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Terror Without Mercy

Thomas McGrath

KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, by Nikolaus Wachsmann, Little, Brown, 865 pp, £25, ISBN 978-0316729673

Contrary to popular belief, Nazi Germany’s concentration camps were not established for the Jews, nor were the majority of the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust killed in them. In his detailed, clear and comprehensive study, a work which repays close scrutiny, Nikolaus Wachsmann states that “it was not until the final year of World War II that most of the surviving Jews found themselves inside a concentration camp. The significant majority of the up to six million Jews murdered under the Nazi regime perished in other places, shot in ditches and fields across eastern Europe, or gassed in distinct death camps like Treblinka, which operated separately from the KL.” KL is the standard abbreviation of the German word Konzentrationslager, meaning concentration camp.

The author draws an important distinction between concentration camps and death camps. In the former, if one were a registered inmate, one had a less than fifty per cent chance of survival; in the latter, one’s chances of survival were virtually nil. Administratively the death camps (all of which were in Nazi-occupied Poland) were never part of the KL system. Consequently Chelmno (where one hundred and fifty-two thousand died), Belzec (five hundred thousand), Sobibor (two hundred and fifty thousand) and Treblinka (more than eight hundred thousand) are not at the heart of this book, though they do feature.

When he excludes these death camps from his calculations, Wachsmann lists twenty-seven concentration camps. Only the biggest of the main camps have remained in public memory; most of the smaller ones are less well known and many are forgotten. Several of the latter had short life spans and few inmates died in them: Arbeitsdorf (1942 ‑ six), Bad Sulza (1936-37 – 0), Berlin Columbia (1934-36 – at least three), Esterwegen (1934-36 – twenty-eight), Lichtenburg (1934-39 – about twenty-five), Sachsenburg (1934-37 – at least thirty). However, the remaining camps, starting alphabetically with Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau, etc., are very well known indeed. The author contends that 2.3 million men, women and children were crammed into these camps and that over 1.7 million of them died therein. This number includes the death toll from Auschwitz and Majdanek, which were both concentration and death camps. In Auschwitz at least 1.1 million people were murdered, of whom at a minimum about 870,000 were Jews killed on arrival without registration as inmates. In Majdanek, about 78,000 died. Auschwitz thus skews the figures for the death toll in the concentration camps as a whole. In the final years of the war it had no equal as the biggest and most deadly of the concentration and death camps. Given the almost overwhelming role of Auschwitz, the distinction between concentration camp and death camp is a difficult one to make and it is perhaps a pity that the author did not make his study all-embracing.

The origins of the concentration camps date to 1933 when the Nazis “seized power”. Nazi supporters immediately began rounding up and pushing up to two hundred thousand political opponents into ad hoc and makeshift camps which sprang up everywhere. There were no less than one hundred and seventy of these camps in Berlin alone. As one Nazi complained: “Everyone is arresting everybody ...” This was a continuation of the virtual civil war on the streets which marked the beginning and end of the Weimar years. Now the Nazis had the decisive upper hand and they were determined to enjoy it by dishing out extreme violence to their opponents.

The German public were well aware of these camps from the beginning. The first official concentration camp was opened in a blaze of publicity at Dachau near Munich in March 1933. It was set up by Heinrich Himmler, then police chief in Munich, later Reichsführer-SS. Himmler was the key architect of the concentration camps. They were his personal creation and they were managed by his SS. His presence is felt everywhere in this book. He worked hand in glove with Hitler, though the latter never visited a camp. Himmler had Theodor Eicke released from an insane asylum to become the first commandant of Dachau. Eicke proved himself by shooting the SA leader Ernst Röhm on the Night of the Long Knives. He later became Inspector of Concentration camps throughout the Reich. When he went to fight on the eastern front he was replaced by Richard Glücks. The concentration camps were ultimately run by Oswald Pohl from the SS Business and Administration Main Office (WVHA) of the T-Building in Oranienburg next door to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. The key administrative figures in the organisation of the KL system and the personnel of the concentration camps are given comprehensive coverage in this work.

