Thursday, January 9, 2020

Did the Kriegsmarine Help the Reich?

Outgunned but Never Outfought

Admiral Doenitz and staff
Admiral Karl Doenitz kept the Kriegsmarine relevant until the final days of World War II.
War and the decisions made in waging it always involves some form of cost-benefit analysis. Setting aside the many broader questions about World War II, was the money and effort spent by the Germans on the Kriegsmarine worth it? I believe the answer is yes.

U-156 being sunk in the Atlantic
U-156 is sunk by aerial depth charges from a US Navy PBY Catalina east of the island of Barbados, 8 May 1943. No survivors.
The Kriegsmarine was outmatched throughout the war. The Allies always had superior resources to counter any German adventures on the high seas. That is indisputable. At best, the Kriegsmarine could control isolated sections of open water for limited times. When the power of the Royal Navy was brought to bear, it always could overwhelm the best that the Germans could muster.

However, despite its limitations, the Kriegsmarine punched far above its weight class.

Admiral Doenitz and staff in St. Nazaire, France,
Boss of the German U-boat arm Karl Dönitz observing the arrival of U-94 at St. Nazaire in June 1941 (Buchheim, Lothar-Günther, Federal Archive Bild 101II-MW-3491-06).
The U-boat fleet gave the Germans their best chance to actually win World War II. Winston Churchill confessed that shipping losses posed the greatest threat to Great Britain’s survival. The U-boat war did not peak until 1943 after the balance of power had shifted against Germany in all other areas. How the Allies won the U-boat battle is a big question, but it was a combination of Allied technological advances, better Allied naval tactics, and the terminal decline of the Kriegsmarine surface fleet which allowed the Allies free reign.

Bismarck survivors being rescued in May 1941
Survivors of the sinking of the Bismarck being rescued by HMS Dorsetshire, 27 May 1941.
Speaking of the Kriegsmarine surface fleet, it was utterly defeated but for over two years did well for its small size. The Germans had a small number of high-quality ships that kept the Royal Navy and RAF busy throughout the war. Aside from a few dramatic mistakes, the quality of leadership in the Kriegsmarine’s surface fleet was quite high. When you are in an inferior military position, though, you can’t afford any mistakes, so mistakes that you do make lead to avoidable catastrophes for the Reich such as the sinking of the Bismarck.

German battleship Tirpitz in Kaafjord, April 1944
View of the port side of the German battleship Tirpitz at its heavily protected anchorage in Kaafjord, Northern Norway, 30 April 1944 (Federal Archive Bild 146-1980-096-60).
One of the overlooked successes of the Kriegsmarine’s surface fleet was how it tied up huge Allied naval and air assets at relatively little cost to the Reich. The battleship Tirpitz did almost nothing of value during World War II - it shelled a weather station and embarked on some unproductive sorties against convoys but mostly just sat at anchor - but the British devoted outrageous numbers of assets over four years trying to sink it. By itself, the Tirpitz replicated the effect of the entire World War I German Navy as a "fleet in being." And all for the cost of just one ship! The Tirpitz investment paid huge dividends for the Reich and provided a major distraction until it was finally sunk in November 1944. This prevented the British from shifting more assets to the Pacific and gave the Japanese chances for success there.

Heavy cruiser Scharnhorst during the Channel Dash, February 1942
German heavy cruiser Scharnhorst during the successful 12 February 1942 Channel Dash (Federal Archive Bild 101II-MW-3695-21).
There were very bright men in the Kriegsmarine. The quality of leadership certainly was higher than in the Luftwaffe and probably higher than in the Army (Heer). Gross Admiral Erich Raeder was a key advisor and developed the "peripheral strategy" against Great Britain which held great promise had it been pursued with more intensity. Some of the Kriegsmarine's tactics were outstanding and made Allied naval officers look like fools. This included the Channel Dash in February 1942 which was a black eye for the Royal Navy and perhaps the single most successful and audacious naval gamble of the war. The Allies in Project Ultra at Bletchley Park never cracked many German naval codes while they had no problem breaking Luftwaffe and Heer codes. This was because Kriegsmarine radio operators were disciplined and not sloppy like the other services. The Kriegsmarine had the highest professional standards and maintained them throughout the war. Yes, there were some bad apples and some atrocities as elsewhere within the Reich, but also a number of humanitarian gestures that saved Allied lives.

Scharnhorst fires on Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Glorious, June 1940
Scharnhorst opens fire on Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Glorious on 8 June 1940.
Many of the Kriegsmarine’s exploits receive little publicity. For instance, German surface ships sank Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Glorious on 8 June 1940 in Operation Juno. It’s not easy to sneak up on an aircraft carrier and sink it in broad daylight! That’s not one the British movie industry made a lot of heroic films about. “Sink the Glorious!” wouldn’t have sold a lot of tickets in London.

A German Type XXI U-boat at sea
A Type XXI U-boat at sea.
Later U-boat designs such as the Type XXI U-boats were the most advanced in the world and foreshadowed nuclear submarines. Their propulsion system was quite similar to many modern electric cars, where there is a diesel motor to power the batteries that actually turn the wheels. This was an area of great promise for the Third Reich if the war had lasted longer.

There was a reason why Hitler picked Admiral Doenitz as his successor. The Kriegsmarine was outgunned but did splendid work for its size, it was just too small to make a difference.

HMS Glowworm battles German heavy cruiser Hipper, April 1940
HMS Glowworm making smoke in front of German cruiser Admiral Hipper, 8 April 1940.


Wednesday, January 8, 2020

How Were German Prison Camps Set Up?

The Reich Was Full of Prisoner Camps

Germans rounding up Jewish men in Amsterdam during World War II
February 22, 1941, the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam. Jews are arrested and herded on the Jonas Daniel Meijer Square. Because the local citizens had fought efforts to detain Jews in this area, the Germans were angry and shipped them to Mauthausen.
How were German prison camps set up during World War II? The word "camps" is thrown about quite a bit in reference to Germany during World War II. The Germans segregated prisoners into many different camps and segregated the prisoners further within those camps. The most basic division was between Prisoner of War (POW) camps and concentration camps, which were two vastly difficult things because all they had in common was being prisons. However, since many people get them confused, let's look at how both were structured. We'll do POW camps first.

