The system of slave labor for V–2 missiles—which first began at the Peenemünde facility in the spring of 1943—expanded dramatically in August 1943 when the production site moved underground at the Kohnstein mountain near Nordhausen. This system reflected the Nazi government’s extensive exploitation of forced labor in its armaments and other industries. By 1944, the Nazis used 7.5 million forced laborers, both Jews and non–Jews, among these over 60,000 at Dora. Dora laborers included political prisoners such as members of the French resistance, Soviet and other eastern POWs, prisoners classified as “asocial,” and some Hungarian Jews who arrived in summer 1944.
Conditions at Dora and its subcamps were horrifying. For over 6 months, more than 10,000 prisoners excavated tunnels using primitive and dangerous techniques. One shift slept in the frigid damp tunnels while another excavated or moved heavy equipment. They had little water and relieved themselves in oil barrels cut in half. Deadly diseases ran rampant. Over 6000 prisoners died or were sent to their deaths in other camps in just 6 months, so many that the SS eventually installed a crematorium. In the months after the factory produced its first V–2s in early 1944, conditions improved somewhat, reflecting the end of the underground construction program and Nazi recognition of the need to reduce death tolls among semi-skilled rocket assembly workers. The exportation of weak and diseased workers to other camps and the completed barracks helped reduce the Dora death toll to 995 for 7 months to November 1945. Yet conditions remained brutal, with diets at starvation levels. Gestapo surveillance intensified, leading to public hangings as punishment for “sabotage.”
By November 1944, horrific suffering returned. Evacuees from camps further east led to massive overcrowding. Wartime disruptions cut food supplies. Changes in SS personnel, with new officers and guards from Auschwitz, increased brutality and public executions. As the death toll reached 5000 between late December 1944 and late March and overwhelmed the crematorium, corpses were burned in open air. Even with defeat inevitable, weapons production continued until late March, after which the SS ordered death marches in which over 3000 prisoners died. On April 11, 1945, the United States Army liberated the remaining prisoners at Dora and in a nearby sub–camp in the city of Nordhausen. US horror at the conditions led to the 1947 Nordhausen Trial of SS guards and “kapos” (prisoners charged with supervising other prisoners). One was sentenced to death, and fourteen received prison sentences.