First They Came for the Communists

A brief look into Nazi Germany’s attempts to eliminate their greatest threat

First published by the author on Medium on 16 January 2019


Date: 29 January 2023

Author: B.J. Murphy 

Tags: Europe, Philosophy

“First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew,

Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me.”

— Pastor Martin Niemoller

On February 27, 1933, the arson attack on the Reichstag building led to a full-scale inquiry on who exactly was behind such an act.

This led to the arrest of a council communist known as Marinus van der Lubbe. Because of this arrest, Hitler took this as a “communist conspiracy” to try and overthrow the German government. And so, because of the growing anti-communist paranoia, Hitler urged then-President Paul von Hindenburg to pass an emergency decree to counter any attacks by the Communist Party of Germany, leading to mass arrests of communists and those that were of the parliamentary delegates. Because of such actions, this allowed Hitler to consolidate power over the German government and allow the Nazi forces to become the leading army of Germany. [1]

The rounding up of communists after the Nazi coup of April 1933.

Now, whether Van der Lubbe was behind the Reichstag fire or not is still open for debate. It would seem that he was most definitely part of the reason, but whether he was on his own or not is what many remain divided on. Since 1998, a law was passed that issued pardons for those that were convicted by the Nazis. However, it wasn’t until 2008 when Van der Lubbe had finally been exonerated from said “crime.” [2]

Of course, today, when we celebrate the destruction of the concentration camps and the survival of the Jewish people, we fail to include all those else who had survived and those who had died within these same camps. Such people included communists. In March of 1933, the first camp in Germany was created in Dachau. A press statement on this development was released, stating:

“On Wednesday the first concentration camp is to be opened in Dachau with an accommodation for 5000 persons.
All Communists and — where necessary — Reichsbanner and Social Democratic functionaries who endanger state security are to be concentrated here.” [3]

Because of the fear and realization of these camps in Germany, a jingle came about to support both fear and realization of Dachau:

“Dear God, make me dumb, That I may not to Dachau come.” [4]

Bodies found on the Dachau death train.

Dachau was one of the first of the Nazi concentration camps that were built in the 1930s. The system later expanded to hold German Jews, which then resulted in the creation of extermination camps in occupied countries of the East. The poem provided above says “First they came for the communists…” because the camps were developed in order to round up known German communists who were seen as the most die-hard opponents of the Nazi takeover.

In Dachau, communists were ordered to grovel and beg for their lives — and renounce their beliefs in order to be released. Those who resisted were beaten and even killed. Leaders were humiliated and key figures, like Ernst Thaelman, were never released, and many died in Nazi prisons. Later, after 1939, when Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, captured Communist Party members were often executed. And many Soviet prisoners of war (POW) died due to forced labor, starvation, and disease in the Nazi camps.

The story of those German communists seized and brutalized in 1933 is often unknown today. Take Hans Beimler for example. A staunch anti-fascist communist who fought with the International Brigades in support of the Spanish Republic against the fascist Franco regime during the Spanish Civil War. Before he found himself in Spain fighting for Spanish liberation, he was fighting for his own liberation when he was arrested and detained in Dachau in April 1933. Though, he managed to escape the prison by strangling his SA guard and escaping in his uniform. [5]

Jack Werbe wrote a book on his personal experience within the Nazi concentration camps. He reports that, in 1942, he had met a German Jewish communist, by the name of Emil Carlebach, who had asked him to join the Buchenwald International Underground — an anti-fascist militant group. He explained Carlebach’s time in Dachau when arrested in 1933 [6], including his later sentences over the years. Carlebach remained a soldier in the war against Nazi Germany and eventually died on April 9, 2001.

Alfred Haag, although he was originally sentenced to the concentration camp Oberer Kuhberg, found himself being transferred to Dachau during the summer of 1935. Even while he was in the camp, he was defiant to the end for the oppressed, where an SS guard ordered him to bump off a subordinate prisoner, in which Haag replies, “You can’t order me something like this!” [7] He was even known within Dachau to be the one who secretly collected bread for his fellow prisoners. He was eventually caught and then transferred to the Mauthausen concentration camp. From there, he was eventually released by the sheer bravery for his liberation by his own wife. [8]

In September of 1942, Adolf Maislinger was transferred from a Gestapo prison cell in Munich to the Dachau concentration camp. Inside, he and his comrades helped provide food and supplies for fellow prisoners. He became well respected within Dachau, where a former French prisoner, Edmond Michelet, ended up writing about Maislinger in his book Freedom Road:

“I have known no better than Addie Capo [Adolf Maislinger]…
This active Munich communist radiated a Franciscan clemency. Sitting in his window, he played harmonica.
The slow modulation of a song by Schubert morning rocked our hope.” [9]

Though, tensions began arising in Dachau with word that the Americans were on their way to the camp. And so, led by Maislinger, plans were being developed where, no matter what, whether the guards started firing at them or not, they were going to charge at the gates of Dachau and fight for their liberation. Thankfully, before the charge was to be initiated, the Americans made it to the Dachau camp and everyone held as a prisoner inside was released, including Adolf Maislinger. [10]

And then there was Yakov Dzhugashvili — the elder son of then-Premier of the Soviet Union Joseph Stalin. Historians have long debated the death of Yakov, but newly examined archives have solved the mystery. According to the declassified archives, Yakov was captured in July 1941 while commanding a tank battery. He was then sent to the concentration camp in Hommelsberg, for which he remained from April to June in 1942 (his whereabouts between his capture to April 1942 appears to remain unknown). In March of 1943, Yakov was then sent to Sachsenhausen.

