The SS Camp System

Murder was the making of Theodor Eicke. More precisely, it was a single shot he fired at around 6:00 p.m. on July 1, 1934, that ignited his career. As he hurried to his murderous assignment that early Sunday evening, striding across a new cell block of the Stadelheim prison complex in Munich, Eicke may already have dreamed about the rewards he would reap. Although he was no experienced killer—as Dachau commandant, he had left most of the dirty work to his men—he betrayed no sign of nerves as he climbed up to the second floor and walked along two corridors lined with armed policemen. He finally stopped outside cell number 474 and ordered the door to be unlocked. Eicke stepped inside, accompanied by his right-hand man Michael Lippert, and came face to face with his former benefactor, now the Nazis’ most prized political prisoner—SA leader Ernst Röhm.

Eicke and Lippert had arrived in Stadelheim about an hour earlier from Dachau, heading straight for the governor of the prison. They demanded immediate access to Röhm, who had been arrested for treason the previous morning, together with other senior SA men. After the governor stalled, Eicke announced angrily that he was acting on orders from Hitler. The Führer, barked Eicke, had personally instructed him to give the SA leader an ultimatum to commit suicide; if Röhm failed to comply, Eicke would shoot him. After the governor had made some frantic phone calls to corroborate Eicke’s story, the two SS officers were allowed to proceed to cell 474. Here, Eicke handed Röhm a copy of the Völkischer Beobachter, with details of the execution of six SA leaders in Stadelheim the previous day, and tersely issued Hitler’s ultimatum. Röhm apparently tried to protest, but his cell was quickly locked again, a gun loaded with one bullet left on a small table. Outside, Eicke checked his watch and after a tense ten minutes, the time span specified by Hitler, he ordered a prison official to retrieve the unused weapon. Eicke and Lippert then raised their own guns and pointed through the open door at Röhm, who had taken his shirt off. After steadying themselves for several seconds, both men pulled the trigger. Röhm stumbled backward. He was bleeding heavily, but he was still alive. The sight of the moaning Röhm may have spooked Eicke, for he ordered Lippert to finish the job. The younger man duly stepped up and fired a third bullet from close range at Röhm’s heart. According to one eyewitness, the last words of the dying SA leader were: “Führer, my Führer.”1

Hitler’s reckoning with Röhm had been a long time coming, though few would have predicted such a violent end. Over the previous months, many SA men had ignored Hitler’s call for calm. Inspired by their bullish leader Röhm, they had pushed for a “second revolution” and an “SA state.” Such violent talk, combined with open acts of disorder and brutality, caused a major political headache for Hitler. Not only did the rowdy SA add to the growing popular dissatisfaction with the regime during the second year of Hitler’s rule, it alienated the German army. The generals felt threatened by Röhm’s military ambitions and his vast paramilitary force, which had grown to well over four million men by mid-1934. What is more, Röhm had also made enemies among jealous Nazi leaders, who now conspired to eliminate their rival. Himmler and Heydrich, in particular, fed Hitler a diet of lies about a supposed SA coup.

In June 1934, after months of vacillation, Hitler finally made his move. Indeed, Hitler worked himself into such a rage about Röhm’s “betrayal” that he acted ahead of the secret schedule. In the early hours of June 30, 1934, he headed straight for the SA leaders’ retreat in Bad Wiessee, with little backup, and had Röhm and others arrested. A few hours later, Hitler ordered the first executions, though he spared Röhm until the following day. Meanwhile, police and SS forces struck elsewhere in Germany, using lists of suspectsdrawn up in preparation. The victims were not only SA men. The purge also provided a cover for silencing national-conservative critics of the regime and other alleged enemies or renegades. In the end, the so-called Night of the Long Knives—which actually lasted for three days—may have claimed some 150 to 200 lives.2

During this bloody purge, the Dachau SS proved itself as Hitler’s most energetic executioner. Several days before, Eicke had held discussions with leading Dachau SS men, planning raids and arrests across Bavaria. Then, on June 29, the Camp SS was put on alert. Later that night Eicke told his men about an SA plot against Hitler, which had to be put down without mercy; Eicke was raging and is said to have smashed a photograph of Röhm. It was still dark when several hundred guards, some armed with machine guns taken from the watchtowers, left the camp a few hours later on trucks and buses, led by Eicke. They eventually stopped a few miles outside Bad Wiessee to rendezvous with another SS unit, Hitler’s Leibstandarte. However, because Hitler had moved prematurely, the Dachau SS came too late and eventually had to follow Hitler’s convoy back to Munich. Here, Eicke met other Nazi leaders in the Party HQ, the so-called Brown House, where a hysterical Hitler railed against the “worst treachery in world history” and promised that all SA rebels would be shot. At this point, Eicke probably received instructions for a state-sponsored massacre in Dachau, and soon after he returned to the camp, later on June 30, the murders began.3

