ON 30 APRIL 1945, elated women prisoners from the Dachau concentration camp cheer and wave after they are liberated by US troops, in the final months of the Second World War. Situated in the outskirts of Munich, Dachau was the first concentration camp established under the Nazi regime, only five weeks after Adolf Hitler became the German chancellor, in 1933.
During its early years, the camp held nearly five thousand political prisoners, mostly comprising opponents of the Nazi regime, including German communists and social democrats, survivors of the Spanish civil war, as well as dissident journalists. However, the population of the camp drastically increased after the Nazis began persecuting Jews, Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals on an industrial scale.
Serving as a model for other concentration camps, Dachau was the first camp to subject its prisoners to inhumane pseudo-medical experimentation—Nazi physicians tested potential treatments for malaria and tuberculosis on the inmates, as well as exploring the effects of freezing and varying atmospheric pressure. Some two hundred thousand people were detained at Dachau and its sub-camps, and over forty thousand of them perished. The political theorist Hannah Arendt would later call Dachau “a vast laboratory in which the Nazis proved that there is no limit to human depravity.”
Dachau was liberated, on 29 and 30 April 1945, by two divisions of the US seventh army. Around thirty-two thousand emaciated survivors were freed. The US troops summarily executed around thirty German guards; the rest had fled. Describing the euphoria of the freed prisoners, Sidney Olson, a correspondent with Time magazine who accompanied the soldiers, wrote: “The eyes of these men defy my powers of description. They are the eyes of men who have lived in a super-hell of horrors for many years, and are now driven half-crazy by the liberation they have prayed so hopelessly for.”