Did U.S. troops liberate Mauthausen Concentration Camp?

The author is a leader of the Red Network, a communist organization in the Spanish state. Translation by Workers World managing editor John Catalinotto.

In many European countries, people celebrate the victory of the allied troops over Nazi Germany in the Second World War. This is especially important now as we witness a widespread growth of fascist organizations and their great myths of that epoch are rehashed.

Who had liberated Mauthausen when U.S. troops arrived?

Once again the Normandy landing of the Allied troops will be described as a transcendental event, while the liberation of most of Europe by the USSR, which paid for it with the very heavy price of 27 million dead, will be undervalued.

Hardly anyone will speak of how the Allied governments ignored Moscow’s repeated requests to open a front in the West, which only carried out its “Operation Overlord” in June 1944, leaving just enough time, they thought, to prevent the Red Army from entering Berlin[1].

The objective then was to portray U.S. intervention as decisive for victory. This was essential for imposing U.S. hegemony over European reconstruction, particularly through NATO.

But there was another episode of special significance for us at that time: the liberation of the Mauthausen Concentration Camp [near Linz, Austria], allegedly by U.S. troops.

The myth is repeated in spite of the existence of a well-known and contradictory graphic document: In the photo of the arrival of U.S. armored vehicles at the camp, an enormous banner hangs at the entrance door, over hundreds of prisoners. The banner reads: “The anti-fascist Spaniards salute the liberating forces.”

The question is obvious: Who had liberated Mauthausen before the U.S. troops arrived?

There was resistance organized inside the camp, led by the Spanish communists, [who were there because Mauthausen concentration camp was the main place where Republican political prisoners from Spain were incarcerated by the Nazis].

In Mauthausen, unlike in other Nazi camps where mass executions took place practically without opposition, an important international clandestine organization was established for four years.

This was the organization that liberated the camp — saving hundreds of lives — before the arrival of allied troops. The feat, unknown to most and carried out in the harshest conditions imaginable, is full of Spanish surnames.

Some documents exist, but without a doubt it is the Spanish communist Mariano Constante [2] who has described it best, and with such historical rigor that he is known as the “notary of Mauthausen.” I base my account on his report; the quotes are from his text.

The organization begins

The organization began to take shape on June 22, 1941. Nazi troops had occupied one country after another, the invasion of the USSR began, and the world seemed to collapse.

At Mauthausen that night the camp administration decided to “disinfect” the camp. They forced all the prisoners, naked, in the intense cold, into the “garages.”

At that moment members of the Communist Party of Spain realized they had to get organized within the camp. They elected eight comrades to the leadership and tried to expand the organization to other compatriots. The eight formed the nucleus of the Mauthausen International Committee. Their main objective was to maintain morale and uphold political principles in the midst of barbarism.

Constante explains it this way: “It was about making everyone understand that, to struggle inside the camp, we needed to have an unwavering will of combat and hope, without which nothing was possible; to have confidence in the final victory; to fight against depravity and corruption, to avoid playing the SS game that worked to the detriment of other political prisoners; to maintain total solidarity at any time and in any circumstance; to do everything possible to prevent those committing ‘common crimes’ like stealing our scarce food; to try to introduce trustworthy Spaniards into job assignments where it was possible to help others and, as far as possible, also in the barracks; to obtain intelligence and monitor the conduct of the SS, in order to confront and anticipate their reactions; to establish contact with political deportees of other nationalities.”

The activities they contemplated included contributing some grams of supplementary food to the weakest and trying to spare them the hardest tasks; obtaining posts that would allow mobility within the camp; hiding the sick so that they would not be executed; and carrying out minimal sabotage such as the breaking of some tool to “hinder their production by destroying part – a tiny part, it is true – of the war potential of the Third Reich.”

Little by little the organization expanded with the arrival, from the beginning of 1942, of political prisoners from all European countries, some of them ex-combatants of the International Brigades [of the Spanish Civil War]. The organization managed to introduce trusted comrades into the kitchen, housekeeping, the infirmary and the administration offices.

They were weaving a spider’s web. In the second half of 1942, in the midst of the killings and tortures, the news of Soviet resistance and the subsequent defeat of the Nazis in Stalingrad strengthened the confidence in victory among those who had believed in it when there was not even a ray of hope.

The arrival of a large contingent of French deportees between 1943 and 1944 — communists, socialists, Catholics, and above all, military leaders of the [anti-Nazi] Resistance — allowed the strengthening of the International Committee and, above all, the establishment of the International Military Apparatus (IMA). The Aragonese Miguel Malle was the head of the General Staff (GS) of the IMA, composed of four members, including the Czech leader of the International Brigades, Arthur London, and Mariano Constante. Soviet Colonel Pirogoff also joined this apparatus.

The network grew stronger, in spite of continuous casualties, and gained access to a radio that members of the SS had hidden and that allowed the IMA to obtain information broadcast by London or Moscow. Months later, in addition to arming with the continuous theft of weapons from the SS, the organization obtained a new resource: its own radio set that was then hidden in a rubbish bin.

In April 1945, as German defeats followed one after the other – U.S. planes bombed the nearby city of Linz and the Soviets occupied Vienna — news came that the camp commander, Franz Ziereis, had received Himmler’s order to exterminate all prisoners. It was to be carried out by taking advantage of an anti-aircraft alarm, whether there was an air raid or not. The Nazis planned to kill them by means of a gigantic explosion set off in the ships already loaded by the prisoners themselves, who would be gassed inside.

