On 27th February, 1933, someone set fire to the Reichstag. Several people were arrested including a leading, Georgi Dimitrov, general secretary of the Comintern, the international communist organization. Dimitrov was eventually acquitted but a young man from the Netherlands, Marianus van der Lubbe, was eventually executed for the crime. As a teenager Lubbe had been a communist and Hermann Goering used this information to claim that the Reichstag Fire was part of a KPD plot to overthrow the government.
Adolf Hitler gave orders that all leaders of the German Communist Party (KPD) should "be hanged that very night." Paul von Hindenburg vetoed this decision but did agree that Hitler should take "dictatorial powers". KPD candidates in the election were arrested and Goering announced that the Nazi Party planned "to exterminate" German communists. Thousands of members of the Social Democrat Party and KPD were arrested and sent to Germany's first concentration camp at Dachau, a village a few miles from Munich. The head of the Schutzstaffel (SS), Heinrich Himmler was placed in charge of the operation, whereas Theodor Eicke became commandant of the first camp and was staffed by members of the SS Death's Head units.
Originally called re-education centres the Schutzstaffel (SS) soon began describing them as concentration camps. They were called this because they were "concentrating" the enemy into a restricted area. Hitler argued that the camps were modeled on those used by the British during the Boer War. According to Andrew Mollo, the author of To The Death's Head: The Story of the SS (1982): "Theodor Eicke, a rough unstable character whose violent and unruly behaviour had already given Himmler many headaches. At last Himmler found an ideal backwater for his troublesome subordinate and sent him off to Dachau."
Theodor Eicke later recalled: "There were times when we has no coats, no boots, no socks. Without so much as a murmur, our men wore their own clothes on duty. We were generally regarded as a necessary evil that only cost money; little men of no consequence standing guard behind barbed wire. The pay of my officers and men, meagre though it was, I had to beg from the various State Finance Offices. As Oberführer I earned in Dachau 230 Reichmark per month and was fortunate because I enjoyed the confidence of my Reichsführer (Himmler). At the beginning there was not a single cartridge, not a single rifle, let alone machine guns. Only three of my men knew how to operate a machine gun. They slept in draughty factory halls. Everywhere there was poverty and want. At the time these men belonged to SS District South. They left it to me to take care of my men's troubles but, unasked, sent men they wanted to be rid of in Munich for some reason or another. These misfits polluted my unit and troubled its state of mind. I had to contend with disloyalty, embezzlement and corruption."
With the support of Heinrich Himmler things began to improve: "From now on progress was unimpeded. I set to work unreservedly and joyfully; I trained soldiers as non-commissioned officers, and non-commissioned officers as leaders. United in our readiness for sacrifice and suffering and in cordial comradeship we created in a few weeks an excellent discipline which produced an outstanding esprit de corps. We did not become megalomaniacs, because we were all poor. Behind the barbed-wire fence we quietly did our duty, and without pity cast out from our ranks anyone who showed the least sign of disloyalty. Thus moulded and thus trained, the camp guard unit grew in the quietness of the concentration camp.
Wolf Sendele, a member of the SS thought that these camps were only for political prisoners like Ernest Thalmann and other members of the German Communist Party (KPD): "We knew well enough that these camps existed, detention camps, or whatever they were called, and that political opponents were being incarcerated. We were never quite clear why. God knows, the crimes themselves were not serious enough to remove a man from his house and home. But you thought to yourself - it's just a temporary measure, they'll put them away in a camp for three or four weeks, and then let them go again, when they've established that they're just harmless fellows - not like Thalmann (leader of the German Communist Party - KPD) or people who were real agitators."
Hermann Langbein, the author of Against All Hope: Resistance in the Nazi Concentration Camps 1938-1945 (1992) has pointed out: "National Socialism replaced democratic institutions with a system of command and obedience, the so-called Fuhrer principle, and it was this system that the Nazis installed in their concentration camps. It goes without saying that any command by a member of the SS had to be unconditionally carried out by all prisoners. Refusal or hesitation was liable to lead to a cruel death. The camp administration not only saw to it that every command was carried out, but also held inmates assigned to certain jobs responsible for completing them. In this way it facilitated its own work and was also able to play one prisoner off against another.... Each unit housing prisoners, whether a barrack or a brick building, was called a block. The camp administration held a senior block inmate (Blockdltester) responsible for enforcing discipline, keeping order, and carrying out all commands. If a dwelling unit was divided into rooms, a senior block inmate was assisted by senior barracks inmates and their staff. A senior camp inmate (Lageraltester) was responsible for the operation of the entire camp, and it was he who proposed the appointment of senior block inmates to the officer-in-charge."
Langbein, who was an inmate in Dachau, explained that each work group was headed by a capo (trusty). "The capo himself was exempted from work, but he had to see to it that the required work was done by his underlings. Capos, senior block inmates, and senior camp inmates were identified by an armband with the appropriate inscription. These armband wearers, as they were generally called, were under the protection of the camp administration, often enjoyed extensive privileges, and as a rule had unlimited power over those under them. This is to be taken literally, for if an armband wearer killed an underling, he did not (with a few exceptions) have to answer to anyone, provided a timely report of the death was made and the roll call was corrected. An ordinary prisoner was completely at the mercy of his capo and senior block inmate."
Heinrich Himmler argued that: "These approximately 40,000 German political and professional criminals... are my 'noncommissioned officer corps' for this whole kit and caboodle. We have appointed so-called capos here; one of these is the supervisor responsible for thirty, forty, or a hundred other prisoners. The moment he is made a capo, he no longer sleeps where they do. He is responsible for getting the work done, for making sure that there is no sabotage, that people are clean and the beds are of good construction.... So he has to spur his men on. The minute we're dissatisfied with him, he is no longer a capo and bunks with his men again. He knows that they will then kill him during the first night."
Inmates had to wear a coloured symbol to indicate their category. This included political prisoners (red), convicts (greens), Jews (yellow), homosexuals (pink), Jehovah's Witnesses (violet) and what the Nazis described as anti-socials (black). The anti-social group included gypsies and prostitutes. The Schutzstaffel (SS) preferred those with a criminal record to be capos. As Hermann Langbein has pointed out: "As a rule the SS bestowed armbands on prisoners they could expect to be willing tools in return for their privileged status. As soon as German convicts arrived in the camps the SS preferred them to morally stable men."
Harry Naujoks, a member of the German Communist Party (KPD), was an inmate at Sachsenhausen near Oranienburg. He later recalled what life was like in the camp: "Every SS guard had to be greeted by the prisoners. When a prisoner walked by an SS guard, six paces beforehand, the prisoner had to place his left hand on the seam of his trousers and with his right hand, quickly doff his cap and lay it on the seam of his trousers on the right-hand side. The prisoner had to walk by the guard while looking at him, as at attention. Three paces afterward, he was allowed to put his cap back on. This had to be done with the thumb pressed against the palm, the four fingers resting on the cap, pressed against the seam of the trousers. If this didn't happen quickly enough or the prisoner didn't snap to attention enough or his fingers weren't taut enough, or anything else happened that struck the SS guard as being insufficient, then one's ear was boxed, he had extra sports, or was reported."
Rudolf Hoess, one of the guards at Dachau, later recalled: "I can clearly remember the first flogging that I witnessed. Eicke had issued orders that a minimum of one company from the guard unit must attend the infliction of these corporal punishments. Two prisoners who had stolen cigarettes from the canteen were sentenced to twenty-five lashes each with the whip. The troops under arms were formed up in an open square in the centre of which stood the Whipping block.Two prisoners were led forward by their block leaders. Then the commandant arrived. The commander of the protective custody compound and the senior company commander reported to him. The Rapportfiihrer read out the sentence and the first prisoner, a small impenitent malingerer, was made to lie along; the length of the block. Two soldiers held his head and hands and two block leaders carried out the punishment, delivering alternate strokes. The prisoner uttered no sound. The other prisoner, a professional politician of strong physique, behaved quite differently. He cried out at the very first stroke and tried to break free. He went on screaming to the end, although the commandant yelled at him to keep quiet. I was standing in the first rank and was compelled to watch the whole procedure. I say compelled, because if I had been in the rear I would not have looked. When the man began to scream I went hot and cold all over. In fact the whole thing, even the beating of the first prisoner made me shudder. Later on, at the beginning of the war, I attended my first execution, but it did not affect me nearly so much as witnessing that first corporal punishment."
After the 1933 General Election Hitler passed an Enabling Bill that gave him dictatorial powers. His first move was to take over the trade unions. Its leaders were sent to concentration camps and the organization was put under the control of the Nazi Party. The trade union movement now became known as the Labour Front. Soon afterwards the Communist Party and the Social Democrat Party were banned. Party activists still in the country were arrested and by the end of 1933 over 150,000 political prisoners were in concentration camps. Hitler was aware that people have a great fear of the unknown, and if prisoners were released, they were warned that if they told anyone of their experiences they would be sent back to the camp.
It was not only left-wing politicians and trade union activists who were sent to concentration camps. The Gestapo also began arresting beggars, prostitutes, homosexuals, alcoholics and anyone who was incapable of working. Although some inmates were tortured, the only people killed during this period were prisoners who tried to escape and those classed as "incurably insane". Inmates wore serial numbers and coloured patches to identify their categories: red for political prisoners, blue for those who were foreigners, violet for religious fundamentalists, green for criminals, black for those considered to be anti-social and pink for homosexuals.
In May 1934 Theodor Eicke was given responsibility of reorganizing Germany's concentration camp system. One of his recommendations was that guards should be warned that they would be punished if they showed prisoners any signs of humanity. Charles W. Sydnor, the author of Soldiers of Destruction (1977) believed that "Eicke's personality, in particular his unremitting hatred for everything and everyone non-Nazi, influenced definitively the development, the structure, and the uniquely inhumane ethos of the concentration camps. Eicke was convinced that the camps were the most effective instrument available for destroying the enemies of National Socialism. He regarded all prisoners as subhuman adversaries of the State, marked for immediate destruction if they offered the slightest resistance. Eicke eventually succeeded in nurturing this same attitude among many SS guards in the camps.... Like many of the concentration camp commanders he trained, Eicke basically was pitiless and cruelly insensitive to human suffering, and regarded qualities such as mercy and charity as useless, outmoded absurdities that could not be tolerated in the SS."
Eicke's biographer, Louis L. Snyder, has argued: "Eicke's influence on the organization and spirit of the SS guard formations was second only to that of Himmler. his regulations included precise instructions on solitary confinement, corporal punishment, beatings, reprimands, and warnings. he informed his guards that any pity for enemies of the state was was unworthy of SS men. It is claimed that Eicke said that any man with a soft heart would do well to "retire quickly to a monastery."
Hermann Langbein arrived in Dachau on 1st May 1941. He later wrote in Against All Hope (1992): "On May 1, 1941, I arrived in Dachau together with many other Austrian veterans of the Spanish Civil War. For over two years, we had been interned in camps in southern France, and only internees who live together day and night can get to know one another as well as we did... The general expressions of support from the old political prisoners that greeted us, the first large group of veterans of the Spanish Civil War to arrive in Dachau, did us good morally and in some instances helped us concretely as well."
