The Mauthausen Concentration Camp 1938–1945
On 12 March 1938 the ‘Anschluss’ (‘Annexation’) of austrofascist Austria to the German Reich took place. Two weeks later, the National Socialist Gauleiter (regional head) of Upper Austria, August Eigruber, announced to an enthusiastic audience that his Gau would have the ‘distinction’ of building a concentration camp. The location chosen was the town of Mauthausen on the Danube. Political opponents and groups of people labelled as ‘criminal’ or ‘antisocial’ would be imprisoned here and forced to work in the granite quarries.
On 8 August 1938 the SS transferred the first prisoners from the Dachau concentration camp. During this phase, the prisoners, who were all Germans and Austrians and all men, had to build their own camp and set up operations in the quarry. Their daily lives were shaped by hunger, arbitrary treatment and violence.
In December 1939 the SS ordered the construction of a second concentration camp just a few kilometres from Mauthausen. The Gusen branch camp officially went into operation in May 1940.
After the outbreak of war, people from across Europe were deported to Mauthausen, which gradually developed into a system of several interconnected camps. During this phase, Mauthausen and Gusen were the concentration camps with the harshest imprisonment conditions and the highest mortality. Prisoners at the bottom of the camp hierarchy had barely any chance of surviving for long. Those who were ill or ‘useless’ to the SS were in constant danger of their lives. In 1941 the SS started to construct a gas chamber and other installations at Mauthausen for the systematic murder of large groups of people.
During the second half of the war the prisoners, who now included women for the first time, were increasingly used as forced labourers in the arms industry. In order to accommodate the prisoners where they worked, the SS established several subcamps. Newly-arrived prisoners were transferred to these camps from the main camp. More and more, Mauthausen itself became a camp were the sick and weak were sent to die.
Since the prisoners were now needed for their labour, living conditions improved for a short time. From the end of 1943 onwards, inmates were also deployed in the construction of underground factories, for example those in Melk, Ebensee and St. Georgen an der Gusen. The murderous working conditions that prevailed at these sites soon led to a dramatic rise in the number of victims.
Towards the end of the war, the Mauthausen concentration camp became the destination for evacuations from camps near the front line. Tens of thousands of prisoners arrived on several large transports. Overcrowding, lack of food and rampant disease led to mass death among the prisoners in the final months before liberation.
On 5 May 1945 the US Army reached Gusen and Mauthausen. Some prisoners were in such a weakened state that many still died in the days and weeks after liberation. Of a total of around 190,000 people imprisoned in the Mauthausen concentration camp and its subcamps over seven years, at least 90,000 died.
Groups of Prisoners
In the early days, only German and Austria men were imprisoned at the Mauthausen concentration camp. The SS categorised these prisoners according to the reason they had been sent to a concentration camp. Triangles in different colours and letters identified the inmates as – in line with National Socialist ideology – criminals (category ‘professional criminal’), antisocials, political opponents (‘protective custody’), emigrants, Jehovah’s Witnesses (‘Bible student’), homosexuals (‘§ 175’), Jews, Roma and Sinti (‘Gypsy’), members of the Wehrmacht, prisoners from the penal system or ‘civilian workers’.
The prisoners had to display this categorisation on their uniforms; categorisation also determined their chances of survival. Each category was linked to the degree of terror used by the SS, better or worse accommodation, or the prospect of a privileged post in the camp organisation. Those marked as ‘Jews’ had the lowest chances of survival. Prisoners in the category ‘preventative detention’ – prisoners from the penal system who were sent to Mauthausen concentration camp from 1942 – were also usually killed within a very short space of time. In contrast, criminals, especially during the first half of the war, found it easier to acquire a post as a prisoner functionary. The SS used the division of deportees into categories and different treatment to stoke rivalries between the various groups of prisoners.
After the attack on Poland and the outbreak of the Second World War, people were transported from the occupied territories to concentration camps within the Reich. The make-up of ‘prisoner society’ therefore became increasingly international.
The concentration camp prisoners now had to display their national origin on their uniform alongside their prisoner category. Labelling by nationality also had a decisive effect on chances of survival within the concentration camp. Prisoners with a Slavonic mother tongue were significantly worse placed than those from northern Europe. Prisoners of war from the Soviet Union were generally only able to survive for a very short length of time in the concentration camp. But changes were possible within this national ranking. For example, while Spanish Republicans who had fled Franco were at first deliberately murdered, after the arrival of new groups of prisoners viewed as yet more hostile to the regime, they were able to advance up the camp hierarchy and ultimately secure much better chances of survival.
