>More background info
>What there is to see
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>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
Buchenwald, on the Ettersberg hill above the city of Weimar in Thuringia, was one of the largest Nazi concentration camps
(if not the very largest) in the whole of Germany
, with as many as a quarter of a million inmates from its inception in 1937 to its liberation in April 1945. In the region of between 50,000 and 60,000 inmates did not survive Buchenwald.
It was a prime example of a forced labour camp, in which inmates of all types, from political prisoners to POWs
and Jews, were exploited for work e.g. in armament factories supplying the German military (which, needless to say, is against the Geneva Convention). Inmates came from a large number of countries – so that Buchenwald was one of the most "international" of all concentration camps.
Initially, the main purpose of the camp was to detain political "enemies" as well as other "undesirables" from the usual groups, including homosexuals, "asocials" (i.e. beggars, homeless people, etc.), Jehovah's Witnesses, Sinti and Roma ('gypsies'), etc. – Jews were later also imprisoned here, especially from 1938 after the pogroms of 9 November and the annexation of Austria
Up to ca. 1942, the forced labour that the inmates had to perform consisted mainly of construction and working in the local quarry (as in so many such camps – cf. in particular Mauthausen
). As the camps were increasingly exploited for labour in the arms industry, Buchenwald too became the site of a major weapons factory. In addition, prisoners worked in well over a hundred 'satellite camps'. The most infamous of these was Mittelbau-Dora
, where mainly V2
rockets were built in underground tunnels.
Buchenwald was also both a departure point and destination of deportations of, in particular, Jewish prisoners. First, Jews were deported to the east, primarily to Auschwitz
. Later, Auschwitz inmates were deported "back" to Buchenwald, both to boost the workforce, but as the eastern front closed in, also as part of the evacuation of the camps in the east.
Later still, Buchenwald inmates, like those of so many of these camps, were forced onto so-called death marches
as the camp system – and the Third Reich
at large – lay in its final throes in spring 1945.
Apart from Jews and Sinti and Roma, POWs, too, in particular from the Soviet Union
, faced especially harsh fates. This included mass executions, by shooting, lethal injections as well as deportations to the "euthanasia
" gassing centres of Bernburg
Medical experiments were also carried out at Buchenwald, like in various other camps (cf. especially Dachau
); in this case it was a large-scale typhoid-infection programme that was conducted on Soviet POWs in particular.
From late 1942/early 1943 the main camp was augmented by a so-called "Kleines Lager", 'Small Camp'. Though nominally a "quarantine ward" it was basically a kind of death camp, where inmates too weak and too ill to work or be useful in any other way were simply left to languish and wither away without any food or care whatsoever.
However, Buchenwald is also well known for its history of camp-internal resistance. This "underground" movement was mainly driven by the long-term political prisoners who managed to develop an intricate organizational structure of their own.
Amongst those political prisoners was Jorge Semprun (1923 – 2011), who had first been exiled to France
from his native Spain
during the Civil War
and later was active in the French resistance, until he was captured by the Nazis and sent to Buchenwald. He's written about his experiences (mostly in French) in somewhat unusual but illuminating ways. Rather than being all doom and gloom, his account of his time at Buchenwald features a level of black humour and sarcasm that some readers may find surprising. Still, it is about the best insight into camp life of this type of political prisoner that you can find anywhere. In addition to his writing career, Semprun later took up the post of cultural minister in Spain from 1988 to 1991.
Other high-profile names amongst Buchenwald survivors include Elie Wiesel and Imre Kertesz, who had both been in Auschwitz
before being deported to Buchenwald where they were liberated in April 1945.
Ernst Thälmann, former head of Germany's communist
party until the Nazis
seized power in 1933, on the other hand is one of the better known names of political prisoners who were murdered in Buchenwald – in his case in August 1944 ... possibly on specific orders from Hitler
himself, in the course of the retaliation campaign after Stauffenberg
's failed assassination attempt on Hitler on 20 July (cf. Wolfschanze
and German Resistance Memorial Centre
The camp's liberation at the end of WWII
was somewhat different from that of other camps, in that the remaining inmates themselves (95% of them non-German), through the resistance movement that had formed within the camp, took over the camp after most of the SS
had fled in April 1945, while the battles with the US army closing in still raged. Thus when the US troops reached the camp on 11 April, it was already self-liberated, technically speaking.