Langbein was shocked by conditions in the camp. "We had to march out at dawn onto the parade ground for early morning roll call. It was always a dreadful military ceremony. Everyone had to stand bolt upright in rows. The order hats off had to be done with total precision. If there was some mistake or other, then there were punishment exercises. Then the SS took the roll call - to check whether the numbers tallied. That was always the most important thing in every concentration camp - the numbers had to be right at every roll call. No one was allowed to be absent. It made no difference if someone had died during the night - the body would be laid out and included in the roll. And then, when roll call was over, we had to form up into our working parties. And every working party had its own assembly area, which one had to know in order to line up. And then the parties set off for work - depending on whether one was working inside the camp or outside. The outside parties were escorted by SS men. The working day was determined by the time of year. Work was determined by hours of daylight, not the clock. The parties could only leave camp when it was already half-light, so that people couldn't escape under cover of darkness."
Langbein was able to survive the experience by gaining a job in the camp hospital: "A German Communist who had been interned for many years - presented me to his SS boss, who had a request for a clerk from the prison hospital... The Work Assignments man told him that no other inmates were available who had the proper qualifications - the ability to spell correctly, use a typewriter, and take shorthand. He had prepared me in advance to answer the SS questions in such a way that I made a positive impression. With surprising speed, I was placed on a detail with exceptionally good working conditions. Because we also slept in the infirmary, we were not subject to the harassing checks in the blocks. We did not need to show up for the morning and evening roll calls, and we had a roof over our heads as we did our physically undemanding work."
In June, 1941, Heinrich Himmler ordered that Auschwitz be greatly increased in size and the following year it became an extermination camp. Bathhouses disguised as gas chambers were added. Hoess introduced Zyklon-B gas, that enabled the Nazis to kill 2,000 people at a time. Hess was promoted to Deputy Inspector General and took charge of the Schutzstaffel (SS) department that administered German concentration camps. In a SS report Hoess was described as "a true pioneer in this area because of his new ideas and educational methods."
At the Wannsee Conference held in January 1942 it was decided to make the extermination of the Jews a systematically organized operation. After this date extermination camps were established in the east that had the capacity to kill large numbers including Belzec (15,000 a day), Sobibor (20,000), Treblinka (25,000) and Majdanek (25,000).
In January 1942, Rebecca Weisner was sent to a women's camp near Breslau in eastern Germany. "When you got to the camp they took away whatever we had - our watches, clothes, and everything. They shaved our hair. It was tragic. You know, you're a young girl and they shave your head. We didn't get any food anymore. If you asked me what was the worst in the camp for me personally, it was hunger. It was also cold; we didn't have much warmth. We slept in an old factory hall, in bunk beds, up and down in wooden bunks and straw. It was like an outdoor, not an indoor, house, with little holes in the middle."
Later that year, Rebecca Weisner's brother, parents, grandparents and cousins were all taken to Auschwitz, an extermination camp. Over 250,000 people who had been living in Poland died in the camp. It is estimated that as many as 4 million people died in gas ovens and by a variety of other methods at Auschwitz. "Somehow we knew those things were more or less going on that there was Auschwitz and that they had gas ovens to gas all the people, children and so. We knew that... You know, they were young - my mother was forty; my father was forty-four; my brother was just barely twenty - and this was something that I had to live with... I cried for maybe two days because I knew that I was all alone. I only had one brother and I really didn't want to live at that point. I never cried again after that time. Until today, I still cannot cry and I have had a lot of emotional problems because of all those things. I can't cry; I choke, but I can't cry."
Rudolf Hoess later admitted: "I must admit that the gassing process had a calming effect on me. I always had a horror of the shootings, thinking of the number of people, the women and children. I was relieved that we were spared these blood baths.... We tried to fool the victims into believing that they were going through a delousing process. Of course, at times they realized our true intentions and we sometimes had riots and difficulties. Frequently women would hide their children under their clothes, but we found them and we sent the children to be exterminated. We were required to carry out these exterminations in secrecy, but the foul and nauseating stench from the continued burning of bodies permeated the whole area and all the people living around Auschwitz knew what was going on."
Gisella Perl was allowed to live because she was employed as a doctor at Auschwitz. One of the tasks that Gisella had to carry out was to persuade inmates to give blood: "The doctors of the hospital were sent for. The sight which greeted us when we entered Block VII is one never to be forgotten. From the cages along the walls about six hundred panic-stricken, trembling young women were looking at us with silent pleading in their eyes. The other hundred were lying on the ground, pale, faint, bleeding. Their pulse was almost inaudible, their breathing strained and deep rivers of blood were flowing around their bodies. Big, strong SS men were going from one to the other sticking tremendous needles into their veins and robbing their undernourished, emaciated bodies of their last drop of blood. The German army needed blood plasma! The guinea pigs of Auschwitz were just the people to furnish that plasma. Rassenschande or contamination with 'inferior Jewish blood' was forgotten. We were too 'inferior' to live, but not too inferior to keep the German army alive with our blood. Besides, nobody would know. The blood donors, along with the other prisoners of Auschwitz would never live to tell their tale. By the end of the war fat wheat would grow out of their ashes and the soap made of their bodies would be used to wash the laundry of the returning German heroes."
In February 1942, Oswald Pohl, chief of the SS Economic and Administrative Main Office (SS-Wirtschafts-Verwaltungs Hauptamt), took control of the administration of the concentration camps. Pohl clashed with Theodor Eicke over the way the camps should be run. According to Andrew Mollo, the author of To The Death's Head: The Story of the SS (1982): "Pohl insisted on better treatment for camp inmates, and SS men were forbidden to strike, kick or even touch a prisoner. Inmates were to be better housed and fed, and even encouraged to take an interest in their work. Those who did were to be trained and rewarded with their freedom. There was a small reduction in the number of cases of maltreatment, but food and accommodation were still appalling, and in return for these 'improvements' prisoners were still expected to work eleven hours per day, six or seven days a week."
Pohl came under pressure from Albert Speer to increase production at the camps. Pohl complained to Heinrich Himmler: "Reichsminister Speer appears not to know that we have 160,000 inmates at present and are fighting continually against epidemics and a high death-rate because of the billeting of the prisoners and the sanitary arrangements are totally inadequate." In a letter written on 15th December, 1942, Himmler suggested an improvement in the prisoner's diet: "Try to obtain for the nourishment of the prisoners in 1943 the greatest quantity of raw vegetables and onions. In the vegetable season issue carrots, kohlrabi, white turnips and whatever such vegetables there are in large quantity and store up sufficient for the prisoners in the winter so that they had a sufficient quantity every day. I believe we will raise the state of health substantially thereby."
Harry Naujoks, was senior camp inmate (Lageraltester) of Sachsenhausen. In May 1942, Naujoks was ordered by Lagerführer Fritz Suhren to execute a fellow prisoner. He refused and was forced to stand next to the gallows during the hanging, which was made to be particularly slow and painful. Naujoks was discovered to be part of a camp resistance group and in November 1942, he and 17 other political prisoners were deported to Flossenbürg, a concentration camp under the control of the Greens. However, his earlier fairness was rewarded as Naujoks was told by one Green "In Sachsenhausen you treated as like comrades, and you can be sure that we shall treat you the same way here."
Gisella Perl later provided information on the activities of Dr. Josef Mengele in Auschwitz. Nadine Brozan has argued: "As one of five doctors and four nurses chosen by Dr. Mengele to operate a hospital ward that had no beds, no bandages, no drugs and no instruments, she tended to every disease wrought by torture, starvation, filth, lice and rats, to every bone broken or head cracked open by beating. She performed surgery, without anesthesia, on women whose breasts had been lacerated by whips and become infected." Gisella admitted: ''I treated patients with my voice, telling them beautiful stories, telling them that one day we would have birthdays again, that one day we would sing again. I didn't know when it was Rosh ha-Shanah, but I had a sense of it when the weather turned cool. So I made a party with the bread, margarine and dirty pieces of sausage we received for meals. I said tonight will be the New Year, tomorrow a better year will come.''
Gisella later admitted: "Dr. Mengele told me that it was my duty to report every pregnant woman to him. He said that they would go to another camp for better nutrition, even for milk. So women began to run directly to him, telling him, 'I am pregnant.' I learned that they were all taken to the research block to be used as guinea pigs, and then two lives would be thrown into the crematorium. I decided that never again would there be a pregnant woman in Auschwitz... No one will ever know what it meant to me to destroy those babies, but if I had not done it, both mother and child would have been cruelly murdered.''
Anne S. Reamey has suggested that Gisella Perl made a controversial decision to deal with Mengele's experiments: "After Dr. Perl's startling realization of the fates of the pregnant women discovered by Dr. Mengele, she began to perform surgeries that before the war she would have believed herself incapable of - abortions. In spite of her professional and religious beliefs as a doctor and an observant Jew, Dr. Perl began performing abortions on the dirty floors and bunks of the barracks in Auschwitz 'using only my dirty hands'. Without any medical instruments or anesthesia, and often in the cramped and filthy bunks within the women's barracks, Dr. Perl ended the lives of the fetuses in their mothers' womb (estimated at around 3,000) in the hopes that the mother would survive and later, perhaps, be able to bear children. In some instances, the pregnancy was too far along to be able to perform an abortion. In these cases Dr. Perl broke the amnionic sac and manually dilated the cervix to induce labor. In these cases, the premature infant (not yet completely developed), died almost instantly. Without the threat of their pregnancy being discovered, women were able to work without interruption, gaining them a temporary reprieve from their death sentences."
As the war progressed Adolf Hitler became greatly concerned about the problems of production. Himmler wrote to Pohl on 5th March, 1943: "I believe that at the present time we must be out there in the factories personally in unprecedented measure in order to drive them on with the lash of our words and use our energy to assist on the spot. The Führer is counting heavily on our production and our help and our ability to overcome all difficulties, just hurl them overboard and simply produce. I ask you and Richard Glucks (head of concentration camp inspectorate) with all my heart to let no week pass by when one of you does not appear unexpectedly at this or that camp and goad, goad, goad."
The historian, Louis L. Snyder, has pointed out: "In this post he (Oswald Pohl) had charge of all concentration camps and was responsible for all works projects. He saw to it that valuables taken from Jewish inmates were returned to Germany and supervised the melting down of gold teeth taken from inmates... The railroad wagons which brought prisoners to the camps were cleaned out and used on the return journey to transfer anything of value taken from the inmates.... Gold fillings retrieved from human ashes were melted down and sent in the form of ingots to the Reichsbank for the special Max Heiliger deposit account."
Oswald Pohl formed a limited company called Eastern Industries or Osti to manage the ghetto and labour camp work shops. It has been argued that Pohl's policies prevented the deaths of thousands of concentration camp inmates. Rudolf W. Hess complained that "every new labour camp and every additional thousand workers increased the risk that one day they might be set free or somehow continue to remain alive". Reinhard Heydrich attempted to sabotage this enterprise by arranging for large numbers of Jews to be taken directly to extermination camps.
