On April 29, 1945, the 45th Infantry Division of the Seventh American Army liberated Dachau, the first concentration camp established by the German Nazi regime. A major Dachau subcamp was liberated the same day by the 42nd Rainbow Division.
READ MORE: Dachau Concentration Camp: Facts and Memorial
Created five weeks after Adolf Hitler took power as German chancellor in 1933, Dachau was located on the outskirts of the city of Dachau, about 16 km north-west of Munich. In its first year, the camp detained approximately 5,000 political prisoners, mainly German Communists, Social Democrats and other political opponents of the Nazi regime. Over the next few years, the number of prisoners increased considerably and other groups were interned in Dachau, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Gypsies, homosexuals and repeat offenders. From 1938, the Jews began to constitute a large part of the internees of the camps.
Prisoners from Dachau were used as forced labor, initially in the construction and expansion of the camp and later for the production of German armaments. The camp served as a training center for the guards of the SS concentration camps and was a model for other Nazi concentration camps. Dachau was also the first Nazi camp to use prisoners as human guinea pigs in medical experiments. At Dachau, Nazi scientists tested the effects of freezing and changes in air pressure on detainees, infected them with malaria and tuberculosis and treated them with investigational drugs, and forced them to test methods for make seawater drinkable and to stop excessive bleeding. Hundreds of prisoners have died or been crippled as a result of these experiences.
Thousands of detainees died or were executed in Dachau, and thousands more were transferred to a Nazi extermination center near Linz, Austria, when they became too sick or too weak to work. In 1944, to increase war production, the main camp was supplemented by dozens of satellite camps set up near armaments factories in southern Germany and Austria. These camps were administered by the main camp and collectively called Dachau.
With the advance of Allied forces against Germany in April 1945, the Germans transferred prisoners from the concentration camps near the front at Dachau, causing general deterioration of conditions and epidemics of typhus. On April 27, 1945, about 7,000 prisoners, mostly Jews, were forced to start a death march from Dachau to Tegernsee, far south. The next day, many SS guards abandoned the camp. On April 29, the main camp at Dachau was liberated by 45th Infantry units after a brief battle with the remaining camp guards.
As they approached the camp, the Americans found more than 30 cars full of bodies in various states of decay. Inside the camp, there were more bodies and 30,000 survivors, the most severely emaciated. Some of the American troops that released Dachau were so dismayed by the conditions in the camp that they machine-gunned at least two groups of captured German guards. It is officially reported that 30 SS guards were killed in this way, but conspiracy theorists have alleged that more than 10 times that number had been executed by American liberators. German citizens from the town of Dachau were then forced to bury the 9,000 deceased detainees found in the camp.
In Dachau’s history, at least 160,000 prisoners have passed through the main camp and 90,000 through the sub-camps. Incomplete records indicate that at least 32,000 detainees have perished in Dachau and its sub-camps, but countless others have been dispatched elsewhere to extermination camps.