Dachau: The First Nazi Concentration Camp

In Operation From 1933 to 1945

The Dachau concentration camp in Germany

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Auschwitz might be the most infamous camp in the Nazi system of terror, but it was not the first. The first concentration camp was Dachau, which was established on March 20, 1933, in the southern German town of the same name (10 miles northwest of Munich).

Although Dachau was initially established to hold political prisoners of the Third Reich, only a minority of whom were Jews, Dachau soon grew to hold a large and diverse population of people targeted by the Nazis. Under the oversight of Nazi Theodor Eicke, Dachau became a model concentration camp, a place where SS guards and other camp officials went to train.

Building the Camp

The first buildings in the Dachau concentration camp complex consisted of the remnants of an old World War I munitions factory that was in the northeastern portion of the town. These buildings, with a capacity of about 5,000 prisoners, served as the main camp structures until 1937, when prisoners were forced to expand the camp and demolish the original buildings.

The “new” camp, completed in mid-1938, was composed of 32 barracks and was designed to hold 6,000 prisoners. The camp population, however, was usually grossly over that number.

Electrified fences were installed and seven watchtowers were placed around the camp. At the entrance of Dachau was placed a gate topped with the infamous phrase, "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("Work Sets You Free”).

Since this was a concentration camp and not a death camp, there were no gas chambers installed at Dachau until 1942, when one was built but not used.

First Prisoners

The first prisoners arrived in Dachau on March 22, 1933, two days after the acting Munich Chief of Police and Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler announced the camp’s creation. Many of the initial prisoners were Social Democrats and German Communists, the latter group having been blamed for the February 27 fire at the German parliament building, the Reichstag.

In many instances, their imprisonment was a result of the emergency decree that Adolf Hitler proposed and President Paul Von Hindenberg approved on February 28, 1933. The Decree for the Protection of the People and the State (commonly called the Reichstag Fire Decree) suspended the civil rights of German civilians and prohibited the press from publishing anti-government materials.

Violators of the Reichstag Fire Decree were frequently imprisoned in Dachau in the months and years after it was put into effect.

By the end of the first year, there had been 4,800 registered prisoners in Dachau. In addition to the Social Democrats and Communists, the camp also held trade unionists and others who had objected to the Nazi's rise to power.

Although long-term imprisonment and resulting death were common, many of the early prisoners (prior to 1938) were released after serving their sentences and were declared rehabilitated.

Camp Leadership

The first commandant of Dachau was SS official Hilmar Wäckerle. He was replaced in June 1933 after being charged with murder in the death of a prisoner. Although Wäckerle’s eventual conviction was overturned by Hitler, who declared concentration camps out of the realm of the law, Himmler wanted to bring in new leadership for the camp.

Dachau’s second commandant, Theodor Eicke, was quick to establish a set of regulations for daily operations in Dachau that would soon become the model for other concentration camps. Prisoners in the camp were held to a daily routine and any perceived deviation resulted in harsh beatings and sometimes death.

Discussion of political views was strictly prohibited and violation of this policy resulted in execution. Those who attempted to escape were put to death as well.

Eicke’s work in creating these regulations, as well as his influence on the physical structure of the camp, led to a promotion in 1934 to SS-Gruppenführer and Chief Inspector of the Concentration Camp System. He would go on to oversee the development of the vast concentration camp system in Germany and modeled other camps on his work at Dachau.

Eicke was replaced as commandant by Alexander Reiner. Command of Dachau changed hands nine more times before the camp was liberated.

Training SS Guards

As Eicke established and implemented a thorough system of regulations to run Dachau, Nazi superiors began to label Dachau as the “model concentration camp.” Officials soon sent SS men to train under Eicke.

A variety of SS officers trained with Eicke, most notably the future commandant of the Auschwitz camp system, Rudolf Höss. Dachau also served as a training ground for other camp staff.

Night of the Long Knives

On June 30, 1934, Hitler decided it was time to rid the Nazi Party of those who were threatening his rise to power. In an event that became known as the Night of the Long Knives, Hitler used the growing SS to take out key members of the SA (known as the “Storm Troopers”) and others he viewed as being problematic to his growing influence.

Several hundred men were imprisoned or killed, with the latter being the more common fate.

With the SA officially eliminated as a threat, the SS began to grow exponentially. Eicke benefited greatly from this, as the SS was now officially in charge of the entire concentration camp system.

Nuremberg Race Laws

In September 1935, the Nuremberg Race Laws were approved by officials at the annual Nazi Party Rally. As a result, a slight increase in the number of Jewish prisoners at Dachau occurred when “offenders” were sentenced to internment in concentration camps for violating these laws.

Over time, the Nuremberg Race Laws were also applied to Roma & Sinti (gypsy groups) and led to their internment in concentration camps, including Dachau.


During the night of November 9-10, 1938, the Nazis sanctioned an organized pogrom against the Jewish populations in Germany and annexed Austria. Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues were vandalized and burned.

Over 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and approximately 10,000 of those men were then interned in Dachau. This event, called Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), marked the turning point of increased Jewish incarceration in Dachau.

Forced Labor

In the early years of Dachau, most of the prisoners were forced to perform labor related to the expansion of the camp and the surrounding area. Small industrial tasks were also assigned to make products used in the region.

But after World War II broke out, much of the labor effort was transitioned to create products to further the German war effort.

By mid-1944, sub-camps began to spring up around Dachau in order to increase war production. In total, over 30 sub-camps, which worked more than 30,000 prisoners, were created as satellites of the Dachau main camp.

Medical Experiments

Throughout the Holocaust, several concentration and death camps performed forced medical experiments on their prisoners. Dachau was no exception. The medical experiments conducted at Dachau were ostensibly aimed at improving military survival rates and bettering medical technology for German civilians.

These experiments were usually exceptionally painful and unneeded. For example, Nazi Dr. Sigmund Rascher subjected some prisoners to high altitude experiments using pressure chambers, while he forced others to undergo freezing experiments so that their reactions to hypothermia could be observed. Still, other prisoners were forced to drink salt water to determine its drinkability.

Many of these prisoners died from the experiments.

Nazi Dr. Claus Schilling hoped to create a vaccine for malaria and injected over a thousand prisoners with the disease. Other prisoners at Dachau were experimented on with tuberculosis.

Death Marches and Liberation

Dachau remained in operation for 12 years—nearly the entire length of the Third Reich. In addition to its early prisoners, the camp expanded to hold Jews, Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and prisoners of war (including several Americans.)

Three days prior to liberation, 7,000 prisoners, mostly Jews, were forced to leave Dachau on a forced death march that resulted in the death of many of the prisoners.

On April 29, 1945, Dachau was liberated by the United States 7th Army Infantry Unit. At the time of liberation, there were approximately 27,400 prisoners who remained alive in the main camp.

In total, over 188,000 prisoners had passed through Dachau and its sub-camps. An estimated 50,000 of those prisoners died while imprisoned in Dachau.

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Goss, Jennifer L. "Dachau: The First Nazi Concentration Camp." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, thoughtco.com/dachau-concentration-camp-1779272. Goss, Jennifer L. (2021, July 31). Dachau: The First Nazi Concentration Camp. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/dachau-concentration-camp-1779272 Goss, Jennifer L. "Dachau: The First Nazi Concentration Camp." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/dachau-concentration-camp-1779272 (accessed June 10, 2023).