The special exhibition about Oranienburg Concentration Camp shown in 1994 was adapted and condensed for the permanent exhibition on this subject in the “New Museum”, and it was opened in 2002. Located only 3 km from where Sachsenhausen Memorial now stands, Oranienburg Concentration Camp was set up by the local SA regiment in a disused brewery towards the centre of the town of Oranienburg on 21st March 1933 – the same day on which Germany’s conservative elites bestowed their seal of approval on Hitler in Potsdam. Even today, it is still frequently confused with Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, which was built using the labour of prisoners in 1936.
With this exhibition about the early concentration camp in Oranienburg, the memorial draws attention to the beginnings of the National Socialist system of terror. A range of impressive exhibits help to illustrate the rapid transition from intimidation on the streets to a system of state-run concentration camps. As the exhibition makes clear, the first concentration camps in Germany were, above all else, local “revenge camps”, in which the National Socialists interned those who had been their political and intellectual opponents in the street fighting and verbal mudslinging under the Weimar Republic, as a deterrent. It was not unusual for the victims and perpetrators to come from the same milieu; they might even be neighbours, or members of the same family. When Willi Ruf, a Communist, was put in Oranienburg Concentration Camp, for example, he found his father on the other side, serving as an SA guard.
This was the first concentration camp to be set up in Prussia; by the time that it was closed by the SS in July 1934, following the ousting from power of the SA in the “Rohm Putsch”, some 3,000 people from Berlin, Oranienburg and the surrounding area had been imprisoned, humiliated and beaten there. At least sixteen prisoners had been killed there, among them the writer Erich Mühsam.
In addition to following the fortunes of individual prisoners of different political affiliations and social backgrounds, the exhibition also focuses on the biographies of perpetrators, above all those of the Oranienburg SA. A further topic is the public face of the camp, determined firstly by its central location on a busy road not far from the town’s castle and secondly by its appearance in staged photographs of camp life taken for propaganda use at national and international level. Amongst the items shown is a weekly newsreel report about Oranienburg Concentration Camp, which conveys a sanitised picture of re-education through exercise and hard work. Torture and murder are not part of this picture. It was largely thanks to Gerhart Seger, a Social Democrat, who managed to escape at the end of 1933 and who recounted his experiences early in 1934 in his book “Oranienburg. First Authentic Report by an Escapee from a Concentration Camp” that Oranienburg Concentration Camp become a byword throughout the world for Nazi terror.
The exhibition, designed by the architect Stefan Haslbeck, presents a multitude of outstanding items in continuous display cases running along the outer walls of the exhibition spaces. These include drawings by the Austrian painter, Rudolph Karl von Ripper, done after his release from Oranienburg Concentration Camp, and little-known works by George Grosz, relating to the faked suicide of Erich Mühsam, alongside photographs, documents and personal belongings from the estates of the SPD politicians Ernst Heilmann, Franz Kunstler, Otto Scharfschwerdt and Friedrich Ebert jun., the Berlin radio presenter Alfred Braun and director general Hans Flesch, the writers Armin T. Wegener, Ehm Welk and Erich Mühsam, and the Oranienburg town councillors Kurt Hintze, Willi Ruf and Wilhelm Schulz.
The tone of the exhibition, however, is set by original cobblestones taken from the yard of the former brewery, once the site of the concentration camp. These have been laid so as to run down the middle of the exhibition, ordering the space and lending the exhibition a special character.