Another popular misconception is that all Nazi concentration camps were essentially the same and served the same purpose. In reality, it was not the case – there were several types of concentration camps (i.e. centers for temporary or indefinite detention of a large number of civilians – POW camps are a different story entirely), each serving a very specific purpose:
- State camps for political prisoners (“prison camps”) used to annihilate political opposition and make sure it never “returns from the dead”
- Hostage camps (Geisellager), where hostages were held and later killed in reprisal actions. Unlike the camps of the previous type, these were established only on occupied territories and used (mostly unsuccessfully) in anti-guerilla warfare
- Labor camps (Arbeitslager): concentration camps where interned captives had to perform hard physical labor under inhumane conditions and cruel treatment. Some of these were sub-camps, called “Outer Camps” (Aussenlager), built around a larger central camp (Stammlager), or served as “operational camps” established for a temporary need. These camps were by far the most numerous as after failure of blitzkrieg on the Eastern front Germany was getting more and more dependent on slave labor
- Extermination camps (Vernichtungslager) or “death camps” built specifically for murdering a large number of individuals (mostly Jews). There were four such “special-purpose” camps – Chelmno, Sobibor, Treblinka and Belzec (the latter three often referred to as Operation Reinhard death camps)
- Hybrid labor/extermination camps which were used both as labor camps and extermination camps. There were two such facilities in Poland – Auschwitz-Birkenau (by far the most well-known) and Majdanek and one in the Soviet Union (in present-day Belarus) – Maly Trostinets (“Little Trostinets”). Located on the outskirts of Minsk (the capital of Belarus) the latter was initially set up as a camp for Soviet POWs but in May 1942 was transformed into a death camp for the mass murder of Jews (both from the Minsk ghetto and from the Austria, Germany and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia)
As a result of the Holocaust, the term “concentration camp” carries many of the connotations of “extermination camp” and is sometimes (highly incorrectly) used synonymously. Because of these ominous connotations, the term “concentration camp” is often replaced by synomyms such as internment camp, resettlement camp, detention facility, etc.
In this section I will cover only the first type of camps (as this chapter deals only with elimination of political opposition to the Nazis in pre-war years). I will cover other types of camps in the chapter on Hitler’s crimes.
Nazi were criminals, no doubt about that. And horrible criminals – no question about that either. However, they were very pragmatic criminals – their crimes always served a very specific purpose.
Which did not prevent them from committing colossal blunders – when the purpose in question stemmed from highly incorrect perception of reality caused by their ideology.
However, the goal of prison camps made perfect sense in that situation – eliminate political opposition by either transforming political opponents into loyal servants of the Nazi regime (the preferred option); detain them indefinitely (in case they would be needed later) or simply kill them.
To “reprogram” (brainwash, if you will) political opponents into loyal (and even ardent) Nazi adherents, the SS (that run Nazi concentration camps) used a highly efficient combination of very brutal treatment, intimidation (and even terror) and an overwhelming Nazi propaganda.
The first concentration camps in Germany were set up almost immediately after Adolf Hitler was appointed the Chancellor (and Göring became the Interior Minister of Prussia). Heinrich Himmler later recollected that they were rising “like the mushrooms in the rain”.
These early camps, also called “wild camps” because some were set up with little supervision from government authorities, were established and managed by the SA (mostly), by state political police agencies, and sometimes by local police authorities. Any lockable large space could be used: storage facilities, engine rooms, brewery floors, anchored ships, cellars, etc.
After the Nazis obtained the dictatorial powers in late March of 1933, they quickly put an end to this “entrepreneurship” and began constructing a system of state concentration camps.
The first such camp – the now-infamous Dachau – was founded in March 1933 in a small medieval town roughly 10 miles (16 km) from Munich. On 26 June 1933, Himmler appointed Theodor Eicke (a decorated Great War veteran, former policeman and security guard) commandant of Dachau, and a year later made him the first Inspector of Concentration Camps. By the end of 1934, all concentration camps in Germany were taken over by the SS.
These camps were managed by the Concentration Camps Inspectorate, which in 1942 was merged into SS-Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt (SS Main Economic and Administrative Office) and were guarded by SS-Totenkopfverbände – a special unit of the SS created exclusively for guarding concentration (and later extermination) camps.
Ultimately, the SS set up twenty-seven main camps and over 1,100 attached satellite camps (in Germany and in occupied Europe) over the course of the Third Reich, though numbers fluctuated greatly, as old camps closed down and new ones opened; only Dachau lasted for the entire Nazi period.