The first inmates were taken into so-called “protective custody”; these were political opponents, usually members of the Communist Party (KPD) and the Social Democrat Party (SPD). Unlike in the war years the length of incarceration was not indefinite. Most of the early prisoners were released within a year. The improvised camps and torture centres were gradually closed down. Political resistance had been broken by the mid-1930s, and very few political opponents remained in the camps. Those released were usually badly scarred and cowed by their experiences and the vast majority subsequently opted for a low profile and silence. Those who did not soon found themselves back in the camps again.

By autumn 1934 there were only two thousand four hundred prisoners in SS camps. In 1935 there were four thousand prisoners in the KL and one hundred thousand in German prisons (the subject of a previous book by Wachsmann).These camps might have closed altogether but for the intervention of Hitler, who looked on the concentration camp as an adaptable instrument of terror. By the mid-thirties the concentration camps were able to operate outside the German legal system which had, in any case, fallen quickly in the Nazi Gleichschaltung policy of co-ordination and subordination of all aspects of society to Nazi requirements.

The second arrivals into the camp system were those regarded by the Nazi nation as social outsiders: “asocials”, professional criminals (despised by everyone), the “work-shy”, meaning beggars, vagabonds, the destitute and homeless, and other “community aliens” such as prostitutes. These were to have no place in the German national community, which was to be cleansed of individuals deemed to be socially deviant. They were regarded as unable to conform to the discipline of work that Germany expected of its citizens and classified as “unfit Germans”. The author notes that before the war the “asocials” constituted the largest group of Nazi victims within the concentration camps.

The third arrivals into the camps were the Jews – ten thousand in 1933 – Jewish numbers constituted only perhaps five per cent in the early years of the camps but those numbers dramatically increased after Kristallnacht or the Night of the Broken Glass, the state-sponsored nationwide pogrom of November 9th/10th, 1938. Twenty-six thousand Jews were transported to concentration camps immediately after Kristallnacht. For a brief period (indeed for the first and only time) the Jews constituted a majority in the concentration camps. But the purpose of their incarceration was to force their emigration; they were released fairly quickly but only after they had promised to leave Germany. After their experience of the camps this was something they were very anxious to do.

There were six concentration camps within the German Reich when World War II began. Dachau was followed by Sachsenhausen (near Berlin, 1936), Buchenwald (near Weimar, 1937), Flossenbürg (northeast of Nuremberg, 1938), Mauthausen (near Linz in Upper Austria, 1938), and Ravensbrück (north of Berlin, 1939, for female prisoners). All these camps were deliberately sited out of the immediate public gaze.

Once Hitler began occupying neighbouring states, Austria and Czechoslovakia, the camps began to fill up with foreigners. Yet when the war broke out on September 1st, 1939 there were only 21,400 inmates in the concentration camps (down from fifty-one thousand in 1938). No more than fifteen hundred of these were Jewish inmates. When the war began the concentration camps became sites of incarceration for resistance fighters and political opponents from the defeated nationalities. The number of camp inmates steadily climbed; by the end of 1940 there were fifty-three thousand; 1941 (eighty thousand), 1942 (one hundred and fifteen thousand), 1943 (three hundred and fifteen thousand), August 1944 (524,286). Even as late as the beginning of 1942, “Jews made up fewer than five thousand of the eighty thousand KL inmates”. Numbers rose significantly in the latter stages of the war but Jews never constituted more than perhaps thirty per cent of the registered inmates of the concentration camps.

The Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 was the prelude to the Holocaust. The invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22nd, 1941 saw the Holocaust begin. This point is clearly made clearly in Timothy Snyder’s book Bloodlands, Europe between Hitler and Stalin (2010). It was a “Holocaust by bullets” in the words of the French priest Patrick Desbois who has filmed and recorded eyewitness accounts from local people (then schoolchildren, now octogenarians) at sites where Nazi massacres of Jews took place in the eastern European Soviet Union. It was in part to avoid public knowledge, to take psychological pressure off the Einsatzgruppen rifle killing units, and to improve the efficiency of the killing method, that the Aktion Reinhardt death camps (Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka) were opened in 1942. The author contends that Aktion Reinhardt also included Auschwitz and Majdanek, and thus he prefers to refer to Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka as the Globocnik death camps, after Himmler’s ferocious henchman Odilo Globocnik, who operated from Lublin. It was only when these death camps were closed down in 1943 that Auschwitz became the key site of the Holocaust. The first mass deportation of Jews to Auschwitz took place in late March 1942 (from Slovakia). Slovakia paid the Nazis for each Jew taken.

When Hitler took Germany into a world war with his declaration of war against the USA in December 1941, the annihilation of the Jews of Europe became a fundamental Nazi war aim. Hitler had several times predicted it would be so. The full military might of Germany was brought down on a defenceless and largely unsuspecting people. World War II was an anti-Semitic war. The infamous words, intended to deceive, “Arbeit Macht Frei”, appeared on the entrance gates of Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Flossenbürg and Auschwitz. Buchenwald had “Jedem das Seine”, which can be translated as ‘everyone gets what he deserves’. Inmates took subversive pleasure in the idea that this attribution would yet be affixed to the SS.

The author has a fine level of detail on the everyday life of prisoners and the SS in the concentration camps. Inmates wore colour-coded triangles: criminals (green), politicals (red) asocials (black), emigrants (blue), homosexuals (pink), Jehovah’s Witnesses (purple), gypsies (some wore brown), Jews (yellow).

There was a hierarchy within the prisoner community. At the top were German criminals, who were placed in charge by the SS. They were followed by their enemy, the political prisoners, who endeavoured to work their own people into whatever key posts were available to prisoners. The politicals were often Communist prisoners. Communists and Social Democrats (SPD) distrusted one another in the camps as they did outside the camps so they did not work together. In Buchenwald, German Communists controlled all the key Kapo positions by 1943. Homosexual inmates were regarded with contempt by the SS and by many of the inmates. The Jews were at the bottom of the camps’ hierarchy.

Hunger was the greatest enemy. The neverending experience of hunger rendered inmates vulnerable to starvation-related illnesses. Those whose constitution could not cope with starvation rations and who lost the will to survive became known in camp slang as Muselmänner (the German word for a Muslim, itself suggestive of prejudice). Primitive camp conditions led to outbreaks of disease, of dysentery and typhus. Prisoners survived by “organising” on the black market.

The roll call on the Appellplatz at dawn could go on for hours in all weathers, and was used by the SS as an endurance test. Natural selection was used to weed out the weak. One key to survival was the nature of the work to which one was assigned. Those who were engaged in hard manual labour were at most risk because of the severity of the work. It was of the most arduous kind and was intended to be extermination through labour. These inmates were reduced to being mere beasts of burden. Those of a bourgeois background, intellectuals (often French) who had no experience of physical labour were soon exhausted by manual work and were at grave risk of going under in such a brutal environment. Someone with a working class background who was used to hard physical labour had a much better chance of surviving. The concentration camps at Buchenwald, Flossenbürg and Mauthausen had quarries attached. Sachsenhausen and its former satellite Neuengamme (outside Hamburg, which became a KL in 1940) had brick factories.

Mauthausen near Hitler’s home town of Linz was the worst of the concentration camps within the old Reich; its death toll was more than ninety thousand. Known as Mordhausen to its inmates, transportation to it was particularly dreaded by prisoners in other camps. Its notorious quarry had 186 steps, up which prisoners had to haul granite. There is a stone from the Mauthausen quarry outside Hitler’s birthplace in Braunau am Inn. (There is no direct reference to Hitler.) Those regarded by the SS as the most incorrigible prisoners were sent to the quarry camps – these were usually the criminals and the asocials who, in German eyes, were deserving of elimination by means of the most difficult work.

