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The concentration camps, 1933-1945

Dead bodies in a work camp, USHMM #89153.

Towards the end of World War II, when the Allies liberated the concentration camps at Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, Auschwitz and elsewhere, the world was shocked: in the barracks of the concentration camps were lying dead bodies side by side with half-dead people. This was the remains of the Nazis’ horrible crime, to imprison people in camps because of their “otherness” or in order to use them for forced labour.







More about:
Introduction
The organisation of the camps
The personnel
Living conditions for the inmates
Jewish forced labour
The victims
List of main concentration camps

In-dept information about the development of the concentration camp system:
1. phase: The first camps (1933-1936)
2. phase: Larger camps (1936-1939)
3. phase: The number of inmates increases (1939-1941/42)
4. phase: Radicalisation (1942-1945)


Introduction

A concentration camp was not the same as an extermination camp – as a concentration camp was not constructed with the purpose of mass murdering Jews and other victim groups.

> The difference between concentration camps and extermination camps

Despite this fact, the concentration camps claimed many thousands of victims. Imprisonment in a concentration camp meant inhuman forced labour, brutal mistreatment, hunger, disease, and random executions. Historians have difficulties estimating the total number of victims. But it is certain that several hundred thousand died in the concentration camps. As a comparison, more than three million Jews were murdered in the extermination camps.

The first concentration camp, Dachau, was established in the wake of Hitler and NSDAP’s takeover of power in 1933. Up until the end of World War II 22 (25) main concentration camps were established, together with around 1,200 affiliate camps, Aussenkommandos, and thousands of smaller camps.

> Map of major concentration camps

The first inmates in the concentration camps were political opponents of the Nazi regime, such as social democrats and communists. But ”different” people such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, “anti-socials”, professional criminals, gypsies and Jews were caught and placed in concentration camps – all in the name of the Nazis’ racial and regimentation ideology.

Legally speaking, it was the > Reichstag Fire Decree from 28 February 1933 that provided the Nazis with the authority to retain people in so-called ‘protective arrest’ (Schutzhaft) – initially to crush all resistance against the regime. This provided the starting signal to and organised and centrally directed camp system, which was placed under the direction of Heinrich Himmler as head of the SS and the police.

The Nazi camp system can be divided into different categories according to purpose and function. At this point it suffices to mention only some of the types of camps: forced labour camps, work- and reformatory camps, POW camps, transit camps, police camps, women camps and ghetto camps. The extermination camps had a very special position within the Nazi camp system and will not be dealt with in this context.

> Extermination camps


The organisation of the concentration camps

The Nazi camps were established and flourished because of power struggles between different Nazi factions. This is frequently mentioned, when historians try to argue that the development of the concentration camps was a process marked by changes rather than a predetermined concept (as argued for instance in the introduction to Ulrich Herbert et al., eds., Die nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager : Entwicklung und Struktur (Göttingen, 1998), p. 24).

The organisation of the camps can perhaps support this assertion. The camps were established and organised by different institutions from 1933 and on. In 1933 the SA, SS and the police fought for control of the camps. Thus, a great rivalry arose between the different institutions of the new regime. The SA (led by Ernst Röhm) and the Gauleiter rivalled with the SS (led by
Heinrich Himmler) for control of the new concentration camps and the newly established political police. SS came out victorious, and Himmler gained control of the first concentration camp, Dachau.

With the establishing of an SS department named ‘Inspectorate of the Concentration Camps’ (Inspektion der Konzentrationslager, IKL) in 1934, the SS came to control most of the concentration camps. After 1942 this Inspectorate became a part of the SS Economic and Administration Main Office (Wirtschafts- und Verwaltungshauptamt, WVHA).

WVHA, itself established in March 1942, gained a pivotal role in the development of the camp system. By attaching the Inspectorate of the Concentration Camps to the WVHA, this organisation’s leader, SS-Obergruppenführer Oswald Pohl, became the powerful head of the concentration camp system. From March 1942 Pohl and the WVHA controlled the concentration camps both financially and organisationally. This meant that the WVHA became fully involved in the concentration camp “business”. From 1942 forced labour gained a huge economic importance.

In spite of the WVHA’s dominance, other institutions within the Nazi regime had control of several camps. The regional SS- and Police Chiefs controlled some camps. The following camps were not subject to the control of the WVHA: the Operation Reinhard extermination camps, the forced labour camps in the General Government, the ghettos, police camps, reformatories, POW camps, and the thousands of camps established to house foreign slave labour.