Colditz Castle during World War II
The Colditz Castle POW camp during World War II.

POW Camps

Prisoner of War Camps were not concentration camps. The two have very, very little in common. They were both prisons that kept people from escaping, but there the similarities end. Prisoners of war held military prisoners who were treated relatively well and who received care packages through the International Red Cross ("IRC"). The Germans had an interest in making a good show of things for the IRC because there were a lot of Germans in POW camps in the Allied nations who essentially were hostages.

German prison camp Stammlager IVB,
The entrance to Mannschafts-Stammlager IVB  in Mulhberg, Germany, one of the largest POW camps.
German POW camps were divided into categories. Typically, captured prisoners of war first passed through a Dulag, short for the German Durchgangslager or transit camp (this applied to both POWs and concentration camp inmates). From there, they were taken to Stalags (short for Stammlager and intended for non-commissioned troops), or Oflags, short for the German Offizier Lager or officer camps. There also were Stammlager Luftwaffe, run by the Luftwaffe and initially intended to house airforce prisoners, and Marlags, short for the German Marinelager or naval camps. A Stalag Luft would have been a POW camp for enlisted men run by the Luftwaffe. Prisoners who tried to escape from any of these camps or caused too much trouble were sent to Colditz Castle, Oflag IV-C, a camp for "incorrigible" Allied officers. Colditz was converted from a transit camp on 1 November 1940 and originally intended to house Polish POWs). So, you can see right off the bat that there were different camps for different types of prisoners. In practice, there were officers in the Stalags and sometimes enlisted men in the Oflags, especially as the war progressed and the numbers accumulated.

Soviet prisoners during World War II
Austria.- Mauthausen concentration camp, new arrival of Soviet prisoners of war in Mauthausen concentration camp, October 1941 (Federal Archive Picture 192-360).
At least at first, prisoners were put in camps containing their own countrymen, or at least in sections of large camps devoted to inmates of their same background. So, as noted above, some camps or sections of camps were intended for Russians, Poles, Gypsies, etc. This probably made communications easier. Some prisons changed their character over time and retained vestiges of their former character. For instance, while Colditz at first was intended for Polish prisoners of war, that changed to make it the repository for escape artists from the other camps. However, the Poles who were sent there first remained there even after Colditz became the repository for troublemakers from all the other camps. The Poles were kept in a different part of the prison (on a separate floor) throughout the war. However, since Colditz soon was loaded with the most expert lockpickers from the entire prison system, after lights out the POWs would leave their cells, mingle, and teach each other escape skills.

Soviet prisoners during World War II
Russian POWs at Stalag XVIIIA near Wolfsberg in Austria (Russian POWs, Second World War, (New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 29-Aug-2014).
Probably the most noticeable segregation within the POW camps was between Russian prisoners and everyone else. The Germans viewed the Russians as subhumans and kept them segregated from the Western POWs. Since the Germans did not feel they had any Geneva Convention obligations to the Russians, they were treated horribly. US POWs who talk about the Russian POWs write about smelly, dirty masses of men who were given no creature comforts whatsoever, left to live outside or in filthy unheated barracks, and the like. Many Russian POWs perished from exposure out in the open in barbed-wire enclosures.

Map of German concentration camps of World War II
This map shows the enormous geographical spread of German concentration camps. There were camps in the Channel Islands to Odessa, from Italy to Norway.

Concentration Camps

German concentration camps did not hold military prisoners. Instead, they held only civilians who were arrested and imprisoned for a variety of reasons. The Germans began building concentration camps as soon as Hitler took power. The first camps went into operation in March 1933. At first, they were used for very marginal people in Hitler's society such as political opponents, homosexuals, communists, socialists, Social Democrats, Roma, and Jehovah's Witnesses. Basically, they were a private prison system for Hitler and his top cronies. The categories of people incarcerated in the camps expanded throughout the 1930s. By the early years of World War II, the concentration camps were being used for basically anyone the top leaders of the Third Reich did not like.

Theresienstadt  prison camp of World War II
The nice, orderly barracks at Theresienstadt (originally Terezin).
The Germans were very wary of allowing the outside world to learn what the concentration camps were really like. They invited the International Red Cross to visit and inspect one camp, Theresienstadt, to put all those "silly rumors" about concentration camps to rest. Theresienstadt (formerly Terezin) became known as the "model camp," with an outward appearance of a Summer Camp. The IRC went away satisfied that concentration camp inmates were being treated properly.

German Red Cross worker during World War II
A German Red Cross worker tends to a Polish inmate in a concentration camp. This image is sometimes used to show how the Red Cross helped inmates during World War II. However, this photograph was taken on 11 April 1945, after the camp was liberated. Before that, the Red Cross had no access (Herbert Budowle, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Source Record ID: 111-SC-203538 (Album 3208)).
However, there was a major flaw in the IRC's involvement. While its members did "inspect" the model camp, the IRC actually only had the authority to help prisoners of war. The concentration camps were an internal German matter outside of the IRC's international portfolio. The German national Red Cross, on the other hand, had responsibility only for civilian internees. As for the people thrown into concentration camps because they were Jewish or Poles or whatever the reason was, neither the IRC nor the national Red Cross had any responsibility for them whatsoever. They were completely on their own. Thus, the worst concentration camps were never visited by any outside relief agency.