Between 1938 and 1945, around 190,000 people from over 40 different nations were imprisoned at the Mauthausen/Gusen concentration camp. At least 90,000 of them died in these camps.
The System of Prisoner Functionaries
In order to control the large number of prisoners, the SS utilised so-called Funktionshäftlinge, or prisoner functionaries. It was their job to maintain order in the camp. In return they received certain privileges. Many became the willing agents of the SS. Others also used their position to protect fellow prisoners.
At the head the prisoner hierarchy was the Lagerälteste (camp elder). He was responsible to the SS for maintaining order throughout the camp. Under him were the Blockälteste (block elders), each of whom controlled one accommodation barracks. The Lagerschreiber (camp clerks) were employed by the SS for administrative tasks in the prisoner camp. The so-called Kapos guarded the prisoners at work.
At first, most of the prisoner functionaries were Germans and Austrians who had been imprisoned as criminals. Later these positions were increasingly filled by political and sometimes non-German prisoners.
Prisoner functionaries were caught between the two sides. On the one hand, their position – provided they remained in favour with the SS – gave them a relatively assured chance of survival. On the other, they were regularly exposed to the hatred of the other prisoners. Prisoner functionaries could use their position both to protect fellow prisoners or brutally assert their own interests and those of their personal favourites. Living conditions for the mass of prisoners depended to a large extent on the actions of the prisoner functionaries. They controlled the allocation of rations and clothing, to some degree the make-up of the different work detachments, and also simply daily life in the barracks.
Camp SS and Guards
In August 1938, members of the SS were transferred from Dachau concentration camp to Mauthausen along with the first prisoners. The task of the SS was not only to guard to prisoners but also to manage the internal organisation of the camp.
At the head of the camp SS was the Kommandant (commandant); with very few exceptions, all camp personnel were subordinate to him.
The first commandant of Mauthausen was the carpenter Albert Sauer. However, poor appraisals and frequent complaints led to his removal after just a few months. In February 1939 he was replaced as commandant by Franz Ziereis, a former career soldier. Ziereis was in charge of Mauthausen for six years, making him one of the longest-serving commandants of a single concentration camp. Ziereis and other members of the SS fled at the end of the war but he was tracked down and mortally wounded during exchange of fire with US Army soldiers. Before his death he made a detailed confession.
The Gusen concentration camp was subordinate to Mauthausen but had a certain level of autonomy. The regime of terror perpetrated there by the heads of camp, Karl Chmielewski and Fritz Seidler, at times led to a higher death rate than in the main camp.
Members of the Kommandanturstab (camp administration) were responsible for internal operations in the concentration camp. The administration was made up of around 250-300 people working in six different departments:
1. Camp Commandant and Adjutancy 2. Political Section 3. Protective Custody Camp 4. Administration 5. Medical Section 6. Troop Welfare and Ideological Instruction
Guard units were responsible for guarding the external perimeter of the concentration camp, work detachments and prisoner transports and made up the majority of the camp SS. While in 1938 only a few hundred members of the SS belonged to the guard units at Mauthausen concentration camp, in March 1945 the total number reached over 5,000 in the main camp alone, with a further 4,000 stationed in the subcamps.
Towards the end of the war little remained of the original composition of the guard units. While at first only SS members from Germany and Austria guarded the camp, from 1941 an increasing number of ‘ethnic Germans’ – members of German-speaking minorities, in particular from Romania, Hungary, Croatia and Slovakia – were recruited. From autumn 1943 they were joined by eastern European ‘Hilfswillige’ (‘volunteers’), mostly Ukrainians. However, they were not official members of the SS but SS-Gefolge (SS-Aides). From 1944 onwards, Wehrmacht units were also used to guard the subcamps in which concentration camp prisoners were being forced to produce armaments for the Wehrmacht.
The SS also employed female guards to oversee female prisoners.
