On March 12, 1938, the "Anschluss" of Austro Fascist Austria to the German Reich took place. Two weeks later, the National Socialist Gauleiter of Upper Austria, August Eigruber, announced in front of an enthusiastic audience that his Gau was to be "awarded" with the establishment of a concentration camp. Mauthausen, on the Danube, was chosen as the location. Here, political opponents and groups of people identified as criminal or asocial were to be imprisoned and forced to do hard labor in the granite quarries.
On August 8, 1938, the SS transferred the first prisoners from the Dachau concentration camp. The almost exclusively German and Austrian prisoners in this phase, all men, had to set up their own camp and set up the quarry. Hunger, arbitrariness and violence shaped the everyday life of the prisoners. From December 1939, the SS had a second concentration camp built just a few kilometers from Mauthausen. The Gusen branch camp officially went into operation in May 1940.
After the beginning of the war, people from all over Europe were deported to the Mauthausen concentration camp, which gradually grew into a system of several contiguous camps. During this phase, Mauthausen and Gusen were the concentration camps with the harshest prison conditions and the highest death rate. Inmates who were at the bottom of the camp hierarchy had little chance of surviving for any length of time. Anyone who was sick or “useless” for the SS was in constant danger of death. From 1941 the SS built a gas chamber and other facilities in Mauthausen for the systematic murder of large groups of people.
In the second half of the war, the prisoners, including women for the first time, were increasingly drawn to work in the armaments industry. The SS set up numerous satellite camps to accommodate the prisoners on site. The newly arriving prisoners were distributed to these from the main camp. Mauthausen itself became more and more a death camp for the sick and the weak. Since the prisoners' labor force was now to be preserved, living conditions improved for a short time. From the end of 1943 they were also used in the construction of underground factories such as those in Melk, Ebensee and St. Georgen an der Gusen. However, the inhumane working conditions prevailing there soon drove the numbers of victims to new heights.
In the early days, only German and Austrian men were imprisoned in Mauthausen concentration camp. The SS marked these prisoners according to the reason for their assignment to the concentration camp. Different colored angles and letter abbreviations made the prisoners according to the National Socialist ideology as criminals, anti-social, political opponents, emigrants, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, Jews, Identifiable as Roma and Sinti, members of the Wehrmacht, prisoners of justice or "civilian workers".
The prisoners had to wear this marking visibly on their uniform, which also determined their chances of survival. The category was linked to the degree of terrorization by the SS, better or worse accommodation, or the prospect of a privileged post in the camp. Those marked as "Jews" had the lowest chance of survival. Prisoners in the “preventive detention” category - prison inmates who were brought to the Mauthausen concentration camp from 1942 - were also usually murdered within a very short time. On the other hand, criminals found it easier to get a job as a prison officer, especially in the first half of the war. By dividing the deportees into categories and treating them differently, the SS encouraged rivalries between individual groups of inmates.
The concentration camp prisoners now had to wear their national origin visibly on their uniform in addition to their category of detention. The identification according to nationality also largely determined the chances of survival in the concentration camp. Prisoners with a Slavic mother tongue were much worse off in the concentration camp than those from Northern Europe. Prisoners of war from the Soviet Union, for example, were usually only able to survive in the concentration camp for a very short time. However, changes were also possible in this classification according to national criteria. If the republican Spaniards who fled Franco were initially targeted and murdered, they were able to move up the camp hierarchy after the arrival of new, even more hostile groups of prisoners, and ultimately achieve significantly better chances of survival.
Together with the first prisoners, members of the SS were also transferred from the Dachau concentration camp to Mauthausen in August 1938. Their task was not only to guard the prisoners but also to organize the camp internally.
The first commandant of Mauthausen was the trained carpenter Albert Sauer, who, however, was dismissed after a few months because of poor service assessments and frequent complaints. In February 1939, the former professional soldier Franz Ziereis replaced him as commandant. Ziereis commanded Mauthausen for six years, making him the longest-serving commandant of a single concentration camp. At the end of the war, Ziereis fled with other SS members, but was tracked down and fatally wounded in a shootout with US Army soldiers. Before his death, he made an extensive confession.
The Gusen concentration camp was subordinate to Mauthausen, but had a certain degree of autonomy. The terror regime of the camp leaders there, Karl Chmielewski and Fritz Seidler, at times demanded a higher death rate than in the main camp.
The guards, who made up the majority of the camp SS, were responsible for the external guarding of the concentration camp, the work details and the prisoner transports. While in 1938 only a few hundred SS members were part of the guards in Mauthausen concentration camp, their total number in March 1945 reached over 5.000 in the main camp alone, and 4.000 more were stationed in the satellite camps.