One of the first victims, and by far the most prominent, was the seventy-one-year-old Gustav Ritter von Kahr, who was dragged to Dachau after his arrest by SS men in Munich in the evening of June 30. The former monarchist Bavarian minister president was a hated figure on the far right ever since he had helped to put down Hitler’s feeble putsch back in November 1923.4 When the Dachau SS men recognized von Kahr, as he emerged from a black police cabriolet, they almost lynched him. A baying mass of uniformed guards pulled the old man before Theodor Eicke, who had been sitting on a chair outside the commandant’s office, smoking one of his cigars. Like a Roman emperor, Eicke apparently raised his right thumb in the air and then pointed downward. The SS mob pushed von Kahr through a nearby iron gate into the new Dachau bunker. Soon afterward, a shot rang out.5

The murders continued deep into the night, after cars brought more “traitors” from Munich to the camp. Like von Kahr, most of them died in or around the bunker, but at least two men were executed in the harsh glare of camp searchlights on the SS shooting range. The Dachau inmates, locked into the camp compound, heard the shots, followed by roars of SS men intoxicated by bloodshed and alcohol; on the orders of Eicke, who was in triumphant mood, beer flowed freely in the SS canteen, with loud music playing.6The macabre SS party was periodically interrupted by more shootings and beatings; some victims were tortured to death, their faces smashed and their bodies butchered.7

Not all the dead had arrived from outside the camp. In their frenzy, the Dachau SS executed five long-term prisoners from the bunker, among them at least two German Jews. In contrast to the other killings—where Dachau SS men had followed superior orders, presumably relayed to Eicke by police and SD (Security Service) leaders—the SS men now acted as judge and executioner; to cover up their rogue action, Eicke and his men apparently told Himmler that the murdered inmates had declared their solidarity with Röhm and incited prisoners to rise up. Word about the prisoner executions quickly reached other inmates of the camp, who were already agitated and now feared that the SS might come for them, too.8

After a long night of violence, Theodor Eicke appeared early on July 1, 1934, at the barbed wire of the Dachau camp compound. To quash the panic among prisoners, he informed them about the purge and announced that Röhm would soon be hanged inside the camp.9 But when Eicke’s convoy returned from Stadelheim that evening—driving at top speed, with a loud siren—Röhm was already dead, shot by Eicke and Lippert. Eicke was still determined to put on a murderous performance in Dachau, however. He had brought with him four lower-ranking SA men, who were led to the canteen while the camp was prepared for their execution. SS guards assembled outside the bunker, on the edge of the shooting range. Opposite, the regular prisoners were watching from behind the wire fence, on Eicke’s orders. Then the victims were led out, one by one, into the evening sun shining across the range. Eicke pronounced their death sentence and a commando of SS sentries took aim. After each salvo, the crowd of SS guards, some still hungover from the night before, broke into wild screams and shouts of “Heil!”10

After yet more murders the following morning—in the forest north of the SS parade ground—the massacre in Dachau finally came to an end. On the same day, July 2, 1934, Hitler officially declared that the purge was over and that calm had been restored across the Reich.11 By then, more than twenty people had been murdered on the Dachau camp grounds, and several more in the vicinity.12 The dead were victims of vengeance and vendettas, and included senior SA officers, personal associates of Röhm (such as his chauffeur), the girlfriend of an alleged spy (the only woman among the dead), and several dissident writers and politicians. The SS had also executed a music critic by the name of Dr. Schmid, mistaken by the Bavarian political police for a journalist of the same name; by the time the authorities had realized their mistake and placed an urgent call to Eicke in Dachau, the wrong Dr. Schmid was already dead.13

The Röhm purge of summer 1934 was a watershed in the history of the Third Reich. With one stroke, the SA was cut down to size, destroying the greatest internal threat to Hitler’s rule. Its demise as a major political force led to the submission of grateful German generals. And it was not just the generals who applauded Hitler. All across Germany the Hitler myth grew, as many Germans praised him for restoring order and decency by dealing a decisive blow against SA thugs and deviants (Nazi propaganda made much of Röhm’s homosexuality, previously tolerated by Hitler). The unassailable position of Hitler was confirmed in August 1934, after the death of President Hindenburg, when he took the title “Führer and Reich chancellor.”14