Still, what the Americans found, was a profound shock: especially in the "Small Camp" there were thousands of inmates so sick and malnourished that they were barely living skeletons (many of these people died in the weeks after liberation). Heaps of similarly skeletal corpses were lying about and the crematoria still contained half-charred human remains. As part of their early measures to shock and educate the German civilian population, the US occupying authorities forced large numbers of locals to go through the camp and witness for themselves what they had claimed they had known nothing about.
After the war, Buchenwald, together with the whole of Thuringia, ended up in the Soviet
occupation zone, which later became the East German GDR
. The Soviets took over Buchenwald and in turn continued to use it as a 'special internment camp' for a few years until 1950 – as at Sachsenhausen
. Now it was political prisoners regarded as a threat to the new communist regime who formed the bulk of the inmates. Several thousand more people lost their lives during those years.
Particularly tragic is the fate of many Soviet survivors of the Nazi camp at Buchenwald. The very fact that they had managed to survive was then held against them, to the tune of "if you managed to survive that means you must have been a collaborator!". Thus thousands ended up not in freedom but were sent instead to Stalin
, especially Siberia, and Kazakhstan
Like other such memorial sites in the former GDR
), the design of the Buchenwald memorial and the content of the exhibitions changed dramatically after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc
After former inmates had campaigned for a memorial at Buchenwald from the first anniversary of the camp's liberation in 1946, the GDR officially promoted the site from the 1950s as the country's premier memorial of this kind. As usual, however, the emphasis was squarely on political resistance against the fascists, which lent itself best to communist
propaganda. The fate of the Jewish inmates, on the other hand, was only reluctantly acknowledged – and that of those interned in the post-WWII Soviet 'special camp' was ignored altogether ... naturally – as the USSR
was considered the "big brother" model for the satellite state that the GDR was.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall
and the subsequent reunification of Germany
, the old GDR-ideology-infused memorial underwent a major overhaul in the mid to late 1990s. The old memorial structures were retained, but new exhibitions put together and additional plaques installed and new educational services developed. One separate small exhibition now chronicles the development of the GDR
-era memorial culture at Buchenwald too.
Then in April 2016 an all-new exhibition opened in the “Effektenkammer” ('depot building') to replace the previous main historical exhibition from the 1990s. For that reason I went back to Buchenwald specifically to check this out in April 2017.
I had already watched a long documentary about the re-working of this exhibition, so I knew a bit about the general approach. This is partly architectural: asymmetrical structures now subdivide the interior space, apparently in an effort to “break” or “disturb” the original symmetry (cf. also Military History Museum Dresden), both of the building as such as well as that of the previous design of the display cabinets. You now get a more clustered and varied basic design. I admit I was a bit sceptical about this at first (finding it a bit “forced”), but now I've seen it I have to concede that the design aspect is not such a distraction after all and works quite well.
Another major change was the drastic reduction in the number of artefacts that remain on display. Apparently the curators had come to the conclusion that the previous exhibition was “overloaded” in this regard. Now this is something I wasn't so sure about at all. When I saw it in 2011, I never felt there were too many artefacts to see. There were many, yes, but I found that a particularly fascinating aspect of the exhibition. And indeed, on my re-visit in 2017 there was quite a number of specific objects I remembered that were no longer to be found.
But apparently the curators reacted to changed times and changed tastes and expectations (as well as attention spans). Instead of the large number of artefacts the general approach was to focus on less, and at the same time shift more to biographical aspects, mainly of inmates/victims. This is indeed commendable and does makes it easier to “connect” to the place and its history more.
It's also good that this “personalization” has been implemented on several levels, including special interactive biographical stations where you can dig much deeper than the rest of the exhibition does. That way visitors get a bit of a choice in how far they want to follow this new emphasis.
One of the most overt changes is the technological modernization. There are now many multimedia and interactive elements. This way it is hoped to engage younger visitors, the so-called digital natives, more than the old exhibition would have done.
This may well be so, but I must say I have one specific problem with this trend of moving information onto screens/computer terminals: you cannot predict how much there will be. When you see an old-fashioned text-and-photo panel you get an immediate impression of how detailed it will be and how much time you'll probably need to go through it all. With interactive screens, on the other hand, it can be anything from a couple of pages and a complete time vortex with endless further levels and sub-menus. I quite often find myself starting with good intentions and then finding it's too much to digest in one go and give up (and I assure you my attention span is not yet too digital-age-diminished).
