Buchenwald, one of the largest concentration camps in Germany, was built on the Ettersberg hillside above Weimar. Weimar was chiefly famous until then for its association with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Germany's most renowned and beloved author, the poet of enlightenment. The "Goethe Oak," a favorite meditation refuge for the eighteenth century father of German poetry, stood near the camp.

Buchenwald was established in 1937 for political prisoners, such as German Communists and Social Democrats. After July 1938, German and Austrian gypsy prisoners were imprisoned in the camp, as well. They were joined by German and Austrian Jews in 1938, almost 10,000 in number, after Kristallnacht (November 9, 1938)--the "night of broken glass"--a terroristic attack on Jewish businesses and people throughout Germany.

Buchenwald was primarily a forced labor camp. The prison population grew rapidly to support critical wartime industries such as the German Armament Works (DAW) and the camp's stone quarry. Buchenwald had more than 100 subcamps, the largest and most important being Dora-Mittelbau. Buchenwald and its subcamps provided slave labor to the armaments industry, the quarries and businesses such as BMW, I.G. Farben and Ford, at its German plant, Cologne Fordwerke. Periodic selections occurred to weed out those unfit for further labor. Those prisoners "selected" were sent to Bernberg or Sonnenstein "euthanasia" centers or killed at Buchenwald by phenol injection. Many of the dead were burned in the camp crematorium.

By 1945, the camp housed 80,000 inmates. Counts of those who died at Buchenwald vary, ranging from more than 56,000 to 65,000 inmates. Prisoners were confined in the area known as Main Camp, in the northern section of Buchenwald, while the SS guards and camp administration lived in the southern section. Main Camp was surrounded by an electrified barbed-wire fence, watchtowers, and posts with automatic machine guns. The jail, known as "the bunker," was located at the entrance to Main Camp. Fred Mercer, a liberator with the 20th Corps, described the camp buildings as "tar paper shacks." The camp included the infamous Block 64, where medical experiments, such as induced typhus infections to develop vaccines for Germans, took place.

In January 1945, Soviet troops swept through Poland. Approximately 20,000 prisoners were evacuated from Polish concentration camps in frantic forced marches and packed railroad cars. About 8,000 died. The Nizkor Project describes a train arriving from Poland with only 300 living prisoners among the 4,000 on board. The article recounts that "Removing the corpses had been unusually laborious since most of the bodies had been frozen together; their arms and legs snapped off in the unloading."

Buchenwald Camp had an active and organized resistance movement, many of whose members held key administrative posts in camp. As the allies invaded Germany, the resistance movement obstructed orders to prepare for evacuation, refusing to attend roll calls and hiding the selected men. On April 11, 1945, the resistance movement stormed the camp. The inmates were organized into platoons, companies and battalions. After the arsenal was taken, every prisoner in camp was armed. They tore down the barbed wire fences with spades, picks, crowbars, and battering rams made of logs. When the 20th Corps arrived to liberate the camp later that same day, they were greeted by the resistance troops, who had seized control of the camp and placed the SS troops under guard. The 20th Corps found 20,000 prisoners in the camp.

Among the prisoners liberated was Elie Wiesel, who would later win the Nobel Prize for his chronicles of camp life. He described the liberation thus, "It is a day I remember as an empty day--empty of hope." Liberator Fred Mercer described the fate of one newly-freed prisoner: "He walked along and all of a sudden he began to stagger, and he dropped down and his mouth dropped open, and he began foaming at the mouth, obviously dropped dead right there. He had gotten out, and that was as far as he got. Just walked a few miles down the highway."