The purge was also a crucial point in the history of the camps. It helped to clear the way for a permanent system of lawless imprisonment in SS concentration camps. And it accelerated the creation of a professional corps of SS guards, held together by their shared crimes. In Dachau, the massacre claimed as many lives in three days as during the entire previous year, making it a formative experience for many local SS men. “These events greatly impressed me,” recalled Hans Aumeier, then a twenty-seven-year-old rookie with only a few months’ experience in Dachau, who would go on to serve as a camp leader in Auschwitz.15


The Röhm purge was a golden opportunity for Theodor Eicke. He had hyped his men as more than mere guards. They were the “most loyal pillars” of the Nazi state, he had boasted a few weeks earlier, ready to “rally round our Führer” and defend him with their “merciless spirit of attack.”16The purge, Eicke realized, was the chance to prove himself, and he did not slip up. He reminded Himmler afterward of the “important task” his men had executed, demonstrating their “loyalty, courage and fulfillment of duty.”17 Dachau had been the main killing ground, though other SS camps had been involved, too, detaining prisoners under brutal conditions.18 Most important, Eicke himself had helped to put away the mastermind of the “plot” against Hitler, Ernst Röhm. This would become his calling card in SS circles. During a celebration of the winter solstice in Dachau, some 18 months later, Eicke is said to have exclaimed: “I am proud that I shot this faggot swine with my own hands.”19

Hitler did not forget the murderous services rendered by Eicke and his men. Just days after the purge, he promoted Eicke to SS Gruppenführer, just three ranks below Himmler. The growing status of the SS as Hitler’s favored instrument of terror was reflected in an order of July 20, 1934, making it a fully independent force, free from its previous subordination to the SA organization. SS leader Himmler knew that the purge had been a pivotal moment. Almost a decade later, he still commended his men for the resolve they had shown by “putting comrades, who had done wrong, against the wall and shooting them.” In fact, the greatest beneficiary of these murders had been Himmler himself. His star had already been on the rise, but the purge hastened his ascendancy, which would eventually bring him control over the German police and the camps, though not before some fierce internal struggles.20

The Inspectorate of Concentration Camps

Like mushrooms growing after rain”—this is how Himmler later described the formation of political police forces during the Nazi capture of power.21 Initially, German states had directed their own troops. But it did not take long before the forces were coordinated, and the man who did so was Himmler. From late 1933, he moved beyond his Bavarian base, and within a few months, the dogged Reichsführer SS had secured, one by one, control over the political police in virtually all German states. The last major state to fall into Himmler’s clutches was the biggest—Prussia, where various rivals had been vying for preeminence over the byzantine terror apparatus. In the end, the Prussian strongman Hermann Göring agreed to appoint Himmler on April 20, 1934, as inspector of the Prussian secret state police. Himmler’s trusted chief of staff, Heydrich, became the new head of the Prussian Gestapa, with its six hundred officials in the Berlin headquarters and two thousand more officers across the state. On paper, Göring remained in control as head of the Prussian Gestapo, and initially still played a significant role. But ultimately, he was no match for his shrewd subordinates.22

Himmler’s mastery over the German political police—the main authority imposing protective custody—provided him with the perfect launching pad for taking over the camps. This Himmler realized only too well. He had recognized the camps’ potential more clearly than any other Nazi leader and had planned for some time, certainly since late 1933, to take the remaining early camps into his own hands.23 Now that he had gained dominance over the political police, the time had come to act.24

To realize his plans, Himmler turned to Theodor Eicke. Sometime in May 1934, just weeks before the Röhm purge, Himmler instructed him to carry out a “fundamental organizational restructure” of the camp system, beginning in Prussia. Himmler wanted to bury the flawed Prussian model and replace it with the SS system he had perfected in Dachau.25 The first test came in Lichtenburg. Eicke, who now styled himself as “inspector of concentration camps,” arrived on May 28, 1934, and took control of the camp from its civilian director, a police official called Faust, who had nominally supervised the Lichtenburg SS guards. One day later, Eicke had Faust arrested on trumped-up charges (the luckless former director soon found himself in protective custody on Himmler’s orders, first in Berlin and then in Esterwegen). Eicke also sacked the two police administrators who had worked for Faust. Instead, he put his trust in the murderous commander of the local SS guards. To ensure a stricter regimen, Eicke also introduced new punishment rules for prisoners on June 1, 1934, virtually identical to the Dachau ones.26 He completed the initial shake-up the following day, with a first written order to the Lichtenburg guards: “Until now your superiors were officials and a corrupt director, from now on soldiers will be in charge of your well-being and your troubles. Together we will place stone upon stone until completion, but cast aside bad stones as worthless.”27