It also seems to me that the experience of ploughing through menu after menu and screen after screen is too much like what you can do at home on the Internet. For me it feels like I don't need to be at the authentic location for that. Call me old-fashioned, but I really am no big fan of exhibitions relying overly on this type of commodification instead of making more use of the available authenticity on-site.
One aspect that is undeniably a huge improvement over the old exhibition from the perspective of international visitors is the fact that now the entire exhibition has been made bilingual. In the past only some general overview text panels were provided in English (and some rather dodgy English at that). Some of that material seems to have been re-used in the new exhibition (including, unfortunately also the retention of some of the stylistically odd aspects of the less-than-perfect older translations, such as the typical German use of the present text in historical narration, where in English only the past tense really works). But all the new texts are fine. The quality of the English in the audio elements is excellent throughout. Evidently native speakers have been recruited for the recordings of these. With the written texts you get a bit of an odd stylistic mix
On balance, then, even though I personally lament the disappearance of many an intriguing artefact previously displayed (well, they didn't disappear as such, they were only put in storage, but are now out of view for the public), the new exhibition does succeed in bringing the approach in line with other modern exhibitions at places like this (cf. e.g. Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, Flossenbürg). The reliance on a good dose of state-of-the-art digital technology is a sign of the times too, I guess, and I accept that.
It makes me wonder at what frequency exhibitions like this will have to be re-re-worked in the future. Given that the old one lasted a mere ten years or so, will the current one also have to be replaced yet again in another decade's time? Possibly under the pressure of yet more new state-of-the-art technology? It remains to be seen …
What there is to see:
A lot!! You can choose from a variety of possible routes through the expansive grounds of the former camp, but most people will probably start at the visitor centre and then work their way round the grounds and the various exhibitions in an anti-clockwise direction and visit the sites outside the camp proper afterwards. Though nothing prescribes this order, the following account will be organized according to it:
From the main car park and bus stop of the memorial complex ('Gedenkstätte' in German), the first port of call should be the visitor centre
/reception centre. This is housed in one of the yellow buildings that once formed the camp's SS guards' barracks
. Some of the larger buildings today serve as youth hostels for study groups etc. In addition there's a cinema
room, where you can watch a 30-minute introductory film about Buchenwald (for lack of time I did not watch this when I visited the site, so cannot comment on it).
It is also at this visitor centre that you can hire electronic audio/audiovisual guides. There are two types of device, one purely audio, the other also offering historical images on the display. These are available in a range of languages including, naturally, English (see below
When I arrived at the visitor centre on my first visit to Buchenwald in June 2011, the first thing I found was a table with a book of condolences for Jorge Semprun, who had died only the week before. This was quite a shocking start, especially as I had read Semprun's main book about his time at the camp only a few months earlier. Because of this unexpected injection of current grief I also felt quite distracted browsing in the adjacent bookshop. So instead I decided to come back to it later – and that makes sense anyway in case you find anything you want to buy (which is more than likely) and don't want to have to carry it around with you.
If you decide to do without an audio-guide or tour, then you could at least pick up one of the little folders with an outline and map of the grounds (1 EUR).
The first stop on the visitor's route will then be the gatehouse
of the camp. Here there is one notable speciality of Buchenwald to look out for, namely the wording in the main camp gate – here it's not the usual "Arbeit macht frei" ('liberty through work'), familiar from many other Nazi concentration camps
), but: "Jedem das Seine
" meaning 'to each his own' or 'suum cuique' in Latin. It's the quote of a law principle from ancient Greece and Rome – but here rather implying: "you deserve your punishment!".
It's the only such use of the phrase on a concentration camp gate – although it is of course just as cynical as the more common phrase. It's also different in that the "Jedem das Seine" legend is facing the inside of the camp – so that the inmates could read it from the roll-call square; rather than from the outside of the gate, as was otherwise the norm.