As well as the one built at Dachau concentration camps were built at Belsen and Buchenwald (Germany), Mauthausen (Austria), Theresienstadt (Czechoslovakia) and Auschwitz (Poland). Each camp was commanded by a senior Schutzstaffel (SS) officer and staffed by members of the SS Death's Head units. The camp was divided into blocks and each one was under the charge of a senior prisoner. As well as using members of the SS the camp commander often recruited Baltic or Ukrainian Germans to control inmates. As they had previously been minorities of repressed communities, they were particularly good at dealing harshly with Russians, Poles and Jews.
Heavy bombing of the camps further damaged production. Peter Padfield, the author of Himmler: Reichsfuhrer S.S. (1991) points out that Himmler suggested a possible solution to the problem: "Himmler urged Pohl to build factories for the production of war materials in natural caves and underground tunnels immune to enemy bombing, and instructed him to hollow out workshop and factory space in all SS stone quarries, suggesting that by the summer of 1944 they should have ... the greatest possible number of such 'uniquely bomb-proof work sites'... Pohl's Works' Department chief, Brigadeführer Hans Kammler, succeeded in creating underground workshops and living quarters from a cave system in the Harz mountains in central Germany."
Alfried Krupp the industrialist, made use of inmates from Auschwitz to produce goods for his company. On 19th May, 1944 he received the following report: "At Auschwitz the families were separated, those unable to work gassed, and the remainder singled out for conscription. The girls were shaved bald and tattooed with camp numbers. Their possessions, including clothing and shoes, were taken away and replaced by prison uniform and shoes. The dress was in one piece, made of grey material, with a red cross on the back and the yellow Jew-patch on the sleeve."
Inmates were used to provide medical care at the camps. Gisella Perl was a Jewish doctor at Auschwitz: "One of the basic Nazi aims was to demoralize, humiliate, ruin us, not only physically but also spiritually. They did everything in their power to push us into the bottomless depths of degradation. Their spies were constantly among us to keep them informed about every thought, every feeling, every reaction we had, and one never knew who was one of their agents. There was only one law in Auschwitz - the law of the jungle - the law of self-preservation. Women who in their former lives were decent self-respecting human beings now stole, lied, spied, beat the others and - if necessary - killed them, in order to save their miserable lives. Stealing became an art, a virtue, something to be proud of."
Rudolf Vrba escaped from Auschwitz in April 1944 and reported to the Allies: "The crematorium contains a large hall, a gas chamber and a furnace. People are assembled in the hall, which holds 2,000. They have to undress and are given a piece of soap and a towel as if they were going to the baths. Then they are crowded into the gas chamber which is hermetically sealed. Several SS men in gas masks then pour into the gas chamber through three openings in the ceiling a preparation of the poison gas maga-cyclon. At the end of three minutes all the persons are dead. The dead bodies are then taken away in carts to the furnace to be burnt."
By 1944 there were 13 main concentration camps and over 500 satellite camps. In an attempt to increase war-production, inmates were used as cheap-labour. The Schutzstaffel (SS) charged industrial companies around 6 marks for each prisoner working a twelve-hour day. In April of that year, Oswald Pohl, chief of the SS Economic and Administrative Main Office, issued orders to camp commanders: "Work must be, in the true sense of the world, exhausting in order to obtain maximum output... The hours of work are not limited. The duration depends on the technical structure of the camp and the work to be done and is determined by the camp Kommandant alone." One inmate of Auschwitz complained that Pohl was guilty of "the systematic and implacable urge to use human beings as slaves and to kill them when they could work no more."
It has been estimated that between 1933 and 1945 a total of 1,600,000 were sent to concentration work camps. Of these, over a million died of a variety of different causes. During this period around 18 million were sent to extermination camps. Of these, historians have estimated that between five and eleven million were killed.
National Socialism replaced democratic institutions with a system of command and obedience, the so-called Fuhrer principle, and it was this system that the Nazis installed in their concentration camps. In this way it facilitated its own work and was also able to play one prisoner off against another. This system was already working when the first foreigners arrived at the camps in 1938. A senior camp inmate (Lageraltester) was responsible for the operation of the entire camp, and it was he who proposed the appointment of senior block inmates to the officer-in-charge. After the expansion of the camps, several senior camp inmates were appointed in a number of the camps, and they divided the tasks among them. Each labor detail was headed by a capo (trusty), and if the size of the detail required it, he had assistant capos or foremen under him. The capo himself was exempted from work, but he had to see to it that the required work was done by his underlings. An ordinary prisoner was completely at the mercy of his capo and senior block inmate.
As a rule the SS bestowed armbands on prisoners they could expect to be willing tools in return for their privileged status. As soon as German convicts arrived in the camps-that is, before 1938 - the SS preferred them to morally stable men. Thus, having been despised as outsiders by society all their lives, they now wielded immense power over others by virtue of a simple armband. If one of these men earned the hatred of his fellow prisoners by misusing this power, he was utterly at the mercy of the SS, for armband wearers with blood on their hands, once they lost their jobs and thus the protection of the SS, were fair game for a vengeful camp. A number of fallen capos were gang-murdered...
With years of practice behind them, many camp commandants were virtuosos at running this system. Since it was aimed at completely destroying the human dignity of anti-Nazis, a hardened criminal was able to order an anti-Nazi around as he saw fit. Such people were at the criminal's mercy when there was no SS man in the camp. Anyone who wanted to fight this system had to reduce or, if possible, abolish the effectiveness of this Fuhrer principle, as it applied to the inmates. Occasionally even some SS leaders assisted in this endeavor.
On a number of occasions, commandants and officers-in-charge could be persuaded to entrust the self-government of the inmates to prisoners without a criminal past. On the basis of his experiences in Buchenwald, Walter Poller writes: "Even some SS henchmen in the concentration camp who tried very hard to treat political prisoners in accordance with instructions could not conceal the fact that this demand of their leadership and ideology (that is, to assess political offenses as criminal ones).
Every SS guard had to be greeted by the prisoners. If this didn't happen quickly enough or the prisoner didn't snap to attention enough or his fingers weren't taut enough, or anything else happened that struck the SS guard as being insufficient, then one's ear was boxed, he had extra sports, or was reported.
"You are fortunate to have come here. This is a good camp. Here you will work and get fed. Of course, if you expect to eat, you will have to work for it and as long as you work, you will get along fine. Now, it is prohibited to possess any silver, gold, money, or jewelry - therefore, if you turn it in now, you will not be punished."
Just at this moment, someone moved in the ranks. Felix whipped out his gun and shot him on the spot, then resumed without a pause: "Now, when I finish speaking, I want you to turn in your valuables, such as gold, silver, diamonds, and currency."
Conditions in all camps for foreign workers were extremely bad. They were greatly overcrowded. The diet was entirely inadequate. Only bad meat, such as horsemeat or meat which had been rejected by veterinarians as infected with tuberculosis germs, was passed out in these camps. Clothing, too, was altogether inadequate. Foreigners from the east worked and slept in the same clothing in which they arrived. Nearly all of them had to use their blankets as coats in cold and wet weather. Many had to to walk to work barefoot, even in winter. Tuberculosis was particularly prevalent. The TB rate was four times the normal rate. This was the result of inferior housing, poor food and an insufficient amount of it, and overwork.
On the way one of us was ordered to run to a post a little off the road and immediately after him went a round from a machine-gun. He was killed. Ten of his casual comrades were pulled out of the ranks and shot on the march with pistols on the ground of "collective responsibility" for the "escape", arranged by the SS-men themselves. The eleven were dragged along by straps tied to one leg. The dogs were teased with the bloody corpses and set onto them. All this to the accompaniment of laughter and jokes.
At work we were Krupp's charges. SS guards were placed along the wall to prevent escape, but seldom interfered with the prisoners at work. This was the work of the various 'Meisters' and their assistants. The slightest mistake, a broken tool, a piece of scrap - things which occur every day in factories around the world - would provoke them. They would hit us, kick us, beat us with rubber hoses and iron bars. If they themselves did not want to bother with punishment, they would summon the Kapo and order him to give us twenty-five lashes. To this day I sleep on my stomach, a habit I acquired at Krupp because of the sores on my back from beating.
In normal occupancy, each barrack had 146 prisoners. This was true until mid-1938. After that, a third bed was added. Then the barrack occupancy was 180-200 men... In essence, this was case only in the first ring after 1938-1939... In other barracks, the overcrowding of the camp led to the beds being removed and the straw sacks were laid on the ground. There were also times where day rooms were covered with straw sacks at night; during the day, the straw sacks were stacked in the other room with the beds. In the large barracks, dubbed mass barracks, often 400 prisoners were jammed together.
We marched into the commercial heart of Auschwitz, warehouses of the body-snachers where hundreds of prisoners worked frantically to sort, segregate and classify the clothes and the food and the valuables of those whose bodies were still burning, whose ashes would soon be used as a fertilizer.
It was an incredible sight, an enormous rectangular yard with a watchtower at each corner and surrounded by barbed wire. There were several huge storerooms and a block of what seemed like offices with a square, open balcony at one corner. Yet what first struck me was a mountain of trunks, cases, rucksacks, kitbags and parcels stacked in the middle of the yard.
Nearby was another mountain, of blankets this time, fifty thousand of them, maybe one hundred thousand. I was so staggered by the sight of these twin peaks of personal possessions that I never thought at that moment where their owners might be. In fact I did not have much time to think, for every step brought some new shock.
The gassing was carried out in the detention cells of Block II. Protected by a gas-mask, I watched the killing myself. The Russians were ordered to undress in the anteroom; they then quietly entered the mortuary, for they had been told they were to be deloused. The doors were then sealed and the gas shaken down through the holes in the roof. I do not know how long this killing took. For a little while a humming sound could be heard. When the powder was thrown in, there were cries of "Gas!," then a great bellowing, and the trapped prisoners hurled themselves against both the doors. But the doors held. They were opened several hours later, so that the place might be aired. It was then that I saw, for the first time, gassed bodies in the mass.
The killing of these Russian prisoners-of-war did not cause me much concern at the time. The order had been given, and I had to carry it out. I must even admit that this gassing set my mind at rest, for the mass extermination of the Jews was to start soon and at that time neither Eichmann nor I was certain how these mass killings were to be carried out.
In the spring of 1942 the first transports of Jews, all earmarked for extermination, arrived from Upper Silesia.
It was most important that the whole business of arriving and undressing should take place in an atmosphere of the greatest possible calm. People reluctant to take off their clothes had to be helped by those of their companions who had already undressed, or by men of the Special Detachment.
Many of the women hid their babies among the piles of clothing. The men of the Special Detachment were particularly on the look-out for this, and would speak words of encouragement to the woman until they had persuaded her to take the child with her.
I noticed that women who either guessed or knew what awaited them nevertheless found the courage to joke with the children to encourage them, despite the mortal terror visible in their own eyes.
One woman approached me as she walked past and, pointing to her four children who were manfully helping the smallest ones over the rough ground, whispered: "How can you bring yourself to kill such beautiful, darling children? Have you no heart at all?"
One old man, as he passed me, hissed: "Germany will pay a heavy penance for this mass murder of the Jews." His eyes glowed with hatred as he said this. Nevertheless he walked calmly into the gas-chamber.
At Auschwitz the families were separated, those unable to work gassed, and the remainder singled out for conscription. The dress was in one piece, made of grey material, with a red cross on the back and the yellow Jew-patch on the sleeve.
