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Nazi camps - Camp organisation


Oswald Pohl

 Heinrich Himmler

Theodor Eicke

             At first the nazi Germany's camp system was restricted to Germany's pre-war bounderies, but extended continuously in the course of the following 12 years and at the end of the war had spread throughout Europe. Different types of camps existed whereas the expression "Konzentrationslager" - concentration camp - can be taken as the generic term. The first national socialist camps were known as "Sammellager" - collective camp -, "Schutzhaftlager" - protective custody camps - and "Erziehungslager" - education camps -. The expression "Konzentrationslager"  - concentration camp, an apparantly harmless expression - was commonly used from the second half of March 1933.

The different forms of this "system of terror" via the camps

- labour camps
- transit camps
- concentration camps
- prisoner of war camps
- forced labour camps
- extermination camps (especially in East Europe)
- other types of camps, e.g. for children and babies from female forced labourers from Eastern Europe.

      The history of national socialist camps can be divided into different periods, during which the camps had different functions. However the principle aim during the time between 1933 to 1945, was to take political opponents and those, who were, according to the national socialistic ideology "inferior", into custody and to destroy them in an industrial way. The treatment of the prisoners during this period changed dramatically and therefore also the camp system. The first concentration camps were built shortly after the Nazis came to power. The party leaders took advantage of an incident which was apparantly threatening to Germany's interior security, to take action against their opponents using extreme violence.

      In the night of February 27th, only one month after the Nazis had gained control of Germany and a few days before the Reichtag elections - the Reichstag in Berlin burned down. Until now, the question who set fire to the Reichstag has not been solved. NS propaganda announced that communists had set fire to the Reichstag. The Dutch communist Marinus van der Lubbe was arrested and illegally executed. The death penalty was later legalised (with the so-called "Lex van der Lubbe-act"). Until this day it is believed that the Nazis themselves set fire to the Reichstag. Reichskanzler Adolf Hitler persuaded Paul von Hindenburg, the German president, to sign an emergency decree on the "Protection of people and country". This decree had long since been prepared. This "Reichstagsbrandverordnung" - Reichstag fire ordinance - was valid until 1945. According to this, important democratic and fundamental rights were annulled, e.g.:

- people's freedom of movement
- freedom of speech
- freedom of the press
- freedom of societies and other gatherings

Rinus van der Lubbe.

Dutch communist who was blamed for the Reichstag fire and was killed after a showtrail.

- secrecy of post and telecommunications
- the inviolability of property

The aforementioned "protective custody" was established in addition to the existing prisons from the SA - Sturmabteilung - and the SS - Schutzstaffel - which were called in for "police emergency service" and private prisons and "wild camps". The exact number is still not clear today. The officially set up camps were in addition to these.

      In the time between 1933 and 1936 the concentration camps served the purpose of asserting the dictatorship and stabalizing it. At the same time, ideological and political opponents as well as resistance fighters were taken into custody in order to eliminate the opponents of the NS system, or at least to intimidate them permanently. Apart from that, the first organised assaults against the Jews took place in the early camps. Jews, who were committed as "political prisoners", soon made up 10 per cent of the total prison population, although they were less than one per cent of the German population. Right from the beginning of the national socialist reign the Jews were in great danger and often, it was not necessary to find a "reason" to arrest a them, it was simply enough to be one.

      In July 1933 there were approximately 27,000 people in the concentration camp. According to official statements, in 1935 the number dropped to approximately 7,000 and 9,000. This was after the closure of different so-called "Schutzlager" - protection camps. In the summer of 1934, 75% of inmates were being held because of political reasons.

      The national socialist party (NSDAP) in Germany had become much stronger. On the one hand, fear for the national socialist and on the other hand, conformity to the policies of the party were the reasons leading up to this. Previously organised political groups had turned into individuals or small resistance groups after the first phase of persecution. That is why the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of the Interior considered a complete dissolving of the camp system between the years 1935 and 1936. These thoughts were encouraged by the consolidation of the national socialist system as well as the great number of Jews who fled Germany. Another reason were the 1936 Olympic Games, the nazi's wanted to keep up their friendly image an asure the world of their good intentions. Hiltler put an end to the discussion by openly backing up the supporters of concentration camps as a long-term control and exploitation system.

Himmler inspects a prisoner of war camp on the Eastern Front

     In the spring of 1934, when Heinrich Himmler had already taken over the control of the concentration camps, the SS received full control over the camps on 4 July 1934 after the elimination of the SA (Night of the long knifes). Himmler made Theodor Eicke, commanding officer of the Concentration Camp in Dachau, established on 20 March 1933. He was promoted to "Inspekteur der Konzentrationslager" - IKL Inspector of the concentrations camps - and the "SS-Wachverbande". Eicke drew up his own camp rules which anulled any criminal laws. All camps which were still in existence were organised according to the example of concentration camp Dachau. The situation worstened once again in 1936. Groups of Himmler's prisoners included:

- Jehovah's witnesses
- homosexuals
- resistant members of the church
- Sinti and Roma 
- professional criminals (often particularly brutal unscrupulous "Kapos" in the prisoner hierarchy.)

