Gedenkstätte Sachsenhausen

The Beginning: Oranienburg Concentration Camp (1933-1934)

In 1933, the NSDAP’s Sturmabteilung (SA) or Storm Troopers, established the Oranienburg Concentration camp right in the near center of the town of Oranienburg, a town about twenty miles north of Berlin, Germany. As Adolf Hitler was slowly rising to power, the SA made a “political prison” in a disguised brewery building for undesired individuals of the newly rising Nazi party, and got German political opponents (mainly Communists and Social Democrats) of the Nazis out of the political scene of Berlin. KZ Oranienburg was one of the first concentration camps of the Nazis after they came to power in Germany, however it was only operational for one year. It is unimaginable that such a quiet and beautiful little town could fall victim to such atrocities that then ensued the lands of Oranienburg for the next seventeen years full of completely opposite ideologies, with yet somewhat similar intentions as multiple regimes entered the hallowed grounds of Sachsenhausen.

Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1982-014-35A / Unknownwikidata:Q4233718 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Video: Propaganda was commonly used by the Nazis, even as early as the first concentration camp to show the public how the treatment and living conditions of prisoners were humane and just. (USHMM Film Footage 1933)

Under Nazi Rule – KZ Sachsenhausen (1936-1945):

The Jewish Experience:

Sachsenhausen concentration camp was established by the Nazi SS in 1936, however it was not until 1938 when it received its first prisoners. The camp was primarily used for political prisoners, however, after Kristallnacht was ordered by Heinrich Himmler, the camp received an influx of Jewish prisoners. It is believed that Sachsenhausen received almost six thousand of the thirty thousand Jews arrested on those orders. Due to Sachsenhausen’s location, being so close to Berlin, Jews were commonly moved to other concentration camps like Auschwitz in Poland; it was to the belief of the Nazis that the land of the Third Reich (Germany) should be free of Jews (“judenfrei”), especially the territories around Berlin, as it was the Third Reich’s “capital city”. In the early 1940s, numbers remained low, however due to increased need for forced labor at Sachsenhausen, many Jews from eastern Europe were transported in. By the year of the end of the war, 1945, Sachsenhausen housed 11,000 Jewish individuals. (USHM & JVL).

The Soviet Experience:

During World War II, many prisoners of war, mainly consisting of captured Soviet soldiers. The first soldiers being held in the camp were first brought in 1941. Soviet POWs were the second most victimized individuals by Hitler and his regime flaunting anyone who did not agree with them as subhuman. It is estimated that from 11,000 to 18,000 Soviet POWs were either shot, or worked to death in Sachsenhausen. Over the course of the entire war, it is believed that about 5.7 million Soviets were in the custody of the Nazis.The Nazis believed that especially Soviet soldiers were part of the “Bolshevik Menace” (USHMM). Interestingly, compared to other POWs including American and British, the Soviets were the ones who received the worst treatment from the Nazis.

A stained glass window in the permanent exhibit museum at Sachsenhausen depicting the liberation of the camp by the Red Army.


On April 22 1945, Sachsenhausen was liberated by Soviet and Polish soldiers. Very few were left at the camp, as 33,000 were sent on evacuation death marches because of the rapidly receding German front to the east.

“Then the Soviets turned it from a Brown Nazi camp into a Red one. Only the flag flying above the camp gate had been changed… Liberation, a word suggesting that the freedom loving Communists had led the Germans out of Nazi dictatorship and into a better world, a glowing Worker’s and Peasant’s State. Long live Communism.”

Under Soviet Rule – Special Camp No. 7/No 1. (1945-1948)

Special Camp Barracks

Shortly after the liberation of KZ Sachsenhausen in 1945, the camp was made into a Soviet Camp for Nazis and others looked down upon by the Communist party. By the end of the camp’s existence in 1950, it has been recovered that a little over 42,000 had been killed either by the camp soldiers, or due to such deplorable living conditions. It is mentioned that the Communists also did not keep death lists of these inmates, therefore, many families of the inmates found it especially distressing to not know where their loved ones had ended up.

“And there can be no talk of any celebration by the inmates. Many were afraid, because they had been against both Nazis and Communists. The only happy ones were the Communist inmates. And many of them had no idea that their own comrades would soon put them right back behind bars again, some of them even back into Sachsenhausen” – Hedwig Wesselowsky

“This insolent, bold-faced falsification of history is intended to distract from the fact that Communists immediately converted the Nazi concentration camps to Communist concentration camps” (Adrian Pressinger).