Encouraged by the retooling of Lichtenburg, which continued apace over the coming weeks, Himmler mapped out the next steps. In June 1934, he trained his sights on Sachsenburg (Saxony) and on Esterwegen, the largest Prussian state camp—a far more ambitious maneuver, since both camps were still guarded by the SA. Esterwegen would be first, and Eicke was already planning his move for the camp—scheduled for July 1, 1934—when he was overtaken by the bloody events of the Röhm purge, which hastened the SS capture of the early camps.28 In its wake, SS forces not only took over Esterwegen and Sachsenburg, as planned, but two other SA-run camps, Hohnstein and Oranienburg.29 The SS domain was growing, and over the coming weeks, Theodor Eicke—officially confirmed as inspector of concentration camps on July 4, 1934, three days after he shot Röhm—shuttled between the new sites.30

The capture of Oranienburg—the oldest and most prominent SA camp—symbolized the new SS hegemony. On July 4, 1934, a few days after a police unit had disarmed most of the Oranienburg SA, Eicke made his grand entrance. SS troops under his command, some of them drawn from Dachau, surrounded the camp; according to one witness, Eicke had brought two tanks for backup. But there was no resistance from the scared SA men. Eicke curtly announced the SS takeover, telling the assembled SA guards to look for another job. SA rule over Oranienburg ended with a whimper. The new masters, meanwhile, celebrated in SS style by killing their most prominent prisoner, Erich Mühsam. At first, they tried to drive him to suicide. Mühsam resisted, but quietly distributed his belongings among fellow prisoners, knowing that his killers could strike at any time. On the night of July 9–10, 1934, the frail Mühsam was led away. He was strangled with a clothesline, apparently, his body dumped in the camp latrine in a feeble attempt to make his death look like a suicide. Erich Mühsam’s funeral was held in Berlin on July 16, attended only by a few brave friends and admirers. His wife, Kreszentia, who had tried so long to save him, was not among them; she was escaping abroad, where she would publish a searing account of her husband’s torment.31

Himmler and Eicke quickly streamlined their new camps. They had no interest in maintaining Oranienburg and Hohnstein, and closed both.32 By contrast, Eicke led the conversion of Sachsenburg and Esterwegen into SS camps, along the lines of Dachau.33 The new Esterwegen regulations of August 1, 1934, for example, were based directly on Dachau.34 Eicke also looked for officials who would bring the SS spirit to his new camps. Back in Dachau, he had been impressed by Standartenführer Hans Loritz, a belligerent fanatic in Eicke’s own image, and he now helped to make him the new commandant of Esterwegen. Loritz did not disappoint. A former prisoner remembered his first address in July 1934: “Today I have taken over the camp. In regards to discipline, I am a swine.”35

Theodor Eicke initially directed his fiefdom of camps from Dachau and during flying visits to the other SS sites.36 Then, on December 10, 1934, Himmler gave him a permanent office to go with his title. The choice of location revealed the importance Himmler attached to the camps, for Eicke moved right into the heart of the police headquarters in Berlin. As a part of the state bureaucracy, Eicke’s new Inspectorate of Concentration Camps (IKL) was housed in five rooms on the ground floor of the Gestapa, on 8 Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse. Despite their proximity, however, Himmler made sure to keep Eicke’s IKL separate from Heydrich’s Gestapa.37 The two men, who had an uneasy relationship, were forced to work closely together. Heydrich enforced the virtual police monopoly over protective custody, sending suspects to the KL and ordering their release; the organization and administration of the KL, meanwhile, was left to Eicke.38

Eicke’s standing was bolstered further after his guards were removed from their subordination under the general SS (in the same way the Gestapo was removed from the oversight of the regular police). In a significant move, Himmler elevated the camp guards on December 14, 1934, to the status of a separate force within the SS, and as their leader, Eicke garnered yet another title: inspector of SS Guard Troops. To be sure, Eicke was not fully autonomous from the expanding SS administration, especially in regard to financial and staffing matters, and he also still came under the formal authority of the chief of the new SS Main Office (until summer 1939). In practice, though, Eicke often bypassed the chain of command by appealing directly to Himmler.39

By the end of 1934, in the space of just a few months, Himmler and Eicke had created the rudiments of a nationwide system of SS concentration camps. There was now a small network of five KL—run along similar lines and staffed by SS Guard Troops—under the umbrella of the new Inspectorate in Berlin.40 But the future of this SS system remained uncertain, as the KL had not yet been confirmed as permanent fixtures. In fact, it had seemed likely in 1934 that they would soon wither away.

