Dachau, April 29, 1945. It is early afternoon when U.S. troops, part of the Allied force sweeping across Germany to crush the last remains of the Third Reich, approach an abandoned train on a rail siding at the grounds of a sprawling SS complex near Munich. As the soldiers come closer, they make a dreadful discovery: the boxcars are filled with the corpses of well over two thousand men and women, and also some children. Gaunt, contorted limbs are entangled amid a mess of straw and rags, covered in filth, blood, and excrement. Several ashen-faced GIs turn away to cry or vomit. “It made us sick at our stomach and so mad we could do nothing but clinch our fists,” an officer wrote the next day. As the shaken soldiers move deeper into the SS complex and reach the prisoner compound, later that afternoon, they come upon thirty-two thousand survivors from many ethnic, religious, and political backgrounds, representing about thirty European nations. Some seem more dead than alive as they stumble toward their liberators. Many more lie in overcrowded barracks, infested with dirt and disease. Wherever the soldiers turn, they see dead bodies, sprawled between barracks, dumped in ditches, stacked like logs by the camp’s crematorium. As for those behind the carnage, almost all career SS men are long gone, with only a ragtag gang of perhaps two hundred guards left behind.1 Images of this nightmare soon flashed around the world and burned themselves into collective memories. To this day, concentration camps like Dachau are often seen through the lens of the liberators, with the all-too-familiar pictures of trenches filled with bodies, mountains of corpses, and bone-thin survivors staring into cameras. Powerful as these pictures are, however, they do not reveal the full story of Dachau. For the camp had a much longer history and had only recently reached its last circle of hell, during the final throes of the Second World War.2

Dachau, August 31, 1939. The prisoners rise before dawn, as they do every morning. None of them know that war will break out the next day, and they follow their usual schedule. After the frantic rush—jostling in the washrooms, devouring some bread, cleaning the barracks—they march in strict military formation to the roll call square. Nearly four thousand men with cropped or shaven heads stand to attention in striped uniforms, dreading another day of forced labor. Except for a group of Czechs, virtually all the prisoners are German or Austrian, though their common language is often all they share; colored triangles on their uniforms identify them as political prisoners, asocials, criminals, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Jews. Behind the rows of prisoners stand rows of one-story prisoner barracks. Each of the thirty-four purpose-built huts is around 110 yards long; the floors inside are gleaming and the bunks are meticulously made up. Escape is almost impossible: the rectangular prisoner compound, measuring 637 by 304 yards, is surrounded by a moat and concrete wall, watchtowers and machine guns, and barbed and electric wire. Beyond lies a huge SS zone with over 220 buildings, including storerooms, workshops, living quarters, and even a swimming pool. Stationed here are some three thousand men from the Camp SS, a volunteer unit with its own ethos, which puts prisoners through well-rehearsed routines of abuse and violence. Deaths are few and far between, however, with no more than four fatalities in August 1939; as yet, there was no urgent need for the SS to build its own crematorium.3 This was Camp SS terror at its most controlled—a far cry from the lethal chaos of the final days in spring 1945, and also from Dachau’s ramshackle beginnings back in spring 1933.

Dachau, March 22, 1933. The first day inside the camp is drawing to a close. It is a cold evening, less than two months after the appointment of Adolf Hitler as chancellor set Germany on the road to the Nazi dictatorship. The new prisoners (still in their own clothes) are having bread, sausage, and tea inside the former office of a dilapidated munitions plant. This building had been hastily converted in recent days into an improvised camp, cordoned off from the rest of the deserted factory ground with its crumbling structures, broken concrete foundations, and derelict roads. In all, there are no more than 100 or 120 political prisoners, largely local Communists from Munich. After these men had arrived on open trucks a little earlier, the guards—some fifty-four men strong—announced that the captives would be held in “protective custody,” a term unfamiliar to many Germans. Whatever it was, it seemed bearable: the guards were not Nazi paramilitaries but amiable policemen, who chatted with the prisoners, handed out cigarettes, andeven slept in the same building. The next day, the prisoner Erwin Kahn wrote a long letter to his wife to say that all was well in Dachau. The food was good, as was the treatment, though he was getting restless waiting for his release. “I am just curious how long this whole business will last.” A few weeks later, Kahn was dead, shot by SS men after they took over the prisoner compound. He was among the first of almost forty thousand Dachau prisoners to perish between spring 1933 and spring 1945.4

*   *   *

Three days in Dachau, three different worlds. In a span of only twelve years, the camp changed time and again. Inmates, guards, conditions—almost everything seemed to alter. Even the site itself was transformed; after the old factory buildings were demolished and replaced by purpose-built barracks in the late 1930s, a veteran prisoner from spring 1933 would not have recognized the camp.5 So why did Dachau transform from its benign beginnings in March 1933 to the SS order of terror, and on to the catastrophe of the Second World War? What did this mean for the prisoners inside? What drove the perpetrators? And what did the population outside know about the camp? These questions go to the heart of the Nazi dictatorship, and they should be asked not just about Dachau, but about the concentration camp system as a whole.6

Dachau was the first of many SS concentration camps. Established inside Germany in the early years of Hitler’s rule, these camps soon spread, during the Nazi conquest of Europe from the late 1930s, to Austria, Poland, France, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands,Belgium, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, and even the small British Channel Island of Alderney. In all, the SS set up twenty-seven main camps and over 1,100 attached satellite camps 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.7

