Early Camps

“So you want to hang yourself?” SS Private Steinbrenner asked as he entered Hans Beimler’s cell in Dachau on the afternoon of May 8, 1933. The tall Steinbrenner looked down on the haggard prisoner in his filthy brown jacket and short trousers, whom he had tortured for days in the camp’s lockup, the so-called bunker. “Well, watch closely so that you learn how to do it!” Steinbrenner ripped a long piece of fabric from a blanket and tied a noose at the end. “Now all you have to do,” he added in the tone of a helpful friend, “is to put your head through, fix the other end to the window, and everything is ready. It is all over in two minutes.” Hans Beimler, his body covered in welts and wounds, had withstood earlier SS attempts to drive him to suicide. But he knew that time was running out. Only an hour or two earlier, Private Steinbrenner and the Dachau SS commandant had shown him into another cell, where he found the naked corpse of Fritz Dressel, a fellow Communist politician, stretched out on the stone floor. Over the previous days, Dressel’s screams had echoed through the Dachau bunker and Beimler assumed that his old friend, unable to bear more abuse, had cut his wrists and bled to death (in fact, SS men probably murdered Dressel). Still in shock, Beimler was dragged back to his own cell, where the commandant told him: “So! Now you know how to do it.” Then he issued an ultimatum: if Beimler did not kill himself, the SS would come for him the next morning. He was given little more than twelve hours to live.1

Beimler was among tens of thousands of Nazi opponents dragged to makeshift camps like Dachau in spring 1933, as the new regime, following Adolf Hitler’s appointment as chancellor on January 30, rapidly turned Germany from a failed democracy into a fascist dictatorship. The early hunt for enemies of the regime focused above all on leading critics and prominent politicians, and for the authorities in Bavaria, the largest German state after Prussia, few prizes were bigger than the thirty-seven-year-old Beimler from Munich, who was regarded as an extremely dangerous Bolshevik. When he was arrested on April 11, 1933, after several weeks on the run with his wife, Centa, local officers at the Munich police headquarters were jubilant: “We’ve got Beimler, we’ve got Beimler!”2

A veteran of the imperial navy mutiny of autumn 1918, which brought down the German Empire at the end of World War I and ushered in the Weimar Republic, Germany’s first experiment in democracy, Hans Beimler had fought single-mindedly against the republic and for a Communist state ever since. In spring 1919, he had served as a “Red Guard” during a doomed Soviet-style uprising in Bavaria. After the brittle German democracy had weathered the initial assaults from the far left and right, the trained mechanic became a fanatical follower of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). The rough and gruff Beimler lived for the cause, throwing himself into battles with police and opponents (like Nazi storm troopers), and rose steadily through the ranks. In July 1932, he reached the pinnacle of his party career: he was elected as a KPD deputy to the Reichstag, the German parliament.3 On February 12, 1933, during one of the final Communist mass gatherings before the national election of March 5, 1933 (the first and last multiparty elections under Hitler), Hans Beimler gave a speech in the Munich Circus Krone. To rouse his supporters, he invoked a rare victory from the 1919 civil war, when Bavarian “Red Guards,” Beimler among them, had briefly crushed government forces near Dachau. He ended his speech with a prophetic rallying cry: “We’ll meet again at Dachau!”4

Just ten weeks later, on April 25, 1933, Beimler did indeed find himself on the way to Dachau, though not as a revolutionary leader, as he had predicted, but as a prisoner of the SS. The brutal twist was not lost on him or his gleeful captors. A group of SS men was already waiting in giddy anticipation as the truck carrying Beimler and others pulled up in Dachau that day. The mood among the screaming guards was “electric,” Private Steinbrenner later recalled. They jumped on the prisoners and quickly pulled Beimler out for his first beating, together with a few more denounced as “swine and traitors” by the commandant. Forced to wear a large sign saying “Welcome” around his neck, Beimler was marched toward the bunker, which had been set up in the former toilets of the old factory building now used as a camp. On the way, Steinbrenner hit Beimler so hard with his horsewhip that even prisoners far away could count each blow.5

Among the Dachau SS, wild rumors spread about Beimler, their new trophy prisoner. The commandant falsely claimed that Beimler had been behind the execution of ten hostages, including a Bavarian countess, by a “Red Guard” detachment in a Munich school back in spring 1919. This massacre—overshadowed by the subsequent slaughter of hundreds of leftist revolutionaries by far-right paramilitary units, the Freikorps, which crushed the ill-fated Munich Soviet—had fired the imagination of right-wing extremists ever since. Passing around graphic photographs of the murdered hostages, the Dachau commandant told his men that, fourteen years later, they would exact revenge. At first, he wanted to kill Beimler himself, but he later decided that it would be more discreet to drive his victim to suicide. On May 8, however, after Beimler had held out for several days, the commandant had had enough; either Beimler used the noose or he would be murdered.6

But Hans Beimler survived Dachau, escaping certain death just hours before the SS ultimatum expired. With the help of two rogue SS men, apparently, he squeezed through the small window high up in his cell, passed the barbed wire and electric fence around the camp, and disappeared into the night.7 After Private Steinbrenner unlocked Beimler’s cell early the next morning, on May 9, 1933, and found it empty, the SS went wild. Sirens sounded across the grounds as all available SS men turned the camp upside down. Steinbrenner battered two Communist inmates who had spent the night in the cells adjacent to Beimler, shouting: “Just you wait, you wretched dogs, you’ll tell me [where Beimler is].” One of them was executed soon after.8 Outside, a huge manhunt got under way. Planes circled near the camp, “Wanted” posters went up at railway stations, police raids hit Munich, and the newspapers, which had earlier crowed about Beimler’s arrest, announced a reward for recapturing the “famous Communist leader,” who was described as clean-shaven, with short-cropped hair and unusually large jug ears.9

Despite all their efforts, Beimler evaded his hunters. After recuperating in a safe house in Munich, he was spirited away in June 1933 by the Communist underground to Berlin and then, in the following month, escaped over the border to Czechoslovakia, from where he sent a postcard to Dachau telling the SS men to “kiss my ass.” Beimler moved on to the Soviet Union, where he penned a dramatic account, one of the earliest of a fast-growing number of eyewitness reports about Nazi camps like Dachau. First published in German by a Soviet press in mid-August 1933, his pamphlet was soon serialized in a Swiss newspaper, printed in English translation in London, and secretly circulated inside Germany. Beimler also wrote articles in other foreign papers and spoke on Soviet radio. Furious Nazi officials, meanwhile, denounced him as “one of the worst peddlers of horror stories.” Not only had Beimler escaped his punishment, he publicly humiliated his former torturers by telling the truth about Dachau. The decision by the Nazi authorities in late autumn 1933 to strip Beimler of his German citizenship was no more than an empty gesture. After all, Beimler had no intention of ever returning to the Third Reich.10

*   *   *

Hans Beimler’s story is extraordinary. Few prisoners in the early Nazi camps were targeted as mercilessly as he was; in 1933, attempted murder was still the exception. Even more exceptional was his escape; for many years, he would remain the only prisoner to successfully flee from Dachau, as the SS immediately strengthened its security installations.11 Still, Beimler’s story touches on many key aspects of the early camps: the violence of guards driven by a hatred of Communists; the torture of selected prisoners, partly to intimidate the great mass of other inmates; the reluctance of the camp authorities, who were liable to judicial oversight, to commit open murders, preferring instead to drive selected prisoners to their deaths or to dress up murders as suicides; the high levels of improvisation, evident in the SS use of the broken-down Dachau factory; and the prominent place of the camps in the public sphere, with press reports, underground publications, and more. All these elements shaped the early camps that emerged in the nascent Third Reich in 1933.


In the early afternoon of January 30, 1937, on the anniversary of his appointment as chancellor, Adolf Hitler addressed Nazi grandees in the defunct Reichstag, taking stock of his first four years in power. In a typically rambling speech, Hitler evoked a gloriously resurgent Germany: the Nazis had saved the country from political disaster, rescued its economy from ruin, unified society, cleansed culture, and restored the nation’s might by throwing off the shackles of the despised Versailles treaty. Most remarkable of all, Hitler claimed, was that all this had been achieved peacefully. The Nazis had captured power back in 1933 “almost entirely without bloodshed.” To be sure, a few deluded opponents and Bolshevik criminals had been detained or struck down. But overall, Hitler boasted, he had overseen a completely new kind of uprising: “This was perhaps the first revolution during which not even one window was smashed.”12

It must have been hard for Nazi bigwigs to keep a straight face as they listened to Hitler. All of them remembered well the terror of 1933, and in private they continued to revel in the memory of the violence they had unleashed against their opponents.13 However, fully entrenched as the regime now was, some self-satisfied Nazi leaders might have been keen to forget just how precarious their position had been just a few years earlier. By the early 1930s, the Weimar Republic had been in terminal decline, pulled apart by a catastrophic depression, political deadlock, and social unrest. But it was not yet clear what would replace the republic. Even though the Nazi Party (NSDAP) established itself as the most popular political alternative, most Germans did not yet support Nazi rule. Indeed, even though they were deeply hostile to each other, the two main parties of the Left—the radical Communists (KPD) and the moderate Social Democrats (SPD)—gained more combined votes in the last free elections of November 1932 than did the Nazis. It took the machinations of a small cabal of antirepublican power brokers to install Hitler as chancellor on January 30, 1933, as one of only three Nazis in a cabinet dominated by national conservatives.14

Within a few months of Hitler’s appointment, the Nazi movement had been swept to almost total control, riding a wave of terror which engulfed, above all, the different parts of the organized working class. The Nazis smashed their movements, ransacked their offices, and humiliated, locked up, and tortured their activists. In recent years, some historians have downplayed the significance of this prewar Nazi terror. Caricaturing the Third Reich as a “feel-good dictatorship,” they suggest that the regime’s popularity made a major onslaught against its political enemies largely superfluous.15 But popular support for the regime, important as it was, only ever went so far, and terror was indispensable for silencing the millions who had so far proved resistant to the lure of Nazism. So-called racial and social outsiders were targeted, too, but early repression was directed, first and foremost, at political opponents, and here above all at those standing on the left. It was the primacy of political terror that set the Nazis on the road to absolute rule.

Terror Against the Left

The promise of national rebirth, creating a new Germany out of the ashes of the Weimar Republic, lay at the heart of the popular appeal of Nazism in the early 1930s. But the Nazi dream of a golden future was always also a dream of destruction. Long before they came to power, Nazi leaders had envisaged a ruthless policy of exclusion; by removing all that was alien and dangerous, they would create a homogenous national community ready for battle in the coming racial war.16

This dream of national unity through terror grew out of the lessons Nazi leaders had drawn from the German trauma of 1918. The importance for Nazi ideology of defeat in the First World War cannot be overstated. Unwilling to face the reality of Germany’s humiliating defeat on the battlefield, Nazi leaders, like many other German nationalists, convinced themselves that the country had been brought to its knees by defeatism and deviance on the home front, culminating in the supposed “stab in the back” of the German army by the revolution. The solution, Hitler believed, was the radical repression of all internal enemies.17 In a private speech in 1926, a time when the Nazi movement was still consigned to the extreme fringes of German politics, he promised to annihilate the Left. There could be no peace and quiet until “the last Marxist is converted or exterminated.”18

Extreme political violence had blighted Weimar from the start, and when the Nazi movement grew in strength in the early 1930s, bloody confrontations began to scar the country on an almost daily basis, nowhere more so than in the capital, Berlin. The paramilitary armies of the Nazis—with their huge storm division (SA) and the much smaller protection squad (SS)—were on the offensive, disrupting rival political meetings, assaulting opponents, and smashing their taverns.19 Crucially, the Nazi movement gained political capital from these clashes with Communists and Social Democrats, reinforcing its image among nationalist supporters as the most dedicated opponent of the much-hated Left.20

Following Hitler’s appointment as chancellor on January 30, 1933, many Nazi activists were itching to settle accounts with their enemies. But their leaders were still treading cautiously during the first few weeks, mindful about going too far too soon. Then, on the evening of February 27, a devastating fire ravaged the Reichstag in Berlin. As Nazi chiefs started to gather at the scene, they immediately pointed the finger at the Communists (the real culprit was a Dutch loner, perhaps aided by a covert team of SA arsonists). Adolf Hitler himself arrived in his limousine at around 10:00 p.m., wearing a dark suit and a raincoat. After he had stared for some time at the blazing building, he flew into one of his hysterical rages. Blinded by deep-seated paranoia of the Left (and apparently ignorant about the possible involvement of some of his own men), he denounced the fire as the signal for a long-expected Communist revolt and ordered an immediate crackdown. According to one witness, he screamed: “There will be no mercy now. Anyone who stands in our way will be cut down.”21 In Prussia, the ensuing arrests were centrally coordinated by the political police, using older lists of alleged left-wing extremists that had been revised in recent weeks, in line with Nazi ideology.22

The Berlin police immediately swung into action, the German capital still bathed in darkness. Among the victims detained over the following hours were leading Communist politicians and other prominent suspects. One of them was Erich Mühsam, a writer, anarchist, and bohemian, who had become a bête noire for the German Right because of his involvement in the Munich uprising of 1919, for which he had been jailed for several years. Mühsam was still asleep when a police car arrived at 5:00 a.m. on February 28 at his flat on the outskirts of Berlin. Earlier that same night, in other parts of Berlin, the police had arrested Carl von Ossietzky, the famous pacifist publicist, and Hans Litten, a brilliant young left-wing attorney who had tangled Hitler in knots during a court appearance in 1931. Within hours, the police prison at Alexanderplatz held much of the liberal and left elite of Berlin. The arrest sheets read like a Who’s Who of writers, artists, lawyers, and politicians despised by the Nazis. “Everyone knows everyone else,” one of them later recalled, “and every time someone new is dragged in by the police, there are greetings all around.” Some were soon set free again. Others—including Litten, Mühsam, and Ossietzky—faced a terrible fate.23

Police raids across Germany continued for days after the Reichstag fire. “Mass arrests everywhere,” the daily Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter announced on its front page on March 2, 1933, adding: “The fist hits hard!” By the time Germany went to the polls three days later, up to five thousand men and women had been arrested.24 Dramatic as these events were, however, it soon became clear that they had just been the opening salvo in the Nazi war on political opponents.

The full capture of power began after the March 5, 1933 elections. In a few short months, Germany became an all-out dictatorship. The Nazis took control of all German states, every other political party disappeared, the elected Reichstag effectively dissolved itself, and society was coordinated. Many Germans eagerly supported these changes. But terror was indispensable for the swift establishment of the regime, stunning the opposition into silence and submission. The police stepped up its raids and although the spotlight remained on Communists, it widened to other sections of the organized working class, especially after the destruction of trade unions in May and the SPD in June 1933. In the last week of June alone, more than three thousand Social Democrats were arrested, among them many senior functionaries. Some conservative and nationalist leaders found themselves in custody, too.

