The Spanish Holocaust and the Cover-Up that Lasted a Generation

This post by Dr. Robert Whealey originally appeared at History News Network.

An armored car of the US Army entering the Mauthausen concentration camp. The banner in the background (in Spanish) reads as “Anti-fascist Spaniards salute the forces of liberation”. The Spanish civil war had been triggered by an attempted right-wing army coup in July 1936 against the elected, left-leaning Republican government. The Nationalists, as the side of the army rebels came to be known, represented Spain’s forces of reaction: the land-owning class, industrial bourgeoisie, and the Catholic Church. Aided by Hitler and Mussolini, Franco’s Nationalists conducted their “holy crusade” in the name of order and a return to tradition against the Republic. (Credit: Donald R. Ornitz / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Most historians do not know that the Concentration Camp “Mauthausen,” located in Austria, is to Spanish Republicans as “Auschwitz” is to Jews. Both names are red-flag words never to be forgotten.

During the Second World War, the Jews of occupied Europe were mostly sent to the six death camps in Poland, including Auschwitz. The SS sent large numbers of other political prisoners from some thirty-odd nationalities to Mauthausen to work and die in the slave labor camp. According to Russian statistics, 122,767 people were imprisoned in Mauthausen. These included Soviets, mostly Russians, Poles, Hungarians, Yugoslavs, French, 6503 Spaniards, Italians, Czechs, Greeks, and 1500 Germans who died in numbers proportional to that order. Interestingly, only 235 imprisoned Austrians died at the camp. Also included in the death lists were Belgians, Dutch, 34 Americans, Luxembergers and 17 British.

This list was based on Soviet statistics gathered when Mauthausen was located in their occupation zone of Austria, in 1947. According to Spanish statistics, the total dead from the Mauthausen operations were closer to 200,000. There are incomplete SS records from the Mauthausen operations because before 5 May 1945, when the US Army entered the town, the staff successfully burned some of their archives and torture machines.

By May the death camps in Poland had long been liberated, and the SS on the Soviet front were fleeing in somewhat of a controlled panic in the winter of 1944-March 1945. But the incomplete Soviet Russian list for Mauthausen gives us some idea of the proportional varieties of national prisoners caught for various deeds of anti-Nazi activity.

Paradoxically, the picture of daily SS operations at Mauthausen is now clearer than for the six Polish death camps. This is because so many Spaniards survived to liberation day, and they made their own records about what happened inside the barbed wire compounds. Most of the Jews of Poland, in contrast, did not live to tell their stories.

Mauthausen’s most famous prisoner was Simon Wiesenthal, an Austrian Jew. The leading Spanish “half-hero” is Juan de Diego, a “Kapo,” i.e. collaborator who had been made chief record keeper of the main Mauthausen camp by the SS. Actually Diego was not technically a Kapo but a privileged block leader (one of the top 10 percent of the Kapos). No Kapo who survived this Austrian jungle of bestiality can be assumed to have a clean bill of health. During liberation week, as the camp was being freed by the American Army of General Patton, Juan de Diego, with the assistance of other block leaders, hid some of the incriminating evidence, including Nazi photos, from destruction by the SS camp leaders. His evidence is available to scholars. It helped form the basis of a recent book about Mauthausen by British author David Wingate Pike, Spaniards in the Holocaust: Mauthausen, the Horror on the Danube (Routledge, 2000). Thus Pike is able to tell a more coherent tale of what it was like to be inside the Nazi concentration work camp.

Pike thoroughly investigates other statistics and memoirs to substantiate the Spanish claims, although his book mainly focuses on the Spanish Holocaust. In 1940-1941, 90 percent of all the Spanish prisoners were sent to Mauthausen where the SS rules said in effect, “no escape and no pardon” from this living hell. Anybody sent to Mauthausen with red triangles sewn on their uniforms, mostly for political reasons, were condemned to work until death. Depending on a particular guard’s whims, the SS encouraged earlier executions and murders in the granite quarry and in tunnel trails in the Alps. Until mid-1943, the Nazis assumed that the supply of slave labor would be inexhaustible.