SS Camps Under Threat

Once the Third Reich was established, an internal tug-of-war began over its direction: Exactly what kind of dictatorship would it become? Today, the answer seems obvious. But Nazi Germany did not follow a preordained path to extreme terror. Initially, some influential figures in state and party envisaged a rather different future. They wanted an authoritarian regime, bound by laws enforced by the traditional state apparatus. True, they had accepted, or applauded, the unrestrained repression in 1933 as a means for stabilizing the regime. But they saw the Röhm purge as the last act of the Nazi revolution, clearing the way for a dictatorship based on authoritarian law. Now there would be no more need for arbitrary violence and for extralegal camps, which only damaged the image of the regime at home and abroad.41

State officials had made tentative moves to curb the camps as early as spring and summer 1933, while some newspapers assured their readers that these sites would not become a regular feature of the new Germany.42 Such efforts gathered momentum toward the end of the year, pushed ahead by an unlikely champion: Prussian minister president Hermann Göring. Once the initial wave of Nazi terror had subsided, Göring, always a proponent of a strong state, styled himself as a respectable statesman upholding law and order.43 Following the “completed stabilization of the National Socialist regime,” he announced in the Nazi press in early December 1933, there would be mass releases from the Prussian camps. In all, up to five thousand inmates were freed during this so-called Christmas amnesty, almost half of all the Prussian protective custody prisoners.44 Most of them were foot soldiers or sympathizers of the Left; others had been held for grumbling about the regime.45 But the authorities also freed some prominent figures, among them Friedrich Ebert, who kept his head down after his release, running a gas station in Berlin.46

The early camps’ decline accelerated during 1934. Hermann Göring continued his campaign, both in public and in private, not least with Hitler. He was backed by the Reich minister of the interior, Wilhelm Frick, another Nazi faithful, who sharply criticized the excessive use of protective custody and indicated that the camps would fade away.47 As the regime consolidated, more prisoners were released (among them Wolfgang Langhoff in late March) and fewer were dragged inside; in Prussia, just 2,267 prisoners were held in protective custody on August 1, 1934, down from 14,906 one year earlier.48 The early camps were disappearing fast. More than a dozen shut down in Prussia and elsewhere in the first few months of 1934, including Brandenburg, Sonnenburg, and Bredow.49

Further camps closed later that year, following a direct intervention by Hitler. In early August 1934, shortly before a plebiscite endorsed him as Führer and Reich chancellor, Hitler made a play for the public gallery, announcing a major amnesty for political and other offenders. Crucially, Hitler extended his grand gesture to the camps. He ordered a speedy examination of all protective custody cases, demanding the release of prisoners held for minor transgressions and those thought to pose no more threat.50 Despite some resistance from the SS and Gestapo—who refused to free high-profile figures like Carl von Ossietzky and Hans Litten—most of the remaining protective custody prisoners were let go. In Prussia, there were just 437 inmates left after Hitler’s amnesty; Esterwegen—the last outpost of the Emsland concentration camp complex, originally built for five thousand prisoners—was down to an estimated 150 men by October 1934.51 The camps’ rapid decline was public knowledge. In late August 1934, Göring authorized a press release about the closure of Oranienburg, adding that protective custody would be “greatly curtailed” in the future, with lawbreakers “immediately transferred to the courts” instead.52

The judicial apparatus—with its hundreds of prisons—stood ready to take over the mantle of the camps. The German legal system had undergone a major transformation since early 1933. Although it was still largely run by national conservatives, such as the long-serving Reich minister of justice Franz Gürtner, it became a loyal servant of the Nazi regime. Critical officials were dismissed, fundamental legal principles abandoned, new courts set up and stricter laws applied. German jurists overwhelmingly backed this development. The upshot was a huge increase in the number of state prisoners, from a daily average of around 63,000 in 1932 to more than 107,000 in summer 1935, including at least 23,000 political prisoners. Gürtner and other jurists were sending a clear message to Nazi leaders: enemies of the regime would be punished hard by the law, making measures such as protective custody superfluous. With such a determined legal system, who needed concentration camps?53

To support their case, legal officials could point to their harsh prisons. In 1933, senior legal figures promised more deterrence and retribution—turning the prison into a “house of horror,” as one put it—and introduced harder sanctions and diminished rations.54The showcase for the new prison regime was a network of camps in the Emsland. In a move that summed up their ambition to constrain lawless detention, the German legal officials had taken over the early camps Neusustrum and Börgermoor in April 1934; inside, the places of protective custody prisoners were taken by regular penitentiary inmates. By 1935, the Reich Ministry of Justice ran six camps in the Emsland, holding well over five thousand prisoners. Rules, conditions, and treatment were brutal, with thirteen confirmed prisoner deaths in 1935 alone. The high levels of violence were due, in large measure, to the employment of former SA camp guards as prison warders. They were led by another veteran of the early camps, none other than SA Sturmbannführer Werner Schäfer, who had been poached by the legal authorities in April 1934 from his post as commandant of Oranienburg. Appointed as a civil servant, Schäfer served in the Emsland prison camps until 1942, by which time several hundred inmates had died inside.55

