s “self-liberation,” and indeed, inmates did take over the guard towers and raise white flags in the camp two days before the end.
But the East German exhibits showed only Red Army flags after the war, even though American soldiers were the first of the Allies to arrive at Buchenwald.
After the war, in exchange for part of Berlin, the Americans swapped control of Thuringen state with the Soviets, who took control of the area. Buchenwald became the Soviets’ Special Camp No. 2, one of seven in the occupation zone.
Weimar residents say they knew the Soviets used the camp, but talk of this was taboo in the old East Germany. In 1990, however, museum officials dug up mass graves from the Stalin era confirming what everyone suspected--that many inmates had died under the Soviets too.
The graveyard will be permanently marked and integrated into the new exhibit on the Soviet era.
Many of the current exhibits, meanwhile, will pass into the historical section on Buchenwald during the Communist East German era.