Dachau camp at Kaufering during World War II
Kaufering was composed of eleven subcamps of the Dachau concentration camp located around the town of Landsberg am Lech in Bavaria. It was built to house slave labor for the construction of massive underground bunkers that would be impervious to Allied air attack. It was built after the original "categories" of camps had basically disappeared.
As with many things within the Third Reich, the organization of the concentration camp system came about somewhat haphazardly. In fact, it was virtually a personal project of just one man. Reinhard Heydrich, the Head of the Security Police and the SD, issued a letter (styled as a "decree" because it was directed at his underlings) on 2 January 1941. It was intended only for internal distribution to the Security Police. It stated that Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler had approved new divisions within the concentration camp system. The new categories were:
  • Category I: prisoners "definitely capable of being reformed," to be held at Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Auschwitz I;
  • Category Ia: "old prisoners" to be held at Dachau;
  • Category II: prisoners facing "strong accusations" but still capable of reform, to be held at Buchenwald, Flossenburg, and Auschwitz II;
  • Category III: "asocial" prisoners with criminal convictions and "virtually incapable of correction," to be held at Mauthausen.
While these classifications are quite vague, they do provide some hints for the future. The Category III camp, Mauthausen, would become renowned for its brutality and savagery as prisoners were worked to death and invariably do not survive their mistreatment. The other camps eventually became outright extermination camps, without so much of the "work" or "punishment" aspect of Mauthausen.

Rounding up Poles for slave labor during World War II
Germans rounding up random people off the streets of Warsaw in Autumn 1941 for transport to German concentration camps as slave labor.
Inmates were accorded a certain classification upon forwarding to the system. However, as the war progressed, assignment to any of the camps usually became a death sentence. Heydrich's categorizations relied on his personal authority and quickly became meaningless, a process probably accelerated by his assassination in mid-1942. Even in his original decree, Heydrich did not require that recommendations for Category III prisoners be "justified" based upon previous convictions or anything else. Everything was arbitrary and based upon decisions made on the spot. Whoever was making the decision could just send an inmate to Mauthausen with no questions asked. Heydrich also mentioned in his decree that the goal was to "reform" inmates to return them to society, but few inmates were ever "reformed" sufficiently to exit the system altogether. In other words, Heydrich's system of categories quickly dissolved into chaos with the goal of either extermination or permanent imprisonment for purposes of producing slave labor. In fact, many people were sent to the camps in the first place simply because they were randomly rounded up in the manner of press gangs used to crew naval ships in the 18th Century.

Inspecting Female camp guards during World War II
An inspection of the female camp guards at Ravensbrück.
One of these exceptions was how women were treated. There was a separate camp for females (Ravensbrück) which featured primarily female camp guards. Just because it was a female-run camp doesn’t mean it was genteel, some of the most brutal guards of the system were females who worked there (such as Jenny-Wanda Barkmann). There also were different types of camps for different classes of inmates arranged in tiers.

The stairs of death at Mauthausen during World War II
The Mauthausen Stairway of Death. Prisoners were forced to carry large stones up the stairs over and over. If they faltered, they were executed. Few survived.
Mauthausen was the only Tier 3 camp and was somewhat analogous to Colditz for POWs. It was the place where the most “incorrigible” inmates and political enemies were sent. In other words, if they really didn’t like you but felt you were fit enough so they could get work out of you, you were destined for Mauthausen where they would work you to death. Since it turned out that the Germans didn't like a whole lot of people, Mauthausen mushroomed in size and acquired various annexes and satellite sites. There were female inmates at most camps as well as men, but they were kept separate. The women and young/old males were not considered as valuable to the Germans as workers, so they often were disposed of quicker than the men. Thus, the camps skewed heavily male.

A German gas van during World War II
A German "gas van," one of the early means of eliminating inmates. Victims were put in the back of the van, then the vehicle's exhaust was routed to suffocate them. The van then drove to a crematorium. This was adapted from similar methods used by the Soviet secret police NKVD in the late 1930s during the Great Purge.
The Germans were big on racial segregation, of course. Often, that was put into practice by simply exterminating the races they didn’t like (Jews, Gypsies, and so forth). This was done in a variety of ways that changed throughout the wars to accommodate the increasing numbers of "undesirables" that were being handled. At first, the victims were shot, but this was found to be bad for morale (there were some awkward cases of members of the firing squads refusing to do their job and being put among the prisoners to be shot). Later, the victims were put in trucks with the truck exhaust fed inside. This, however, was inefficient. Finally, the camps were equipped with gas chambers disguised as showers. It became difficult to bury the corpses, so ovens were built to incinerate them. This led to huge piles of ashes that remained in the camps after the war.

Germans rounding up Gypsies during World War II
Gypsies (Sinti and Roma people) being rounded up for deportation. This photograph was taken in the German town of Asperg, 22 May 1940. A special camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau was built for the Gypsies. Other Gypsies were sent to Treblinka and other camps. Often, however, Gypsies were just rounded up and shot without being sent to camps.
In general, both POW and concentration camps had distinctive ethnic characters depending on their locations: Poles, German Jewish people, French, Romanians, Russian Jews, etc. So, a camp in, say, Lithuania would hold Lithuanian inmates, there was no need to “segregate” as the segregation flowed naturally from the location of the camp. Prisoners were divided up along lines such as rank and country of service. A black U.S. Army POW would have been treated just like other POWs from the same country.

Ovens at Mauthausen during World War II
Ovens at Mauthausen.


Regarding German camps, the vital distinctions were between POW camps and concentration camps. Because the POW camps were open to international inspection, they were well-maintained and the prisoners were treated relatively well. The concentration camps, however, were not open to inspection by anyone.

Justice meted out to female camp guards during World War II
We can't leave this topic without showing what happened to sadistic German prison guards. Here, justice is meted out to female camp guards such as Jenny-Wanda Barkmann (nearest).
The concentration quickly degenerated into a chaotic system of barbarism with little uniformity, few rules, and no scruples. The only thing giving them structure was Heydrich's personal authority, and they lost all rules after his death in July 1942. Concentration camps were built throughout the Greater Reich and acquired distinct individual reputations based on their personnel, but those reputations invariably were evil. Once they became extermination camps, few survived to describe the true horrors that they became.