The concentration camps embodied the spirit of Nazism like no other institution in the Third Reich.8 They formed a distinct system of domination, with its own organization, rules, and staff, and even its own acronym: in official documents and common parlance, they were often referred to as KL (from the German Konzentrationslager).9 Guided by SS chief Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s main henchman, the KL came to reflect the burning obsessions of the Nazi leadership, such as the creation of a uniform national community through the removal of political, social, and racial outsiders; the sacrifice of the individual on the altar of racial hygiene and murderous science; the harnessing of forced labor for the glory of the fatherland; the mastery over Europe, enslaving foreign nations, and colonizing living space; the deliverance of Germany from its worst enemies through mass extermination; and finally, the determination to go down in flames rather than surrender. Over time, all these obsessions shaped the KL system, and led to mass detention, deprivation, and death inside.

We can estimate that 2.3 million men, women, and children were dragged to SS concentration camps between 1933 and 1945; most of them, over 1.7 million, lost their lives. Almost one million of the dead were Jews murdered in Auschwitz, the only KL to play a central role in what the Nazis called the Final Solution—the systematic extermination of European Jewry during the Second World War, now commonly known as the Holocaust. From 1942, when the SS started to dispatch deportation trains from across the continent, KL Auschwitz operated as an unusual hybrid of labor and death camp. Some two hundred thousand Jews were selected on arrival for slave labor with the other regular prisoners. The remainder—an estimated 870,000 Jewish men, women, and children—went directly to their deaths in the gas chambers, without ever being registered as inmates of the camp.10 Despite its unique role, Auschwitz remained a concentration camp and continued to share many features with the other camps, most of which—KL like Ellrich, Kaufering, Klooga, Redl-Zipf, and many more—have long since been forgotten. Together, they occupied a unique space in the Third Reich. They were sites of lawless terror, where some of the most radical features of Nazi rule were born and refined.

Precedents and Perspectives

In April 1941, German audiences flocked to cinemas to watch a star-studded feature film, purportedly based on a true story and released with much fanfare by the Nazi authorities. The climax of the movie was set against an unusual background—a concentration camp. There was to be no happy end for the starved and disease-ridden inmates, all of them innocent victims of a murderous regime: a brave prisoner is hanged, his wife shot, and others massacred by their vicious captors, leaving only graves behind. These chilling scenes bore an uncanny likeness to life in SS concentration camps at the time (there was even a special screening for guards in Auschwitz). But this was not a drama about the SS camps. The film was set decades earlier, during the South African War, and the villains were British imperialists. Ohm Krüger, as the film was called, was a powerful piece of German propaganda during the war with Britain, and mirrored a public speech made a few months earlier by Adolf Hitler: “Concentration camps were not invented in Germany,” he had declared. “It is the English who are their inventors, using this institution to gradually break the backs of other nations.”11

This was a familiar refrain. Hitler himself had made the same point before, telling the German people that his regime had merely copied the concentration camps from the English (though not their abuses).12 Nazi propaganda never tired of foreign camps. During the early years of the regime, speeches and articles routinely harked back to the British camps of the South African War, which had caused much indignation across Europe, and also pointed at present-day camps in countries like Austria, said to be scenes of great suffering for domestic Nazi activists. The real meaning behind this propaganda—that the SS camps were not exceptional—could hardly be missed, but just to make sure that everyone got the message, SS leader Heinrich Himmler spelled it out during a speech on German radio in 1939. Concentration camps were a “time-honored institution” abroad, he announced, adding that the German version was considerably more moderate than foreign ones.13

Such attempts to relativize the SS camps had little success, at least outside Germany. Still, there was a grain of truth in the crude Nazi propaganda. “The Camp” as a place of detention really was a wider international phenomenon. In the decades before the Nazi seizure of power, camps for the mass confinement of political and other suspects—outside regular prisons and criminal law—had sprung up in Europe and beyond, usually during times of political upheaval or war, and such camps continued to flourish after the demise of the Third Reich, leading some observers to describe the entire epoch as an Age of Camps.14

The first of these sites appeared during colonial wars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as brutal military responses to guerrilla warfare. Colonial powers aimed to defeat local insurgents through the mass internment of civilian noncombatants in villages, towns, or camps, a tactic used by the Spanish in Cuba, the United States in the Philippines, and the British in South Africa (from where the term “concentration camp” gained wider circulation). The colonial authorities’ indifference and ineptitude caused mass hunger, illness, and death among those inside such internment sites. However, these were not prototypes of the later SS camps, differing greatly in terms of their function, design, and operation.15 The same is true for camps in German Southwest Africa (now Namibia), run by the colonial authorities between 1904 and 1908 during a ferocious war against the indigenous population. Many thousands of Herero and Nama were imprisoned in what were sometimes called concentration camps, and around half of them are said to have died due to the neglect and contempt of their German captors. These camps diverged from other colonial camps, as they were propelled less by military strategy than a desire for punishment and forced labor. But they did not provide a “rough template” for the SS camps, either, as has been claimed, and any attempts to draw direct lines to Dachau or Auschwitz are unconvincing.16

