The concentration camps, 1933-1945
The Nazis set up their first concentration camp, Dachau, in the wake of Hitler’s takeover of power in 1933. By the end of the war, 22 main concentration camps were established, together with around 1,200 affiliate camps, Aussenkommandos, and thousands of smaller camps.
In 1945, when Allied forces liberated the concentration camps at Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, Auschwitz and elsewhere, the world was shocked at the sight of images of dead bodies alongside half-dead people in these camps. 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.
A concentration camp was not the same as an extermination camp – camps constructed with the specific purpose of mass murdering Jews and other victim groups. 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. It is certain that several hundred thousand died in the concentration camps. In comparison, more than three million Jews were murdered in the extermination camps.
At the beginning, the first inmates in concentration camps were political opponents of the Nazi regime. But ”different” people such as Jews, gypsies, and criminals were caught and placed in concentration camps – all in the name of the Nazis’ racial and regimentation ideology.
It was the Reichstag Fire Decree of 28 February 1933 that provided the Nazis with the authority to detain people in ‘protective custody’ (Schutzhaft). This was the stepping stone to an organised and centrally directed camp system, which was placed under the direction of Heinrich Himmler as head of the SS and the police.
The camps could be divided into different categories according to their purpose and function: forced labour camps, work- and reformatory camps, POW camps, transit camps, police camps, women camps and ghetto camps. The extermination camps had a special position within the Nazi camp system.
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 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 sick, the old and those who could not keep up with the work 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.
orced 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.
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”.
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.
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 three-quarters of a million died as a result of the inhuman slave labour, hunger and disease in concentration camps.
List of main concentration camps
A total of 22 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 22 main camps, in alphabetical order, were as follows: Arbeitsdorf, Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau, Flossenbürg, Gross-Rosen, Herzogenbosch, Kaunas, Krakow-Plaszow, Majdanek, Mauthausen, Mittelbau-Dora, Natzweiler-Struthof, Neuengamme, Ravensbrück, Riga-Kaiserwald, Sachsenhausen, Stutthof, Vaivara, Warsaw, Wewelsburg, Germany.
n the period of 1941-1945, for the first time in the history of mankind, industrial plants were used to kill people. A total of six extermination camps were established for the genocide of the Jews, where the Nazis carried out the mass murder of 3 million Jews – half of the 6 million victims of the Holocaust.
Chelmno was the first extermination camp to be established as part of the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question’ – the Nazis’ systematic effort to exterminate the Jews. This was quickly followed by the establishment of three more extermination camps: Belzec, Treblinka and Sobibor. They were established under the code-name Operation Reinhard – the starting signal to the extermination of the approximately 3 million Jews who lived in Nazi-occupied Poland. In the concentration camps Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek two further extermination camps were established.
The six extermination camps were all situated in former Poland and had mass murder as their purpose. Outside Poland at least two camps existed that in many ways resembled the six extermination camps in Poland: Jungfernhof (in Latvia) and Maly Trostinets (in Byelorussia).
All of the extermination camps were thoroughly organised and resembled industrial plants to an alarming degree. However, only Auschwitz-Birkenau, with its advanced gassing facilities and crematoria, was marked by high technology. In crematoria I and II there were elevators from the gas chambers underground, where the Jews were murdered, to the crematoria, where the bodies were burned.
The six extermination camps were established within a very short time. From December 1941 to December 1942 Chelmno, Belzec, Treblinka, Sobibor, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek all became operational. These sites were chosen because they were all situated near railway lines, in quiet rural areas of “far away” Poland, outside the spotlight of German and international public opinions.
Six Extermination Camps
I n Chelmno, the first extermination camp to be established with the single purpose of killing people – first of all Jews – in a systematic fashion, 152,000 inmates were gassed to death using exhaust gas from trucks, in the period of December 1941-March 1943, and again from June-July 1944.
The extermination camp Belzec was established in May 1942 and continued to function until August 1943. 600,000 Jews fell victim to the merciless efficiency of the gas chambers at Belzec.
Sobibor also began its operations in May 1942. The killings continued through October 1943, when an uprising among the prisoners put and end to the activities of the camp. 250,000 lost their lives in Sobibor’s gas chambers.
The extermination camp Treblinka was working from July 1942 to November 1943. In August 1943 an uprising destroyed many of the facilities. 900,000 Jews lost their lives in this camp. Auschwitz-Birkenau, which also functioned as a concentration camp and a work camp, became the largest killing centre. It is estimated that between 1 and 2 million were killed in the extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. The first gassing experiments, involving 250 Polish and 600 Soviet POW’s, were carried out as early as September 1941. The extermination camp was started up in March 1942 and ended its work in November 1944.
Nine out of 10 victims in Auschwitz-Birkenau were Jews. The remaining victims were mainly Poles, gypsies, and Soviet POW’s. Majdanek began its gassings in October 1942. The camp functioned in the same way as Auschwitz-Birkenau, and also included a concentration- and work camp. In the autumn of 1943 the camp was closed after claiming between 60,000 and 80,000 Jewish victims.
T he use of gas chambers was the most common method of mass murdering the Jews in the extermination camps. The Jews were herded into the gas chambers, then the camp personnel closed the doors, and either exhaust gas (in Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka) or poison gas in the form of Zyclon B or A (in Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau) was led into the gas chamber.
Another method was the use of gassing trucks. In Chemno gassing trucks were used, where Jews, after being driven into the trucks, were suffocated by the exhaust fumes that were led into them in the truck. A third method was mass shooting of Jews and other groups (Soviet POW’s, Poles, etc.). In Majdanek, on 3-4 November 1943, between 17,000 and 18,000 Jews were killed in one day as part of a mass shooting. The event was called Erntefest (‘harvest feast’) and included similar actions all around the Lublin District. More than 40,000 Jews died as a result.
When the victims arrived to the extermination camps in overcrowded trains, they were herded out onto the arrival ramp. Here, German SS-men and perhaps brutal Ukrainian guards forced them to hand over their belongings and their clothes. Most of the victims had been told that they were merely to be moved to the east for new jobs and living places, and most of them had brought their favourite belongings.
In the “pure” extermination camps, men were separated from women upon arrival. The first to be gassed were the men – the women had their hair cut off before they went to their death.
In the combined concentration- and extermination camps, Majdanek and Auschwitz, the SS chose those able to work for the work camps.
Those unable to work – the old, women and children – were immediately sent to the gas chambers or shot in the "camp hospital". Even those able to work ended up in the gas chamber sooner or later, or they fell victim to random shooting actions within a few months, when they had been worn out by the tough work. That is, if they had not died already. Those able to work for instance helped carry the bodies to the crematoria or search the bodies for valuables.
The bodies were looted of gold (from the teeth), before being thrown into large mass graves. In time, the bodies were burned – either in mass graves or in the crematoria – when, as the Soviet armies advanced through Poland, the Nazis tried to hide their terrible crime.
There are few examples of uprisings in the extermination camps. In Sobibor and Treblinka prisoners tried to rebel in 1943, and the same was tried in Auschwitz in 1944. Only a very few managed to escape.