The personnel

From 1934 the running of the concentration camps was firmly in the hands of the SS. The guards in a typical concentration camp consisted of members of the SS’s infamous Death Head’s Unit (SS-Totenkopfverbände) and the Waffen-SS. The men from SS-Totenkopfverbände were particularly known for their handling of the prisoners, but Ukrainian auxiliary guards were also very brutal and vicious. The SS also made use of self-governing units consisting of inmates, the so-called Kapo’s, who were privileged inmates that worked as prison guards.



Living conditions for the inmates

Neuengamme concentration camp, USHMM #06024.

A typical concentration camp consisted of barracks that were secured from escape by barbed wire, watchtowers and guards. The inmates usually lived in overcrowded barracks and slept in overcrowded bunk ”beds”. In the forced labour camps, for instance, the inmates usually worked 12 hours a day with hard physical work, clothed in rags, eating too little and always living under the risk of corporal punishment.

The inmates feared becoming ill. For the sick, the old and those that could not keep up the working temp were “selected” and then killed with gas, injections or shot. Others were chosen for terrible pseudo-scientific experiments – most often losing their life.

To this was added the horrible destiny that hit those prisoners who ended up as Muselmänner. This was the name for an inmate so undernourished that he or she was a living dead – a living, round-shouldered skeleton. The
Muselmänner were either killed or died before they were executed.


Jewish forced labour

Forced (or slave) labour played an important role in the Nazi regime’s Jewish policy as well as for the economy of the concentration camps. Forced labour became particularly important following the outbreak of World War II, when the Nazi war economy demanded an enormous effort.

Following the outbreak of the war, Eastern European Jews – especially from the Baltic States, the Soviet Union and Poland – were forced to work as slave labour both in and outside so-called Jewish forced-labour camps. All Jewish men in the General Government were forced to work for the Nazi regime from 26 October 1939 onwards – this law was later expanded to include Jewish women and children as well.

In connection with the ’Final Solution’, the Jews’ role as workers diminished as the extermination process was escalated. This was particularly apparent as far as the Polish Jews were concerned. A morbid form of forced labour was instituted in 1941, according to which Jews should be “worked to death” (the principle of Vernichtung durch Arbeit).

In Auschwitz and Majdanek, which had the role of both being a working and an extermination camp, Jews were divided upon arrival into those capable of working ands those not. The last group was sent directly to the gas chambers, whereas those able to work had to work themselves to death in SS’s industries – or they were executed when they worn down. In Auschwitz, the Jews worked in the so-called Monowitz working camp (Auschwitz III) in factories, or they were hired out to private businesses such as the chemical corporation I.G. Farben or the SS’s own factories.

Jews, especially German, Western European and Russian, also worked as slave labour in work camps in Germany. The Kraft durch Freude Volkswagen works in Wolfsburg, for example, used the “cheap” Jewish slave labourers. A tile work in Sachsenhausen, owned and operated by the SS, used Jews and other slave labourers. In the Harz, near the concentration camp Dora-Mittelbau, Jews worked in an underground weapons factory.



The victims

The commandant of the concentration camp Kaufering IV, Eichelsdörfer, among inmates killed in his camp. After the liberation, USHMM #77021.

It is impossible to estimate the exact number of victims for the concentration camp system and of those who fell victim to the death marches.

The most current reliable figures from scholars are at least 500,000 and perhaps as many as over ¾ million died as a result of the inhuman slave labour, hunger and disease in the concentration camps.

From: Karin Orth, Das System der nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager. Eine politische Organisationsgeshichte (Hamburg, 1999), pp. 346f









List of main concentration camps

A total of 22 (25) main concentration camps (Stamlager) were established, together with approximately 1,200 affiliate camps. Besides these, thousands of smaller camps existed in all parts of German-controlled Europe.

