General Dwight D. Eisenhower's visit to the Ohrdruf concentration camp in April of 1945 drew great interest from the American public. His tour of the camp helped generate a massive publicity campaign to expose the crimes of the Nazi regime to the world. The flood of reports that filled Western newspapers and magazines following Eisenhower's visit shocked Americans with grisly details about the Nazi camp system.1
On April 4, 1945, US Army troops arrived at Ohrdruf, part of the Buchenwald concentration camp system. On April 12, 1945, Eisenhower flew to Ohrdruf to meet American generals George S. Patton and Omar Bradley. The camp was still filled with the bodies of prisoners who had been murdered just before the SS guards fled. The stench of death filled the camp.
The featured film was created by US Army Signal Corps photographers. At Ohrdruf, Eisenhower received a tour from former prisoners with a US miitary translator. As the camera rolls, Eisenhower and Bradley solemnly survey the bodies of inmates who were tortured and executed. Crowds of military personnel and former prisoners look on.
Following the discovery of more Nazi concentration camps, Eisenhower cabled US Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, declaring that everything that had appeared in the press about these sites was “an understatement."2 He requested:
If you would see any advantage in asking about a dozen leaders of Congress and a dozen prominent editors to make a short visit to this theater in a couple of C-54s, I will arrange to have them conducted to one of these places where the evidence of bestiality and cruelty is so overpowering as to leave no doubt in their minds about the normal practices of the Germans in these camps. I am hopeful that some British individuals in similar categories will visit the northern area to witness similar evidence of atrocity.3
Marshall responded the same day, indicating that Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and President Harry S. Truman had approved his proposal. Eisenhower then arranged with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill for lawmakers from the United Kingdom to see the concentration camps.
Within days of Eisenhower's cable, congressional representatives and journalists toured the camps and publicized their reports. At the same time, films of liberated camps like this one arrived in the United States, where they were featured in newsreels for viewing in public theaters. Allied occupation authorities then ordered all German prisoners of war in the United States to see these images. In Germany itself, Allied commanders often forced members of the local German population to view the bodies of those killed in the nearby camps or on death marches. German civilians were also forced to exhume the bodies and give them a proper burial. Later, British and American military authorities ordered German townspeople to watch films of Nazi atrocities.4
Films like this one from Ohrdruf were also made at other camps liberated by Allied soldiers. They served as evidence in the trials of the major Nazi leaders at Nuremberg in 1945 to 1946. They were also used to raise public awareness of Nazi crimes. These films stand today as important and lasting documentation of the Holocaust.5