As we have seen, the German prison system simply could not accommodate the massive influx of real and imagined enemies of the National Socialist regime arrested in the wake of the Reichstag fire. In consequence, dozens of “wild” detention camps were created throughout Germany by the SA, the SS, the police and various other agencies of the state and National Socialist Party. These camps were subject to little or no external control, and were often set up in disused buildings, barns or police barracks, with few if any facilities for the detainees. Furthermore, the prisoners were subjected to random beatings and torture by vengeful—and often drunk—National Socialist thugs. Many of the detainees were eventually released, but Himmler remained determined to use his new policing powers to bring order to the system of political detention, and he searched for a member of his organisation to implement this. We have already met the coarse, aggressive, ruthless man he chose for the task, because the prewar SS concentration camp system was largely the creation of Theodor Eicke.

Born in Alsace—which was then under German rule—in 1892, Eicke was the son of a stationmaster. He had an undistinguished school career before dropping out at the age of seventeen. With little prospect of civilian employment, he joined the army as a clerk and served as a paymaster throughout the First World War. He left in 1919, having gained the rank of career assistant paymaster, equivalent to a senior NCO.1 He and his wife then moved to the Rhineland, where he tried to find work as a policeman. He applied in several different towns, but every time he was taken on, he was soon dismissed for expressing extremist views or for participating in violent demonstrations against the Weimar Republic. Nevertheless, he earned some money as a paid informer.2 Eventually, in 1923, he became a security officer for the chemical company IG Farben at their plant in Ludwigshafen am Rhein, where he rose to the position of chief of the internal security team.3

In December 1928, he joined the National Socialist Party and the SA, in which he stayed for eighteen months before transferring into the SS.4 Himmler quickly promoted him to SS-company leader and gave him command of the SS unit in Ludwigshafen. Eicke displayed a talent for both recruitment of new members and organisation, which led to him being promoted again, this time to SS-battalion leader. Now he was tasked with raising a second “battalion” for the Rhineland-Palatinate, which he had achieved by the summer of 1931. In gratitude, Himmler promoted him to SS-regimental leader and gave him command of the 10th SS Regiment5—the SS unit that covered the whole of the Rhineland-Palatinate.

By the end of that year, Eicke’s political activities had come to the attention of his employers and he was laid off. On 6 March 1932, he was convicted of being in possession of explosives and conspiring to carry out acts of political violence in Bavaria. This earned him a two-year sentence in July, but the Bavarian Minister of Justice, who was an NSDAP sympathiser, temporarily reprieved him from the sentence so that Eicke could “recover his health.”6

Eicke returned to Ludwigshafen and initially continued much as before, but this was a provocation too far for the local police authorities, and before long he was forced to go into hiding. Fearing political scandal at a critical time, in September 1932 Himmler ordered Eicke to go to Italy, where Mussolini’s regime had set up a camp for National Socialist exiles on Lake Garda. However, before Eicke left, Himmler promoted him to SS-Oberführer (senior leader) and placed him in command of the SS camp.

While Eicke was in Italy, Josef Bürckel, the NSDAP’s regional leader in the Palatinate and one of his enemies, attempted to have him dismissed from the party. Bürckel and Eicke had quarrelled the previous year over Bürckel’s plans to coordinate all activities of the SA and SS within his region. Eicke had seen off the threat, but now Bürckel evidently sensed a chance to gain his revenge. Eicke had enough friends among the senior party leadership for Bürckel’s attempt to fail, but when he returned to Ludwigshafen in March 1933, Himmler ordered the two men to forget their differences. Eicke, though, was never one to let any perceived slight go unpunished, so he led a squad of armed SS men to the Ludwigshafen party headquarters and detained Bürckel. However, party loyalists came to Bürckel’s rescue, and Eicke was arrested and committed to a psychiatric hospital in Würzburg, where he was placed under the care of Dr. Werner Heyde.7