There is also an interesting twist in the story of the exact design of the gate: the Nazis ordered a camp inmate to do the actual design of the gate: This was Franz Ehrlich, an architect and graphic designer who had studied at the famous modernist Bauhaus school. As a communist he had been imprisoned by the Nazis since 1935. He was later transferred to Buchenwald to work at the camp’s construction office. When it came to designing the camp gate, he used a type font typical of the Bauhaus style – which the Nazi ideologues despised for its modernism. But the Nazis of the SS who were in charge of the camp failed to notice this little detail (being obviously not cultured enough) – they actually liked the design and happily approved it. So it is, ironically, also example of a silent, symbolic act of resistance!
One wing of the gatehouse used to be the camp's special prison
, or "Bunker
", with isolation cells/torture chambers for special punishment or solitary confinement of "prominent" inmates. Apart from the cell block (with some cells bearing personal memorial plaques), some of the torture instruments are also on display.
Through the gate, inside the camp
, you get the first impression of just how vast an area it covers. Most buildings have gone (demolished in the early post-war years), in particular the inmates' barracks (there's only one reconstructed barrack in the far corner – see below). So it's mostly an open space
with no more than remnants of the foundations
. Right in front of the gatehouse was the roll-call square
on which the inmates often had to stand in rows for hours on end while being counted – or often simply as a measure of collective punishment too.
There are only a few remaining original buildings
inside the fenced-in grounds, of which the former crematorium
is the closest to the right of the gatehouse. En route there – along the formerly electrified main barbed wire fence of the camp and one of the two remaining watchtowers
, note the grey concrete structure just outside the fence: this is the remains of the bear pit that used to be part of the SS guards' zoo, which the then camp commandant had built for the amusement of his staff (and perhaps that of his own family too)! Inside the crematorium
you can see the typical ovens
, which are well preserved, including the trademark of the manufacturers of these customized camp ovens: “Topf” (see Topf & Söhne memorial in nearby Erfurt!).
Also part of the crematorium building is the former pathological department, of which a white-tiled dissection table survives. A lift next to the ovens led up from the cellar below, which was the morgue (or "corpse cellar" as the label says in literal translation from the German 'Leichenkeller'). As a visitor you take the steps down to that creepy room. Note the hanging hooks on the wall!
Outside a plaque commemorates Ernst Thälmann who was (allegedly) murdered here – which is the main reason the building was preserved by the GDR authorities in charge of the memorial in the post-war years when so many other camp buildings were demolished. In an annexe to the crematorium, another very creepy installation can be seen: a so-called "Genickschussanlage", a cunning device disguised to look like part of a medical examination implement for measuring a person's height at which victims would unsuspectingly sit or stand. Through a hole in the wall an executioner in the next room would then fire a shot through the back of the neck of the victim. Some 8000 "executions" (mostly of Soviet POWs) were carried out in this way at Buchenwald.
Outside the crematorium, there's a reconstructed "hanging pole" and a cart from the quarry laden with blocks of rock, both used as means of punishment in the camp ….
A bit further down you pass a tree stump marked "Goethe's Oak". This goes back to the (now contested) belief that this tree was the same as famously used by Goethe (namely to write under it) so that it was spared when the woods were cleared to make space for the construction of the camp. After the tree caught fire in an air raid it was felled but the stump has continued to serve as an odd kind of memorial inside Buchenwald camp to this day.
The very largest building at Buchenwald is the former depot or storeroom for inmates' personal effects, clothing and tools ("Kammergebäude" or "Effektenkammer" in German). It houses the main exhibition of the memorial.
The exhibition I had found on my first visit in 2011 has meanwhile disappeared. It's been replaced (see above) by an all-new one that opened in April 2016. So I decided to go on a return visit in the spring of 2017. Here's a description of the main exhibition as it is now:
As you enter the building on the ground floor you are first met with a vast empty space. Other than an information desk by the door and a cloakroom at the far end to the left, there's only one single exhibit here: a “Medientisch” ('media table') onto which some images and text are projected to form a “prologue” to the exhibition. Other than that the empty space is “broken” by an asymmetrical shape that kind-of slices through the space. This is part of the symbolic architectural design approach outlined above.
The exhibition as such is spread over two floors. It is subdivided in different ways. There's a main thread that is roughly chronological but also organized in such a way that different sub-aspects of the camp's history are highlighted. In addition there are separate areas where original artefacts of a specific nature are grouped together, as well as media stations where you can sit down and listen to biographical stories of selected individuals' cases, for the most part those of victims.