The era of the camps really began with the First World War, which brought them from faraway colonies into the European heartlands. In addition to POW camps holding millions of soldiers, many of the belligerent nations set up forced labor camps, refugee camps, and civilian internment camps, driven by doctrines of total mobilization, radical nationalism, and social hygiene. Such camps were easy to establish and guard, thanks to recent innovations like machine guns, cheap barbed wire, and mass-produced portable barracks. Conditions were worst across central and eastern Europe, where prisoners often endured systematic forced labor, violence, and neglect, and several hundreds of thousands died. By the end of the First World War, Europe was littered with camps, and their memory lingered long after they had been dissolved. In 1927, for example, a German parliamentary commission still angrily denounced wartime abuses of German prisoners in French and British “concentration camps.”17

Many more camps emerged in the 1920s and 1930s, as much of Europe turned away from democracy. Totalitarian regimes, with their Manichean division of the world into friend and foe, became the strongest champions of camps as weapons to permanently isolate and terrorize alleged enemies. By birth, the KL belonged to this breed of camp and shared some of its generic features. There were even a few direct links. The camp system in Franco’s Spain, for example, which held hundreds of thousands of prisoners during and after the civil war, apparently drew some inspiration from the Nazi precedent.18

Probably the closest foreign relative of SS concentration camps could be found in the Soviet Union under Stalin.19 Building on the experiences with mass detention during the First World War, the Bolsheviks had used camps (sometimes labeled as concentration camps) ever since the revolution. By the 1930s, they presided over a vast system of detention—known as the Gulag—which encompassed labor camps, colonies, prisons, and more. The corrective labor camps of the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD) alone held some 1.5 million prisoners by early January 1941, many times more than even the SS camp system. Like the KL complex, the Soviet one was driven by destructive utopianism, aiming to create a perfect society by eliminating all enemies, and its camps followed a somewhat similar trajectory: from haphazard sites of terror to a huge network of centrally directed camps, from the detention of political suspects to the imprisonment of other social and ethnic outsiders, from an early emphasis on rehabilitation to often deadly forced labor.20

In view of these parallels, and the prior emergence of the Soviet system, some scholars have suggested that the Nazis simply seized the idea of the concentration camp from the Soviets—a misleading claim, though one that is almost as old as the SS camps themselves.21 There are two specific problems. First, there were profound differences between both camp systems. Although the Soviet camps were initially more deadly, for example, the KL later took a more radical turn and developed along far more lethal lines, culminating in the Auschwitz extermination complex, which had no equal in the USSR or anywhere else. NKVD prisoners were more likely to be released than to die, whereas the opposite was true for prisoners in the wartime SS concentration camps. In all, some ninety percent of inmates survived the Gulag; in the KL, the figure among registered prisoners was probably less than half. As the philosopher Hannah Arendt put it in her pioneering study of totalitarianism, the Soviet camps were purgatory, the Nazi ones pure hell.22 Second, there is little evidence of the Nazis copying the Soviets. To be sure, the SS kept an eye on Soviet repression in the Gulag, especially after the German invasion of summer 1941: Nazi leaders considered taking over “concentration camps of the Russians,” as they put it, and sent a summary about the organization and conditions in Soviet “concentration camps” to their own KL commandants.23 More generally, the violence of the Bolsheviks in the Soviet Union, both real and imagined, served as a permanent reference point during the Third Reich. In Dachau, SS officials told the first SS guards in 1933 to act as brutally as the Cheka (security organization) had done in the USSR. Years later in Auschwitz, SS men referred to one of their cruelest torture instruments as the “Stalin Swing.”24

But a general interest in Soviet terror should not be mistaken for influence. The Nazi regime was not inspired by the Gulag in any major way and it is hard to imagine that the history of the SS concentration camps would have been substantially different had the Gulag never existed. The KL were largely made in Germany, just as the Gulag was primarily the product of Soviet rule. There were similarities, of course, but they were largely outweighed by differences; each camp system had its own form and function, shaped by specific national practices, purposes, and precedents. A study of international comparisons and connections can still provide useful perspectives, but such an analysis lies beyond the scope of this book; what follows is the story of the SS concentration camps, with occasional glances beyond Nazi-controlled territory.

History and Memory

In the future, I believe, when the word concentration camp is used, one will think of Hitler’s Germany, and only of Hitler’s Germany.” Thus wrote Victor Klemperer in his diary in autumn 1933, just a few months after the first prisoners had arrived in Dachau and long before the SS camps descended into mass murder.25 Klemperer, a liberal German-Jewish professor of philology in Dresden, was one of the shrewdest observers of the Nazi dictatorship, and his prediction proved prescient. Nowadays the KL really aresynonymous with “concentration camps.” What is more, these camps have become symbols of the Third Reich as a whole, occupying an exalted place in history’s hall of infamy. They have appeared almost everywhere in recent years, in blockbuster movies and documentaries, bestselling novels and comics, memoirs and scholarly tomes, plays and artworks; google “Auschwitz” and you get well over seven million hits.26

The urge to understand the concentration camps began early. They took center stage in the immediate postwar period, starting with the Allied media offensive in April and May 1945. The Soviet press had made little of the liberation of Auschwitz a few months before—one reason why the camp initially remained peripheral in popular discourse—so it was not until the liberation of Dachau, Buchenwald, and Bergen-Belsen by the western Allies that the KL made it onto the front pages in Britain, the United States, and beyond; one Australian news report described Germany in April 1945 as “the concentration camp country.” There were radio broadcasts, newsreels, magazine spreads, pamphlets, exhibitions, and speeches. And although they lacked historical perspective, these accounts did convey the scale of the horrors unveiled inside; in a May 1945 survey, ordinary Americans guessed that around one million concentration camp prisoners had been killed.

