HELL BEFORE THEIR VERY EYES: AMERICAN SOLDIERS LIBERATE CONCENTRATION CAMPS IN GERMANY, APRIL, 1945
By John C. McManus
Johns Hopkins University Press, $19.95 (paperback), 189 pages
This is the most powerful book I’ve read in decades. It’s on a par with J.M. Coetzee’s “Waiting For The Barbarians,” published in 1980. But that’s a novel. The events recounted in this history are, tragically, all too true.
“Hell Before Their Very Eyes” is John McManus’ third book about World War II. The Curators’ Professor of History at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, Mr. McManus writes that he chose this topic because, having written often about combat, he was “struck by the frequency with which combat veterans ventured the opinion that the most unforgettable, and sometimes traumatic, aspect of their wartime service was the experience of liberating or witnessing a concentration camp.”
Historians estimate that there were as many as 20,000 camps of several different types, but Mr. McManus has chosen to focus on the liberation of just three camps — Ohrdruf, Buchenwald and Dachau, which were liberated in that order in April, 1945. Although the American troops knew of the camps’ existence, none of them were prepared for what they found. “These men discovered,” Mr. McManus writes, ” the very depths of human-imposed cruelty and depravity . For the Americans who witnessed such powerful evidence of Nazi crimes, the experience was life altering. Most reacted with anger, revulsion and abject disgust … . Almost all were haunted for the rest of their lives by what they had seen.”
“What I saw there beggars description,” Allied Supreme Commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower wrote to Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall, of his visit to Ohrdruf.
Interestingly, Eisenhower foresaw that down the road some people would deny the Holocaust ever happened or that it was as bad as it was, and so he “was determined to witness the horrors himself, and he encouraged every soldier under his command to do the same. He arranged for representatives of the Allied governments and media correspondents to visit the liberated camps and thoroughly document their terrible realities. History has proven Eisenhower correct.”
At Ohrdruf, when the American soldiers found a shed filled with dead and deteriorating bodies, Eisenhower forced himself to go inside, but Gen. George Patton refused, telling Eisenhower if he did he would get sick. Mr. McManus writes, “Patton — the iron-willed general whose men had nicknamed him “Old Blood and Guts” — quickly retreated around the corner and vomited . Eisenhower seemed to take a perverse pride in the fact that he entered the shed and Patton did not .”
Obviously, this is not a book for the squeamish, so it’s important to note that the author presents the gruesome material, of which there is a great deal, with both care and compassion. For example, he spends several pages on the discovery of the “Dachau death train,” 39 boxcars filled with prisoners’ corpses. Of all the horrific sights seen by the G.I.s who liberated the various camps, this one in particular would haunt many of them for life.
The author writes simply and clearly, with no melodrama. He prefers to let the horrible facts speak for themselves, and they speak volumes. In addition to numerous well-chosen pictures, he quotes liberally from the writings of the soldiers themselves, many of them contemporaneous.
At each of the three camps, the Americans saw signs of almost unbelievable overcrowding. One building in Buchenwald, a stable designed to hold 50 horses, had contained 2,000 men. In the same chapter, titled “Treating Buchenwald,” the author writes about the unusual, unique-to-them difficulties faced by the medical personnel, none of whom had ever treated “living skeletons.” A doctor wrote home, “malnutrition was severe pneumonia, scarlet fever and every disease imaginable. There were leg ulcers, bed sores, and wounds that were not healing. Probably the average weight was not over 80 pounds.”
Eisenhower also encouraged journalists to visit the camps. One reporter who quickly accepted Ike’s invitation was Marguerite Higgins of the New York Herald-Tribune. Mr. McManus writes that, initially, when questioning survivors, “Her tone was distrustful and brusque” but after having been shown around the camp, and seeing “the ovens and the stacks of bodies, she softened considerably. (Later in life she would feel great shame at her initial insensitivity.)”
In the epilogue, Mr. McManus reiterates the theme that people who hadn’t seen the camps would find it increasingly hard to believe what had gone on in them. He recounts the meeting, just months after the end of the war, of a chaplain who had been at Dachau when it was liberated and a lieutenant who’d just come from the now-empty camp. When the chaplain asked if the crematorium, the ovens and the gas chamber were still standing, the young lieutenant replied, “Come, come, Chaplain, surely you don’t believe there were crematoria and gas chambers. The Germans had their propaganda and we had ours. There were never any such things.”
Anyone found guilty of denying the Holocaust should be locked up for a year with nothing to read but this book.
• John Greenya is a Washington writer and critic.