Female prisoners at Mauthausen during World War II
Female prisoners at Mauthausen.


Saturday, January 4, 2020

Hans Kammler and German Nukes

Was Hitler Closer to Nuclear Weapons Than We Thought?

Werner Heisenberg
Werner Karl Heisenberg (1901 - 1976), leader of the German nuclear weapons program in the Third Reich.
German Nuclear Programme: it remains a phantom that has been dismissed by scholars for decades as producing nothing. That common view, however, may be changing. The Third Reich's nuclear program advanced further under the leadership of Werner Heisenberg than many have thought.

The storyline for the past 70 years has been that the Germans during World War II made only a few preliminary gestures toward the basic science underpinning nuclear power. They did not have the brainpower to get very far after Albert Einstein in March 1933 and other top researchers became émigrés working for the United States government.

In September 1939, Heisenberg joined together with other leading scientists under military orders to create Uranverein ("Uranium Club"). The goal of the "club" was to develop nuclear energy as a weapon. Just as in Great Britain at the same time with the MAUD Committee, the goal was to determine the feasibility of nuclear weapons. The club made some good progress. In 1940, for instance, C. F. von Weizsacker suggested Neptunium, element 93, as the foundation of a nuclear explosive. Further research suggested that Plutonium, element 94 and Neptium's decay product, was better suited. Heisenberg went to work and calculated that several tons of U-235 would be required as the critical mass to create a nuclear weapon. Germany had nowhere near the ability to produce this amount of U-235. This calculation turned out to be erroneous - Heisenberg later realized that it was about 15-60 kilograms - but this false finding was enough to end the Wehrmacht's interest in atomic bombs. The lack of uranium caused the Germans to abandon their nuclear program by the end of 1941 in order to focus on more promising technologies such as jet fighters and ballistic missiles.

In addition, targeted Allied interventions such as at Vemork Norsk Hydro plant in the town of Rjukan in the county of Telemark, Norway, played a role. There, a barge full of heavy water supposedly was sunk on 20 February 1944 by British commandos and local citizens. This ended any lingering possibility that German atomic research could be restarted.

German Nuclear Programme
Hans Kammler.
Because of Kammler's association with top-secret, cutting edge projects and his apparently clean get-away, he remains the subject of conspiracy theories about what the Germans were really up to with their advanced weapons programs. These theories get quite fantastic, but the evidence for them is non-existent. Still, people love conspiracies and 'secrets,' so the stories likely never will die.
Advanced weapons facilities were not only plausible during World War II, but reality. This is the main control room at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where the Americans developed the atomic bomb.
Hans Kammler, shrouded in mystery and with his hands deep in the most advanced research of his day, invariably turns up as the protagonist in such activities, perhaps pulling off his disappearing act by riding to another century or dimension in 'Die Glocke' (the 'bell'), a mythical advanced transportation device.
There are odd ring-like structures like this in former areas of the German occupation. Because of the peculiar (bell-like) shape, some contend these buildings were used to develop 'Die Glocke,' an advanced weapon built by Hans Kammler. Die Glocke was based upon (apparently) alien technology that traveled between dimensions or along magnetic phase lines or, you know, something like that. However, investigators have established with convincing proof that these structures were used for ordinary gas storage, and in fact, similarly shaped structures are still used for that purpose today.
That is the basic story, and it hasn't changed since the war. Until recently, that is. Simply repeating these stories makes you appear to be on the fringe, a nut, but you must understand the theories to discount them - and see if there indeed is any grain of truth to them. And, in this field, there are lots of such grains that taken together are fascinating, but do not add up to much.

Oak Ridge
Calutron operators at their panels in the Y-12 plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during World War II. Gladys Owens, the woman seated in the foreground, did not realize what she had been doing until seeing this photo in a public tour of the facility fifty years later. (Ed Westcott/DOE)
Researchers are still trying to piece everything together, but the picture is becoming clearer and a bit more elaborate than the common sketchy (and satisfying) tale of bungling failure. This is a story of a shadowy program that still isn't completely understood, led by that even shadowier figure, Dr. Hans Kammler.


This is a story of a major war criminal who got away. General Dr. Ing. Hans (Heinz) Friedrich Karl Franz Kammler was one of the chief architects of German 'special projects.' He was in charge of the ballistic missile and jet aircraft programs. More chillingly, he was in charge of the concentration camps. The infamous gas chambers and crematoria at the camps were as much his doing as anybodys. He was in charge of designing and building camps across Europe. Many Germans gained notoriety after the war when their crimes were exposed, but Kammler remains largely unknown to this day. And, from some perspectives, Kammler was the biggest fish of them all. Had he been brought to trial, he almost certainly would have received the death sentence at the first Nuremberg tribunal, and it would have been carried out.

German Nuclear Programme
Underground facilities under Hans Kammler's jurisdiction, constructing the He 162 Salamander jet fighter
May 1945 was a chaotic time in Germany, giving anyone with a place to go ample opportunities to get there without being apprehended. And Hans Kammler still had the means even at that late date to get wherever he wanted to go in complete secrecy. Kammler did manage to disappear at the end of the war, which is a bit more difficult to achieve than it sounds, especially for someone as prominent as him. Some perfunctory searches were made for him, but people said he went here, others said he went there; he was supposed to attend a conference in this city or that on certain dates and never showed up - none of which made any sense at all and led nowhere. It was almost as if there were a deliberate, organized campaign to obscure his trail. Kammler simply was there one day and gone the next. He went somewhere - his body never was found and there was absolutely no evidence from any source that he perished. They've been able to ascertain the end of Martin Bormann and Dr. Mengele, but not Kammler. Now, at last, there may be a slender clue as to exactly where he went and what he was worried about in those last frantic days, indeed, a place he never would have been found it that was his destination.