Of course, these media revelations should not have come as a complete shock. Reports about atrocities in the KL had appeared abroad since the early days of the Nazi regime—sometimes written in exile by former prisoners or relatives of murdered inmates—and the Allies had received vital intelligence during the war. But the reality turned out to be far worse than almost anyone expected. As if to make up for this failure of the imagination, Allied leaders encouraged journalists, soldiers, and politicians to inspect liberated camps. For them, the camps proved the absolute righteousness of the war. “Dachau gives answer to why we fought,” declared one U.S. army newssheet in May 1945, echoing the sentiments of General Eisenhower. In addition, the Allies used the camps to confront the German population with its complicity, inaugurating a reeducation campaign that continued over the coming months, reinforced by early trials of SS perpetrators.27

At the same time, survivors themselves helped to put the KL in the public eye. They were not stunned into collective silence, as has often been said.28 On the contrary, a loud, polyphonic chorus rose up after liberation. Throughout their suffering, prisoners had dreamed about bearing witness. Some had even kept secret diaries. One of them, the German political prisoner Edgar Kupfer, was probably the most diligent chronicler of Dachau. Taking advantage of his sheltered office job on the camp grounds and his reputation among fellow inmates as a loner, he secretly wrote more than 1,800 pages, starting in late 1942. Prior to his detention in 1940 for critical comments about the Nazi regime, the nonconformist Kupfer had worked as a tour guide, and he envisaged his book as a grand tour of Dachau. He knew that the SS would likely murder him if they discovered his secret, but somehow he survived and so did his notes; barely recovered, he typed up his manuscript in summer 1945, ready for publication.29

Other liberated men, women, and children were yearning to tell their story, too, now that they were free to speak. Some started straight away, still inside the camps; even the sick would grab the sleeves of passing Allied medical staff to get their attention. Survivors quickly coordinated their efforts. They had to work together to alert “world public opinion,” a former prisoner told fellow survivors in Mauthausen on May 7, 1945. Within days of liberation, survivors everywhere had started to collaborate on joint reports.30 Thousands more accounts followed soon after former prisoners left the camps. Jewish survivors, for example, testified before historical commissions dedicated to commemoration and research, culminating in the first ever international conference of Holocaust survivors in Paris in 1947, attended by delegates from thirteen countries. Survivor testimonies were also encouraged by occupation forces, foreign governments, and NGOs, to help punish the perpetrators and preserve the memory of the camps.31 Some of these accounts later appeared in journals and pamphlets.32 Other survivors wrote directly for publication. Among them was the young Italian Jew Primo Levi, who had endured almost a year in Auschwitz. “Each of us survivors,” he later recalled, “as soon as we returned home, transformed himself into a tireless narrator, imperious and maniacal.” Writing almost everywhere, day and night, Levi completed his book If This Is a Man in just a few months; it appeared in Italy in 1947.33

During the first postwar years, a wave of memoirs hit Europe and beyond, mostly searing testimonies of individual suffering and survival.34 Some former prisoners also reflected on wider themes, writing important early studies of the camp system and the inmate experience, from a sociological or psychological perspective.35 Others produced first historical sketches of particular camps, or expressed their pain in poems and fictionalized accounts.36 Most of these early works, including Primo Levi’s own, sank with few ripples, but a number of books made a splash. Celebrated survivor accounts appeared in several European countries. Amid the ruins of Germany, too, mass-market paperbacks and pamphlets were printed, while other accounts were serialized in major newspapers. Most influential was a general study of the KL system (with Buchenwald at the center) compiled by the former political prisoner Eugen Kogon, which shaped popular conceptions for years to come; first published in 1946, its German print run had reached 135,000 copies a year later, and it soon appeared in translation, as did other early works by survivors.37

By the late 1940s, however, when it came to a U.S. edition, Kogon’s publisher, Roger Straus, a passionate believer in the book, was concerned about the “apathy on the part of the public to reading about this type of thing.”38 The popular interest in the KL—which had accompanied their liberation, as well as some of the first memoirs and perpetrator trials—was waning on both sides of the Atlantic. In part, this was a simple case of saturation following the spate of graphic early accounts. More generally, public memory of the camps was being marginalized by postwar reconstruction and diplomacy. With the front line of the Cold War cutting right through Germany, and turning the two new, opposing German states into strategic allies of the USSR and the United States, talk about Nazi crimes seemed impolitic. “Nowadays it is bad taste to speak of the concentration camps,” Primo Levi wrote in 1955, adding: “silence prevails.” Within ten years of liberation, the camps had been sidelined—a result not of survivors unable to speak, but of a wider audience unwilling to listen. Former prisoners still tried to keep the memory of the camps alive. “If we fall silent, who then will speak?” Levi asked angrily. Another survivor who persevered in the face of widespread indifference was Edgar Kupfer, who finally saw the German publication of his Dachau book in 1956, albeit in a greatly abridged version. Despite some good reviews, however, it left little impression and no foreign publisher picked it up, “afraid that the public would not buy it,” as the depressed author concluded.39