The following is an alphabetic list of the 22 main camps together with links to their respective home pages (if available):


> Arbeitsdorf, Germany

> Auschwitz, Poland - official web site

> Bergen-Belsen, Germany - official web site
> Bergen-Belsen, Germany - overview

> Buchenwald, Germany - official web site
> Buchenwald, Germany - overview

> Dachau, Germany - official web site
> Dachau, Germany - overview

> Flossenbürg, Germany - official web site
> Flossenbürg, Germany - overview

> Gross-Rosen, Poland

> Herzogenbosch, the Netherlands

> Kaunas, Lithuania

> Krakow-Plaszow, Poland

> Majdanek (Lublin), Poland - official web site
> Majdanek (Lublin), Poland - overview

> Mauthausen, Austria - official web site

> Mittelbau-Dora, Germany - official web site

> Natzweiler-Struthof, France

> Neuengamme, Germany - official web site

> Ravensbrück, Germany - official web site

> Riga-Kaiserwald, Latvia

> Sachsenhausen, Germany - official web site

> Stutthof, Poland - official web site

> Vaivara, Latvia - overview

> Warsaw, Poland

> Wewelsburg, Germany




More web sites about camps:

> www.shoa.de
> www.shoah.de
> List of camps - incomplete, but very telling!



In-depth information about the development of the concentration camp system

The development of the concentration camp system in 4 phases:
1. phase: The first camps (1933-1936)
2. phase: Larger camps (1936-1939)
3. phase: The number of inmates increases (1939-1941/42)
4. phase: Radicalisation (1942-1945)


1. phase: The first camps (1933-1936)

The Gusen concentration camp, May 1945, USHMM #06433.

The first concentration camps were established shortly after Hitler’s appointment as Reich Chancellor in January 1933. Between 1933 and 1934 small as well as big camps, prisons and enclosures were established all over Germany in order to house alleged political opponents of the Nazi regime.

The camps were established and organised by different institutions: the SA, the Gauleiter, the new Nazi police chiefs in the cities and in the Länder, and the SS. The SA (led by Ernst Röhm) and the Gauleiter rivalled with the SS (led by
Heinrich Himmler) for control of the new concentration camps and the newly established political police. SS came out victorious, and Himmler gained control of the first concentration camp, Dachau. Theodor Eicke gained control of Dachau as commandant and was able to make Dachau into a model camp and the prototype of later camps.

The period 1934-1936 was characterised by a reorganisation of the concentration camps, spearheaded by Theodor Eicke, who became head of a new institution within the SS, the ‘Inspectorate for the Concentration Camps’. After having taken command of the first concentration camp, Dachau, Eicke later became commandant of Oranienburg and from 1936 of Sachsenhausen. He was also responsible for the notorious concentration camp guards, the Death Head’s Unit, Totenkopfverbände.

The first inmates in the concentration camps were political opponents of the Nazi regime, such as social democrats and communists. But ”different” people such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, “anti-socials”, professional criminals, gypsies and Jews were caught and placed in concentration camps – all in the name of the Nazis’ racial and regimentation ideology.

In the summer of 1933 more than 26,000 people were retained in prisons or camps. But as early as 1935 the number of concentration camp inmates had dropped to around 4,000, at a time when the Nazis had consolidated their power and pacified their political opponents by isolation, imprisonment or murders.



2. phase: Larger camps (1936-1939)

A new development of the concentration camp system from 1936: new large concentration camps were constructed and the smaller camps were closed. Following this, the number of concentration camp inmates increased.

The new purpose of the Nazi regime was to remove all ”harmful” elements within German society – not only political opponents. According to the Nazis, the German health and normality was fundamentally threatened by criminals and anti-socials’ existence in Germany. These harmful elements were thus sent to concentration camps in order to be reformed, punished and disciplined – or to simply disappear from German society. Behind this programme was the body-political idea of “pure” Germans as higher beings than anybody else.

From 1938 the composition of the inmates changed in line with the rising number of prisoners. The non-political inmates, such as the “work shy”, “anti-socials” or habitual criminals greatly increased compared to the number of political prisoners. There were, for instance, 7,723 inmates in the concentration camp at Buchenwald on 1 July 1938, of whom only 21% were political prisoners.

In connection with the pogrom during the Night of Broken Glass (9-10 November 1938), the number Jewish inmates in the concentration camps escalated. Around 30,000 Jews were imprisoned in concentration camps during the Night of Broken Glass. By the end of 1938 there were approximately 60,000 inmates in the overcrowded Nazi concentration camps. This again led to the construction of even more camps.

By the end of 1939 there existed a total of seven main camps: Dachau (1933), Sachsenhausen (1936), Buchenwald (1937), Flossenbürg (1938), Neuengamme (1938), Mauthausen (1938) and the women’s camp Ravensbrück (1939).



3. phase: The number of inmates increases (1939-1941/42)

The breakout of World War II marked a transition point for the development of the concentration camps: the number of inmates exploded. Especially the number of foreign (non-German) prisoners was heavily increased.

