Forced to Toil and Build Their Own Camp - On the arrival of the first prisoners at Mauthausen on 8 August 1938


Forced to Toil and Build Their Own Camp - On the arrival of the first prisoners at Mauthausen on 8 August 1938
Prisoners at the construction of the "Appellplatz", 1941/42 (photo credits: Museu d'Història de Catalunya)

On 8 August 1938, only five months after the ‘Anschluss’ (‘Annexation’) of Austria to the German Reich, the first transport carrying 304 prisoners from the Dachau concentration camp arrived at Mauthausen. The majority were from Austria and had been categorised by the SS as ‘criminal’. However, for many of them, it was National Socialist legislation that had turned them into ‘criminals’ in the first place. These prisoners were forced to toil and build their own camp.

This marked the beginning of a new element in the National Socialist system of terror, one that would stretch its net across almost all of Austria in the following years and instil fear and dread into the rest of Europe. By the time Germany launched its war of aggression in September 1939, around 3,000 prisoners were already interned at the Mauthausen concentration camp. When the Gusen branch camp was established in December 1939, the number of prisoners multiplied to around 8,000 by the end of 1940, and around 16,000 by the end of 1941. The establishment of numerous subcamps saw an explosion in prisoner numbers, reaching a peak of 84,000 in March 1945.

The deportation, abuse and deployment as forced labourers of around 190,000 people from all over Europe and the murder of over 90,000 of them has left behind deep scars, even over seventy years after the events took place. Today, people in the different countries the prisoners came from or emigrated to still mourn their relatives, friends and fellow citizens. Material traces of the crimes against humanity committed in Mauthausen can still be found in nearly all areas of Austria. Some stand today as memorials. But many have been forgotten, have become overgrown, or were built over with nothing left to remember the past.

80 years after the Mauthausen concentration camp was established, we at the Mauthausen Memorial continue to address the question of how it was possible for such an inhuman system of violence to take hold among society and to develop with such momentum. A society that pursues this debate has the potential to react with greater sensitivity to problematic developments in the present.