The ultimate use of this camp was to “denazify” Germans after World War II. The question was, were these “special camps” concentration or internment camps? However, it has proven that this camp was quite a brutal camp, although to the public and for many years. The world never really knew what went on in the NKVD camp No. 7 until 1990 when mass graves were discovered that uncovered that Stalin had a “concentration camp” in Germany. The camp closed in 1948, but remained as Speziallager No. 1 and in operation until 1950. Some inmates were released, others waited for a conviction that sometimes never came.

Levels of Memorialization at Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum:

The Tower of Nations Monument erected by Soviets.

 In 1961, the Sachsenhausen National Memorial was erected under SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany) governance. The memorial is meant to memorialize especially political prisoners (specifically Communist) who were kept in the camp under Nazi control, which are symbolized by the red triangles at the top of the obelisk. With such a memorial, the communist East Germans elaborated the “triumph of Communist-led resistance over fascism”. It was the ideology of the Soviets to “preserve the sites of terror and destruction rather than erect traditional monuments to the war dead and their leaders in battle”. Sachsenhausen is the perfect example of this; it is argued that, “such commemorative sites derive their power precisely from their materiality; they are regarded as immutable evidence, unmediated testimony of what happened there”. During the reign of the GDR, such memorials established an Eastern German “political identity as shrines of international communism … Sachsenhausen [has] come to serve as a site for eastern Germans, as a people, to articulate a sense of a shared fate growing out of the experience of fascism and the lost war”. However, with this specific museum under the SED, there was a plethora of misinformation and misrepresentation within the exhibits. It is explained that, “the exhibition presented West Germany as the direct successor of National Socialism, whereas the GDR portrayed itself as the “new humanist Germany”. This is important to look at, especially as the Soviet materialization of the Holocaust really downplayed the violence especially the Jewish population suffered, and argument mentions, “these flaws were not oversights, but deliberate in fashioning a focused story of the past to the people of East Germany and the world”.

“Architecturally, artistically, and ideologically, the site was designed to defeat the Nazi past, allowing space for both victory and mourning, and place emphasis on the future, without ever completely straying from the primary political narrative the GDR wanted to project.”

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, since 1993 the camp(s) have been memorialized under the new name, Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum after three mass graves were found in outlying areas of the camp. The camp looks at the individual histories and occurrences of both Nazi and Soviet rule and the victimization of  Jews, Communists,  Sinti and Roma, homosexuals, Allied and Russian POWs, former-Nazis, as well as prisoners of all nationalities, along with their individual museums, exhibits, and monuments that visitors may visit depending on which narrative they would like to follow and research.

“Many of the GDR era relics remain among several newer exhibits in the memorial space, creating a memorial that is not without debate, but indeed introspective of a contemporary Germany still attempting to come to terms with its National Socialist and Communists pasts” (4.)

NKVD Speziallager No. 7 Museum Building
NKVD Speziallager No. 7 Memorial

Pictures of Soviet POWs who were imprisoned toward the end of WWII.
Death March Memorial
Victims of KZ Sachsenhausen Memorial.

 Conflict Among Levels of Memorialization:

Including the slow development of differing narratives at the camp, which as we have learned were due to political ideologies and agendas, there of course has been a great amount of public outcry regarding the memorialization and remembrance of groups of individuals who suffered at the camp. Some examples of these feeling are as follows:

“Since unification, the feeling has grown among many eastern Germans that they have been repeatedly victimized by outsiders: first by the Nazis, then by the Soviet occupation, and, since 1990, by western Germans. Resentment of western German carpetbaggers, and a perception that westerners have a prurient interest in revelations about East German complicity with the secret police of the GDR regime (the “Stasi”), has led some eastern Germans to compare their present travails to the suffering of the Jews” (113).

As if the German national identity has not been bullied enough, with these memorials we constantly see a scheme of ignorance and misrepresentation for other communities. But with this, we see that victimization is a fundamental role in understanding what it is to simply be German. The Sachsenhausen Memorial cite has slowly become a place for Germans and others, as human beings, to come together to understand their fate and past experiences. However, as this slow evolution has occurred, many have felt re-victimized.

“The historical record and the logic of site-based memorials have forced administrators and historical experts to contend with competing claims made on the sites. As preservationists they must strike a balance of displaying the traces of the multiple uses of the two camps, a very different task than the design of a museum or monument that is created for a single purpose. Memorial landscapes have a material persistence of their own that can disrupt the intentions of those who choose to preserve them” (115).

“Museums are important because they serve to remind us of who we are and what our place is in the world. Their power is due to their ability to operate at a variety of levels: they are significant to us as individuals, as a member of a community, even as a statement of nationhood.” -Peter Davis