The Nazis opened their first concentration camp at Dachau, near Munich, in March 1933, only two months after Adolf Hitler came to power. This camp was the model for the many others to follow. It operated continuously until April 1945, when the U.S. Army liberated the inmates. Originally intended for the temporary detention of political prisoners, the camps became permanent institutions manned by the Schutzstaffel (SS) Totenkopfverbande (Death's Head detachments). In these camps, the more sadistic guards, of whom there was no shortage in the SS, were more or less free to inflict indescribable cruelties on the inmates without fear of disciplinary action. The camp system gradually evolved from penal camps to the infamous death mills of Auschwitz, Belzec, Chelmno, Maidanek, Sobibor, and Treblinka.
At first, the camps housed political enemies. Foremost were Communists and Social Democrats. Jews were initially targeted insofar as they belonged to these other groups, but they were considered "spoilers of German blood" and quickly became the primary victims. In time, Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, and the mentally ill all fell prey to the Nazis and their collaborators. By 1939, seven large camps existed, with numerous subcamps. These seven large camps were Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Neuengamme, Flossenbürg, Mauthausen, and Ravensbrück. As the war spread, forced labor became more and more a part of war production, and prisoner exploitation expanded. In the end, the camps stretched from the Pyrenees to eastern Europe, and literally millions of people had perished in then. Some camps, notably Drancy in France and Westerbork in the Netherlands, were primarily transit facilities, where Jews were herded together for onward shipment via railroad to the dreadful death mills.
No one will ever know just how much the people in the surrounding communities knew about the internal workings of the camps, but the Nazis had accomplices wherever camps existed. There were penal, work, or transit camps in all countries occupied by or allied with Germany. In western and eastern Europe, including the Baltic states, indigenous troops augmented the SS in the camps. In southern Europe, local forces operated their own camps or executed their victims rather than ship them to the death mills of eastern Europe. One glaring case was the Jasenovac camp operated by the Nazi puppet of Croatia. There, the Croatian Fascists, the Ustase, killed tens of thousands of Serbs, Jews, Gypsies, and political enemies.
All the camps were very much alike. In them, the guards did whatever they could to strip every bit of human dignity from the inmates. Those who could do so were forced to work at hard manual labor 11 to 12 hours a day. Those who could not were encouraged to die. The sign over the camp gate reading Arbeit macht Frei (work brings freedom) meant the work of slave labor and freedom only in the release of death.
On arrival at a concentration camp, men and women were segregated and taken off for "medical inspection." There, they were forced to strip naked and were deloused. Heads were shorn, the hair retained to use for manufacturing mattresses and upholstering furniture. Following a cursory medical inspection, those pronounced fit to work were given clothes, had numbers tattooed on their arms, and were assigned to barracks where they would exist until they became too weak to work any longer. Those judged unfit to work were taken off in another direction to be executed.
For those who passed the medical inspection, life in the camp was defined by deliberate degradation, with every effort expended to break them physically, mentally, and morally. Barracks were so overcrowded that there often was not enough room for everyone to lie down at once. Buckets were frequently the only sanitary facilities provided, and there were never enough of these. Barracks were unheated, and in many, there was no cover provided, even in winter.
At dawn each morning, men and women lined up in front of their respective barracks for roll call, standing in their thin rags even in winter. This dreaded zahlappell (roll call) occurred at 3:00 a.m. and was repeated 5:00 p.m. It lasted for hours each time, until the guards could make an official and complete count. Every form of disease was present in the camps, with little or no medical treatment provided. Nourishment was totally inadequate. Breakfast usually consisted of a cup of ersatz coffee and a small portion of stale or moldy bread. Lunch was typically a cup of poorly fortified soup. And dinner routinely consisted of a small serving of bread, perhaps some potatoes or cabbage, and putrid tea.
Punishment in the camps was frequent and brutal, and it often occurred without justification: it had to be especially horrific if it was to exceed the brutality of daily life in the camps. Regulations in some camps required that beating with an axe handle was to be restricted to 25 blows at a time and that a week had to pass before a second beating could be given, but the guards seem not to have paid much attention to such rules. Often, the inmates were assembled to witness punishments and executions, and prisoners were sometimes placed in solitary confinement in total darkness in cells where they could neither stand nor sit nor lie for days or weeks. At Buchenwald, Belsen, and elsewhere, medical experiments were carried out on unwilling victims, who, if they survived, were often maimed for life. Such experiments investigated, among other things, the effects of rapid compression and decompression, how much cold and exposure a person could stand before he died, and how best to revive a victim of freezing.
A number of German industries—such as I. G. Farben, the giant chemical firm that also manufactured the Zyklon B gas employed in the death camps—were attracted to Auschwitz and other camps with the promise of cheap slave labor. At Auschwitz, I. G. Farben built an enormous factory to process synthetic oil and rubber in order to take advantage of the slave labor available. This facility was the largest plant in the entire I. G. system, and it was built largely by slave labor. Work was physically exhausting, and beatings for any breach of the rules were common. I.G. claimed it provided a "special diet" for its workers, which nonetheless resulted in a weight loss of six to nine pounds a week for the prisoners. Death usually came after three months. As an I. G. physician's report noted, "The prisoners were condemned to burn up their own body weight while working and, providing no infection occurred, finally died of exhaustion." Slave labor became a consumable raw material. At least 25,000 people were worked to death at I. G. Auschwitz.
All inmates had to wear insignia (colored triangles) revealing the reason for their incarceration. There were variations, but typically, Jews wore two superimposed triangles that formed a yellow star. Common criminals wore green. Political prisoners had red. Persons considered asocial (e.g., Gypsies and vagrants) wore black. Homosexuals wore pink and Jehovah's Witnesses purple.
Prisoners had to observe a definite hierarchy of prisoner officials, as well as the SS guards. The average prisoner had to answer to fellow prisoners at work or in the barracks. The most despised fellow prisoner was the Kapo, typically a heavy-handed supervisor willing to beat prisoners for the slightest infraction. The prisoners' work assignments and records were in the hands of other prisoners known as scribes and elders. These prisoner officials could make an inmate's life miserable—or even end it. Likewise, they could make life somewhat easier, and it often behooved ordinary prisoners to make note of this situation. Prisoner officials received better treatment in exchange for their cooperation. But comforts were rare indeed for the victims of this brutal process. The Nazi concentration camp system took the lives of millions and was the principal instrument of the Holocaust. Dewey A. Browder
Bauer, Yehuda. A History of the Holocaust. New York: Franklin Watts, 1982.; Sofsky, Wolfgang. The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp. Trans. William Templer. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.; U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Historical Atlas of the Holocaust. New York: Macmillan, 1996.
Dewey A. Browder