Important as police persecution was, terror in spring and summer 1933 rested above all in the brawny hands of Nazi paramilitaries, chiefly the hundreds of thousands of SA brownshirts. Some of these men had already committed murderous attacks in the first weeks of Hitler’s rule, not least during the night of the Reichstag fire, when brownshirts had conducted their own search for political opponents (using SA arrest lists). But most had been held back by their superiors, who wanted to make a show of taking power legally. Only after the March 1933 elections had given Nazi leaders a flimsy mandate, returning a small majority for the NSDAP and its national-conservative partners, did they finally release the paramilitaries. Determined to create the new Germany by force, SA and SS men now left a trail of destruction. Heavily armed, they occupied and trashed town halls, publishing houses, and party and union offices, and hunted down political and personal enemies. The grim climax on the streets of Germany came in late June 1933, when Berlin brownshirts raided the left-wing bastion of Köpenick. During five bloody days, they murdered dozens of Nazi opponents and badly injured hundreds more; the youngest victim, a fifteen-year-old Communist, was left permanently brain damaged.25

Although much of the early terror was driven from below, local Nazi militants acted in tune with their leaders, who openly incited violence against the opposition. Just before the March 1933 elections, Hermann Göring, one of Hitler’s top lieutenants, announced that he did not care about legal niceties, only about “destroying and exterminating” Communists. During a mass rally in mid-March, the new Württemberg state president Wilhelm Murr, an old Nazi veteran, went even further: “We don’t say: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. No, if someone knocks out one of our eyes, we will chop off his head, and if someone knocks out one of our teeth, we will smash in his jaw.”26 The violence that followed offers an early sign of the dangerous dynamic that would come to define the Third Reich: Nazi leaders set the direction of policy, and their followers bettered one another with ever more radical attempts to realize it.27

Another legacy of early Nazi terror was the rapid blurring between state and party. With Nazi activists pouring into the police force at all levels, it was impossible, as early as spring 1933, to draw a clear line between police repression and paramilitary violence. On January 30, 1933, for example, Hermann Göring had become acting head of the Prussian Ministry of the Interior (from April 1933 he also served as minister president), which brought the Prussian police force under his control. Not only did Göring instigate the subsequent police assault on Nazi opponents, on February 22 he opened the door for SA and SS men to “relieve the regular police” in its fight against the Left. Nazi thugs were delighted. As auxiliary policemen, they could now settle scores with their political enemies without worrying about interference from the police; they had become the police.28

As for established police officers, most were broadly sympathetic to the political aims of Nazism and needed no persuading of the dangers of Communism. The German police embraced the regime with little hesitation; no large-scale purge was necessary to turn it into a repressive machine for the Third Reich.29 In mid-March 1933, on the occasion of his appointment as acting Munich police chief, SS leader Heinrich Himmler, another senior Nazi official who seized a post in law enforcement, used a newspaper article to praise the excellent collaboration between police and party. Many enemies had already been arrested, he added, after SA and SS men had led the police to the “hideouts of Marxist organizations.”30

Mass Detention

Vast numbers of opponents were rounded up during the Nazi capture of power. In all, up to two hundred thousand political prisoners were detained at one time or another in 1933.31 Almost all were German nationals, with Communists in the great majority, especially during the early months of Nazi rule. Some of the prisoners—like KPD leader Ernst Thälmann, caught together with close aides in hiding on March 3, 1933—were known across Germany, but most were minor functionaries and ordinary activists; even members of Communist-affiliated sports clubs and choirs were treated like terrorists. Those who now found themselves in Nazi hands were overwhelmingly young working-class men—the demographic that formed the backbone of the Communist movement.32

Compared to the captured men, the number of female prisoners was vanishingly small. Again, most were Communists, often prominent party activists or wives of senior functionaries detained as hostages to blackmail their husbands.33 One of the imprisoned women was the twenty-four-year-old Centa Beimler, a Communist supporter since her teens, who was surprised in hiding by the Munich police in the early hours of April 21, 1933, ten days after the arrest of her husband, Hans. Just one day earlier, she had told him in a secret message that she wished she could take his place. Now they were both prisoners.34

Nazi detention in 1933 was unpredictable and confusing. Thousands of police prisoners were handed over as law breakers to the regular legal system, which played a major part in repression in the Third Reich. German judges and prosecutors, like most other civil servants, largely backed the regime. They wielded old and new laws against Nazi opponents, rapidly filling the judicial state prisons.35 But most arrested opponents did not end up in court, at least not in 1933, because they were not detained for illegal acts, but for who they were—suspected enemies of the new order.

In their reliance on mass arrests beyond the law, Nazi rulers followed other revolutionaries: they wanted to destroy their enemies before they might strike back. This called for radical action, abandoning legal principles and paperwork. Years later, SS leader Heinrich Himmler boasted that the Nazis had destroyed the “Jewish-Communist asocial organization” in 1933 by pulling people off the streets “completely illegally.”36 In fact, most suspects had formally been taken into the euphemistically named protective custody (Schutzhaft), a form of indefinite detention loosely resting on the Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State. This decree, passed by Hitler’s cabinet on February 28, 1933, in response to the Reichstag fire, had suspended basic civil liberties. It became, in the words of the émigré German political scientist Ernst Fraenkel, something like the “constitutional charter of the Third Reich,” justifying all manner of abuses of power—including the denial of personal freedom without judicial oversight or appeal. True, the use of extralegal detention was not entirely new in modern Germany and the decree borrowed from earlier Weimar emergency legislation. But it went much further: the Nazi practice of lawless detention was unprecedented both in its severity and scope.37

During the first wave of terror in March and April 1933, an estimated forty to fifty thousand opponents were temporarily taken into protective custody, mostly by the police, SA, and SS. The next wave in summer caught further victims, and despite frequent releases, there were officially almost twenty-seven thousand protective custody prisoners on July 31, 1933, falling only slowly to around twenty-two thousand by the end of October.38 The Nazi press occasionally claimed that this form of detention was well organized. In reality, there was a bewildering array of local rules and practices, with protective custody amounting to little more than kidnapping with a bureaucratic veneer.39

Many Nazi activists dispensed even with this formal façade and grabbed opponents without any official authorization. Senior civil servants, municipal officials, Nazi leaders, local party bruisers, and many more claimed the right to lock up anyone they deemed an opponent of the new order. The escalating terror from below and the accompanying chaos were summed up by an exasperated SA Gruppenführer in early July 1933: “Everyone is arresting everybody, bypassing the prescribed official procedure, everyone threatens everybody with protective custody, everybody threatens everybody with Dachau.”40 The result was a free-for-all, as more and more state and party officials exploited the opportunities for virtually unrestrained terror.

But what to do with all the prisoners? Despite all their talk during the Weimar years about crushing their enemies, Nazi leaders had given precious little thought to the practicalities. Once Nazi terror was unleashed in spring 1933, officials across Germany frantically searched for places to hold the victims of lawless arrests. Over the coming months, many hundreds of new sites were set up, which collectively can be called early camps.41

The landscape of early Nazi camps created in spring and summer 1933 could not have been more varied. The sites were run by different local, regional, and state authorities, and came in all shapes and sizes. A handful would operate for years, but most closed after just a few weeks or months. Conditions varied enormously, too, ranging from harmless to life-threatening; some prisoners suffered no cruelty, while others were continually violated. Several of the new sites were called concentration camps, but this term was still applied loosely, and many other names circulated, too—among them detention home, work service camp, and transit camp—reflecting the improvised nature of early Nazi terror.42 Despite their profound differences, though, the early camps shared a common purpose: to break the opposition.

Many early camps were established inside existing workhouses and state prisons; in spring 1933, whole wings were cleared for protective custody prisoners.43 The authorities saw this as a pragmatic solution to a pressing problem. Tens of thousands of prisoners could be locked away quickly, cheaply, and securely, as most of the infrastructure, from buildings to guards, was already in place.44 Workhouses were especially easy to convert, since they often stood half-empty anyway, having lost much of their purpose during the Weimar years. The large workhouse in Moringen near Göttingen, for example, had held fewer than a hundred beggars and paupers in 1932, and its director welcomed the arrival of protective custody prisoners, hoping that it would breathe new life into his outdated institution; he was not to be disappointed.45 The situation was more complicated in state prisons, which were already crowded with regular remand prisoners and convicts. Still, to demonstrate their support for the new regime, the legal authorities agreed to temporarily open up large prisons and small county jails for extralegal detention. The cells in the new wings were soon packed. By early April 1933, Bavarian prisons alone held over 4,500 inmates in protective custody, almost eclipsing the number of regular state prisoners held there.46

Protective custody prisoners were subject to strict order inside prisons and workhouses, as well as low-level harassment and a monotonous daily schedule. Worst of all was the uncertainty about their future and the fate of their loved ones. By September 1933, Centa Beimler had already spent more than four months in the cold, gloomy cells of Stadelheim prison in Munich—one of the few state prisons with a wing for both men and women in protective custody—and there was no end in sight. What was more, she had not heard from her husband, Hans, since his spectacular escape from Dachau; a letter he sent from the USSR, full of love and concern for her, would only reach her years later. Meanwhile, the police had arrested her mother and her sister for their Communist sympathies, and the welfare services had taken her young son to a borstal. Centa Beimler was not the only Stadelheim prisoner tormented by fears for her family. One of her Communist comrades, Magdalena Knödler, whose children were left all alone after thearrest of her husband, hanged herself in despair.47

Despite the many hardships, most protective custody prisoners found life inside prisons and workhouses bearable. They were generally held apart from the rest of the inmate population, sometimes inside big community rooms. Single cells, meanwhile, were simple but not Spartan, typically comprising a bed, a table, a chair, a shelf, a washbowl, and a bucket as toilet.48 Food and accommodation were mostly adequate, despite the overcrowding, and prisoners were not normally expected to work, passing their time by talking, reading, exercising, knitting, and playing games like chess. During his time in Berlin’s Spandau prison in summer 1933, Ludwig Bendix, a senior German-Jewish lawyer and moderate left-wing legal commentator, even managed to draft a treatise on criminal law that was published a few months later in a respected German criminological journal.49

Most important, prisoners like Ludwig Bendix and Centa Beimler were mostly safe from assaults. Physical violence had long been banned from German prisons and workhouses, and the old guards were drilled to uphold this rule. This accounts for the “mild” and “peaceful” atmosphere in Spandau, as Bendix put it a few years later, where guards had even showed some sympathy to him.50 In some other prisons and workhouses, inmates were in greater peril, following an influx of SA and SS guards. But while these men committed some assaults, as did police officers during interrogations, they were largely held in check by the regular staff.51 Also, the legal authorities insisted that protective custody prisoners in their care would generally be treated like inmates on remand, barring the police and Nazi paramilitaries from exerting any major influence.52

The Nazi use of the term “protective custody” was supremely cynical. As one daring inmate of a small jail complained to the Prussian authorities in late March 1933, he was “touched” by all the “concern for my person,” but did not need any “protection” because “no decent people are threatening me.”53 Still, protective custody in prisons and workhouses did save some detainees from excesses in more brutal early camps, at least for a while.54 This prompted Nazi extremists to complain that their enemies were being handled with kid gloves—rehashing an old right-wing myth about prisons as sanatoria—and to demand their immediate transfer to so-called concentration camps, where much tougher treatment would be guaranteed.55

SA and SS Camps

On September 4, 1933, the life of Fritz Solmitz, a Social Democratic journalist and local councillor from Lübeck, took a terrible turn. At the time, Solmitz was one of around five hundred men in protective custody in Hamburg-Fuhlsbüttel, the largest German prison complex, with space for thousands of inmates. Since late March 1933, Fuhlsbüttel included a wing for police prisoners like Solmitz. It was initially controlled by restrained older prison officials, but the period of relative calm did not last. In early August 1933 the Hamburg Gauleiter (NSDAP district leader) Karl Kaufmann expressed his outrage at the lenient treatment of the prisoners and vowed to shake things up. Just one month later, he oversaw the opening of Hamburg’s first central concentration camp, in another part of Fuhlsbüttel. The new camp, soon known as Kola-Fu (Konzentrationslager Fuhlsbüttel), was essentially the personal fiefdom of Kaufmann, who appointed a close confidant and Nazi veteran as commandant. Kaufmann and his men watched as Solmitz and the other protective custody prisoners were marched out of their old quarters on the early morning of September 4 and lined up in the yard. After a menacing speech by one of the officials—who announced that the inmates would be taught that no one could disrupt Adolf Hitler’s Germany—came the first round of systematic violence, with the new guards, some thirty SS men, kicking and punching the prisoners.56

The Fuhlsbüttel guards singled out Fritz Solmitz, who was Jewish, for special abuse from the start. After nine days, on September 13, 1933, they moved him from a large community cell into the cellar for solitary confinement, reserved for torturing supposedly recalcitrant prisoners. Solmitz was immediately surrounded by nine men who pounded him with whips, continuing even after he collapsed semiconscious on the floor. When the guards finally let up, they were covered in the blood that poured from their victim’s head. After Solmitz regained his senses, he recorded his torment on small pieces of cigarette paper hidden inside his watch. He wrote another note on the evening of September 18, just after a group of SS men had left his cell, threatening him with more torture the next day: “A very long SS man steps on my toes and yells: For me you’ll bend over. ‘Oi, say yes, you pig.’ Another: ‘Why don’t you hang yourself? Then you won’t get whipped!’ The seriousness of the threat is not to be doubted. God, what shall I do?” A few hours later, Solmitz was dead, most likely murdered by his torturers. He was one of at least ten prisoners who lost their lives in Kola-Fu in 1933, all the others being Communist activists.57

The death of Fritz Solmitz highlights, in the harshest light, the contrast between different kinds of early camps, in particular those dominated by civil servants and those dominated by Nazi paramilitaries. There were hundreds of early camps controlled by SA or SS men. Some were set up to ease overcrowding in state prisons, following calls by legal officials for police prisoners to be moved elsewhere.58 This suited Nazi hard-liners, as it gave them greater control over prisoners. Adolf Wagner, the new state commissar in charge of the Bavarian Ministry of the Interior—and a close confidant of Hitler—declared as early as March 13, 1933, that, when state prisons ran out of space, arrested enemies should instead be exposed to the elements in “abandoned ruins.”59 In fact, this was exactly what some brownshirts were already doing.