Himmler was extremely annoyed by Eicke’s erratic behaviour, and for a short time he was struck from the SS’s seniority lists. However, Heyde, who was a National Socialist sympathiser, befriended his new patient and eventually persuaded Himmler that he should be released and reinstated into the SS. This was duly done in June 1933, and Eicke was immediately handed a new role: commandant of the concentration camp at Dachau.8 Eicke was not an obvious choice to take over from Hilmar Wäckerle at Dachau: his only experience of prisons had been his time on remand during and after his trial in 1932. However, he had an attribute that Himmler prized greatly in those under his command: he was personally indebted to the National Leader for freeing him from the psychiatric hospital.*

Eicke arrived at Dachau in the middle of a scandal. Himmler had established the camp in the grounds of a semi-derelict factory back in March, and Wäckerle had been in charge ever since. His first task had been to draw up a set of rules for the camp, which he had done, but his rulebook contained various “crimes,” such as “incitement to disobedience,” which were punishable by a death sentence that was imposed by a tribunal of camp officers. In effect, Wäckerle had given himself the power of life and death over the prisoners within the camp. In the camp’s first three months, when it served solely as a detention centre for political opponents of the National Socialists, thirteen prisoners were killed or died as a result of their ill-treatment. The mother of one of the dead prisoners made a formal complaint to the Munich Police, and Wäckerle was charged with four murders.† Himmler, in these early days of the Third Reich, had no option but to remove him from his post.9

Eicke’s brief was to impose order and discipline on the camp, not to make life any easier for the inmates, and that was precisely what he did. He organised administrative and logistics offices; he hired a doctor; and he drafted suitable prisoners into repair, maintenance and manufacturing roles to ensure that the camp was as self-sufficient as possible.10 He also organised the prisoners into “blocks” of 250, commanded by a “block leader,” who was normally a senior NCO. The block leaders were subordinated to aRapportführer (reporting officer), who was normally an SS-Hauptscharführer (sergeant major). He, in turn, was commanded by a Schutzhaftlagerführer (protective custody camp leader) of “officer” rank. However, most of the day-to-day supervision of the inmates was carried out by prisoner trusties, known as “Kapos.” These were normally recruited from the ranks of professional criminals who, for some reason, had been sent to Dachau rather than to regular prisons. According to Rudolf Höss, who served at Dachau under Eicke,* the SS guards tried to have as little contact with the prisoners as possible.11

Rather than Wäckerle’s broad guidelines, Eicke drew up a detailed schedule of carefully defined offences with punishments to match. Just as importantly, he began to inculcate the guard force with a strong disciplinary code of conduct, based on blind obedience to orders from their SS superiors and on hatred and contempt for their prisoners: these became the rules on which the concentration camp system was based. The most serious offences were still punishable by death, but beneath that was a sliding scale of punishment: periods of between eight and forty-two days in solitary confinement on bread and water; corporal punishment in the form of whippings inflicted by SS men; periods of particularly hard labour; special exercises that were “usually performed with accompanying kicks and blows from the SS guards”;12 and tying the prisoner to a stake or a tree for a specified period of time. In addition to these formal punishments, the Kapos ruled over their fellow prisoners through informal bullying and brutality, to which the guards would turn a blind eye.

In the early years at Dachau, prisoners were subjected to hard labour of a particularly nugatory type: digging ditches and filling them back in; quarrying stones for aggregates; levelling ground. This was not designed to be productive in any sense, but simply to add to the burden of the prisoners’ lives and “educate” them to forget their opposition to the National Socialist regime. As time passed, however, the SS decided that better use could be made of their captives, and they were rented out as slave labour in factories and plants controlled by both the SS and private industry.

Even more appallingly—particularly during the war—camp inmates were used for SS-sponsored medical experiments, being treated like human guinea pigs. For the most part, these experiments originated outside the SS and simply exploited the supply of prisoners within the SS system. Researchers would apply to the chief SS doctor, Ernst-Robert Grawitz, who would forward the requests to Himmler for approval.