The clandestine organization accelerated its work, intensifying the gathering of intelligence through documents snatched by those who cleaned the offices or who were on night watches. They sent out of the camp incriminating documents and photographs obtained clandestinely by the photographer Paco Boix that proved the barbarity of the extermination and the visits of the Nazi chiefs and, above all, assured discipline and coordination to avoid hoaxes.


At the end of April, Mauthausen Commander Ziereis gave orders to mobilize the Spaniards to fight the Soviet troops approaching Mauthausen. Forced to stand in front of the machine guns pointing at them from the turrets, no one stepped forward. “It was a moment when everything could happen and, fully aware of this, we were ready to risk everything: the pistols and the bottles of benzine were ready. Seeing that he could not undermine our determination, Ziereis ordered us to break ranks. I’m sure he was afraid.”

A few days later, at night, Vienna city guards replaced the SS guards. “Some SS captured after liberation confirmed to us that Ziereis feared a general uprising and preferred to retreat to the village of Mauthausen with his SS. A delegation from the International Committee demanded that the urban guard surrender all their weapons.”

On May 5, 1945, shortly before 2 p.m., two armored vehicles and a jeep of the U.S. Army entered the camp. The urban guards fled, abandoning all their weapons.

The large banner prepared by the Spanish Republicans was mounted and the famous photo taken.

When the International Committee approached the U.S. troops to find out their intentions and explain the situation to them, the U.S. commanding officer explained to them that it was a reconnaissance patrol that had lost its way and that, in fact, the U.S. troops were 40 kilometers away. When the IC informed them that the SS were nearby, “the U.S. patrol left without entering the interior of the compound, promising us a quick return with sufficient weapons to defend ourselves. So we were left alone to face whatever came up…”

“In the camp confusion reigned. Some prisoners had raided the armory and others robbed the SS warehouses where the few remaining provisions were stored. Fortunately we had an organization in place and a disciplined military apparatus. The members of the IMS had remained at their posts, awaiting orders from our GS.

“The military chiefs were summoned to receive orders and within minutes all the necessary arrangements were made and executed. Internal order was restored, and where the SS had previously been giving orders to exterminate, there was now the International Military Staff.”

The struggle was far from over. Spanish and Soviet Mauthausen combatants confronted the SS redeployed to Mauthausen from Czechoslovakia and forced them to flee after heavy fighting. The troops of the camp Commandants Ziereis and Bachmayer were on the other side of the Danube and were preparing to attack the camp.

To stop this attack, the camp combatants had to take the first step and prevent the SS from crossing the river over the only intact bridge, the railway bridge. The battles led by Mauthausen’s [liberation army], in which the Soviets, the Spanish and the Czechs participated, stopped the first German Tiger tanks from crossing the bridge.

On May 6, the SS made several attempts to cross the Danube that failed despite having tanks, cannons, and machine guns. The camp’s resistance fighters had only machine guns and Panzerfaust (anti-tank tubes – bazookas) stolen from the enemy, which they were using for the first time. The situation was critical and the resistance could not last long, so they decided to blow up the railway bridge with the explosives that the Nazis had planted.

The attack against German troops by the Soviets on the Ens Plain had forced the SS to move part of their troops there and reduced the pressure on the resistance, but the struggle continued. “That was a Tower of Babel, where we had to translate all the orders given (…) Everywhere else German troops received orders to surrender and Berlin had already fallen into the hands of the Soviet Red Army. Yet for us the struggle continued… It was our destiny. We had been the first to fight Hitler’s hordes and it was written that we would be the last to lay down our weapons,” Constante wrote.

Finally, a column of U.S. tanks appeared. The battle was over.

A long journey awaited the Spanish Republicans until France welcomed them, but that’s another story.

This story of resistance and liberation has nothing in common with the official story. It is, however, an epic led by Spanish communists, carried out by those who decided to resist and organize against despair and death.

This is the historical confirmation of the continuity of the fight undertaken during the Spanish Civil War, which lasted on European soil against Nazi Germany; it involved the use of organizational experience and internationalist combat.

What was essential to victory was the conviction that the defeat of the most powerful enemy is possible as long as there is an unshakable will to resist, and the ability of the organization to win.

That is probably why the official account is so intent on concealing feats like this one. They prefer us to be defeated, powerless and ignorant. It is up to us to re-establish the red thread of the historical continuity of the struggle, not only to pay tribute to the heroic fighters, but also to know where we come from and who we are.

Note from the author: I obtained part of this information from the testimonies of Tomás Martín, my mother’s brother and representative of the Communist Party of Spain in the Mauthausen International Committee. Mariano Constante and Miguel Malle considered him their brother.

I wrote a biographical account of the political dimension of his life entitled “La voz a ti debida”[3]. It is a personal story, but it bears the same stamp of heroism, pain, ideological firmness and solidarity that thousands of women and men from the best generation of our history bequeathed to us.



[1] Pauwels, Jacques, R (2000) The Myth of the Good War. Editorial Hiru

[2] Constante, Mariano (1974). The Red Years. Editorial Círculo de Lectores.

[3] Maestro, Ángeles (2016) La voz a ti debida. https://redroja.net/index.php/noticias-red-roja/noticias-cercanas/4137-la-voz-a-ti-debida

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