In this 1940 photograph of Flossenbürg, the proximity of the concentration camp quarters to the citizens’ homes is clearly visible. Photo: Flossenbürg Memorial
Bf 109 production at the Flossenbürg concentration camp
Text: Jan Bobek
The war industry in the Third Reich did not function only thanks to corporate employees and forced labourers from the occupied territories. A huge part of the production work was provided by prisoners working in slave-like conditions in concentration camps where they died of starvation, exhaustion, hypothermia, disease or were murdered by the Nazis. This criminal machine included the production of Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters and it is a subject that is neglected by most aviation historians. This article does not aim to cover the entire scope of the Nazi genocide, which gradually targeted political opponents of Hitler's regime, religious groups, physically or mentally disabled people, homosexuals, members of the resistance, Jews, Roma and Sinti, Poles, citizens of the Soviet Union and other Slavs. The article focuses only on the human sacrifices in one part of the supply chain of an aircraft manufacturing plant. More than 70,000 inmates perished in the Flossenbürg concentration camp in the Upper Palatinate Forest and its sub-camps. Their tragic fate was the result of the inhuman exploitation of human beings, which the Nazis called “Vernichtung durch Arbeit”, or “extermination through labour”.
The first records of the Bavarian village of Flossenbürg date back to the 10th century. The castle was probably completed at the beginning of the 12th century and during the following two centuries it was in the possession of the Bohemian kings.
At the end of the 19th century, several quarries were established in the vicinity of Flossenbürg, where granite was mined. In 1938, the SS leadership decided to make economic use of the concentration camp system, until then, the camps had been used primarily for the internment and oppression of political prisoners. Building materials became a priority for the SS. That is why the Nazis started to build the concentration camp at Flossenbürg in the same year. The work was started by prisoners from the Dachau concentration camp. At the end of 1938, 1,500 prisoners, mostly Germans, were forced to work on its preparation, and over the next two years more than 300 of them died. In 1940, the first Jewish prisoner was assigned to Flossenbürg. From 1944 large numbers of Jewish, Polish and Soviet prisoners began arriving , mainly from the concentration camps at Auschwitz, Groß-Rosen and Plaszow.
A picture of Flossenbürg inmates waiting for food to be served, the ruins of the castle can be seen in the background. The photograph was taken in approximately 1942. For eight years, the castle became the backdrop for the inhuman suffering and death of thousands of people. Photo: Niederländisches Institut für Kriegsdokumentation via KZ-Gedenkstätte Flossenbürg
At the beginning of the camp's production operation, 2,600 prisoners were exploited in the concentration camp, and the number of deaths was so great that the Nazis set up a crematorium on its premises. Twelve-hour work shifts were held in the quarry, and prisoners lived in oppression and humiliation under the constant threat of death by starvation, exhaustion, cold, injury, illness, or execution. They were given only one thin soup during their work shift. In mid-1939, 850 prisoners worked in the quarry, two years later, the number was already 2,000. Several dozen German civilian workers, including construction apprentices, were in daily contact with them.
The command staff of the Flossenbürg concentration camp consisted of about 90 SS members. The SS-Totenkopf guard units numbered about 300 men in the spring of 1940. During the building of the 94 sub-camps that fell under Flossenbürg, their number grew to about 2,500 men and 500 women by 1945. After the beginning of the war, some SS members went to the front, so the command deployed older men, Luftwaffe soldiers, members of other nations and women as guards to the concentration camps. There any attempt to escape was punishable by death, and in 1941 mass executions began to take place.
This photograph, probably taken in 1942, shows the slave labour of inmates in the stone quarry on the Flossenbürg site. During twelve-hour shifts in harsh conditions, many lost their lives due to exhaustion, accidents or execution. Photo: Niederländisches Institut für Kriegsdokumentation via KZ-Gedenkstätte Flossenbürg
Shot of the Flossenbürg concentration camp quarters with the ruins of the castle in the background. Photo: Amit Jerusalem Yad Vashem
Between 1938 and 1945, some 84,000 men and 16,000 women from more than 30 countries were imprisoned in the Flossenbürg concentration camp and its sub-camps, most of them Jews from occupied Europe, Soviet prisoners of war, and, after the Warsaw Uprising, a large number of captured Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa) fighters. During the war, members of the SS were involved in more than 2,500 murders in Flossenbürg and its sub-camps. After the war most SSguards received no or little punishment for their crimes in Flossenbürg , often due to insufficient evidence or lack of direct witnesses to the murders.
