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The (self?)liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp prisoners as viewed by German historians

L’(auto ?)-libération des prisonniers du camp de concentration de Buchenwald vue par les historiens allemands
De (zelf?)bevrijding van de gevangenen uit het concentratiekamp Buchenwald door de ogen van Duitse historici
Jean-Louis Rouhart
Traduction de Sarah Voke
p. 150-159
Cet article est une traduction de :
L’(auto ?)-libération des prisonniers du camp de concentration de Buchenwald vue par les historiens allemands [fr]


Faut-il parler de la libération ou de l’auto-libération du camp de Buchenwald ? Soixante-dix ans après les faits, le présent article tente de faire le point sur la question et analyse les différentes versions proposées par les historiens allemands.

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1If there is one dossier which still today is subject to debate among German historians, it is the question of the liberation of the Buchenwald national socialist concentration camp, which took place on 11 April 1945.

2For years the dominant thesis, at least in the former GDR, claimed the camp had been liberated by communist prisoners, until, following the fall of the GDR regime in 1989 and the German reunification in 1990, historians set about deconstructing what had evolved into a myth according to them. The new version of the events, clearly less heroic, was based on the liberation of the camp by American troops, during which rebellious prisoners consequently played an incidental and anecdotal role. Beside these two opposed versions, there were, even right after the events, witnesses and historians with a more moderate view who corrected people’s excess and who proposed interpretations which seemed closer to the reality of the events.

3The following article proposes to examine in greater detail the different versions of the events as advanced by German historians. It confronts their points of view in order to better understanding the ins and outs of a dossier that was qualified by a German historian as the “Buchenwald conflict” (Zimmer 1999). The article certainly does not claim to provide a definitive answer to the question of knowing if and in what measure prisoners at the Buchenwald camp liberated themselves without the intervention of American armed forces. An in-depth and exhaustive study would be necessary to collect all essential information. One would have to include both the extensive primary and secondary literature on the subject whilst taking into consideration the opinions of all historians on the general question of the Buchenwald camp. Considering the extent of such a study, nevertheless long awaited (Neumann 2012, 18), it would clearly go beyond the scope of this paper, solely dedicated to the analysis of German historiography on the question of the liberation of the Buchenwald camp.

Final scene in Frank Beyer’s Nackt unter Wölfen (1963), based on the eponymous novel of Bruno Apitz (1958)

Final scene in Frank Beyer’s Nackt unter Wölfen (1963), based on the eponymous novel of Bruno Apitz (1958)

The film tells the story of the so-called “self-liberation” of the camp, in accordance with the GDR’s communist ideology

© DR

4When we gather testimonies from former communist prisoners who lived the events and the interpretations which followed the events by East-German historians, we fairly easily manage to render the version of the events such as it was propagated during many years and taught in schools in the GDR. This version was qualified as the “Miracle of Buchenwald” (“Wunder von Buchenwald”, Fein & Flanner 1987, 239) and can be outlined as follows: as the first American armoured vehicles approached during the afternoon of 11 April 1945, combat groups (“Kampfgruppen”), which had been formed by the ILK (Internationales Lagerkomitee, International Committee of the Camp), would have taken the “tower” or large entrance gate of the camp (Fein & Flanner 1987, 233) by storm, made holes in the electric fences and reached the miradors by seizing the SS guards who were inside. They would have disarmed the guards and then raised a white flag atop the “tower”. Equipped with weapons stolen from the arsenal of the SS, 1,500 prisoners would have formed a long chain of protection around the camp and chased the SS who would have fled into the nearby woods, until, two days later, units of Patton’s army took charge of the camp. According to this version, American troops would not have liberated the Buchenwald camp. The political prisoners themselves would have deliberately prepared, then triggered and carried out the armed revolt (Drobisch 1967, 157). Das Lager hatte sich selbst befreit”, he camp liberated itself (Bartel & Trossdorf 1960; Drobisch 1967; Fein & Flanner 1987; Kühn & Webert 1967; Ritscher 1985, 146).

5Until today, the defenders of this theory, some of whom directly witnessed the events, repeatedly make reference to the war journal of the headquarters of the 4th Armoured Division of the VIIIth Army Corps of Patton’s 3rd army, in which two scouts of the American army, Lieutenant Emmanuel Desnard and Sergent Paul Bodot, wrote on 11 April 1945:

[…] special assault groups had been organised to over-power the guards. Before our arrival the guard posts were taken and 125 SS were captured and are still in the custody of the camp. The leadership of the camp is in the hands of a well-organized committee comprising all nationalities represented. (Desnard & Bodot)

6This text is not entirely convincing as it was derived from American military who, on site after the events, had obtained and copied information from people who, according to pro-Western historians, had already planned at the time and for various reasons, to exaggerate the scope of the actions carried out by the communist rebels. Either way, this version, backed up by testimonies of former prisoners, was the only official version accepted and taught by the authorities of the communist regime in East Germany lasting up until the final days of the GDR.

