A necessary step in both Hitler's consolidation of his hold on the German people and eventually and the Holocaust was the creation of concentration camps. Concentration camps were an integral part of the NAZI regime. The first camp, Dachau, near Munich was established within days of Hitler's appointments as Chancellor. Hitler had secured only a few ministerial post for his NAZI associates, but they included the Ministry of Interior giving him control over the police. The NAZIs began arresting Communists and other opponents and there just was not room for them in German jails and prisons. In addition, prisons when the NAZIs first seized power were much too open an environment for what Hitler and his close associates wanted to do. Dachau was only the first camp, but it became the blue print for subsequent camps of an enormous system that would eventually extend over much of Europe. Dachau was run by both the SA and SS, but the SS soon took over control of the camps. The camps at first were an instrument of political repression. Germany in 1933 had a wide range of political parties and a free and very vocal press. Within weeks the NAZIs effectively silenced both the political opposition and free press. Recalcitrant critics were arrested and interned in the camps where there was no limits on what the SA and SS could do to the prisoners. The camps were also a convenient place to dispose of political enemies without fear of embarrassing questions being asked. As the NAZI concentration camp system developed it came to serve other purposes as well. There were work camps which made valuable contributions to the war effort. The slave labor in these camps made everything from uniforms and pots and parts to V-2 ballistic missiles--one of the most complex weapons system of the War. Other camps once the War began were constructed as death camps, opened almost entirely in occupied Poland.. The death camps were intended primarily for the Jews, but many other people besides Jews were killed there. It is likely that these camps would have been used for killing Slavs and others who the NAZIs considered undesirable, but when the War turned against the NAZIs, the retreating NAZIs tried to dismantle the camps and destroy evidence of the killing. Some of the larger camps like Auschwitz had units with different purposes, both labor camps and death camps. There were also POW camps, but many of these camps were tin by the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe rather than the SS. There were even camps for Germans. Hitler ordered the Baltic Germans "Home to the Reich" in 1939. The NAZIs intended to use these ethnic Germans to colonize areas of Poland from which the Poles were being expelled. Many of the Baltic Germans spent long periods in rough camps with inadequate food and medical supplies. [Overy, p. 595.]
Heinrich Himmler referred to derisively by the British as a chicken farmer was in fact an organization genius. The SS created by him began as Hitler's personal body guard and developed into the most sinister pseudo-military criminal gang in European history. Himmler helped Hitler establish total dominance in the "Night of the Long Knives" (1934). The suppression of the political opposition was made possible by extra-legal killing and brutalities in the concentration camps run by Himmler's SS. There were many in Germany that objected to the excesses of the SA ad SS against the Jews. Those that spoke out to loudly might be killed. Others have over a brief incarceration in the camps knew better than to speak out. For many others rumors of the concentration camps was enough to induce silence and allow the NAZIs to do as they wished with the Jews. After World War II began, the SS provided the corps of individuals ready and willing to conduct the Holocaust. Himmler himself was not among the most anti-semitic of the NAZIs. He was among those most willing to carry out Hitler's instructions and to create a New Order where Europe was ruled by a Greater Germany populated by a ethnically purified Aryan race.
The Gestapo was not created by Himmler, but was taken over by him in 1936 and incorporated into the SS. The arrests of NAZI opponents who were to be sent to concentration camps were undertaken by the Gestapo. The arrests of Jews within the Reich and after World War II had begun and their deportment East was organized by the Gestapo aided by the regular German uniformed police force.
The NAZIs opened the first concentration camps within a few days of Hitler's appointment as Chancellor. The occasion was the burning of the Reichstag. Hitler activated Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution into effect. This gave the Government (meaning the NAZIs) the authority to take away the civic rights of German citizens. The first victims were not the Jews, but the political opposition, especially the Socialists and Communists. The first concentration camp was established a Dachau for those arrested after the burning of the Reichstag and for committing other serious crimes threatening the state, meaning anyone who had irritated Hitler and other NAZIs or who posed a political threat. [Berenbaum, p. 18.] The only segment of Germany society at the time that was immune was the military.