While legal officials generally turned a blind eye to abuses in their own prisons, they began to take more concerted action against atrocities in SA and SS camps. True, there was some collusion; murders committed during the Röhm purge, for example, were out of bounds.56 Still, now that the early camps seemed to be fading, state prosecutors launched several criminal investigations, touching at least ten camps in the mid-1930s. The biggest case was brought against former SA guards from Hohnstein, following the camps’ closure. Flaunting their Nazi credentials, the legal authorities were willing to overlook crimes committed in revenge for Communist “wrongs” or for “political reasons.” But the judges drew a line when it came to arbitrary atrocities. In their view, there was no place in the Third Reich for the sadistic excesses that had blighted Hohnstein, and on May 15, 1935, the regional court of Dresden sent twenty-three SA men to prison, with sentences ranging from ten months to six years for the former commandant.57

SS men found themselves in the dock, too. In spring 1934, the regional court of Stettin convicted seven SS men from the recently closed Bredow camp for grievous bodily harm and other offenses, with the former commandant sentenced to thirteen years in a penitentiary. The case was widely reported in the German press, as part of Göring’s effort to present himself as a guarantor of order. Not to be outdone, Hitler used a speech in the Reichstag on July 13, 1934, after his action against Röhm, to announce that three SS guards (of the Stettin camp) had been shot during the purge because of their “vile abuse of protective custody prisoners.”58 Even the KL now under Eicke came under scrutiny, resulting in the arrest and conviction of senior officers from Esterwegen and Lichtenburg.59

The SS was put on the back foot.60 Its reputation was already poor—“I know there are some people in Germany who feel sick at the sight of this black uniform,” Himmler conceded—and the legal investigations only dragged it further down, at the very time when the future of the KL system was in doubt.61 Eicke railed against “poisonous” attacks that “serve the sole purpose of systematically undermining and shaking the state leadership’s confidence” in the camps.62 Meanwhile, the legal authorities continued to chip away at the KL. In summer 1935, Reich minister of justice Gürtner, whom Eicke regarded as a personal enemy, suggested that all camp inmates should be granted legal representation, a proposal supported by many German lawyers and the leaders of the Protestant Church.63

By 1935, then, the SS concentration camp system—only just established—found itself under serious pressure. Greatly depleted, the KL faced a crisis of legitimacy; to many observers, their days seemed numbered. But Heinrich Himmler had different ideas. In December 1934, he warned Göring against “abolishing an institution that at present is the most effective means against all enemies of the state.”64 Himmler would fight tooth and nail for the survival of the KL, to secure and extend his own power, but also, as he saw it, to save the Third Reich.65

Himmler’s Vision

The mass releases from Nazi camps in 1934 were “one of the worst political mistakes the National Socialist state could have made,” Heinrich Himmler seethed in a confidential speech a few years later. It had been sheer “madness” to allow vicious opponents to resume their destructive work. After all, the fight to secure the Nazi regime was far from won. According to Himmler, the German nation was still in mortal danger from shadowy enemies who threatened everything from the foundations of state and society to the moral fiber and racial health of the people. The nation had to fight to the death against the “forces of organized subhumanity,” a catch-all term he would use over and over again, meaning Communists, Socialists, Freemasons, priests, asocials, criminals, and above all Jews, who “should not be viewed as humans of our species.”66

Himmler’s beliefs rested on an apocalyptic worldview. In his mind, the all-out battle against Germany’s enemies might last for centuries and could never be won with traditional weapons. To annihilate opponents hell-bent on Germany’s ruin, Himmler and his supporters argued, the nation had to be put on a war footing. Like soldiers on the battlefields, the troops fighting against the “inner enemy” at home had to act beyond the law. Total victory could only come through total terror, led by Himmler’s elite warriors: the police would arrest all individuals harmful to the “body of the nation,” and the SS would isolate them in concentration camps.67

Himmler’s call for unfettered police and SS terror, based on a permanent state of emergency, set him on collision course with those Nazi leaders who merely wanted an authoritarian state.68 This clash came to a head in spring 1934, and the main battleground was Himmler’s home state of Bavaria. Elsewhere, he was still too weak and had to stand by while almost all camp inmates were released. Not so in Bavaria. Backed by his superior, the powerful minister of the interior Adolf Wagner, Police Commander Himmler felt bold enough to challenge calls to empty his model camp at Dachau: “Only I in Bavaria didn’t give in then and didn’t release my protective custody detainees,” Himmler claimed a few years later.69 But this was only half the truth, as Himmler had been forced to fight a rearguard battle in Bavaria.

