Dachau Concentration Camp: Where The Concentration Camps Got Started

Reading Time: 8 minutes

By Katie Hugo, Franciscan University

The German government operated the Dachau Concentration Camp before and during the The Second World War; it opened a few weeks after the appointment of Adolph Hitler as Chancellor of Germany in March of 1933, and was the first concentration camp for political prisoners under the Third Reich. The American Army liberated this place of tremendous suffering and horror in April of 1945 (1). During the twelve years it operated, Dachau served as a prison and labor camp where tens of thousands of people perished under the rule of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (hereafter referred to as the Nazis).

The Dachau Concentration Camp is located in the German province of Bavaria, in the town of Dachau near Munich. However, there were many such camps scattered throughout Nazi Germany. The main site of Dachau was chosen because of the vacant factory there. The Schutzstaffel (SS) troops forced the prisoners to help build and expand the camp to its final size (2). In March of 1933, the government brought the first group of prisoners to Dachau. While it was first used to hold political prisoners, it later housed other types of prisoners including clergy, Romani, and homosexuals. All these prisoners were deemed to be incompatible with the Aryan beliefs of the Nazi Party (3). The Nazis believed that there was a master race (the “Aryan Race”), and those who were not considered Aryan or opposed to such notions were either imprisoned or killed.

Well over 200,000 men, women, and children were incarcerated at Dachau Concentration Camp during the twelve years that it operated. The Dachau Concentration Camp was “the first official SS camp, the prototype for its successors” (4). The SS troops carried out the main day-to-day operations of all the concentration camps under the Third Reich (5). It was the deadliest of early concentration camps. A dozen people died by May 1933 and an additional ten prisoners, for a grand total of 22 individuals, were dead by the end of December 1933. These deaths were the first 22 of over 40,000 people to die at Dachau Concentration Camp (6).

Dachau Concentration Camp was originally used as a camp for political prisoners when it first opened in 1933 (7). However, as the years went by, it later grew to include many groups of people such as Jews, clergy and Romani people. One extremely interesting fact concerning the clergy was that most of those imprisoned at Dachau Concentration Camp were actually Catholic priests. Among the Catholic clergy are Blessed Father Karl Leisner, who was ordained a priest in Dachau, and Blessed Father Titus Brandsma. The title “Blessed” comes after one is beatified, which is the second to last step in the process of being canonized (declared a saint) in the Catholic Church.

Blessed Karl Leisner was a young German seminarian in the Diocese of Munster, Germany and he was an extremely active opponent of the Nazi regime. Leisner would often lead teens on camping trips to discuss the ideas of Hitler as compared to the truths of the Catholic Church. These activities against the government earned him a place in the agricultural work service (8). After being released, he still continued to bring people to the Catholic Faith. The Nazi regime labeled Leisner a dangerous person. Leisner came down with tuberculosis when he was a deacon, so his ordination was pushed back for the sake of his health. The Gestapo (the secret police of the Third Reich) arrested him and put him in Dachau before he got the chance to be ordained a Catholic priest. Deacon Leisner remained ill with tuberculosis and spent some time in the medical center for prisoners. While he was in the prisoner medical area of Dachau, the SS troops conducted human experiments on him.

While Deacon Karl Leisner suffered much during his time in the concentration camp, there is one positive story to his time as a prisoner of the Germans in Dachau: His Excellency Gabriel Piquet, the bishop of the diocese of Clermont Ferrant, in France, was also a prisoner in Dachau Concentration Camp at the same time as Deacon Karl Leisner. The bishop ordained Father Leisner while they were both imprisoned (9). A novice in a local convent smuggled all the necessary documents and materials for the ordination into and out of the concentration camp (10). She also maintained communications between the prisoners and the outside world for over a year. Interestingly, Father Leisner’s ordination was the only one to take place in any of the concentration camps that the Third Reich operated (11). The Allies were able to free him in April of 1945 and sent him to a tuberculosis sanatorium, but his health did not recover (12). After he regained his freedom, Leisner died a few months later in August 1945 from his tuberculosis. Pope Saint John Paul II beatified him in 1996 (13).

Father Titus Brandsma was a priest from the Netherlands. Born in 1881, he discerned a vocation to the Carmelites. The priest publicly objected to the rise of the Nazi movement. Thus, the Gestapo arrested him on January 19, 1942. The Nazis moved him around from place to place for a few months before putting him in Dachau Concentration Camp later in 1942 (14). Father Brandsma became ill while in Dachau. However, he did not go to the medical area for designated prisoners until the middle of July. The SS troops in Dachau subjected him to medical experimentation during his time in the hospital before they gave Father Brandsma a lethal injection on July 26, 1942. Pope Saint John Paul II beatified Father Titus Brandsma in November of 1985 (15).

Dachau Concentration Camp is infamous for many human experiments that occurred there before and during World War II (16). These tests included high-altitude experiments using a decompression chamber, malaria and tuberculosis experiments, hypothermia experiments, and experiments testing new medications. Prisoners were also forced to test methods of making seawater potable and halting excessive bleeding (17). These prisoners were guinea pigs for experiments that the SS troops conducted. The Nazis viewed these horrific tests as advancing the modern field of medicine. Many of those prisoners who were victims in these experiments either died or became disabled as a result of the tests performed (18). That was not the only horrendous thing to happen at Dachau since the captors also beat and tortured the people imprisoned there (19). In addition, the SS troops who helped run Dachau Concentration Camp forced many of the prisoners to work until they died. These conditions in Dachau were extremely common at other concentration camps. Some of the other concentration camps conducted forced sterilizations on those considered to be undesirable according to the Aryan ideals (20).
The American Army freed the inmates of Dachau Concentration Camp in late April of 1945. This victory came too late for the over 40,000 men, women, and children who fell victims to the twelve-year Nazi reign of terror at Dachau (21). However, the victims of the Nazi regime who were still imprisoned in Dachau were overjoyed at the sight of their saviors. After the liberation of Dachau and the other German-run concentration camps, the atrocities committed were revealed to the public. Audiences were stunned to see the brutality humans could inflict on each other. The outrage and disgust led to people across the globe demanding those responsible be punished for their crimes. Fortunately, after the end of the Second World War, the Allied forces made sure that the Nazis who committed these atrocities were held accountable for their horrendous crimes against humanity.