Inmates who knew German and were able to present themselves to the SS as skilled workers had a much better chance of survival than those who had neither of these attributes. To fail to understand and respond to an order given in German, the official language of the camps, could be fatal. Once he arrived in Auschwitz, the Italian Jew Primo Levi made a point of trading bread with another prisoner in order to learn German. Inmates who succeeded in getting into administrative posts in the camps had the best chance of survival. These were positions as doctors, clerks, block elders, labour supervisors, translators, or as workers in the clothes depots, infirmaries, kitchens, etc. These were “privileged” prisoners and they made up about ten per cent of the total.

The camp system sought to degrade, debase and dehumanise the inmates as much as possible. Prisoners needed friends and alliances to make it through in the face of what was often the law of the jungle. In the struggle for survival camp inmates were faced with huge moral dilemmas and impossible choices. But these choices were not of their own making – they were forced on them. Staying alive for one more day was a challenge. Wachsmann relates an example: “After the teenager Roman Frister was raped in his bunk by a Kapo one night in an Auschwitz satellite camp, he realized that his attacker had stolen his cap, without which Frister would face punishment during the next roll call; to save himself, Frister stole the cap of another prisoner, who was executed by the SS the following morning.”

Of the Christian churches within the Reich, the tiny Jehovah’s Witnesses (some twenty-five thousand members) put up an outstanding resistance to the Nazi regime and they suffered for it. They were conscientious objectors who refused to be conscripted into the German army. Several thousand were arrested. They were the largest group of religious prisoners in the concentration camps in the mid-1930s. In 1937-38 they constituted over ten per cent of all prisoners in Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald. They also made up a significant number of females inmates.

The different-coloured triangles were played off against each other by the Germans. There were also antagonisms in the camp system between nationalities (such as those between Poles, Russians and Ukrainians) which were exploited in divide and rule fashion. In 1940 and 1941, there were more Poles than any other nationality in the concentration camps. Nearly half of the 1,870 Polish priests in Dachau died. More Poles and Russians died in the camps than any other nationalities.

The SS appointment of selected prisoners as Kapos or heads with official functions such as responsibility for prisoners in their barracks and work details was another divide and rule tactic. It divided the prisoners among themselves and had the extra advantage of saving the SS on manpower. The SS thus weakened prisoner solidarity and encouraged conflict over appointments by putting different nationals in charge of rival groups.

German prisoners were mostly appointed and favoured before other nationalities. The Kapo was a key position of power in each barrack with privileges accruing (accommodation, food, clothes; the Kapos were invariably the healthiest-looking prisoners).The position offered the Kapo the opportunity to save his friends and his political allies. Kapos in administration and in the infirmaries were able to effect “victim swaps” by taking those they considered worth saving off death lists and by substituting other names. A Kapo could be ordered to kill inmates by the SS – self-preservation demanded obedience ‑ but a Kapo could also kill of his own volition. Some heroic Kapos attempted to negotiate the dangerous feat of keeping the SS placated while at the same time ensuing that the inmates under their control were as little harmed as possible. There was a price to be paid for getting on the wrong side of the SS, if not the prisoners as well. Some Kapos turned out to be almost as bad and as corrupt as the SS, abusing the prisoners in every possible manner. If a brutal Kapo fell out of favour with the SS there were consequences. Wachsmann quotes Himmler: “As soon as we are not satisfied with [a Kapo], he is no longer a Kapo, he sleeps again with his men. He knows that they will beat him to death in the first night.” The biggest tension was between the German political prisoners (reds) and the German criminals (greens), the latter with a reputation for brutality (not always deserved). The author modifies the standard view that the criminals were usually murderous thugs, arguing rather that these were not actually serious and hardened criminals but usually small-time offenders. Wachsmann writes that “[t]he focus on the ‘greens’ has rather obscured the uncomfortable truth that Kapos from all backgrounds colluded with the SS and committed cruel excesses”.

“Violence was the essence of the Camp SS spirit.” The SS guards were put through a brutal induction programme to toughen them up ahead of their introduction into the camps. The SS sought to eliminate “soft” or “weak” men from their ranks. Any sort of a humanitarian instinct was deemed “sentimentalism” and it had no place in the hard zone of Nazi beliefs. It was a totally macho outfit; there were no SS women.