The prisoners had always been obliged to work, and they had been organized in labor units. Since work was intended as punishment, many of them performed meaningless tasks, the kind that really wears a person down. Only members of units that were charged with maintaining the operation of the camp and its workshops escaped such demoralizing activities as swiftly carrying rocks to a certain place and then carrying them back the same way.
To be sure, to the end, many an SS officer relapsed into his favorite pastime of tormenting prisoners by ordering them to perform meaningless tasks, but for the growing number of inmates who were placed at the disposal of the armaments industry, the nature of the work did change.
This reorganization was pursued vigorously after the defeat at Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-43, and it was stepped up as the fortunes of war declined for the Third Reich. As a result, it was necessary for each concentration camp to establish subsidiary camps at nearby arms factories. The number of such camps grew by leaps and bounds.
The reorganization produced an ambivalent attitude among the central leadership. On the one hand, the greatest possible number of "racial" prisoners were to be exterminated. On the other hand, as Himmler was to tell his Fuhrer, a growing number of prisoners were placed at the disposal of the armaments industry
This ambivalence made itself felt most strongly at Auschwitz, the camp of choice for those destined for immediate gassing. Auschwitz's four rapidly erected crematories with built-in gas chambers made such killing possible with the smallest expenditure of guards and service personnel. But because the arms industry required ever more workers, those destined for extermination were subjected to a selection process, something that was not done in the extermination camps of eastern Poland. Those who appeared to be capable of working were not immediately escorted to one of the gas chambers, but the young and strong became inmates of the camp, where they were prepared for "extermination through labor" - an expression taken from the record of a discussion between Himmler and Minister of Justice Otto Thierack in late September 1942. This record also contains the classification of the various groups of people. The purpose of the conference was to arrange for the penal system to provide as many people as possible for this "extermination through labor." This agreement obligated the German courts to supply to Himmler - in addition to Jews and Gypsies, who were first on the list - Russians, Ukrainians, and Poles with sentences of more than three years, Czechs and Germans with sentences of more than eight years, and finally the "worst antisocial elements among the last-named."
By concentrating all the extermination measures in Auschwitz and using the system of selections, this concentration camp became the largest by far. The number of Jews classified as fit for work at the admissions selections, together with other newly admitted prisoners, exceeded the number of those "exterminated through labor." This necessitated the establishment of a women's camp at Auschwitz for the female deportees who were designated as fit for work. In accordance with general practice, in March 1942 female inmates of Ravensbruck were sent to Auschwitz, together with female SS guards, to help build the camp. As a consequence of conflicting tendencies in the management of the concentration camps, one side-the Main Security Office of the Reich (Reichsssicherheitshauptamt), the central office in which Eichmann was active-pushed the deportation of Jews, and as a result crematories repeatedly broke down because of overuse. The other side-sections of the SS Main Economic and Administrative office-instructed all camp commandants to lower the mortality rate substantially, as a directive dated December 28, 1942, put it. On January 20, 1943, this directive was repeated with the following admonition: "I shall hold the camp commandant personally responsible for doing everything possible to preserve the manpower of the prisoners."
The crematorium contains a large hall, a gas chamber and a furnace. The dead bodies are then taken away in carts to the furnace to be burnt.
In Danzig we were unloaded onto old barges in which the water was twenty centimetres deep. One tugboat drew the four barges up the Vistula to the notorious concentration camp of Stutthof. The camp S.S. immediately took us into custody. They took everything from us; we didn't keep even a belt and had to fasten our pants with twine. They led us to Compound Three, designed for two hundred fifty men, but we filled it with nine hundred. There were only three-level bunk beds - four men on the bottom, three in the middle and three more on the top. I always slept at top, for at least up there you don't get whipped so easily by the compound superior. The first two days we got nothing at all to eat.
In a camp such as Stutthof where there were forty-five thousand prisoners nine hundred didn't matter very much. Everything to speed our deaths. One evening we had just lain down in our bunks when we had to line up for roll call. We simply stormed out of the barracks and the billy clubs did their work. Then right about face and to the gallows; forty-five thousand men were kicked out of bed to watch a prisoner being hanged for violation of camp rules.
I picked my way over corpse after corpse in the gloom, until I heard one voice raised above the gentle undulating moaning. I found a girl, she was a living skeleton, impossible to gauge her age for she had practically no hair left, and her face was only a yellow parchment sheet with two holes in it for eyes. She was stretching out her stick of an arm and gasping something, it was "English, English, medicine, medicine", and she was trying to cry but she hadn't enough strength. And beyond her down the passage and in the hut there were the convulsive movements of dying people too weak to raise themselves from the floor.
In the shade of some trees lay a great collection of bodies. I walked about them trying to count, there were perhaps 150 of them flung down on each other, all naked, all so thin that their yellow skin glistened like stretched rubber on their bones. Some of the poor starved creatures whose bodies were there looked so utterly unreal and inhuman that I could have imagined that they had never lived at all. They were like polished skeletons, the skeletons that medical students like to play practical jokes with.
At one end of the pile a cluster of men and women were gathered round a fire; they were using rags and old shoes taken from the bodies to keep it alight, and they were heating soup over it. And close by was the enclosure where 500 children between the ages of five and twelve had been kept. They were not so hungry as the rest, for the women had sacrificed themselves to keep them alive. Babies were born at Belsen, some of them shrunken, wizened little things that could not live, because their mothers could not feed them.
One woman, distraught to the point of madness, flung herself at a British soldier who was on guard at the camp on the night that it was reached by the 11th Armoured Division; she begged him to give her some milk for the tiny baby she held in her arms. She laid the mite on the ground and threw herself at the sentry's feet and kissed his boots. And when, in his distress, he asked her to get up, she put the baby in his arms and ran off crying that she would find milk for it because there was no milk in her breast. And when the soldier opened the bundle of rags to look at the child, he found that it had been dead for days.
There was no privacy of any kind. Women stood naked at the side of the track, washing in cupfuls of water taken from British Army trucks. Others squatted while they searched themselves for lice, and examined each other's hair. Sufferers from dysentery leaned against the huts, straining helplessly, and all around and about them was this awful drifting tide of exhausted people, neither caring nor watching. Just a few held out their withered hands to us as we passed by, and blessed the doctor, whom they knew had become the camp commander in place of the brutal Kramer.
The conditions in which these people live are appalling. One has to take a tour round and see their faces, their slow staggering gait and feeble movements. The state of their minds is plainly written on their faces, as starvation has reduced their bodies to skeletons. The fact is that all these were once clean-living and sane and certainly not the type to do harm to the Nazis. They are Jews and are dying now at the rate of three hundred a day. They must die and nothing can save them - their end is inescapable, they are far gone now to be brought back to life.
The capture of the notorious concentration camp near Dachau, where approximately 32,000 persons were liberated, was announce in yesterday's S.H.A.E.F. communiqué. Three hundred S.S. guards at the camp were quickly overcome it said.
A whole battalion of Allied troops was needed to restrain the prisoners from excesses. Fifty railway trucks crammed with bodies and the discovery of gas chambers, torture rooms, whipping posts, and crematoria strongly support report which had leaked out of the camp.
An Associated Press correspondent with the Seventh Army says that many of the prisoners seized the guards' weapons and revenged themselves on the SS men. Many of the well-known prisoners, it was said, had been recently removed to a new camp in the Tyrol.
Prisoners with access to the records said that 9,000 died of hunger and disease, or were shot in the past three months and 4,000 more perished last winter.
I have not talked about how it was the day the American Army arrived, though the prisoners told me. In their joy to be free, and longing to see their friends who had come at last, many prisoners rushed to the fence and died electrocuted. There were those who died cheering, because that effort of happiness was more than their bodies could endure. There were those who died because now they had food, and they ate before they could be stopped, and it killed them. I do not know words to describe the men who have survived this horror for years, three years, five years, ten years, and whose minds are as clear and unafraid as the day they entered.
I was in Dachau when the German armies surrendered unconditionally to the Allies. We sat in that room, in that accursed cemetery prison, and no one had anything more to say. Still, Dachau seemed to me the most suitable place in Europe to hear the news of victory. For surely this war was made to abolish Dachau, and all the other places like Dachau, and everything that Dachau stood for, and to abolish it for ever.
Concentration Camps in Nazi Germany : The New Histories
The notorious concentration camp system was a central pillar of the Third Reich, supporting the Nazi war against political, racial and social outsiders whilst also intimidating the population at large. Established during the first months of the Nazi dictatorship in 1933, several million men, women and children of many nationalities had been incarcerated in the camps by the end of the Second World War. At least two million lost their lives.
This comprehensive volume offers the first overview of the recent scholarship that has changed the way the camps are studied over the last two decades. Written by an international team of experts, the book covers such topics as the earliest camps social life, work and personnel in the camps the public face of the camps issues of gender and commemoration and the relationship between concentration camps and the Final Solution. The book provides a comprehensive introduction to the current historiography of the camps, highlighting the key conclusions that have been made, commenting on continuing areas of debate, and suggesting possible directions for future research.
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This book offers an excellent survey of up-to-date perspectives from historians on a variety of topics related to the Holocaust and specifically to the concentration camp system, including social . Читать весь отзыв
Concentration Camps Existed Long Before Auschwitz
Before the first prisoner entered the Soviet Gulag, before “Arbeit macht frei” appeared on the gates of Auschwitz, before the 20th century had even begun, concentration camps found their first home in the cities and towns of Cuba.
The earliest modern experiment in detaining groups of civilians without trial was launched by two generals: one who refused to bring camps into the world, and one who did not.
Battles had raged off and on for decades over Cuba’s desire for independence from Spain. After years of fighting with Cuban rebels, Arsenio Martínez Campos, the governor-general of the island, wrote to the Spanish prime minister in 1895 to say that he believed the only path to victory lay in inflicting new cruelties on civilians and fighters alike. To isolate rebels from the peasants who sometimes fed or sheltered them, he thought, it would be necessary to relocate hundreds of thousands of rural inhabitants into Spanish-held cities behind barbed wire, a strategy he called reconcentración.
But the rebels had shown mercy to the Spanish wounded and had returned prisoners of war unharmed. And so Martínez Campos could not bring himself to launch the process of reconcentración against an enemy he saw as honorable. He wrote to Spain and offered to surrender his post rather than impose the measures he had laid out as necessary. “I cannot,” he wrote, “as the representative of a civilized nation, be the first to give the example of cruelty and intransigence.”
Spain recalled Martínez Campos, and in his place sent general Valeriano Weyler, nicknamed “the Butcher.” There was little doubt about what the results would be. “If he cannot make successful war upon the insurgents,” wrote The New York Times in 1896, “he can make war upon the unarmed population of Cuba.”
Civilians were forced, on penalty of death, to move into these encampments, and within a year the island held tens of thousands of dead or dying reconcentrados, who were lionized as martyrs in U.S. newspapers. No mass executions were necessary horrific living conditions and lack of food eventually took the lives of some 150,000 people.
These camps did not rise out of nowhere. Forced labor had existed for centuries around the world, and the parallel institutions of Native American reservations and Spanish missions set the stage for relocating vulnerable residents away from their homes and forcing them to stay elsewhere. But it was not until the technology of barbed wire and automatic weapons that a small guard force could impose mass detention. With that shift, a new institution came into being, and the phrase “concentration camps” entered the world.
