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Hell Before Their Very Eyes

American Soldiers Liberate Concentration Camps in Germany, April 1945

On April 4, 1945, United States Army units from the 89th Infantry Division and the 4th Armored Division seized Ohrdruf, the first of many Nazi concentration camps to be liberated in Germany. In the weeks that followed, as more camps were discovered, thousands of soldiers came face to face with the monstrous reality of Hitler’s Germany.

These men discovered the very depths of human-imposed cruelty and depravity: railroad cars stacked with emaciated, lifeless bodies; ovens full of incinerated human remains; warehouses filled with stolen shoes, clothes, luggage, and even eyeglasses; prison yards littered with implements of torture and dead bodies; and—perhaps most disturbing of all—the half-dead survivors of the camps. For the American soldiers of all ranks who witnessed such powerful evidence of Nazi crimes, the experience was life altering. Almost all were haunted for the rest of their lives by what they had seen, horrified that humans from ostensibly civilized societies were capable of such crimes.

Military historian John C. McManus sheds new light on this often-overlooked aspect of the Holocaust. Drawing on a rich blend of archival sources and thousands of firsthand accounts—including unit journals, interviews, oral histories, memoirs, diaries, letters, and published recollections—Hell Before Their Very Eyes focuses on the experiences of the soldiers who liberated Ohrdruf, Buchenwald, and Dachau and their determination to bear witness to this horrific history.

About the Author

John C. McManus is a Curators’ Professor of History at Missouri University of Science and Technology. He is the author of The Deadly Brotherhood: The American Combat Soldier in World War II and Grunts: Inside the American Infantry Combat Experience, World War II Through Iraq.

Endorsements

"This is a history that demands to be published. The use of personal witness accounts is the only way to capture the essence of the traumatic experience the American soldiers had to deal with."

- Daniel D. Holt, editor of Eisenhower: The Prewar Diaries and Selected Papers, 1905−1941

"Describes the history of the camps with scholarly clarity while revealing the immediacy of the emotional horror witnessed by the American liberators. Full of vivid quotations, this book will capture the interest of general readers while engaging undergraduates and grounding them in the subject."

- Michael C. C. Adams, Northern Kentucky University, author of The Best War Ever: America and World War II

Reviews

"It is not a book for the faint of heart... however, I feel it is a must-read for anyone interested in the Holocaust, and particularly, those who question its occurrence."

- Examiner.com

"This is the most powerful book I’ve read in decades."

- John Greenya - The Washington Times

"The author excels at telling the story without sensationalizing the emotional turmoil the soldiers faced. He illustrates his scholarly integrity by including in his narrative the reprisal killings against Germans perpetrated by emotionally distraught GIs."

- Choice

"McManus [captures] the shock, anger, dismay, and other emotions of the soldiers who discovered what had been going on in the so-called 'Thousand Year Reich.'"

- Journal of America's Military Past

"McManus skillfully uses oral histories as a counterweight to other sources..."

- Michigan War Studies Review

"McManus has produced a fine brief survey of the American liberation of the Nazi concentration camps that is truly a compelling read."

- European History Quarterly

"An absolute must read!!!"

- War Diary

"Hell Before Their Very Eyes is a succinct, well-written book on an under-studied topic."

- Oxford University Press Journals:Holocaust and Genocide Studies

"Overall, John McManus’s Hell Before Their Very Eyes provides a good and important introductory resource for those unfamiliar with the true horrors of the Holocaust and a good reminder for those who may have forgotten... In a field full of excellent histories, Mc- Manus points toward some new directions for further research."

- Marine Corps History

"Among John C McManus's purposes in writing this volume Hell Before Their Very Eyes: American Soldiers Liberate Concentration Camps in Germany, April 1945, is an examination of the American soldiers' reaction upon liberating these camps--an area which has experienced little study. Another of his purposes--accomplished simultaneously with the aforementioned--is the offering up of undeniable eyewitness testimony soundly countering any talk by those who would deny the Holocaust. Both these goals, and much more presented in this book, lead to interesting, absorbing and important reading."

- Martyrdom and Resistance
Johns Hopkins University Press
Witness to History
From 13 To 17

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