Popular interest in the concentration camps was rekindled in the 1960s and 1970s. Major trials of Nazi perpetrators, such as the 1961 Israeli case against Adolf Eichmann, the SS officer who had overseen deportations of Jews to Auschwitz, and media sensations like the 1978 U.S. miniseriesHolocaust, broadcast to a vast audience in West Germany the following year, played an important part in confronting the public with the Nazi regime and its camps. In turn, some early KL memoirs were rediscovered, among them Primo Levi’s masterpiece about Auschwitz, which has long since entered the canon of modern literature. At the same time, a wave of new survivor testimonies appeared. This wave kept swelling—Edgar Kupfer’s complete Dachau diaries, for example, finally saw publication in 1997—and it is only now subsiding, as the last witnesses are passing away.40 Survivors also continued to explore the development of individual camps, producing source editions and standard historical surveys.41 And just like in the early postwar period, former inmates went far beyond writing history, creating an extraordinarily rich body of medical, sociological, psychological, and philosophical studies, as well as literary reflections and works of art.42

In sharp contrast to survivors, the wider academic community was slow to engage with the KL. A few specialist studies appeared in the late 1940s and 1950s, particularly on medical aspects.43 But it was not until the 1960s and 1970s that academic historians published preliminary surveys of some individual Nazi camps and the wider KL complex, based on documentary research. Most influential were the works of two young German academics, Martin Broszat’s pioneering survey of the camp system’s development and Falk Pingel’s powerful study of life inside.44 Such historical analyses were augmented by works from scholars in other disciplines, on themes like the perpetrator mind and the experience of survival.45

Despite inevitable shortcomings, these early studies made important contributions to knowledge about the SS concentration camps. But they remained exceptions and could only sketch outlines. To write a comprehensive history of the camps, Broszat himself concluded in 1970, was simply impossible, because of the dearth of detailed research.46 Paradoxically, this void was created, at least in part, by the misguided belief that there was little more to learn about the camps, an assumption shared by even some otherwise sharp-eyed observers.47 In reality, scholars were only starting to discover the KL.

Historical knowledge advanced rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s, above all in Germany itself. With grassroots history on the rise, local activists scrutinized the record of former camps in their neighborhood. Meanwhile, camp memorials moved beyond remembrance and developed into places of scholarship. The opening of the archives in Eastern Europe, following the end of the Cold War, provided further momentum for research. Meanwhile, a younger generation of academics untainted by the past was discovering the Third Reich as a subject and established the study of its camps as a distinct historiographical field, producing major works like Karin Orth’s account of the KL organization and structure.48 Having been ignored for so long, the study of the SS concentration camps was now booming, at least in Germany (few studies were translated).49

The boom shows no sign of settling, as historical research continues to expand at a rapid rate. New perspectives have come into view as we learn more about individual perpetrators, prisoner groups, and camps, about the beginning and the end of the SS system, about the local environment around the camps, about forced labor and extermination policy. While all the important scholarly studies of the KL published before the late 1970s comfortably fit onto a single bookshelf, one needs a small library to gather the works published since then.50

Recent academic research has culminated in two huge encyclopedias—over 1,600 and 4,100 pages long, respectively—that summarize the development of every single main and satellite camp; the entries were penned by well over 150 historians from around the world.51 These two indispensable works demonstrate the breadth of contemporary scholarship. But they also point to its limits. Most important, the wealth of specialist studies has greatly fragmented the picture of the SS concentration camps. Where it was once impossible to see the camp system as a whole, because so much detail was missing, it is now almost impossible to see how all the different features fit together; looking at recent scholarship is like looking at a giant unassembled puzzle, with additional pieces being added all the time. It comes as no surprise that the conclusions of the new KL histories have generally failed to connect with a wider public.

As a result, popular images of the Nazi concentration camps remain rather one-dimensional. Instead of the intricate detail and subtle shades of historical scholarship, we see broad brushstrokes and vivid colors. Above all, popular conceptions are dominated by the stark images of Auschwitz and the Holocaust, which have made this camp a “global site of memory,” as the historian Peter Reichel put it.52 It was not always like this. In the early decades after the war, anti-Jewish terror was largely subsumed under the general destruction wreaked by Nazism, with Auschwitz as one place of suffering among many. The awareness of the singularity and enormity of the Nazi war against the Jews has grown sharply since then, and the Third Reich is now largely viewed through the lens of the Holocaust.53 The SS concentration camps, in turn, have become closely identified with Auschwitz and its Jewish victims, obscuring other camps and other inmates. A German poll found that Auschwitz is by far the most recognized KL and that the vast majority of respondents associate the camps with the persecution of Jews; by contrast, less than ten percent named Communists, criminals, or homosexuals as victims.54 In popular memory, then, the concentration camps, Auschwitz, and the Holocaust have merged into one.

But Auschwitz was never synonymous with the Nazi concentration camps. True, as the largest and most lethal camp by far, it occupied a special place in the KL system. But there was always more to this system. Auschwitz was closely integrated into the widerKL network, and it was preceded and shaped by other camps. Dachau, for example, was more than seven years old when Auschwitz was established, and clearly influenced it. Also, despite its unprecedented size, most registered KL prisoners—that is, those forced into barracks and slave labor—were detained elsewhere; even at its biggest, Auschwitz held no more than around one-third of all regular KL inmates. The great majority of them died elsewhere, too, with an estimated three-quarters of registered KL inmates perishing in camps other than Auschwitz. It is important, then, to demystify Auschwitz in the popular conception of the camps, while still emphasizing its uniquely destructive role.55

