Although the name Mauthausen is well known throughout the world, outside of those who study the Holocaust there are few who have even heard of the Gusen Konzentrationslagers, despite their direct connection to Mauthausen, size, importance and extremely high death toll.
The Gusen camps, located at Langenstein near to the main camp Mauthausen and approximately 20km east of Linz, comprised three separate sites. Gusen-I was established due to the wishes of the SS-owned DESt (Deutsche Erd- und Steinwerke GmbH) company to exploit the nearby granite quarries. Later, Gusen-II and Gusen-III (designated a supply camp) were founded.
In 1940, the double camp Mauthausen-Gusen was designated as a Level-III Konzentrationslager - the highest category reserved for so called "Knochenmühlen" (bone mills). This categorisation was only used to designate concentration camps directly attached to a stone quarry, where typically the death rate was much higher than at regular Arbeitslagers such as KZ-Dachau.
Following the initial years of slave labour in the stone quarries, prisoners later worked within the arms industry. From 1943 onward, this was commonplace in many of the concentration camps throughout Europe. Messerschmitt GmbH Regensburg and Steyr-Daimler-Puch AG both exploited the inmates of Gusen.
Gusen-II was opened in spring 1944 to pacify the requirements of the arms industry - tunnels were demanded to house the production of the new Messerschmitt fighter aircraft. The catastrophic conditions led to the deaths of thousands of prisoners.
Overall, approximately 71,000 people were deported to the Gusen camps, with a minimum of 35,800 losing their lives. Of these, at least 13,000 were Polish, over 4,200 Spanish and thousands of Soviet POWs were also killed.
By the end of 1939, a construction detail of almost entirely German and Austrian prisoners started work on the camp. Mid April 1940 saw the inmates being housed at Gusen although the official date for the opening of the camp was not until May of the same year. Transports from Dachau and Sachsenhausen soon brought thousands of Poles to begin the exploitation of the granite quarries nearby. Spanish Republicans and Soviet POWs arrived in 1941, with large transports of Poles arriving the following year to maintain the prisoner "stock", which was falling rapidly due to the horrific conditions. 1943 saw the gradual shift from the quarries to the arms production facilities and also the first major French and Italian transports arriving at Gusen. In 1944, largely due to the massive demand for arms production, the prisoner total swelled threefold - resulting in patent difficulties in camp life. Toward the end of the year, Gusen-III was established as a supply camp in nearby Lungitz. Hungarian Jews from Auschwitz arrived earlier in 1944. Due to the collapse of the German Reich, hundreds of concentration camps were evacuated during the latter stages of 1944 and early in 1945, resulting in many thousands of people being forced on the death marches to the outer reaches of the camp system. Many arrived at the Mauthausen-Gusen camps. The final four months of Gusen's existence saw nearly 14,000 new arrivals, resulting in a record number of 26,311 inmates recorded at the end of February 1945. During this period, 10,000 died. At liberation, 20,000 prisoners were still incarcerated at Gusen.
Karl Chmielewski - oversaw the construction of the Gusen camp and became the first Kommandant. Actively participated in the torture and murder of inmates. Later transferred to KZ-Herzogenbusch before being accused of embezzlement and raping female prisoners. In the summer of 1944, he was sentenced to 15 years and imprisoned at Dachau. At liberation, he was the Lagerältester at Dachau sub-camp AL-Allach. Later lived under false identity until he was sentenced to life in the 1960s - he was caught when he tried to remarry. Chmielewski died in 1991, shortly after his release from prison.
Fritz Seidler - Kommandant from October 1942, having earlier served at Auschwitz-II, Birkenau. Notorious sadist who was both systematic in his methods and very strong - his punch was known to break a prisoner's jaw. Seidler shot himself in May 1945.
Gusen-II was led by SS-Hauptsturmführer Max Pausch and SS-Hauptscharführer Franz Gottfried Schulz. At Lungitz, SS-Unterscharführer Wilhelm Maack was Kommandant of the supply camp, Gusen-III.
Other SS staff
Sixteen physicians served at Gusen, testing drugs on human guinea pigs before killing most by injection. The guard strength, originally 600, later rose to 3,000 by March 1945. The HQ staff remained constant at around 300 personnel throughout the existence of the camp.
Methods of Murder
Although the vast majority of victims died due to a combination of exhaustion, malnutrition and illness, several methods of killing were also employed at the Gusen camps.
Aktion 14f13 - From summer 1941, "mercy killings" carried out at Schloss Hartheim, a sub-camp of the Mauthausen-Gusen system. Hartheim was officially headed "Erholungslager" (convalescent camp). Approximately 2,000 prisoners from Gusen were gassed at Hartheim.
Gas - although there is a lack of testimony and relevant documentation, a former employee of the Slupetzky-Linz company later gave evidence against the owner - brought to the camp to assist with the typhus epidemic and subsequent disinfection ordered by Kommandant Seidler. All seriously ill prisoners were reportedly brought to Block-31 of the infirmary sector where they were gassed. Between 684 and 892 died, listed as "deceased" on records.
Totbadeaktionen ("Death Baths")
The sick and unfit for work were often killed by freezing jets of water, which they were subjected to for at least 30 minutes. Patently, the resulting circulatory problems resulted in the vast majority of the inmates dying during the process. Those who did survive died later of pneumonia. This method was cancelled in early 1942, with no accurate statistics available to record the number of deaths.
The Final Days
The SS withdrawal, led by Kommandant Seidler and his family, started on the evening of the 2nd May 1945. Feuerschutzpolizei units from Vienna were entrusted with guarding the remaining prisoners while the SS made their escape. On May 5th, a US Army patrol group came across the Gusen camps. They disarmed 800 guard staff - the fire police units, before most of the survivors left the camp in search of food. Thousands of liberated prisoners were brought back to the camp by US troops during the following days, to limit the spread of disease and attend to the difficult tasks of treatment, burials, rationing and later, repatriation. The barracks of Gusen-II were burned down by the US Military Administration on May 17th due to the catastrophic conditions. Later, Soviet forces took control of the area - not leaving until the mid-1950's. Residential estates were then planned and in the 1960's, survivors from Italy planned the memorial complex. The modern museum shown below was opened in 2003.