During World War II, a slave labor camp called "Berga an der Elster" was operated here to dig 17 tunnels for an underground ammunition factory. Workers were supplied by Buchenwaldconcentration camp and from a POW camp, Stalag IX-B; the latter contravened the provisions of the Third Geneva Convention and of the Hague Treaties. Many prisoners died as a result of malnutrition, sickness (including pulmonary disease due to dust inhalation from tunnelling with explosives), and beatings, including 73 American POWs. The labor camp formed part of Germany's secret plan to transform, via hydrogenation, brown coal into usable fuel for tanks, planes, and other military machinery. However, the camp's additional purpose was Vernichtung durch Arbeit (or "annihilation through labor"), and prisoners were intentionally worked to death with inhumane working and living conditions, and starvation. This secondary purpose of extermination was carried out until the war's end, when the prisoners were subjected to a forced death march to keep ahead of the advancing allied forces.
Berga was run by a fanatical German national guard sergeant named Erwin Metz, who was responsible for the inhumane conditions and who gave the order to take the prisoners on the death march. When the allied forces closed in on the retreating Germans, Metz deserted his post and attempted to escape by bicycle, fearing the consequences of being captured in possession of the remaining Berga prisoners and having to answer for his war crimes. Still, he was captured days after the prisoners were liberated by American forces, and he was sentenced to death, because he had killed a US POW, Pvt Morton Goldstein (Battery C/590th Field Artillery/106 US Division) on March 14, 1945. However, because of the American political climate and the shifting priorities of the American War Department toward defending against the Soviets in the lead-up to the Cold War, many German war criminals' sentences were commuted in exchange for intelligence that the Western allies believed to could be used against the Soviets. Metz thus was instead sentenced to twenty years' imprisonment, though in the end he served only nine before being released back into Germany a free man.
^"New photo: Nazis dig up mass grave of U.S. soldiers". CNN. 2009-04-24. Retrieved 2009-04-24. Berga an der Elster was a slave labor camp where 350 U.S. soldiers were beaten, starved, and forced to work in tunnels for the German government. The soldiers were singled out for "looking like Jews", "sounding like Jews", having names that "sounded Jewish", or having been dubbed as undesirables, according to survivors. More than 100 soldiers perished at the camp or on a forced death march.