During spring and summer 1933, early camps run by SA and SS men sprang up in the most unlikely locations. Nazi activists occupied whatever space they could, including run-down or vacant hotels, castles, sports grounds, and youth hostels.60 Even restaurants were converted, like the Schützenhaus in the town of Annaberg in Saxony; its landlord was the local SA Sturmbannführer, who ran the new camp while his wife prepared the prisoners’ food.61 Most common was the use of so-called SA pubs, which often held just a handful of prisoners. For years, the life of local brownshirts had revolved around these pubs, which served as informal headquarters to meet, drink, and plan the next attacks. In the Weimar Republic, violence against Nazi enemies had spilled from these pubs onto the streets. In spring 1933, terror flowed the other way, moving from the streets inside the pubs.62

“The number of Nazi torture dens is countless,” the Communist Theodor Balk wrote about Germany in the spring of 1933. “No village or city quarter is without such private martyring dens.”63 Although this was something of an overstatement, camps run by the brownshirts really did cover Germany. Designed as weapons against the labor movement, most of these early camps were established in cities and industrial regions.64

The focal point was “Red Berlin.” During 1933, SA and SS troops ran more than 170 early camps in Berlin, clustered in districts known for their opposition to Nazism. In the working-class areas of Wedding and Kreuzberg, for example, where the two parties of the Left had still gained an absolute majority in the tainted March election, no fewer than thirty-four early camps were set up in spring 1933 alone (by contrast, there was just one such camp in leafy Zehlendorf). Because of the density of the new terror network, it often took Nazi thugs just minutes to drag their victims into one of these camps, largely in SA pubs, private apartments, or so-called SA homes, which had offered shelter for unemployed and homeless brownshirts in the final years of the Weimar Republic.65


Some prisoners went through several early camps in quick succession. The prominent left-wing lawyer James Broh, for example, was apprehended by a group of local SA men in his home in Berlin-Wilmersdorf on March 11, 1933, and forced into a private-apartment-turned-torture-camp. The next day, he was moved to an SA pub, and a few days later to the house of the local SA leader. After an endless week of extreme abuse, Broh felt that “I would not be able to bear more torture.” His ordeal ended only after his transfer to Spandau prison.66

Many early camps run by Nazi paramilitaries emerged locally, with little or no direction from above. But it would be misleading to describe them all as “wild camps,” as some historians have done. Many of these camps had ties to the state authorities from thestart—hardly surprising, given the overlap between police and party officials. Indeed, some SA and SS camps had been initiated by the police authorities, and it was not uncommon for police officials to encourage prisoner abuses and use “confessions” extracted under torture. But even if no such ties existed at first, they soon developed. No SA camp remained isolated from the regional police for any length of time.67

Take the camp in the town of Oranienburg, just north of Berlin, which became notorious for its violence. A local SA unit set up the camp on March 21, 1933, on the grounds of a former brewery, to lock up forty of its prisoners. Just a few days later, however, the camp was formally placed under the district state administration. Soon, police and municipal authorities sent alleged opponents of the new order to the expanding camp, still staffed by the SA. By August 1933, Oranienburg was among the largest early camps in Prussia, holding over nine hundred prisoners.68

Conditions in early camps run by Nazi paramilitaries were almost uniformly dreadful. Much of the blame lay with the SA and SS guards, but there were also practical problems. Unlike prisons and workhouses, hardly any of the sites had been designed for holding captives. Even basic facilities—toilets, washrooms, heating, kitchens—were lacking, and inmates were forced into bare and cold quarters, such as former storage or engine rooms, some with leaking roofs and windows. In Oranienburg, prisoners initially had to lie on the straw-covered concrete floor of long and narrow cellars previously used for storing beer bottles. Even in the summer months it was dark and damp here, and the inmates “froze like young puppies,” recalled the former SPD Reichstag deputy Gerhart Seger, who arrived in Oranienburg in June 1933. Later the prisoners slept on tiny, three-tiered wooden bunks which reminded Seger of “rabbit hutches.” The food was no better than the quarters. Just as in many other SA camps, the rations in Oranienburg were small and disgusting, so much so that some prisoners preferred to go hungry.69 But the defining feature was the guards’ brutality, which was no less extreme than in Kola-Fu: at least seven Oranienburg prisoners perished between May and September 1933.70

SA and SS Guards

If torture was the essence of National Socialism, as the Austrian philosopher and concentration camp survivor Jean Améry suggested, then the early SA and SS camps stood at the center of the emerging Third Reich.71 To be sure, not all guards were torturers, not in 1933 and not after. Early on, individual SA and SS men still had to find their roles, and some shied away from hands-on violence against defenseless prisoners. In one exceptional case, an SS guard even protested against the beating of an elderly man—only to be shouted down by his comrades; for them, prisoner abuse was fast becoming second nature.72

The violence began on arrival. The breaking of newcomers—stripping them of their dignity and asserting the dominance of the authorities—was a common ritual in “total institutions” everywhere, but it was taken to extremes in early SA and SS camps.73 From the start, the guards used violence to communicate a simple message: the prisoners were worthless and at their mercy.74 Screaming men surrounded bewildered newcomers and showered them in abuse. “Get out, you swine!” a Dachau guard shouted in early July 1933 as a truck discharged a group of prisoners. “I’ll make you run! For Christ’s sake, I will shoot a hole into your noodle.”75 Verbal abuse went hand in hand with physical assaults, as SA and SS men kicked, beat, and whipped their victims.76 Often, this was followed by punishing exercises and a brief speech from the officer in charge, laced with more threats. Many prisoners had to undergo a bodily search, and occasionally they were photographed and fingerprinted—reinforcing the message that they were dangerous criminals and would be treated as such.77 All these practices established the template for the prisoner “welcome,” an elaborate routine of humiliation and violence that would soon become a permanent feature of the SS concentration camp system.78

Every prisoner—young and old, male and female—was fair game for SA and SS guards.79 They beat inmates with hands and fists, and an array of weapons like truncheons, whips, and sticks. Skin was slashed, jaws smashed, organs ruptured, bones broken. Mock executions were widespread, too, as were other degrading practices. The torturers shaved their victims’ body hair, ordered them to beat each other, force-fed them castor oil (a torment copied from Italian Fascists), and made them eat excrement and drink urine.80Sexual abuse was frequent in these early camps, at least compared to the later SS camp system. Men were hit on the naked genitals, and some were forced to masturbate each other; in Dachau, one prisoner died in summer 1933 after the SS inserted a hose into his rectum and opened the high-pressure water tap.81 Female prisoners were targeted, too. Male guards carried out several assaults, beating their victims on the naked thighs, buttocks, and breasts; there were also rapes.82

Why this eruption of violence? The authorities did not normally select particularly brutal men to staff SA and SS camps; personnel policy was far too unsystematic in 1933.83 Most commandants were appointed simply because they headed the local paramilitary unit stationed at the camp.84 The recruitment of guards was even more haphazard. SS Private Steinbrenner, the man who tortured Hans Beimler, later testified that he had been on his way to a routine assignment as an auxiliary policeman in Munich when, one evening in late March 1933, he happened to walk past an officer from his unit. To Steinbrenner’s surprise his superior ordered him to board a bus parked on the street and join other SS men inside; the twenty-seven-year-old apparently had no idea that the bus would head for Dachau and that he had just been seconded as a guard.85 Like Steinbrenner, most early SA and SS guards were not volunteers.86 Many must have welcomed their new posts nonetheless, above all those coming from the vast army of the German unemployed—officially numbering around six million in early 1933—who now received pay and free board. Indeed, the Nazi authorities deliberately used appointments to the early camps to reward out-of-work activists (Oranienburg alone employed three hundred brownshirts in June 1933).87 At the same time, many new guards saw their poorly paid positions as temporary, and almost all moved on after a few weeks or months, as did the commandants. Few men envisaged long careers in the camps.88

The casual recruitment policy notwithstanding, many SA and SS guards were primed for violence by virtue of being Nazi paramilitaries. There was no need for the authorities to select especially brutal guards, in other words, because SA and SS men were presumed to be brutal anyway. Most of them were young men in their twenties and early thirties, from working-class and lower-middle-class backgrounds. They belonged to the so-called “superfluous generation”—too young for action in the Great War and hit hardest by the economic upheaval of the Weimar years—which often sought salvation in the radical politics of interwar Germany.89 These SA and SS men were veterans of Weimar political extremism and many had the scars and criminal records to prove it.90 In their eyes, the assault on left-wing prisoners in 1933 was the culmination of a civil war that had raged since 1918 against the SPD (as the main defender of Weimar) and the KPD (as the main agent of Bolshevism). “The SA was ready to fight to win the revolution,” the Oranienburg commandant, SA Sturmbannführer Werner Schäfer later wrote about the first day in the camp, “just as it had slowly and stubbornly fought to win the [beer] halls, the streets, the villages and towns.”91 Terror inside the early camps, in short, grew directly out of the violent Weimar political culture.

The ferocity of the guards’ assault on prisoners also owed much to the peculiar mind-set of Nazi paramilitaries in 1933, which combined euphoria and paranoia into an explosive mix. The guards were celebrating the triumph of Nazism. Intoxicated with their sudden powers, they were anything but magnanimous in victory: they decorated the camps with captured flags of left-wing groups and branded their supremacy onto their enemies’ bodies.92 “Think about what they would have done to you,” SA men in Colditz camp were told before they were let loose on inmates in spring 1933.93 Often, the hatred of prisoners was not abstract but personal. Because of the localized nature of early Nazi terror, jailers and jailed often knew each other well. They had grown up in the same streets and shared a long history of violence and vendettas. Now the time had come for a final reckoning. The worst thing that could happen to an inmate, a former Dachau prisoner wrote in 1934, was to be recognized by a guard from his hometown.94

But behind the wild triumphalism of SA and SS guards lurked anxiety. Nazi propaganda had stressed the Communist menace for so long that its crushing defeat seemed to have come too easily. Fear of an imminent counterstrike was widespread in spring and summer 1933, and went well beyond Nazi fanatics; even some deluded KPD prisoners themselves were confident that a workers’ uprising was just around the corner.95 Some Nazi officials feared that the early camps would be attacked by armed gangs, like state prisons had been during the German revolution of 1918–19. Guards were warned to be vigilant at all times about threats from the outside.96

The obsession with the Communist specter spurred nervous guards to further attacks, especially during so-called interrogations. There were special torture chambers in many early camps run by Nazi paramilitaries, where guards tried to force prisoners to reveal names, plots, and hidden weapons. In Oranienburg, for example, SA torturers sat in room 16, beating prisoners until their bodies were covered in blood and bruises.97 Deaths in custody were still rare, however, even in SA and SS camps. Contrary to the picture of early Nazi camps as places of mass extermination, advanced by scholars like Hannah Arendt, the vast majority of prisoners survived.98 Still, many hundreds lost their lives in 1933, murdered by the guards or driven to suicide. Most vulnerable of all were Jews and prominent political prisoners.99

Targeting “Bigwigs” and Jews

On April 6, 1933, a special train left Berlin’s Schlesischer Bahnhof for Sonnenburg in the east of Prussia, where SA men had just established a new camp on the grounds of a dilapidated penitentiary, abandoned by the judicial authorities two years earlier after an outbreak of dysentery. On board the train were more than fifty well-known political prisoners (“bigwigs”), including Erich Mühsam, Carl von Ossietzky, and Hans Litten. After their arrest in Berlin in the early hours of February 28, 1933, the three men had spent several weeks in state prisons, describing conditions there as “uncomfortable” but “tolerable.”100 These had been the good days, compared to what was about to follow.

The prisoners were abused and beaten on the special train, and even more so inside Sonnenburg. The SA guards focused much of their attention on Mühsam, Ossietzky, and Litten. Not only were they left-wing intellectuals—a “type” despised as lazy and dangerous by the paramilitaries, who symbolically destroyed Mühsam’s glasses—they were famous; even the local newspaper had announced their arrival. The anarchist Erich Mühsam was wrongly held responsible by the Nazis for the notorious execution of hostages in a Munich school during the 1919 uprising (like Hans Beimler). The publicist Ossietzky had previously demanded the disbanding of the Berlin SA Storm 33 (known as the “Murder Storm”), to which many of the camp guards belonged, while the attorney Litten had fought some of its members in court. Now the tables were turned, and at the end of a long day of terror, during which Litten was nearly strangled to death, the three men spent a first terrifying night together in a Sonnenburg cell.101

The torture continued during the following days. The two frail older men, Ossietzky and Mühsam, had to dig a grave in the prison yard. Then they had to line up to be shot, only for the SA men to burst into laughter and drop their rifles. Ossietzky and Mühsam also performed humiliating exercises and exhausting menial tasks, at running pace and abused by SA men. Carl von Ossietzky finally collapsed and was taken to the infirmary, pallid, gaunt, and shaking. Erich Mühsam, his clothes covered in blood, broke down on April 12 with “serious heart attacks,” as he noted in a diary. Hans Litten, meanwhile, was tortured in a “life-threatening way,” as he secretly told his loved ones, and tried to take his own life by cutting his wrists.102 After just a few days inside Sonnenburg, the SA guards had pushed all three of their trophy prisoners close to death.

Similar scenes took place in other early camps run by Nazi paramilitaries. And it was not just prominent radicals who suffered: senior members of the moderate SPD were exposed, too. On August 8, 1933, for example, the Berlin police took several political celebrities to Oranienburg, among them the longtime SPD parliamentary leader in the Prussian parliament Ernst Heilmann, one of the most powerful politicians of the Weimar era, and Friedrich Ebert, an SPD Reichstag deputy, a newspaper editor, and the son of the deceased first Reich president of the Weimar Republic, a hated figure on the German right. The SA guards were primed for a special “welcome,” having been alerted in advance to the transport, as they often were in case of prominent opponents. On arrival, the newcomers had to pose for propaganda pictures. Then they stood to attention in front of all other prisoners on the roll call square, where a senior SA officer berated them: “Here they are, these seducers! These swindlers of the people! These crooks! These dirty dogs!” he shouted, before pointing out the “red swine” Heilmann, the “bloodthirsty schemer” Ebert, and the others. The guards forced their victims to undress in public and change into rags, and then shaved their heads. Later on, Ebert and Heilmann were apparently tortured in the notorious room 16. More abuse followed over the coming weeks. Like other “bigwigs,” Heilmann and Ebert had to perform particularly strenuous, useless, and disgusting work. And whenever Nazi dignitaries visited Oranienburg, the two men were put on show, like dangerous animals in the zoo.103

The guards’ violent hatred of prominent political prisoners was further inflamed by radical anti-Semitism. The fact that some victims—among them Heilmann, Mühsam, and Litten—had Jewish roots was taken as confirmation of incendiary stereotypes linking Jews to political deviance, summed up in the mortal threat of “Jewish Bolshevism.”104 At the core of the Nazi worldview stood extreme anti-Semitism, which branded Jews as the most dangerous of enemies. Jews were blamed for all the misfortunes that were said to have befallen modern Germany, from the “stab in the back” to the corrupt Weimar regime. So obstinate was the belief that all Jews were political foes, and vice versa, that Sonnenburg SA guards convinced themselves that Carl von Ossietzky must be Jewish, too (he was not), redoubling their assaults on the “Jewish swine.”105

German Jews constituted a small minority among the prisoner population of the early camps, perhaps some five percent.106 However, this still meant that Jews were far more likely to be dragged to camps than the average citizen, an early sign of things to come.107 In all, up to ten thousand German Jews were forced into early camps during the course of 1933.108 Most were detained as left-wing activists (although contrary to Nazi propaganda, Jews were far from dominant among the German Communists).109 But some eager officials also arrested Jews primarily for being Jewish, among them numerous lawyers. In Saxony, the Ministry of the Interior had to remind its policemen that “affiliation to the Jewish race alone is not a reason to impose protective custody.”110 In Berlin, meanwhile, local SA leaders cautioned their men in May 1933 that “not everyone running around with dark hair is a Jew.”111 Kidnapping and arrest were part of an anti-Semitic wave that swept through Germany in spring and summer. While the new leaders were busy implementing a raft of discriminatory measures, trying to make good on their promise to exclude Jews from German life, local thugs launched their own attacks on Jewish businesses and individuals. Some victims were forced into early camps—often after denunciations by neighbors or business rivals—where they were held for “crimes” such as alleged profiteering or sexual relations with so-called Aryans.112

Whether prominent or not, almost all Jewish prisoners faced abuse from Nazi paramilitaries, who subscribed to a wild blend of anti-Semitic fantasies. Not only were Jews seen as deadly political enemies, they were branded as racial threats, capitalist exploiters, and lazy intellectuals.113 When new prisoners arrived at a camp, guards would often order Jews to make themselves known: “Are there also any Jews?,” a young Dachau SS man screamed at newcomers on April 25, 1933, the day Hans Beimler arrived in the camp. With external markings for identifying prisoner groups yet to be introduced, such verbal orders for Jews to step forward became routine. Some prisoners concealed their origins, but this was risky. In Dachau, the Communist prisoner Karl Lehrburger was murdered by Private Steinbrenner in May 1933, shortly after his true identity was revealed by a visiting policeman who happened to know him.114