One example of this was a series of experiments conducted on behalf of the Luftwaffe at Dachau by Sigmund Rascher to investigate the effects of low pressure and high altitude on the human body.13 Rascher was a thirty-year-old physician working in a Munich hospital when the war broke out, and he was conscripted into the Luftwaffe as a medical officer. His wife had worked as Himmler’s secretary at one time (she may also have had an affair with him), and Rascher was a member of the SS, having transferred from the SA in June 1939. At the beginning of 1942, after an introduction from his wife, he asked Himmler for permission to begin high-altitude experiments on inmates from Dachau. How far Rascher was acting on his initiative or under orders from the Institute of Aviation Medicine in Berlin remains unclear. Himmler approved his proposal, provided him with an assistant and a special low-pressure chamber, and gave him access to as many prisoners as he needed. The experiments began in April 1942. A report survives of the effects they had on those unfortunate enough to be selected:

The third experiment of this type took such an extraordinary course that I called an SS physician of the camp as a witness, since I had worked on these experiments all by myself. It was a continuous experiment without oxygen at a height of 12 kilometres on a 37 year old Jew in good general condition. Breathing continued up to 30 minutes. After 4 minutes the experimental subject began to perspire, and wiggle his head; after 5 minutes cramps occurred; between 6 and 10 minutes breathing increased in speed and the experimental subject became unconscious; from 11 to 30 minutes breathing slowed down to three breaths per minute, finally stopping altogether.

Severest cyanosis developed in between and foam appeared at the mouth.

At 5 minute intervals electrocardiograms from three leads were written. After breathing had stopped the ECG was continuously written until the action of the heart had come to a complete standstill. About half an hour after breathing had stopped, dissection was started…

When the cavity of the chest was opened the pericardium was filled tightly (heart tamponade). Upon opening the pericardium, 80cc of clear yellowish liquid gushed forth. The moment the tamponade had stopped, the right auricle of the heart began to beat heavily, at first at the rate of 60 actions per minute, then progressively slower. Twenty minutes after the pericardium had been opened, the right auricle was stopped by puncturing it. For about 15 minutes, a thin stream of blood spurted forth. Thereafter, clogging of the puncture wound in the auricle by coagulation of the blood and renewed acceleration of the action of the right auricle occurred.

One hour after breathing had stopped, the spinal marrow was completely severed and the brain removed. Thereupon, the action of the auricle of the heart stopped for 40 seconds. It then renewed its action, coming to a complete standstill 8 minutes later. A heavy subarachnoid oedema was found in the brain. In the veins and arteries of the brain, a considerable quantity of air was discovered. Furthermore, the blood vessels in the heart and liver were enormously obstructed by embolism.14

It is significant that a good proportion of the post-mortem section of the report dwells on the effects of the damage that Rascher himself had inflicted during his dissection. His qualifications to conduct medical research were dubious at best, and he is believed to have faked evidence to obtain “correct” results during pre-war cancer research. In later experiments, he simulated parachute descents. For example, a former delicatessen worker was given an oxygen mask and raised to a simulated height of 47,000 feet in the pressure chamber, at which point the mask was removed and freefall simulated. The prisoner’s reactions were described in detail in Rascher’s report: “spasmodic convulsions,” “agonal convulsive breathing,” “groaning,” “yells aloud,” “convulses arms and legs,” “grimaces, bites his tongue,” “does not respond to speech,” “gives the impression of someone who is completely out of his mind.”

Altogether, about a hundred Dachau inmates were killed in under five months of high-altitude experiments. The Institute of Aviation Medicine in Berlin was kept informed of Rascher’s results throughout.

Rascher’s second series of human experiments began almost as soon as the first set ended. This time, he wanted to test the effects of extremely low temperatures on the human body, and to investigate how to warm up patients who had been subjected to extreme chilling. The intention was to find treatments for Luftwaffe pilots who had crash-landed in the sea and become hypothermic.

