When you consider taking your students to visit a Nazi concentration camp, the first one you may think of is Auschwitz. And rightly so – a visit to Auschwitz will stay with your students forever, helping to ensure the next generation remembers the Holocaust.
But there is another concentration camp, located just 35km north of Berlin, which also offers great opportunities for learning about 20th Century history.
Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp was built by prisoners from the Emsland concentration camps. It was built as the ‘ideal’ concentration camp, promoting the idea of the absolute power of the SS over the inmates.
This, and its relative proximity to Berlin, the capital of the Third Reich, meant that Sachsenhausen soon rose in prominence. Just two years after it was built, in 1938, the Concentration Camp Inspectorate made the camp its headquarters. And people such as future camp commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolph Höss, came here to be trained in the running of concentration camps.
Over its lifetime as a Nazi concentration camp, over 200,000 people were imprisoned at Sachsenhausen.
Initially, the majority of prisoners were political opponents of the Nazi regime, but as the implementation of social and racial policies intensified in the Third Reich, the proportion of ‘undesirables’ (Jews, Sinti, Roma, homosexuals etc.) imprisoned here rose.
Sachsenhausen was not designed to be an extermination camp, but many thousands of people did die here. Tens of thousands died from starvation, disease and exhaustion caused by the forced labour. And many thousands died during the death marches which took place at the end of April 1945, as Soviet forces were on their way to liberate the camp.
And, of course, many thousands were murdered here too – in 1942 a permanent structure was erected in the camp, which included a gas chamber, execution chamber and a crematorium.
So, as you can see, Sachsenhausen offers school history groups the opportunity to better understand the concentration camp system, and to really begin to comprehend the scale of the Holocaust and the devastating conditions within concentration camps.
But Sachsenhausen is also a fascinating visit for history groups due to its life after the Nazi regime was brought down.
In May 1945 the Soviet secret service began to erect special camps across Soviet-occupied territories. Sachsenhausen, originally known as ‘Special Camp No. 7’, became ‘Special Camp No.1’ in the summer of 1948.
By the time it was closed in 1950, 60,000 prisoners had been held there. And many of those who were had been arrested arbitrarily, for allegedly acting against Soviet occupying forces.
These special camps differed from Soviet gulags, as they were not forced labour camps. And unlike the Nazi concentration camps, the intention was not the systematic murder of the prisoners. However, 12,000 prisoners did die at Sachsenhausen during its time as a Soviet special camp, largely due to the horrific conditions they kept in.
So, Sachsenhausen will undoubtedly be a difficult visit for your students. But there’s so much opportunity here to learn about German history from the 1930s to the 1950s. And it will certainly be a visit they will never forget.