A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps

KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps
Nikolaus Wachsmann 
Little, Brown  880pp  £25

The concentration camp was an enduring and defining feature of the Third Reich. Internment camps have existed before and since, but only in Nazi Germany were they seen as such an important means of controlling and operating undesirables. The first ‘wild’ camps were created in response to the so-called national emergency that followed the Reichstag Fire on February 27th, 1933 and their successors were still around when the Allies fought their way through the ruins of the Reich in early 1945. During that time the camps went through many mutations and transformations, but in one thing they remained true to their original vocations: they meant violent treatment under a pseudo-military regimen. Those who were there were not committed by courts and prisoners had no clear indication of when they might be released.

The first camps were little more than torture chambers for Hitler’s enemies, until Dachau  provided the model for a new generation operated by the SS. The wild camps closed and the numbers of prisoners dwindled to a few hundred before Buchenwald opened in 1937. A new generation was created in 1938 based on the principle of using the inmates as a source of cheap labour. Work was a wholesome, liberating thing, hence the cynical slogan proclaimed at the gates: Arbeit macht frei. Much of the work in camps like Flossenbürg and Mauthausen was backbreaking (literally). Before the eastern death factories came into being, Mauthausen in Upper Austria was the most lethal. Until 1938, most inmates were ‘Reds’ – political opponents – with an admixture of criminals (‘Greens’), but that year ‘anti-socials’ (‘Blacks’) were poured into the cocktail and, once Austria was merged with Germany, Jews. The mass-arrest of Jews following Kristallnacht in November that year was the first time Jews became the majority of prisoners in the camps.

That situation did not last, as most of the Jews were quickly released. At the outbreak of war, there were only 21,400 or so prisoners in the camps. War granted them a new lease of life: the huts filled up with foreign anti-Nazis: Czechs, Poles and Frenchmen. They were meant to work, but if there was no room, or if they were too weak, they were subjected to ever more repulsive methods of annihilation. Soviet POWs were a new staple after June 1941, by which time the Jews were once again the main business of many camps and their vast array of satellites. The invasion of the Soviet Union was also a smokescreen for the extermination of the Jews and led to Auschwitz assuming a central role in the process. The gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau were functioning by the spring of 1942 and churned out corpses until the late 1944. 

Being Nazi Germany, there were bewildering numbers of agencies competing for business. Majdenek was not part of the same system, for example, as Odilo Globocnik’s Belzec, Treblinka and Sobibor, which made no pretence at keeping prisoners alive. Dachau was the original training centre, producing the elite of the Camp SS, men such as Theodor Eicke, Karl Otto Koch, Johann Kremer or Rudolf Höss, all of whom installed their families in the immediate vicinity of the camps and enjoyed the new status they had gained in becoming masters of the crematoria, as they helped themselves to the last treasures of their victims. 

Nikolaus Wachsmann is particularly good on SS corruption and this is, in almost all things, a model history of the camps. His book on Hitler’s prisons was also excellent but KL is more stylish and relies more on specific case histories, which help the reader through a long and gruelling account. His insistence on the acronym ‘KL’ is mysterious as, in general, camps were referred to as ‘KZs,’ but I shall not let that dim my enthusiasm for what is a truly excellent book on one of history’s darkest moments.

Giles MacDonogh is the author of several books on German history.

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