The thematic aspects covered on the first floor are the prehistory of Buchenwald, how the city of Weimar became a centre for the Nazi movement, the basic foundations of the Nazi ideology, the onset of the murderous regime, the construction of the concentration camp and its internal organization and so on. The artefacts sections show a) clothes of inmates and guards, and b) utensils (metal bowls, spoons, etc.) to illustrate the aspect of insufficient food rations.
On the upper floor, the exhibition continues with the development of the camp in the latter years of WWII, the “total war” and how forced labour was increasingly utilized for armaments production. But it also covers the resistance and solidarity within the camp. The last section is about the final months, the death marches and eventual liberation of the camp. This is followed by an “epilogue” about the time after WWII and the liberation. Again there are biographical media stations as well as a section with artefacts, this time about objects made by the inmates, such as dolls and games.
The scale model of the camp that used to be at the beginning of the old exhibition, is now displayed after the end of the main exhibition, i.e. before you take the stairs back down.
As outlined above, the new exhibition shifts the focus towards more information, especially personalized stories of individuals, while reducing the number of artefacts on display. A welcome improvement overall is that now all the information available in the exhibition is presented bilingually, in English as well as German, including the screens and the audio material.
Amongst the larger artefacts still included in the main exhibition – i.e. in addition to the separate artefacts sections mentioned above – are a “corpse cart”, a “Bock” (a 'beating bench' for punishment) a quarry cart, a gallows, and radio equipment made by inmates in secret, as well as numerous smaller items.
No longer on display, on the other hand is, for instance, the V-2 rocket engine (related to Mittelbau-Dora, which started as a satellite camp of Buchenwald's), as well as several smaller objects such as the syringe used for lethal injections or the bottles of poison from the camp's medical department.
to the main exhibition is another exhibition
space in the building that used to be the camp's disinfection compound (the disinfection chambers for clothes can still be seen). This building now houses an exhibition of camp art
– mostly drawings but also some astonishingly elaborate paintings. Apart from works by camp inmates (either done during their time in the camp, i.e. in secret, or afterwards), there are also a few pieces by contemporary artists on the subject. It is said that this is the largest exhibition of concentration camp art within any such memorial space.
Behind the large depot building is another addition
to the memorial site, a purpose-built exhibition hall
whose topic is the history of the Soviet Special Camp No. 2
. This was what Buchenwald became after WWII
until 1950: for the internment of political prisoners by the new communist
rulers. This dark chapter of the immediate post-war history of Germany
was completely ignored by the old GDR
memorial, but the gap was finally closed in 1997.
The exhibition about the Special Camp is quite didactic in its approach, with various drawers and movable panels that the visitors are supposed to open to access more text levels. There are few artefacts, but a film and a set of computer screen stations (German and English) and audio points try to bring the story more to life. If you want to go through all the material offered here, you'd need another two hours! For those with a special interest in the Soviet crimes after WWII and the gulag
system, this may be well worth it, but for those who've come here to learn about the Nazi concentration camp
, this special exhibition could possibly be skim-viewed, as it were. In the woods
to the north of the camp's grounds lies the (secret) cemetery
of the Soviet Special Camp – now steel pillars serve as grave markers in the forest.
To the west is the area that used to be the "Little Camp
" – a particularly deadly place (see under background
). Little is left here apart from a few foundations
, a reconstructed latrine
and paved paths. But a special memorial space has been developed at the heart of the Little Camp area featuring memorial plaques in various languages set in an stone-walled enclosure.
In the north-western corner of the camp stands a wooden barrack
like those that used to house the inmates. Only, this one is not an original, but a reconstruction, or rather: one relocated here from elsewhere. When I visited in 2011 it was locked and as I peeked in through the windows I saw just empty rooms where some refurbishing work was evidently in progress. Perhaps these spaces will be incorporated into the memorial with some sort of exhibition housed inside. Maybe this has already happened by the time you read this. (On my return visit in 2017, unfortunately, I did not have the time to check this.)
Also closed to the public was the final preserved camp building of Buchenwald. This used to be the inmates' canteen – where the SS
sold substandard goods to the inmates for "camp money". Two watchtowers of formerly 22 are still standing too, but their insides also remain inaccessible to the general public.