Anti-Semitic abuse in early SA and SS camps took many forms. Like other torturers, Nazi guards oversaw acts of ritual humiliation and desecration. Beatings were accompanied by vile insults. “We’ll castrate you so you can’t molest Aryan girls anymore,” two Jewish men were told as they were tormented in the cellar of a Berlin SA pub in August 1933.115 In Dachau, Steinbrenner later recalled, there was “much hilarity” among his SS comrades after they shaved a cross on the head of a Jewish prisoner. In Sonnenburg, SA men defaced Erich Mühsam’s beard to make him resemble the Nazi cartoons they knew so well.116 Jewish inmates were also often forced into particularly arduous and revolting jobs. What was reserved as a cruel and unusual punishment for individual non-Jews—mostly prominent political prisoners—became normal for Jews, who found themselves at the bottom of the prisoner hierarchy. Ernst Heilmann, for example, was immediately made “director of the crapper” by the Oranienburg SA, placing him in charge of a group of Jews who had to clean the four toilets—sometimes with their bare hands—used by almost a thousand prisoners. Heilmann took over this post from Max Abraham, a rabbi from Rathenow near Berlin, who was now called “deputy director” by the sneering SA men.117

In Oranienburg—and a few other large camps, like Dachau—anti-Semitic terror even led to the creation of separate labor details and barracks (so-called Jew Companies). However, such spatial separation was still unusual in the early camps. Jews mostly worked and slept with other inmates, especially in smaller camps, though even a comparatively large camp like Osthofen near Worms (Hesse), which held well over a hundred Jewish inmates, had no “Jew Company.” Osthofen was different from camps like Oranienburg in other ways, too. The local commandant, SS Sturmbannführer Karl D’Angelo, who would later transfer to Dachau, was more restrained than his opposite number in Oranienburg and did not promote violent excesses among the guards.118

This highlights, once again, the disparities between early camps, even those staffed by Nazi paramilitaries. As yet, there was no agreement on how Jewish prisoners should be treated. Occasionally, this even led to open conflicts between Nazi officials, as happened in Sonnenburg. Rumors about the torture of Hans Litten and Erich Mühsam had reached Berlin within days. Concerned about the reputation of Sonnenburg, attorney Dr. Mittelbach from Berlin police headquarters carried out an inspection on April 10, 1933. A glance at the prisoners—Mühsam’s dentures were smashed and Litten’s face grotesquely swollen—quickly confirmed that they had been harmed “in a very serious way,” as the civil servant informed his superiors. Mittelbach called together the SA guards and lectured them that abuses were strictly forbidden. When it became clear that his warning was being ignored, he returned to Sonnenburg by car on April 25 to pick up Litten, coming back one month later for Mühsam. He took both prisoners to state prison wings in Berlin, where their treatment improved immeasurably. “Dr. Mittelbach has saved my life,” the beaming Litten told his mother in Spandau prison.119

Mittelbach could intervene in Sonnenburg because the camp—though staffed by SA men—came under his authority. It was the first major camp of the Prussian political police and Mittelbach, who had helped to set it up, was soon appointed to an even more influential post: coordinating protective custody across Prussia from inside the secret state police office (Gestapa), established as a new agency under the Prussian Ministry of the Interior in late April 1933. The official task of the secret state police (Gestapo) officers in the Berlin headquarters and its regional branches was to pursue “all subversive political activities in the whole of Prussia.” Mittelbach himself did not last long in his new post, perhaps because of his help for Litten. Still, the central state authorities, in Prussia and other German states, were starting to assert greater control over the chaotic network of early camps.120


In early March 1933, at the dawn of the Third Reich, government officials in Thuringia hastily erected a camp for Communist prisoners on the grounds of a former airfield in Nohra near Weimar; within a few days, more than two hundred men were held inside. Just ten weeks later, however, the new camp was abandoned again. Sometimes described as the first German concentration camp to open, Nohra was also one of the first to close down.121 Many others followed, and by late summer 1933 most early camps had shut their gates.122 These camps had never been intended as anything more than temporary and their closure reflected a wider shift in Nazi terror. Once the regime had secured its position, its leaders tried to rein in the storm troopers, whose excesses were beginning to cause concern even among staunch Nazi supporters. On July 6, 1933, Hitler unequivocally told senior Reich officials that the Nazi revolution was over.123 The resulting decline in rank-and-file violence meant fewer prisoners and fewer camps.

Among the remaining early camps were several larger state camps. Attempts to coordinate political terror had already begun in spring 1933 and gathered pace from mid-1933.124 Just two months after local activists had set up Osthofen in March, for example, the Hesse police commissioner designated it as an official state camp.125 Senior state officials elsewhere also established large camps.126 The most significant initiatives came in the two biggest German states, Prussia and Bavaria, where officials formulated ambitious visions for the future of extra-legal police detention. To implement their rival plans, both states operated model camps, in the Emsland and in Dachau respectively. Not only were these the largest sites in the second half of 1933—holding some 3,000 (Emsland) and 2,400 (Dachau) prisoners a day in September—they were the closest the early camps came to prototypes for later SS concentration camps.127

“Protective Custody” in Prussia

During the Nazi capture of power, far more political opponents were locked up in Prussia than in any other German state. At the end of July 1933, well over half of all protective custody prisoners were detained there.128 Many of them were so dangerous, a top Prussian civil servant claimed in summer 1933, that they could not be released for a long time. Over the coming years, he estimated, around ten thousand protective custody prisoners would be held in Prussia on a daily basis. Lawless detention in camps was here to stay.129

The conviction that the camps were more than an emergency measure, that they would last beyond the capture of power and become a permanent feature of the Third Reich, galvanized early efforts to create a more ordered system of detention beyond the law.130In Prussia, the coordination of the camp system was spearheaded by the Ministry of the Interior. Hermann Göring himself had signed off on its new model by autumn 1933: in the future, there would be four large state concentration camps, in place of the plethora of early camps.131

The first Prussian state camp was the infamous one in Sonnenburg, where Carl von Ossietzky was among the approximately one thousand prisoners in late November 1933.132 About the same number of men was detained in a second state camp in Brandenburg on the Havel River, set up in August inside another run-down former penitentiary. The inmates here included Erich Mühsam and Hans Litten, whose brief refuge in Berlin prisons had come to an abrupt end.133 Even more men—some 1,675 in late September—weredetained in a third camp, Lichtenburg in Prettin on the Elbe, which had opened back in June, again on the grounds of a derelict penitentiary.134 But the pride of Göring’s officials was the largest site, a major complex of camps established from summer 1933 around Papenburg in the Emsland, in northwestern Germany near the Dutch border.135

Beyond these four main sites, the Prussian state authorities approved a handful of regional camps, among them Moringen, which became the central Prussian camp for women in protective custody; by mid-November, almost 150 women were held here.136 As for all the other remaining early camps, Hermann Göring announced in October 1933 that they were “not recognized by me as state concentration camps” and would “shortly, in any case by the end of this year, be dissolved.”137 Several early camps really were closed down around this time and their prisoners taken to the Emsland.138

The new Prussian model envisaged a system of large state camps coordinated from Berlin. Instead of different authorities meddling in protective custody, police offices would apply to the Gestapa, which would oversee the detention and release of all prisoners in state concentration camps.139The individual camps were headed by civil servants from the police service, who reported to the Prussian Ministry of the Interior. In turn, these camp directors were in charge of the commanders of local SS guards. The SS monopoly over guard duties in Prussia had been secured by SS Gruppenführer Kurt Daluege, the head of the police department in the Prussian Ministry of the Interior. Other senior officials—duped by SS efforts to project a more disciplined public image than the unruly SA—evidently endorsed the move. The decision to put the SS in charge led to the replacement of SA guards in camps like Sonnenburg, and by late August all the main Prussian state concentration camps were staffed by SS units.140

But the Prussian model was never fully realized. Its administrative structure proved unworkable. Far from ensuring central control, it was a guarantee for turmoil, as many local SS guards were loath to submit to directors from the civil service.141 Similar conflicts were played out at a higher level between officials from the Prussian Ministry of the Interior and SA and SS chieftains. In autumn 1933, for example, the ministry had to shelve its plan to close Oranienburg, following furious protests by SA leaders who defended the camp as a bulwark against enemies of the state (more important, perhaps, was their desire to secure the future employment of the local SA guards). In the end, the Prussian Ministry of the Interior grudgingly accepted Oranienburg as a regional state camp run by the SA.142

This climb-down was typical of the inability of Göring’s officials to bring lawless detention in Prussia fully under their control. Not only did some Nazi paramilitaries continue to arrest prisoners on their own accord; a few defiant SA and SS leaders even struck out on their own to set up new camps.143 In autumn 1933, for instance, the police president of Stettin, SS Oberführer Fritz-Karl Engel, established a camp in an abandoned wharf building in the Bredow district, which operated until March 11, 1934.144 When it finally closed down, an exasperated Göring ordered that any other police camps that “bear the character of concentration camps” had to be “dissolved at once.”145 A few days later, during a conference with Hitler, Göring went even further and suggested that an official commission should comb the country for secret SA camps.146

The Prussian experiment ended in disarray. No sooner had a comprehensive model for a state camp system been developed, than it came apart. Its unraveling was hastened by the lack of leadership from the top of the Prussian state. Hermann Göring himself began to doubt the purpose of his large camps and pushed for mass releases instead (see below). Further down the hierarchy, Prussian state officials pulled in different directions. In late November 1933, the Ministry of the Interior effectively lost control over the camps, which passed instead to the newly independent Prussian Gestapo, now run as a special agency subordinated directly to Göring. But the Gestapo failed to develop a systematic vision and over the coming months, Prussian policy drifted.147 The general confusion and conflicts that characterized the Prussian state system was reflected in its flagship camps in the Emsland, during a long year of terror.148

Inside the Emsland Camps

Wolfgang Langhoff woke with a jolt one early morning in July 1933, roused from a deep sleep by shrill whistles and screams. He had no idea where he was. Langhoff looked up in a daze and found himself surrounded by beds full of equally bewildered men. In a flash, it all came back to him and he choked with fear: they were prisoners of the Börgermoor camp in the Emsland. Langhoff had arrived on a large transport the previous night. He was already a veteran of the early camps, having been arrested on February 28, 1933, in Düsseldorf, where he was well known as a stage actor, often playing the youthful hero, and as an agitator for the Communist cause. It had been dark when Langhoff passed through the Börgermoor gate, and after the march from the faraway railway station, brutally driven on by SS men, he had collapsed on a straw mattress inside a large building. Now, with the dull morning light creeping through the windows, he had a closer look around. The cheap wooden barrack was some 130 feet long and 30 feet wide, reminding him of a stable. Most of it was crammed full of bunk beds, holding a hundred prisoners in all, with a few narrow lockers for their belongings. Beyond, there was a smaller area with tables and benches for prisoners to eat, and a separate washroom at the far end.

As there was no running water yet, Langhoff and the others were ordered outside to wash. The dense fog, typical of the region, made it hard to see at first, but when it lifted Langhoff realized that he was standing in a small town of barracks. His was one of ten identical yellow prisoner huts, five neat rows of low wooden buildings on either side of a path bisecting the rectangular camp. In addition, there were five administrative barracks, including kitchen, infirmary, and bunker. The compound, which somewhat resembled German First World War POW camps, was enclosed by two parallel double fences of barbed wire, with a narrow corridor inside for patrols. On the other side, near the gate and the watchtower (fitted with searchlights and machine guns), stood yet more barracks, though they looked more comfortable; here the SS guards did paperwork, slept, and got drunk. Beyond these barracks, there was nothing, except for a white pole with a swastika flag, a few dead trees, and a row of telegraph poles lining the flat landscape to the faraway horizon. “Endless moorland, as far as one can see,” Langhoff wrote two years later. “Brown and black, broken up and ditches running through.” It was hard to imagine a bleaker place than Börgermoor, deep inside the sparsely populated Emsland.149

Börgermoor was one of four almost identical state camps—there was another one in Neusustrum and two in Esterwegen—opened by the Prussian Ministry of the Interior between June and October 1933 across a wide stretch of largely uncultivated land in the northern Emsland. The decision to set up this complex was made as early as spring 1933, and ministerial officials soon saw it as the centerpiece of the emerging Prussian state system.150 The special nature of these camps was obvious at first sight. In contrast to other spaces turned into early Nazi camps, the Emsland camps were not found. Instead of adapting existing buildings, the authorities had planned and purpose-built new ones, forcing prisoners to construct their own camp in the barrack style that would become a standard for the later SS camp system.151 Not only did the new complex look unlike other Prussian camps, it dwarfed them in size. In autumn 1933, the Emsland camps together held up to four thousand men—half of all prisoners in Prussian state concentration camps.152

Forced labor also set the Emsland camps apart. It was not incidental, as in most early camps, but integral. The cultivation of the Emsland moor, which had only advanced fitfully in previous years, promised both economic and ideological gain. Land reclamation would raise German agricultural self-sufficiency and chimed with the Nazi doctrines of “blood and soil” and “living space.” Also, it would not upset small businesses worried about cheap competition from prisoner labor. Most important of all, such work was a perfect fit for the propaganda picture of early camps as places of “reeducation” through hard manual labor.

In practice, work in the Emsland camps was all about harassment, as Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler acknowledged a few years later, summing up the approach with a revealing pun: “You wait, I’ll teach you mores [manners], I’m sending you into the moor.”153 The prisoners left their compounds early, before 6:00 a.m. in summer, and normally marched for over an hour. They were often forced to sing on the way, though the SS soon banned the “Song of the Moorland Soldiers,” a protest song composed by three inmates (Wolfgang Langhoff among them). On the moor, prisoners had to dig trenches and turn over the soil, at breakneck speed to avoid SS punishment for slacking or for missing the daily quota. After his first day, Wolfgang Langhoff wrote, “My hands are full of blisters. My bones ache, every step hurts.” Each day brought more pain, he added, as hundreds of men slaved for weeks on a piece of land that could have been turned over by a couple of tractors in a few days.154

Despite their distinct features, the Emsland camps shared key elements with other early camps staffed by Nazi paramilitaries. In the Emsland, too, most prisoners were left-wing political opponents, with German Communists in the absolute majority. And these men faced extreme violence. Although the Emsland camps were headed by a senior police officer as director, the real masters were the SS camp commanders—all of them embittered First World War veterans who had joined the Nazi movement before its electoral breakthrough in 1930—and their brutal guards.155

As in other early camps, SS violence reached a terrifying crescendo whenever well-known politicians and Jews arrived.156 On September 13, 1933, one such transport of around twenty men from Oranienburg reached Börgermoor. Their arrival had been anticipated for days by SS guards, who pounced on the newcomers and soon pulled out the two most prominent prisoners, Friedrich Ebert and Ernst Heilmann. Their “welcome” in the SS camp Börgermoor was even more brutal than it had been in the SA camp Oranienburg five weeks earlier. On arrival, both men were humiliated and beaten with slats and table legs. Later, the two SPD politicians were thrown into a hole, together with three new Jewish prisoners (among them the rabbi Max Abraham), for a “meeting of the parliamentary group,” as their tormentors called it. Bleeding profusely and pleading for mercy, Heilmann was briefly buried alive, while Ebert apparently refused an SS order to kick the others and was threatened with execution. Some prisoners felt that Ebert’s defiance impressed the guards, who later seemed to go a little easier on him.