The Flossenbürg concentration camp was unfortunately a significant economic factor in the region during the war. A number of local companies became its suppliers, and many of them borrowed prisoners for forced labour, mainly of a craft and agricultural nature. From 1942 onwards, prisoners were used in this way in the weapons industry, and in early 1943 a Messerschmitt factory based in Regensburg set up production facilities right on the concentration camp site. By the end of the war, 5,000 prisoners were already working in the production process at Flossenbürg and its subsidiary camps, and work in the quarry was then minimised. At Flossenbürg, Messerschmitt produced fuselages and wings for the Bf 109 G and K. Production ran continuously in three eight-hour shifts. The final assembly of sub-deliveries from this concentration camp was carried out in an assembly plant hidden in the woods (Waldwerk) in Vilseck, with test flights and handovers carried out at Amberg-Schafhof airfield.
In this aerial photograph of Flossenbürg from March 1945, the quarry can be seen on the left, the prison barracks on the right, and the main production hall for Messerschmitt Bf 109 aircraft can be seen in the top centre of the image. Photo: Flossenbürg Memorial
Photograph of the main production hall at Flossenbürg, taken after liberation. It shows the fuselages of Bf 109 G of various versions and on the right, closest to the lens, is probably a Bf 109 K-4. The image shows that in addition to the production of parts for new machines, repairs were also carried out at Flossenbürg on aircraft that had passed through the air service. Photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
In mid-1944 due to the Allied advance, the SS began to clear the concentration camps , leading to an increase in mass murders and huge prisoner transports. At Flossenbürg, the number of prisoners gradually increased from 3,300 at the end of 1943 to 8,000 a year later. By the end of the war, nearly 15,000 people were confined there.
The largest number of prisoners at Flossenbürg died in the last year of the war, especially from the winter of 1944 onwards. The prisoners were crammed into quarantine blocks of 1,500 people each, and those who were unable to work for Messerschmitt or other companies in the subsidiary camps were sent to the dying blocks.
By the spring of 1945, the supply situation had deteriorated dramatically due to the disruption in transportation and general chaos in the shrinking territory of the Nazi Third Reich. There was essentially a famine in the concentration camps, which worsened the already dire situation of the prisoners. The Nazi command, which wanted to keep the situation in the camps secret, made no effort to stabilize or improve the supply of prisoners. The consequences of the last months are known from film footage and photographs of malnourished prisoners or their remains, taken by Allied soldiers and reporters in the liberated camps.
At the beginning of April 1945, the Flossenbürg concentration camp and its sub-camps began to be closed down. The SS took 40,000 people from the main camp and the branch camps to cover their tracks. Unfortunately, April 1945 was accompanied by harsh winter weather in this part of Europe. Just before the end of the war, therefore, thousands of prisoners died needlessly in transports, death marches and executions. In the last weeks of the war, Jewish and Christian clergymen, and the former head of the Abwehr, Wilhelm Canaris, also lost their lives in Flossenbürg.
Map of some of the sub-camps of the Flossenbürg concentration camp according to the state of historical research as of September 2019. Map: KZ-Gedenkstätte Flossenbürg
Map of the Flossenbürg concentration camp from 2022. The red colour indicates the buildings that still exist. Map: OpenStreetMap-Mitwirkende
When members of the 3rd Battalion, 358th Infantry Regiment, U.S. 90th Infantry Division arrived at Flossenbürg on April 23, 1945, they found 1,160 prisoners in this horrible place. The unit's diary also mentions the seizure of the Messerschmitt 109 aircraft factory. Of the approximately 100,000 people imprisoned at Flossenbürg and its sub-camps, more than 70,000 did not live to see the end of the war. More than 21,000 prisoners lost their lives at Flossenbürg itself.
Only fifty-one guards and camp staff were indicted after the war, fifteen were sentenced to death and eleven received life imprisonment. Thirteen of the convicts were executed. In other cases, shorter sentences were given, but by 1957 all the convicts were released.
In 2007, the first of several sections of a memorial commemorating the victims of this terrible period of history was opened on the site of the former concentration camp.
The fuselages of Bf 109 K-4 aircraft photographed by American soldiers at the Flossenbürg train station in April 1945. In the rear right, part of the village behind which the concentration camp was located can be seen, and the ruins of the castle that has dominated the local landscape for centuries can be seen on the horizon. Photo: JaPo
When the first American soldiers arrived in snow-covered Flossenbürg camp on April 23, 1945, they were greeted by this banner. Photo: US Army Signal Corps
A picture of inmates who were lucky enough to live to see the liberation of Flossenbürg. Photo: Yad Vashem
A photograph taken on May 3, 1945, showing local German civilians exiting the main gate of Flossenbürg concentration camp with the bodies of deceased inmates for burial. Photo: US Army Signal Corps
Association des Déporté.e.s et Familles de Disparus du Camp de Concentration de Flossenbürg & Kommandos
JewishGen, The Forgotten Camps
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum