Nazi Concentration Camps

The Nazi concentration camps were a key element of the terror apparatus in Germany from 1933 through 1945 and in countries occupied by Germany during World War II. Nazi concentration camps (Konzentrationslager, abbreviated both KL, KZ) were unique as they combined political "re-education" and industrial slave labor with racially/biologically motivated extermination of human beings in factory-like forms. Nazi concentration camps differ from other camps for the detainment or just concentration of larger groups of people in as much as these were institutions whose characteristics differ in various regimes of the 20th century. Nazi concentration camps, although partly contradictory, always maintained the three aforementioned main purposes. These determined the twisted development of the Nazi concentration camp system, which (cf. Karin Orth) can be divided into five stages.

Stage 1

1933-34: To crush the political opposition

The first concentration camps in Germany were installed during the Nazi takeover of power in early 1933 for the purpose of repressing political, primarily left wing opponents of Nazism such as communists, social democrats and labor union activists. These camps were organized through local initiative by the SA storm troopers or German police. According to a decree about "protective custody" (Schutzhaft), any person who was suspected of being an enemy of the state could arbitrarily be detained by the police for an unlimited period without being tried in court. Also, the police could overrule court decisions by transferring convicts to a concentration camp after they had served their prison term.

During 1933-34 some 100 concentration camps existed throughout Germany, and more than 100,000 detainees went through them. The purpose of the camps was correctional because detainees of "Aryan blood" were to be "re-educated" by means of violence and hard discipline, slave labor and propaganda in order to make them give up earlier ideas and beliefs and merge into the conformist “Volksgemeinschaft” or "people's community," which the Nazis proclaimed.

Stage 2

1934-39: To clean the "folk body"

After Hitler had consolidated his power, it was decided to maintain the concentration camps as a tool of Nazi terror. The camp system was centralized and placed under the authority of the SS (Schutzstaffel). The many improvised camps of this early period were replaced by a few permanent camps. Dachau, near Munich, was the first camp to be constructed specifically as a concentration camp. Dachau, as a model camp, provided regulations that were developed by its camp commandant Theodor Eicke, who later served as the inspector for all camps. Dachau originated the Häftlingsselbstverwaltung, a Nazi-selected delegation of inmates who were set against the ordinary inmates by means of privileges that were small but often crucial to survival. This delegation was used for inside surveillance and to administer a penal system by and for inmates. Because camp rules were so rigorous and it was quite impossible for the inmates to avoid breaking them, they provided a form of legitimacy for a completely arbitrary regime of violence that made uncertainty, stress and fear of death a constant feature of the inmates' lives. The Nazi guards, on their part, organized in special SS-Totenkopf (death’s head) units, were subject to strongly authoritarian training, and took humiliations out on the inmates. By 1935, only persons who were considered "unimprovable" political opponents to the Nazis remained in the six remaining concentration camps. The system contained a total of no more than 5,000 inmates (Häftlinge).

By June 1936, when SS-Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler was also appointed chief of the German police, the concentration camps were increasingly being used as a means of a proactive crime prevention scheme based on racial theory. Individuals whom the Nazis deemed "asocial" or "career criminals" (Berufsverbrecher) as well as others who deviated from the increasingly rigid social norms like the Roma and the Sinti (gypsies) as well as male homosexuals were isolated in the concentration camps. The Nazis considered such behavior as having racial-biological roots, and wished to protect the German "folk body" (Volkskörper) against the "deviants'" allegedly defective genes. Each concentration camp inmate was given a number instead of his name, and marked by a colored triangle stating the reason for his arrest. This identification system was designed to dehumanize the inmates and to set them against each other. By 1936, the black "asocials" and green "criminals" had outnumbered the red "political" inmates.

Permanent concentration camps were erected close to quarries or brickyards, where inmates had to perform hard and dangerous slave labor in order to provide cheap building materials for prestigious Nazi building projects. Because the SS guards primarily considered work a means of torture, labor productivity was low in the Nazi concentration camps. With the growth of the number of inmates, new camps were established which soon gained notoriety: 1) Sachsenhausen near Berlin (1936) was founded as a "model camp" and additional training center for guards; 2) Buchenwald near Weimar (1937); 3) Mauthausen near Linz (1938) after the annexation of Austria; 4) Flossenbürg between Nuremberg and Prague (1938), and 5) Ravensbrück (1939) as a special concentration camp for women. By 1939, the number of concentration camp inmates had risen to 25,000. In September, with the German attack on Poland and the unleashing of World War II, political prisoners in concentration camps increased markedly, as waves of arrests brought thousands of German dissidents into the camps as well as foreigners from the occupied territories who were rightly or wrongly accused of resisting Nazi rule or were brought into camps as hostages.