The Gusen Branch Camp
While planning for the Mauthausen concentration camp, the SS also acquired granite quarries in Gusen, which lay a few kilometres away. In April 1940 the first prisoners were housed permanently in this camp. Gusen, which from now on was classed as a branch of the Mauthausen concentration camp, was originally conceived with a capacity of around 6,000 inmates, larger than that of the main camp in Mauthausen. At first the SS transferred mainly Polish and Spanish concentration camp prisoners from Mauthausen to Gusen. As in Mauthausen, initially most were used as forced labourers in the quarries. In particular in the years 1940 to 1942, the prisoners were killed systematically in their thousands, or they died as a result of the murderous conditions. In 1941 the number of deaths in the Gusen branch camp was several times that in Mauthausen.
As part of the growing use of concentration camp prisoners as forced labourers in the arms industry, in 1943 two large arms companies moved parts of their production to the Gusen concentration camp. Steyr-Daimler-Puch AG, the largest arms company in the ‘Ostmark’, now produced guns here and the Messerschmitt GmbH company, a major aeroplane manufacturer in the German Reich, made aeroplane parts. For prisoners assigned directly to arms production, conditions now improved and for a time mortality in the camp sank.
As early as late 1943, the SS started to use prisoners to dig tunnels in the surrounding mountainsides. The intention was to provide bomb-proof sites for factories being put out of operation by Allied air raids. At the start of 1944, the SS initiated a giant, underground construction project in St. Georgen an der Gusen, a few kilometres from the Gusen concentration camp: the tunnel complex with the code number ‘B8’ and the codename ‘Bergkristall’. This would be used to protect production of Messerschmitt Me 262 fighter jets from air raids. Up to 6,000 concentration camp prisoners worked on the construction site at any one time. Construction continued around the clock and, under massive time pressure, the prisoners were subjected to constant abuse. Mass production of aircraft fuselages and parts went into operation as early as autumn 1944. By the end of the war, around eight kilometres of tunnel covering an area of around 50,000 m2 had been built.
To house the prisoners needed to build the tunnels and later work in aircraft production, Gusen concentration camp was extended in March 1944 and a new part of the camp, ‘Gusen II’, was created. Many survivors remember the living conditions in this camp as the most catastrophic of any they had experienced. At least 8,600 prisoners were murdered in the Gusen II camp or died there as a result of the living and working conditions.
A total of around 71,000 people from across Europe were deported to the Gusen concentration camp. Around 36,000 of them did not survive. The largest national groups were from Poland and the Soviet Union. Thousands were also deported from western and southern European countries such as France, Italy and Spain, as well as the German Reich. On 5 May 1945 the Gusen concentration camp was liberated by the US Army.
Forced Labour in the Quarries
The choice of Mauthausen and Gusen as locations for the establishment of new concentration camps was closely connected to the granite quarries there. From the end of the 1930s, the SS combined the creation of new camps with its entry into the building materials industry. Concentration camp prisoners’ labour was to be exploited economically in the production of bricks and stones for Hitler’s monumental construction projects. In April 1938 the SS leadership had founded the Deutsche Erd- und Steinwerke GmbH (DESt – German Earth and Stone Works Company) for this purpose.
In Mauthausen the SS operated one, and in Gusen three, quarries. Its main aim was to produce granite blocks for the expansion of the Führerstadt Linz. Subsequently, the ‘Granitwerke Mauthausen’ was to develop into the largest and most productive branch of the DESt.
In 1942 over 3,300 prisoners were working in the concentration camp quarries in Mauthausen and Gusen. They worked under a SS-Kommandoführer (SS work detachment leader) and were driven on by fellow prisoners, known as Kapos. Civilian foremen were also employed in concentration camp quarries and were responsible for overseeing the technical side of the prisoners’ work.
For the prisoners, the working day lasted at least eleven hours in summer and around nine hours in winter. They worked in all weathers. The work was exhausting. First the prisoners had to break blocks of stone from the cliff by hand or using explosives. Then they had to hack them into smaller pieces and transport them out of the quarry.
The Mauthausen and Gusen quarries were sites of forced labour and places of annihilation in equal measure. While, on the one hand, there was a permanent shortage of skilled labour in the quarries, on the other the prisoners were systematically worked to death. Back-breaking work as punishment and deliberate killing operations were part of everyday life. Prisoners were assigned to the Strafkompanie (penal company) on trivial pretexts or the least violation of the camp regulations. Being in the penal company meant having to carry granite blocks weighing up to 50 kg on a wooden frame on their backs to construction sites in the camp. The march up the quarry steps was accompanied by beatings from the guards. Members of the penal company did not usually survive long. In 1941 and 1942, Dutch Jews especially were pushed to their deaths over the edge of the quarry cliff by the SS and Kapos, something recorded in official camp documents as ‘suicide by jumping’. The cynical name given by the SS to prisoners killed in this way was ‘parachutists’.