One survivor of these experiments, a Polish priest, gave evidence during the post-war Nuremberg trials:

On 7 October, 1942, a prisoner came and told me that I was to report to the hospital immediately. I thought I was going to be examined once more, and I was taken through the malaria station to block 5 in Dachau, to the fourth floor of block 5. There, the so-called aviation room, the aviation experimental station, was located there, and there was a fence, a wooden fence so that nobody could see what was inside, and I was led there, and there was a basin with water and ice which floated on the water…

Now I was told to undress. I undressed and I was examined. The physician then remarked that everything was in order. Now wires had been taped to my back, also in the lower rectum. Afterwards I had to wear my shirt, my drawers, but then afterwards I had to wear one of the uniforms which were lying there. Then I had also to wear a long pair of boots with cat’s fur and one aviator’s combination. And afterwards a tube was put around my neck and was filled with air. And afterwards the wires which had been connected with me—they were connected to the apparatus, and then I was thrown into the water. All of a sudden I became very cold, and I began to tremble. I immediately turned to those two men and asked them to pull me out of the water because I would be unable to stand it much longer. However, they told me laughingly, “Well, this will only last a very short time.” I sat in this water, and I had—and I was conscious for one hour and a half. I do not know exactly because I did not have a watch, but that is the approximate time I spent there.

During this time the temperature was lowered very slowly in the beginning and afterwards more rapidly. When I was thrown into the water my temperature was 37.6. Then the temperature became lower. Then I only had 33 and then as low as 30, but then I already became somewhat unconscious and every fifteen minutes some blood was taken from my ear. After having sat in the water for about half an hour, I was offered a cigarette, which, however, I did not want to smoke. However, one of those men approached me and gave me the cigarette, and the nurse who stood near the basin continued to put this cigarette into my mouth and pulled it out again. I managed to smoke about half of this cigarette. Later on I was given a little glass with Schnapps, and then I was asked how I was feeling. Somewhat later still I was given one cup of Grog. This Grog was not very hot. It was rather lukewarm. I was freezing very much in this water. Now my feet were becoming as rigid as iron, and the same thing applied to my hands, and later on my breathing became very short. I once again began to tremble, and afterwards cold sweat appeared on my forehead. I felt as if I was just about to die, and then I was still asking them to pull me out because I could not stand this much longer.

Then Dr. Prachtol came and he had a little bottle, and he gave me a few drops of some liquid out of this bottle, and I did not know anything about this liquid. It had a somewhat sweetish taste. Then I lost my consciousness. I do not know how much longer I remained in the water because I was unconscious. When I again regained consciousness, it was approximately between 8 and 8:30 in the evening. I was lying on a stretcher covered with blankets, and above me there was some kind of an appliance with lamps which were warming me…15

The low-temperature experiments concluded in the spring of 1943 amid disagreements between the SS and the Luftwaffe. Some of Rascher’s data had proved useful to the Luftwaffe, but the experiments had become increasingly strange. In order to test whether human body heat could be used to warm up subjects, Rascher had used pairs of prisoner-prostitutes from the Dachau camp brothel. These women would be ordered to sandwich the frozen subject in a sleeping bag; then, once he had warmed up a little, on Rascher’s command, they would attempt to have sexual intercourse with him. However, Rascher sufficiently impressed Himmler for the National Leader to find him an academic post at the University of Strasbourg. While there, Rascher worked on projects for the Ahnenerbe(see Chapter 9).16

IN THE MID-1930S, these medical experiments lay in the future, but Dachau was still a brutally harsh environment, especially for Jewish inmates. Eicke was an ardent anti-Semite, and he ensured that copies of Julius Streicher’s virulently anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmer (The Stormer) were readily available for both guards and non-Jewish prisoners. He also imposed collective punishment for Jewish inmates whenever articles that were critical of the concentration camps appeared in the foreign press.

