Together with its many satellite camps, Buchenwald was one of the largest concentration camps established by the Nazis. SS authorities opened Buchenwald in July 1937, about five miles northwest of Weimar in east-central Germany. Prisoners were confined in the northern part of the camp (“the main camp”), while guard barracks and the camp administration were located in the southern part. An electrified barbed-wire fence, watchtowers, and a chain of sentries with machine guns surrounded the main camp. The SS often shot prisoners in the stables and hanged other prisoners in the crematorium area. Most of the early inmates were political prisoners. In November 1938, in the aftermath of Kristallnacht, German SS and police sent almost 10,000 Jewish men to Buchenwald where the authorities subjected them to extraordinarily cruel treatment. The SS also interned criminals, Jehovah's Witnesses, Roma and Sinti (Gypsies), and German military deserters at Buchenwald. In the camp's later stages, the SS incarcerated prisoners-of-war of various nations (including the United States), resistance fighters, and former government officials of German-occupied countries.
Beginning in 1941, a number of physicians and scientists conducted medical experiments on Buchenwald prisoners. These experiments, primarily focused on contagious diseases, resulted in hundreds of deaths. The Buchenwald camp system became an important source of forced labor for the German war effort. In 1942, the Gustloff company established a subcamp of Buchenwald to support its armaments works. SS authorities and business executives (both state-owned and private) deployed prisoners to at least 88 satellite camps, mostly in armaments factories, in stone quarries, and on construction projects. The prisoner population expanded rapidly, reaching 112,000 by February 1945. Periodically, the SS staff conducted “selections” throughout the Buchenwald camp system and sent those too weak to work to so-called euthanasia facilities where they were murdered by poison gas. At Buchenwald, SS physicians also killed prisoners unable to work by phenol injection.
As Soviet forces swept through Poland, the Germans evacuated thousands of concentration camp prisoners. After long, brutal marches, more than 10,000 prisoners from Auschwitz and Gross-Rosen, most of them Jews, arrived in Buchenwald in January 1945. In early April 1945, as U.S. forces approached, the Germans evacuated around 30,000 prisoners from Buchenwald and its subcamps. About a third of these prisoners died from exhaustion or were shot by the SS. An underground prisoner resistance organization in Buchenwald saved many lives by obstructing Nazi orders and delaying the evacuation. On April 11, 1945, in expectation of liberation, starving prisoners stormed the watchtowers, seizing control of the camp. Later that day, American forces entered Buchenwald. Soldiers from the 6th Armored Division found more than 21,000 people. Between July 1937 and April 1945, the SS imprisoned some 250,000 persons from across Europe in Buchenwald. Exact mortality figures can only be estimated, as camp authorities did not keep complete records. The SS murdered at least 56,000 male prisoners in the Buchenwald camp system, some 11,000 of them Jews.