Jews in the concentration camps during the early stages were detained in concentration camps as political prisoners, "asocials" etc., for the same reasons as non-Jews. Yet once in the camps, Jews were treated with extra brutality. Right after the November pogrom of 1938 (Kristallnacht), Jews for a short period became the majority of the inmate population, as some 30,000 were interned and subjected to severe maltreatment and a number of violent deaths. The purpose of such brutality was to force the Jews to hand over their property to the German state and to permanently leave the country with their families. The many Jews who agreed to this condition were released within a few months. Thus, from early 1939 Jews were again a small, but significant minority among concentration camp inmates, and remained so.

Stage 3

1939-42: To fight resistance in the occupied countries

As Germany imposed its rule of terror on a number of European countries, the concentration camps turned into an important tool of maintaining Nazi control and to combat resistance in the occupied territories. Soon, the vast majority of the growing number of concentration camp inmates were foreigners, mainly from Poland and the Soviet Union. Most German inmates rose to the status of foremen, specialists and orderlies (Kapo, pl. Kapos). Being a "camp functionary" offered the inmate a somewhat higher chance of survival in an environment marked by extreme violence and the ever present threat of death.

At this time, 12,000 German criminals were transferred from the prisons to increase the population of "camp functionaries." It was this particular group of prisoners that Himmler ordered to be subjected to "extermination through work" (Vernichtung durch Arbeit), a term which many authors have applied to the entire concentration camp system. The infusion of more prisoners added to the complexity of the concentration camp system and dynamically changed its objectives. One example of this was the introduction of mass physical annihilation of Jews, ordered by Himmler.

The concentration camp system continued to expand. New camps were erected in Germany and in some occupied territories. The administration of the concentration camp system moved from Dachau to Sachsenhausen in 1938. Within the administration of the German police, the concentration camps enjoyed a high level of autonomy. This and the extremity of the norms that guided their organization have given rise to images of the concentration camps as "a state within the state" (Eugen Kogon) or "an alien planet" (Yves Béon). Recent interpretations, in contrast, see the concentration camp universe as a microcosm of Nazism, and emphasize the many and close comparisons between the camps and German society at large, which was often viewed as indifferent to or often approving of Nazi crimes. Knowledge of Nazi activity became commonplace as the concentration camp system expanded explosively from 1942 onward.

Stage 4

1942-44: To profit from slave labor

In early 1942, the German "lightning war" against the Soviet Union failed, and the concentration camp system, the German war industry and labor allocation in general were reorganized and refocused. Still more new camps had been added: 1) Neuengamme near Hamburg (1940); 2) Auschwitz near Krakow (1940), soon to become the largest by far; 3) Natzweiler-Struthof near Strasbourg (1941), and 4) Gross-Rosen in the Lower Silesia coal mining district (1941) with 5) Stutthof, formerly run by the Danzig police, being transferred into the status of a main camp or Stammlager (1942). The total number of inmates reached 80,000 by April 1942 and continued to soar, causing severe problems with overcrowding, food scarcity and inhumane hygienic conditions causing the 1942 death rate to peak at an annual average of 25-50%.

At this time, the SS decided to profit from the inmates' slave labor by hiring them out to private business and public projects for use mainly at construction sites and in the armament industry. The airplane industry and projects to create bomb-safe underground factories were large-scale exploiters of concentrations camp slaves. From 1942 on, a large number of smaller camps were founded, located near the worksites or often on the very premises of private companies. Thus, concentration camps emerged all over Germany, even in city centers where concentration camp inmates were also brought to perform clean-up jobs after Allied air raids such as the removal of unexploded bombs. Eight mobile concentration camps (SS-Eisenbahnbaubrigaden) with guards and inmates accommodated in trains were employed to repair bridges and other parts of the railway infrastructure.

