Nazi concentration camps

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Piles of bodies in a liberated Nazi concentration camp in Germany

Prior to and during World War II, Nazi Germany maintained concentration camps (Konzentrationslager, abbreviated KZ or KL) throughout the territories it controlled. In these camps, millions of prisoners were killed through mistreatment, disease, starvation, and overwork, or were executed as unfit for labor. The Nazis adopted the term euphemistically from the British concentration camps of the Second Anglo-Boer War in order to conceal the deadly nature of the camps. The first Nazi camps were set up inside Germany, and were set up to hold political opponents of the regime.

The two principal groups of prisoners in the camps, both numbering in the millions, were Jews and Soviet and Polish prisoners of war (POWs). Large numbers of Roma (or Gypsies), Communists, and homosexuals, as well as some Jehovah's Witnesses and others were also sent to the camps. In addition, a small number of Western Allied POWs were sent to concentration camps for various reasons.[1] Western Allied POWs who were Jews, or whom the Nazis believed to be Jewish, were usually sent to ordinary POW camps; however, a small number were sent to concentration camps under anti-semitic policies.[2]

Starting in 1942, Nazi Germany established extermination or death camps for the sole purpose of carrying out the industrialized murder of the Jews of Europe — the Final Solution. These camps were established in occupied Poland and Belarus, on the territory of the General Government. Over three million Jews would die in these extermination camps, primarily by poison gas, usually in gas chambers, although many prisoners were killed in mass shootings and by other means. These death camps, including Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, and Auschwitz-Birkenau are commonly referred to as "concentration camps," but scholars of the Holocaust draw a distinction between concentration camps and death camps.

Camps before the war

The Nazis were the only political party with paramilitary organizations at their disposal, the so-called SS and the SA, which had perpetrated surprise attacks on the offices and members of other parties throughout the 1920's. After the 1932 elections it became clear to the Nazi leaders that they would never be able to secure a majority of the votes and that they would have to rely on other means to gain power. While gradually intensifying the acts of violence to wreak havoc among the opposition leading up to the 1933 elections, the Nazis set up concentration centers within Germany, many of which were established by local authorities, to hold, Rape women, or kill political prisoners and "undesirables" like outspoken journalists and communists.

These early prisons - usually basements and storehouses - were eventually consolidated into full-blown, centrally run camps outside of the cities and somewhat removed from the public eye. By 1939, six large concentration camps had been established: Dachau (1933), Sachsenhausen (1936), Buchenwald (1937), Flossenbürg (1938), Mauthausen (1938) and Ravensbrück (1939).

In 1938, the SS began to use the camps for forced labor at a profit. Many German companies used forced labor from these camps, especially during the subsequent war.

Additionally, historians speculate that the Nazi regime utilized abandoned castles and similar existing structures to lock up the undesirable elements of society. The elderly, mentally ill, and handicapped were often confined in these makeshift camps where they were starved or gassed to death with diesel engine exhaust. The Final Solution was therefore initially tested upon German citizens. (See Action T4 — the Nazi program of "Racial hygiene".)

Camps during the war

Major German concentration camps, 1944
Voucher for 50 Reichspfennig, concentration camp money

After 1939, with the beginning of the Second World War, concentration camps increasingly became places where the enemies of the Nazis were killed, enslaved, starved and tortured. During the War concentration camps for "undesirables" were spread throughout Europe. New camps were created near centers of dense "undesirable" populations, often focusing on areas with large Jewish, Polish intelligentsia, Communists, or Roma populations. Most of the camps were located in the area of General Government in occupied Poland for a simple logistical reason: millions of Jews lived in Poland.

In most camps, prisoners were made to wear identifying overalls with colored badges according to their categorisation: red triangles for Communists and other political prisoners, green triangles for common criminals, pink for homosexual men, purple for Jehovah's Witnesses, black for Gypsies and asocials, and yellow for Jews.[3]

The transportation of prisoners was often carried out under horrifying conditions using rail freight cars, in which many died before they reached their destination. The prisoners were confined in these rail cars, often for days or weeks, without food or water. Many died in the intense heat of dehydration in summer or froze to death in the winter. Concentration camps for Jews and other "undesirables" also existed in Germany itself, and while not specifically designed for systematic extermination, many concentration camp prisoners died because of harsh conditions or were executed.

