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Elements of George Patton’s Third Army confronted the human horror inflicted by Hitler’s National Socialist Workers Party when American GIs entered the Buchenwald concentration camp on this day in history, April 11, 1945. 

“We are told that the American soldier does not know what he is fighting for,” Supreme Allied Commander U.S. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower said after visiting another concentration camp at Ohrdruf the following day.

“Now, at least, he will know what he is fighting against.”

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Adolf Hitler’s Germany operated thousands of camps, workhouses and ghettoes to imprison and kill Jews as part of its “final solution” during World War II. 

The camps also housed and slaughtered ordinary criminals, political enemies of the Nazis, other religious minorities and many other people declared “undesirable” by party leaders.

Buchenwald, near Weimar, Germany, was one of the largest and most horrific of the concentration camps. 

“More than a quarter of a million people from over 50 countries had been deported to Buchenwald concentration camp or one of its satellite camps,” from the time it was built in July 1937 until liberated eight years later, reports the website of the Buchenwald Memorial.

“I can’t really describe it, to tell you how horrendous it was to see these people treated like animals. Even worse than that.” — GI Andrew Kiniry

The inmates included 249,570 men and boys and 28,230 women and girls, ranging in ages from just two years old to 86. 

About 56,000 people died amid horrid conditions at the camp; U.S. troops arrived to find 21,000 people still at Buchenwald, including 900 children, many of the prisoners on the brink of death. 

Buchenwald

An estimated 23,000 prisoners escaped he camp, their whereabouts unknown, when Nazi guards fled in the hours before U.S. troops arrived.

“You couldn’t grasp it all,” Andrew Kiniry, a member of the U.S. Army 45h Evacuation Hospital, told the National World War II Museum as part of its oral history of the Holocaust.

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“I can’t really describe it, to tell you how horrendous it was to see these people treated like animals. Even worse than that.” 

Some 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust. 

“All Jews in countries occupied or controlled by Germany, numbering 3½ to 4 million should, after deportation and concentration in the East, be at one blow exterminated.” — Riegner Telegram, 1942

Stories of Nazi atrocities reached the U.S. and its Allies in August 1942 through a remarkable document known as the Riegner Telegram. 

“All Jews in countries occupied or controlled by Germany, numbering 3½ to 4 million should, after deportation and concentration in the East, be at one blow exterminated,” read the report, filed by Gerhart Riegner of the World Jewish Congress in Geneva, Swizerland, run by American Rabbi Stephen S. Wise. 

Buchenwald

The telegram defied belief. 

The U.S State Department first claimed “that the planned murder of European Jews was merely a ‘war rumor,’” reports the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 

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“Yet after investigating Riegner’s report over the next three months, State Department officials verified the news of the Nazi regime’s plan, and, according to Wise, authorized him to inform the American public.”

News that 2 million Jews had already been murdered by Germany’s National Socialists, and contjnued genodice was to follow, was reported in U.S. media on Nov. 25, 1942 — inspiring an international outcry.

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“Jewish communities in many Allied nations held rallies and vigils, and declared Wednesday, Dec. 2, 1942, to be an international day of mourning,” states the Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Buchenwald

“The United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and nine Allied governments released a ‘Declaration on Atrocities’ on Dec. 17, 1942. This declaration condemned the ‘bloody cruelties’ and ‘cold-blooded extermination’ of Europe’s Jews and vowed that the Allies would punish war criminals after the fighting stopped.”

Armored units of the U.S. Third Army advanced toward the camp from the east early in the morning of April 11. 

Nazi officers ordered the SS troops who ran the prison to flee around 10 a.m.

“The International Camp Committee mobilized its resistance fighters and began to distribute hidden weapons. Around noon, the commanding SS officers fled. The guards abandoned the watchtowers,” reports the Buchenwald Memorial. 

The human atrocity witnessed by U.S. troops remains hard to fathom, even today.

“Around 2:30 p.m. the tanks of the Fourth Armored Division rolled through the SS complex without stopping. Armed inmates took control of the camp and overpowered the last remaining SS soldiers. By 4 p.m. they had taken control of the camp. Buchenwald was freed from within and without.”

Eisenhower at Ohdruf

The human atrocity witnessed by U.S. troops remains hard to fathom, even today.

“The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick,” Eisenhower said after witnessing similar horror the Ohrdruf camp, citing one room in which 20 to 30 men who died of starvation were piled naked on top of each other.

“I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda.'”

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