Hell Before Their Very Eyes: American Soldiers Liberate Concentration Camps in Germany, April 1945. By John C. McManus. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015. xv + 189 pp.
As the war in Europe was coming to a close, Corporal Charles Wilson, an introspective chaplain's assistant in the American 46th Armored Medical Battalion, 4th Armored Division, traveled the Weimar countryside toward his destination, Ohrdruf, a small concentration camp about which he knew very little. In his diary and unpublished memoir, Wilson remembered marveling at the bucolic countryside. However, when he arrived at his destination, his sense of wonder quickly disappeared. The sights and smells of Ohrdruf's horrors assaulted him, changing him forever.
In his compelling study Hell Before Their Very Eyes, military historian John C. McManus examines the American soldiers like Corporal Wilson who liberated and witnessed Ohrdruf, Buchenwald, and Dachau. Interested in the psychological and physical impact of liberation, McManus argues that witnessing the concentration camps served as a formative experience that defined the war for many American soldiers. According to McManus, it gave "meaning and definition to the costly, bitter war they had fought to destroy Nazi Germany" (4). It forced American soldiers to break from their normal routine of front line action, directly encounter human degradation, and face human vulnerability and redemption. After the bloodshed of war, the nightmarish circumstances of the concentration camps gave American soldiers new purpose and, for some, served as a source of pride for the rest of their lives.
Hell Before Their Very Eyes begins with the liberation of Ohrdruf on April 4, 1945, and continues chronologically with the liberation of Buchenwald and then Dachau. McManus' case studies provide brief histories of each camp, its administrative structure, prison population, and liberation. In examining witness accounts from liberators and military officials, a few commonalties emerge. First, McManus highlights the chaos of liberation, pointing out that several moments of liberation actually took place. In Ohrdruf, for example, foot soldiers, tank crewmen, and other troops converged on the camp throughout the day, making it uncertain who, exactly, was the first to liberate. Moreover, few of the soldiers had previous knowledge of what kind of conditions they would encounter at the Nazi concentration camps. In diaries, military reports...