Why were the SS so vicious towards their prisoners? They were told that they were the equivalent of front-line soldiers fighting the inner enemies of the state. The prisoners were presented to the SS (and to the general public) as extremely dangerous enemies. Commenting on the reign of terror of the guards, the author writes that “only a few were driven by psychological abnormality”; camaraderie and peer pressure took them over the line. In Himmler’s eyes the prisoners were to be regarded as “subhumans”. The inmates were treated by the SS as mere scum. Prisoners could be shot out of hand with impunity; they could be flogged for the smallest perceived or alleged misdemeanour. Nothing was too small to draw ferocious retribution. The brutality of the guards knew no bounds: “[t]error stood at the centre of the Third Reich, and no other institution embodied Nazi terror more fully than the KL”.

Any sort of prisoner defiance was met with overwhelming force. Prisoner escapes were few. One of the pictures in the book is of the Austrian prisoner Hans Bonarewitz, an escapee from Mauthausen who had been recaptured. He is shown standing on a cart for the collection of bodies as it was pulled by prisoners (for over an hour) between the massed ranks of their fellows to the gallows on roll call square. The camp orchestra pictured to the forefront provided a macabre musical accompaniment.

The worst day in the history of the KL took place at Majdanek in the so-called “Harvest Festival”. No less than eighteen thousand Jews killed were on November 3rd, 1943, the largest number killed in any KL (including Auschwitz) on a single day. It is a shock to visit Majdanek today (a very well preserved camp with a gas chamber) and find that it is highly visible from the suburbs of the city of Lublin.

What went on inside the concentration camps was answerable only to the SS bureaucracy. “[T]he great majority of KL perpetrators went unpunished.” There was the added advantage for the SS guard that a concentration camp was an immeasurably safer posting than the war front. In the town of Auschwitz, the wives and children of the SS lived quite a privileged life. Total power led to other large scale abuses. Corruption among the SS men was “endemic” and “all-inclusive”. From time to time the SS investigated itself, but in a half-hearted manner. Unusually, the brutal but corrupt Karl Otto Koch, commandant of Buchenwald and Majdanek, was executed by the SS just before the war ended.

In Nazi racial theory the German or “Aryan” race stood in the first rank. It had to be protected from other races and from its own “degenerate” offspring. A bleak pseudo scientific Social Darwinism condemned the world into the racially fit and unfit, into winners and losers. Once in power, Nazi eugenics was introduced. An early sign of the times was the sterilisation programme from 1933 of those considered unfit to reproduce. Three hundred thousand men and women were sterilised before the war began; reproduction by them being considered a biological threat to the future of the German race. The “national community” had to be protected from unhealthy or diseased offspring, “life considered unworthy of life”.

The gas chamber was a German invention. The Germans first used it not on the Jews but on the disabled from their own mental homes, hospitals and asylums. The “euthanasia” campaign was named T-4 after its headquarters, Tiergartenstrasse 4 in Berlin. The Berlin Philharmonie concert hall is on part of the site now. Recently a memorial to “euthanasia” victims has been erected there. Under cover of war Hitler introduced the “euthanasia” campaign. It became operational in conquered lands once the Germans crossed the Polish border. This campaign started within the Reich from the beginning of 1940. Hartheim Castle near Linz had the highest death toll of the six centres which were opened. Today it has a museum commemorating the victims who were gassed there. In Hitler’s “euthanasia” campaign at least seventy thousand Germans were gassed; this was the number his planners set out to gas. Hitler called it off (for adults) in August 1941 when public complaints grew. It is surprising that there were not more complaints from the German public as the campaign was an open secret. The invasion of the Soviet Union gave Hitler new possibilities. Medical doctors in charge of old people’s homes, hospitals and asylums, sanatoria, had by now become accustomed to the “euthanasia” concept and they continued to kill off hundreds of thousands of elderly and sick patients until the end of the war (either through lethal injections or neglect and gradual starvation). With “defective” Germans already being gassed from the beginning of the war what hope for the perceived enemies of the State? In the sterilisation campaign, in the “euthanasia” campaign, in their own hospitals and clinics and in the concentration camps, medical doctors played a leading role. SS doctors issued hundreds of thousands of false death certificates for prisoners. Wachsmann writes: “Looking at the enthusiastic participation of physicians in medical torture and murder, it is worth recalling that German doctors were among the most fervent supporters of National Socialism.”