After the beginning of the war, the concentration camps were overflowing with tens of thousands of prisoners, including deported Jews, Poles, Soviet POW’s and French freedom fighters. By 1940 non-Germans constituted the majority of inmates in the camps.

The Inspectorate for the Concentration Camps was unable to keep up. In 1940 the Higher SS- and Police Chiefs (Himmler’s local chieftains) established their own camps: transit camps in the west, work camps and later extermination camps in the east.

The SS Economy and Administration Main Office (Wirtschafts- und Verwaltungshauptamt, WVHA), established in March 1942, gained a pivotal role in the development of the camp system. By attaching the Inspectorate of the concentration camps to the WVHA, this organisation’s leader, SS-Obergruppenführer
Oswald Pohl, became the powerful head of the concentration camp system. From March 1942 Pohl and the WVHA controlled the concentration camps both financially and organisationally. This meant that the WVHA became fully involved in the concentration camp “business”. From 1942 forced labour gained a huge economic importance.

In this period the number of deaths in the camps was radically increased. A number of examples: In Dachau the death toll rose from 4% in 1938 to 36% in 1942, in Buchenwald from 10% in 1938 to 19% in 1941, in Sachsenhausen from 229 deaths in 1938 to 816 deaths in 1941, and in the Austrian camps at Mauthausen from 24& in 1939 to 76% in 1940.



4. phase: Radicalisation (1942-1945)

During this final phase the number of inmates in concentration camps once again exploded. A total of 203,000 prisoners were registered in April 1943, 524,000 were registered in August 1944, and more than 700,000 towards the end of the war. To this was added a change in function and structure within the whole concentration camp system. Up until then, the purpose of the camps had been to crush all resistance against the regime and to use the camps as punishment facilities. Now forced labour received highest priority.

Organisationally, the establishing of the ’SS Central Direction for the Conversion of Concentration Camp Inmates’ Efforts to the War Industry’ in 1942, together with the creation of the WVHA, gained enormous importance for the German war economy. The use of slave labour now became pivotal for the German war effort. The SS (WVHA) now began to cooperate with private businesses such as I.G. Farben and Volkswagen, where the prisoners worked in so-called ‘Out-camps’, i.e. in the private factories. The SS thus hired the inmates out to private businesses.

Between July and September 1943 WVHA also took control of Jewish ghettos and forced labour camps in occupied Russia. This led to the establishing of new concentration camps: Riga, Kaunas, Warsaw and Plaszow. In the Netherlands the concentration camp Herzogenbosch was established in the summer of 1943, thus giving the WVHA control of a total of 20 independent main camps.

Partly based on experiences from the concentration camp system, the so-called extermination camps were established in former Poland in 1941-1942. This led to the initiation of the extermination of the Jews, and the systematic mass murder of Jews, Polish and Russian dissidents and gypsies was a fact. A total of three million Jews were killed in the extermination camps – most of them immediately upon arrival. WVHA was in control of two of the extermination camps, Auschwitz and Majdanek.

Most of the concentration camps were liberated by the Allies from the beginning of January 1945 and in the following months. It is estimated that approximately 700,000 people were registered as inmates in concentration camps by early 1945. A third of them died before the end of the war, many of them during the inhuman death marches, where the feeble prisoners were forced to walk hundreds of miles to concentration camps in Germany – for instance from Auschwitz in Poland to Bergen-Belsen in Germany.

It is estimated that the concentration camp system, controlled through the Inspectorate and the WVHA, was responsible for the deaths of between 1,8 and 2 million people.



Want to know more?


> The extermination camps
> After the liberation
> The ghettos in Poland


Literature:

Martin Broszat, 'Nationalsozialistische Konzentrationslager 1933-1945’, in Hans Buchheim et al., eds., Anatomie des SS-Staates, 2nd ed. (Munich, 1982).

Ulrich Herbert et al., eds., Die nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager. Entwicklung und Struktur (Göttingen, 1998).
Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews I-III. Revised and Definitive Edition (New York & London, 1985).

Karin Orth, Das System der nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager. Eine politische Organisationsgeschichte (Hamburg, 1999).

Karin Orth, Die Konzentrationslager-SS. Sozialstrukturelle Analysen und biographischen Studien (Göttingen, 2000).

Gudrun Schwarz, Die nationalsozialistischen Lager (Frankfurt/Main, 1990).

Wolfgang Sofsky, The Order of Terror. The Concentration Camp (Princeton, 1997).






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