In the enormous space of the now mostly empty grounds
inside the camp's fences, a few specially dedicated memorials
are worth pointing out. There's a rather abstract one dedicated to the Jewish victims. Similarly, there's a memorial for the Sinti and Roma who went through – and perished in – Buchenwald and other camps. Short stone pillars bear the names of various other concentration camps
) and death camps
. One simple slab bears a bilingual inscription honouring the "pink triangle", i.e. homosexual victims of Buchenwald. Another plaque simply lists the nationalities of Buchenwald's victims – and it's quite a list indeed, well over 50 and that's only a "selection"! Some of the countries listed are ones you don't see mentioned often at German concentration camps (e.g. Indonesia
). Outside the perimeter
of the fenced-in camp as such there are more sites of note associated with Buchenwald. Right beyond the gatehouse to the east, former garages and petrol stations still stand along the former access road to the camp. This road was called "Carachoweg
", roughly 'speedo alley', because the SS
guards would hurry along the arriving inmates by setting dogs on them.
Further south, remains of more ancillary buildings and the camp's quarry can be seen. You could also follow the "guards' path", which leads all around the camp's perimeter, i.e. partly through the woods.
Surely the most significant element of the old memorial site
is a bit further up today's access road (when coming from Weimar), the "Blutstraße" ('road of blood', thus called because it too was constructed by inmates' forced labour). It was here that the GDR
authorities had the main memorial space outside the camp proper built in the 1950s.
It's a typically monumental
affair involving some large-scale socialist realism
art. Through a stone gate a path and steps lead down past a number of stone bas reliefs
depicting cruel scenes from the camp as well as a highly fictionalized version of its liberation. On the back verses of unspeakably pathetic poetry further glorify the resistance against fascism. Contrary to factual truth, Ernst Thälmann is even depicted as leading an uprising – even though he was only transferred to Buchenwald to be immediately shot and thus never took part in any of Buchenwald's resistance whatsoever. So the emphasis on Thälmann in this memorial is ultimately just pure cult of personality.
At the bottom there's a so-called "Street of Nations
" (but only 18 countries are named here). Beyond is a complex of three circular pits surrounded by memorial walls at the site where there were/are mass graves. A broad set of steps then leads up to the core of the grandiose memorial complex: the enormous bell tower
and a large sculpture
of a group of victorious resistance fighters. The one at the front who's half kneeling and stretching his hands up into the air, however, looks more like a tourist posing for a holiday snap.
By the separate car park for this memorial complex there is yet another special exhibition
: the one about the history of the site as a memorial. In particular, it chronicles the development of the memorial during the GDR era
Various proposals for the development of the site (before the current one was decided on) are on display in the form of models and images. Old guidebooks, brochures, photos of celebrations at the foot of the bell tower, etc., complement the coverage. Obviously, the over-emphasis of the communist
resistance in the camp is pointed out. In this, Thälmann features disproportionately often yet again.
The typical distortions and omissions of the GDR-era commemoration of Buchenwald are dutifully exposed, of course, and thus historical accuracy should be restored now. In some respects, however, one can argue that the way in which the GDR's efforts of commemoration are displayed here, e.g. by means of fractured panels in front of a jumble of some older exhibition contents, also has a certain element of revisionism, even of vengeance, in itself. It's like rubbing your face in: "see how bad the old memorial used to be!" I found that unnecessarily negative.
The exhibition closes, on the other hand, with a thoughtful word of warning by Jorge Semprun regarding the fact that soon there won't be any living survivors left to tell their stories first-hand. Tragically, this now includes himself.
All the more important does the duty indeed become for future generations to preserve the memory of Buchenwald and the other camps, if only indirectly, but as objectively and adequately as possible.
All in all
, the memorial at Buchenwald is doing a very good job of this, despite a few minor flaws. Of all the concentration camp
memorials in Germany
it is one of the most impressive ones, in my view, certainly by the sheer amount of what there is to see.
a good six miles (10 km) north-west of the city of Weimar, Thuringia, Germany
Google maps locator: [51.019,11.249
Access and costs:
comparatively easy from Weimar; free.
Details: To get there you can take a bus (line 6) to Buchenwald from Weimar's Goetheplatz or main station. Get out at "Buchenwald Gedenkstätte" or "Buchenwald Glockenturm" (for visiting the bell tower outside the camp grounds first).