7After the Fall of the Berlin Wall, West German historians, firstly Hasko Zimmer, vigorously contested the interpretation of the events which had been claimed until then. They strongly criticized what the rebellious communists had done, in particular those who had managed to attain positions of authority within the camp, namely the “Kapos”. They reproached them for having collaborated both passively and actively with the SS, for having committed certain crimes on other prisoners and for having shown discrimination against non-communist detainees at Buchenwald. They revealed that in 1948, before the Dachau and Buchenwald trials were held, former communist rebels, who had become leaders of the Communist Party in power (the SED, Socialist Unity Party of Germany) in the Soviet occupation zone in Germany (SBZ), feared being investigated for the role they played during their detention at Buchenwald. According to West German historians, these former communist detainees would then have decided to blow out of proportion the actions they either would have or really did carried out during the liberation of the camp so as not to be brought to justice. Still according to these historians, after the insurrection on 17 June 1953 in the GDR, the actions of the communist rebels would have been magnified, transformed into a myth to affirm the ideology of the GDR and to grant it an historical legitimacy founded upon an heroic revolt – the symbol of the triumphal affirmation of the collective socialist values (Zimmer 1999; Niethammer 1994; Knigge 1993; Zimmering 2000).

Nackt unter Wölfen (1963)

Nackt unter Wölfen (1963)

© DR

8This mythization would have had consequences in the GDR for certain East German historians who, finding themselves bound to respect the dogmas, would not have had access nor been allowed to exploit certain sources and thereby question the official version of the facts. As a result, East-German historiography painfully stagnated as it was not able to progress scientifically on this point for years for political reasons. This is the case for other historical events as well, such as the myth of the child who was hidden in the camp by communist rebels. East German historians would not have been allowed to freely express themselves on the matter (see Niven 2007).

9Aiming to disprove the mythical and ideological constructions of East German historians and to value their own interpretation of the events, West German historians did not only explain the reasons why the myth surrounding the self-liberation of the Buchenwald camp was born according to them; they also advanced their own arguments. Along these lines, they opposed the testimonies by military E. Desnard and P. Bodot mentioned above with those by American soldiers Egon W. Fleck and Eduard A. Tenenbaum. In their long and detailed report, soldiers Fleck and Tenenbaum, who were among the first to arrive at Buchenwald on 11 April 1945, expressed their perplexity about the contradictory accounts they heard. They noted that, according to the communist group, the watchtowers occupied by the SS would have been taken by storm but that, according to other testimonies, American troops would have taken control of the region without any form of confrontation between the detainees and the SS. They admittedly recognized that the rebellious prisoners had captured a certain number of guards in the woods surrounding the camp. Yet, because of the disproportion of the authorities present (a small group of rebels insufficiently armed facing a regular troop of 1,700 SS possibly backed up by a detachment of 4,300 men at the Weimar barracks, Overesch 1995, 158), they excluded all eventuality of direct confrontation between guards and rebels, assuming that a large number of SS had remained in the camp rather than leaving their posts (Fleck & Tenenbaum quoted by Overesch 1985, 160).

10Furthermore, West German historians contested the fact that the IMO (Internationale Militäreorganisation), the armed wing of the ILK, took the “tower” by storm. Drawing on other testimonies by non-communist prisoners, namely by Max Mayr and Max Bräucker, they concluded that the episode of the assault of the “tower” was a plot construction, “a pure vision” as Max Mayr wrote (Mayr 1970 quoted by Overesch 1995, 72). In this same letter, Mayr jeered at the heroic drawing titled “Assault of the tower” realized by a Russian detention “comrade”. West German historians subsequently managed to impose their version of the events and the theory of the assault was progressively abandoned. It was however only in 2003 that Ulrich Peters, a historian of the former GDR, recognized that the so-called assault of the “tower” was in fact a “legend” (Peters 2003, 415; 417).

11It is today agreed that a few dozen prisoners (Semprun 1984 quoted by Peters 2003, 421) quickly moved in direction of the “tower” without encountering any resistance (Stein 2000, 232). Fritz Freudenberg, who was supposedly amongst them, stated that he first ensured with his own eyes and also by telephone that the SS had indeed left the camp (quoted by Overesch 1981, 671). He then climbed onto the roof of the “tower” using a ladder in order to seize a machine gun. His friend Max Bräucker would then have explained to him how to use it. After this, Freudenberg continues, he found himself face to face with an unarmed soldier of the Wehrmacht, who surrendered without putting up any resistance. Once back at the undefended “tower”, electrician Otto Roth explained to Freudenberg the mechanism to open it. Armed prisoners would then have rushed out through this door to seek the SS who had fled to the nearby woods.

