03/06/2020 News

Soldiers as Concentration Camp Guards

The United States Department of Justice has announced that Friedrich Karl Berger, a German citizen who immigrated to the United States in 1959, will be deported to Germany where he worked as a guard in the Neuengamme concentration camp and was “part of the SS system of oppression, which kept prisoners in atrocious conditions.“

Friedrich Berger, born in 1925 in Bargen, today a part of the Erfde municipality in Schleswig-Holstein, was a seaman apprentice in the German Navy. On February 23, 1945 he was assigned to guard the Meppen-Versen and Meppen-Dalum camps, satellites of the Neuengamme concentration camp, which belonged to the so-called Friesenwall camps. In March 1945 both camps were liquidated and the prisoners taken to the main camp Neuengamme by train or on foot. Guards from the navy were transferred to other task forces with no connection to the concentration camp system.

How come a regular navy sailor became a concentration camp guard? In the fall of 1944 there were extensive personnel changes in the Neuengamme concentration camp. Guards were sent to France to support the Waffen-SS while regular soldiers took their places in Neuengamme.  At the same time the system of satellite camps grew. In order to meet the growing demand for guards, soldiers were assigned to guard concentration camps. This means that half of Neuengamme guards were not members of the SS to begin with or they were transferred into the Waffen-SS like parts of the army and the air force. Among the guards in satellite camps, there were 80-100 members of the 354 navy battalion who were sent from Langeoog to Neuengamme on January 23, 1945. The nineteen-year-old Friedrich Karl Berger was one of them.

The police records show that 80 of these men were ordered to take prisoners to the Meppen satellite camp, where 1700 prisoners were forced to work on the construction of the so-called Friesenwall. Friesenwall stands for a series of fortifications along the coast and borders which were to protect Germany against an Allied landing. In Wedel, Aurich-Engerhafe, Husum, Ladelund, Meppen-Dalum and Meppen-Versen on the Dutch border, prisoners had to do the groundwork guarded by the Navy sailors. The names of the prisoners who predominantly came from the Soviet Union, Poland and the Netherlands but also from Germany, Denmark, Latvia, France and Italy, were found on a list from January 1945. Due to insufficient food, clothing and accommodation, hundreds of prisoners died working in these camps. The Versen War Cemetery includes graves of 297 prisoners who died in the two Meppen camps.

On March 25 1945, the SS liquidated the camps. The prisoners who were able to walk were herded to Bremen over Cloppenburg on foot. Most of them returned to the Neuengamme main camp guarded by the Navy soldiers. At least 50 prisoners died during the evacuation march. The guard unit was then ordered to return to Cuxhaven.

Read more

Press information of the US Department of Justice (English)

Article by Reimer Möller: Wehrmachtsangehörige als Wachmannschaften im KZ Neuengamme, in: Beiträge Heft 13 (Link) (German)

Website of Esterwegen Memorial (Emsland Camps)

Website about Meppen-Versen subcamp (English)

Article about former prisoner Karl Saling Møller (German), biography of Karl Saling Møller (English)