Meanwhile, the suffering of Ernst Heilmann in Börgermoor continued. Once, he had to spend an entire day smeared from head to toe in human excrement. Another time, he crawled on all fours into the prisoner barracks, led on a chain by an SS man, barked loudly, and exclaimed “I am the Jewish Parliamentary Deputy Heilmann from the SPD!” before he was maimed by guard dogs. Just before he had arrived in the Emsland, Heilmann had told a fellow prisoner that he could not endure another day like his first one in Oranienburg. But in Börgermoor, every day was like a new “welcome,” as guards invented ever more sadistic games to drive him to his grave. Finally, on September 29, 1933, Ernst Heilmann, his body battered and his spirit broken, tried to take his own life, stumbling like a sleepwalker over the sentry line. Several shots missed before a bullet felled him. But Heilmann’s suffering was not over yet, not for a long time. He was hit in the thigh, and after a spell in the hospital he came back to the Emsland in 1934, this time to Esterwegen camp.157

In the weeks before Heilmann’s shooting, the Emsland guards killed three men. Another three prisoners were murdered in early October 1933, among them the former police president of Hamburg-Altona, an SPD official executed on orders of the Esterwegen commander for his alleged part in the death of two storm troopers back in 1932.158 Details of the SS excesses spread among the local population and soon reached the Prussian Ministry of the Interior, which eventually stepped in. On October 17, 1933, it ordered the immediate transport of all prominent prisoners and Jews out of the Emsland camps. Local SS guards were fuming when almost eighty prisoners, including Friedrich Ebert and Max Abraham, were led away that afternoon by the police. The transport went to Lichtenburg, and despite poor conditions and occasional SS abuses there, the prisoners were greatly relieved to have escaped the Emsland. “Finally,” one of the Jewish men recalled, “the special treatment came to an end.”159

Back in the Emsland, there was no letup. At least five more prisoners died in the second half of October 1933. The outrages inside the camps (widely publicized abroad), and the growing conflicts between brawling SS guards and the local population outside, finally prompted Göring to intervene in spectacular fashion. On Sunday, November 5, 1933, a heavily armed police detachment moved to the Emsland to depose the SS. The camps were surrounded and the army was apparently put on alert in case of a violent confrontation. Following a tense overnight standoff, during which the furiously drunk guards smashed buildings, burned down a barrack, threatened to shoot prisoners, and even proposed to arm them for a joint uprising, the hungover SS men meekly handed over their weapons and dispersed without resistance. The exit of the former SS masters could not have been more inglorious.160

But life in the Emsland camps did not quiet down for long after the dramatic demise of the SS. Following a more benign interlude of police rule, Göring handed guard duties over to SA units in December 1933. Soon there were more excesses and murders, as many SA men acted just like their SS predecessors.161 The victims included some new “bigwigs.” Among them was Hans Litten, who was taken from Brandenburg to Esterwegen in January 1934; after weeks of torment and draining work, he fainted and fell off a truck that ran over his leg. Around the same time, Carl von Ossietzky arrived, almost a year after his and Litten’s arrest in Berlin. He, too, was singled out for more abuses during the work on the moor, and quickly lost hope of ever leaving the camp alive.162

Unable to bring the Emsland camps under control, Göring prepared to abandon them. In April 1934, he presided over the closure of Börgermoor and Neusustrum, two camps he had seen as permanent places for extralegal detention only a few months earlier. Now only the two Esterwegen camps were left, holding no more than 1,162 prisoners on April 25, 1934.163 In faraway Bavaria, Heinrich Himmler must have rubbed his hands with glee at the failure of Göring’s project. While the Emsland complex was breaking apart, his own large camp was still going strong.164

Himmler’s Model Camp

“I became police president of Munich and took over the police headquarters, Heydrich got the political section,” SS leader Heinrich Himmler reminisced some ten years later about March 9, 1933, the day that set him on track to become the undisputed master of the Third Reich terror machine, with his faithful lieutenant Reinhard Heydrich by his side. “This is how we started,” Himmler added wistfully.165 His party career had begun before 1933, of course. Born in Munich in 1900, he was one of those angry young men from the war youth generation—too young to serve at the front—who joined radical right-wing groups after the German defeat and revolution of 1918, making up for missing the First World War by fighting a proxy battle against the Weimar Republic. A foot soldier in the nascent Nazi movement, Himmler’s big break came in 1929 when he took over the SS. Initially, it was a small bodyguard unit, no more than a peripheral part of the powerful SA under Himmler’s mentor, Ernst Röhm. But the sly and ambitious Himmler quickly turned the SS into a paramilitary force in its own right. Himmler, who unlike most Nazi activists came from the educated middle class, positioned the SS as the self-professed racial and soldierly elite of the Nazi movement, allowing him to indulge his frustrated military fantasies. By the time of the Nazi capture of power in 1933, Himmler’s SS had grown from a few hundred men to over fifty thousand, and it became ever more powerful as its leader rose through the Nazi state. On April 1, 1933, Himmler had already taken charge of the Bavarian political police and auxiliary police, and set out to build a powerful apparatus of repression in his home state.166

Dachau stood at the heart of Himmler’s vision. On March 13, 1933, a commission inspected the old munitions factory and approved its use as a camp for protective custody. Preparations began the following day, and on March 20, 1933, Himmler proclaimed the creation of the “first concentration camp” to the press. The self-assurance with which the political novice presented his radical vision was remarkable. The remit of Dachau was not restricted to Communist functionaries, he said, but extended to all left-wing opponents who “threaten the security of the state.” The police had to be uncompromising, Himmler added, and restrain these functionaries for as long as necessary. And Himmler was thinking big: Dachau would hold some five thousand protective custody prisoners, more than the average prisoner population of all large Bavarian state prisons in 1932.167

Himmler’s camp soon became the center for lawless detention in Bavaria. Prisoners arrived in Dachau from across the state, once protective custody was centralized in the hands of the Bavarian political police, and in just a few months, prisoner numbers rose from 151 (March 31) to 2,036 (June 30).168 By then, the camp’s appearance had changed, too. The prisoners had moved from the provisional compound into a larger one, which they had helped to build on the old factory grounds. The new Dachau camp compound, enclosed by barbed wire and guard towers, contained ten one-story barracks made of brick and concrete, which had once housed workshops of the munitions factory. Every barrack was subdivided into five rooms with bunk beds, each designed for fifty-four prisoners (attached to each room was a small washroom with sinks). Also inside the prisoner compound was the infirmary, the laundry, and the roll call square. Right outside was the large SS shooting range—a daily reminder of the guards’ dominance—and several more buildings for prisoners, including a canteen and a new bunker. Beyond these huts stood some administrative buildings, workshops, and the guards’ quarters. The whole area was surrounded by yet more barbed wire and a long wall with guard towers. To walk around the entire camp complex, one prisoner estimated, would have taken two hours.169

The most momentous change in Dachau did not affect its appearance, however, but its staff, as Dachau turned into an SS camp. The first guards had come from the regular state police, but Himmler regarded this as a short-term measure only. Sometime in late March 1933, a small SS detachment was sent to Dachau, officially deployed as auxiliary police, and on April 2, 1933, Himmler ordered Dachau to be placed under the SS. After several days of training by the state police, the SS troop, which had grown to 138 men, stepped up. On April 11, 1933, a select band of SS men took over the prisoner compound. Meanwhile, SS sentries stationed around the barbed wire, some of them barely able to point their weapons in the right direction, continued to be supervised and drilled by a small police force. The police finally departed at the end of May 1933, when the entire Dachau operation fell to the SS.170 The basic structure of Bavarian lawless terror was now in place: the political police carried out arrests and sent protective custody prisoners to the camp in Dachau, where they were guarded by the SS. Crucially, both SS and police came under the leadership of one man, Heinrich Himmler, who had created the template for the later Germany-wide camp system.

Himmler knew that his SS men would rule Dachau differently from the state police. The first SS detachment had been met on the premises by the Munich SS district leader, Baron von Malsen-Ponickau. In a chilling speech, he pictured the prisoners as beasts who had planned to massacre the Nazis; now the SS would hit back. Private Hans Steinbrenner, who was among the assembled men, recalled that the baron ended his address with an open incitement to murder: “If one [prisoner] tries to escape, you shoot and I hope you don’t miss. The more of these types die, the better.”171These words were still ringing in the ears of the SS men when they took over the prisoner compound on April 11, 1933. They were led by the new commandant, the thirty-three-year-old SS Hauptsturmführer Hilmar Wäckerle, who proved no less belligerent than the bloodthirsty baron. Wäckerle was yet another Nazi activist of the first hour—an ex-combatant of the First World War and of Weimar’s virtual civil war—and he played up his brutal persona inside the camp, where he was rarely seen without his bullwhip and his huge dog.172

The SS inaugurated its reign over Dachau with an explosion of violence. On their first day in charge, the SS men battered newcomers, saving their worst for Jews, and at night drunkenly attacked their victims inside the barracks.173 By the following day, April 12, 1933, they had whipped themselves up into a murderous frenzy. Sometime in the late afternoon, Hans Steinbrenner called out the names of four prisoners. Among them was Erwin Kahn, in Dachau since its inception, who had assured his parents just a week earlier that he had no complaints about his treatment: “I hope!! to be free soon,” he wrote in what would be his last letter. The other three men, Rudolf Benario, Ernst Goldmann, and Arthur Kahn, were all in their early twenties and new to the camp, having arrived the previous day. All four men had already suffered terribly at the hands of the SS—a little earlier on April 12, Steinbrenner had whipped them until they were covered in blood—and they feared more torture as he led them out of the compound with a few other SS men, supposedly for punitive labor. After they reached the nearby woods, one of the guards asked the prisoners innocently if the tools they had shouldered were heavy. When Erwin Kahn said that it was not too bad, the guard answered: “We’ll soon wipe that dirty smile off your face.” The SS men then raised their rifles and fired from behind at the prisoners. After their screams fell silent, three of them lay dead, sprawled facedown. Erwin Kahn survived with a gaping head wound, and an SS man was just about to finish him off when one of the remaining state police officers arrived on the scene. He ensured that the badly wounded prisoner was rushed to a Munich hospital. Erwin Kahn was fully conscious when his wife saw him there three days later and he told her what had happened. A few hours later he was dead, too, probably strangled during the night by the guards who had stood watch outside his hospital room.174

The first murders in Dachau were premeditated, designed to demonstrate the new SS rulers’ power over the prisoners, now that the police reign was over.175 But how did the SS select their first victims from among the four hundred or so Dachau prisoners?176Strikingly, none of the four doomed prisoners were prominent political opponents. Two had been lowly local left-wing activists, the other two had pretty much stayed out of politics altogether. “In my whole life I never joined a party,” Erwin Kahn wrote in his last letter, puzzled by his detention in Dachau. What set Kahn and the other three apart from most other Dachau prisoners was their Jewish descent. All four had been identified by the SS as Jews, and as such they were regarded as the most dangerous enemies of all. As Hans Steinbrenner told one of the other Dachau inmates shortly after the murders: “We’ll leave you guys alone, but we’ll bump off all the Jews.”177

Once the Dachau SS men started to kill, they found it hard to stop. After a lull of a few weeks—waiting to see if they would get away with murder—they executed several more prisoners. Hatred of the Communists was clearly an important factor, with some KPD functionaries among the dead (and Hans Beimler only just escaping a similar fate). But extreme anti-Semitism overshadowed everything; at least eight of the twelve prisoners murdered in six weeks from April 12 to May 26, 1933, were of Jewish descent, making Dachau by far the most lethal early camp for Jews in Germany. Most exposed were Communist activists, who embodied the SS hate figure of the “Jewish Bolshevist”; only one Jewish KPD supporter dragged to Dachau in 1933 survived.178

Throughout the initial period of SS rule, the Dachau commandant Wäckerle acted as if he were omnipotent. This also affected the special camp regulations he introduced in May 1933. These rules placed the camp under “martial law,” exercised by the commandant, and threatened any prisoner with the “death penalty” if he dared to incite others to “deny obedience” to the SS.179 Although capital punishment was still the monopoly of the regular judicial system, the Nazi veteran Wäckerle believed that Dachau was beyond the law.

Dachau Under Pressure

Early on April 13, 1933, attorney Josef Hartinger from the Munich state prosecutor’s office set off for an urgent trip to Dachau, where he was met by Commandant Wäckerle. Having learned about the violent deaths of Rudolf Benario, Ernst Goldmann, and Arthur Kahn the previous day, Hartinger followed standard procedure and inspected the scene. The attorney soon came to question the official SS version that the prisoners had been killed as they escaped and that a fourth prisoner, the seriously wounded Erwin Kahn, had been caught in the line of fire. The suspicion of foul play deepened after Erwin Kahn died mysteriously in the hospital and his widow reported his posthumous account to Hartinger. But the case went nowhere. It was hard to contradict the stonewalling SS men, and Hartinger’s own superior initially showed little appetite for a fight with the Dachau SS, mindful perhaps of the demonstrative support it had received from Police Commissioner Himmler: on the very day Hartinger visited Dachau, Himmler announced at a press conference that the four prisoners—whom he described as Communists—had been shot as they tried to flee, coining what would become a standard phrase for concealing KL murders (a few years later, in a secret speech to SS leaders, Himmler made clear that he knew very well that “shot while trying to escape” was a euphemism for execution).180

Attorney Hartinger was soon back in Dachau in May 1933, as one suspect prisoner death followed another. The autopsies of victims like Louis Schloss, who had evidently been battered to death, left him and his colleagues in no doubt that they were looking at a spate of murders. They became even more alarmed after reading the homicidal camp regulations introduced by Wäckerle, who blithely told them that the rules had been approved by Himmler. Wäckerle and his men felt invincible, obstructing and taunting Hartinger and his judicial colleagues whenever they showed up inside the camp; some guards barely bothered anymore to camouflage their murders.

The confrontation between the Dachau SS and the law came to a head in early June 1933. On June 1, the Munich state prosecutor’s office launched preliminary proceedings against several Dachau SS men; Commandant Wäckerle was named as an accessory. On the same day, Hartinger’s superior, the Munich chief public prosecutor, held a lunchtime meeting with Heinrich Himmler, who had to promise his full cooperation with the judicial investigation. Himmler’s defeat seemed complete when he was forced, at a hastily arranged conference on June 2 with the Bavarian Reich governor von Epp and several ministers, to cut loose his tarnished commandant. At the time, this seemed like a humiliating setback for Himmler. In the long run, however, he probably regarded it as a blessing in disguise. The judicial investigation petered out after his police officials asked for the case files and then “lost” them. As for Wäckerle’s sacking, Himmler may have been quite happy to sacrifice him, having clashed over the commandant’s brazen provocation of the legal authorities. Himmler needed a shrewder man to lead his camp and he found the perfect candidate in, of all places, a mental asylum. The patient’s name was Theodor Eicke.181

On June 26, 1933, Theodor Eicke officially took command in Dachau, and over the coming years this bluff and burly man, who often had a Virginia cigar dangling from his lips, dominated the SS concentration camps. In a quirk of fate, the judicial effort to stop the murders in Dachau had paved the way for the entrance of the man who would mastermind the transformation of Dachau and other early camps into permanent sites of terror. While Himmler set the general direction for the later SS camp system, Eicke became its powerful motor. He was a roughneck, a bully, and a fanatical Nazi. Always spoiling for a fight, this overbearing and vindictive man suspected foes everywhere. Feared by his rivals for his obstinacy and temper, he felt that his destiny would finally be fulfilled under Nazi rule, after years of personal struggle and frustration. But he could hardly have got off to a worse start in the Third Reich.

