Forced Labor for the "Final Victory:" Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp, 1943-1945

Nov 17, 2011 - Dec 31, 2011

Exhibition at the GHI | Organized by Miriam Rürup | A travelling exhibition of the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation

When Dora Concentration Camp was established in the late summer of 1943, Germany had already lost World War II. Instead of admitting defeat, the National Socialists propagated the "final victory" and the "total war". The history of Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp provides insight into what that meant. Having been newly composed by the Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp Memorial in 2009, the travelling exhibition offers a striking overview of the history of Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp and provides impulses for the critical in-depth examination of forced labor by concentration camp inmates.

Its main special focuses are on: 

  • The establishment, function and dissolution of Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp
  • Forced labor by concentration camp inmates, the inmates' lives and deaths
  • Various forms of perpetration and complicity
  • The aftermath (judicial handling, post-war biographies of perpetrators, and victims, history of the memorial)

1. The inferno of Dora 

In the autumn of 1943, concentration camp inmates were put to work converting a tunnel system in Kohnstein Mountain outside Nordhausen into an underground rocket factory. Thousands of inmates paid for this undertaking with their lives. The Wehrmacht had been developing the "V2" rocket in Peenemünde on the Baltic Sea since 1936. Following an air attack by the British, the decision was made to move the rocket assembly operations to a tunnel system on the outskirts of Nordhausen. The tunnels had previously been used as an underground fuel storage facility.

2. Forced Labor and Rockets

As it had already been the case in Peenemünde, concentration camp inmates were employed in the construction of the rocket plant. To this end, the SS founded "Dora" Camp on 28 August 1943. Since no accommodation barracks had yet been built, the prisoners were given sleeping quarters in the tunnels. At the end of 1943, there were more than ten thousand inmates working to death underground. In addition to completely insufficient rations, they suffered from disastrous hygiene conditions and gruelling forced labor. By April 1944, the death toll had reached five thousand. It was not until the spring of 1944 that a barrack camp was built above ground. In December 1943, armament minister Albert Speer ordered the SS to have further tunnels dug in the vicinity of the Mittelwerk. They were intended to house the aircraft and engine works of the Junkers Corporation.

The SS set up concentration camp subcamps near the construction sites. These subcamps initially belonged to the Buchenwald complex. In October 1944, the SS established the independent Mittelbau Concentration Camp which comprised Dora and the subcamps, numbered nearly forty, and accommodated altogether more than 40,000 inmates. The type of forced labor to which an inmate was assigned was a matter of life and death. Inmates capable of performing skilled work in an armament detachment were of certain value to the SS and the companies. These inmates were accordingly kept from starving, and were not beaten to incapacity but provided with a minimum of care.

Labor in a construction detachment was tantamount to a death sentence. The heaviest labor - performed in digging tunnels or building railway tracks or roads - in combination with undernourishment and constant pressure to work harder led to complete debilitation. The enfeebled inmates died in the so-called "resting blocks" of the infirmaries or in death camps.

Sixty thousand persons were deported to Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp. One third of them did not survive concentration camp imprisonment.

3. Dissolution of the Camps, Liberation, and Persecution 

As the American troops approached in early April 1945, the SS had the Mittelbau camps evacuated. The inmates were to be taken to other camps by rail or on foot. The majority of the transports were destined for Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. On the way, the SS killed thousands of inmates who had collapsed from exhaustion. In many places the local population participated in the massacre.

American soldiers reached Nordhausen on 11 April 1945. They liberated the inmates - numbering about 500 - who had been left behind in the Dora camp infirmary. In the Boelcke-Kaserne subcamp they found more than 1,200 dead. A number of survivors lay among the corpses, and were attended to immediately. Many of them were so weak that they could no longer be helped.

Administering punishment for the crimes committed by the National Socialists was initially the task of the Allies. Eighteen SS and kapos from Mittelbau Concentration Camp as well as one Mittelwerk manager had to answer for their deeds in a military tribunal carried out by the Americans in Dachau in 1947. The trial ended with one death sentence, fourteen prison sentences, and four acquittals. All of those convicted to prison were released before serving their full terms. Later German court trials hardly led to any sentences. Neither the rocket engineers such as Wernher von Braun (1912-1977) nor the majority of the managers were prosecuted.

By the time the sentences were passed in the Dachau Trial, hardly anything remained to be seen of the former camp in Nordhausen. Following temporary use for the accommodation of liberated forced laborers and German deportees, the barracks had been taken down in late 1946. It was not until the 1960s that the local authorities set up a memorial at the former crematorium.