As it began to be uncovered in 1944 and 1945, the barbarism of the German concentration camps shocked the world. Here was murder on a scale never before seen, here was extermination of millions of humans reduced to a process, to be made ever more efficient and faster.
Alongside the enormity of this crime and the irreplaceable damage it caused to much of Europe, the Nazis found time to interject little moments of individual human cruelty amongst the madness of genocide. Torture and other abuses were rife alongside all the death.
But often the cruelty came from indifference. Concentration camp prisoners were routinely worked to death, seen as replaceable labor and frequently the cheapest way to support the Nazi war machine.
So it was at the Mauthausen concentration camp in upper Austria, which became infamous for its Stairs of Death.
Mauthausen was the central camp of a group of maybe 100 such camps scattered throughout Austria and southern Germany. The camp was quickly opened in August 1938 following the Nazi annexation of Austria.
By 1945 the camp was huge, holding some 85,000 inmates. It is estimated that of the 190,000 people who were imprisoned there, fully half lost their lives. The Mauthausen complex was the first of the massive Nazi concentration camps, and was the last to be liberated by the Allies.
Mauthausen was also the most productive of these new giant camps. Many companies within the Reich took advantage of the ready availability of slave labor, and the camp became everything from a quarry to a manufacturer of jet aircraft.
It was the quarry itself which led to Mauthausen’s particular reputation. Carved deep into the ground by the insatiable need for building materials, the quarry became a deep pit alongside the camp.
The camp commandant would often force the inmates into regular, pointless and exhausting exercise regimes. The thinking was that a physically exhausted inmate population would be easier to control than a fit and alert one. But with the quarry, and its 186 steps leading out of the pit, the Nazis found a way to make this exhausting exercise useful.
Prisoners who worked the quarry were forced to carry the mined stone out of the pit by hand. The rocks they carried could weigh 50 kilograms (110 lb) and the exhausted, malnourished inmates, like modern Sisypheans, had to ceaselessly carry these boulders up the grueling staircase.
The prisoners were so tightly packed on the stairs that, were even one to fall, the knock on effect could send dozens back down the stairs in a tangle of bodies and limbs, the rocks they carried crashing about them. But the ordeal itself was only part of the problem.
The guards themselves were also infamously cruel. Prisoners who hesitated on the Mauthausen stairs, even for a moment, were routinely shot or thrown to their deaths in the quarry. Guards would force exhausted prisoners to race each other up the stairs carrying rocks, with the loser also pushed off the cliff to their death.
Prisoners were arranged facing the edge of the cliff to the quarry in a line. The cliff was nicknamed “the parachutists’ wall” and each prisoner was given the choice of being shot, or pushing the man in front of them over the edge.
The stairs became infamous after the war, when the true extent of the horror became known. Never should we forget the cruelty we are capable of inflicting on our fellow man, and never should we stand by in silence and watch such events unfold.
Top Image: Each prisoner with a rock on their back: the Mauthausen stairs of death. Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 192-269 / CC-BY-SA 3.0.
By Joseph Green