The former concentration camp of Sachsenhausen on the fringes of the small town of Oranienburg, 35km north of Berlin, has been preserved as the unremittingly miserable Gedenkstätte Sachsenhausen (Sachsenhausen Memorial) as a reminder of the crimes of two of the last century’s most powerful and terrible regimes. This early Nazi camp was a prototype upon which others were based. It was never designed for large-scale mass extermination, but all the same around half of the 220,000 prisoners who passed through its gates never left, and at the end of the war the camp was used to systematically kill thousands of Soviet POWs and Jewish prisoners on death marches. After the war the Soviets used the infrastructure for similar purposes.
At the entrance to the camp, its largest structure, the impossibly detailed New Museum, charts the camp’s origins from defunct brewery to a Nazi political prison; the local Nazis filled it with many of their classmates, colleagues and neighbours.
The camp proper begins under the main watchtower and beyond a gate adorned with the ominous sign Arbeit macht frei (“Work frees”) and within the perimeter walls and former high-voltage fence – site of frequent inmate suicides. Within the camp many parts have been chillingly well preserved or reconstructed: a number of prison blocks which now house a museum telling the stories of selected inmates; the camp prison, from which internees seldom returned; the former kitchen and laundry where harrowing films show the camp on liberation. Just outside the perimeter lie pits where summary executions took place and bodies were incinerated.
Finally, at the northern tip of the camp, an exhibition in a guard tower investigates what the local populace knew and thought of the place, via video interviews, while the jumbled hall next door examines the postwar Soviet Special Camp (1945–50), when the Russians imprisoned 60,000 people with suspected Nazi links – though most were innocent – of whom at least 12,000 died.