      The concentration camps continued to exist, in order to eliminate the opposition. Furthermore, social outcasts had to be isolated. From March 1937, prostitutes, the mentally ill and the unemployed were taken into "protective custody" during the mass arrests which were are also known as the "antisocial operation". The number of prisoners rose accordingly. While there were approximately 7,500 at the beginning of 1937, there were 24,000 prisoners in October 1938. After the "Anschluss" the annexation of Austria in March 1938, mass arrests followed. In November 1938, after the pogrom against the Jews ("Kristallnacht"="Night of the Broken Glass"), approximately 30,000 Jews were deported to concentration camps (Mostly to Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen). A lot of Rhinehessian Jews were taken to the concentration camp in Buchenwald. At the end of 1938 and at the beginning of 1939 there were as many as 60,000 people locked up in concentration camps. Due to the release of mainly Jews, who were then forced to leave the country and aband all their property, the number of prisoners sank to about 22,000 in the middle of 1939. After the start of the Second World War the number of prisoners in the camps rose dramaticaly. By the summer of 1942 there were approximately 60,000 prisoners in concentration camps.

      Because of the advance of the German "Wehrmacht" - German armed forces -, the Sonderkommando's, the special police batallions and SS Einsatzgruppen, more and more people were murdered or deported to the concentration camps:

- Jews
- Sinti and Roma
- Intellectual and political adversaries of national socialism
- Members of Resistance in European countries
- Members from communist organisations.
- Prisoners of war, especially from the Soviet Union

      In addition to that, large numbers of male inhabitants from occupied European countries were deported to Germany as forced labourers and were systematically exploited to boost the German war machine. Many forced labourers and concentration camp prisoners died of hunger, disease, maltreatment or exhaustion, or were simply killed, because the were to weak to work and were of no use to the German war industry. Exploiting and killing forced labourers and concentration campprisoners became common practice. The number of German inmates was reduced to between five and ten per cent.

      From 1940 on, several new, big camps were established. In April 1940, after the concentration and extermination camps I and II in Auschwitz had been built, the use of the concentration camps reached a new dimension. Murder specifically aimed at the above mentioned groups, but Jews in particular, had become an objective of war. Murdering people became a new industry. This objective became first clear during the "Russland-Feldzug", the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 (Operation Barbarossa), when the Einsatzgruppen with help from some units of the "Wehrmacht" killed hundredthousands of people, mainly Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia.

In March 1942, the IKL (lnspekteur der Konzentrationslager und SSWach-verbande) was put under the control of the newly created trade and administration headquarters of the SS (WVHA - Wirtschaftsverwaltungshaupt-amt), under Oswald Pohl, who answered to Himmler. The WVHA was responsible for all economic operations of the SS, including those were camp prisoners were exploited. At the end of the year 1941 an extermination camp was established in Chelmno where the first mass gassings took place. The gassings were "tried out" on Jews and Soviet prisoners of war.

       Due to the war with the USSR and the plans to exterminate the Jews in Europe the third phase in the history of the National Socialistic camps began at the start of 1942. It was a slow transition which brutalized the camp system once again and, in spite of the systematical murder of the inmates, caused a rapid rise in the prisoner numbers. In August 1942, there were about 115,000 people herded together in the concentration camps. The deportations were endless, so by the end of the war the number of prisoners in the concentration camps had increased more than sixfold. Chelmno, Sobibor, Treblinka and Auschwitz became the centre of systematic millionfold murder of Jews and later, in Auschwitz, the Sinti and Roma became victim of the German 'race-ideology'. Most of these "death factories", in contrast to Auschwitz and Auschwitz Birkenau, did not belong to the WVHA, because forced labor was not the main reason why they were deported to these camps. Extermination was the reason and that was were these death factories were built for. Soviet prisoners of war were also herded together in large camps and were either left to starve to death or were murdered. Soviet soldiers in Auschwitz served as "guinea pigs" during the first gassings. The treatment of the inmates became noticeably worse. The increasingly bad situation took its toll on the weakest prisoners. Moreover, because of the approach of the Red Army, as many witnesses as possible had to be disposed of.

      In the autumn of 1944 the camps in East Europe were closed one after the other due to the military situation, the advance of the Red Army and the subsequent German retreat from the occupied countries in Eastern Europe. The prisoners were either killed or transfered to other camps on German or Austrian territory. Due to the fact that the weak and maltreated people had to cover at least a part of the way on foot, the expression "death marches" is commonly used for these deportations. A notorious example of a death march is the march from KZ Gross Rosen to KZ Mauthausen, in which many prisoners died because of exhaustion, disease or because they were killed and left on the side of the road. Because of these "death marches" there were still more that 700,000 people in the camps inside Germany's prewar boundaries (Germany and Austria) at the end of the war in May 1945, despite the liberation of Auschwitz on 27 January 1945. Approximately two thirds of all the people, who were deported to the camps between 1933 and 1945, did not survive. More than four million people were murdered in concentration and extermination camps, including those who were murdered immediately after their arrival in the camps. The nazi victims killed by the Einsatzgruppen and other German army units are not even included in these numbers.

Source: Dr. Susanne Urban-Fahr