As a young man in 1909, aged seventeen, Eicke had left his modest family home in Alsace (then part of Germany) without completing school, determined to make a career for himself. He volunteered for the army and quickly took to military life. However, he did not cover himself in glory during almost ten years as a paymaster, and when the German army downscaled after the war, he was discharged without reaching officer rank. Married with a young child and few prospects, Eicke never really adjusted to civilian life. He failed miserably to make the grade as a police officer, a perceived injustice that rankled to the end of his days, and finally found steady but dull employment with the chemical giant IG Farben in Ludwigshafen, working mainly in its security branch. Eicke’s humdrum life was shaken up in the late 1920s, when he found the Nazi movement and with it a new calling. In July 1930 he joined the SS, with membership number 2921, and soon gave all his spare time to the cause. Eicke proved himself as an able organizer and leader. He became a powerful regional commander and soon caught Himmler’s eye. Eicke’s reputation as a desperado grew further when the police discovered dozens of homemade bombs in his flat. Sentenced in summer 1932 to two years’ penitentiary, Eicke absconded to Lake Garda in Fascist Italy, entrusted by Himmler with the command over a local terrorist training camp for Austrian Nazis; once, he had the honor of showing the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini around.

After Eicke returned to Hitler’s Germany in mid-February 1933, hoping to harvest the fruits of his sacrifices for the cause, he was bitterly disappointed. As he jostled for position, his longstanding feud with the Gauleiter of the Palatinate Josef Bürckel, who branded Eicke as “syphilitic and completely mad,” escalated and ended in Eicke’s ignominious incarceration, first in prison and then from late March 1933 in a Würzburg mental asylum. In addition, Eicke was stripped of his SS rank. Although the consulting doctor Werner Heyde—later a pivotal figure in the murderous “euthanasia” program—quickly concluded that his prominent patient was not clinically ill, Himmler let Eicke stew, ignoring his desperate pleas. By early summer, the Reichsführer SS finally decided that it was time to bring him back into the fold. On June 2, 1933—the very day that he agreed to dismiss Commandant Wäckerle—Himmler informed the Würzburg asylum that Eicke could be released and might soon find himself in an important position. His selection of Eicke as the new Dachau commandant was a characteristic move for Himmler, who often bought himself the loyalty of failed SS men by giving them a chance for redemption. Sure enough, Eicke repaid his master with blind devotion for the rest of his life.

When Theodor Eicke took up his post in Dachau a few weeks later, now reinstated as SS Oberführer, he knew that, at the age of forty-one, this might well be his final chance to make something of his botched life. Unlike many other commandants of early camps, Eicke did not see his appointment as a diversion or nuisance, but as an opportunity to build a career. He grabbed it with his customary zeal. The concentration camps, he wrote to Himmler a few years later in one of his self-aggrandizing letters, became his life’s work.182

During his first days in Dachau, Eicke observed the SS routines, walking around and making notes, as he drew up plans for restructuring the camp. He worked around the clock and even slept in his office. “Now Eicke is in his element,” one SS man later commented. Eicke soon changed the face of Dachau and became its real founding father. He oversaw a major overhaul of SS staff, creating a regimented troop loyal to him. Most of Wäckerle’s closest aides departed, among them the notorious Hans Steinbrenner. Eicke also got rid of the querulous leader of SS sentries and replaced him with Sturmführer Michael Lippert, who would come to play a particularly malignant part. Finally, Eicke drew up new rules of engagement, to make SS violence appear less arbitrary, and introduced a more coherent administrative structure for the SS staff.183

Himmler was delighted by Eicke’s progress. On August 4, 1933, he visited Dachau with SA leader Ernst Röhm, still his nominal superior. Following their inspection of the camp, they were guests of honor during the unveiling of a monument (built by prisoners) dedicated to the Nazi “martyr” Horst Wessel, a young SA firebrand killed in a dispute with local Communists in Berlin in 1930, and celebrated by Nazi propaganda as a symbol for the deadly struggle against Bolshevism. During a festive get-together in the large SS mess hall that evening, Himmler and Röhm applauded the discipline of the guards and singled out Commandant Eicke for special praise. In Röhm’s case, this would prove a grimly ironic moment, in light of what Eicke would do to him less than a year later.184

Behind Dachau’s front as a model camp, the torment continued. Eicke did not want to go any easier on the inmates than his predecessor. He just wanted a slicker operation. And so the abuse carried on, with “bigwigs” and Jews still suffering the worst treatment and hardest labor, like pulling a huge rolling barrel to flatten the paths inside the camp.185 Eicke’s approach was summed up in his camp regulations of October 1, 1933, which greatly expanded the list of punishable prisoner offenses, compared with Wäckerle’s earlier rules, and pronounced even more savage penalties. They also continued to threaten prisoners with death. Eicke warned all “political agitators and subversive intellectuals” that SS men will “reach for your throats and silence you according to your own methods.” Prisoners suspected of sabotage, mutiny, or agitation would be executed on the basis of “revolutionary law”: “Anyone who attacks a guard or an SS man physically, refuses obedience or, at his work place, refuses to work … [or] bawls, shouts, agitates or makes speeches on the march or at work will be shot dead on the spot as a mutineer or subsequently hanged.”186

Armed with this license, Dachau SS guards continued to murder individual prisoners. By the end of 1933, at least ten more inmates had died on Eicke’s watch (three of the dead were Jews).187 And although the murders were better camouflaged than before, they provoked further investigations and political wrangling. Himmler soon found himself in another tight corner and had to be bailed out in December 1933 by Ernst Röhm. Using his considerable political muscle, Röhm stalled a judicial inquiry into three suspicious prisoner deaths by arguing that the “political nature” of the matter made it “presently unsuitable” for legal intervention. Once again, justice was denied.188

Dachau was something of an outlier in 1933, standing at the extreme end of a wide spectrum of early camps. From the beginning, SS leader Heinrich Himmler oversaw a particularly radical approach to lawless detention; more prisoners were killed in Dachau than in any other early camp. By comparison, some other large state camps were considerably less brutal. Inside Osthofen in Hesse, for example, not one of the 2,500 or more prisoners died.189 Nor did all other official camp regulations resemble the radical Dachau ones. The police rules for state camps in Saxony, passed in summer 1933, explicitly banned physical punishment.190

But even in Dachau, the epicenter of early terror, death remained the exception; out of 4,821 men dragged through the camp in 1933, no more than twenty-five lost their lives.191 The other inmates suffered daily drills and humiliations, and were always at risk of hideous assaults. And yet, they survived, and even snatched some moments beyond violence; after lunch, for example, prisoners would normally rest and play chess, smoke, read, and sometimes play an instrument. Dachau—like the other early camps—was not yet consumed by deadly force.192

The Roots of the Nazi Camps

On August 11, 1932, the Nazi daily Völkischer Beobachter had carried a prophetic story on its front page. More than five months before Hitler was appointed chancellor, the paper predicted that a future Nazi government would pass an emergency decree to arrest left-wing functionaries and put “suspects and intellectual instigators in concentration camps.” This was not the first time the Nazis had anticipated the use of camps against their enemies. In an article as far back as 1921, when he was no more than an unusually venomous agitator in Munich, Hitler had promised to “stop the Jews from undermining our nation, if necessary by keeping their bacilli safely in concentration camps.”193 Clearly, the idea of setting up camps had crossed the minds of Nazi leaders long before they came anywhere near power. But there was no direct line from their early threats to the later camps. The scattered references of the Weimar years owed much to the political rhetoric of the time; at most, they were vague statements of intent. The improvisation after the capture of power makes abundantly clear that there was no blueprint in Nazi files. When Hitler took charge of Germany in 1933, the Nazi concentration camp still had to be invented.194

This is not to say that the early camps came from nowhere, as has sometimes been suggested.195 On the whole, Nazi officials took their inspiration less from foreign precedents than from existing national disciplinary discourses and practices, with the most important influences—especially on larger and more permanent state camps, like Dachau and those in the Emsland—coming from the German prison system and from the army.

SS officers like Theodor Eicke often stressed the uniqueness of their camps, denying any resemblance to regular prisons and penitentiaries.196 But back in 1933, Nazi officials borrowed liberally from the traditional prison service. Indeed, many officials—including Eicke—could draw on personal experiences of the Weimar prison, which had mostly been strict and highly regimented (contrary to later Nazi caricatures). Having been locked up for political extremism during the Weimar years, these men now applied the lessons they had learned to the early camps.

The masters of the early camps copied from the prisons’ rigid schedules and rules, lifting some passages directly from existing regulations. Traditional disciplinary punishments from the prison service, like aggravated detention (depriving prisoners for several weeks of their bed, fresh air, and regular food), found their way straight into the early camps.197 Even flogging, introduced as an official disciplinary punishment under Eicke in Dachau, had its roots in German prisons: until it was abandoned after the First World War as inhumane and counterproductive, men in Prussian penitentiaries could be officially punished with thirty or even sixty lashes.198

Another element appropriated from the prison service was the so-called progressive stages system, which had been practiced in all large German penal institutions from the mid-1920s. Prisoners were divided into three groups, with sanctions for supposedly ill-disciplined or incorrigible inmates, and corresponding benefits for more docile ones.199 In 1933, a similar stages system—with significantly harsher sanctions—was introduced in several early camps, at least on paper. When Hans Beimler arrived in Dachau, for example, the SS immediately put him into stage three, officially reserved for prisoners “whose previous life justifies a particularly severe supervision.”200

Yet another influence on early camps was forced labor, which stood at the heart of the modern prison, thanks to its easy compatibility with very different conceptions of detention. Traditionalists had long seen hard manual work as a punishment. Prison reformers, meanwhile, regarded it as an instrument of rehabilitation; repetitive labor in their cells would inoculate inmates with a strict work ethic, and toil outside (in farming or land cultivation) would tie deviants to the countryside and help cleanse “degenerate” cities.201Similar beliefs had underpinned other institutions of social welfare and discipline in Weimar Germany, like workhouses and the camps of the Voluntary Labor Service, which left their own marks on the early Nazi camps.202 Drawing on these precedents, forced labor figured fairly prominently in early camps, not least because it could be presented as a means of both repression and redemption. Reporting the opening of the new Prussian state camp in Brandenburg in August 1933, a local newspaper announced that work would force prisoners to “reflect at leisure upon their earlier actions and assertions” and help them “to reform.” What readers were not told, of course, was that in Erich Mühsam’s case such work meant wiping the floors while SS men kicked and beat him, dragged him by his hair, and forced him to lick the dirty water.203

Just as the masters of the early camps tried to differentiate themselves from prison officials, they drew a line between themselves and regular soldiers. But there was no mistaking the influence of military traditions, which were widely copied and perverted inside camps. Again, SA and SS officials could often fall back on their own experience. Many commandants were First World War veterans (some had even spent time in POW camps), and so were some of the guards.204 Those who had been too young to enlist had often soaked up the army spirit in extremist paramilitary formations like the SA, which was consciously modeled on the army, with its flags, uniforms, and rituals, and had provided its members with comprehensive military training.205

“When a new arrival first enters the concentration camp,” a former Dachau prisoner recalled, he finds “a kind of military camp.”206 There were many echoes of army life in the early camps, starting with the guards’ demeanor. The Dachau SS, for example, greatly prized military bearing among its men, who learned to march in formation in exaggerated goose step, proudly wearing uniforms with army-inspired insignia.207 Army veterans among the prisoners were also familiar with daily marches (accompanied by military music) and roll calls (with barked commands like “Caps off” and “Eyes right”).208 “As an old soldier I knew that the wisest thing was to say Yes and Amen to everything,” an ex-prisoner reported about his time in Esterwegen.209 During their encounters with guards, prisoners had to offer a salute and “adopt a military stance,” Theodor Eicke ordered (similar rules existed inside German prisons). Eicke also insisted that the start of the inmates’ work day was marked by an SS trumpeter with the bugle call to arms.210 The militarization of some early camps even extended to everyday language. In Dachau, each barrack constituted a “prisoner company,” made up of five “platoons” (i.e., five rooms) supervised by an SS “company leader.”211

Violent abuses in early camps were also inspired by military routines, starting with the ubiquitous “welcome,” an exaggerated version of initiation rituals common in the armed forces.212 Then there were all the drills. Exhausting training had been the norm for army recruits in the German Empire, sometimes accompanied by slaps and punches from commanding officers.213 The amplified counterpart in the early camps was prisoner “sport,” a succession of torturous exercises such as slow knee bends and unending push-ups, as well as crawling, hopping, and running. In the army, such drills aimed at fusing recruits into a cohesive unit. In the camps, they were meant to break the prisoners.214 Mindless discipline continued inside prisoners’ living quarters, with the pedantic rules giving guards a ready excuse for more abuse. Once more, many of the routines mirrored military practices, including the daily “bed building,” where prisoners had to make their beds perfectly straight, with sharp edges like boxes; prisoners often had to use strings and spirit levels to evade punishment. Again, army veterans were at an advantage. “I had been a soldier,” a prisoner in a Berlin camp later wrote. “I know this drill.” Some better-off inmates, meanwhile, used food and money to pay skilled colleagues to help them.215

The novices behind the early Nazi camps borrowed established disciplinary methods—from the prison, the army, and other institutions—as a matter of convenience and opportunism. This had an unintended, though not unwelcome, side effect. By drawing on familiar customs and ideas, the early camps (and protective custody) did not appear like a complete break with German traditions. To some members of the public, this made the camps seem less exceptional than they really were. As Jane Caplan has said, the inflection with existing practices helped to disguise “the ruthless character of Nazi repression, and eased its official and popular acceptance.”216


Contrary to the pervasive myth of ignorance about the KL, which dominated German memory for decades after the war, the camps had lodged themselves early and deeply into the minds of the population—so much so that some ordinary Germans already started dreaming about them in 1933. As one local newspaper concluded in May of that year, everyone was talking about protective custody.217 The regime did not hide the early camps’ existence. On the contrary, the press—soon coordinated by the new rulers—carried countless articles, some initiated by the authorities, others by journalists themselves. The Nazi media emphasized that the main targets were political opponents of the new order, primarily Communist “terrorists,” followed by SPD “fat cats” and other “dangerous characters.” A newsreel, shown in German cinemas in 1933, described prisoners of a camp in Halle as “the main rabble-rousers among the red murderers and incendiaries.” The detention of well-known political figures was given particular prominence: a photograph of the arrival in Oranienburg of Friedrich Ebert and Ernst Heilmann, described in the press as “one-time greats,” even featured on the front page of the Völkischer Beobachter.218

Several historians have suggested that most Germans welcomed such reports because they supported the camps and the regime’s broader aims.219 There is some truth in this. Given the pervasive hatred of the Left among Nazi followers and national conservatives alike, the authorities knew that their crackdown was likely to be greeted with applause in these quarters.220 But propaganda about the early camps was not just about consensus building. Those who rejected Nazism heard a very different message: “There is still room in the concentration camp,” one regional paper declared darkly in August 1933, summing up the camps’ deterrent function.221 More generally, one should tread carefully when judging the mood in the Third Reich, because of the evident difficulty of measuring popular opinion in a totalitarian dictatorship, and because official propaganda messages were contradicted by rumors.222 When we examine reactions to the early camps, we have to address a rather more complex set of questions: who knew what, when, and reacted how, to which aspect of the camps?