German Nuclear Programme
Entrance to the Mittelwerk facility, where they built the ME 262 jet fighter.
What interests us here is that Kammler was in charge of the underground facilities where German war production moved at the end of the war. He was given this authority by Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering and Armaments Minister Albert Speer. Almost all of those underground facilities are well-known and now empty. However, those of us in the field know that there also have been what can best be called 'legends' of vast underground facilities that never were found and may, in addition, have served as a sort of shelter for certain top government officials and their SS guards at the end of the war. There is no use pointing to sources for these tales, as any sources for this are without sources themselves and just uncorroborated stories. The typical location for these 'redoubts' is usually placed deep in Poland, which is a convenient location for such tales because western researchers haven't been able to examine them until recently and the area is vast and often desolate. The stories are often embellished by the presence of skeletons of SS guards at the entrances, still holding their rifles - you get the picture.

German Nuclear Programme
Let's take a step back from the tales and return to known reality. The main work of producing planes and other armament was done at the Mittelwerk facility in the Kohnstein, which is fairly well known. However, there were many other underground facilities, developed as the Allied bombardment made surface production hazardous. One of these underground facilities was located in the Bergkristall (literally, 'rock crystal') site in Austria, which is near the mountain town St Georgen an der Gusen. It is a fairly typical small Austrian mountain town, blink and you'll miss it as you drive through. However, it has quite a history.

German Nuclear Programme
Sankt Georgen an der Gusen
Adolf Hitler, of course, was from Austria. St. Georgen an der Gusen is not far from where he grew up. Hitler's bizarre strategy during late 1944 and 1945 of allocating huge forces desperately needed elsewhere to guard that region often has been questioned. Now, researchers may be uncovering a very dark strategic reason for him to switch Panzer Armies in that direction when the Soviets only were 60 miles from Berlin. I don't want to overstate this: there is no evidence yet of anything happening in these mountains of any relevance to the last days of the war. However, the possibility does exist that researchers may uncover something important.

German Nuclear Programme
The German experimental nuclear pile at Haigerloch

The New Discovery

It always has been known that the Germans had a major underground weapons production facility at B8 Bergkristall. It churned out the Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter plane, which was operational by late 1944 and proved better in various performance categories than any Allied fighter. It could not turn the tide of the war, but the Me 262 was cutting edge technology and a giant leap beyond what the Allies were fielding at the time (yes, the Allies did have some jets of their own such as the British Gloster Meteor, but no Allied jet saw any action beyond patrolling against V-1 buzz bombs). There was a lot going on just behind the surface of the placid alpine town named Sankt Georgen an der Gusen.

German Nuclear Programme
The Mauthausen concentration camp garage gate
B8 Bergkristall is near the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp. Mauthausen provided the slave labor that kept the Bergkristall factory humming along. There were a lot of slave laborers - up to 320,000 - and many were killed in various ways. The nearby town was the site of the Gusen 2 sub-camp which supplied the factory laborers.

German Nuclear Programme
Gusen I and II.
The B8 Bergkristall - Esche II program was located in a series of caves (some 40 square miles are known) carved out of the mountains near Sankt Georgen a der Gusen. That is a very small town in the middle of the mountains. The census gave it a population of 1,429 in 1939. Even today, it only has a few thousand inhabitants. It remained under German control until the final surrender.

German Nuclear Programme
An intersection in the BergKristall complex (Federal Archive).
The underground plants were so extensive that it was difficult to uncover all of them. The Germans certainly were not forthcoming about them during or after the war. The Soviets were in charge of the area for the decade after the war, until 1955, but they did not seem particularly interested in exploring dusty old caves. They examined what they found, made sure it was harmless, and moved on. They do not appear to have launched any major expeditions to search for caves that weren't already disclosed to them.

German Nuclear Programme
The 11th Armored Division liberated the Mauthausen camp. This photo was staged the next day, 6 May 1945, to celebrate the liberation.
There are unexplained radioactive readings in the area that may be natural phenomena, but also could be man-made. If the latter, they could only come from the German war program, as no (other) nuclear research has been performed in the area. If so, this would not be the first time that suspected radioactive material from Germany was found. In June 2011, there was an atomic waste dump from the Third Reich - 126,000 barrels of it - found in an abandoned salt mine near Hanover.

German Nuclear Programme
Andreas Sulzer is the researcher who thinks he is on to something at Mauthausen.
Some researchers have begun excavating in the area, led by filmmaker Andreas Sulzer of nearby Linz (yes, Hitler's home town). They have found what they believe is a hidden chamber where the nuclear research took place and was purposefully buried at the end of the war - right around the time when Kammler went missing. It is known that the Germans engaged in all sorts of end-times activity to hide and preserve things. There is little question that burying the traces at Sankt Georgen an der Gusen was part of that activity. The only questions remaining are why they bothered, and what might still be found there.

German Nuclear Programme
The hidden Bergkristall tunnels that are being examined now can only be entered after removing dirt, concrete and granite plates used to cover up all traces of the project. Filmmaker Sulzer had his team dig through a good six feet of clay at the site of a shooting club, only to find a manufactured granite cap underneath all that dirt. It could be seen to be covering some steep steps leading into the mountain. None of this had been known before. Something - it could be anything - is inside that mountain. A geological survey suggests a large underground cavern. It is easy to say, "Oh, it is nothing, probably just a guard post or SS quarters or something." Perhaps. However, someone went to an awful lot of trouble not only to bury this facility but to hide it so well that it stayed hidden for 70 years with people literally walking right on top of it on a daily basis. That took some motivation.

German Nuclear Programme
A Waffen SS helmet found by the Sulzer team in preliminary digging at the St Georgen site.
Sulzer followed proper procedure and informed the town of his finds, which quickly contacted the Heritage Office. The police ultimately halted excavations, demanding a permit which the researchers did not have. Naturally, this deepens the mystery. However, if there is something there, it ultimately will be found. The prestigious Graz Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Research on War Consequences will, together with the province of Upper Austria, continue the excavations, under the auspices of the Environment Councillor Rudi Anschober, at a date to be determined.