According to the Spanish survivors, about 23,400 Spaniards were shipped in box cars to Mauthausen; 16,310 died and 9,200 survived the ordeal of slavery. They died the same way many Jews died at Auschwitz: the SS worked and starved them to death. They also had their gold teeth pulled for foreign exchange. More Spaniards than Jews there died of disease, from spot executions, and from starvation, while fewer Spaniards were thrown live into the crematoria. The smaller Mauthausen crematoria were mostly efficient “garbage disposals” for the piles of the already dead. The first fully functioning gas chambers were introduced to Mauthausen in May 1942 mostly for Jews and Russians. Probably 449 Spaniards were gassed. Of the 20,000 Jews (mostly Dutch and French nationality) sent to Mauthausen, 22 survived the ordeal. One of those still in the camp on 5 May was Simon Wiesenthal.

The Spaniards, as anti-fascist veterans, mostly young men and well-disciplined from the Spanish Civil War, survived with better rates than the more demoralized civilian Jews, Poles and French. Very few, if any, Spaniards committed suicide, unlike the French. Solidarity was their key to survival. The British, Dutch, Russians and Spaniards knew why they were fighting in World War II. The French were unsure of themselves. Few Russians survived the work camp, because like the Jews, most were executed on the spot before being registered for work. The French, Italians, Ukrainians, and surprisingly the Poles, were more likely to collaborate as Kapos with the SS to save their skins and betray their compatriots. Diego and his friends had “seniority” rights, so to speak, because of arriving in the camp before Hitler’s attack on the USSR in June 1941.

The Czech story was interesting as a statistical check on the SS operation against Spaniards. Because of the assassination on SS leader Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler’s second in command, in Prague in May 1942, the 3000 Czechs in the camp were reduced to 300 by 1944. The handful of Dutch, British and Americans executed in Mauthausen for sabotage and spying were caught in underground quasi combat operations by the SS.

Pike does not really deal with the complex Jewish problems suffered in the Holocaust, but several of his footnotes have revealing information about the operation of the six death camps in Poland. Austrians were not Hitler’s victims, because, for the most part, they enthusiastically became Nazi Party members and supporters of the Greater Reich from March 1938 to May 1945. Austria’s Mauthausen was part of the same system headed by Heinrich Himmler’s and nearly as cruel as the Polish death coups. There was an equivalent of Dr. Mengele at Mauthausen, but he and his staff experimented on fewer women and children than Mengele did in Auschwitz. The Mauthausen medical staff did most of their dirty work by injecting victims with various poisonous chemicals. The guards were just as sadistic in Mauthausen as elsewhere for their own perverted sense of enjoyment.

In the beginning, the slave laborers had to carry 20 kilograms of granite up 186 steps on a starvation diet. They toiled in the quarries till they died. Later in the war, they dug tunnels for an underground Messerschmidt plant to survive the American bombers. By 1943, 35 percent of the famous Messerschmidt fighters were being produced at Mauthausen. The first jet fighter in combat in the world, the Me 262, was designed and mostly built in the Alpine tunnels of Mauthausen.

Right after the surrender of the Third Republic in France in June 1940, 4,000 Spaniards were sent to the Channel Islands to build fortifications. Only 59 survived that task.

Mauthausen, constructed in July 1938, was the first camp to receive foreigners. In early 1941, before the Soviet Union was invaded by Hitler, 60 percent of the prisoners were Spaniards. They mostly wore the red triangles symbolizing political prisoner, or blue for the stateless. Himmler himself in 1941 visited the camp twice. The SS Fuhrer in April 1941 told the commandant to kill more inmates per day than he was already doing. His second in command Ernst Kaltenbrunner who replaced Heydrich, and Albert Speer head of the German war economy, also visited the slave labor camp several times.