According to Russia Today, “Yakov was killed while walking around the camp. The guard asked him to return to the house, but the man only went closer to the fence and shouted to the guard, ‘Shoot!’ The guard shot him in the head.” [11]

There are many more stories that are needing to be heard, and even more that never will. Millions of communist POWs were ridiculed, tortured, and killed within these concentration camps. Like when the Jewish people were identified with yellow stars, the communists were identified through red stars. [12] This became nothing more, like the Jews, than a genocidal attack against anyone who dared to call themselves a communist. It’s been reported that, out of all Soviet POWs that were held as prisoners, around 57% didn’t make it by the end of the war. [13]

In 1944, 43,000 captured Red Army personnel were either killed or died from disease and starvation.

Starvation was a well-used tactic within the concentration camps against Soviet POWs. According to a Soviet report in 1944, 43,000 captured Red Army personnel were either killed or died from disease and starvation. [14] Although Red Cross packages were available for those starving prisoners, all allied officers were ordered never to share such packages. [15] And in order to rid themselves from these diseased starving prisoners, officers were then ordered for all sick inmates to be shot once a week. [16]

It was reported that, in the Buchenwald camp, around 8,000 Soviet POWs were executed. Rudolf Höss, the former Commandant of Auschwitz, spoke with no remorse on the reasoning behind the executions of Soviet prisoners:

“The reason for this action was given as follows: the Russians were murdering any German soldier who was a member of the Nazi party, especially SS members. Also, the political section of the Red Army had a standing order to cause unrest in every way in any POW camp or places where the POWs worked. If they were caught or imprisoned, they were instructed to perform acts of sabotage.” [17]

The conditions these POWs went through was horrendous. Very little shelter was given to the prisoners, and very little food and supplies were provided as well. There were known accounts of Soviet prisoners digging up holes in the ground in order to be used as improvised shelter. Though, by the end of 1941, epidemics began emerging as the leading cause of death. It was said that, by October 1941, “..almost 5,000 Soviet POWs died each day.” [18]

By the end of the war, it was reported that around 3.3–3.5 million communists were killed within the camps. [19] This leaves the communists being the second largest group targeted during the Nazi Holocaust, with the Jewish people being the number one targeted group (around 6 million Jews were killed). Though, according to the Soviet Extraordinary State Commission, if you included all those killed in the concentration camps and all those communists killed during the war, you’ll find the statistics of all communists killed during the Holocaust at around 8.2 million, leaving them as the number one victim of the Nazi regime. [20]

This is not to detract from nor disrespect all those that died during the Holocaust other than the communists. We must all realize that it wasn’t just the Jews or communists that were killed, but also the disabled, the Roma, the LGBTQ+, and many more. We all faced the horrors within the concentration camps. Some got away, though many others weren’t so lucky.

The Dachau camp was created as a prototype for all of the other camps that came after. Meaning, those that died in Dachau weren’t just POWs; they were prototypes for the millions more that had perished by the hands of the Nazis.

When you see the eyes of a Jewish person, you see the eyes of a communist, for we all suffered equally. Like the quote provided above by Pastor Martin Niemoller says, we may not be one of the others, but our voices for all those persecuted and oppressed should be the most important voice of all. That should be the moral that we must all abide by.


[1] “Reichstag Fire: Nazi Germany,” Spartacus Educational.
[2] Kate Connolly, “75 years on, executed Reichstag arsonist finally wins pardon,” The Guardian, January 12, 2008.
[3] “The Dachau Gas Chambers Photograph 2,” Holocaust History.
[4] “German Reactions to Nazi Atrocities,” JSTOR.
[5] “Hans Beimler (Communist),” Wikipedia.
[6] Werber, John. “I Join the Underground.” Saving Children: Diary of a Buchenwald Survivor and Rescuer. Transaction, 1996. 73. Print.
[7] “Alfred Haag,” Zum Beispiel Dachau.
[8] Ibid.
[9] “Adolf Maislinger,” Zum Beispiel Dachau.
[10] Ibid.
[11] “Stalin’s son was executed in Nazi camp — archives,” Russia Today, May 10, 2012.
[12] Doris Bergen, “Nazi Ideology and the Camp System,” PBS.
[13] “Nazi Persecution of Soviet Prisoners of War,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
[14] Strods, Heinrihs (2000). “Salaspils koncentrācijas nometne (1944. gada oktobris — 1944. gada septembris.” Yearbook of the Occupation Museum of Latvia 2000: pp. 87–153.
[15] “Soviet Prisoners of War: Forgotten Nazi Victims of World War II,” History Net.
[16] Ibid.
[17] “Execution of Soviet POWs at Buchenwald,” Scrapbook Pages.
[18] “The Treatment of Soviet POWs: Starvation, Disease, and Shootings, June 1941 — January 1942,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
[19] Ibid.
[20] A Mosaic of Victims- Non Jews Persecuted and Murdered by the Nazis. Ed. by Michael Berenbaum New York University Press 1990