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History War

The Natzwiller-Struthof concentration camp in Alsace

The 21st of April 1941 saw the official opening of the Natzwiller-Struthof, a concentration camp located in the annexed region of Alsace. Though the numbers are not precise, it is estimated that among the 52,000 people that were deported in the camp around half of them did not survive.

Once a popular touristic destination for skiing, the lieu-dit ( said location ) of Struthof ( near the village of Natzwiller )was an excellent position for working camps. The National-Socialist Colonel and geologist Karl Blumberg was at the time in search of possible locations for creating working camps. An important source of granit was found and the site was ideal to create a quarry which would be worked by the deportees. In April 1941, the first SS arrived at Mount-Louise ( the old skiing station ) and a month later in May convois brought the first prisoners who where told to build the camp. The Natzwiller-Struthof machine was on until November 1944.

The concentration camp was classified by the Nazi administration as a level III, meant to eradicate political opposants and “ sub-men “. At the beginning, the majority of the deportees were from Eastern Europe. Jews captured in the Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary; Romani and bolcheviks then Jews from France and other Western European countries occupied or collaborating with the Third Reich. These people are believed to have been 52,000 between the camp’s opening and its evacuation in front of the Allied progression. To this number can be added the hundreds of non-listed prisoners that were immediately executed and burned in the crematorium, numbers that are very hard to estimate. In 1944, four women belonging to the Special Operation Service were caught then killed by lethal injection. The same year between the 31st of August and 1st September, almost 400 French resistants were shot and incinerated. These en masse executions are uneasy to list and are most of the time only known thanks to the testimony of survivors or captured SS.

Under the direction of SS Joseph Kramer, the Natzwiller-Struthof became one of the deadliest camp with a death rate of 40%. The NS also became a center of medical and scientific experiments under the control of Doctor August Hirt. Close friend of Himmler, Hirt used the gas chamber to test his own compositions, other than the Zyklon B. Dozens of Jewish deportees were sent from Auschwitz for Hirt’s experiments and collection of “ judeo-bolschevik “ skulls. Professor Otto Bickenbach tested gas used for warfare on prisoners at the Struthof, Eugen Haagen ( the 1936 winner of medical Nobel Prize ) injected deadly diseases on many Rom deportees to observe their body’s reaction ( diseases such as typhus or leper,…Etc ). Hundreds of people died following medical experiments, though the exact number is not known.

In September 1944, with the advance of the Allies the camp saw several mass executions. The death marches that followed the start of the evacuation costed the lives of around 5,000 prisoners. In three years, the interment conditions, executions, lack of treatment, diseases, experiments killed between 20,000 and 25,000 persons. The 25th of November 1945, less than a year after the Soviet Amry discovered Auschwitz the American forces entered the Natzwiller-Strutof which became the first concentration camp found in Western Europe. With the war over, France made use of the Struthof during four years to imprison collaborators waiting for their trial.

In 1950, the Natzwiller-Struthof was classified as a historical monument and became a museum. Joseph Kramer was caught and sentenced to death in December 1945 for his involvment in several death camps. The doctors were sentenced to forced labor before being discharged. The SS soldier Peter Straub who ordered a captured sergent of the Royal Air Force to be hung was trailed and executed. Among the 52,000 prisoners who were sent to the Natzwiller-Struthof, several famous people were interned such as the Norwegian politician Trygve Bratelli or the Prince Xavier of Bourbon-Parma brother of the ex Empress Zita of Austria-Hungary.

By Alister

Studying at the University of Besaçon, Burgundy Franche-Comté, France