Adam Grünewald was born on October 20, 1902, in Frickenhausen am Main, Germany. The son of a carpenter who died when he was 8, Grünewald apprenticed as a baker but found work difficult to come by when the First World War ended, and the demobilized soldiers entered the labor market. Attracted to the nationalist propaganda prevalent at the time Grünewald joined the Freikorps before signing on with the army for a 12-year stint.
Leaving the army as a staff sergeant in April 1931, Grünewald again struggled to find employment and decided to join the Sturmabteilung (SA). He rose to the rank of Obersturmbannführer in the SA before switching to the SS in September 1934 shortly after the Night of the Long Knives.
In November 1934, he was transferred to the concentration camp Lichtenburg near Wittenberg where he led a company of guards. He was judged a poor officer by Theodor Eicke, the Inspector of Concentration Camps, and transferred in July 1937 to lead a unit that monitored Buchenwald.
He was sent for training to become a SS-Sturmbannführer in the non-military branch of the SS. He was found to be incompetent and to have a “strongly limited mental ability.” Nevertheless, he was sent to work at Dachau where he showed little interest in his work.
In November 1939, he was assigned to the SS-Totenkopf-Division and sent to the Eastern Front where he was praised for his leadership and awarded the Iron Cross second class. In 1941, he was promoted to SS-Sturmbannführer.
On January 15, 1944, to punish prisoners for a women’s protest in the camp, Grünewald put 74 women in a cell measuring less than 100 square feet without ventilation. After 14 hours, 10 women were dead. Grünewald was subsequently arrested for the “bunker tragedy” and tried by an SS court in February which gave him credit for his years of service and his contention that he “didn’t wish for the death of ten women.” He was faulted for their death but sentenced to only three and a half years imprisonment.
Heinrich Himmler ordered him released in March, however, and he was assigned to the 3rd SS-Panzer-Division “Totenkopf.” He was promoted in October 1944 to SS-Obersturmführer, two ranks lower than he had as commander of Vught.