By Colonel John R. Dabrowski, US Army Heritage and Education CenterApril 11, 2008
As Adolph Hitler's Thousand Year Reich crumbled under the Allied military onslaught, German concentration camps (Konzentrationlager, or KZ in German) began to fall to the advancing armies. Since 1942, rumors of German death camps were filtered to the Western Allies via Switzerland. For many, it was inconceivable that Germany had undertaken a program of genocide against European Jewry. Some grainy photos were smuggled out, along with eyewitness accounts of mass shootings, but still many in the West were skeptical.
In the East, the steamrolling Red Army overran the first of the death camps in Poland in July, 1944, starting with Majdanek, near Lublin. Yet, surprisingly, many in the West still remained skeptical, dismissing Russian eyewitness accounts and photographs of the camp as "Soviet propaganda."
It was, however, the drama of liberation, more than any other aspect of the Holocaust (or Shoah in Hebrew), that brought home to the West the horror of Hitler's Final Solution, ending once and for all the false belief that stories of Nazi atrocities were exaggerated Allied propaganda.
Flossenburg concentration camp, located outside Weiden, Germany, close to the Czech border, was established in 1938, mainly for political prisoners. Once the war began, however, other prisoners and Jews were housed there as well. At its peak, the camp held between 5,000 and 18,000 prisoners under the control of Hitler's dreaded Schutzstaffel (SS). While Flossenburg is not as well-known as the more infamous camps of Dachau, Treblinka, and Auschwitz, it was nonetheless an important cog in the Nazis overall machinery in the Final Solution. At Flossenburg, members of the German Resistance to Hitler -- such notables as Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris (former head of the German Abwehr or military intelligence), and Major General Hans Oster, to name a few -- were executed on the orders of Reichsfuhrer SS Heinrich Himmler on April 9, 1945. Canaris and Oster were directly implicated in the unsuccessful plot to kill Hitler on July 20, 1944, and they paid with their lives.
As the Allied advance drew near to Flossenburg in April, 1945, the SS began forcibly evacuating prisoners fit to move to other camps still under German control. One former French prisoner, Marcel Cadet, reported that one man was left for dead for every 10 yards along the 125-mile evacuation route from Flossenburg south to the village of Posing.
At approximately 10:30 hours on April 23, 1945, the first U.S. troops of the 90th Infantry Division arrived at Flossenburg KZ,. They were horrified at the sight of some 2,000 weak and extremely ill prisoners remaining in the camp and of the SS still forcibly evacuating those fit to endure the trek south. Elements of the 90th Division spotted those ragged columns of prisoners and their SS guards. The guards panicked and opened fire on many of the prisoners, killing about 200, in a desperate attempt to effect a road block of human bodies. American tanks opened fire on the Germans as they fled into the woods, reportedly killing over 100 SS troops.
Additionally, elements of the 97th Infantry Division participated in the liberation. As the 97th prepared to enter Czechoslovakia, Flossenburg concentration camp was discovered in the division's sector of the Bavarian Forest. Brigadier General Milton B. Halsey, the commanding general of the 97th Division, inspected the camp on April 30, as did his divisional artillery commander, Brigadier General Sherman V. Hasbrouck. Hasbrouck, who spoke fluent German, directed a local German official to have all able-bodied German men and boys from that area help bury the dead. The 97th Division performed many duties at the camp upon its liberation. They assisted the sick and dying, buried the dead, interviewed former prisoners and helped gather evidence against former camp officers and guards for the upcoming war crimes trials.
One eyewitness U.S. Soldier, Sgt. Harold C. Brandt, a veteran of the 11th Armored Division, who was on hand for the liberation of not just one but three of the camps, Flossenburg, Mauthausen, and Gusen, when queried many years after the war on his part in liberating them, stated that "it was just as bad or worse than depicted in the movies and stories about the Holocaust. . . . I can not describe it adequately. It was sickening. How can other men treat other men like this'"