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Is the US Holocaust Memorial Museum helping promote a Communist lie?

The myth of 'self-liberation' was concocted to give Buchenwald prisoners a heroic role in liberating the camp, casting American soldiers as mere spectators
US General Dwight Eisenhower and General Troy Middleton tour the newly liberated Ohrdruf concentration camp, a German forced labor and concentration camp that was part of the Buchenwald concentration camp network. (PD / William Newhouse)
US General Dwight Eisenhower and General Troy Middleton tour the newly liberated Ohrdruf concentration camp, a German forced labor and concentration camp that was part of the Buchenwald concentration camp network. (PD / William Newhouse)

“On April 11, 1945, in expectation of liberation, prisoners stormed the watchtowers. They seized control of the camp. Later that afternoon, US forces entered Buchenwald.”

“On April 11, 1945, in expectation of liberation, starved and emaciated prisoners stormed the watchtowers, seizing control of the camp. Later that afternoon, US forces entered Buchenwald.”

The above two quotations may be found on the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), here and here. The liberation of Buchenwald is described differently on the website of the Stiftung Gedenkstätten Buchenwald und Mittelbau-Dora (SGBMD), the official memorial institution that administers the Buchenwald historic site:

“The 37th Tank Battalion of the 4th U.S. Armored Division reaches the Buchenwald concentration camp. After the SS flee, inmates of the camp resistance occupy the towers and take charge of the order and administration of the camp. 21,000 inmates have lived to see their liberation and the arrival of the U.S. Army.”

The USHMM tells us that the “starved and emaciated” prisoners of Buchenwald “stormed” and “seized” the watchtowers at the camp. The SGBMD tells us that the prisoners “occupied” the towers after the SS had fled. “Storm” and “seize” mean that the prisoners attacked guard towers defended by Nazi troops and took over the camp by force. “Occupy” means that prisoners took possession of towers and a camp that had already been abandoned by the Nazis.

Which version is correct, and why does it matter?

The SGBMD version is consistent with The Buchenwald Report, a history and description of Buchenwald prepared for US forces by former prisoners in the weeks immediately following liberation in April and May, 1945:

“The sentries at the guard towers had stayed behind, but as the sound of battle grew ever closer, they retreated into the adjoining woods shortly before 3:00 PM. Then the comrades of the camp police, who had taken cover with their arms, immediately cut through the barbed wire, occupied the towers themselves, took the gate and camp entrance, and raised the white flag over the first tower.”

The USHMM version repeats what has come to be known as the myth of Selbstbefreiung (self-liberation). This version of events was concocted in East Germany after the war to revise history in a way that gave the prisoners, whose leadership was dominated by Communists, a dramatic and heroic role in liberating Buchenwald, casting American soldiers as mere spectators. After German reunification, this Cold War revision of history was substantially repudiated, though agreement on exactly what happened at Buchenwald on April 11, 1945 is (surprise!) still not universal.

Who deserves credit for “liberating” Buchenwald? American soldiers simply occupied a camp that had already been abandoned by the Nazis: no reputable source claims that any force was used or required when Americans took over the administration of Buchenwald. According to the members of the international camp committee (the prisoners’ organization) they similarly simply took control of the camp after it had been abandoned by the Nazis, events that occurred a few hours before the first arrival of American troops. Both the American soldiers who happened to arrive at Buchenwald on April 11th and 12th and the members of the prisoners’ organization were able to play their roles in the transition of the camp to Allied control only because of the sustained actions of many people in many countries who had served and sacrificed for many years to create the conditions that convinced the SS guards at Buchenwald that they had no choice but to flee without a fight on the morning of April 11, 1945. Credit for the liberation goes to all who served, sacrificed, and worked to defeat the Nazis, capitalist and communist alike.

We should be especially careful about truth when it comes to the Holocaust. We honor those who suffered and discomfit those who would minimize or deny that suffering when we scrupulously and relentlessly insist on remembering Holocaust-related events accurately.

Type “liberation of Buchenwald” into an internet search engine and review the results, and you’ll find that many sources describe the liberation of Buchenwald using exactly the same words and phrases in exactly the same way they are used on the USHMM website: stormed the watchtowers, seized control of the camp, starved and emaciated prisoners. It is likely that the illusion of consensus among many journalists, authors, and institutions about the liberation of Buchenwald is really nothing more than the uncritical acceptance and repetition of what is found on the USHMM website. The USHMM is globally and appropriately perceived as an authoritative source of accurate Holocaust information.

The seventy-seventh anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald will occur on April 11, 2022. Hopefully by then the US Holocaust Memorial Museum will have reviewed the historical evidence and considered revising its teaching about the liberation of Buchenwald. If the Buchenwald “self-liberation” as portrayed by the USHMM really is a fiction born in the crucible of the Cold War, perhaps it is time to correct the record.

About the Author
George Mastroianni is an experimental psychologist, Professor Emeritus at the United States Air Force Academy. He currently teaches in the M.P.S. Psychology of Leadership program in the World Campus at the Pennsylvania State University. His recent books include Of Mind and Murder: Toward a More Comprehensive Psychology of the Holocaust; Misremembering the Holocaust: The Liberation of Buchenwald and the Limits of Memory; and Rumors of Injustice: The Cases of Ilse Koch and Rudolph Spanner.
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