On 21st March 1933, local SA stormtroopers took over a vacant factory building in the town centre of Oranienburg and set up the first concentration camp in the state of Prussia. Oranienburg Concentration Camp was a key site in the persecution of the opposition during the months after the National Socialists seized power,especially in the imperial capital, Berlin. In the aftermath of the "Röhn putsch" and the supression of the SA, the camp was taken over by the SS in Juli 1934 and closed down. Up to its closure on 13th July 1934, more than 3.000 people were imprisoned in Oranienburg Concentration Camp. At least sixteen prisoners were murdered by guards, among them the writer Erich Mühsam.
Unlike the later concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, that of Oranienburg stood in the middle of town on the main road to Berlin, where locals and travellers could glimpse inside. The prisoners were send to work for the council at many places in the town. Where prisoners who had fled abroad published reports about the horrors of Oranienburg Concentration Camp, the Nazi propaganda machine responded with idealised portrayals of conditions there in newspapers, radio and film.
The Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp was built in the summer of 1936 by
concentration camp prisoners from the Emsland camps. It was the first new
camp to be established after Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler was appointed
Chief of the German Police in 1936. The design of the grounds was conceived
by the SS architects as the ideal concentration camp setting, giving
architectural expression to the SS worldview, and symbolically subjugating
the prisoners to the absolute power of the SS. As a model for other camps,
and in view of its location just outside the Reich capital, Sachsenhausen
acquired a special role in the National Socialist concentration camp system.
This was reinforced in 1938 when the Concentration Camp Inspection Office,
the administrative headquarters for all concentration camps within the
German sphere of influence, was transferred from Berlin to Oranienburg.
More than 200,000 people were imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp between 1936 and 1945. At first the prisoners were mostly political opponents of the Nazi regime. However, increasing numbers of members of groups defined by the National Socialists as racially or biologically inferior were later included. By 1939 large numbers of citizens from the occupied European states arrived. Tens of thousands of people died of starvation, disease, forced labor and mistreatment, or were victims of the systematic extermination operations of the SS. Thousands of other prisoners died during the death marches following the evacuation of the camp at the end of April 1945. Approximately 3,000 sick prisoners, along with the doctors and nurses who had stayed behind in the camp, were liberated by Soviet an Polish soldiers.
In August 1945 the Soviet Special Camp No. 7 was moved to the area of the former protective custody camp. Most of the buildings, with the exception of the crematoria and extermination facilities, were still used for the same purposes. Nazi functionaries were held in the camp, as were political undesirables, arbitrarily arrested prisoners and inmates sentenced by the Soviet military tribunal. By 1948 Sachsenhausen, now upgraded to Special Camp No. 1, was the largest of three special camps in the Soviet Zone of Occupation. By the closing of the camp in the spring of 1950, there had been approximately 60,000 people imprisoned there, at least 12,000 of whom died of malnutrition and disease.
In 1956, after the grounds and barracks had been used for years by the Soviet Army, the People's Police and the People's National Army of the G.D.R., plans were prepared for the establishment of the Sachsenhausen National Memorial, which was inaugurated on April 22, 1961. Instead of just choosing to preserve the remaining original structures, the planners decided on a memorial site that would symbolize the "victory of anti-fascism over fascism". It was incorporated into the few remaining original buildings and later reconstructions of historical buildings.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the with German unification, the memorial was placed under the temporary administration of the Brandenburg Ministry of Science, Research and Culture. Since January 1993, the Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum has been part of the Brandenburg Memorials Foundation, which is funded equally by the Federal Republic of Germany and the state of Brandenburg. The Museum of the Death Marches in the Belower Forest near Wittstock was established in 1981 and is administratively linked to the Memorial. In these woods, 18,000 prisoners, who had been forced by the SS on a death march in the direction of Schwerin, rested for a number of days in late April and early May of 1945.
The original buildings and structural remains of the concentration camp are "guarantors of the memory." Therefore, their preservation and restoration are of utmost priority. Because for decades only the facades of most of the historical buildings were attended to, and with the continued existence of almost all the buildings being in danger, their preservation requires considerable expenditure. After the buildings have been restored, small permanent exhibitions which address the significant aspects of the history of those sites will be installed inside the structures.
The redesign of Sachsenhausen Memorial is based on a decentralised concept, which aims to communicate history to visitors in very places where it happened. Thirteen exhibitions on different sites examine the particular history of each and link it to a thematic presentation that sets it in a wider context. These are complemented by temporary exhibitions, held in the New Museum. There are also exhibitions by school groups, resulting from educational projects, as well as workshop exhibitions to present new acquisitions from the archives and depot. After completion of the remodelling work, Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum remains a place of mourning and remembrace in a European context, while facing up to the tasks of a modern museum of history.