There may be nothing there. But why not have a look?


Mauthausen, the Most Brutal Concentration Camp

A True House of Horrors

The main gate at Mauthausen during World War II. It remains intact and looks just like this today.
The more you review World War II, the more you come to the realization that there is never "enough" detail. You can review events, but always there is another layer underneath the broader topic, and additional layers under that.

The Mauthausen prison orchestra escorting prisoners to the gas chambers.
For instance, we can talk about the "Holocaust," but then you get into different German policies for different groups, the history of the persecution of the Jews and others, then the different camps and the men and women who ran them, then the treatment of prisoners at different camps, then different events at each camp, and on and on. The level of detail becomes granular, getting down to events as experienced by one person at one time in one place. There is no end to the complexity. The only way to keep it manageable is to focus on discrete topics as representative of the greater whole.

February 22, 1941, the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam. Jews are arrested and herded on the Jonas Daniel Meijer Square. Previously, on 19 February 1941, the Grüne Polizei had raided IJssalon Koco in Amsterdam-South. The owners defended themselves by spraying ammonia on the invaders. As retaliation 425 Jewish men between 20 and 35 years were on 22 and 23 arrested February and transported to the Mauthausen concentration camp. It was just the beginning.
Ultimately, World War II is millions of stories, events as seen and experienced and memorialized in different ways by each person affected. Many of those people did not outlast the war and they never had a chance to communicate their experiences, so the whole store is forever incomplete. It is pretty much assured that we only know certain parts of the greater whole, probably not the depths of depravity nor the absolute heights of valor. We can only work with what is available, but sometimes there is a keyhole provided almost by chance at the lowest - in more ways than one - level. With this article, we go beneath the general heading "Holocaust" to look at one particular camp of many, and it just so happens to be perhaps the worst of them all.

A Mauthausen prisoner beaten up by guards, then stood up against the wall for this picture


Sankt Georgen an der Gusen, Austria, part of the Mauthausen complex
Mauthausen is a small market town in the Austrian state of Upper Austria, near the German border. It is located about 20 kilometers east of the city of Linz, the childhood home of Adolf Hitler, and not far from Berchtesgaden, Germany, where Hitler vacationed during the war. It is quite picturesque. There is a green valley with ponds and a sign reading "Memorial. No swimming, diving, car washing, ball games, etc."

Heinrich Himmler visits the Mauthausen concentration camp on 27 April 1941. Left to right are Gauleiter August Eigruber, camp commandant Franz Ziereis (who was executed for war crimes in 1945), SS-General August Schmidhuber, SS-Chief Heinrich Himmler, Himmler’s chief of staff Karl Wolff, and at the edge of the photograph Warsaw police chief Franz Kutschera (who was assassinated 1 Feb 1944 on orders from the Polish government in exile). (Ang, Federal Archive).
The word "Memorial" is the tip-off. The valley, despite its undeniable beauty, was the site of the most grisly events of World War II. More people were exterminated elsewhere, most notoriously at Auschwitz–Birkenau. On the scales of horror, that simple fact always weighs heaviest, so all descriptive words are relative in this field. At Mauthausen, though, prisoners went through a process that can only be described as barbaric. Life at Mauthausen was unmatched elsewhere in the system.

Eduard Krebsbach (8 August 1894 – 28 May 1947) was a former German physician and SS doctor in the concentration camp in Mauthausen from July 1941 to August 1943. Nicknamed 'Dr. Spritzbach' (Dr. Injection) by inmates. He was responsible for initiating mass killing by lethal injection to the heart on handicapped and sick prisoners. He was executed for crimes against humanity committed at the Mauthausen camp.
Mauthausen, technically known as Mauthausen-Gusen, was the center of World War II Germany's only category III concentration camp. It was the destination for "incorrigible political enemies of the Third Reich." People who had no sponsors or protectors were sent there to work until they died. Mauthausen itself, a small market town in upper Austria, was simply the administrative center. Operations spread out for miles around to the east, west, and south.

Typical SS guards at Mauthausen.
The Germans chose the site because of its huge quantities of granite. The stones were used to build highways, the country's monolithic government buildings, and the concentration camps themselves.

Commandant Franz Ziereis accompanies Heinrich Himmler on an inspection tour of the Mauthausen concentration camp.
The first Mauthausen barracks were erected some 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) from the city of Linz. It was only five months after Austria's "Anschluss," or annexation. This is when the Germans began to get big dreams of conquest and began seriously contemplating a general war against the other major European powers. They knew they would need a dedicated workforce.

Aribert Heim - Austrian doctor, also known as Dr. Death. As an SS doctor in the concentration camp in Mauthausen, he was accused of killing and torturing inmates.
Mauthausen grew steadily over time. It expanded from a single labor camp to a network of 49 satellite camps across Austria and Germany. It now generally is referred to as the "Mauthausen system." Waves of prisoners showed up, first Spaniards, then Poles, and later Russians, as the Germans expanded their empire.

Obersturmführer Julius Ludolf served in KL Mauthausen from 1940 - 1945. Until August 1943 he was commander of the subcamp Loibl, then moved to Grossraming until April 1944. From May 1944 until 1945 he was commander of the subcamp in Melk. Executed in Landsberg am Lech in May 1947.
The detainees were brought to Mauthausen for their registration before being sent to one of the sub-camps. Since Mauthausen was not an extermination camp, the point was to make the prisoners work and produce as much as possible whilst being given only the barest means of subsistence.

An SS-Obersturmführer serving in KZ Mauthausen. Somewhat surprising that he took a formal portrait without his cover.
There, they would produce and assemble parts for weapons, rockets or warplanes for instance. In addition, local firms and national corporations used prisoners from Mauthausen for cheap slave labor, thereby turning the network into one of the Reich's most profitable enterprises.