Murdering the Sick
Prisoners’ lives in the concentration camps were constantly under threat; death was omnipresent. Not enough to eat and back-breaking physical labour drained the prisoners’ strength, leaving them emaciated. Working without proper equipment led to any number of injuries. Close quarters in the barracks and a lack of hygiene in the camp encouraged the spread of infectious diseases.
The SS sought to prevent the uncontrolled outbreak of epidemics. In contrast, medical treatment for individuals was reduced to a minimum. Only a few privileged inmates received adequate medical care in what was known as the infirmary. There the prisoners were treated mainly by doctors and orderlies who were also inmates.
Most of the seriously ill prisoners were housed in the Sonderrevier (special camp) and later in the Sanitätslager (infirmary camp). Prisoners who had become unfit for work through illness were seen as useless by the SS; hardly any medical care was provided for them. They were mistreated by SS doctors for medical experiments, murdered by poison injection or in the gas chamber, or left to their own devices in isolated areas of the camp.
In the special camp, an area separated off within the prisoner camp, the sick were left to die or their death was hastened through decreasing rations, forcing them to stand in their underwear in the courtyard in all weathers, or ‘hosing’ them down with cold water and then sending them naked out into the cold.
The infirmary camp was located outside the actual prisoner camp and consisted of several wooden barracks surrounded by an electrified barbed wire fence. Construction on it finished in summer 1943. Thousands were housed here without enough to eat or adequate medical care and left to die. Many of the sick had previously been transferred back to the Mauthausen concentration camp as ‘unfit for work’ from one of the 40 or so subcamps. SS doctors regularly carried out ‘selections’ in the special camp and infirmary camp, during which they separated the ‘incurable’ from the ‘curable’. These selections were feared since a doctor’s negative appraisal of a prisoner’s physical state in practice meant his death.
In early 1941 the SS began ‘Aktion 14f13’, a centrally-planned killing operation of weak and sick concentration camp prisoners. Starting in August 1941, panels of doctors selected those who were seriously ill from the Gusen and Mauthausen concentration camps and transported them to the Hartheim killing facility near Linz. They were usually asphyxiated in the gas chamber shortly after their arrival and their bodies were then burned in the cremat
orium there. Around 5,000 prisoners from Mauthausen and Gusen and around 3,000 from Dachau concentration camp were gassed in Hartheim as part of ‘Aktion 14f13’.
Rationalised Mass Murder
The SS and police used the concentration camps as execution sites for political opponents from the beginning of the war. This applied in particular measure to the Mauthausen and Gusen concentration camps. In 1940, both were classified as the highest ‘Grade 3’ camps. These were the camps to be used for prisoners sentenced to the most severe prison conditions. Many were deported to Mauthausen and Gusen simply for execution.
In Mauthausen, shootings initially took place on the execution site outside the camp fence. At the end of 1941 an apparatus for shooting prisoners in the back of the neck was installed in the crematorium basement. This was meant to simplify and rationalise the process of execution. In autumn 1941 construction began on a gas chamber in Mauthausen and, in March 1942, the SS carried out the first murders using poison gas. The first victims of the gas chamber were Soviet prisoners of war who had been transferred to the Mauthausen concentration camp for execution from Wehrmacht camps for political reasons. Subsequently, the gas chamber was used predominantly for murdering groups of political opponents and only at a later point in time for exterminating the camp’s sick prisoners. By the end of the war, at least 3,500 inmates had been murdered in the gas chamber at Mauthausen.
In Gusen the SS did not construct a separate gas chamber but for this camp too, proof exists of at least two cases of sick prisoners being gassed in accommodation barracks, claiming at least 800 lives. In addition, in 1942 and 1943 a gas truck travelled between Mauthausen and Gusen in which at least 900 sick prisoners were asphyxiated during this period.
Due to the rising number of dead and murdered prisoners, in 1940 the SS had its own incinerators installed at both Mauthausen and Gusen, and later at the Melk and Ebensee subcamps. This not only enabled the SS to dispose of the corpses in an efficient way, but it also meant it could destroy the traces of its violent crimes inscribed on the bodies of the dead.