When U.S. newspapers reported on Spain’s brutality, Americans shipped millions of pounds of cornmeal, potatoes, peas, rice, beans, quinine, condensed milk, and other staples to the starving peasants, with railways offering to carry the goods to coastal ports free of charge. By the time the USS Maine sank in Havana harbor in February 1898, the United States was already primed to go to war. Making a call to arms before Congress, President William McKinley said of the policy of reconcentración: “It was not civilized warfare. It was extermination. The only peace it could beget was that of the wilderness and the grave.”
But official rejection of the camps was short-lived. After defeating Spain in Cuba in a matter of months, the United States took possession of several Spanish colonies, including the Philippines, where another rebellion was underway. By the end of 1901, U.S. generals fighting in the most recalcitrant regions of the islands had likewise turned to concentration camps. The military recorded this turn officially as an orderly application of measured tactics, but that did not reflect the view on the ground. Upon seeing one camp, an Army officer wrote, “It seems way out of the world without a sight of the sea,—in fact, more like some suburb of hell.”
In southern Africa, the concept of concentration camps had simultaneously taken root. In 1900, during the Boer War, the British began relocating more than 200,000 civilians, mostly women and children, behind barbed wire into bell tents or improvised huts. Again, the idea of punishing civilians evoked horror among those who saw themselves as representatives of a civilized nation. “When is a war not a war?” asked British Member of Parliament Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman in June 1901. “When it is carried on by methods of barbarism in South Africa.”
Far more people died in the camps than in combat. Polluted water supplies, lack of food, and infectious diseases ended up killing tens of thousands of detainees. Even though the Boers were often portrayed as crude people undeserving of sympathy, the treatment of European descendants in this fashion was shocking to the British public. Less notice was taken of British camps for black Africans who had even more squalid living conditions and, at times, only half the rations allotted to white detainees.
The Boer War ended in 1902, but camps soon appeared elsewhere. In 1904, in the neighboring German colony of South-West Africa—now Namibia—German general Lothar von Trotha issued an extermination order for the rebellious Herero people, writing “Every Herero, with or without a gun, with or without cattle, will be shot.”
The order was rescinded soon after, but the damage inflicted on indigenous peoples did not stop. The surviving Herero—and later the Nama people as well—were herded into concentration camps to face forced labor, inadequate rations, and lethal diseases. Before the camps were fully disbanded in 1907, German policies managed to kill some 70,000 Namibians in all, nearly exterminating the Herero.
It took just a decade for concentration camps to be established in wars on three continents. They were used to exterminate undesirable populations through labor, to clear contested areas, to punish suspected rebel sympathizers, and as a cudgel against guerrilla fighters whose wives and children were interned. Most of all, concentration camps made civilians into proxies in order to get at combatants who had dared defy the ruling power.
While these camps were widely viewed as a disgrace to modern society, this disgust was not sufficient to preclude their future use.
During the First World War, the camps evolved to address new circumstances. Widespread conscription meant that any military-age male German deported from England would soon return in a uniform to fight, with the reverse also being true. So Britain initially focused on locking up foreigners against whom it claimed to have well-grounded suspicions.
British home secretary Reginald McKenna batted away calls for universal internment, protesting that the public had no more to fear from the great majority of enemy aliens than they did from “from the ordinary bad Englishman.” But with the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 by a German submarine and the deaths of more than a thousand civilians, British prime minister Herbert Henry Asquith took revenge, locking up tens of thousands of German and Austro-Hungarian “enemy aliens” in England.
Tanauan reconcentrado camp, Batangas, the Philippines, circa 1901 (Image courtesy of University of Michigan Digital Library Collection)
The same year, the British Empire extended internment to its colonies and possessions. The Germans responded with mass arrests of aliens from not only Britain but Australia, Canada, and South Africa as well. Concentration camps soon flourished around the globe: in France, Russia, Turkey, Austro-Hungary, Brazil, Japan, China, India, Haiti, Cuba, Singapore, Siam, New Zealand, and many other locations. Over time, concentration camps would become a tool in the arsenal of nearly every country.
In the United States, more than two thousand prisoners were held in camps during the war. German-born conductor Karl Muck, a Swiss national, wound up in detention in Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia after false rumors that he had refused to conduct “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Unlike earlier colonial camps, many camps during the First World War were hundreds or thousands of miles from the front lines, and life in them developed a strange normalcy. Prisoners were assigned numbers that traveled with them as they moved from camp to camp. Letters could be sent to detainees, and packages received. In some cases, money was transferred and accounts kept. A bureaucracy of detention emerged, with Red Cross inspectors visiting and making reports.
By the end of the war, more than 800,000 civilians had been held in concentration camps, with hundreds of thousands more forced into exile in remote regions. Mental illness and shattered minority communities were just two of the tolls this long-term internment exacted from detainees.
Nevertheless, this more “civilized” approach toward enemy aliens during the First World War managed to rehabilitate the sullied image of concentration camps. People accepted the notion that a targeted group might turn itself in and be detained during a crisis, with a reasonable expectation to one day be released without permanent harm. Later in the century, this expectation would have tragic consequences.
Yet even as the First World War raged, the camps’ bitter roots survived. The Ottoman government made use of a less-visible system of concentration camps with inadequate food and shelter to deport Armenians into the Syrian desert as part of an orchestrated genocide.
And after the war ended, the evolution of concentration camps took another grim turn. Where internment camps of the First World War had focused on foreigners, the camps that followed—the Soviet Gulag, the Nazi Konzentrationslager—used the same methods on their own citizens.
In the first Cuban camps, fatalities had resulted from neglect. Half a century later, camps would be industrialized using the power of a modern state. The concept of the concentration camp would reach its apotheosis in the death camps of Nazi Germany, where prisoners were reduced not just to a number, but to nothing.
The 20th century made General Martínez Campos into a dark visionary. Refusing to institute concentration camps on Cuba, he had said, “The conditions of hunger and misery in these centers would be incalculable.” And once they were unleashed on the world, concentration camps proved impossible to eradicate.
Evacuations and Medical Experiments
During the last year of the war, as the Germans retreated into the Reich itself, the concentration camp population (Jewish and non-Jewish) suffered catastrophic losses due to starvation, exposure, disease, and mistreatment. In addition, the SS forcibly evacuated concentration camp prisoners as the front approached because the Nazis did not want the prisoners to be liberated. Under SS guard, prisoners had to march on foot during brutal winter weather without adequate food, shelter, or clothing. SS guards had orders to shoot those who could not keep up. Other prisoners were evacuated by open freight car in the dead of winter.
During this period, the concentration camps were also sites of hideous and perverted medical experiments conducted on prisoners against their will and often with lethal results. For example, in Dachau, German scientists experimented on prisoners to determine the length of time German air force personnel might survive under reduced air pressure or in frozen water. In Sachsenhausen, various experiments were conducted on prisoners to find vaccines for lethal contagious diseases. At Auschwitz III, the SS doctor Josef Mengele conducted experiments on twins to seek ways of increasing the German population by breeding families that would produce twins.
These experiments were criminal and murderous. They were also based for the most part on bogus science and racist fantasy.
6 The Music
The Nazis were truly sadistic when it came to psychological torture and they were even able to turn music into a weapon of misery. The moment an inmate arrived at the camp an orchestra (usually comprised of prisoners) would play obscenely upbeat music which inmates had to sing and march to as they walked towards their death. The music continued even while people were being gassed however, even with a full orchestra, they were rarely able to drown out the screaming.
The guilt of doing this haunted survivors for decades after the war.
Black Prisoners of War
Black Europeans and Americans were also interned in the Nazi concentration camp system. Black prisoners of war faced illegal incarceration and mistreatment at the hands of the Nazis, who did not uphold the regulations imposed by the Geneva Convention (international agreement on the conduct of war and the treatment of wounded and captured soldiers). Lieutenant Darwin Nichols, an African American pilot, was incarcerated in a Gestapo prison in Butzbach. Black soldiers of the American, French, and British armies were worked to death on construction projects or died as a result of mistreatment in concentration or prisoner-of-war camps. Others were never even incarcerated, but were instead immediately killed by the SS or Gestapo.
After battling for freedoms and defending democracy worldwide, African American soldiers returned home in 1945 only to find themselves faced with the existing prejudice and “Jim Crow” laws. Despite segregation in the military at the time, more than one million African Americans were fighting for the US Armed Forces on the homefront, in Europe, and in the Pacific by 1945. Some African American members of the US armed forces were liberators and witnesses to Nazi atrocities. The 761st Tank Battalion (an all-African American tank unit), attached to the 71st Infantry Division, US Third Army, under the command of General George Patton, participated in the liberation of Gunskirchen, a subcamp of the Mauthausen concentration camp, in May 1945.
10 Most Evil Women In Nazi Camps
The market on wholesale cruelty towards the inhabitants of German concentration camps was not, it is safe to say, monopolized by men. In fact, during the course of the war around 5,500 females served in various guard positions in German camps. Below is a list of those who &ldquoattacked&rdquo their job and their charges with a ferocity which was likely the envy of their male counterparts.
Beginning in 1939 Binz began a career as a concentration camp guard eventually rising through the ranks to become deputy chief wards at Ravensbruck and later Buchenwald. Described by the prisoners as &ldquounyielding&rdquo Binz was well known to beat, shoot and whip the females in her charge. In one instance of particular brutality she is reported to have chopped a prisoner to death with an axe during a forced labor assignment. While she fled at the close of the war she was caught, tried and on May 2, 1947 executed for her crimes.
In 1939, Bormann joined the Auxiliary SS to, as she put it at her trial, &ldquoearn more money.&rdquo From then on her career took her through some of the most notorious of Germany&rsquos camps among them Ravensbruck, Auschwitz and Bergan-Belsen where she was stationed at the close of the war. Noted for her brutality, Bormann was well known for having the German shepherd which accompanied her attack the prisoners. In the end though her cruelty and sadism came back to haunt her when she was convicted of murder and executed on December 13, 1945.
A nurse by profession starting in 1939 Bosel worked at Ravenbruck concentration camp as a &ldquowork imput overseer.&rdquo Essentially what this meant was that Bosel was among those who decided which prisoners would be immediately gassed and which would be sent to work camps. Apparently her philosophy was right in line with that in the Nazi hierarchy since she is quoted as having said of the prisoners, &ldquoIf they cannot work let them rot.&rdquo On 3 May 1945, following the Hamburg Ravensbruck War Crimes Trial, Bosel was executed for maltreatment, murder and taking part in the selection process.
Yet another nurse who apparently forgot the healing touch. After her conscription in 1942, Bothe served the majority of the war at the Stutthoff camp near Danzig. Described at her trial as a &ldquobrutal&rdquo overseer, Bothe was captured at Bergen-Belsen where she oversaw a wood detail after evacuating Stutthoff in the face of the advancing Soviets. While described as sadistic and inhumane, her crimes apparently did not raise to the level of some of her coworkers so rather than hang she was sentenced to ten years in prison although she served only six before receiving clemency from the British government. Sixty years after the war in the course of an interview she was asked about her decision to work as in a concentration camp. &ldquoDid I make a mistake? No. The mistake was that it was a concentration camp, but I had to go to it, otherwise I would have been put into it myself. That was my mistake.&rdquo
Beginning in 1942, Lächert developed a reputation for brutality during her service at Ravensbruck, Majdanek and Auschwitz. Following the war, she was sentenced to fifteen years for her service at Auschwitz, although she was released in 1956 having served only nine. Her freedom was fleeting however, because in 1975 she was tried for participation in the selection process, releasing her dog onto inmates and general abuse and sentenced to an additional twelve years.