Himmler Mauthausen
Himmler passing an inmate who is wearing the familiar striped uniform at Mauthausen. The inmate, of course, is at full attention and probably absolutely terrified, while the "great man" has big thoughts on his mind and does not even glance over (unlike the others).
Since there were always plenty of prisoners who worked for nothing, Mauthausen served as a sort of temporary worker business for whoever needed some work done. The workers also had the advantage from the point of view of employers of not complaining about anything - if you wanted them to whistle while they worked, they would whistle a merry tune.

Austrian Paul Winter, commander of blocks 13-15 in Mauthausen death camp toward the end of the war.
Mauthausen, from a certain perspective, was the absolute heart of Occupied Europe, both geographically and morally. The Germans were all about war, and Mauthausen supported the effort wholeheartedly.

Military Production

The garage entrance at Mauthausen
Manufacturing during the last years of the Reich was dispersed by Armaments Minister Albert Speer, who was appointed in early 1942. Speer was brilliant at his work, though he had his detractors within the government hierarchy for his supposed laziness and paranoia. He chose Upper Austria mountain locations near the mountain town St Georgen an der Gusen for major production facilities after the destruction of Peenemunde by British bombers in 1943. St Georgen is a fairly typical small Austrian mountain town, blink and you'll miss it as you drive through. However, it has quite a history.

Aerial view of the main camps at Mauthausen. It was quite a large complex.
The Bergkristall (literally, 'rock crystal') site became a major underground weapons production facility. At B8 Bergkristall, considered part of the Mauthausen complex with a satellite camp nearby, furious work went on in relative secrecy during late 1943 through the end of the war. It was one of the most classified areas of the Third Reich. Bergkristall churned out the Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter plane, which was operational by late 1944 and proved better in various performance categories than any Allied fighter. The Me 262 could not turn the tide of the war, but it was cutting-edge technology and a giant leap beyond what the Allies were fielding at the time (yes, the Allies did have some jets of their own such as the British Gloster Meteor, but no Allied jet saw any action beyond patrolling against V-1 buzz bombs).

Franz Ziereis was the Commandant of Mauthausen from August 1939 to May 1945. He reportedly allowed his eleven-year-old son to shoot prisoners with a rifle from their front porch. Ziereis was wounded by Allied soldiers and died at a later time from his wounds. 40,000 prisoners perished at Mauthausen in the first four months of 1945 alone.
The Germans knew that the Allies were targeting their fighter production facilities, and Bergkristall had numerous advantages in terms of making them immune to bomber attacks:
  • at the extreme range of Allied bombers, 
  • tight security, 
  • a large productive workforce and hidden, 
  • bomb-proof facilities that would be difficult to destroy even if the Allies knew where they were, which apparently they didn't.
Speer chose quite wisely. Parts of the facility are believed to remain undiscovered to this day.

The underground works in the Bergkristall.
B8 Bergkristall is near the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp. Mauthausen provided the slave labor that kept the Bergkristall factory humming along. There were a lot of slave laborers - up to 320,000 - and many were killed in various ways. The nearby town was the site of the Gusen 2 sub-camp which supplied the factory laborers.

Part of the underground complexes (Ang/Federal Archive).
The B8 Bergkristall - Esche II program was located in a series of caves (some 40 square miles are known) carved out of the mountains near Sankt Georgen an der Gusen. That is a very small town in the middle of the mountains. The census gave it a population of 1,429 in 1939. Even today, it only has a few thousand inhabitants. It remained under German control until the final surrender.


The underground plants are extensive and many were buried late in the war, and it is not clear if they have all been located even today. The Soviets occupied the area until 1955 and did little excavating. The local citizenry basically ignored the whole matter until the 1980s, when a new generation came along interested in the past.

The Human Toll


Of the 200,000 prisoners who passed through Mauthausen from August 1938 until its liberation on May 5 in 1945, half would die. The death toll for the whole complex remains unknown, though the figure of 200,000 is often quoted. Russian and Polish prisoners were the biggest victims, along with Jews.

The door to the showers.
Of the some 7,200 Spaniards (primarily communists fleeing Franco) who entered Mauthausen as its first large group, only 2,200 were alive by their liberation in 1945. Other groups suffered similar reductions in size.

"Died while trying to escape."
Another 2,000 probably died in other camps such as Dachau and Buchenwald. Many were at the limits of their resistance and half were dead within a year. Most of the survivors who could not return to Franco’s Spain were given asylum in France.

Bring out your dead.
Prisoners at Mauthausen, as at other camps, were forced to collect the corpses of their gassed friends and family and load them into the ovens. These "Sonderkommando" or Special Detail were at first given preferential treatment, only to be exterminated themselves after a month or two, so as not to be able to give away camp secrets in the event of their escape.

Suicide by the electric fence.
The quarry mentioned above was the epicenter of the horror of Mauthausen. It was a dusty, noisy, dirty place that had the so-called Stairs of Death, which were 186 uneven rock-hewn steps, some up to a half a meter high, up which prisoners were forced to carry heavy granite rocks.

The Mauthausen Stairs of Death, after the liberation.
It since has been replaced by 186 even steps, but even they are formidable.

This is one of the most notorious photos of World War II. Imagine having that rock on your back and then having to wait patiently just for the chance to walk up the stairs and set it down - then walk back down and grab another. If you stopped for any reason, you would be shot on the spot. Of this large group of men, perhaps a handful remained alive at the end of the day.
Countless prisoners sentenced to the "punishment Kommando" were forced to carry heavy granite boulders up the steep flight of stairs, over and over, until virtually all perished.

The stairs today.
Six days a week, from sunrise to sunset, the prisoners were forced to extract the granite and carry the heavy stones on their back.

Female prisoners at Mauthausen.
Thousands died on these steps, killed as punishment for being too weak or exhausted or simply because the guards thought them annoying or a threat.