Forced Labour in the Arms Industry
Until 1942, work was mainly used in the concentration camps as a form of punishment or even extermination; to the National Socialists, repression was more important than economic output. Only when the war led to a labour shortage was there a shift in the function of the concentration camps. The Nazi leadership now developed a plan for utilising concentration camp prisoners in the German war industries.
A key figure in this development was Oswald Pohl, head of the SS Economic and Administrative Office. At the end of April 1942 he ordered that there be a shift of ‘focus to the mobilisation of all prisoner labour for war tasks’ in the concentration camps.
In Mauthausen however, during 1942 only around eight per cent of the prisoners were deployed as labourers in arms production. Only after Albert Speer, Reich Minister for Armaments and War Production, visited the concentration camp in spring 1943 and demanded the complete integration of all prisoners into war production did this start to become more important at the Mauthausen concentration camp as well.
Arms-producing companies could now request prisoners as labourers from the SS. Where the request was granted, a subcamp to house them would usually be built at the production site itself. The companies had to provide food for the inmates and pay the SS a fee for each prisoner. Guard duties often lay with that part of the Wehrmacht for whom goods were being produced.
The SS distributed the concentration camp prisoners to subcamps located across large parts of Austria. At first they were used predominantly in constructing transport routes, power stations and factories. Later they mainly carried out forced labour in arms production itself. From the end of 1943 onwards, thousands of prisoners were forced to build underground production sites that would be protected from air raids.
Shared economic interests between the arms companies and the SS, as well as personal relationships between company managers and Nazi functionaries, played an important role in the deployment of concentration camp prisoners. The first firm in Austria to make use of concentration camp prisoners as forced labourers was Steyr-Daimler-Puch AG, the largest arms company on Austrian soil. In March 1942 a subcamp of the Mauthausen concentration camp was set up in Steyr-Münichholz. Later Steyr-Daimler-Puch AG also used concentration camp prisoners to manufacture armaments in Gusen, Melk and in St. Valentin in Lower Austria, as well as in Leibnitz and Peggau in Styria.
A significant factor in the development of large-scale industry in Upper Austria was iron and steel production at the Reichswerke ‘Hermann Göring’ industrial complex in Linz. Here too, concentration camp prisoners were deployed as forced labourers from early 1943 onwards. In order to meet increased energy demands, concentration camp prisoners were forced to construct a chain of hydroelectric power stations along the river Enns.
The firm Messerschmitt GmbH Regensburg was one of the major producers of fighter jets in the German Reich. In 1943 it transferred parts of its production to the Gusen and Mauthausen concentration camps. Another manufacturer of fighter planes, Heinkel AG, operated production sites and concentration camp subcamps in the region around Vienna.
For a long time, only men were imprisoned in Mauthausen and its subcamps. The Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp was designated for female prisoners. Some individual women were transported to Mauthausen in order to be executed in the main camp, for example the 130 female Czech resistance fighters who were shot or murdered in the gas chamber on 24 October 1942.
In summer 1942, Reich Führer of the SS Heinrich Himmler ordered brothels to be set up in several concentration camps, which key workers among the prisoners and prisoner functionaries would be allowed to visit as an ‘incentive’. The SS recruited female prisoners from the Ravensbrück concentration camp for this purpose and sent them as forced sex workers to Mauthausen and Gusen. Many of the women died after being transferred back to Ravensbrück. Those who survived suffered stigmatisation even after liberation and did not speak about their experiences.
With the takeover on 15 September 1944 of the St. Lambrecht and Mittersill subcamps, which had originally belonged to the Ravensbrück main camp, the ‘Mauthausen women’s concentration camp’ was officially established. In order to exploit female concentration camp prisoners’ labour for the war industries, from 1944 the SS ordered the creation of a growing number concentration camp subcamps for women across Reich territory, including the area covered by the Mauthausen concentration camp. The first transports from the Auschwitz concentration camp arrived in Mauthausen at the end of the September and beginning of November, carrying 400 and 500 female prisoners respectively. The first transport was sent on to the Hirtenberg women’s subcamp, where the female concentration camp prisoners were forced to work in the ‘Wilhelm-Gustloff-Werke’ munitions factory. The women on the second transport were assigned to viscose production at the ‘Lenzing Zellwolle AG’ factory.