During the first year of his command at Dachau, both Eicke and the camp itself were subordinated to SS-Regional Command South, based in Munich (just as other concentration camps were subordinated to their local SS regional headquarters). From Eicke’s point of view, this was far from ideal. He had a deep, obsessive hatred towards those he regarded as rivals, and he resented anyone placed in authority over him. Consequently, he complained to Himmler that he did not have sufficient supplies and that the men sent to him as guards were not up to the task.17 Himmler took these criticisms seriously, and started to contemplate a wholesale reorganisation of the existing camp system. In the 30 January 1934 promotion round,* Eicke was promoted to senior rank as an SS-brigade leader, indicating that he was now firmly back in favour with Himmler. By May, the National Leader had decided to centralise control of the SS camps within an “Inspectorate of Concentration Camps,” based near the Berlin satellite town of Oranienburg, with Eicke as the Inspector. Then, on 20 June, Eicke was appointed to Himmler’s personal staff, pending the formal announcement of his new role. This came on 5 July, four days after Eicke had murdered Ernst Röhm in his prison cell in Munich. A week later, Himmler promoted him to SS-group leader,† at that time the second-highest rank in the SS.18 Eicke was now in a position to expand the concentration camp system and run each camp strictly on his organisational model.

In the early part of 1934, members of the SS were involved in making plans to take over a number of camps that were still being run to hold “protective custody” inmates on behalf of the provincial authorities, the police and the SA. In April 1934, the Reich Ministry of the Interior had established national rules for imposing protective custody, confirming the Gestapo’s key role in the detention process.19 This was accelerated following the “Night of the Long Knives” in July 1934, when SS units seized control of three camps from the SA. A fourth came under SS control in August.

By the summer of 1935, the number of active concentration camps across Germany had fallen to five (of which Dachau was the largest), holding about 4,000 prisoners between them. (By contrast, the regular German prison system at the time held more than 100,000 prisoners, including some 23,000 political prisoners). Further consolidation of SS control over existing camps in the summer of 1936 increased this number to six, but by the end of the following year, just two of these—Dachau and Lichtenberg—were still operational. The rest had been closed and superseded by a new wave of “model” concentration camps purpose built under Eicke’s guidance.20

The first of the model concentration camps was Sachsenhausen, built alongside the Inspectorate headquarters itself, in September 1936. It became the specialist training centre for SS personnel assigned to the concentration camp system. Some 200,000 prisoners are believed to have passed through the camp in the course of its existence, with approximately 30,000 of them dying—by execution, casual brutality, untreated disease or overwork; many of them in and around the nearby brickworks, established by the SS to exploit prisoner labour. Sachsenhausen was the first camp to use the motto “Arbeit macht Frei” (“Work Will Free You”) at its entrance, later copied by Rudolf Höss above the main gate at Auschwitz.

Buchenwald, located close to Weimar in Thuringia, opened in July 1937. More than 250,000 prisoners are estimated to have passed through its gates, with more than 56,000 of them dying. It is particularly notorious as the fiefdom of SS-Colonel Karl Koch, the camp’s first commandant. Koch was arrested by the Gestapo in August 1943—by which time he was commandant of the Majdanek camp in Lublin, Poland—on charges of forgery, embezzlement, mismanagement and insubordination. He was executed at Buchenwald in April 1945, shortly before the arrival of US troops. Koch and his wife, who was chief women’s overseer, had brazenly looted Buchenwald throughout their tenure there, and had organised the murder of at least one inconvenient witness. The camp’s motto, inscribed above the gates in wrought ironwork, was “Jeden das Seine” (colloquially, “Everyone Gets What They Deserve”).