A latecomer, Klaff had worked in a jam factory until she was assigned to Stutthoff in 1944 where she served until the end of the war in 1945. Arrested by Polish officials that same year she was tried and later executed for her crimes. It is interesting to note that she is quoted as saying, &ldquoI am very intelligent and very devoted to my work in the camps. I struck at least two prisoners every day.&rdquo Perhaps given that she said this at her trial she may have overstated her level of intelligence.
Orlowski worked at a veritable who&rsquos who is Nazi concentration camps, developing a reputation for particular sadism at each. She was particularly well known for whipping prisoners across the eyes which was not only painful but also often rendered them unfit for work and caused their extermination. Another particular evil of Orlowski&rsquos, was throwing the children on top of the other prisoners being sent to the gas chambers in a &ldquospace saving operation.&rdquo
In 1945, with the war near over, she seemed to have turned over a new leaf. During a death march from Auschwitz-Berkenau to Lolau she comforted the prisoners, provided them water and even slept alongside them on the ground. Whether this was sincere or not is debatable but unlike many guilty of similar crimes she received life imprisonment rather than execution and was released after only serving ten years. In 1976, during a second trial, she died at the age of 73.
Mandel held positions at a variety of camps before she was named female commandant of the notorious Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Having already honed her skills by meting out punishments at other camps, Mandel fell into step there quickly and is believed between 1942 and 1945 to have been directly responsible for the deaths of 500,000 prisoners. Sadistic by every measure during her time at Auschwitz, she is known to have selected Jews to serve as her &ldquopet.&rdquo When she tired of them, she sent them off to the gas chambers. She is also known to have created the Women&rsquos Orchestra of Auschwitz which performed during roll calls, executions, selections and transport. Following her trial, Mandel was executed for her crimes on January 24, 1948.
Arriving only in 1944 Neudeck rose meteorically through the ranks, eventually being assigned the rank of camp leader at one of Ravensbruck&rsquos sub camps. Noted for her cruelty one of her prisoners testified at her trial that they witnessed her slit the throat of another prisoner with the sharpened edge of a shovel. Following the war, she fled but was captured, tried and later executed for her crimes.
After training under Dorothea Binz (#1) she was to serve at Ravensbruck and Auschwitz-Birkenau before being appointed senior supervisor at Bergen-Belsen. Well known to have participated in the execution of prisoners, at her trial she was convicted and, like her teacher, executed for her crimes.
Strictly speaking, Koch was not a guard. In fact, she was not in the SS in any capacity but her husband Karl Koch was the commander of Buchenwald and later Majdanek. Using the power that his position granted her, Koch developed a reputation for cruelty which was nothing short of unbelievable.
Koch, it has been testified, was known to meet prisoners upon their arrival to inspect them for interesting or attractive tattoos. If she saw something which caught her eye, she had the prisoner executed, skinned and their skin made into useful items such as lampshades or book covers. While it has never been proven that she manufactured anything from the skins, her collection was used against her at her trials. What has also been proven is that she often instigated the torture of inmates including forcing one of them to rape another in plain sight.
Unfortunately for her, in 1943 both her and her husband were arrested for embezzling from the SS and killing prisoners to cover up the crime. While he was executed, Ilse was acquitted and was free when she was arrested by the Allies.
Being a rare civilian exception, Koch was tried for war crimes and sentenced to life imprisonment. She was serving out that sentence when she committed suicide in 1967.
Life in Nazi Germany: everything you wanted to know
What was life like for women and children in Nazi Germany? How were Jewish people and other minorities persecuted? And how much did ordinary citizens know about the horrors of the Nazi regime? We found out from Richard J Evans, a leading historian of Nazi Germany and regius professor emeritus of history at the University of Cambridge…
This competition is now closed
Published: November 4, 2020 at 8:06 am
Note: Richard J Evans was speaking on the HistoryExtra podcast, answering popular questions about life in Nazi Germany (defined here between January 1933, when Adolf Hitler was appointed Reich chancellor of the Weimar Republic, to Hitler’s death in May 1945). A selection of his answers have been transcribed and edited for clarity, and are shared below…
Q: How were women treated in Nazi Germany?
A: The Nazis were a male supremacist organisation. This was part of the general racist doctrine that governed the Nazi ideology. They believed that politics was for men, so you won’t find any women in any positions of power in Nazi Germany. There was a so-called Reich women’s leader, Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, but she had no influence on Nazi politics at all. She just spoke to organised women.
Women were there to support their men, and for breeding and having lots of children. The Nazis introduced the Mother’s Cross: if you had six children, you got an award if you had 10 children, Adolf Hitler became godfather to the tenth child, which had the unfortunate effect that you had to name the child ‘Adolf’, if it was male.
Women were organised in the Nazi Frauenfront, and in the broader based but less successful Deutsches Frauenwerk . They made clothes for the troops and organised supplies and welfare. But they were shut out of politics altogether. Women had the vote, of course, from 1918, and Hitler did not abolish that. But in Nazi elections, there was only one list of candidates. You had no choice as to whom to vote for.
In referendums, of which there were quite a few in Nazi Germany, women were a kind of lobby fodder. Basically they – just as with men – had to vote for the Nazi party and its policies.
Q: What was life like for children in Nazi Germany?
A: Hitler said that the aim was to bring up children as physically fit and healthy – if they were so-called Aryans, if they were basically ‘pure’ Germans – not if they were of mixed origin, with Slavic blood, or least of all with Jewish. By the time of the Second World War, non-Jewish, non-Slavic, non-foreign-born German children were obliged to enrol in the Hitler Youth or the League of German Girls, which was essentially aimed at preparation for war.
From a very early age, they had to wear uniforms. As soon as they went to school, every day began with singing Nazi anthems and saluting the Nazi flag. They had to go on lots of camps and expeditions, which included drills and military terms. Both girls and boys were indoctrinated – not just by those organisations, but also in schools. School textbooks were rewritten to become instruments of Nazi ideology.
Some children enjoyed this it was quite nice going out into the countryside at a weekend, camping out, singing patriotic songs, and so on. But the idea that these youth organisations would be run by young people themselves was never really fulfilled. It was older Nazis – Brownshirts and Storm Troopers – who were put in charge of them, and they were quite authoritarian and often rather brutal. Children got bored with the ideology, so it was only partially successful. But there was a whole generation under the Nazis who were heavily indoctrinated.
You can see one example of this in the notorious Reich pogrom, the so-called Night of Broken Glass (lead picture) on 9–10 November 1938, when Hitler and his minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, unleashed attacks on Jews, on Jewish property, on synagogues that were burnt down. Seven and a half thousand Jewish shops were smashed up. The young took part in this. They joined in the destruction. Not all of them, of course, but there were a lot of young people who smashed windows and helped beat up Jews on the streets and in their houses. Whereas older people, whose ideas had been formed before 1933, tended to look on in horror or in sympathy with the Jewish victims, or in appalled shock at the destruction of property.
Q: How many black people, citizens or otherwise lived in Germany? And how were they treated in comparison to other minorities?
A: There were about 500, I would say, either black people or mixed-race African-German people. They had been the subject of massive ultranationalist propaganda already in the Weimar Republic.
In 1923, when Germany defaulted on its reparations payments, the French occupied the Ruhr (the heavily industrialised area in western Germany). They sent in troops to requisition coal, iron ore, and other substitutes for reparations payments. And these troops included black troops from the Senegalese colony and from other parts of French Africa. This gave rise to massive racist outcry on the far right, including the Nazis.
When it came to 1933, when the Nazi regime was set up, these 500 or so black and mixed-race Germans were said to be ‘Rhineland bastards’ in other words, they were alleged to be the offspring of rapes carried out on German women by these Senegalese/Cameroonian troops. The result of that was that the black and mixed-race Germans were sterilised, forcibly sterilised by the Nazis, about 500 of them.
The allegation of the rapes was of course a propaganda lie. Most of them were the offspring of consensual unions in the German colonies before 1918. The Germans had their own colonial empire, including Cameroon which was then handed over to the French and British at the end of the war. These were the offspring of unions, mostly between white German settlers and black African women. The numbers of rapes in the Rhineland during the occupation of 1923 was extremely small. But they were all tarred with the same racist brush, and they were sterilised.
Some black and mixed-race people appeared in films the Nazi film industry made some films about what they depicted as ‘heroic’ German settlers and explorers. And these black Germans came in rather handy as extras on the set playing African tribesman. Others were in the entertainment industry in one way or another, but they had a very bad time. And indeed, in Nazi Germany, they were stigmatised and maltreated.
Q: How were Jewish people persecuted in Nazi Germany?
A: Initially, they were sacked from their jobs. In 1933 Hindenburg, the president, had initially insisted that Jewish war veterans – of whom there were many who had fought for the Germany in the First World War – should be protected. But ultimately, they were fired from their jobs. They became the object of Nazi conspiracy theories. They were seen as being disloyal, inclined to conspire behind the scenes against Germany. They were deprived of their citizenship, thrown out of their jobs.
By 1939 and the outbreak of war, they were unable to make a living for themselves. They had been deprived of their property, by so-called ‘Aryanisation’ – by which Jewish-owned banks, shops and businesses were forcibly transferred, either with compensation or even without it, to non-Jewish Germans. They were not allowed to go to German schools. The possibilities of emigrating were limited because the Nazis would confiscate your assets if you were a Jew. Half of them did manage to get out to other countries by 1939 these were predominately younger, middle-aged people.
Of course, it became considerably more difficult in the war itself, and by 1941, Jews were being expelled from their homes, forced to live in overcrowded accommodation with other Jews, and then they were deported to Auschwitz and other death camps in the east and exterminated.
Antisemitism was not the same as other aspects of Nazi racism, in the sense that the Nazis thought of the Jews as a huge global threat, believed that all Jews everywhere – no matter what they did or who they were – were going to try and destroy Germany. It was a total paranoid fantasy with no basis in reality at all. But that’s what drove the Nazi extermination campaign.
Q: How did the Nazis convince the public to carry out such atrocious acts on Jewish people?
A: The answer is you should never think of the German public as a single entity. It’s extremely diverse and divided, by religion, by class, by region. It was also divided into active Nazis – members of the party, members of the SS [Schutzstaffel, political soldiers of the Nazi party] and the armed forces – and what can be called the more passive public on the other.
We know a lot about how people felt because the Nazis had continual reports on a very local basis. Also the Social Democrats had secret reports smuggled out to their headquarters in exile, about what people were saying and thinking.
Some people did buy into the Nazi view that the German Jews, and then later other European Jews, were a huge threat and should be exterminated. But a lot of Germans, particularly in the Catholic south, felt that this was wrong. There are records of people saying that it was wrong when Jews were taken away from towns in south Germany – put on trains and taken away in public, taken to the east. But they felt powerless to do anything about it.