The Aktion 14f13 campaign saw T-4 doctors visit concentration camps to select the unhealthy and those not fit for work. These were transported to the “euthanasia” centres to be gassed. Inmates of Mauthausen were transported to nearby Hartheim. The personnel of the T-4 gassing centres, under seal of confidentiality, were transferred east to run the death camps in eastern Poland. Christian Wirth and Franz Stangl had both seen service in Hartheim. Wirth had oversight of the death camps. Stangl became commandant of Sobibor and later of Treblinka.

The first gassing of 575 inmates of Auschwitz took place in a “euthanasia” centre on July 28th, 1941. These unfortunates were transported to Sonnenstein near Dresden because there were, as yet, no gas chambers in Auschwitz. Auschwitz has come to stand as the symbol of the Holocaust and of evil. It did not become a large scale killing facility for Jews until 1942. The vast majority of arrivals to Auschwitz did not know what awaited them. The author states that Bruno Bettelheim’s contention that the Jews went voluntarily like lemmings to the gas chambers is “grievously wrong”. Other camps which had gas chambers were Majdanek, Stutthof, Mauthausen (with Hartheim also used), Sachsenhausen, Ravensbrück, Natzweiler, and Dachau (although it is not clear whether the Dachau gas facility was ever actually used).

In the concentration camp system, the ambitious SS medical doctor/researcher had an ideal opportunity – an unlimited supply of human research material and no concern with the Hippocratic oath. He or she was free to engage in whatever kind of medical experiment/torture he wished as the lives of inmates were certainly expendable. More than twenty thousand prisoners, including children, were used for medical experiments.

Mengele and his experimentation on over one thousand sets of twins is perhaps the best known case. But there were more distinguished professors of medicine, anthropology and biology (though now less well known) active in the concentration camps who continued with honoured careers after the war. Prisoners were infected with all sorts of diseases – hepatitis, typhus, tuberculosis, malaria, and also burns and radiation, to see what the effects on them would be under different conditions and how such knowledge might benefit German soldiers (injured) in the war.

As the war became more difficult for the Germans, and the supply of Soviet POWs dried up, the Nazis decided that the death toll in the concentration camps should be curtailed to get more labour out of the prisoners. But the internal momentum of the camps was against treating the prisoners as workers who would live even when Germany clearly needed more workers. In the struggle for survival in these places of terror there would be no mercy for the enemies of Germany.

In a complete reversal by Hitler of his policy of removing all Jews from the Reich, Jews were now brought into Germany in great numbers to build up the slave labour force. Foreign civilian workers and POWs reached 7.3 million within the Reich by the end of 1943.

Satellites of the concentration camps were opened across Germany and all its major cities. These new camps brought knowledge of the conditions of the inmates to German citizens who after the war denied that they had any idea of what had taken place. German children who saw inmates marching to work were invariably hostile. The reaction of most Germans to the inmates was one of indifference, if not disdain and suspicion. They were too busy with their own war concerns. Prisoners were forced to clear up cities and towns after bombing raids and to defuse unexploded Allied bombs. They were not allowed access to bomb shelters during air raids.

Slave labour provided benefits to German industry. BMW, Krupp, Siemens were among the established German firms to benefit from the forced labour of concentration camp victims. At Auschwitz, IG Farben had a huge plant; at Ravensbrück, Siemens had a factory. BMW benefited from Dachau. Complicity for KL crimes “extended deep into ‘respectable; German society”.