12Regarding the question of knowing if there had been an assault on the miradors surrounding the camp, German communist historians asserted that there had been violent fighting between rebels and SS guards for the conquest of these miradors (Hackett 1996). They spoke of insurgents who would have attacked and disarmed the SS (Ritscher 1985, 147), and made reference to American recorders Desnard and Bodot to affirm that they had “overpowered” these guards. After the Reunification, West German historians attempted to refute this opinion. They firstly mentioned Franz Eichhorn’s testimony, the hairdressers’ “Kapo”, who, questioned by officers of the NVA (Nationale Volksarmee), had brought forward an interview between the senior prisoner Hans Eiden and the commander of the camp Pister on 10 April 1945, around 10 o’clock, before the latter fled the Buchenwald camp. In the presence of the witness Franz Eichhorn, Pister would have officially handed over the camp to Eiden so as to avoid panic and to ensure that order be maintained after the guards left and until the American troops arrived (Eichhorn 1978 quoted by Overesch 1995, 38). According to Franz Eichhorn, the leader of the International Committee of the Camp (ILK) Walter Bartel made him promise not to speak of this conversation, which was indeed never mentioned by East German historians (Ibid., 63). Referring to this document, which had not been seen by researchers in the GDR, West German historians claimed that SS guards had not received the express order to forcibly oppose such possible insurgents and that there had not been any confrontation between them.

Nackt unter Wölfen (1963)

Nackt unter Wölfen (1963)

© DR

13Additionally, the same West German historians contested the number of SS wardens present at the time of the revolt and estimated, contrary to the opinion of colleagues in the East, that at the time when insurgents seized the camp, it was no longer guarded by the SS. To back up their theory, they namely drew on Fritz Freudenberg’s testimony (in Overesch 1995, 79), Ernst Thape’s diary (65 ff) and on a report created at the request of American authorities by a commission of prisoners under the supervision of Eugen Kogon. According to these witnesses, when the American tanks and cannons were heard around 12 pm, all the SS were asked by a voice from a loudspeaker to gain their barracks outside the camp. Those who remained in the camp would have occupied the miradors until they heard the sound of American vehicle motors coming from Hottelstedt shortly before 3 pm (Freudenberg 1971, 79 quoted by Overesch 1995, 70). They then would have taken to the woods, especially when they noticed the first armoured vehicles (Fein & Flanner 1987, 233).

14According to this interpretation there would not have been any confrontation with the SS in the watchtowers. The towers would have been taken without using violence nor causing any victims. The swift advance of American armoured vehicles would have provoked a real panic among the SS wardens and would thus have played a significant role in the liberation of the camp. Namely, the imminent arrival of American troops would have been the “signal” (Girnd s.d., 3) that sparked the revolt, as the insurgents were aware that Allied armoured vehicles were not very far away. When the entrance gate was opened, American tanks and rows of vehicles would have driven through the zone of the SS barracks in direction of Weimar (Freudenberg quoted by Overesch 1995, 81). A little later, prisoners would have made holes in the electric barbed wires (Peters 2003, 408) and as the first tanks reached these barbed wires, they would have rushed to catch the SS guards scattered in the woods. When the prisoners would have returned with their first prisoners, a great number of American armoured vehicles would have driven up a hundred meters from the miradors (Fonteyne 1948, 58) and would have been acclaimed as liberators (Girnd s.d., 3).

15According to West German historians, the American army was present at the various stages of the revolt, either audibly or visibly from the camp. Under these circumstances, it was impossible to speak of a “self-liberation” of the prisoners at Buchenwald, as the communist historians had attempted for years. By pretending or suggesting that the advance of American troops had hardly had any influence on the sequence of events (Ritscher 1985, 146; Drobisch 1967, 157), East German historians maintained, still according to West German historians, propaganda with the goal of valuing former communist rebels who later became politicians with high positions in the GDR.

