The Liberation of Buchenwald by Margaret Bourke-White, 1945

At the end of WWII, impending Allied victory was sobered by the grim facts of the atrocities which allied troops were uncovering all over Germany. Margaret Bourke-White and other photographers accompanied Gen. George Patton’s Third Army on its storied march through a collapsing Germany in the spring of 1945 and reached Buchenwald on the outskirts of Weimar. Patton was so incensed by what he saw that he ordered his military police to get a thousand civilians to make them see with their own eyes what their leaders had done. He refused to recognize that the Weimar citizens’ ignorance might be genuine or, if it was genuine, that it was somehow, in any moral sense, pardonable. The MPs were so enraged they brought back 2,000.

Bourke-White recalled:

I kept telling myself that I would believe the indescribably horrible sight in the courtyard before me only when I had a chance to look at my own photographs. Using the camera was almost a relief; it interposed a slight barrier between myself and the white horror in front of me.

This whiteness had the fragile translucence of snow, and I wished that under the bright April sun which shone from a clean blue sky it would all simply melt away. I longed for it to disappear, because while it was there I was reminded that men actually had done this thing men with arms and legs and eyes and hearts not so very unlike our own. And it made me ashamed to be a member of the human race.

The several hundred other spectators who filed through the Buchenwald courtyard on that sunny April afternoon were equally unwilling to admit association with the human beings who had perpetrated these horrors. But their reluctance had a certain tinge of self-interest; for these were the citizens of Weimar, eager to plead their ignorance of the outrages.

Dear Fatherland, Rest Quietly (1946)

LIFE magazine decided to publish these photos in their May 7, 1945 issue many photographs of these atrocities, saying, “Dead men will have indeed died in vain if live men refuse to look at them.”

The public, in America and around the world, was largely disbelieving before. Yes, they had read the newspaper stores and heard the rumors about the camp, but they dismissed them as wartime exaggerations and propaganda. During World War I, it was widely said that the Germans on the Western Front were melting down human bodies for fat, rumors which were proven to be false. Richard Dimbleby, a radio reporter of unimpeachable integrity, had had great difficulty persuading a dubious BBC to broadcast his eyewitness report from Belsen Bergen concentration. A London cinema showing the first film from the camps was picketed by an angry crowd, protesting government ‘lies’. Their anger was shared by millions of Germans, who while aware of the camps, were convinced that the atrocities had been grossly exaggerated by Allied propaganda.

Photos like that of Bourke-White and her LIFE colleagues helped turned this around. By the end of April 1945, eighty-one percent of the British population believed the Holocaust stories, up from thirty seven percent only six months earlier. On May 1, 1945, the Daily Express organized an exhibition called ‘Seeing is Believing’ in London, where people queued in thousands to see the pictures from Buchenwald.

LIFE however did not publish Bourke-White’s portrait of survivors staring out at their Allied rescuers until 15 years after it was made, when it was published in the magazine’s Dec. 26, 1960, special double-issue, “25 Years of LIFE.”

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0 thoughts on “The Liberation of Buchenwald by Margaret Bourke-White, 1945

  1. Our Dad was Combat MP with Third Army. Only child of Greek immigrants he served 30 months without leave in Europe. He is the second MP from the right in this photo. He passed away in 2004. He lived a Greatest Generation life. He took some photos at Ohrdruf and on this day. He never forgot this day. We are donating those photos and his notes about his experience to the National Holocaust Museum. Dad was one of thousands and thousands of heroes in WWII.

  2. My father was at Buchenwald as a prisoner. Margaret Bourke-White’s photos capture for me what he told me about his experiences. I wrote a poem about his experiences in this camp called What My Father Ate. Here is the poem:

    What My Father Ate

    He ate what he couldn’t eat,
    what his mother taught him not to:
    brown grass, small chips of wood, the dirt
    beneath his gray dark fingernails.

    He ate the leaves off trees. He ate bark.
    He ate the flies that tormented
    the mules working in the fields.
    He ate what would kill a man

    in the normal course of his life:
    leather buttons, cloth caps, anything
    small enough to get into his mouth.
    He ate roots. He ate newspaper.

    In his slow clumsy hunger
    he did what the birds did, picked
    for oats or corn or any kind of seed
    in the dry dung left by the cows.

    And when there was nothing to eat
    he’d search the ground for pebbles
    and they would loosen his saliva
    and he would swallow that.

    And the other men did the same.

    1. Thank you, John Guzlowski, for sharing your poem. I will read your words at our Passover Seder tonight as we honor Margaret Bourke-White and the humanity captured in her photographs of Buchenwald.

  3. Greetings from Indiana, I was 19 when the american liberation occured and I was there as a 300th Quarter master Battalion member walked in on the site of this disaster of humanity. I have pictures of the site that the world has seen and only have them in my box of things from the war. I am 85 now and will remember the event like yesterday. The U.S. Army was great way to be educated, But with how the German Army destroyed the human population was a horrible learning experience.

    May God Bless all the oppressed people and departed souls.

    Thank, Jim Orr

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