If you're driving, take the Ettersburger Straße from central Weimar, or the B7/85 bypass north of Weimar and turn into Ettersburger Straße (L1054), and proceed north for about a mile. At an obelisk the road forks, and you'll want to take the road to the left, which leads all the way to the memorial site ... this road is aptly named "Blutstraße" – 'road of blood' – as it, too, was originally constructed by forced labourers from the camp.
The car park is by the reception centre in the former SS barracks part of the camp and offers plenty of spaces. From here on, you have to walk ... and it's a lot of walking!
Opening times: the grounds and open-air sites are accessible daily until sunset, the indoor sites and exhibitions are open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. between April and October, and only to 4 p.m. in winter (last admission is half an hour before closing) – the visitor centre by the car park is open from 9 a.m. to 6:20 p.m. (only to 4:20 in winter).
NOTE that both the exhibitions/indoor sites and the visitor centre are closed on Mondays, except when it falls on a public holiday! Also closed over Christmas and New Year's Eve/Day.
Admission is free
Audio-guides (in a range of languages, including English, French, Russian, Dutch, Italian and Japanese) are available for hire at the visitor centre – you get a choice: 3 EUR for just audio, or 5 EUR for an audiovisual one, i.e. enhanced with electronic photo slide-shows (running time for both devices: 90 minutes). Since these devices are pods of the little-i variety you can also download a guide from the little-i online shop in advance, provided you are a user of a smartphone from the same stable.
Guided tours with a live guide (ca. 2 or 3 hours) for groups can also be organized by prior arrangement. However, these tours are in German only and primarily aimed at school groups anyway, so other visitors are probably better advised to use the audio(visual) guide.
"at least two and a half hours" is what's "officially" recommended. That's hardly sufficient, though. The distances alone can eat up that amount of time if you really want to see everything. Add to that the exhibitions, and ideally the audio-guide running-time and you realize that even five or six hours might not be enough. So I would say better factor in a full day at to Buchenwald if you really want to get the most out of it. And start early. Alternatively you may even want to consider spreading your visit over two days.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in the area around Buchenwald there are lots of smaller memorials, e.g. at locations of former satellite camps, or places that the death marches
passed through in April 1945. This includes the village of Hottelstedt
just north of Buchenwald at the foot of the Ettersberg. Here there are two memorials – one commemorating the death marches, the other the fact that it was from this village that the US Army set out to discover – and subsequently "liberate" – the Buchenwald concentration camp to the south of the village.
The nearby city of Weimar
is of course associated with the Weimar Republic, the first democratic German state that was formed here (at the National Theatre), until it was dismantled by the Nazis
from 1933. In fact, Weimar had long been a hotbed of Nazism. It was here that the first member of the NSDAP
party came to office in a regional government (in 1930). During the Third Reich
, the Nazis gave the city of Weimar a substantial "overhaul" in their style – and some of this is still visible today.
One particular point of interest in this context is the Hotel Elephant. It was here that Hitler
greeted his devotees from the balcony of his room above the main entrance – the crowds would often beckon him to come out and show himself that way. When I visited Weimar in April 2017, however, there was somebody else up there: a dummy Martin Luther. This may only have been due to the fact that 2017 is celebrated as the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation initiated by Luther – and Luther had various connections to the city of Weimar. Or maybe it's to deflect from the Hitler-connection? I cannot say.
You can go on guided walking tours of Weimar on the theme of the Nazi legacy, organized by the same association that offers guided tours of the Buchenwald camp and surroundings. At the Tourist Information Office at Markt 10 in the centre of Weimar you can also hire multimedia/audio-guides which in ca. two hours take individual visitors round the relevant historical sites of the city.
If you have more time to travel around the area, then a day excursion to Mittelbau-Dora
concentration camp, whose history is intimately related to that of Buchenwald, is a must-do. It's some 60-70 miles (100 km) north-west of Weimar/Buchenwald near the town of Nordhausen.