The author of this paper has a relative who was involved with the liberation of Dachau Concentration Camp in April of 1945. His name is Carl Leonard and his older sister was the great-grandmother of the author. While he fought in World War II, Leonard rose to the rank of private in the 20th Armored Division of the United States Army. He was a gunner on one of the tanks. The relative mentioned that his exploits started in France and ended in the Austrian Alps. When the author interviewed him, Leonard discussed his experiences concerning the liberation of Dachau Concentration Camp. He mentioned that the tanks entered Dachau after the infantry already entered. Of Dachau Concentration Camp, Carl Leonard stated that “They [the SS troops] burned bodies for three full days before we got there. The smell of the burning bodies was horrible. There were still 40 train cars worth of bodies to be burned when we took the camp” (22). This fact was really hard to hear because that was far too many people who died in such a horrible manner (23).

In the interview, Carl Leonard also mentioned that his division received a Presidential citation for their exploits in the war, which included the capture of Munich, the capital of the Third Reich, and their participation in the battle at the Ruhr Pocket. Before the surrender of the 24 Germans at V-E (Victory in Europe) Day, he participated in the military chase of the German army under General Albert Kesslering (24). The Germans were hiding up in the Austrian Alps. The Americans were ready to attack them when Leonard and the rest of the American military heard the news of the victory over the Third Reich. It was amazing to hear about these experiences from someone who lived through them.

Surprisingly, Carl Leonard mentioned that what he experienced during the war did not bother him after it was over. The relative said that this was because he was young, so he just went home and picked up his life where he left off before going to fight. He said that he did what he had to do. At the end of the interview, the gentleman mentioned that he wanted young people to “not let their self-respect and responsibilities get in the way of who they are meant to be” (25). Carl Leonard and his wife ,Ruth Leonard, currently live in Clinton, South Carolina, which is an hour outside of Columbia (26).

Dachau remains important to people today for a few different reasons: humankind must first understand the atrocities committed at Dachau, as well as the other concentration camps in Nazi Germany so that history will not repeat itself. Secondly, the concentration camp is important because people died there. Society needs to remember that those who died there were real people and not just numbers. The civilized world needs to continue to humanize the prisoners and remember the suffering that they endured; the sufferings that they endured must never be repeated in today’s world. Finally, Dachau Concentration Camp is an important reminder of a time when the Nazis tried to silence people who did not fit in with “Aryan” ideology. This ought to instruct people that it is never acceptable to silence one because one does not look similar to oneself, nor share the same faith. People must be given the ability to live out their lives without fear of their rights being taken away. People must not infringe on the ability of others to live their own lives peacefully. Dachau remains of utmost importance to people of the modern day. This research into Dachau could lead to an understanding of what happened during the Nazi atrocities. This realization, in turn, should get modern day individuals to reflect on the evils happening around them, while encouraging them to get up and fight them. People today must be leaders instead of passively waiting for others to lead. One area in which somebody could become a leader is through the modern day pro-life movement instead of remaining passive and permitting of abortion, people should speak out about the injustices therein.

Back in the 1930s and 1940s, when the concentration camps were in operation, many people either did not understand what was happening in concentration camps or simply ignored it. This sad fact unfortunately led to the deaths of millions of innocent people who were imprisoned in the concentration camps. The London-based Times newspaper requested one of the journalists write an article on Dachau in the first year of Dachau’s existence; it was not published because the newspaper executives did not want to “annoy the German government” since “reports about other concentration camps had appeared recently elsewhere” (27). This shows the passivity of others during the beginnings of Dachau. If the article had been published, more people would have been exposed to the horrors of Dachau and it could
have been stopped years earlier than it was (28).

Another benefit of researching and understanding Dachau Concentration Camp is having a better understanding of how the Nazi ideology was lived out during the twelve years of the Third Reich. This understanding could help the modern researcher identify similar problematic trends of modern society and to stop them before they worsen. All persons today must identify and call out all types of discrimination; discrimination can be based on anything, including, but certainly not limited to, religion, race, gender, and ethnicity. This is always wrong and must be stamped out so a more peaceful and tolerant society can be achieved. People must think about the world at large rather than just their individual communities and countries. People must realize that just taking care of their own is not enough. Bringing justice to one’s communities is an amazing step in the right direction, though there is much to be done. Humans need to take care of all people–not just the ones who share the same ideology, or those who look physically similar.


  1. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Dachau,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, November 16, 2017, https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005214.
  2. Christopher Dillon, “‘We’ll Meet Again in Dachau’: The Early Dachau SS and the Narrative of the Civil War” Journal of Contemporary History 45, no 3 (2010): 539. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20753614.
  3. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Dachau,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, November 1, 2017.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Dillon, “‘We’ll Meet Again in Dachau’,” 536.

One Response

  1. To: Katie Hugo…Thank you for this very informative article about the atrocities in Dachau and the other Nazi concentration camps,. It is very important that this history be taught in our schools so that hopefully it will never happen again. Sadly, many now actually deny that it even happened.

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