The 11th Armored Division liberated the Mauthausen camp. This photo was staged the next day, 6 May 1945, to celebrate the liberation.
Mauthausen was finally liberated by the prisoners on May 5th, 1945, the only camp to be taken this way. The Germans destroyed a lot of evidence before the liberation, though of course, they could only do that with a small portion of the immense infrastructure. Photos remained, however, and preserved the reality of the horror.

Linz Mauthausen
Residents of nearby Linz review photos of the camp immediately after the war.
The Americans were welcomed with a huge banner proclaiming ‘Los españoles antifascistas saludan a las fuerzas libertadoras’ ("The Spanish anti-Fascists greet the liberating forces"). Boix himself set to work photographing the liberation, just as he had photographed the internal workings of the camp.

Prisoners showing the Mauthausen ovens.


Recording the Events at Mauthausen

Francesc Boix is probably not a name that you have heard before. Even experts on World War II will probably be scratching their heads about that name. There isn't any reason for you to know anything about him. He was just a guy, and that is probably how he would like to be remembered, as a man with no pretensions, but skills.

Boix Mauthausen
Francesc Boix.
Like many other Spaniards, Boix drifted across Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. He was a victim of larger events, like a cork bobbing in the ocean. However, he did brave and important things that outlasted his tragically short life. Historians know that the sources they use often are as interesting as the events themselves, especially when there is only one source for huge events. The story of Francesc Boix is no exception, though it became exceptional due to what he did.

A Boix photo at Mauthausen.
The larger picture is that photos of Mauthausen's atrocious conditions have survived into present times thanks only to a couple of Spanish prisoners who smuggled about 2000 negatives out of the camp. The photos were later used at post-war trials. They are sui generis - one of a kind.

This photo, not taken by Boix, shows him at the left, with his Leica around his neck.
Getting back to Boix, when he was just 15 he joined the PSUC (Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya), the Catalan communist party. This was when the Civil War broke out in Barcelona in July 1936. He first worked for youth magazines as a photographer. Later, he volunteered as what we would call today an embedded photographer for military activities, meaning he tagged along with the troops for propaganda purposes.

Boix Mauthausen
He saw action on various fronts, including the Battle of the Ebro. Franco’s German-backed forces were on the ascendant and, as they closed in on Barcelona in January 1939, Boix - a communist who feared for his life under fascists - fled for the French border. He was one of hundreds of thousands of women, children that included the defeated remnants of the Republican army.


The French government at first balked at helping the refugees, but finally opened the frontier to the soldiers on February 5th. Instead of treating them as Republican brothers, though, the French immediately imprisoned the men in concentration camps. Boix himself was sent to the Septfonds Camp. Conditions were terrible, but it was better than being captured by Franco and executed.


Along with many Spanish refugees, Boix then was conscripted by the French army to build defenses. He was taken a prisoner in June in Belfort in northern France, from where he was transferred to a German prisoner of war camp. They claimed Spanish citizenship, but Spanish Foreign Minister Ramón Serrano Súñer, who was Franco’s brother-in-law (hence his nickname as El Cuñadísimo), disowned the Republicans. Franco and Súñer played a cynical game throughout the war, supporting Hitler just enough to avoid any glances by Hitler in Spain's direction regarding a possible invasion, but also avoiding provoking the Allies to do the same. This equivocation allowed the Germans to declare Spaniards within the Reich as stateless citizens (like Jews and Gypsies), and hence to be treated however the Germans wished (with no Geneva Convention protections and so forth). It wasn't all bad for the poor souls: the few Spaniards who were deported back to Spain faced torture, concentration camps, and firing squads. As far as Franco was concerned, the Germans merely helped rid him of a problem. The Germans, on the other hand, could use the free labor.

Prisoners being treated like packhorses and forced to haul a huge stone.
Several camps became Boix's home but then, like other Spanish Republicans, ultimately he was sent to Mauthausen. On their arrival, the prisoners were forced to strip and passed like cattle through showers - which fortunately for them, really were showers. Afterward, they received a striped uniform with a blue triangle used to identify foreign forced laborers. The uniforms had an ‘S’ superimposed on top, to denote not ‘Stateless’ but ‘Spanier.’

Francisco Franco didn't want Spanish communists back, so they went over the mountains to France, and thence to Mauthausen.
At first, Boix, who had picked up some German, was designated as a translator. He later managed to get a job in the camp photo lab. The SS maintained meticulous records and photographed every prisoner on arrival and at their death. Boix managed to get unrestricted access to the camp, an almost unheard-of feat for a foreigner. Together with another Catalan, Antoni Garcia, Boix developed and printed photos taken by the SS. They made five copies of each, some for the files and others for SS members as mementos. Boix secretly made copies of 3,000 negatives, showing executions, mistreatment, and visits by top officials.

Anna Pointner Mauthausen
Anna Pointner and her two daughters, with Spanish Republicans saved from Mauthausen, outside their house in the village of Mauthausen, 1945. Photos of Pointner are very scarce, as she certainly did not seek the limelight - her Austrian neighbors likely were not too pleased with her wartime activities right after the war.
They then smuggled the negatives to an Austrian woman, Anna Pointner, who hid them in her garden wall. Boix survived the war, but not for long. He died in Paris on June 6th, 1951 from tuberculosis which he had probably caught at Mauthausen. He was only 30 years old, but he left behind indelible images.

The inmate uniforms offered no protection against snow and cold.
There is a Francesc Boix public library on Carrer Blai in Poble Sec in Barcelona. Just around the corner from the library, at Margarit 19, is the Francesc Boix i Campo birthplace, born here on August 14, 1920. A plaque there states that he was “a photographer, fighter against fascism, a prisoner at Mauthausen, and the only Spaniard to be called as a witness at the Nuremberg Trials against the leaders of the Third Reich”.


The town of Mauthausen dedicated a memorial to Pointner on May 9, 2015, for her "brave and exemplary" fight against the Germans. She and Boix are heroes in the fight for justice, two of many, each a shining star.