Mauthausen, former Concentration Camp

A documentary on a former inmate of Mauthausen who returned to the memorial site in 2005.

Going to a former concentration camp (KZ) is a sharp contrast to the joyful sightseeing that you might do elsewhere in Austria. Mauthausen with its branches such as Ebensee in the Salzkammergut or Hartheim Castle (where mostly disabled people were murdered) was one of the most notorious concentration camps in the Third Reich. Only a few kilometres from the Abbey of St Florian or the Altstadt of Linz or Enns, Mauthausen provides an opportunity to dive from the peaks of Baroque culture to the lowest point mankind has been to.

It is necessary to distinguish between concentration camps that were primarily built for slave labour such as those in Austria and extermination camps that were primarily built to industrially kill as many people as possible such as Auschwitz or other camps in Poland. Mauthausen was chosen as a site for a slave labour camp because of the granite quarry nearby - and despite of not being an extermination camp, Mauthausen′s death toll was around 50 percent. As efficient managers, the Nazis classified slave labour camps into different categories and Mauthausen was among the few camps that made it to the worst.

I was in Mauthausen only once as a child. Most schools in Austria organise trips to the camp, even though I recall it as anything but the typical day out. If you travel with children under the age of 12 or so, I would not recommend you to go to the camp.

Towards the end of the war, the alpine regions of Austria and the area north of the Alps was - alongside with certain regions in northern Germany and Berlin - among the last strongholds of the Nazis. The mountains provided a natural barrier to the advancing troops of the allies and Upper Austria′s industrial infrastructure (arms and steel production as well as railways) was crucial for continuing the fighting. This is part of the reason why by 1945, Upper Austria ("Oberdonau" or "Upper Danube", as it was called to avoid the word "Austria" in the name) had a higher density of concentration camps than any other region in the Third Reich. Mauthausen took the lead.

Originally, it had been built around the quarry mentioned above in 1938 by inmates from the KZ Dachau near Munich. Until large-scale prosecution of Jews and the war started, most of the inmates were political enemies of the Nazis (primarily socialists, conservatives and others). Later, ten thousands of Jews and Polish and Soviet prisoners of war followed. From the total number of 200,000 inmates, approximately 50 percent died. Despite of being a slave labour camp, Mauthausen had gas chambers.

Of all inmates and persecuted groups, Jews had the lowest life expectancy once they were in the camp. I remember the memorial site guide in the camp introducing himself to us at the spot where newly arrived victims have had to line up in order to report to the SS guards. The guards would have pointed at the gates and said that this was the entrance, only to point at the smoke from the crematories next and tell the inmates that there was the exit.

The gates, most stone buildings and some of the dark-grey walls made from the local granite are still preserved. Several of the 25 barracks that housed the inmates are not. The memorial centre and a permanent exhibition is located in the former sick quarters. Underneath these is the gas chamber. Victims were told that it was a shower. The crematory is next to the gas chamber. The first tests of the poison gas Zyklon B that was used in the Holocaust were done in Schloss Hartheim, the sub-camp of Mauthausen for disabled that I have mentioned above.

Just by the camp you can see the quarry and the infamous "Todesstiege von Mauthausen" ("Stairway of Death"): 189 steps that sick and malnourished inmates had to walk every day - carrying a block of granite at some 50 kilograms or more. Thousands fell to death on this staircase or were thrown down a cliff, something the SS referred to as "Fallschirmspringen" ("parachute jumping"). Cynical nicknames were common: Whips were called "Dolmetscher" ("translators"), because victims - often Polish or Russian - would have to count the number of strokes in German and the guard would start again in case his victim made a mistake.

The entire camp is full with memorials and flowers from relatives of victims or different nations. The one thing that I found and still find most disturbing about the Nazi atrocities, which is obvious in Mauthausen in several instances, is the human side of the SS officers. Loving family fathers who could play with their children one evening would torture people in the most cruel ways the very next day. When Heinrich Himmler visited Mauthausen, he was not shown much of the inmates - because he got sick easily. If you are Austrian and speak German, you are in the privileged position to realise that these crimes were not committed by demons who were banned by allied fire forever, but by people in the right (or wrong) kind of environment. There are still people.

Back to: "Upper Austria Sightseeing Guide"

Further Reading

Jewish History of Austria