Later on, when the strategic bombing offensive (from 1942–early ’43) was launched to destroy German cities, Joseph Goebbels tried to persuade Germans that this was steered from behind the scenes by the Jews, in revenge for what the Nazis tacitly admitted they had been doing to them. Again, when Goebbels tried to publicise atrocities committed by the Red Army in 1944 when it had invaded eastern parts of Germany, there are records of people, particularly in Catholic towns in the south, saying, “Well, we should have expected this, it’s what we’ve done to the Jews, we can’t be too outraged by it, the atrocities are real”.
Lots of people bought into the idea that it was the Jews behind the Allied war efforts, and ridiculously, behind Stalin and Churchill and Roosevelt. To that extent, the huge propaganda apparatus of Goebbels had scored a success. It was the effect of years of indoctrination in the schools, in the youth, in the army and jobs, in huge organisations like the Labour Front and the Nazi party, and of course, all the controlled orchestrated media, newsreels, cinema, magazines, newspapers, radio. All of those things had been blasting out anti-Jewish propaganda from 1933 onwards.
It had some success, but you shouldn’t assume that all Germans supported it. The propaganda also made people angry and more determined to resist. There were some small groups who tried secretly to help Jews. You can see the contrast from 1933 itself, the early stages of the Nazi regime. They tried on 1 April 1933 to have a nationwide boycott of Jewish-owned shops. Massive numbers of Germans objected to this. They said: “Why? Why should we not go into these shops? We’ve always been to them and they sell good products that are reasonably cheap. We know the owner.” It wasn’t the case that the Nazis tapped into a mass of pre-existing extreme anti-Jewish sentiment.
Q: How much did the ordinary citizen of Nazi Germany know about their concentration and death camps?
A: I’m glad there’s a distinction made in the question between the concentration camps and the death camps.
The concentration camps were opened up in the course of the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, and were for the enemies of the Nazis socialists and communists and some others. Very quickly in 1933, the task of prosecuting and imprisoning these enemies of Nazism was handed over (by various decrees that established new treason laws) to the regular police, the courts and the state prisons and penitentiaries. So the number of people who were put in the concentration camps fell very rapidly, until it was only about 4,000 by 1935. By that time there were 23,000 prisoners in state prisons who were explicitly designated political prisoners.
So the concentration camps acquired a new function in 1937–38, which was to house so-called asocials, petty criminals, the work-shy, vagrants and others. They again changed during the war, becoming places for putting slave labourers and forced labourers into. And that’s when they expanded in number and size. About over 700,000 people – overwhelmingly slave labourers – were in them by the beginning of 1945. So the concentration camps changed.
They were a kind of open secret. Plenty of newspaper and magazine stories in 1933 featured pictures of concentration camps and the inmates in them. That had a dual function. It said: “Look, this is what happened to these communists. We’re dealing with the communists.” That appealed to people who wanted the communist movement suppressed.
But it also said: “Watch out, because if you misbehave yourself, if you oppose what we’re doing, that’s where you will end up.” There was approval – particularly from the middle classes, when vagrants and ne’er-do-wells were put in the camps in the mid-to-late 1930s. But there was also a certain amount of fear and apprehension as well.
The extermination camps were a different matter. These were opened during the war, essentially from late 1941 and early ’42, for the purpose of exterminating Jews, by gassing in closed chambers or closed vans. There was an extermination action, the so-called Reinhard Action, named after Reinhard Heydrich, a top SS officer who had been assassinated in Czechoslovakia in 1942. Camps such as Treblinka, Sobibór and Belzec existed purely for the purpose of killing people. Jews were arrested, taken out by train and marched straight into gas chambers where they were murdered.
Many Jews were also killed by SS forces behind the eastern front and buried in pits. A lot of them were put into ghettos before they were transported to the death camps and lived in conditions which had an extremely high death rate. They were malnourished, there was disease, and no attempt was made to give them decent human living conditions.
Auschwitz is famous for three reasons. One is that it was a very large camp. Two, a lot of people from all over Europe were taken there (whereas extermination camps like Treblinka were almost entirely for Eastern Europeans). And thirdly, it was mixed there were three camps at Auschwitz. There was a labour camp, a kind of synthetic rubber factory run by IG Farben. Then there was the main camp, Auschwitz-I, where inmates were kept and marched out on work details and so on. The third one was Auschwitz-Birkenau, which was an extermination camp. At Treblinka and the other extermination camps, hardly anybody survived, except a handful. But at Auschwitz, there were thousands of people who were registered, who lived in the main camp and knew what was going on in the extermination facility.
Now, was this well known? It wasn’t supposed to be, but the Nazis didn’t go to too much trouble to keep it quiet. Particularly because all these camps are located in occupied Eastern Europe, soldiers would return home on leave from the front and would tell stories about the mass murders. It became known to the Allies by 1942. In December 1942, the Allies issued a statement which they had printed in thousands of copies and dropped from aeroplanes over Germany, condemning the extermination of the Jews and promising that justice would catch up with the perpetrators. So it was well known you weren’t supposed to talk about it, but people knew. The claims that many, many Germans made after the end of the war, that they had known nothing, were basically lies.
Q: Do we know the actual numbers of high-ranking Nazis who organised the regime and orchestrated its horrors?
A: It’s usually thought there were about 300,000 Nazis who were actively involved in the extermination programme of the Jews. But of course, complicity in the various atrocities that the Nazi regime committed went much further down the social and political scale. It depends: how much power do you have to wield in order to qualify for being regarded as one of the regime’s leaders?
There were government ministers, judges, industrialists, employers, the SS, the Brownshirts, the party itself, the regional administrators. This is partly reflected in the war crimes trials that take place at the end of the war. We know that the Allies put the major war criminals on trial, surviving Nazis like Goering or Ribbentrop. But there were many other trials, both those carried out by the Americans or the so-called Judges’ Trial (of judges who condemned people to death something like 16,000 executions were sanctioned by the judges in the Nazi regime). There were trials of generals, of industrialists, of the SS task forces. There was a whole string of other trials that went on to the end of the 1940s.
Then there were trials which took place in the countries where the crimes had been committed, in Poland, Italy, France, Belgium, all the occupied countries. Nazis in their thousands were put on trial. That included very junior Nazis like SS camp guards. Over a thousand of them were put on trial in Dachau after the end of the war. There was a very big justice operation.
As for those who were actively responsible for shaping and framing policy, this has been a question of debate amongst historians for a long time, because Hitler wasn’t one of those national leaders like chancellor Otto von Bismarck who sat at his desk and formulated detailed policy all the time and read his briefs. He was very much a man who acted on the hoof, and issued commands verbally. When he wanted to intervene in an issue, his word was law. Nobody ever objected to what he said. But a lot of the time, Nazi officials had to work out what he would want in the absence of any firm and detailed policy, particularly in areas like the economy. He would just say to the economic experts, “Right, get me these guns and produce these ships”. He left the details of how to pay for it to them. So it’s quite a complicated picture with very different levels and degrees of responsibility.
Q: Did most German citizens fear the Nazis or simply acquiesce?
A: I think the answer is both, really, it depends who you were. The Nazis kept a very close eye on former activists for the socialists and communists. They had what were called block wardens in every city, every town, every street block was looked after by an active Nazi. And in working-class areas with high degrees of support for the communists and socialists, the Nazis put in middle-class or lower-middle-class Nazi party members who had no love for the socialists and made sure that if there was any resistance movement – secret meetings in flats and so on – they would be found out and punished. People had to put up their flags on Hitler’s birthday. There was a lot of coercion. The numbers of people imprisoned shot up in the Nazi period. I’ve talked about the concentration camps. There was a lot of fear.
But at the same time, there was a lot of acquiescence. Most people wanted a quiet life. They wanted to get on with their jobs and their lives, raise their families. There was a certain retreat into private life under the Nazis, because to take part in public life, you had to be an active Nazi and do all sorts of things that many people really didn’t want to do.
By 1939, there was a kind of tacit agreement that people wouldn’t object to the Nazis or oppose them (apart from very some very small resistance groups), and in turn the Nazis wouldn’t make too many demands on them either. This agreement changed during the war, because one of the main objects of Nazism was to make the Germans love war, and the great majority of Germans didn’t. They had been through the First World War and had seen the death and destruction they didn’t want that repeated. Nazi foreign policy up to 1939 was very successful not least because it made Germany great again, as it were, without very much bloodshed. The great foreign policy triumphs, such as the remilitarisation of the Rhineland and the annexation of Austria, the Anschluss, the annexation and destruction of Czechoslovakia, the victories over Poland and then France and western European countries, were all achieved very quickly at a minimal cost in lives and made the Nazis incredibly popular.
Probably 1940 is the height of the Nazis’ popularity. But after that, as the war became more destructive and claimed more lives, people began to lose faith in the Nazis. How German people reacted to the Nazis is a complicated picture. They, I think, appreciated them for restoring the economy, though a lot of that was done by statistical manipulation and trickery. But ironically, there was popular appreciation of the Nazis’ restoration of law and order, even though in the late years of Weimar Republic, a lot of the disruption on the streets had been caused by the Nazis. Most people didn’t like their attacks on religion, particularly Catholics did not at all like the Nazis’ attempts to curb the Catholic Church and bring it under Nazi control. They didn’t particularly like the Nazi education system, and a number of aspects of the regime were also unpopular. It was a very mixed picture.
Sir Richard J Evans is regius professor emeritus of history at Cambridge University. He is the author of numerous books, including In Defence of History (Granta, 1997), The Coming of the Third Reich (Allen Lane, 2003) and The Pursuit of Power: Europe, 1815–1914 (Allen Lane, 2016)
Evans was talking with BBC History Magazine editor Rob Attar. Listen below, or on Spotify or Apple Podcasts
Dachau Concentration Camp: History & Overview
Established in March 1933, the Dachau concentration camp was the first regular concentration camp established by the Nazis in Germany. The camp was located on the grounds of an abandoned munitions factory near the medieval town of Dachau, about 10 miles northwest of Munich in the state of Bavaria, which is located in southern Germany. Heinrich Himmler, in his capacity as police president of Munich, officially described the camp as &ldquothe first concentration camp for political prisoners.&rdquo
Dachau served as a prototype and model for other Nazi concentration camps that followed. Its basic organization, camp layout as well as the plan for the buildings were developed by Kommandant Theodor Eicke and were applied to all later camps. He had a separate secure camp near the command center, which consisted of living quarters, administration, and army camps. Eicke himself became the chief inspector for all concentration camps, responsible for molding the others according to his model.
During the first year, the camp held about 4,800 prisoners and by 1937 the number had risen to 13,260. Initially the internees consisted primarily of German Communists, Social Democrats, and other political opponents of the Nazi regime. Over time, other groups were also interned at Dachau such as Jehovah&rsquos Witnesses, Roma (Gypsies), and homosexuals, as well as &ldquoasocials&rdquo and repeat criminals. During the early years relatively few Jews were interned in Dachau and usually because they belonged to one of the above groups or had completed prison sentences after being convicted for violating the Nuremberg Laws of 1935.