16After the 1990s, West German historians’ interpretation, which gave (too much?) prominence to the American liberators, was somewhat adjusted, namely by Harry Stein, the historian of the Buchenwald Memorial. It was established that some SS guards (without specifying how many) would have remained at their stations within the camp during the rebellion (Stein 2000, 232). Surprised by the rvolt, they would not have had time to flee and would have surrendered to groups of German, Austrian and Dutch insurgents (Fein & Flanner; Kühn & Weber) without putting up any resistance (Mayr 1970 quoted by Overesch 1995, 73). This affirmation is attested by political prisoner Herbert Morgenstern who wrote in his journal that many “little ones” [Nazis] were pleased that the war was also over for them (Morgenstern 1945). This was corroborated by testimonies from other former prisoners, namely the one by Ernst Thape who mentions that towers were still “occupied” (“besetzt”, in Overesch 1995, 47). Marcel Ruby mentioned that the SS sentinels who had “remained inside the miradors [were] disarmed and made prisoners” (Ruby 1995, 67). Thus, the camp would not have been totally emptied of its SS occupants at the time of the revolt, as certain pro-Western historians had quite peremptorily claimed or suggested.

17It would be inaccurate to state that, according to this new interpretation, the prisoners played a minor or incidental role in the liberation of the camp. It required on the contrary a certain amount of courage, even heroism, to ensure that the guards had indeed fled, to capture the SS who had remained inside the camp, to chase and capture those who had taken to the woods, at times by actually fighting them. Moreover, the rebels carried out a long preparation to evaluate the risks of such an insurrection, to point reliable leaders, to devise of a battle plan adapted to the circumstances and clandestinely gather weapons, at the risk of their own lives. This desire to foment a revolt and to oppose the enemy admittedly does not justify talking in this case of a “self-liberation”, but rather confirms that among the leaders there had been a deliberate plan of revolt to liberate the camp. The events had begun with delay as they waited for a suitable occasion to begin. Given their denial of the facts and their minimization of the role of the insurgents, pro-Western historians were reproached of having discredited the Communist Resistance in the 1990s in order to deconstruct the Buchenwald “myth”, to legitimize the exclusion of the communist heritage from the foundations of the new reunified German state, and replace it with the only West German historical heritage (see also Niven 2007, 265).

Nackt unter Wölfen (1963)

Nackt unter Wölfen (1963)

© DR

18Borrowing arguments from East and West, historians such as Harry Stein now believe the liberation came both from the inside and from the outside (“Befreiung von aussen und von innen”, Stein 2000, 232). In other words, the liberation came from the outside by American army troops and was backed up by a liberation of the prisoners from inside.

19In fact, this version was not new. It refers to the written sources dating from the first hours or the first days following the liberation of the camp. Thus, communist detainee Herbert Morgenstern, mentioned above, had recorded in his logbook on 11 April 1945 that there had been a disorderly fusillade when American armoured vehicles had arrived in sight. According to him there had been an exchange of gunshots at the same time American tanks emerged. Furthermore, committees and associations of former prisoners, which had been formed immediately after the camp was liberated, quickly stated in reports and resolutions that insurgents had indeed actively collaborated in the liberation of the camp. The active participation of the communist detainees in the liberation of the Buchenwald camp was confirmed both in the text that was read on 11 April 1945 during the first registration following the liberation, and in the note intended for the visitors of the camp (including the population of Weimar) entitled “Die Zehn Gebote” (the Ten Commandments): Wir, die internationalen Antifaschisten von Buchenwald, haben mitgeholfen an der Befreiung des Lagers” (Overesch 1995, 69); “deutsche Antifaschisten […] waren aktiv an der Befreiung beteiligt” (Krahulec 1994, 143). For these former detainees, the camp had indeed been liberated by allied troops, but with the active support of interned prisoners (Jahn, 29 ff). Taking advantage of the cover (“Rückendeckung”, Brand 1985 quoted by Krahulec 1994, 132) offered by the American tanks, they would have proceeded to the “disarmament and to the arrest of numerous SS and maintained order within the camp” (Report of the General Assembly of Belgians at Buchenwald). Together with the American army, they would have liberated the camp (see Resolution from 10 April 1945).

20This interpretation, which brings together both sides’ interests, was put aside in the following years because of communist propaganda in the GDR, then as a reaction against the extravagance of the same propaganda in the reunified Germany. Today it has once again returned at the forefront.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Final scene in Frank Beyer’s Nackt unter Wölfen (1963), based on the eponymous novel of Bruno Apitz (1958)
Légende The film tells the story of the so-called “self-liberation” of the camp, in accordance with the GDR’s communist ideology
Crédits © DR
Fichier image/png, 736k
Titre Nackt unter Wölfen (1963)
Crédits © DR
Fichier image/png, 652k
Titre Nackt unter Wölfen (1963)
Crédits © DR
Fichier image/png, 605k
Titre Nackt unter Wölfen (1963)
Crédits © DR
Fichier image/png, 699k
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Jean-Louis Rouhart, « The (self?)liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp prisoners as viewed by German historians »Témoigner. Entre histoire et mémoire [En ligne], 120 | 2015, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2015, consulté le 19 août 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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