During the civil war General Francisco Franco invited the Berlin Police Chief, Count Wolf von Helldorf, to help his new totalitarian government organize the Falangist police. SS Fuhrer Heinrich Himmler was given a medal by the victorious Franco in 1939 when the civil war was over. After the fall of France in 1940, the unforgiving Franco was perfectly willing to get rid of the 150,000 “red” Spanish refugees still in southern France. The alternative punishment for the Spanish exiles, now stateless in Madrid’s eyes, was death immediately upon return home to face Spanish Army execution or slave work. Prisoners would build the Valle de los Caidos, “The valley of the fallen,” which would become Franco’s own Egyptian style tomb. If the Spanish leftists remained in France, the preferred option, up to July 1940, they faced a slow death at some unknown date at the hands of the SS in Austria. Like the Jews of Poland, the Spaniards did not know what faced them in Mauthausen until after they got inside the gate.

The Kapos in Mauthausen — mostly Germans, Poles and Ukrainians — wore green triangles, symbolizing common criminals or black for sexual sadists, dope addicts or alcoholics. From June 1941 to the end of 1945, the Mauthausen complex grew in size. By March 1945, 83,249 inmates were locked in this camp of horror. The camp commandant controlled sixty holding centers throughout all Austria. In 1940 the victims of war were guarded by 1,250 SS men, in a 1 to 10 ratio. By 1944 the ratio of SS to prisoners was reduced to 1-15. The SS had the assistance of 7,200 to 10,000 Kapos to operate the machine of torture and death.

The commandant of the camp was a young man Franz Ziereis, born in Munich in 1903. Despite his lack of formal education, (he was a carpenter by profession), he rose to the SS rank equivalent to colonel in 1944. He joined the SS as a private and trained in Buchenwald in the early 1930s. Ziereis was a sadist who enjoyed using human beings for target practice and was mostly drunk throughout his police tour. He collected human skulls and human tattoos to decorate his office. His second in command was a cobbler promoted to the SS equivalent of captain, Georg Bachmayer. During the first week of May 1945, Bachmayer, like Joseph Goebbels, shot his two young daughters and wife and then committed suicide.

Pike records perhaps three human interest stories that are the stuff for a movie. The screams of the victims of SS torturers were so loud that in the spring of 1943 the migrating birds did not come back to Mauthausen. Second, a persistent relative in Spain, through the Spanish Consulate in Vienna, actually got Juan Bautista Nos Fibla released from the camp on 22 August 1941. This was only successful case on record. Most of the other Spanish appellants were put off with false death certificates declaring “death by heart attack” by the SS. The third story of note: Margarita Ferrer of Madrid became the lover of an Austrian International Brigadier, Rudolf Freimel, during the civil war. They fled to France in February 1939 as the Republic collapsed. Freimel was consequently sent by the Gestapo to Auschwitz I. Then the SS, in a bizarre gesture, allowed Margarita to visit Auschwitz on 18 March 1944, to get married in the camp. She returned to France, but on 30 December 1944, Rudolf Freimel and four others were hung in Auschwitz, the last public execution to take place in the death camp, since the Soviet armies were at the gates. On 18 January 1945 Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army.

There were three attempts at mass escape from SS camps in Himmler’s system. One was in Sobibor on 14 October 1943 and two at Mauthausen. The Soviet prisoners of war in February 1945 when victory was in sight decided that their entire bloc of 4,300 men would rise up, choke the guards, and make a mass run for the fences on the theory that a small percent would make it. About 400 got out of the camp, but only 17-19 of them escaped the mass Austrian civilian and the SS round up that followed. In the second Mauthausen escape, about 150 got through the Austrian-Yugoslavian tunnel.