The year 1944 saw a great increase in the number of satellite camps (more than eleven hundred) and an accompanying huge increase in the number of inmates. These camps were mainly in the west of the Reich as the Soviets were closing in from the east. Evacuations of camps in the east were already taking place in 1944. These evacuations pre-figured the death marches of the final months, and, the author contends, have been largely ignored by historians.

The German war effort demanded ever more slave labour and the concentration camps provided an available supply, though of weakened and exhausted workers. Conditions in many of these satellite camps were utterly primitive. In the hellish satellite camp of Ellrich-Juliushütte the roll call in summer began at 3.20am. The vast Kaufering camp attached to Dachau was one of many satellite camps reserved almost entirely for Jews. In Kaufering there were repeated selections for the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Camps such as Dora (KL, 1944-45), Ebensee, Melk were built at breakneck speed in underground tunnels to avoid Allied bombing. There were extraordinary slave worker death tolls. By late 1944 most of the inmates in the KL system were in the satellite camps. On January 1st, 1945 the camp system reached its greatest number, with 706,650 inmates in camps all over the Reich. The biggest KL at this time was Buchenwald, in the centre of Germany, with nearly one hundred thousand prisoners; Auschwitz had almost seventy thousand.

For the inmates it was a matter of hanging on until liberation. Inmates could hear the sounds of battle and explosions coming closer but they were still captive. As liberation day came nearer the camps became more deadly because of the huge numbers within them ‑ overcrowding, starvation, contagious diseases, death marches, and the risk of SS massacres (very real in the Baltic KLs of Kovno, Riga and Vaivara). Wachsmann estimates that, between January and the end of the war in early May 1945, forty per cent of the prisoners or three hundred thousand men, women and children died. He reckons that about four hundred and fifty thousand survived.

In 1945, Himmler tried to save himself by using the Jews as hostages or bargaining chips with the Allies and releasing some of them as a sign of intent. Twenty thousand were freed, but these were the exceptions. Hundreds of thousands remained interned. In April 1945, five hundred and fifty thousand prisoners were still in the KL system ‑ thirty per cent of these were Jews. Jewish prisoners were always the first to be chosen for the death marches and the death trains. Between one third and a half of all prisoners on such marches were Jews. The SS men were content to be on a death march rather than on the rapidly nearing front line. They could say that they were guarding dangerous prisoners.

As the end of the war approached conditions in the camps were apocalyptic. In terms of the death tolls of major KLs: about 61,500 died in Stutthof, fifty-six thousand at Buchenwald. About forty-three thousand died at Neuengamme. Up to forty thousand died in each of the following: Dachau, Gross-Rosen, Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen and Bergen-Belsen. Up to twenty thousand died in both Natzweiler and Dora. Bergen-Belsen was liberated on April 15th, 1945 but by the end of May, thirteen thousand more prisoners had died there of starvation-related illnesses.

Postwar, perpetrators kept their heads down and got on with their lives, seemingly untroubled by what they had done. Their main concern was to avoid trial. The German judiciary, itself totally compromised by the Nazi period, dealt with offenders with extraordinary leniency as German society preferred to enter a state of collective amnesia. For the survivors it was different. The abuse and torture they had experienced burned into their psyches.

“No one came out as he went in,” wrote Eugen Kogon. The impressive Kogon, author of The Theory and Practice of Hell, was incarcerated in Buchenwald, where he worked as a medical clerk. He masterminded the survival of three prominent Allied spies who had been sent to Buchenwald to be executed.