Nor were concentration camps synonymous with the Holocaust, although their histories are intertwined. First, anti-Jewish terror largely unfolded outside the KL; 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. Second, the concentration camps always targeted various victim groups, and except for a few weeks in late 1938, Jews did not make up a majority among registered prisoners. For most of the Third Reich, in fact, they formed a relatively small part, and even after numbers rose sharply in the second half of the war, Jews did not constitute more than perhaps thirty percent of the registered inmate population. Third, the concentration camps used many different weapons, in addition to mass extermination. They had multiple purposes, constantly evolving and overlapping. During the prewar years, the SS used them as boot camps, deterrent threats, reformatories, forced labor reservoirs, and torture chambers, only to add further functions during the war, promoting them as centers for armaments production, executions, and human experiments. The camps were defined by their multifaceted nature, a crucial aspect absent from most popular memories.56

More philosophical meditations on the concentration camps have often been reductive, too. Ever since the end of the Nazi regime, prominent thinkers have looked for hidden truths, investing the camps with profound meaning, either to validate their own moral, political, or religious beliefs, or to grasp something essential about the human condition.57 This search for meaning is understandable, of course, as the shock the KL dealt to faith in progress and civilization made them emblems of humanity’s capacity for inhumanity. “Every philosophy based on the inherent goodness of man will forever be shaken to its foundations because of them,” warned the French novelist François Mauriac in the late 1950s. Some writers have since endowed the camps with an almost mysterious quality. Others have reached more concrete conclusions, describing the KL as products of a peculiar German mind-set or of the dark side of modernity.58 One of the most influential contributions has come from the sociologist Wolfgang Sofsky, who depicts the concentration camp as a manifestation of “absolute power,” beyond rationality or ideology.59 However, his stimulating study suffers the same limitations as some other general reflections on the camps. In its quest for universal answers, it turns the camps into timeless and abstract entities; Sofsky’s archetypal camp is a wholly ahistoric construct that obscures the core characteristic of the KL system—its dynamic nature.60

All this leads to a surprising conclusion. More than eighty years after the foundation of Dachau, there is no single, panoptic account of the KL. Despite the enormous literature—by survivors, historians, and other scholars—there is no comprehensive history charting the development of the concentration camps and the changing experiences of those inside. What is needed is a study that captures the complexity of the camps without fragmenting, and sets them into their wider political and cultural context without becoming reductive. But how to write such a history of the KL?


To forget the present, SS prisoners often talked about the future, and for several days in 1944 the discussion among a small group of Jewish women, deported from Hungary to Auschwitz, turned around a fundamental question: if they were to survive, how could they convey their fate to outsiders? Was there any medium that would allow them to express what Auschwitz meant? Maybe music? Or speeches, books, artworks? Or perhaps a film about a prisoner’s passage to the crematorium, with the audience forced to stand to attention outside cinemas before the screening, without warm clothes, food, and drink, just like the prisoners during roll call? But even this, the women feared, would not give any insight into what their life was really like.61 Inmates in other SS concentration camps came to similar conclusions. Prisoners who kept secret diaries, for example, frequently agonized over the limits of testimony. “The language is exhausted,” the Norwegian Odd Nansen wrote on February 12, 1945. “There are no words left to describe the horrors I’ve seen with my own eyes.” And yet, Nansen kept writing, almost every day.62 This dilemma—the urge to speak about the unspeakable—became ever more acute after liberation, as many more survivors struggled to describe crimes which seemed to defeat language and defy reason.63

The question of how to frame the past is obviously central for historians, too. Writing history is always fraught with difficulty, and such problems are compounded in the case of Nazi terror. For a start, no historical method can hope to capture the full horror of the camps. More generally, it is hard to find an appropriate language, and this has troubled scholars and other chroniclers as much as the survivors themselves. “I have reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it,” the CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow concluded in his celebrated radio report from Buchenwald on April 15, 1945. “For most of it I have no words.”64 Still, we have to try. If historians fall silent, much of the history of the camps would soon be left in the hands of cranks, dilettantes, and deniers.65

The most effective way of writing a comprehensive account of the KL is as an integrated history, an approach advanced by Saul Friedländer to connect “the policies of the perpetrators, the attitudes of surrounding society, and the world of the victims.” In the case of the SS camps, this means a history which examines those inside and the wider populace outside; a history which combines a macro analysis of Nazi terror with micro studies of individual actions and responses; a history which shows the synchronicity of events and the intricacy of the SS system by contrasting developments between, and within, individual camps across Nazi-controlled Europe.66 Weaving together these different strands will produce a nuanced and expansive history, though it can never be fully exhaustive or definitive. However wide-ranging, it remains a history, not the history of the KL.

To create such an integrated history, this book views the SS concentration camps from two main perspectives, which merge into a single picture. The first perspective focuses, often close up, on life and death inside the camps, examining the foundations of the camp microcosm—conditions, forced labor, punishment, and more—and how they changed over time. To move beyond abstractions, much of this history will be told through the eyes of the individuals who made it: those who ran the camps and those who suffered in them.67

Several tens of thousands of men and women—perhaps sixty thousand or more—served in SS concentration camps at some stage.68 In the popular imagination, guards often appear as unhinged sadists, a picture which draws on their representation in prisoner memoirs, with nicknames such as “beast,” “bone breaker,” and “bloodhound.”69 Some guards fit these descriptions, but inspired by recent research into Nazi perpetrators this book paints a more complex portrait.70 The background and behavior of SS staff varied greatly, and it also changed over the course of the Third Reich. Not every guard committed excesses and only a few were driven by psychological abnormality. As Primo Levi recognized a long time ago, the perpetrators were human beings, too: “Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men.”71But how “common” were the guards? What was the purpose of their violence? What drove some to extreme brutality? What stopped others? Did female guards act any differently from men?