Concentration camps were an integral part of the NAZI regime. Too often the NAZI camp system is thought of as designed to kill Jews. This was not the main purpose. The NAZIs as soon as they seized power began to set up vamps. The first camp was Dachau. The camps were an integral part of how they governed Germany and planed to govern their empire. It proved to be a convenient place to kill Jews, but the Holocaust was not the main purpose for which the SS established their camp system. The NAZIS had several reasons for setting up concentration camps. Jails already existed in Germany. What the NAZIs needed were camps where larger numbers of people could be detained by NAZI Party para-militaries, at first the SA and then the SS. The camp were essential for the NAZIs. They were a minority party. There was wise-spread support for some issues espoused by the NAZIs such as criticism of the Versailles Treaty, government action to relieve unemployment, and other issues. There was not, however, agreement on key NAZI goals which was suppression of the Jews, a vast rearmament program, and an aggressive foreign policy. The camps were key to silencing the political opposition. Any vocal critic of the NAZIS, socialists, communists, Catholics, and other could be arrested without a warrant or any legal nicety. Some were killed. Others were brutalized so viciously that after release hey knew to keep quiet. Others who might have spoken out were terrified by the mere existence. The camps were soon also employed in the anti-Jewish campaigns. They not only served to cow the Jews into submission, but to extort the property of wealthy Jews. After the War began, the camps were used to terrorize the occupied populations just as they had initially terrorized the German people. They were expanded to provide to provide collect and control a work force of slave laborers for German agriculture and war industry. Unlike the Allies, Hitler objected to using German women for the War. Also after the War began served as a location for the mass murder of millions of Jews and other people. [Berenbaum, p. 119.]
Jails and prisons already existed in Germany when the NAZIs seized power. What the NAZIs needed were camps where larger numbers of people could be detained by NAZI Party para-militaries, at first the SA and then the SS.
The camps at first were primarily an instrument of political repression. Germany in 1933 had a wide range of political parties and a free and very vocal press. Within weeks the NAZIs effectively silenced both the political opposition and free press. Recalcitrant critics were arrested and interned in the camps where there was no limits on what the SA and SS could do to the prisoners. The camps were also a convenient place to dispose of political enemies without fear of embarrassing questions being asked.
The first camp, Dachau, near Munich was established within days of Hitler's appointments as Chancellor. Hitler had secured only a few ministerial post for his NAZI associates, but they included the Ministry of Interior giving him control over the police. The NAZIs began arresting Communists and other opponents and there just was not room for them in German jails and prisons. In addition, prisons when the NAZIs first seized power were much too open an environment for what Hitler and his close associates wanted to do. Dachau was only the first camp, but it became the blue print for subsequent camps of an enormous system that would eventually extend over much of Europe.
The camp were essential for the NAZIs. They were a minority party. There was wise-spread support for some issues advocated by the NAZIs such as criticism of the Versailles Treaty, government action to relieve unemployment, and other issues. There was not, however, agreement on key NAZI goals which was suppression of the Jews, a vast rearmament program, and an aggressive foreign policy. The camps were key to silencing the political opposition. Any vocal critic of the NAZIS, socialists, communists, Catholics, and other could be arrested without a warrant or any other legal nicety. Some were killed. Others were brutalized so viciously that after release hey knew to keep quiet. Others who might have spoken out were terrified by the mere existence. After the War began, the camps were used to terrorize the occupied populations just as they had initially terrorized the German people.
The camps were soon also employed in the anti-Jewish campaigns. They not only served to cow the Jews into submission, but to extort the property of wealthy Jews.