In the nearby city of Erfurt
there's yet another site associated with the system of Nazi concentration camps, namely in a most “practical” way. It was here that the company J.A. Topf & Söhne
designed and manufactured the crematoria ovens for several of the camps, including the highly “advanced” ones for Auschwitz. You can see their logo on many concentration camp crematoria oven doors. This dark aspect of the industrial involvement in the Holocaust had long been left un-commemorated, even unmentioned. But a few years ago a dedicated “Erinnerungsort
” (memorial site/ museum) opened in one of the original buildings of the factory. See this separate chapter
Combinations with other non-dark destinations:
Apart from having given the Weimar Republic its name, the city of Weimar is mostly associated with the name of Germany
's most celebrated poet/author/playwright, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
. The Goethe-Haus in town as well as various other touristic commodifications testify to the significance of this association to the city. Goethe's associate Friedrich Schiller
is similarly celebrated in Weimar too.
Another element of older culture is Weimar's connections to the legacy of Martin Luther (see above). He used to preach from the pulpit of the main Peter and Paul Church in the Old Town.
However, those with a taste in rather more modern art forms and in particular modern architecture, more specifically the Bauhaus style, should rather head to Weimar's Bauhaus Museum.
Otherwise, the neighbouring city of Erfurt is worth a visit for its exceptionally intact old core of narrow cobbled alleyways, half-timbered houses, bridges, impressive churches/cathedrals and overall a very picturesque and interesting cityscape.
- Buchenwald 01 - former SS barracks complex
- Buchenwald 02 - visitor centre
- Buchenwald 03 - book of condolences for Jorge Semprun
- Buchenwald 04 - book shop at the visitor centre
- Buchenwald 05 - gatehouse
- Buchenwald 06 - through the gate
- Buchenwald 07 - infamous words
- Buchenwald 08 - cell block in the Bunker
- Buchenwald 09 - isolation cell
- Buchenwald 10 - roll-call square with crematorium and store house in the background
- Buchenwald 11 - electric fence
- Buchenwald 12 - remains of the zoo
- Buchenwald 13 - crematorium
- Buchenwald 14 - oven trademark
- Buchenwald 15 - lift down to the morgue
- Buchenwald 16 - pathology
- Buchenwald 17 - hanging post and stone cart
- Buchenwald 18 - alleged Goethe oak tree stump
- Buchenwald 19 - store house now housing the main exhibition
- Buchenwald 20 - new exhibition design
- Buchenwald 21 - corpse cart in the new exhibition
- Buchenwald 22 - now bilingual commodification
- Buchenwald 23 - relics
- Buchenwald 24 - inmates shoes
- Buchenwald 25 - very modern design
- Buchenwald 26 - what the old exhibition looked like
- Buchenwald 27 - deadly medication, no longer on display
- Buchenwald 28 - syringe for death by lethal injection, also no longer on display
- Buchenwald 30 - improvised radio of the camp-internal resistance, still on display
- Buchenwald 31 - finds dug up from the grounds
- Buchenwald 32 - disinfection chambers
- Buchenwald 33 - Soviet Special Camp exhibition
- Buchenwald 34 - grave markers for the Soviet Special Camp
- Buchenwald 35 - Jewish memorial
- Buchenwald 36 - Sinti and Roma memorial
- Buchenwald 37 - memorial stone for homosexuals
- Buchenwald 38 - many a nation represented
- Buchenwald 39 - view over the expansive grounds
- Buchenwald 40 - mostly just foundations remaining
- Buchenwald 41 - Little Camp memorial
- Buchenwald 42 - latrine
- Buchenwald 43 - overgrown remains
- Buchenwald 44 - wooden barrack
- Buchenwald 45 - former dog kennels
- Buchenwald 46 - communist gathering on a special memorial day
- Buchenwald 47 - GDR-era memorial complex
- Buchenwald 48 - terror set in stone
- Buchenwald 49 - bell tower and main sculpture group
- Buchenwald 50 - ceremonial stairs and circular mass grave
- Buchenwald 51 - exhibition of the history of the memorial
- Buchenwald 52 - fractured GDR commemoration - wer zu spät kommt den bestraft das Leben
- Buchenwald 53 - camp railway sidings
- Buchenwald 54 - former course of the railway track
- Buchenwald 55 - death march memorial
- Weimar 1 - quaint
- Weimar 2 - balcony with a dummy Luther where Hitler used to greet the crowds
- Weimar 3 - olde worlde
- Weimar 4 - town hall
- Weimar 5 - church
- Weimar 6 - old music celebrated here
- Weimar 7 - half-timbered house
- Weimar 8 - park and palace
- Weimar 9 - Park with Goethe house