Learning lessons from the past: 65 years after the liberation of Mauthausen concentration camp

More than 10,000 people gathered to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the Mauthausen Nazi concentration camp in northern Austria.

Including its 49 sub-camps, more than 195,000 people from virtually every European country were imprisoned at Mauthausen and more than 105,000—both men and women—were killed or perished due to the harsh conditions of camp life. So harsh, that at least 8000 died in the first weeks after the liberation.

Official delegations from over 20 countries and survivors held memorial services at the shrines at the front of the camp, on the site of the former SS barracks. Contingents then marched into the camp to applause to lay wreaths near what is now the camp museum. Ceremonies were also conducted at the various memorial plaques on the walls inside the camp.

The five-hour commemoration was dedicated to the 20,000 children and adolescents who had been interred in the camp liberated by US troops on May 3, 1945.

The first detainees, so-called “anti-social elements”, were transferred from Dachau concentration camp in August 1938 and were followed by gypsies and political prisoners. The first Jewish prisoners came in September 1939. Up to 1945 some 192,000 men and more than 8000 women were interned at Mauthausen.

Of a total of 3000 Jews at the camp only three survived, among them Simon Wiesenthal, who dedicated his life to tracking down the Nazis who escaped after the war.

All the concentration camps built between 1937 and 1940 were located close to stone quarries or brick works. Mauthausen was built at the Wiener Graben granite quarry, 30 kilometres from Linz.

Until 1942 the quarry was the main place of work—and death—for the prisoners, who worked an average of 54 to 60 hours a week carrying granite blocks up steep stairs in wooden carriers on their backs. Many were literally worked to death, and beatings and torture were common. Some were thrown to their death from the so-called “parachute jump” and a gas chamber operated from 1942 to 1945.

From 1943 prisoners were mainly engaged in work for the war effort in armaments, tank production, underground tunneling and air-raid shelter construction.

Warning for the future
One of the banners carried by a youth group marching into the camp read: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. Yet unfortunately this is exactly what we see happening today.
Far right groups are growing in Europe. The British National Party won two seats in the European Parliament

in 2009, although failed to win its first British member of parliament in the general elections in May. In April this year, however, the far right Jobbik Party won 47 seats in the Hungarian parliament. In the Netherlands, in June, the Party For Freedom (PVV) increased its seats from nine to 24. It received congratulations from France’s fascist National Front, which re-emerged in the French regional elections in March.

Meanwhile, anti-Muslim racism is being fanned by mainstream parties. Last year, the Swiss electorate voted to outlaw minarets. Earlier this year, Belgium imposed Europe’s first ban on the burqa. In July, although it is estimated fewer than 2000 women actually wear the burqa there, the French parliament banned wearing the burqa or the niqab in public.

Seven thousand Spanish Republicans, who had fought against the fascist Franco in the Civil War, attended the Mauthausen commemoration. Some of them had worked in the photo lab as prisoners and smuggled out hundreds of photos to document part of what happened in the prison camp. One was 90-year-old survivor Juan Francisco Ortiz, who spoke at the Spanish memorial before marching into the camp.

Yet at the very same time, in Spain, the judge, Baltasar Garzón, who was trying to investigate the crimes carried out by Franco during the Civil War, was himself ordered to face trial on charges of overreaching his powers. He could be suspended from the bench for up to 20 years if found guilty. This is a clear attempt to cover up Franco’s crimes.

Some sections of the establishment are desperate to rewrite history, not learn from it.

By Phil Sandford


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