Sometimes the concentration camps were used to hold important prisoners, such as the generals involved in the attempted assassination of Hitler, U-Boat Captain turned Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller, and Admiral Wilhelm Canaris who was interned at Flossenburg in February 7, 1945, until he was hanged on April 9, shortly before the war's end.

General (later US President) Dwight Eisenhower inspecting prisoners' corpses at a liberated concentration camp, 1945

In the early spring of 1941 the Schutzstaffel (SS), along with doctors and officials of the T-4 Euthanasia Program began killing selected concentration camp prisoners in "Operation 14f13". The Inspectorate of the Concentration Camps categorized all files dealing with the death of prisoners as 14f, and those of prisoners sent to the T-4 gas chambers as 14f13. Under the language regulations of the SS selected prisoners were designated for "Special Treatment (German:Sonderbehandlung) 14f3". Prisoners were officially selected based on their medical condition, those permanently unfit for labor due to illness. Unofficially, racial and eugenic criteria were used: Jews, the handicapped, and those with criminal or antisocial records were selected.[4] For Jewish prisoners there was not even the pretense of a medical examination, the arrest record was listed as a physician's "diagnosis".[5] In early 1943, as the need for labor increased and the gas chambers at Auschwitz became operational, Heinrich Himmler ordered the end of Operation 14f13.[6]

After 1942, many small subcamps were set up near factories to provide forced labor. IG Farben established a synthetic rubber plant in 1942 at Auschwitz III (Monowitz), and other camps were set up by airplane factories, coal mines, and rocket fuel factories. The conditions were brutal, and prisoners were often sent to the gas chambers or killed if they did not work fast enough.

Near the end of the war, the camps became sites for horrific medical experiments. Eugenics experiments, freezing prisoners to determine how exposure affected pilots, and experimental and lethal medicines were all tried at various camps.

The camps were liberated by the Allies from 1943-1945, often too late to save the prisoners remaining. For example, when the UK entered the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945, 60,000 prisoners were found alive, but 10,000 died within a week of liberation due to typhus and malnutrition.

The British intelligence service had information about the concentration camps, and in 1942 Jan Karski delivered a thorough eyewitness account to the government. Although the actions of the Nazis were publicly condemned after Karski's visit, no attempts were made to compromise the functioning of the camps.

Use of Nazi German concentration camp facilities after the war

Most of the Nazi concentration camps were destroyed after the war, though some were made into permanent memorials.

In Communist Poland (Majdanek, Jaworzno, Potulice, Zgoda) and East Germany (Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen), German POWs, suspected Nazis and collaborators, anti-Communists and other political prisoners, as well as civilian members of German, Ukrainian and other ethnic minorities were held in some of the camps between 1945 and 1956. (See also: Soviet special camps)

In West Germany, Dachau was used as a prison for arrested Nazis and after that as cheap working-class housing.


  1. ^ One of the best-known examples was the 168 British Commonwealth and U.S. aviators held for a time at Buchenwald concentration camp. (See: Veterans Affairs Canada, 2006, "Prisoners of War in the Second World War" and National Museum of the USAF, "Allied Victims of the Holocaust".) Two different reasons are suggested for this: the Nazis were making an example of Terrorflieger ("terrorist aviators") or, they were out of uniform and/or carrying false papers when apprehended, enabling them to be classified as spies.
  2. ^ See, for example, Joseph Robert White, 2006, "Flint Whitlock. Given Up for Dead: American GIs in the Nazi Concentration Camp at Berga" (book review)
  3. ^ "Germany and the Camp System" PBS Radio website
  4. ^ Friedlander, Henry (1995). The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. pp. p. 144.CS1 maint: Extra text (link)
  5. ^ Ibid., pp. 147-8
  6. ^ Ibid., p. 150

See also

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