In March 1934, the Bavarian Reich governor von Epp launched a full-blown attack on Himmler’s approach, alarmed by the news that Bavaria appeared to hold more protective custody prisoners than Prussia (the previous summer, Prussia still outstripped Bavaria by more than three to one). Epp called for a generous amnesty, to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the Nazi capture of power in Bavaria. In a letter of March 20, he argued that the current Bavarian practice was disproportionate, arbitrary, and excessive, undermining “the trust in the law, which is the foundation of any state system.” It is worth noting that the sixty-five-year-old Epp was no closet liberal. He was a far-right icon, a former army general and early Nazi supporter, known as the “liberator of Munich” after his Freikorps helped to crush the left-wing uprising of 1919. But Governor von Epp saw the Third Reich as a normative state. Now that the Nazi revolution was over, emergency measures such as protective custody were becoming “dispensable,” all the more so since new laws and courts gave the legal authorities ample power to deal with criminal offenses.70

Himmler was stung. In a remarkably rude reply, which he drafted for his boss Wagner, he vigorously defended his record. The use of protective custody had driven down political crime and other offenses in Bavaria, he claimed, something that the legal system could not hope to emulate.71 But Himmler had to give some ground. Even though Governor von Epp was becoming little more than a figurehead of the Bavarian state, his word still carried weight in government circles, and Himmler’s Bavarian police grudgingly released almost two thousand inmates from Dachau and elsewhere in March and April 1934.72

When the conflict over Bavaria flared up again in autumn 1934, Himmler offered stauncher opposition, reflecting his growing stature in the Third Reich following the Röhm purge. This time it was Reich minister of the interior Frick who challenged him. In aletter to the Bavarian state chancellery in early October, Frick pointed out that Bavaria currently held some 1,613 protective custody prisoners—almost twice as many as all other German states combined. Given the excessive zeal of the Bavarian authorities, Frick asked for a review of individual cases, as a first step for further releases.73

Himmler’s response was disdainful. Following a “most thorough” review, he noted in mid-November 1934, Bavaria would release another 203 protective custody prisoners, a paltry figure. Any mass releases, Himmler added, were out of the question. He claimed that the recent releases of dangerous Communists from concentration camps had created a serious security threat in Germany—except in Bavaria, thanks to its more stringent approach. Elsewhere, “cheeky” Communists had been emboldened by the “general slackness” of the authorities. Such enemies of the regime saw mass releases as a sign of the “inner weakness of the National Socialist state,” and escalated their attacks against the regime. Himmler’s conclusion was clear: far from releasing additional inmates, he wanted to take more prisoners inside the camps, proposing to wage a preemptive war against Communism.74

In reality, the Communist “threat” was imaginary by autumn 1934, as the Gestapo was well on top of the underground resistance.75 And although Himmler’s fear of Communists—which also gripped many lower-ranking police and state officials—was genuine, he clearly exploited it to advance his policy of preventive policing.76 But not everyone shared his grim outlook, and Reich minister Frick continued to press for further prisoner releases from Dachau.77

Himmler stood his ground in late 1934, but his foothold was far from secure. His new SS concentration camp system, in particular, was still fragile. The camps remained controversial and their impact negligible, at least in terms of prisoner numbers; by autumn 1934, Himmler’s camps only held an estimated 2,400 inmates.78 The KL might well have vanished altogether, had it not been for several decisive interventions in 1935 by the most powerful man in the Third Reich.