In the course of 1943, every main camp became the administrative center of what eventually became a large network of sub-camps. In January 1945 there were 22 main concentration camps with close to 700 sub-camps, which held a total of more than 700,000 inmates. With starvation-size food rations, long work hours and primitive accommodation, inmates were worked to an early death by exhaustion. Even if work was now to have priority over annihilation, the average life expectancy of a concentration camp inmate would be no longer than a few months. Inmates who were deemed unfit for work were killed or left to die in special camps (Sterbelager) like Bergen-Belsen.

Stage 4

1942-45: To annihilate the Jews of Europe

In 1942, the concentration camp system also became the site of mass killing of Jews. With the attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, Germany started its systematic attempt to annihilate the Jews, first by means of mass shootings, and then from early 1942 by poison gas. Six special annihilation camps were erected for that purpose located on occupied Polish territory close to where most European Jews were living. Two of these annihilation camps were constructed as annexes to existing concentration camps: Auschwitz and Lublin-Majdanek. Out of six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, three million were murdered in Nazi gas chambers in a factory-like process that involved the burning of the victims' bodies on pyres or in specially erected crematoria, and the recycling of their belongings including dental gold. One million Jews perished in Auschwitz, 59,000 in Majdanek.

Stage 5

1944-45: From industrial slave labor to death marches

Even while Germany seriously lacked manpower to replace the increasing losses at the front and to expand armament production, annihilation of the Jews remained a major ideological objective to the Nazis, and was given absolute priority over economic needs. In 1942, the Nazi regime imagined that millions of laborers could be drawn in from Eastern Europe to cover the needs of German industry, but due to brutal recruitment methods and the miserable living conditions that were offered to the "foreign workers" in Germany, the flow of laborers from the occupied areas dried up in spite of the widespread use of force. So in the summer of 1944, Hitler consented to 100,000 of the 430,000 Hungarian Jews who at that time were being transported to Auschwitz for annihilation be "selected" and redirected to slave labor in German industry.

Soon after the evacuation of concentration camps located close to the approaching Allied forces started, two conflicting objectives determined the fate of concentration camp inmates during the final months of the war: 1) inmates were to continue working for the German war effort for as long as there was any strength left in them; and 2) they should be prevented from falling into Allied hands and testifying to the crimes they had witnessed.

During the winter of 1944-45, evacuation transports were sent out in truly horrible conditions, sometimes in open railway cars, often on foot (death marches) through frost and snow. Many inmates died of exhaustion or were shot as stragglers by the guards. Thus, during the final months of the war, the concentration camp system entered a state of "decentralization.” Still, the crumbling of regular command structures rarely caused guards to refrain from their extremely violent treatment of the inmates. On the contrary, the Gestapo continued to use the concentration camps as execution sites, to which they, on a regular basis, sent new prisoners who were primarily from amongst Germany's millions of foreign laborers and prisoners of war. The desolate living conditions made the inmate population drop drastically during the last four months of the war. When the "Third Reich" capitulated on May 9, 1945, only 350,000 concentration camp inmates were still alive, many of them just barely.


From 1934 on, the concentration camps were administered by a department of the Gestapo called the Inspection of the Concentration Camps (Inspektion der Konzentrationslager, IKL). Apart from 22 main camps located in Germany, Poland, France, Holland and the Baltic countries, historian Gudrun Schwarz has documented the existence of at least 1,202 sub-camps. It is estimated that the cumulative number of concentration camp inmates exceed 2.5 million. Apart from more than one million Jews who were murdered in the extermination camps of Auschwitz and Majdanek, more than 800,000 inmates lost their lives due to violence and executions as well as to exhaustion and disease caused by the desolate living conditions in the Nazi concentration camps or on transports between camps.

The German military, police and the SS also operated a far larger number of other camps in the German Reich area and the occupied territories, where living conditions and mortality rates were comparable or even worse. This is also the case for many forced labor camps and ghettos where Jews were confined in Eastern Europe from 1939 on.