Witnesses and Whispers

The Nazi authorities were never in full control of the camps’ image. Although the regime dominated the public sphere, its authorized version of the early camps, as disseminated in the media, was often undercut. In 1933, there were still many ways of learning the truth, and a large number of ordinary Germans gained a surprisingly accurate picture of what was really going on.223

Many Germans witnessed Nazi terror firsthand. Their first glimpse often came during processions of prominent prisoners through towns toward nearby camps. Along streets and squares lined with spectators, the prisoners, some of them wearing demeaning placards, were cursed, shoved, and spat at by jeering crowds of SA and SS men. When Erich Mühsam, Carl von Ossietzky, and Hans Litten marched with other prisoners through Sonnenburg to the camp on April 6, 1933, they were “frequently helped along” by the rubber truncheons of the guards, a local paper reported the following day.224

Such humiliating parades were not the only time locals came face-to-face with prisoners. Some inmates, for example, were deployed for public works outside the barbed wire, and their dress and demeanor spoke volumes about the treatment. Often, their work was designed as a demeaning spectacle, like in Oranienburg, where Commandant Schäfer once sent a group of left-wing politicians—among them the former SPD deputies Ernst Heilmann, Friedrich Ebert, and Gerhart Seger—into town to scratch old election posters from the walls.225

Germans who lived in the immediate vicinity of early camps also witnessed abuses inside. With so many early camps in the middle of towns and cities, it was impossible for the authorities to shut out all observers. In residential areas, neighbors occasionally saw the prisoners or, more often, heard them; tourists at Nuremberg castle could listen as prisoners were tortured in the cellars below. Sometimes witnesses tried to intervene. In Stettin, locals complained to the police about screams and shots fired at night inside the Bredow camp.226 Further news spread through encounters with the camp staff. Although guards were supposed to stay silent, some boasted loudly in local pubs about beating prisoners or even murdering them.227

Before long, many places across Germany were abuzz with news about crimes in local camps. In Wuppertal in western Germany, rumors about prisoner abuses in Kemna camp circulated widely, as leading Nazi officials conceded.228 Farther east, a local woman confided to a Lichtenburg prisoner that the townspeople of Prettin “know everything that goes on inside!”229 In the far north of the country, legal officials warned that cases of “serious ill-treatment” in Bredow were “known among the general public of Stettin and Pomerania.”230 And around Munich in the south, there was talk about abuses, too, with sayings like “Shut up, or you’ll end up in Dachau!” and “Please, dear Lord, make me dumb, so that I won’t to Dachau come” circulating widely by summer 1933.231 But the capital of whisperers must have been Berlin, with its vast number of early camps. In spring 1933, recalled Hans Litten’s mother, Irmgard, it was impossible to step into a café or an underground train without hearing all about the abuses.232

Irmgard Litten herself had more to go on than hearsay when it came to the early camps. Like many other relatives of prisoners, she received regular letters from her son—the intervals varied, ranging from a week to a month—and like many other inmates, Hans Litten smuggled references about his condition into his correspondence. Writing from Sonnenburg in spring 1933, the lawyer Litten mentioned a fictitious “client” of his who was “on such bad terms with the other residents that they constantly attack him when he comes home at night.” He also advised another “client” to make his will because he was dying. Later on, Hans Litten used a special cipher to dupe the censors. In his first coded letter, he asked for opium to kill himself.233

Many relatives could see for themselves how their loved ones were being treated. In sharp contrast to the later SS camps, the authorities in 1933 often allowed visits, just as in prisons. Some camps permitted bimonthly meetings for a few minutes under strict observation. Others allowed weekly visits lasting several hours, during which prisoners were left largely unsupervised.234 What the visitors saw often confirmed their worst fears, with the marks of abuse and torture clearly visible. When Irmgard Litten met her son in Spandau in spring 1933, shortly after his transfer from Sonnenburg, he was difficult to recognize, with a swollen face and a deformed, strangely crooked head. His whole appearance, his mother noted, was ghostly.235

Normally, visits were authorized by the camp officials. But on occasion, relatives talked their way into early camps, almost unthinkable in the later SS system. When Gertrud Hübner learned that her husband was held at the SA camp on General-Pape-Strasse in Berlin, she immediately went to the camp and persisted until the guards admitted her. “My husband made a very run-down and tormented impression,” she remembered. “I took my husband into my arms and he started to cry.”236

On their return from early camps, relatives often shared their impressions with friends and family, starting off a whirlwind of whispers. Some women displayed their husbands’ bloodied shirts and trousers, which they had received in exchange for fresh clothing; in May 1933, Erich Mühsam’s wife, Kreszentia, even confronted the Prussian civil servant in charge of protective custody, Dr. Mittelbach, brandishing the blood-soaked underwear she had been sent from Sonnenburg.237 News of deaths also spread fast. Following mass turnouts at burials of prominent political prisoners, the Prussian Ministry of the Interior ordered local authorities in November 1933 to forbid any more funerals “with a dissenting tone.”238

As popular knowledge of abuses spread, the authorities came under pressure to release individual inmates. Some initiatives came from religious groups.239 But mostly, it was relatives who lobbied on behalf of prisoners. Within a few months, Irmgard Litten, who was well connected, had contacted the Reich defense minister Blomberg, Reich minister of justice Gürtner, Reich bishop Müller, and Hermann Göring’s adjutant.240 Much to the annoyance of camp and police officers, such campaigns for imprisoned men sometimes caused senior state officials to step in.241 In Hans Litten’s case, his treatment occasionally improved following interventions from above.242 Yet Litten remained inside the camps, as did other prominent prisoners. Even Friedrich Ebert was not released, despite support from Reich president Hindenburg himself, who had been petitioned by Ebert’s mother to spare her son from being abused “as a humiliated laboring prisoner.”243

Friedrich Ebert was unfortunate. Most other prisoners of the early camps were soon set free again—not because of outside intervention, but because the authorities felt that a brief period of shock and awe was normally enough to force opponents into compliance. As a result, there was a rapid turnover in 1933, with the places of released prisoners quickly filled with new ones. The duration of detention was unpredictable. Prisoners who expected to regain their freedom after a few days were mostly disappointed, but it was rare for them to remain inside for a year or more. Longer spells were served in the bigger, more permanent camps, but even in a large camp like Oranienburg, around two-thirds of all prisoners stayed for less than three months.244 The result was a constant stream of former prisoners back into German society, and it was these men and women who would become the most important sources of private knowledge about the early camps.

Popular Reactions

Martin Grünwiedl had just been released from Dachau in early 1934, after more than ten months inside, when two of his Communist comrades, who operated undercover in Munich, asked him to write a report about the camp. Despite the risks, the thirty-two-year-old decorator produced a remarkable thirty-page account of SS crimes called “Dachau Prisoners Speak Out,” incorporating testimonies from several former inmates. Following painstaking preparations, Grünwiedl and four helpers then copied the pamphlet. Equipped with tents, food, carbon paper, and a copying machine, they cycled to a remote islet in the idyllic Isar River, dressed as vacationers. After several anxious days, the men returned to Munich to complete their work. When all was done, Grünwiedl handed around four hundred copies to underground KPD officials. Some 250 more copies were put into mailboxes or sent to sympathizers and public figures, with instructions to pass on the pamphlet “so that it is read as widely as possible!”245

The resisters clearly faced huge obstacles: months of dangerous work involving more than a dozen individuals, several of whom were later arrested (among them Grünwiedl, who found himself back in Dachau), had yielded no more than a few hundred copies. But the production of the pamphlet also demonstrates the determination of left-wing opponents to spread the word about the regime and its camps. Grünwiedl and his friends were not alone. There was still a sizable resistance movement in 1933–34, turning out hundreds of thousands of underground newspapers and flyers.246Some publications were hidden inside harmless books, like a Communist pamphlet on the torture of Hans Litten and others in Sonnenburg, distributed inside the cover of a medical textbook about kidney and bladder disease.247 Several prisoner reports circulated widely in Germany, among them an account by Gerhart Seger, written in Czechoslovakia after he managed to escape from Oranienburg in early December 1933.248

When it came to news about the camps, word of mouth was even more important than the written word. Upon release, prisoners often had to vow to stay silent, otherwise, guards threatened, they would be taken back to the camp or beaten to death.249 But such threats could not stop former inmates from talking to family and friends, who in turn talked to others, in a countrywide game of pass the message.250 There was so much talk that some observers concluded that everyone “knew or had heard about someone who had been to a concentration camp once.”251

Even former inmates unable to speak about their experiences—because of fear or trauma—bore witness to the camps.252 Their broken teeth, battered bodies, and terrified silences were often more revealing than words; it could take months for visible injuries to heal, and some victims never recovered.253 Doctors and nurses joined the growing circle of German professionals—including lawyers, civil servants, state attorneys, and morgue attendants—who knew about SA and SS crimes. In early October 1933, for example, a Wuppertal hospital attendant made the following case notes about twenty-five-year-old Erich Minz, who had been admitted from Kemna with a fractured skull and obvious signs of abuse: “Patient is completely unconscious. The whole body, especially the back and buttocks, are covered with welts and bruises, some blue-red, others blue-yellow-green. The nose and lips are swollen, blue-red.”254 Talk of torture soon spread outside hospital wards, especially when former prisoners died of their injuries.255

At the beginning of the Third Reich, then, Germany was awash with rumors about the early camps. Not only were most Germans aware of their existence, they knew that the camps stood for brutal repression. Camps were held up as the ultimate sanction in private and public disputes, and found their way into popular jokes, too:

“Sergeant,” anxiously said a warden in the concentration camp, “look at the prisoner in that bed. His spine is broken, his eyes are put out, and I think the damp has made him deaf. What shall we do with him?”

“Set him free! He is prepared to receive our Führer’s doctrine.”256

Information about the abuses was not spread evenly across the nation, however. There were differences among German regions—with far more early camps in urban than in rural areas—and between social groups. The best-informed Germans often came from the organized working class. After all, the vast majority of prisoners were Communist and Socialist activists, and their supporters—to say nothing of their wives, children, friends, and colleagues—were desperate to learn about their fate. Moreover, left-wing workers were most likely to receive underground pamphlets and to hear from released prisoners, who tended to share their experiences within their traditional milieus. Finally, with so many early camps established in the middle of working-class areas, supporters of the Left often had direct insight into the daily violence.

Class was not all-decisive, of course. There were middle-class professionals who knew all about the camps. Also, some reports by left-wing prisoners reached beyond the organized working class, sometimes circuitously. When the Dresden professor Victor Klemperer heard about the abuse of Erich Mühsam, for example, it was from a friend who had met up with exiled German Communists in Denmark.257 On the whole, however, the middle classes—who largely supported the Nazis by 1933—knew less about the reality of Nazi terror.258 They were also more inclined to dismiss rumors about abuses as lies spread by enemies of the new state.259 Still, Nazi followers were largely aware of the early camps’ dark side. So how did they react?

Nazi supporters from all classes and backgrounds hailed the regime’s crackdown on the Left. “You have to have order,” one factory foreman told his son in spring 1933, regarding the arrests of left-wingers.260 Many followers also welcomed harsh measures in the early camps; the Left’s danger justified brutal means, they believed, and “terrorists” deserved all the violence that came their way. Some even screamed abuse as prisoners were paraded through the streets. In Berlin, spectators egged on the brownshirts, shouting things like: “Finally you’ve got the dogs, beat them to death, or send them to Moscow.” But support for attacks on left-wing organizations did not always translate into support for violent attacks on left-wing activists.261 Looking back at the prewar years, Heinrich Himmler later admitted that the establishment of the camps had been greatly condemned by “circles outside the party.”262 Himmler may have embellished for effect, but still, some Nazi sympathizers were clearly uncomfortable about reports of abuses. There were various reasons for their unease. Having been drawn to the Nazi movement for its promise to restore public order following the Weimar street fighting, some supporters worried about the growing lawlessness of the early camps.263 Others were more concerned withGermany’s image abroad, as news about atrocities quickly spread across the border, where the early camps became a byword for the inhumanity of Hitler’s new Germany.264

The View from Abroad

If they could, they would take us to a concentration camp,” the satirist Kurt Tucholsky wrote from the safety of Switzerland about Nazi supporters, in a despairing letter on April 20, 1933, the day Germany celebrated Hitler’s birthday. “The reports [about the camps] are horrible, by the way,” Tucholsky added.265 German émigrés like Tucholsky learned about the Nazi camps from contacts inside the country and from the exile press. In France, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere, German-language publications sprang up. Following the arrest of its editor Carl von Ossietzky, for example, the influential Weltbühne was relaunched from Prague, featuring the first of many articles on the camps in September 1933. Exile papers and magazines focused on the most notorious camps, like Dachau, Börgermoor, Oranienburg, and Sonnenburg, which was also featured in a poem by Bertolt Brecht, another famous exile. Meanwhile, German left-wing parties in exile sponsored editions of eyewitness reports, like the Communist Brown Book (Braunbuch) on Nazi terror. Printed in August 1933 in Paris and widely translated afterward, this bestselling book of anti-Nazi propaganda called the camps’ creation the “worst act of despotism by the Hitler government” and included more than thirty pages on crimes inside.266

Some of these exile publications were smuggled into the Third Reich. In exceptional cases, they even found their way into early camps, boosting prisoner morale. But on the whole, their circulation was too small to make much of an impact in Germany.267 More important was public opinion abroad, with some reports quickly picked up by foreign papers and politicians. On October 13, 1933, barely a week after a German-language paper in the Saarland (under League of Nations mandate until 1935) had printed an article by a former Börgermoor prisoner, the Manchester Guardianran the same story, reporting that Friedrich Ebert had been “struck with rifle butts until his face was covered with blood” and Ernst Heilmann had been “so badly beaten that he was prostrate for several days.”268 The most vocal former prisoner was Gerhart Seger, who lectured, published, and lobbied in Europe and North America in a campaign to draw attention to the Nazi camps.269

In 1933, hundreds of articles about the camps appeared in newspapers and magazines around the world. Many of these articles did not originate with German exiles, but came from foreign reporters in Germany; in 1933/34, The New York Times alone printed dozens of detailed stories by U.S. journalists. Other foreign papers did the same. As early as April 7, 1933, the Chicago Daily Tribune featured an article about a Württemberg camp, with its correspondent describing the “shocking” appearance of the prisoners. Foreign journalists sometimes drew on secret contacts with the German resistance. In this way, a reporter of a Dutch newspaper obtained a sensational letter by Oranienburg prisoners about their torture.270

Foreign press reports highlighted the suffering of prominent prisoners, often as part of international campaigns backed by leading public figures. In November 1933, for instance, the British prime minister Ramsay MacDonald made an official inquiry about the fate of Hans Litten. Such pressure benefited some prisoners—despite the Nazi fury about outside meddling—though not Litten. In reply to MacDonald’s intervention, the Prussian Gestapa refused to answer any questions about him, while the German foreign office concluded that “provocative” foreign campaigns had to be refuted as part of a wider German PR offensive to improve the camps’ image abroad.271

The Nazi regime, which closely monitored foreign opinion, was acutely sensitive about critical reports. As articles about abuses inside early camps mounted up, paranoid Nazi leaders suspected an international conspiracy by Jews and Bolsheviks, and drew comparisons to the Allied “atrocity propaganda” of World War I. As a popular Nazi tract explained at the time, the camps were used to defame Nazi Germany in the same way alleged crimes during the invasion of Belgium had been used to slander the German Empire in 1914. “Like in the war!” Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels fumed in his diary.272

Why were Nazi officials so thin-skinned? They were obviously concerned about critical reports filtering back to the Third Reich (where foreign papers remained on sale), adding more grist to the fast-spinning rumor mill.273 Even more pressing was their concern about Germany’s standing abroad. In 1933, its position was still weak, and Hitler had to tread carefully on the international stage to make other leaders believe his guise as a man of peace—a difficult enough feat even without the stream of reports about atrocities in Nazi camps.274

In order to silence criticism abroad, German state officials held press conferences for foreign correspondents and staged visits to selected camps, which were meticulously prepared in advance.275 This was a high-risk strategy, though, as Nazi officials realized themselves.276 Several visitors were not tricked and some crude propaganda backfired. When Dr. Ludwig Levy, a former Oranienburg prisoner, used a reader’s letter from Germany to refute a detailed eyewitness account in the London Times of September 19, 1933—which had named him as an SA torture victim—and praised the “thoroughly good and even respectful” treatment he had received, the author of the original article replied in a letter of his own, offering yet more detail about the abuses:

Dr. Levy lived in the same room as myself at Oranienburg … I saw Dr. Levy with his left eye black and swollen and blood running from it. About a fortnight later his right eye was in the same condition. On both occasions he was fresh from an interview with the camp “leaders.” I also saw him kicked and knocked about by the guards, like the rest of us, many times.

