Concentration Camps (“Konzentrationslager” = KZ)
The earliest concentration camps in Nazi Germany dated from March 1933. At first they were simply convenient buildings where the Nazi forces interned and sometimes beat up or murdered their opponents. Under the emergency decrees enacted after the Reichstag Fire, “protective custody” was authorised for “enemies of the state” or “subversive elements”. The victims at first were mostly communists or socialists. Over 25,000 were arrested in Prussia, and perhaps 15,000 in the rest of Germany. In April 1934 a new Protective Custody law allowed for the internment of enemies of the regime and other “undesirables”. They could be held without trial, or sent to the camps after they had served out their sentences in normal prisons.
The early camps were mostly run by the SA, and were violent, murderous places, with savage mistreatment of victims. The Ministry of the Interior under Frick moved to close down the more lawless camps, and the SA lost most of its power after the “Night of the Long Knives” in 1934.
In March 1933 Himmler founded the camp of Dachau, in Bavaria, in a disused gunpowder factory. In June it was placed under the command of Theodore Eicke of the SS, a former policeman with a conviction for bomb-planting. Himmler approved of Eicke’s methods, and in 1934 Eicke was appointed Inspector of all camps in Germany. The other camps were taken over or closed down, and the running of the camps was given to the “Death’s-Head” branch of the SS ("Totenkopfverbande", with a skull on the cap badge), using Dachau as the model.
Eicke introduced three grades of severity for inmates (III being the harshest; “punishment grade”, involving a bread-and-water diet and sleeping on bare boards). Flogging was imposed for breaches of discipline, and hanging for trying to escape or “agitation and incitement”. Guards were forbidden to fraternise with the inmates, but were made to follow the rule-book rigidly, and to avoid arbitrary or uncontrolled violence. Prisoners were supposed to be “reformed” by hard labour and discipline: hence the famous slogan above the gate of Auschwitz: “Arbeit Macht Frei” – “Work sets you free”. In fact, the work was frequently meaningless as well as exhausting, and the treatment to harsh that prisoners often died.
Many categories of people might be found in the camps: originally Communists, Socialists and other political opponents, but also habitual criminals, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, troublesome priests, Jews (especially after 1938), gipsies, and “asocials” – who might include beggars, drunks, hooligans, the “workshy” etc. The different groups were identified by different badges (Jews wore a yellow star, homosexuals a pink triangle, etc), and some would be treated more harshly than others.
Until 1938 there were only three Death’s-Head camps in Germany, (Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen), with about 8,000 inmates. Their main function was to terrorise certain targeted groups, and to keep the streets clear of “undesirables”. Many prisoners only served a few months in camp before being released; even Jews. Ordinary Germans outside the targeted groups had little to fear. But in 1938 came the annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland, with mass arrests of opponents there, and the arrest of 10,000 Jews after Crystal Night. Two new camps were set up, at Flossenburg and Mauthausen (in Austria); the latter particularly feared, with its Grade III regime and brutal forced labour in the stone quarries. At the outbreak of war, there were about 25,000 in the camps – a small number compared with the millions in Stalin’s camps in Russia. Many new camps were built in the war, including Ravensbruck (the women’s camp) and Belsen. This last is second only to Auschwitz in notoriety, since when it was captured by British forces near the end of the war it contained the emaciated bodies of thousands of victims who had died of starvation and typhus as supplies had broken down. (After the liquidation of Auschwitz at the beginning of 1945, the survivors were force-marched in the depths of winter across Poland and Germany to Belsen, thus swelling the camp's numbers uncontrollably. Those who fell behind on the march were shot. It was an operation whose cruelty was exceeded only by its utter pointlessness)
None of the camps in Germany was built for mass extermination. The gas-chamber camps were all in Poland, and were opened in 1941-2. There were four camps which existed solely to gas Jews on arrival: Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, which functioned to gas the Polish Jews, mostly in 1942 (an operation known as "Action Reinhard", in memory of Himmler's assassinated deputy Reinhard Heydrich); and two other camps which had gas chambers as well as labour facilities: Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau, which operated until captured by the Russians in 1945. We have comparatively few accounts of the Reinhard camps, because hardly anyone survived to tell the tale, and they were demolished once their work was done. Auschwitz is the most famous for a variety of reasons: it took its victims from all over occupied Europe; there were many survivors (such as the Italian Jewish writer Primo Levi); and most of the camp was still intact when it the Russians arrived - though the huge gas chambers and crematoria had been blown up, and reduced to the heaps of concrete rubble which we see there today. The Reinhard camps mostly killed their victims with fumes from diesel engines rather than with the Zyklon-B gas used in Auschwitz.
The decision to exterminate the Jews
No researcher has ever found any document in which Hitler specifically orders the mass killing of the Jews (or even that Hitler had even heard of Auschwitz). Some historians have even suggested that there never was any specific decision as such to initiate the Holocaust; suggesting that it might have been a policy which emerged as it became clear that the Polish ghettoes could only be a temporary measure and all other “solutions to the Jewish question” proved unworkable (such as mass deportation to a very remote area, like the island of Madagascar or the wilds of Siberia). On the other hand, although Hitler was a very “hands-off” leader, to the extent of often being dubbed a “weak dictator” who exercised little direct control over his subordinates, it seems unlikely that such a major policy could have been implemented without Hitler’s specific approval.
There can be no doubt that Hitler nursed an extreme hatred of all Jews, and that this hatred was shared by most of the Nazi party leaders and membership. A whole chapter in book 1 of “Mein Kampf” is devoted to the Jews. (Exactly when Hitler began to think like this, or why, is still unclear. This kind of anti-Semitic thought was by no means limited to Germany: indeed, the classic work of anti-Jewish ideology, the famous “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” was produced in Tsarist Russia at the end of the 19th century). It is clear that when Hitler came to power he intended to do something extreme to “solve the Jewish question”; but what precisely did he have in mind? Discrimination and low-level persecution began in 1933, but nobody anticipated the Holocaust, and up to about 1938-9 Jews in Germany were treated no worse than black people in the southern states of the USA at that time.
If we assume, as do most historians, that at some point Hitler did give the go-ahead for mass killing, then when would be the most likely time? Two important surviving documents are not much help. On July 31st 1941 Goering sent a decree to Heydrich authorising him to initiate a “final solution” to the “Jewish question”. This can hardly mark the start of a new policy, since the mass killing of Jews in Russia had already been going on for several weeks; and it is questionable whether Goering (who never showed any fanatical interest in the “Jewish Question”) actually composed the decree, or simply signed something that Heydrich placed in front of him. Similarly the Wannsee Conference of January 1942 was clearly held to announce and explain a policy that was already being implemented: the building of the death camps had begun some weeks earlier and the first gassings had already taken place in Chelmno.
Some historians think the decision on the Holocaust was made before the invasion of Russia in June 1941; others prefer to date in that autumn, perhaps quite late in the year, once the Germans came to realise they were not going to take Moscow before winter set in. There survives an odd exchange of letters: Lohse, the chief of the occupied Baltic territories, found that a great many of the motor mechanics in Lithuania were Jews, who could do useful work servicing tanks if allowed to live, and wrote to Berlin seeking guidance. Himmler replied in December, informing him that economic considerations were not to be taken into account: all the Jews must be killed. “Tell Lohse these are my orders, which also correspond with the Fuehrer’s wishes”. Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz, stated in his postwar testimony that he was informed verbally of the decision to exterminate all Jews "Sometime in the summer of 1941, but he could not remember the date". This is probably all we are likely to get in the way of direct evidence.