Just as there was no typical perpetrator, there was no typical prisoner. To be sure, SS terror tried to strip inmates of their individuality. But underneath their identical uniforms, each prisoner experienced the camp differently; suffering was universal, but not equal.72 Prisoners’ lives were shaped by many variables, not least when and where they were held (though even inmates in the same place, at the same time, often seemed to inhabit separate spheres).73 Another crucial factor was the position individual prisoners held. So-called Kapos, who gained powers over fellow inmates by taking over official functions from the SS, enjoyed special privileges—though at the price of participating in the running of the camp, blurring the conventional categories of victim and perpetrator.74The prisoners’ background—their ethnicity, gender, religion, politics, profession, and age—also greatly influenced their behavior and options, as well as their treatment by the SS and by other inmates. Prisoners formed different groups, and the histories of these groups, and of their relationships with one another and the SS, need to be explored.

When doing so, the prisoners should be viewed not just as objects of SS terror, but as actors. Some scholars have depicted the prisoners as blank and apathetic automatons, drained of all free will. The total domination of the SS had extinguished every spark of life, Hannah Arendt wrote, turning inmates into “ghastly marionettes with human faces.” But even in the exceptional surroundings of the KL, prisoners often retained a degree of agency, however small and constrained, and a close look at their actions will highlight chinks in the armor of total SS supremacy. At the same time, we must resist the temptation to make our encounter with the concentration camps more bearable by sanctifying the prisoners, imagining them as united, unsullied, and unbowed. For the most part, the prisoners’ story is not an uplifting account of the triumph of the human spirit, but a tale of degradation and despair. “Confinement in the camp, destitution, torture, and death in the gas chamber are not heroism,” three Polish survivors of Auschwitz cautioned as early as 1946, in a book bound in the striped cloth of former prisoner uniforms.75

The terror inside the KL can only be fully understood by looking outside the barbed wire. After all, the camps were products of the Nazi regime. Prisoner composition, conditions, and treatment were shaped by outside forces, and these forces have to be carefully examined. This forms the second main perspective of this study, which looks—through a much wider lens—at the course of the Third Reich and the place of the camps within it. The history of the concentration camps was bound up with broader political, economic, and military developments. The camps formed part of the wider social fabric, not only as symbols of repression, but as real places; they did not occupy some metaphysical realm, as some studies have suggested, but stood in villages, towns, and cities.

Most important, the SS concentration camps belonged to a wider Nazi web of terror, which encompassed other repressive bodies, such as the police and the courts, and other places of confinement, such as prisons, ghettos, and labor camps. These other sites of detention often had connections to the concentration camps and shared some of their general characteristics.76 Important as these links were, however, one also has to stress the distinctiveness of the KL and their strong gravitational pull. For many victims, the concentration camps were the final stop on a torturous journey. Countless prisoner transports arrived here from other sites of detention; few ever went in the opposite direction. As the fugitive Adolf Eichmann told Nazi sympathizers in 1957, when reminiscing in Buenos Aires about the SS camps, “It’s pretty easy to get inside, but awfully hard to get out.”77


Anyone writing about the KL faces a paradox: although the amount of available documentation is overwhelming, it is insufficient. Since its demise, the Third Reich has been examined in more detail than any other modern dictatorship. And few, if any, aspects have generated more publications than the concentration camps. There are tens of thousands of testimonies and studies, and even more original documents, scattered all around the world. No one can fully master this material.78 At the same time, there are obvious gaps, both in the historical record and the scholarly literature. Despite its daunting size, recent historical scholarship has been selective, overlooking some crucial aspects.79 As for primary sources, the SS made sure to destroy the bulk of its files at the end of the Second World War, while Himmler and other leading officers died before they could be interrogated, taking some secrets to their graves.80

Survivor accounts are inevitably incomplete, too. Ordinary prisoners rarely caught glimpses of the wider camp system. Take Walter Winter, a German Sinto deported to Auschwitz in spring 1943. At the time, he never moved far beyond the small so-called Gypsy enclosure. Only when he returned as a free man, more than forty years later, did he realize the sheer size of the camp complex as a whole.81 Nor are the available testimonies fully representative. Many inmates did not return. No Jewish prisoner has spoken about life in the Mauthausen subcamp Gusen between 1940 and 1943, for example, because none survived. They belong to the mass of the “drowned,” as Primo Levi called them, who will never be heard.82 Then there are those who were saved, but who had no voice or could not remember.83 The stigma attached to social outsiders, for instance, meant that only a few spoke openly after liberation. The first memoir by a criminal prisoner was not published until 2014, posthumously, and even he did not disclose his background, pretending to have been detained on political grounds.84 Most former prisoners from the USSR were also condemned to silence, long suspected as potential Nazi collaborators by the Soviet authorities.85