The SS housed women in the main camp only from the beginning of 1945. Starting in January 1945, over 7,000 women and with them several hundred children were transferred to Mauthausen from other camps. Over half of them, including most of the children, were soon sent on to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp by the SS. Those who remained in Mauthausen were housed – separately from the men – in the prisoner camp, the infirmary camp and in a barracks in the ‘Wiener Graben’ quarry.
Around 3,000 female prisoners were officially registered in the Mauthausen women’s concentration camp. However, in total around 10,000 women passed through the Mauthausen camp system.
The Final Phase
With the advance of the Red Army and the disbandment of the concentration camps in the east, Mauthausen became the destination for large-scale evacuation transports from January 1945 onwards. The following months until liberation were characterised by overcrowding, food shortages, chaos and mass death. Around 25,000 newly-arrived prisoners from Auschwitz-Birkenau, Groß Rosen, Sachsenhausen, Ravensbrück and Mittelbau-Dora were registered at Mauthausen between January and May 1945. Thousands of others, for example those from the Venusberg and Freiberg subcamps of Flossenbürg concentration camp, were never registered. In general, the newly-arrived prisoners already had a long history of persecution behind them and were often already too weak to be put to work. In most cases they were immediately housed in the infirmary camp, in a makeshift tent camp or in other newly-erected parts of the camp, Camps II and III. Those who still had sufficient strength were sent on to the subcamps as forced labourers.
At the end of March the disbandment began of the subcamps lying to the east of Mauthausen. The prisoners were marched on foot or transported by ship or rail to the main camp and to the Gusen, Ebensee and Steyr subcamps. In total it is likely that over 23,000 prisoners were set in motion, travelling right across Austria. A similar fate befell Hungarian-Jewish forced labourers who, beginning in late March 1945, were forced out of the camps erected for the construction of the so-called South East Wall fortifications. During the marches, which lasted for days, the men, women and children were given barely any food and were forced to sleep outdoors. Hundreds of people died on these death marches from exhaustion or were shot by the guards because they could not keep up.
After being housed temporarily in the makeshift tent camp, the majority of the Jewish prisoners were forced to march on to Gunskirchen. As many as 20,000 people were herded together in a holding camp set up there, where a complete lack of sanitation made conditions catastrophic.
The overcrowding in the remaining camps, combined with an ever increasing shortage of food, meant that living conditions for prisoners got worse and worse. Records show over 11,000 deaths in April 1945 alone. Since the crematoria at Mauthausen were overstretched, in February 1945 the SS had a mass grave dug to the north of the camp near the village of Marbach, in which around 10,000 corpses were hastily buried. The names of many of the dead who, like the Hungarian Jews, had not been registered remain unknown today, as does their exact number.
'Mühlviertel Hare Hunt'
On the night of 1-2 February 1945, around 500 so-called ‘K’-prisoners in Block 20 undertook a breakout. From early 1945, the ‘Kugel Erlass’ (‘Bullet Decree’) had led to the deportation of between 2,000 and 5,000 people to Mauthausen as ‘K’-prisoners. Above all these were Soviet officers who had been captured as prisoners of war and had attempted to escape, as well as forced labourers who had been accused of sabotage or political activity. These prisoners were to be murdered in Mauthausen. The SS executed at least 350 of them. The majority, without being recorded as regular prisoners, were simply left to die in Block 20, which was isolated from the rest of the camp by an electrified barbed wire fence and a stone wall. The prisoners had to sleep on the floor, were given barely anything to eat and therefore had no chance of surviving.
Given the hopeless situation in Block 20, in February 1945 over 500 ‘K’-prisoners attempted a mass breakout. Armed with paving stones, fire extinguishers and pieces of soap and coal, they attacked the watchtowers and threw wet blankets over the electric fences. The short circuit this caused allowed them to scale the camp wall. Many of those fleeing soon collapsed due to their poor physical condition. Others died in the hail of bullets fired by the guards. 419 people managed to escape.
Seriously ill prisoners who had remained in Block 20 were murdered by the SS that night. At the same time, the SS initiated a large-scale manhunt, in which it was joined by the local police, the Wehrmacht and the home guard, as well as by numerous civilians from the local area. Almost all the escapees were caught again. Most were murdered on the spot, the rest in the Mauthausen concentration camp. This search and murder operation was known cynically as the ‘Mühlviertel Hare Hunt’. It is thought eleven people survived. Their lives were saved by forced labourers working in agriculture and a handful of farming families in the Mühlviertel region who resisted joining in with the killing.