The SS established a huge net work of camps across first Germany and then occupied Europe. There were many different camps, set up for a variety of purposes. Many were used for forced labor. Five camps were created for the sole purpose of killing--primarily killing Jews. The death camps were: Belzec, Chelmo, Maly Trostenets, Sorbibor, and Treblinka. Thhe killing methods varied from camp to camp. The Polish camps were first used in Operation Heydrich, the destruction of Polish Jews. Large numbers of Jews and others were killed at the many other camps established throughout occupied Germany. Here the most notorious was Auschwitz. It was a huge camp originally created for slave labor, but a section of the camp at Birkenau was created to kill Jews. Some writers, including HBC, some times refer to these camps as the "Polish death camps". This is probably misleading. The camps other than the fact that the Germans built them in Poland (or in the Soviet Union in the case of Sorbibor), had nothing to do with Poland or the Polish people. A more correct description, as Polish reader Jerzy Pankiewiczis points out, is German death camps in occupied Poland. Locating the camps in Poland was a conscious decision made by the NAZIs. The Germans were in total control in Poland and imposed harsh military rule. This it was easier to hide what they were doing than any where else in Europe. It also allowed them to keep the dirty details of the killing away from the German people. Many Germans did know about the killings and some did not want to know. Many Germans, however, did not know.
The camp system was expanded to provide, collect, and control a work force of slave laborers for German agriculture and war industry. Unlike the Allies, Hitler objected to using German women for the War. The work camps made valuable contributions to the war effort. The slave labor in these camps made everything from uniforms and pots and parts to V-2 ballistic missiles--one of the most complex weapons system of the War.
There were also POW camps, but these camps were operated by the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe rather than the SS. Here the Whermacht for the most part dealt with the POWs from the Western Allies correctly. Here the largest numbers were from the French Army which was interned in the Reich after Germany occupied the country (June 1940). A major priority of the Vichy Government was to get the POWs back, but Hitler never relented. There was an effort to identify the Jewish POWs to transfer them to the SS concentration camps. The treatment of the POWs taken in the East, however, was very different. The Polish POWs were taken before the NAZIs had taken the dcesion to kill Jews and others in large numbers. Jews were separated and either shot or condemned to death thrtough labor--a slower death by being worked to death. The non-Polish POWs were treated differently. Many would manaage to survive because they were assigned to agricultural labor in the Reich to replace rueal workers being drafted for the War. Soviet POWs were treated brutally and large numbers actually starved to death or left exposed in winter conditions. Conditions wer improved some what in 1942 when the NAZIs began to undertand that labor was a valyavle resource in a war that would not be sttled by a brief summer campaign. Throughout the War, comditions in German POW camps defended on nationaity and race. Remember that these were not camps controlled by the SS, but by the Wehrmacht. One special POW camp was not for POWs, but for civilan internees from Allied countries. This was the Vittle camp in the Vogues Mountains of northeastern France. Allied nationals in occupied France as wll as Jews with forign passports were interned there.
There were even camps for Germans. Hitler ordered the Baltic Germans "Home to the Reich" in 1939. The NAZIs intended to use these ethnic Germans to colonize areas of Poland from which the Poles were being expelled. Many of the Baltic Germans spent long periods in rough camps with inadequate food and medical supplies. [Overy, p. 595.]
Some of the larger camps like Auschwitz had units with different purposes, both labor camps and death camps. And some labor camps became essentially death camps because the food, sanitary facilities, medical supplies, clothing, and housing were inadequate to sustain individuals subjected to a strenuous work regime over extended period.
The camp regime was affected in part by the type of camp, but there were many similarities. Incarceration in itself is a punishment in itself. Incarceration in a NAZI concentration camp meant that the individual without any legal protection was exposed to any cruelty that brutal NAZI guards could devise to break even the strongest individual. As early as October 1933 the NAZIS introduced a new discipline an punishment code at the their first KZ--Dachau. The goal was to create a regime where the orders of NAZI guards were to be absolute. The code read, "Agitators are to be hanged by virtue of the Law of the Revolution". Over 100,000 inmates were detained in NAZI KZs by the end of 1933, the first year of NAZI rule. [Gilbert, p. 15.] Life for KZ inmates was a living nightmare full of unimaginable horrors. The prisoners were forced poorly fed and housed, brutalized, and privately tortured, extorted, denied medical care, and forced to endure a harsh regime of slave labor. [Hoyt, p. 132].
Himmler signed a decree made known to only a few close associates ordering that KZ camp inmates should have all dental gold removed (September 23, 1940). New prisoners upon arrival would be examined for dental gold, both teeth and bridgework. The results of the examination were tatooed on the upper left arm for easy reference in the morgue. The teeth and bridgework thus obtained were delivered to the Reichbank and credited to the SS account. [Gilbert, p. 344.] The Allies at the end of the war found bags of dental gold. One of the chief SS dentists, Herman Pook, who supervised removal of gold teeth and fillings from murdered concentration camp inmates (September 1943-May 945) estimated that the SS netted some 4 million reichsmarks annually. Extraction varied from camp to camp. At concentration camps the gold could be extracted when the inmates were registered. At death camps using gas chamnbers, the gold could be exr=tracr from the corpes. Where the victims were shot into piys, the gold could not be recovetred. SS Obersturmführer Kurt Gerstein, of the Institute for Hygiene of the Waffen-SS, described the operation of a death camp to a Swedish diplomat. After gassings at belza, "Dentists [then] hammered out gold teeth, bridges, and crowns. In the midst of them stood Captain Wirth. He was in his element, and, showing me a large can full of teeth, he said: "See, for yourself, the weight of that gold! It's only from yesterday, and the day before. You can't imagine what we find every day – dollars, diamonds, gold. You'll see for yourself!" [Stackelberg and Winkle, p. 354.]
The Germans did not generally hold children in conentration camps. The camps were primarily to punish political opponents or work camps for forced labor. And children did not fit into either category, especially younger children. The German camp system was som large and varied, however, that thousands of children were held in the camps and some survived to be liberated by the Allies. Hundreds of thousands of children, perhaps over a million children were arrested or otherwised detained by German authorities. Most were Jewish children were at first allowed to live with their parents in the ghettoes.
When the ghettoes were emptied and the Jews transported to camps, most of the children were selected out on arrival or at a later period for death as non-workers. From all occupied areas, children were deported with their families and were often the first to be killed with their mother or other adult woman caring for them as well as often older sisterts. Mothers who held their babies in their arms were gassed together with the children. Not only were the children non-workers, but trying to separate mothers and children would have resulted in disruptions. Non-Jews seized in the East for war work were adults or older teenagers. The children were left behind and in some cases had to dend for themselves. There were, however, some children in the cocentration camps. Older children were in many instances allowed to work. Some children lied about their age and possession of coveted skulls like tailors and cobblers. Inmates hid a few children. In one notable instance a very young Jewish boy was adopted as a mascot because his father waas such a valuable worker. Some children were seized as Lebensorn candidates, but then rejected. Often these children were killed as Himmler did not want German's enemies to have such valuable genetic material and most were too young to work. Other children were used for medical experiments. Josef Mengel was the most notorious of the SS doctors, but not the omly one who experimented on children. The Soviets found 180 of these children when they entered Auschwitz. Some camps held special populations such as gypsies, hostage families, Jews with neutral or American passports, and other special cases. More children came into the concentation camps when the Germans intensified anti-partisan operation in the former eastern areas of Poland (1943-44). The children whio were not immediately killed, even more so than in the ghettoes where parents could provide some protection, were at risk because their young bodies could not stand up to the brutal camp regime and starvation food rations.
From the beginning, German concentration camps were administered by the SS. The first concentration camps set up in Germany were followed after the start of World War II by a myriad of camps throughout Western Europe run by the SS as a state within a state. The SS eventually opened over 9,000 camps across the NAZI-occupied Europe. [Berenbaum, p. 9.] They were filled with unfortunate people from every occupied country. The number of people in the camps rose steadily from 100,000 in 1942, to 524,000 in 1944, and 724,000 by January 1945 [Berenbaum, p. 122.] The camps were established for a variety of purposes and thus the regime, organization, and conditions varied from camp to camp. Not all the camps were even administered by the NAZIs. There were camps set up an run by NAZI allies such as Vichy France, Italian Fascists as well as the regimes in Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia. The NAZIs also took camps over in France, the Netherlands, and other countries that had been set up for refugees. The initial purpose of the camps in Germany was the political repression of the anti-NAZI elements. The NAZIs also use them in the process of stripping Jews of their property. After World War II began, the camps became increasingly important to hold workers from occupied countries forced to labor for Germany. Unlike the Allies, the NAZIs were reluctant to use women in the economy, even to support the war. While many camps were work camps, there were also punishment and death camps. The camps of course played a major role in the Holocaust. There were also numerous prisoner of war (POW) camps, but these were administered by the military and not the SS and we have not included them in this list.