In February 1945 Himmler ordered commandant Ziereis and the other SS camp commanders to execute all remaining inmates and blow up the prisons. That was a hard operation to carry out in a day, a week or a month. How do the “Greens” and “Blacks” shoot the “Reds,” ” Blues,” and “Yellow Stars” amid the hunger and disease? If the hierarchy of prisoners, which also included “Browns Stars” (Gypsies), “Purples” (conscientious objectors), and “Pinks” (homosexuals) suspect that the SS guards and their Kapos are determined to kill them, then the half beasts of men, in the confused chain of command, would begin to imagine that they would be the next to die. At what point does an individual decide to defect from the Nazi system? Actually Himmler’s general order, issued from Berlin headquarters, was given varying interpretations all along the line. SS units in Buchenwald and elsewhere began marching their inmates to Mauthausen which had been the Reich’s last Alpine redoubt. Himmler himself changed his general order on 12 March to keep the camps intact.

On 30 April, the day Hitler committed suicide, “colonel,” i.e. Stardartenfurher Zeireis, had a sort of mental break down. His successor dismissed the remaining Spaniards and twenty to thirty other national groups of inmates on 2 May. Ziereis fled for his life.

Meanwhile, the American, Soviet, British and Yugoslavian armies were closing in on Mauthausen amid the chaos existing inside the camp in the first week of May. The confusion of this last week has led to a number of claimants to the title of “liberator” of the camp in the last thirty years. Acts of revenge and lynch justice by some former inmates and some American troops at the squad level led to a collection of messy memoirs. During that week, some of the prisoners ate themselves to death on rich food, dying after 5 May. The American 11th Division did not know what to do with the survivors, and by feeding them, killed them. Some Russians and Poles began to kill each other in a post-liberation massacre. In reality, the military-industrial complex known as Mauthausen was liberated in five phases, with the Spaniards and the Americans in dispute with each other as to who did what first.

The last days of SS Colonel Ziereis may be typical. On the evening of 23 May in the village of Spital, Chief Warrant Officer Walter S. Kobus (US Army) with three G.I.s and two ex-prisoners, a Spaniard and a Czech, captured Ziereis as he was preparing for suicide with a pistol. He bungled the attempt. Taken back to KL (Konzentrations Lager) Mauthausen, he was interrogated by three other ex-prisoners. Ziereis blamed his actions on his superiors: Obergruppenfuhrer (Four Star General) Oswald Pohl, Himmler and Hitler. The Czechs and Spaniards thought the US 11th Armored Division, then in charge of the stinking camp, would somehow allow Ziereis to go free, so they shot him in a trap which would allow him to believe that he could escape. The wounded Ziereis was taken by the U.S. Lt. Colonel in charge to a US field hospital where he died the next day. Ziereis’s son witnessed the final hours and spat on his dying father.

The Mauthausen story was a long time coming out, first because the camp was in the Soviet Zone. Second by liberal standards, the West Germans were slow to become anti-Nazi. Of the 15,000 members of the SS who served in Mauthausen only 200 were executed. It was only after 1945 that the Catholic Church became dogmatically against the death penalty. The American Zone in West Germany stupidly or because of a pro-Catholic policy did not allow any Spaniard to visit the zone to testify against the Nazis. Even the German responsible for shooting 34 Americans in Mauthausen was acquitted in 1971.

Yet the West German courts and school system were more vigorous in rooting out the Nazi ideology than were the Austrian. From 1945 to 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Austrians were in a state of self denial and protected themselves hiding under the cloak of anti-communism. The State Department, because of its anti-Soviet policy, facilitated the cover-up of the sins by Nationalist Spain, the Vatican, post-occupation Austria and many in the governing CDU Party.

No Spaniard was able to publish his story until 1969. In the 1990s, the head of the Mauthausen Museum was a native Spaniard who stayed behind in 1945. It seems that the museum now at Mauthausen needs to study Pike’s book and revise some the underestimated statistics of the atrocities carried out during the Nazi era.

Robert Whealey is Professor Emeritus of Ohio University. He is the author of Hitler and Spain: The Nazi Role in the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 (Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1989).

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