Towards the end of the war there was very little left of the original composition of the guards: While initially only SS members from Germany and Austria guarded the camp, from 1941 onwards more and more "Volksdeutsche" members of the German speaking minorities, especially from Romania, were recruited. Hungary, Croatia and Slovakia. From autumn 1943 Eastern European “volunteers” joined them, mostly Ukrainians, who were not official members of the SS, but were considered SS entourage. From 1944 onwards, units of the Wehrmacht guarded those satellite camps in which concentration camp prisoners had to produce armaments for the Wehrmacht.
The SS also employed female guards to guard female prisoners. Between 1938 and 1945 tens of thousands of SS members and guards passed through the Mauthausen / Gusen concentration camp system. The life of the prisoners in the concentration camp was constantly threatened, death omnipresent. Inadequate nutrition and the most difficult physical labor consumed the prisoners. Working without proper equipment resulted in many injuries. The cramped barracks and the poor hygiene in the camp encouraged the spread of contagious diseases.
The SS wanted to prevent the uncontrolled spread of epidemics. Medical treatment for individuals, on the other hand, was kept to a minimum. Only a few privileged prisoners received sufficient medical care in the so-called sick bay. The prisoners there received help mainly from doctors and nurses among the inmates.
Most of the seriously ill prisoners were housed in the so-called special area, later in the medical warehouse. The prisoners who had become unable to work due to illness were considered useless by the SS, and there was hardly any medical care for them. They were abused by SS doctors for medical experiments, murdered by means of poison injections and in the gas chamber, or left to their own devices in separate camp areas. In the special area, a separate area within the prisoner camp, the sick were allowed to die or their death was accelerated by, for example, reducing the diet, leaving the prisoners wearing only underwear in the courtyard in all weathers or “spraying” them with cold water and them then drifted out into the cold unclothed.
The medical warehouse was located outside the actual prisoner camp and consisted of several wooden barracks surrounded by a barbed wire fence charged with high voltage. It was completed in the summer of 1943. Thousands were housed here without adequate food and medical care and left to die. Many of these sick people had previously been transferred back to the Mauthausen concentration camp from one of the more than 40 satellite camps as “unable to work”.
In the special area and in the medical depot, SS doctors repeatedly carried out “selections” in which they separated the “incurable” from the “curable”. The selections were feared, as a negative judgment by the doctor about the physical condition of a prisoner practically meant his death. In the spring of 1941 the SS began "Aktion 14f13", a centrally organized murder campaign against weak and sick concentration camp prisoners. From August 1941, medical commissions selected seriously ill prisoners from the Gusen and Mauthausen concentration camps and transported them to the Hartheim killing center near Linz. There they were usually suffocated in the gas chamber shortly after their arrival, after which their bodies were cremated in the crematorium oven. About 5.000 prisoners from Mauthausen and Gusen and about 3.000 from the Dachau concentration camp were gassed in Hartheim as part of "Aktion 14f13".
With the advance of the Red Army and the dissolution of the concentration camps in the east, Mauthausen became the destination of large evacuation transports from January 1945. The months leading up to the liberation were marked by overcrowding, undersupply, chaos and mass death. Around 25.000 newly arriving prisoners from Auschwitz-Birkenau, Groß Rosen, Sachsenhausen, Ravensbrück and Mittelbau-Dora were registered in Mauthausen from January to May. Thousands more, for example from the subcamps of the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Venusberg and Freiberg, remained unregistered. The newly arriving prisoners usually had a history of persecution of several years and were often too weak for work. They were mostly placed either directly in the medical warehouse, in the makeshift tent camp or in the newly added parts II and III of the camp. Those who were still strong enough were still sent to the subcamps for forced labor.
At the end of March, the sub-camps east of Mauthausen began to be dismantled. The prisoners were taken to the main camp and the Gusen, Ebensee and Steyr satellite camps on foot, by ship and by train. In total, more than 23.000 prisoners are likely to have been sent across Austria. The Hungarian-Jewish slave laborers who were driven from the camps to Mauthausen from the end of March 1945 for the construction of the so-called south-east wall suffered a similar fate. On the day-long hikes, the men, women and children hardly received any food and had to spend the night in the open air. Hundreds of people died from the exertion on these death marches or were shot dead by guards because they could no longer keep up. The majority of the Jewish prisoners had to march on to Gunskirchen after being temporarily housed in the makeshift tent camp. In the reception camp set up there, up to 20.000 people are crammed together under catastrophic hygienic conditions.