I do not blame Dr. Levy for making the statement which you have published, as I am well aware of the kind of pressure to which he, still living in Potsdam [outside Berlin], must be exposed.277

The Nazi PR campaign also scored some successes, however, especially when it played upon fears of Communism. Some foreign news editors published positive stories, or became wary about running negative ones.278 Several diplomats were duped, too, among them the British vice-consul in Dresden. In an enthusiastic report on his October 1933 visit to Hohnstein in Saxony—one of the worst early camps, with at least eight prisoner deaths—the vice-consul praised it as “a model from all points of view,” with “exemplary” SA guards and prisoners who made a “distinctly satisfied impression.”279

Nazi propaganda tried to persuade a skeptical foreign audience that the camps were orderly and benevolent institutions, which turned terrorists into worthy citizens.280 This message was summed up in an extraordinary radio report recorded on September 30, 1933, inside Oranienburg, for broadcast on Germany’s international station. During the lengthy report, which aimed to refute “lies and atrocity stories” abroad, a reporter strolled through the grounds, the dining hall, and the sleeping quarters, accompanied by Commandant Schäfer, who extolled his decent treatment of left-wing criminals and the exemplary discipline created by his SA men. The broadcast even featured interviews with prisoners, including the following exchange:

[REPORTER]: The fellow German standing before me, this incited Communist, doesn’t know me and I don’t know him, he has not been coached for this but has just been called over to us … You don’t have to worry, you will not be punished even if you tell me that you are dissatisfied. You need say nothing more than the truth.

[INMATE]: Yessir.

[REPORTER]: Tell us how you feel about the food.

[INMATE]: The food here is good and plentiful.

[REPORTER]:… Has anything at all happened to you here?

[INMATE]: Nothing has happened to me.281

It is unclear if the report was actually broadcast and if anyone was fooled by its heavy-handed direction. Still, the regime persisted with its narrative of the good camps—not just abroad, but also at home in Germany.

Nazi Propaganda

The Oranienburg camp was less than a week old when local Nazi leaders felt compelled to jump to its defense. The resulting article, published in a local paper on March 28, 1933, included many ingredients that would define the domestic image of the Nazi camps, as authorized for public consumption by the regime. The central message of this article, and many others like it, was that prisoners enjoyed “decent, humane treatment.” Sanitary conditions were said to be more than adequate, labor was “neither degrading nor exhausting,” and food was ample, with prisoners eating from the same pots as SA guards. The prisoners’ military exercises were salutary, no harder than those performed by the guards themselves, and were followed by games in the yard. Then, at the end of the day, prisoners could relax, “lazing comfortably in the sunshine” with cigarettes in hand. Turning to the function of Oranienburg, not only did the camp protect the general public from political enemies, it safeguarded the very same enemies from the fury of the people.282This, then, was the alternative reality of the early camps: orderly institutions staffed by selfless guards who treated the captured men (women were rarely mentioned, presumably because their detention was thought unpopular) strictly but fairly, in healthy surroundings and with plenty of leisure time. “They can’t complain,” ran a typical headline.283

This fairy-tale image of the early camps was disseminated in various ways across the Third Reich. Nazi officials praised the camps in public speeches and authorized newsreels shot in camps.284 But the main medium was the press, including articles with staged photos of prisoners working, exercising, and relaxing.285 In addition to the template set by the March 1933 article on Oranienburg, such reports typically included one additional feature. They depicted the early camps as places of reform and reeducation, above all through productive labor.286 Only occasionally did articles acknowledge that certain prisoners were thought to be beyond redemption. “The owner of this or that semi-animal face cannot be anything other than an incorrigible Bolshevist,” a regional paper said about Oranienburg in August 1933, concluding that “no instruction can help in these cases”—a hint at the possible long-term future for the camps.287

Several accounts were published by senior camp officials themselves, including a full-length book in February 1934 by the Oranienburg commandant Werner Schäfer. As the only such account by a camp commandant, it caused something of a stir. The book sold tens of thousands of copies, was serialized in several regional newspapers, and was read by Nazi leaders. Even Adolf Hitler received a volume, courtesy of Commandant Schäfer. Another two thousand copies were dispatched to German embassies abroad, on the initiative of Goebbels’s Ministry of Propaganda.288 In his book, the verbose Schäfer stuck closely to the official narrative of the camps. He claimed that his men had triumphed over many obstacles—such as poor infrastructure and hostile prisoners—to create a model institution, based on care, order, and labor. Carried away on his flight of fancy, Schäfer described his SA guards as dedicated “pedagogues” and “psychologists,” who gave their all to turn former enemies into “useful members of the German national community.” To prove his point, Schäfer included several letters purportedly sent to him by former prisoners, including one who praised the “very valuable” experience and another who personally thanked Schäfer “for the good treatment and everything else.”289

The cynical use of prisoners was a key feature of the Nazi public relations strategy. Testimonies by supposedly satisfied prisoners became a staple of German press reporting.290 This campaign peaked on November 12, 1933, when the Nazi state held a rigged plebiscite and national election. Prisoners in the early camps were “allowed” to participate, with largely predictable results; according to the Munich press, almost all Dachau prisoners voted in support of the Third Reich.291 This farcical result was no proof of the regime’s popularity among prisoners, of course, but of the brutal effectiveness of SS terror in Dachau. A week before the election, a senior Bavarian state official had warned the inmates that naysayers would be treated as traitors. On the day of the vote, SS guards reminded them to support the regime if they ever wanted to be free again. This the prisoners did, for they were well aware that the SS had devised a system for identifying individual voters.292 Prisoner fears of retribution for disobedience were well founded; in the Brandenburg camp, a Communist who cast his vote against the state was tortured to death.293

The official rationale for the media blitz across Germany—emblazoning the image of the “good camp”—was the rebuttal of foreign “atrocity stories.” The self-important Commandant Schäfer, for one, announced that Oranienburg was the most “defamed” camp in the world and pointedly called his rejoinder the “Anti-Brown Book.”294 But Nazi outrage at foreign criticism was often disingenuous, little more than an excuse for tackling a far more pressing problem—the whispers inside Germany. Early on, the authorities occasionally admitted that their real concern was domestic public opinion. As the glowing article about Oranienburg put it on March 28, 1933, all the “talk of merciless flogging” was just “old wives’ tales.” In the previous week, Heinrich Himmler had made a similar point as he announced the establishment of Dachau, denying all rumors about abuses of protective custody prisoners.295 Such reassurances were directed at Nazi supporters, aiming to “dissolve the anxieties of the middle-class followers who feel that illegal acts destroy the foundation of their existence,” as the former Dachau prisoner Bruno Bettelheim later put it.296

It is hard to judge the popular response to the official narrative of the “good camp.” Nazi sympathizers—who were more insulated from knowledge of abuses—may well have been reassured and probably wanted to believe the regime’s version. At the same time, many other observers saw through the smoke screen. Victor Klemperer was not alone in greeting the November 1933 reports about prisoners voting overwhelmingly for the Nazis with incredulity.297 More generally, rumors about violence and torture persisted, chipping away at the official picture.

At times, it was Nazi officials themselves who contradicted the carefully crafted official message. In his sensationalist book, Commandant Schäfer repeatedly let slip his benevolent mask, admitting that prisoners had been beaten.298 Other publications revealed that for prominent prisoners, the much-vaunted productive labor amounted to degrading work like cleaning latrines.299 And in Dachau, local papers kept readers informed about deaths inside, with articles about “suicides” and prisoners “shot trying to escape” exposing the fiction of the camp as a benevolent educational establishment. But such revealing reports were the exception in 1933—a time when Nazi propaganda was not yet fully streamlined—and disappeared altogether in later years.300 On balance, the regime had little to gain by deviations from the official line. Instead of playing up the violence inside the camps, the authorities tried to silence the chorus of whispers.

Fighting “Atrocity Rumors”

On June 2, 1933, a Dachau newspaper printed an ominous directive by the Supreme SA Command. Under the headline “Warning!” it informed the local population that two people were recently arrested as they peered into the camp: “They claimed to have looked over the wall out of curiosity about what the camp looked like from inside. To enable them to satisfy their thirst for knowledge and to provide them with an opportunity to do so, they were kept in the concentration camp for one night.” Any other “curious individuals,” the directive added, would be given an even “more prolonged opportunity to study the camp.” Not for the first time, the residents of Dachau were being warned to stay well away from the camp in their midst.301

Despite such threats, officials in early camps like Dachau found it impossible to shut out spectators. Some local authorities responded by taking prisoners to more secluded locations. This is what happened in Bremen in September 1933, where the Missler camp—located inside a residential area—was closed down and most prisoners moved to a new camp on a tug boat beached on the embankment of an isolated stretch of river outside the city.302

The Nazi state also continued to threaten whisperers. Since spring 1933, press and radio reports carried warnings that so-called atrocity rumors would be punished.303 New special courts passed exemplary sentences, using the March 21, 1933, Decree Against Malicious Attacks that criminalized “untrue or grossly exaggerated” statements which could cause “serious damage” to the regime.304 Among the defendants were locals living near camps, such as a joiner who fell into a nighttime conversation with two men on a Berlin street and told them about abuses in Oranienburg, only to be denounced and sentenced to a year in prison. “Such rumors,” the judges found, “have to be rigorously combated in order to deter others from similar deeds.”305 Even some Germans far away from camps were convicted. In August 1933, for example, the Munich special court sentenced several workers to three months’ imprisonment for discussing the death of the KPD deputy Fritz Dressel in Dachau—a case widely known in Bavaria, even before Hans Beimler mentioned it in his book—as they sat in a stonemasons’ hut in the hamlet of Wotzdorf, some 125 miles east of the camp.306

The heavy-handed response by the authorities drew more sarcasm about the regime and its camps, including the following joke about Dachau:

Two men meet [on the street]. “Nice to see you’re free again. How was it in the concentration camp?”

“Great! Breakfast in bed, a choice of coffee or chocolate. Then some sport. For lunch we got soup, meat, and dessert. And we played games in the afternoon before getting coffee and cakes. Then a little snooze and we watched movies after dinner.”

The man was astonished: “That’s great! I recently spoke to Meyer, who was also locked up there. He told me a different story.”

The other man nods gravely and says: “Yes, well, that’s why they’ve picked him up again.”307

In their eagerness to silence critics, the Nazi authorities targeted relatives of former prisoners, who often knew particularly damaging details. Among the victims was Fritz Dressel’s widow, who was apparently taken to Stadelheim.308 Centa Beimler, meanwhile, was imprisoned for several years, following her arrest in spring 1933, in a bid to stop her escaped husband from making further revelations about Dachau. But the detention of relatives for revenge or deterrence, later known as Sippenhaft, only gave further ammunition to foreign critics. The decision of the Dessau political police in early 1934 to force Elisabeth Seger and her baby daughter Renate into Rosslau camp, following the escape of her husband Gerhart from Oranienburg, became a public relations disaster. At a press conference in London on March 18, 1934, Gerhart Seger denounced the reprisals of the Nazi regime. Because of his book, which was circulating inside Germany, the Nazi authorities “have now taken my wife and child from me.” There was a public outcry in Britain, which even reached Hitler’s ears, and after sustained pressure from the British press and politicians, the German authorities released both mother and daughter, who were reunited abroad with Gerhart Seger.309

Undeterred, some Nazi fanatics resorted to murder to suppress rumors. In the new Dachau camp regulations of October 1, 1933, Commandant Eicke had threatened prisoners who collected or passed on “atrocity propaganda about the concentration camp” with execution. Less than three weeks later his guards uncovered an alleged prisoner plot to smuggle evidence of SS crimes abroad, and Eicke made good on his threat. Backed by Heinrich Himmler—who claimed that the guilty prisoners had tried to send material for an “atrocity propaganda film” to Czechoslovakia—the Dachau commandant swore revenge. SS suspicions centered on five prisoners, three Jews and two non-Jews, who were thrown into the bunker. They were all doomed. The first to die were Wilhelm Franz (the Kapo overseeing prisoner correspondence) and Dr. Delvin Katz (an orderly in the infirmary), who were tortured and strangled by SS men the night of October 18–19, 1933. The next day, Eicke announced their deaths to all assembled prisoners and declared a temporary ban (sanctioned by Himmler) on letters and releases. According to an eyewitness, Eicke had a chilling message for the prisoners, which summed up the Nazi double-speak about the early camps: “We still have enough German oaks to string up everyone who defies us,” Eicke warned, adding: “There are no atrocities and no Cheka cellars in Dachau.”310

Such threats were still on the minds of prisoners when they were released from early camps. The camps left many deep and lasting wounds on prisoner bodies. In addition to the visible scars, there was the enduring trauma of fear, humiliation, and shame. Many men found it hard to live with memories that undermined their masculine identity, as when they had pleaded, cried, or soiled themselves in the face of overwhelming terror.311 In light of these experiences, and the regime’s crackdown on “atrocity propaganda,” it took great courage for former prisoners like Martin Grünwiedl to write about the camps and continue their fight against the dictatorship. Not surprisingly, many more left-wing activists retreated from resistance. As early as summer 1933, the underground Communist leadership warned die-hard supporters that many released comrades were “renegades” who had broken with the party out of fear.312 This fear gripped other opponents of the regime, too. Once the reality of Nazi terror was known, they anxiously withdrew into the private sphere.313 In this way, the whispers about abuses and atrocities in the early camps paved the way for total Nazi rule, fatally weakening the resistance.314

Of course, deterrence was just one of many functions of the early camps. From the start, Nazi camps were multipurpose weapons. This left an important legacy for the future, as did the innovations in camps like Dachau, with its specific architecture, administrative routine, and daily rituals. Clearly, some of the essentials of the SS concentration camps had emerged early on. All the same, the later SS system was still a long way off. After one year of Nazi rule, individual German states still pursued rival visions and there was no coordinated national network of camps. Instead, the early camps differed in terms of how they looked, who ran them, and how prisoners fared. In early 1934, their future remained undecided. In fact, it was not even clear if the camps would have any future at all in the Third Reich.315

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