In the face of the advancing Allied troops, in April 1945 the SS began to destroy the traces of its crimes. It had the installations for mass killing dismantled, ordered incriminating documents to be burned and murdered concentration camp prisoners who, due to having witnessed systematic mass murder first hand, would have been able to testify against the perpetrators in court.
On 3 May 1945 the last members of the SS fled the Mauthausen and Gusen concentration camps. On 5 May a reconnaissance unit of the US Army arrived in Gusen and Mauthausen. On the following day, units of the 3rd US Army finally liberated around 40,000 prisoners in these camps. In both camps they found the bodies of hundreds of concentration camp prisoners who had died in the days before liberation. Thousands more were so weak and their health so frail that they died in the weeks and months following liberation, despite the medical care provided by the US Army medical units. Over 3,000 were buried in ‘Camp Cemeteries’ next to the former concentration camps.
A ‘War Crimes Investigating Team’ also arrived in Mauthausen together with the US troops. It collected evidence of SS war crimes – including key SS documents, which the prisoners had rescued from destruction at risk to their own lives – and in doing so created the basis for the legal prosecution of the perpetrators.
On 16 May 1945 the Soviet prisoners were bid farewell in a ceremony on the roll call area. The members of the international prisoner committee read out the ‘Mauthausen Oath’, in which they called for the establishment of a ‘world of free men’.
While some groups of prisoners were able to return home thanks to convoys organised by state institutions, countless deportees remained behind who could not or did not want to return to their home countries. Either they were no longer welcome there, they had lost their families or they hesitated given the unstable political situation in eastern Europe. Many waited for years in what were known as Displaced Persons camps.
Prosecution of the Perpetrators in the Courts
Just a few days after the liberation of the Mauthausen concentration camp, an investigating commission of the US Army began to collect evidence in preparation for war crimes trials. Much of this evidence had been saved from destruction by concentration camp prisoners, despite the risk this posed to their own lives. Photos smuggled out of the camp, documents written by the camp SS and statements taken from witnesses to the crimes were the foundation that made it possible to convict members of the SS and some individual prisoner functionaries for their crimes.
From 29 March to 13 May 1946, the largest trial of crimes committed at the Mauthausen concentration camp took place in Dachau. In the so-called Main Case or Parent Case, named after the first of those accused alphabetically – ‘United States vs. Hans Altfuldisch et al.’ – 61 defendants were convicted. This main trial was followed by 61 trials on the same set of crimes. The selection of defendants was intended to represent a cross-section of perpetrators: not only were all SS ranks from SS-Schützen to SS-Sturmbannführer represented, but also civilian workers and prisoner functionaries.
Of the 61 defendants in the main trial, 58 were sentenced to death; in 49 cases the sentence was carried out. At the follow-up trials, which began in spring 1947, the sentences handed down were significantly more lenient. Of the 306 people against whom charges were brought, 37 were executed. The rest were given what were, in some cases, long prison sentences but they were released on probation as early as the early 1950s.
The other occupying powers also held a small number of trials for crimes committed in the Mauthausen/Gusen concentration camp complex. While the Soviet Union mainly tried people for their participation in the ‘Mühlviertel Hare Hunt’, in the British zone a trial was held against the personnel of the Loibl Pass concentration camp subcamp, which resulted in two death sentences. There were also convictions in the French zone, including at least one death sentence.
At the same time as the Allied trials, thousands of trials took place in special courts in Austria between 1945 and 1955, the so-called People’s Court Trials. The only death sentence handed down by a People’s Court for crimes in connection with the Mauthausen/Gusen concentration camp concerned a former prisoner. Of the former members of the SS given prison sentences, by 1955 all had been released. After 1955 the number of Austrian trials against Nazi perpetrators dropped dramatically. On 12 February 1975 the last Austrian trial against a former SS man, Johann Gogl, for crimes committed in the Mauthausen and Ebensee concentration camps ended in acquittal.
While in Austria hardly any trials of Nazi war criminals were held after the withdrawal of the Allied powers, there were a remarkable number of convictions in West and East Germany. Into the 1990s, 25 people were convicted in connection with the Mauthausen/Gusen concentration camp complex in what were often complicated trials. They included the head of the Gusen concentration camp, Karl Chmielewski, the head of the Political Section of the Mauthausen concentration camp, Karl Schulz, and the head of the crematorium work detachment, Martin Roth.