Mittelbau-Dora: Germany’s Lesser-Known Dark Tourism Destination at Nordhausen Concentration Camp
Some places around the world demand solemnity and respect — places of worship such as churches, mosques, temples, synagogues, and shrines, and also memorials to momentous historic events like the Battleship Arizona in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the cemeteries at Normandy in France, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in Japan, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC.
Such memorials and other so-called dark tourism sites recall times of war and other dark periods in our history, including many unfathomable acts of suffering foisted upon a people. On our recent trip to central Europe we visited the Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp near the town of Nordhausen in central Germany. Sometimes referred to as Dora-Mittelbau, Dora Nordhausen or the Nordhausen Concentration Camp, the site is open to the public and worth a visit for a sobering glimpse into our world history that’s ultimately disturbing — yet a fascinating dark tourism destination. Our visit evoked such a range of emotions that it almost seemed unreal to us. But, for a time not long ago, it was all too real.
The History of MittELbau-Dora
Mittelbau-Dora was originally intended to be a sub-camp of the infamous Buchenwald Concentration Camp to the east. But Allied bombing had significantly impacted German munitions production so prisoners from Buchenwald were sent to Mittelbau-Dora starting in 1943 to begin carving out tunnels into Kohnstein Mountain for what would become a factory to produce both the Vengeance Weapon (V-2 rocket) and the V-1 flying bomb. The production demands for ‘Final Victory’ reached a point in the fall of 1944 when the site was made an independent camp by the German SS. It quickly grew to have thirty (some estimates are up to forty) of its own sub-camps throughout the Harz Mountain region.
At the beginning there were no barracks for the prisoners. The first few hundred to arrive slept in tents outside a tunnel entrance. As the prisoner population grew they were moved inside the tunnels and were bedded on the bare rock with a bit of straw. Later, wooden bunks four levels high were built into two dead end tunnels, where up to 1,250 individuals at a time slept in a small segment off a side tunnel without blankets. We walked this tunnel on our tour and it was cold and wet. One prisoner’s account of the conditions described how moisture would condense on the ceiling overnight from the prisoners’ breath and drip on them like rain making them perpetually wet and cold. There was insufficient food, no daylight or fresh air, and with the grueling demands of forced labor the mortality rate was quite high. Being sent into the tunnels was basically a death sentence. According to our guide, a prisoner already weak and in poor health had a life expectancy on average of about three and a half weeks. Those in slightly better health may have lasted for six weeks before succumbing to the brutal conditions.
By the end of 1943, more than ten thousand prisoners were being used in the tunnel complex with a death toll of at least five thousand by mid-1944. Due to the high death rate once inside the tunnels barracks for prisoners were built above ground in the Spring of 1944, but this was self-serving on the part of the SS who needed a higher number of individuals to cycle through the work schedule in the tunnel complex. It is estimated that by the time Mittelbau-Dora was liberated by American forces in April 1945 nearly 60,000 prisoners had been sent to the camp. At least 20,000 of them perished. Many who became too weak to work were sent to the death camps. Extreme overcrowding, severe malnutrition, unspeakable sanitary conditions, beatings and torture, executions and disease had all taken a heavy toll.
This is just a brief history of Mittelbau-Dora. Much has been written about the Nazi concentration camps including this one, and it would be easy to sensationalize the human suffering that occurred in these places or theorize as to what led to such abominations. Our experience seemed surreal in many ways. But this is the kind of place that for many reasons should be experienced firsthand on a guided tour.
Guided Tour of Mittelbau-Dora
Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp site is located just north of the town of Nordhausen and an easy drive from the city. Tours of the museum, the camp, and the guided tour at Mittelbau-Dora are free and take about 90 minutes. You can walk around the camp as you like, but you can only visit the tunnel complex with a guide as part of the guided tour. The schedule for tours is about every two hours, give or take, but you won’t wait long for another tour to begin.
The Mittelbau-Dora Museum
From the parking area we walked along a paved road up a slight hill, taking in the low mountains and hillsides starting to display their fall colors. The camp area of Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp is actually quite large and the area you can visit other than the tunnels is just a small part of what was the entire camp complex. Our first impressions were gradually interrupted by bits and pieces of old railroad beds, tracks that went nowhere and cement slabs of unknown origin. Only cement scars remain from the camp building foundations, some marked, some not. All but two of the buildings are gone and trees now grow within the rectangular markings of where the others once stood.
At the top of the path is a new modern museum you can visit while you wait for the tour to begin. Though the displays are written in German, you can borrow an English guidebook from the front desk, so don’t worry if don’t speak German. No matter the language, the photos and the artifacts are compelling and tell the story of the camp. If you haven’t seen all the displays in the museum and need more time you can easily return after your tour of the camp and tunnels.
The tour began at the site of where the camp gate had stood. Originally it was nothing more than a wooden structure between two official barracks, one for the Gestapo and the other for the SS. This gate marked the boundary between the SS area and the prisoners area of the camp. On the site of the gate are now two concrete pillars inscribed with KZ Lager Dora Mittelbau. KZ Lager simply means ‘camp’.