Many survivors were plagued by guilt as to why they survived when other family members did not. Most attributed their survival to chance and sometimes incredible luck. Thomas Buergenthal entitled his book, A Lucky Child. He was “lucky” to get into Auschwitz because there was no selection on the day of his arrival; otherwise as a child he would certainly have been killed. He survived a death march and ended up in the infirmary in Sachsenhausen, where he was befriended by the Norwegian inmate Odd Nansen (son of Fritjof Nansen), who wrote a book about the angelic young boy. Buergenthal, now in his eighties, served as the US representative on the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

After the Holocaust some were so traumatised that they never recovered mentally; the nightmare of memory was ever present in their dreams. The abuse they suffered was at the limit of human endurance. There was sadly a long list of prominent suicides. Some managed to bury the memory of what happened and to rebuild their lives. One such is Tomi Reichental, born a Jew in Slovakia, long an Irish citizen, who did not speak for over fifty-five years, not even to his wife, about being seized as a nine-year-old by the Gestapo in Bratislava and packed into a cattle train to Bergen Belsen. He lost thirty-five members of his family in the Holocaust. But in recent years he published a book, I Was a Boy in Belsen, and now regularly visits Irish schools and colleges on behalf of the Holocaust Education Trust of Ireland telling of his experiences, preaching tolerance and promoting inclusivity. The activity of individuals like Reichental reminds us that this is still living history; there are still some people alive who were victims and perpetrators.

The survivors had to live with the consequences of their abuse, while there is little evidence that the perpetrators lived with feelings of remorse for the suffering they had inflicted. The Germans were in denial about what they had done. There was a “pervasive (if partial) popular knowledge of the KL”. Even long after the war the German general public regarded concentration camp inmates as dangerous criminals because that was what they had been told by the Nazis. The US army believed German citizens were complicit in Nazi crimes.

After the war, nearly all the concentration camps were used by the occupying victorious forces as camps for displaced persons/refugees or else continued in being as jails. The Soviets in East Germany jailed Nazis and anti-Communist opponents of their regime in Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald and Lieberose. While East Germany was the GDR the concentration camps were used to glorify communist resistance to fascism with very little reference, if any, to the Jews. Since the unification of Germany in 1990 camps such as Buchenwald and Sachenhausen refer in their public exhibitions to over twenty-two thousand who lost their lives while imprisoned by the Soviets. Auschwitz became the Polish site of remembrance but it took a long time before the fact that the Jews were by far its foremost victims was acknowledged by the Poles. Dachau was utilised by West Germany as a refugee camp. When it became a site of remembrance in the 1960s the old remaining camp buildings were swept away despite survivor protests. In Neuengamme, a major prison was built within the camp perimeter. This has since been demolished. Now with most of those involved no longer alive (like the society they lived in) it is easier to face up to the reality of what they perpetrated. Wachsmann writes that “[C]ommemoration will keep on changing.” The experience of gypsies and homosexuals in the camps has only been acknowledged in recent decades. Even more belated is acknowledgement that “asocials” and “criminals” were also victims in these camps.

The application of Darwinian principles to human society led Hitler to an extraordinarily bleak view of mankind and its future. Unfortunately he got the opportunity to implement his terrible philosophy. The concentration camps were a horror story from beginning to end. Nazism tainted everything it touched. The KL network was an unparalleled system of terror and murder which brought humanity to a new low. The scale and sustained nature of the inhumanity was only equalled by what the Nazis were doing elsewhere; for instance, three million Soviet prisoners were starved to death. Germany had lost its moral compass.

The author, Nikolaus Wachsmann, is a German historian, professor of modern European history at the University of London. Based on the latest German and international research, this large, synthetically accomplished and nuanced work sets a new standard for our understanding of Nazi concentration camps. His chief finding is that the history of the concentration camps was one of continuous and sometimes surprising improvisation as the changing exigencies of the war demanded new responses.

One minor complaint (a testament to its size at 865 pages) is that it is physically difficult to handle and would have been more manageable in two volumes. Wachsmann’s book deals with horrific material in a judicious fashion; he avoids the sensational in a low-key presentation. The author is to be congratulated on bringing this daunting undertaking to a successful conclusion. This carefully annotated work has captured every bureaucratic twist and turn in the KL policies of the Nazis while giving a full account of the daily traumas and terror experienced by the concentration camp inmates. The book is a major feat of historical scholarship and will be a point of reference for all future study. Indeed is hard to see this panoptic study being surpassed for a long time to come.


Thomas McGrath is a historian and registrar of Carlow College.