There were many German men and women of conscious who resisted the NAZIs. All were persecuted in some way. A Protestant pastor after hearing about deplorable conditions at internment camps in the French Pyrenees, tried to get to one of the camps--Gurs. He never got there. He was arrested and sent as a prisoner to Sachsenhausen and then Dachau. [Gilbert, p. 347.] Many were brutalized and then killed in the concentration camps. One such man was Erich Knauf, a journalist. He had served Germany in World War I. He referred to Goebbels as 'this little rat'. He outspokengly said that a NAZI victory in World War II would be the 'greatest misfortune'. He charged that Himmler only retained power by 'ordering between 80 and a 100 executions a day'. He was executed in 1943. His money was taken from him as a fee for the execution and 'prison maintenance'. [Gilbert, pp. 561-62.]
SS concentration camp guards were never under any serious constraints in dealing with individuals considered an enemy, for what ever reason, political, national, or racial. Many of these murders had been in fact violations of German law, although the guards were of course never prosecuted. Hitler on December 5 issued the Nacht and Nebel (Night and Fog) degree. This in effect authorized the arrest without warrant or any explanation of any individual "endangering German security". These individuals might not be executed immediately, but they would disappear into the night and fog of the concentration camp system without any trace. Surviving camp registers have notations "NN" by prisoners names, meaning that they wee taken from their barracks and shot. [Gilbert, p. 287.]
The Holocaust was a crime without precedent in modern history. The NAZIs targeted the Jews for death camps. Many were killed by SS Einsatzgruppen in large-scale actions at first in Poland and than on a larger scale in the Soviet Union. Others Jews were concentrated
in Ghettos for slave labor and eventual dispatch to the death camps, camps established for the specific purpose of killing Jews and others. Tragically it was not just the Germans involved, but in many countries the local population led by Fascist groups were all to willing to participate in the robbery and killing. Jewish children were among the first to be killed by the NAZIs because they had no economic value which could be exploited. One can not forget the images of the starving Jewish children on the Warsaw Ghetto whose parents had been killed. A great body of literature exists on the Holocaust including the experiences of the children.
NAZI Germany of course was not the only country operating a huge system of concentration camps. The Soviet Union had even a larger system. One of the tragedies of the liberation of the NAZI camps was that many of the Russian POWs and slave laborers who managed to survive the horrific conditions in the camps were arrested and interned in the Soviet Gulag.
Berenbaum, Michael. The World Must Know (Ed. Arnold Kramer. Boston: Little, Brown, & Company, 1993).
Gilbert, Martin. A History of the Twentieth Century Vol. 2 1933-54 (William Morrow and Company, Inc.: New York, 1998), 1050p.
Hitler, Adolf. Mein Kampf.
Hoyt, Carolyn. "Stolen Childhood. How One Woman Survived the Holocaust." McCallÌs August 1994. pp. 100-101. 132, 134.
Overy, Richard. The Dictators: Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia (W.W. Norton: Newy York, 2004), 849p.
Padfield, Peter. Himmler: Reichsführer-SS (Henry Holt: New York, 1991), 656p.
"Nazi dentist who removed gold teeth from camp inmates is cleared," JTA (May 27, 1959). Dr. Pook was not cleared of removiung the gold from NAZI victims, but he was released and allowed to continue his ptactice.
Stackelberg, Roderick and Sally Anne Winkle. The Nazi Sourcebook: An Anthology of Texts (Routledge: 2002).
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