During the 12 years of Nazi rule, the German concentration camps passed through five stages. While basic features like their central role in Nazi terror and the "culture of extreme violence" administered by the guards and partly delegated to privileged inmate functionaries, remained unchanged, each stage had distinctive features and displayed a specific combination of overall objectives. Subject to rapid changes and built-in conflicts between the various groups that comprised the camp as a social structure, guards, Kapos and ordinary inmates, as well as the various categories and nationalities of inmates that were deliberately set against each other, the Nazi concentration camp constituted an extremely contradictory, diverse and dynamic phenomenon. The existing photographs, mostly from the final stage of the war, have during the period of growing Holocaust-awareness of recent years become familiar all over the world. Even though well known today, these images only partly cover the complex reality of the Nazi concentration camps. However, it is exactly the contradictions, diversity and dynamism – as well as the deep human implications of the concentration camp experience, and the philosophical challenge it poses to modern man that make the Nazi concentration camps a particularly rewarding, if not also an extremely demanding field for research.

Prof. Therkel Straede


Recommended Reading

Eugen Kogon: Der SS-Staat. Das System der deutschen Konzentrationslager (Karl Alber, München 1946).

Institut für Zeitgeschichte, ed.: Studien zur Geschichte der Konzentrationslager (Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, Stuttgart 1970).

Joseph Billig: Les camps de concentration dans l'economie du Reich hitlerien (Presses universitaires de France, Paris 1973).

Falk Pingel: Häftlinge unter SS-Herrschaft. Widerstand, Selstbehauptung und Vernichtung im Konzentrationslager (Hoffmann & Campe, Hamburg 1978).

Martin Broszat et al.: Nationalsozialistische Konzentrationslager 1933-1945 (Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, München 1979).

Krzysztof Dunin-Wąsowicz: Ruch oporu w hitlerowskich obozach koncentracyjnych 1933-1945 (PWN, Warszawa 1979).

Yisrael Gutman & Avital Saf, ed.: The Nazi Concentration Camps. Proceedings of the Fourth Yad Vashem International Historical Conference, January 1980 (Yad Vashem, Jerusalem 1984).

Yves Béon: La planete Dora (Editions du Seuil, Paris 1985).

Dachauer Hefte. Studien und Dokumente zur Geschichte der nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager Bd.1- (Verlag Dachauer Hefte, Dachau 1985-).

Tom Segev: Soldiers of Evil. The Commandants of the Nazi Concentration Camps (McGraw-Hill, New York 1987).

Gudrun Schwarz: Die nationalsozialistischen Lager (Campus, Frankfurt am Main 1990).

Martin Weinmann, ed.: Das nationalsozialistische Lagersystem (Zweitausendeins, Frankfurt am Main 1990).

Johannes Tuchel: Konzentrationslager. Organisationsgeschichte und Funktion der "Inspektion der Konzentrationslager" 1934-1938 (Harald Boldt, Boppard am Rhein 1991).

Klaus Drobisch & Günther Wieland: System der NS-Konzentrationslager 1933-1939 (Akademie Verlag, Berlin 1993).

Wolfgang Sofsky: Die Ordnung des Terrors. Das Konzentrationslager (S. FIscher, Frankfurt am Main 1997).

Ulrich Herbert et al.: Die nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager. Entwicklung und Struktur Bd. 1-2 (Wallstein, Göttingen 1998).

Karin Orth: Das System der nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager: eine politische Organisationsgeschichte (Hamburger Edition, Hamburg 1999).

Karin Orth: Die Konzentrationslager-SS. Sozialstrukturelle Analysen und biographische Studien (Wallstein, Göttingen 2000).

Jan Erik Schulte: Zwangsarbeit und Vernichtung: Das Wirtschaftsimperium der SS. Oswald Pohl und das SS-Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt 1933-1945 (Schöningh, Paderborn 2001).

Michael Thad Allen: The Business of Genocide. The SS, Slave Labor, and the Concentration Camps (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 2002).

Sabine Möller et al.: Abgeschlossene Kapitel? Zur Geschichte der Konzentrationslager und der NS-Prozesse (Diskord, Tübingen 2002).

Hermann Kaienburg: Die Wirtschaft der SS (Metropol, Berlin 2003).

Wolfgang Benz & Barbara Distel, ed.: Der Ort des Terrors. Geschichte der nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager Bd.1-9 (Beck, München 2005-9).

Therkel Stræde, ed.: De nazistiske koncentrationslejre. Studier og bibliografi (Syddansk Universitetsforlag, Odense 2009).

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos 1933-1945 Vol.1A-B (Indiana University Press, Bloomington 2009).