The History of Mauthausen Concentration Camp

The only concentration on Austrian territory was never planned for Austrian prisoners; the Austrian links to this concentration are many and complex. Mauthausen was to become the symbol of the Nazi regime in Austria.

Almost all of the then Ostmark became a sub-camp of Mauthausen. These sub-camps, as well as the main camp itself, were supplied with groceries and building materials, the guards were also often recruited locally. The prisoners arrived by train and then were marched through the centre of the towns and villages. They were not easily overlooked. Many building projects in the area of the camp were built using the prisoners as forced labourers, many are still standing and in use today.

The Beginnings

The first prisoners arrived at Mauthausen on 8th August 1938. Roughly 300 prisoners were sent from Dachau concentration camp in order to build the camp and work in the infamous onsite quarry. These 300 men were guarded by 80 members of the Dachau SS-Totenkopfverbandes, who would later form the foundation of the guard unit at Mauthausen.

The first camp consisted of four barracks, but began to grow rapidly. By December 1938 Mauthausen had almost 1000 prisoners, minus thirteen who had been released and 34 that had died.

Extermination through labour

In the following years, Mauthausen became one of the most feared camps in the concentration camp system – it was the only "category III", the worst category.
For many prisoners deportation to Mauthausen meant arriving at a death camp, their prison records were marked RU (Rückkehr unerwünscht/return undesirable). Prisoners who fell into this category were to be worked to death.
Mauthausen had different groups of prisoners who were treated differently.
Particularly infamous was the punishment battalion, working in the quarry.

During this phase there was only a small chance of survival for the prisoners due to the terrible conditions; constant cruelty and mistreatment, inadequate food and nutrition, atrocious hygiene conditions and a lack of medical attention. For the camp management this served to save costs and was accepted. Until late summer 1943 Mauthausen was almost without exception a death camp for people of specific nationalities or prisoner categories. Particularly affected by this were Jewish and gypsy prisoners, as well as Russian (especially prisoners of war), Polish, Czech and Spanish Republican prisoners. Those who didn't fall victim to the conditions of the camp or the constant executions might have also found themselves deemed unsuitable for work ("Arbeitsunfähig") by SS doctors and murdered with phenol, petrol or air injections.

In autumn 1941 work began on building a gas chamber, with the aim of murdering prisoners who fell ill or were unsuitable for work, as well as for more extensive executions. Furthermore, in spring 1942 a gas van was used to murder numerous prisoners en route from Mauthausen to Gusen (a sub-camp found in 1940) by diverting the exhaust fumes of the van into the sealed compartment at the back, suffocating those within. In the euthanasia institution Schloss Hartheim, following the official end of the Nazi euthanasia policy, thousands of prisoners were murdered in the gas chambers that had been built there.

Only when the role of the concentration camp changed to include the supply of slave labour for the armaments industry did the destruction and annihilation policy of the SS change. Prisoners became important for arms production and were interned in sub-camps developed for this use, where they were allowed to live as long as they still served a purpose.

By the end of 1943 there were 25,000 prisoners in Mauthausen concentration camp, not including the many who had died there, been murdered or had been transferred to other camps. When the prisoners began to be used in arms production, industrialists and the SS saw the potential offered by a large workforce, promising high profit due to the limited costs they would incur for food and care.

Arms Production and Prisoner Work

The on-going war and the ever-growing losses of the German Wehrmacht in terms of both personnel and materials meant that more and more men were being called up for military service and an increases demand for arms. Thousands of women were also conscripted and millions of forced labourers were deported to Germany to work in arms production. All attempts however to even come close to offsetting losses failed. For this reason, in 1943 a growing number of concentration camp prisoners were being redeployed to war work, which meant only a temporary reprieve. Prisoner who were considered unsuitable for work or were too ill were still – and almost without exception – murdered or left to die.

In order to facilitate the involvement of the prisoners in the armaments industry, several sub-camps were established, initially near to the main Mauthausen concentration camp and later throughout Austria (from Salzburg eastwards), particularly at places important for their logistical position, be it in terms of resources or transport connections. The geographical advantages of locating these works in the Alps and around was that production was less likely to be disrupted by airstrikes, with many factories located in shafts excavated into the side of mountains ("Stollen") or in mines. These Stollen and mines sometimes existed already, but in many cases they were created under terrible conditions by the prisoners themselves.

The first sub-camp of Mauthausen was the Gusen camp, founded just 5 km away from the main camp in Langenstein and opened in May 1940. Until January 23rd 1944, Gusen held a special position in the Mauthausen structure, with its own registration procedure giving prisoners their own numbers, meaning that Gusen was to all intents and purposes almost an independent concentration camp. Beginning in spring 1943 more and more sub-camps were established at the site of armaments factories. The largest camps – which in some cases had more prisoners than the main camp – were Gusen, Ebensee, Melk, Linz and several camps in the area around Vienna. There are currently 49 known sub-camps of Mauthausen concentration camp.

The main camp at Mauthausen became an administrative and prisoner distribution centre for sending prisoners for forced labour in diverse industries. Prisoners who were no longer able to work were transported to the main camp to be murdered. Mauthausen became a death camp for prisoners in the smaller sub-camps throughout Austria.

Chaos and mass death at the end

The efforts to increase arms output and the increased use of prisoners for war work saw an enormous and rapid increase in the number of prisoners, from 25,000 people at the end of 1943 to over 74,000 by the end of 1944, eventually reaching its peak at 84,000 in March 1945. Altogether, the number of Mauthausen prisoners is estimated to have been 200,000, considering the number of people who were deported to Mauthausen and murdered without undergoing the registration process. Included in this figure are the 8000 women who were interned in the men's camp.

From autumn 1944 prisoners were no longer only sent to Mauthausen for exploitation in the arms industry in its sub-camps, rather as a depot for those prisoners being evacuated from camps in the East. This meant that the situation in Mauthausen went from being completely overcrowded to one of catastrophic chaos.

The overcrowding led to a tent camp for 10,000 people being set up. The high proportion of ill and starving prisoners in this part of the camp led to the so-called medical camp just outside of the main camp and next to the SS sports field being essentially left to its own devices, leading to the deaths of thousands due to starvation and epidemics. Murder at Mauthausen continued unabated, with the gas chamber being used up until April 28th 1945. The number of deaths rose at such a rate that the crematorium at the camp could no longer keep up with the number of corpses that needed to be burnt.


The liberation of Mauthausen concentration camp was the last liberation by Allied soldiers. At the beginning of May the SS guards began to be removed from the camp. Shortly before the last guards left all the prisoners who had worked in jobs that offered them especially incriminating insight into the workings of the camp were shot. The last such execution took place on 3rd May 1945. After the SS guards had left, supervision of the camp fell in part to units of the Vienna fire brigade. The prisoners began to form committees in preparation of the arrival of the Allied forces.

On the morning of the 5th May 1945 the village of Mauthausen was occupied by American troops and the majority of the SS men were taken prisoner. At roughly lunchtime, Louis Haefliger (a delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross), who had been in Mauthausen for the past couple of days, led two American armoured reconnaissance vehicles to the camps. Despite the protests of the prisoners, the Americans left again after a couple of hours, leading several groups of prisoners to arm themselves, fearing that the SS might return. It was on the 7th May 1945 that 11th Tank Division of the 3rd US Army under the command of Colonel Siebel that the camp was finally taken over and permanently liberated.