The overcrowding of the remaining camps and the increasingly inadequate supply made the prisoners' living conditions increasingly worse. In April 1945 alone there were more than 11.000 deaths. Since the Mauthausen crematoria were overburdened, the SS had a mass grave excavated north of the camp near the town of Marbach in February 1945, in which around 10.000 dead were buried. The names of many of the dead, who, like the Hungarian Jews, were no longer registered, as well as their exact number, are still unknown today.
On the night of February 2, 1945, around 500 so-called “K” prisoners in Block 20 attempted to escape. As of spring 1945, between 2.000 and 5.000 people were deported to Mauthausen as “K” prisoners due to the “Kugel-Erlass”. These were mainly Soviet prisoner-of-war officers who had attempted to flee, as well as forced laborers who had been accused of sabotage or political activity. These prisoners were to be murdered in Mauthausen. The SS executed at least 350 of them, the majority of whom were simply left to die in Block 20, which was isolated from the rest of the camp by electric barbed wire and a stone wall. The inmates had to sleep on the floor, were given little food and therefore had no chance of survival.
In view of the hopeless situation in Block 20, more than 500 "K" prisoners undertook a mass escape in February 1945. Armed with cobblestones, fire extinguishers, pieces of soap and coal, they attacked the watchtowers and threw damp blankets over the electrically charged barbed wire. The resulting short circuit enabled them to overcome the camp wall. Because of their poor physical condition, many refugees soon collapsed. Others died in the hail of bullets from the guards. 419 people managed to escape.
The seriously ill who remained in Block 20 were murdered by the SS that same night. At the same time, she initiated a large manhunt in which, in addition to the SS, Gendarmerie, Wehrmacht and Volkssturm, numerous civilians from the local area took part. Almost all of the refugees were arrested. Most of them were murdered on the spot, the rest in Mauthausen concentration camp. This search and murder operation was cynically referred to as the "Mühlviertel hare hunt". Probably only eleven people survived. Forced laborers employed in agriculture and a handful of Mühlviertel farming families who resisted participating in the murder saved their lives.
With the Allied troops approaching, the SS began to destroy evidence of their crimes in April 1945. She had structural facilities dismantled for mass killings, had incriminating written documents burned and murdered concentration camp prisoners who, on the basis of their direct testimony to the systematic mass murder, could have testified in court against the perpetrators. Towards the end of the war, the Mauthausen concentration camp became the destination for evacuations from camps close to the front. Tens of thousands of prisoners came here in several large transports. Overcrowding, insufficient supplies and rampant disease led to mass deaths among prisoners in the months leading up to the liberation.
On May 3, 1945, the last members of the SS fled the Mauthausen and Gusen camps. On May 5, the US 41st Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron arrived in Gusen and Mauthausen, and on the following day, units of the 3rd US Armored Division finally liberated around 40.000 prisoners from these camps. There as there they found hundreds of bodies of concentration camp prisoners who had died in the days before the liberation. Thousands were so weakened and their health affected that they died in the weeks and months after the liberation, despite medical care from medical units of the US Army. More than 3.000 dead were buried in the "Camp Cemeteries" next to the former concentration camps. On May 5, 1945 the US Army reached Gusen and Mauthausen. Many prisoners were so weak that they died in the days and weeks after they were released. Of the total of around 190.000 prisoners in the Mauthausen concentration camp and its satellite camps, at least 90.000 had died in seven years.
Together with the US troops, a "War Crimes Investigating Team" also came to Mauthausen. This collected evidence of the war crimes of the SS - including central documents of the SS that had saved prisoners from destruction under the threat of death - and thus created the basis for the criminal prosecution of the perpetrators.
On May 16, 1945, the Soviet prisoners were bid farewell in a ceremony on roll call square. The representatives of the International Prisoners Committee read out the “Mauthausen Oath” in which they called for the establishment of a “world of free people”.
While some groups of prisoners were able to return home in orderly convoys with the help of government organizations, there were also countless deportees who could not or did not want to return home. They were no longer welcome in their countries of origin, had lost their families or were hesitant in view of the uncertain political situation in Eastern Europe. Many waited for years in so-called displaced persons camps.
Just a few years after the end of the war, the former Mauthausen concentration camp was transformed into a memorial, where the culture of remembrance of the Republic of Austria and of the victim nations materialized. The locations of the former concentration camp satellite camps and the Gusen branch camp, on the other hand, were long pushed out of state memory. While the remains of the satellite camps were being cleared away everywhere, concentration camp survivors and relatives of those who died in the concentration camp used reminders to counter the process of displacement. On their initiative, public memorials were created in Ebensee, Gusen and Melk.
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