Roll Call Square
After passing through the gate our tour began at the center of the prisoners’ part of the camp at Roll Call Square, an expansive level area covered with crushed stone where prisoners were mustered every morning and every evening for roll call before they were marched off to work in the tunnels. This was also the site where harsh punishment was administered. A gallows once stood here upon which those suspected of sabotage, or pretty much anything the SS thought to be a breach of the rules, were hanged. Amazingly there was a prisoner resistance group whose goal was to sabotage the rockets and rocket components as they were being produced. Prisoners only needed to be suspected of sabotage to be hanged. Records indicate that more than 200 prisoners were hanged for various forms of rocket sabotage. The hangings were always done in front of the assembled prisoners as a deterrent, and prisoners were often left standing in the rain or cold as further punishment.
Roll Call Square was the center of activity for most everything in the camp. At one time the square was surrounded by buildings including the camp kitchen and the camp prison. That’s right. Interestingly, there was a prison within the prison. Strangely, the only buildings that remain standing today are the crematorium and the fire station. The crematorium wasn’t used until late in 1944 to dispose of corpses as there was nowhere to dispose of the bodies of those who had perished under the crushing conditions. All total, approximately 5,000 bodies were incinerated here and their ashes dumped behind the crematorium. In an area now thick with trees and setting higher than the Roll Call Square area is where more than fifty barracks housed the prisoners.
Our tour guide spoke only a little English so from time to time we had to ask one of the members of our group who spoke better English to explain things to us. Even with that our small group was mostly quiet. We were all very moved and tried to process what had happened on the very ground where we were now standing.
The tunnels at Mittelbau-Dora are perhaps the most interactive part of the tour, though the tour allows access through just a small part of the large tunnel system. At the entrance are piles of rocks both large and small that were carried outside and piled near the entrance by prisoners. As we entered the tunnel it became quite cold and damp — it’s just above 7° C (45° F) so be sure to pack along something warm to wear.
Once inside we walked for a bit until reaching what looked like a central chamber. The tunnel system has a main tunnel with branches or secondary tunnels, many of which dead end along its length. At the first stop there were a few interpretive displays with original photos. There’s light in the tunnels but not too much, so bring a flash or good low-light camera lens to take photos.
We were led along a metal catwalk through areas once used for production that are now flooded. There is unidentifiable rusted metal debris everywhere. Some of it looks like what may have been an assembly line while the rest is just piles of all shapes and sizes. Here and there were nose cones and large gyroscopes but all hopelessly rusted. Most of this was for the production of the V-1 flying bomb. The tunnels used for V-2 production are not accessible to visitors.
The guide took us through only a small part of the tunnel system. The rest of the tunnels are either flooded, have been deemed unsafe, or had just not been tidied up to be part of a tour. Still, with a little imagination it’s not hard to realize what it was like to work in here, or worse, be kept inside the prisoners’ tunnel. We found the overview of rocket production to be more technical and while interesting, not as moving as what we had experienced at the Roll Call Square.
The full tour with a guide took us about an hour and forty-five minutes, an hour of which was spent in the tunnels. You can’t come to such a place and not be moved as you learn of such organized inhumanity. The site is peaceful and quiet, and the grounds are well maintained, but there is a solemnity that hangs in the air. We felt an incredible sadness at visiting.
There is always so much to write about when we travel. Our blogs are typically filled with great food, new adventures, and people and places we’ve met along our journeys. We celebrate all facets of travel and discovery, even the places with a dark past that evoke sadness and tears. It’s just as important that we visit and write about these places. For us, this wasn’t just a history lesson, it was an experience into a country’s past which is not hidden or denied no matter how painful it may be for them. Mittelbau-Dora is to be celebrated as much as any place, not for what it was, but for the memory of the incredible courage and fortitude of those souls who had to endure it. How else could they have continued day in and day out?
We’re glad we visited this solemn place — it’s an interesting site to see in addition to Nordhausen’s famous distillery — and the weight of the experience will stay with us forever.
If You Go
KZ-Gedenkstätte Mittelbau-Dora - Kohnsteinweg 20, 99734 Nordhausen, Thuringia, Germany
The museum, the camp, and the guided tour are FREE.
Tours take about 90 minutes. Starting times are currently: Tues-Fri 11:00 am and 2:00 pm. Sat, Sun and public holidays 11:00 am, 1:00 and 3:00 pm
Dress warm even in the summer - temps in the tunnel facilities are approximately 8° C / 46° F all year round
Multimedia Guide - If you’d prefer to go at your own pace, an electronic multimedia guide is available at the visitor information desk. The device provides an audio tour which will take approximately 80 minutes and allows you to explore the camp and the memorial on your own. It’s available in German, English, French and Dutch. You can not explore the tunnels on your own. A tour of the tunnels can only be done with a guide.