Still, an integrated history of the KL demands an expansive approach. This book therefore draws on the huge body of scholarship, pulling together its main findings. Only today, thanks to the immense achievements of recent research, is it possible to embark on such a project. But a synthesis of existing studies alone would not be enough. To deepen our understanding of the KL, to bridge remaining gaps in our knowledge, and to give a clearer voice to prisoners and perpetrators, this study also makes extensive use of primary sources. It draws on a wide range of SS and police records, including circulars, local orders, and prisoner files.86 Some of this material has only recently become accessible, having been locked away for decades in Russian, German, and British archives, and numerous documents are cited here for the first time.87

Contemporaneous material produced by prisoners constitutes another invaluable primary source. Prisoners always tried to gather information. First and foremost, this was about survival, since insights into SS intentions could be life-saving. But some prisoners were thinking about posterity, too. Drawings and paintings, for example, documented the lives of inmates and their state of mind.88 Prisoners also took secret pictures and hid SS photographs.89 Even more important are the written records. Some privileged prisoners stole or transcribed SS papers. Between late 1939 and spring 1943, for example, the Sachsenhausen inmate Emil Büge copied confidential records onto wafer-thin paper and then glued them into his glasses case (almost 1,500 notes survived).90 Other prisoners kept secret diaries, as we saw in the case of Edgar Kupfer, and dozens of such records surfaced after the war. Or they wrote secret reports and letters, hiding them on the camp grounds or smuggling them outside.91 Such accounts can be augmented by testimonies from escaped or released prisoners, recorded before 1945.92 Contemporary sources such as these are precious because they give a direct glimpse of those trapped inside. Created in the shadow of the camps, they show the immediate fears, hopes, and uncertainties of prisoners, written without knowledge of what would become of themselves and how the KL would be understood and remembered after the war.93

The vast majority of inmates, however, could only testify after liberation. Each of their accounts is unique and it would be impossible to capture them all. This study uses a sample of hundreds of published and unpublished memoirs and interviews of survivors from many different backgrounds. For the most part, it draws on testimonies from the first months and years after liberation, when events were still fresh in the survivors’ minds and less likely to be superimposed with collective memories of the KL.94 To give one example for the malleability of memory: as the Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele gained in notoriety after the war, his face found its way into more and more recollections of prisoners who had never encountered him.95 But it would be a mistake to discount more recent testimony altogether. After all, the significance of some events only revealed itself with the passage of time. And although many survivors spoke with surprising candor early on, others were only able to recount their most painful memories much later, if at all.96

Material gathered for postwar trials provides another important source for this study. Hundreds of Camp SS perpetrators were brought before Allied courts in the immediate postwar period, followed by further trials later on. Prosecutors collected original documents for these proceedings and questioned former prisoners, including some from forgotten groups.97 Although these survivor testimonies pose their own methodological challenges, they provide more missing pieces for our jigsaw of the KL.98 Moreover, the trial records are indispensable for an analysis of the perpetrators. As a general rule, SS guards did not write memoirs or give interviews after the war, preferring to lie low and disappear.99 Only courts could force them to break their silence. Of course, their statements have to be read with care, sifting truth from evasions and lies.100 Nonetheless, their testimonies illuminate the mind-set of SS foot soldiers, who committed most of the daily violence but left few traces in the historical record.


The main constant of the KL was change. True, there were continuities from one period to the next. But the camps took an unsteady route, with many twists and turns during little more than a decade. Only a largely chronological narrative can capture their fluidity. This study opens, therefore, with an account of the prewar origins (chapter 1), formation (chapter 2), and expansion (chapter 3) of the KL system between 1933 and 1939. The picture of this first half of the camps’ existence—when most inmates were released after a period of suffering—is often overshadowed by the later wartime scenes of death and devastation.101 But it is essential to examine what “preceded the unprecedented,” as the historian Jane Caplan has put it.102 Not only did the prewar camps leave a baleful legacy for lawless terror during the war. Their history is important in its own right, as it throws fresh light on the development of Nazi repression and the paths that were left untaken.103

The Second World War had a dramatic impact on the KL system and forms the backdrop for the remaining chapters of the book, beginning with its descent into mass death (chapter 4) and executions (chapter 5) during the first phase of the war, between the German attack on Poland in autumn 1939 and the failure of the blitzkrieg against the Soviet Union in late 1941. The book then turns to the Holocaust, examining the transformation of Auschwitz into a major death camp (chapter 6), and the daily lives of prisoners and SS staff in occupied eastern Europe (chapter 7). The following chapter covers the same period from a different perspective, exploring the wider development of the KL system in 1942–43, especially its growing emphasis on slave labor (chapter 8). This theme dominates the next chapter, too, which charts the rapid spread of satellite camps in 1943–44 and the exploitation of hundreds of thousands of prisoners for the German war effort (chapter 9). The study then turns to prisoner communities during the war and the often impossible choices inmates faced (chapter 10), before concluding with the destruction of the Third Reich and its camps in 1944–45, in a final paroxysm of violence (chapter 11).

This broadly chronological approach will highlight a fundamental feature of the Nazi regime. Although the Third Reich was propelled by what Hans Mommsen called a “cumulative radicalization,” with terror escalating over time, this process was by no means linear.104 The KL system did not swell like an avalanche, gathering ever more destructive force as it hurtled toward the abyss; its trajectory sometimes slowed and even reversed. Conditions did not always go from bad to worse; occasionally they improved, both before and during the war, only to deteriorate again later on. A close analysis of this development will give new insights into the history of the camps, and indeed of the Nazi regime as a whole. Terror stood at the center of the Third Reich, and no other institution embodied Nazi terror more fully than the KL.

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