The prisoners incarcerated in these camps were a heterogeneous group. Alongside political prisoners, in March 1937, Dachau and Sachsenhausen received some 2,000 “habitual criminals” rounded up by the civil police after a trawl through criminal records. The next year, the much wider category of “Asocials” was added to those being identified, arrested and detained within the system. Between April and June 1938, 12,000 men with irregular work records, beggars, vagrants and itinerant labourers were rounded up and detained. These groups were joined, from 1938 onwards, by Jews. Hitherto, they had largely been arrested as political opponents, not simply because of their religion or ethnicity; now this became a basic reason. In the wake of Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass), some 26,000 Jews were incarcerated in the camps.

The fourth major concentration camp was Flossenbürg, in the Oberpfalz, Bavaria, which opened in May 1938. From then until April 1945, 96,000 prisoners are believed to have been incarcerated there, of whom approximately 30,000 died. It was here that some of the last survivors of 1944’s bomb plot against Hitler, including Admiral Canaris, were executed in April 1945.

Mauthausen was the first concentration camp to be opened by the SS on Austrian soil following the Anschluss. Located approximately fifteen miles east of Linz, it was built by prisoners from Dachau. Conditions here were among the harshest in the whole concentration camp system, and at least 150,000 prisoners are believed to have died in either the main camp—where prisoner labour centred on a stone-quarrying operation—or its network of more than fifty sub-camps.

The last of the pre-war camps was the women’s camp at Ravensbrück. It opened in May 1939 to replace Lichtenberg, which had previously acted as the camp for women. Overall, it incarcerated some 130,000 women, more than half of whom are believed to have died either there or elsewhere within the system. The majority of the SS’s uniforms were assembled at an SS economic “enterprise” at Ravensbrück. It was also here that women employed by the SS (they were not allowed to be members of the organisation) were trained to be guards and overseers of female prisoners for the rest of the camps.

As the population subject to German control expanded during the early part of the war, so the requirement for concentration camp space grew and with it the number of camps. Neuengamme, near Hamburg, opened in early 1940; Auschwitz, near Crakow, in June 1940; Gross-Rosen, also in Silesia, opened in May 1941, as did Natzweiler in Alsace. These were followed in October 1941 by the camp at Lublin/Majdanek and, shortly afterwards, by the conversion of the existing detention facility at Stutthof, near Danzig, into a main concentration camp. These were supplemented by a huge network of sub-sites: smaller camps and labour groups administered by the main camps that also supplied their guards.21

The rise in numbers of those detained in the camps is instructive. In November 1936, the figure was 4,761; in December 1937, 7,750; in June 1938, 24,000; in November 1938, 50,000; in September 1939, 21,400; in December 1940, 53,000; in September 1942, 110,000; in August 1943, 224,000; in August 1944, 524,286; in January 1945, 714,211.22

This huge expansion in the concentration camp system is indicative of the scale on which the SS’s ideological and racial war was being fought, at least in the minds of the SS itself. The majority of those who were detained within the system—whether Jews, Freemasons, Jehovah’s Witnesses or the homeless—were not in any sense active opponents of the regime that imprisoned them, but simply its nominated targets. Real opponents of National Socialism, domestically at least, had almost all been dealt with within a few months of the beginning of the National Socialist regime.

* A similar case was Odilo Globocnik, whom Himmler shielded from corruption allegations that arose when he was Regional Leader of Vienna. Himmler promoted him to Lieutenant General of the Police and made him his representative in Lublin, where he subsequently oversaw the extermination of the Jewish population of Poland.

† The charges were dropped after intervention by Himmler, and Wäckerle moved sideways into the newly forming militarised SS. He was killed on the Eastern Front in July 1941 when commanding the Westland Regiment of the SS-Wiking Division.

* Höss, subsequently commandant of Auschwitz, learned his trade as a “block leader” at Dachau in 1935.

* SS promotions had traditionally taken place on 9 November, the anniversary of the Munich Putsch. But from 1934 they also took place on 30 January, the anniversary of the “seizure of power.”

† Ranks in the General-SS—which remained a party formation—were not formally equivalent to military ranks; ranks in the Waffen-SS and police were.

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