The main gate leading to the Dachau concentration camp
In early 1937, the SS, using prisoner labor, initiated construction of a large complex of buildings on the grounds of the original camp. Prisoners were forced to do this work, starting with the destruction of the old munitions factory, under terrible conditions. The construction was officially completed in mid-August 1938 and the camp remained essentially unchanged until 1945. Dachau thus remained in operation for the entire period of the Third Reich. The area in Dachau included other SS facilities beside the concentration camp&mdasha leader school of the economic and civil service, the medical school of the SS, etc. The KZ (Konzentrationslager) at that time was called a &ldquoprotective custody camp,&rdquo and occupied less than half of the area of the entire complex.
The number of Jewish prisoners at Dachau rose with the increased persecution of Jews and on November 10-11, 1938, in the aftermath of Kristallnacht, more than 10,000 Jewish men were interned there. (Most of men in this group were released after incarceration of a few weeks to a few months.)
The Dachau camp was a training center for SS concentration camp guards, and the camp&rsquos organization and routine became the model for all Nazi concentration camps. The camp was divided into two sections &mdash the camp area and the crematoria area. The camp area consisted of 32 barracks, including one for clergy imprisoned for opposing the Nazi regime and one reserved for medical experiments. The camp administration was located in the gatehouse at the main entrance. The camp area had a group of support buildings, containing the kitchen, laundry, showers, and workshops, as well as a prison block (Bunker). The courtyard between the prison and the central kitchen was used for the summary execution of prisoners. An electrified barbed-wire fence, a ditch, and a wall with seven guard towers surrounded the camp.
In 1942, the crematorium area was constructed next to the main camp. It included the old crematorium and the new crematorium (Barrack X) with a gas chamber. There is no credible evidence that the gas chamber in Barrack X was used to murder human beings. Instead, prisoners underwent &ldquoselection&rdquo those who were judged too sick or weak to continue working were sent to the Hartheim &ldquoeuthanasia&rdquo killing center near Linz, Austria. Several thousand Dachau prisoners were murdered at Hartheim. Further, the SS used the firing range and the gallows in the crematoria area as killing sites for prisoners.
In Dachau, as in other Nazi camps, German physicians performed medical experiments on prisoners, including high-altitude experiments using a decompression chamber, malaria and tuberculosis experiments, hypothermia experiments, and experiments testing new medications. Prisoners were also forced to test methods of making seawater potable and of halting excessive bleeding. Hundreds of prisoners died or were permanently crippled as a result of these experiments.
Prisoners were tortured in other ways as well. For exaample, prisoners would be hung on a tree with their arms strung up behind them to maximize the pain. As in other camps, prisoners were forced to stand for long periods while a roll call was conducted. The camp orchestra would play and the SS sometimes made the prisoners sing.
Dachau prisoners were used as forced laborers. At first, they were employed in the operation of the camp, in various construction projects, and in small handicraft industries established in the camp. Prisoners built roads, worked in gravel pits, and drained marshes. During the war, forced labor utilizing concentration camp prisoners became increasingly important to German armaments production.
Dachau also served as the central camp for Christian religious prisoners. According to records of the Roman Catholic Church, at least 3,000 religious, deacons, priests, and bishops were imprisoned there.
In August 1944 a women&rsquos camp opened inside Dachau. Its first shipment of women came from Auschwitz-Birkenau. Only 19 women guards served at Dachau, most of them until liberation.
The prisoner's barracks at Dachau in 1945
In the last months of the war, the conditions at Dachau became even worse. As Allied forces advanced toward Germany, the Germans began to move prisoners in concentration camps near the front to more centrally located camps. They hoped to prevent the liberation of large numbers of prisoners. Transports from the evacuated camps arrived continuously at Dachau. After days of travel with little or no food or water, the prisoners arrived weak and exhausted, often near death. Typhus epidemics became a serious problem as a result of overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, insufficient provisions, and the weakened state of the prisoners.
Owing to continual new transportations from the front, the camp was constantly overcrowded and the hygiene conditions were beneath human dignity. Starting from the end of 1944 up to the day of liberation, 15,000 people died, about half of all victims in KZ Dachau. Five hundred Soviet POWs were executed by firing squad.
In the summer and fall of 1944, to increase war production, satellite camps under the administration of Dachau were established near armaments factories throughout southern Germany. Dachau alone had more than 30 large subcamps in which over 30,000 prisoners worked almost exclusively on armaments. Thousands of prisoners were worked to death.
Commanders of Dachau
- SS-Standartenführer Hilmar Wäckerle (03/22/1933 - 06/26/1933)
- SS-Gruppenführer Theodor Eicke (06/26/1933 - 04/07/1934)
- SS-Oberführer Alexander Reiner (04/07/1934 - 10/22/1934)
- SS-Brigadeführer Berthold Maack (10/22/1934 - 01/12/1934)
- SS-Oberführer Heinrich Deubel (01/12/1934 - 03/31/1936)
- SS-Oberführer Hans Loritz (03/31/1936 - 01/07/1939)
- SS-Hauptsturmführer Alex Piorkowski (01/07/1939 - 01/02/1942)
- SS-Obersturmbannführer Martin Weiss (01/03/1942 - 09/30/1943)
- SS-Hauptsturmführer Wilhelm Weiter (09/30/1943 - 04/26/1945)
- SS-Obersturmbannführer Martin Weiss (04/26/1945 - 04/28/1945)
- SS-Untersturmführer Johannes Otto (04/28/1945 - 04/28/1945)
- SS-Sturmscharführer Heinrich Wicker (04/28/1945 - 04/29/1945)
The Liberation of Dachau
As Allied forces advanced toward Germany, the Germans began to more prisoners from concentration camps near the front to prevent the liberation of large numbers of prisoners. Transports from the evacuated camps arrived continuously at Dachau, resulting in a dramatic deterioration of conditions. After days of travel, with little or no food or water, the prisoners arrived weak and exhausted, near death. Typhus epidemics became a serious problem due to overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, and the weakened state of the prisoners.
On April 26, 1945, as American forces approached, there were 67,665 registered prisoners in Dachau and its subcamps. Of these, 43,350 were categorized as political prisoners, while 22,100 were Jews, with the remainder falling into various other categories. Starting that day, the Germans forced more than 7,000 prisoners, mostly Jews, on a death march from Dachau to Tegernsee far to the south. During the death march, the Germans shot anyone who could no longer continue many also died of hunger, cold, or exhaustion.
On April 29, 1945, KZ Dachau was surrendered to the American Army by SS-Sturmscharführer Heinrich Wicker. A vivid description of the surrender appears in Brig. Gen. Henning Linden&rsquos official &ldquoReport on Surrender of Dachau Concentration Camp&rdquo:
As we moved down along the west side of the concentration camp and approached the southwest corner, three people approached down the road under a flag of truce. We met these people about 75 yards north of the southwest entrance to the camp. These three people were a Swiss Red Cross representative and two SS troopers who said they were the camp commander and assistant camp commander and that they had come into the camp on the night of the 28th to take over from the regular camp personnel for the purpose of turning the camp over to the advancing Americans. The Swiss Red Cross representative acted as interpreter and stated that there were about 100 SS guards in the camp who had their arms stacked except for the people in the tower. He said he had given instructions that there would be no shots fired and it would take about 50 men to relieve the guards, as there were 42,000 half-crazed prisoners of war in the camp, many of them typhus infected. He asked if I were an officer of the American army, to which I replied, &ldquoYes, I am Assistant Division Commander of the 42d Division and will accept the surrender of the camp in the name of the Rainbow Division for the American army.&rdquo
Liberated Dachau camp prisoners cheer U.S. troops
As they neared the camp, they found more than 30 railroad cars filled with bodies brought to Dachau, all in an advanced state of decomposition. In early May 1945, American forces liberated the prisoners who had been sent on the death march.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower issued a communique over the capture of Dachau concentration camp: &ldquoOur forces liberated and mopped up the infamous concentration camp at Dachau. Approximately 32,000 prisoners were liberated 300 SS camp guards were quickly neutralized.&rdquo
A tablet at the camp commemorates the liberation of Dachau by the 42nd Infantry Division of the U.S. Seventh Army on 29 April 1945. Others claim that the first forces to enter the main camp were a battalion of the 157th Infantry Regiment of the 45th Infantry Division commanded by Felix L. Sparks. There is an on-going disagreement as to which division, the 42nd or the 45th, actually liberated Dachau because they seem to have approached by different routes and by the American Army&rsquos definition, anyone arriving at such a camp within 48 hours was a liberator. General Patton visited the Buchenwald camp after it was liberated, but not Dachau.
The Americans found approximately 32,000 prisoners, crammed 1,600 to each of 20 barracks, which had been designed to house 250 people each.
The number of prisoners incarcerated in Dachau between 1933 and 1945 exceeded 188,000. The number of prisoners who died in the camp and the subcamps between January 1940 and May 1945 was at least 28,000, to which must be added those who perished there between 1933 and the end of 1939. It is unlikely that the total number of victims who died in Dachau will ever be known.
On November 2, 2014 the heavy metal gate bearing the slogan "Arbeit Macht Frei" (work sets you free) was stolen from the Dachau memorial site under cover of darkness. Security officials who supposedly keep a 24 hour watch on the memorial site believe that the heist was well orchestrated and planned out, and took place between the hours of midnight and 5:30am on Sunday November 2. Estimates place the weight of the gate at at least 250 lbs, so officials believe that multiple people took part in the theft.
Sources: U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
&ldquoDachau concentration camp,&rdquo Wikipedia
David Chrisinger, &ldquoA Secret Diary Chronicled the &lsquoSatanic World&rsquo That Was Dachau,&rdquo New York Times, (September 4, 2020).
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The Final Days And The Liberation Of Ravensbrück
For much of the war, the Ravensbrück facility did not have a gas chamber. It had outsourced its mass executions to other camps, like the nearby Auschwitz.
That changed in 1944, when Auschwitz announced it had reached maximum capacity and closed its gates to new arrivals. So Ravensbrück constructed its own gas chamber, a hastily built facility that was used immediately to put to death 5,000 to 6,000 of the camp's prisoners.
In the end, Ravensbrück killed between 30,000 and 50,000 women. They met their ends at the hands of brutal overseers and experimenting doctors, froze and starved to death on cold earth floors, and fell victim to the diseases that plagued the overcrowded barracks.
When the Soviets liberated the camp, they found 3,500 prisoners clinging to life. The rest had been sent on a death march. In total, just 15,000 of the 130,000 prisoners who came to Ravensbrück lived to see its liberation.
The women who survived told stories of their fallen comrades. They remembered little forms of resistance and small moments of joy: they sabotaged rocket pieces or sewed soldiers' uniforms to fall apart, held secret language and history classes, and swapped stories and recipes most knew they would never make again.
They modified records and kept their friends' secrets — and even ran an underground newspaper to spread word of new arrivals, new dangers, or small causes for new hope.
Their ashes now fill Lake Schwedt, on whose shores the women of Ravensbrück made their last stand.
For more on the Holocaust, see our poignant gallery of Holocaust photos and the story of Stanislawa Leszczyńska, the woman who delivered 3,000 babies at Auschwitz. Then, read about the fearsome concentration camp guard known as Ilse Koch.