Hitler and the KL

As a public figure, Adolf Hitler remained studiously detached from the concentration camps, keeping a careful distance throughout the Third Reich. He was never seen inside a KL and rarely referred to them in public.79 There was good reason for his reticence, as Nazi leaders knew that the camps’ reputation was not the best. “I know how mendaciously and foolishly this institution is being written about, spoken about and blasphemed,” Heinrich Himmler acknowledged in 1939.80 Hitler, acutely aware of his own image, did his best to avoid association with potentially unpopular matters.81 This, no doubt, is why he stayed clear of the concentration camps—at least in public. In private, it was a different matter. Hitler conferred about the camps with his closest associates from the start, and would become one of the greatest champions of the KL.82

Hitler’s support had not always been unconditional. As the regime steadied itself, he initially seemed to side with those who envisaged the early camps fading away. Thousands of prisoners had already been released, he said in the Völkischer Beobachter in February 1934, and he hoped that even more would follow.83 Hitler backed up his words six months later. His amnesty of August 1934—widely publicized in Germany and abroad—resulted in the release of some 2,700 protective custody prisoners.84 But did Hitler really want the camps to disappear? Or was he just biding his time?85

In 1935 Hitler revealed his true feelings about the camps, behind closed doors. On February 20, he received Himmler, who showed him a copy of the latest letter by Reich interior minister Frick, urging further releases. Himmler, who had only just returned from inspecting Lichtenburg and Sachsenburg, scribbled Hitler’s emphatic verdict on the margins of the letter: “The prisoners are staying.”86 Four months later, Hitler went even further. Meeting Himmler on June 20, he confirmed that the KL would be needed for years to come and, for good measure, approved Himmler’s request for more SS guards.87 In the Third Reich, destructive dreams could easily come true, if they were in line with Hitler’s wishes. And Hitler backed the extension of Himmler’s terror apparatus.

To cement the camps’ standing, Hitler agreed to place them on a firm financial footing. Funding had been a contentious issue since the start, with different state and party agencies trying to pass the buck.88 In autumn 1935, Hitler approved a proposal by Theodor Eicke: from spring 1936, the Reich would pay the SS Guard Troops, while all other KL costs were borne by individual German states.89 Eicke regarded this as a temporary arrangement only. Now that the camps were fixtures of the Nazi state, he fully expected the Reich to pick up the whole bill.90 He soon got his way. From spring 1938, the camps and their SS troops were allocated funds within the Reich Ministry of the Interior budget, with almost sixty-three million Reichsmark that fiscal year alone.91 Thanks to Hitler, the financial future of the KL was secure.

Hitler also confirmed that the SS concentration camps would largely operate outside the law. On November 1, 1935, he told Himmler that protective custody prisoners should not be granted legal representation. On the same day, he brushed away as irrelevant concerns by the legal authorities about suspicious prisoner deaths.92 Only a few weeks later, Hitler pardoned the convicted Hohnstein SA men, sending a chilling message to the judiciary: even the most sadistic camp guards could count on his backing.93 On paper, the courts could still investigate unnatural prisoner deaths at the hands of the SS. But in practice, such cases were now generally dropped.94 Prosecutors knew that there was little chance a sentence would stand, even if they could overcome the usual SS obstruction.95

Before long, Hitler added the final piece still missing for Himmler’s autonomous terror apparatus: in October 1935, he agreed in principle to unify the entire German police under Himmler’s leadership, and after months of wrangling with Frick, Himmler was appointed on June 17, 1936, as chief of German police. The Gestapo—now a nationwide body—gained complete control over protective custody; all decisions about detention and release from the KL were made centrally inside the Berlin HQ.96 Heinrich Himmler had become the undisputed master over indefinite confinement in concentration camps.

Himmler’s rise seems irresistible, but he would have been nothing without Hitler’s backing. So why did Hitler offer such unwavering support? For a start, he took a rather dim view of Himmler’s competitors. The fortunes of Wilhelm Frick were already fading, while the star of Franz Gürtner (and his Ministry of Justice) never rose at all. Hitler was deeply distrustful of the legal authorities, dismissing jurists as timid bureaucrats who placed abstract laws above the vital interest of the state.97 Hermann Göring, meanwhile, had gradually withdrawn from his role as police leader, turning his attention instead to the German economy and rearmament.98

The stage was clear for Himmler, who had already demonstrated his worth during the Röhm purge in summer 1934. His uncompromising attitude elevated him into Hitler’s innermost circle, and once he had Hitler’s ear, he never stopped extolling the camps’ virtues.99 His subordinates tried to do the same. Theodor Eicke pinned particularly high hopes on the Nazi Party rally in September 1935, when his KL troops filed past Hitler for the first time. Eicke saw this as an important audition. His men rehearsed for weeks—arriving from different camps for special drills in Dachau—before setting off for Nuremberg in pristine uniforms and freshly painted steel helmets. “We passed our test there,” Eicke wrote proudly afterward.100 Hitler thought so, too. He was impressed by all he saw and heard about the KL and praised their exemplary management during a meeting with Himmler in November 1935.101

Hitler came to regard the KL as indispensable, as they allowed him to swiftly settle scores with personal enemies.102 Most important, Hitler valued the camps as powerful weapons in the all-out assault on “community aliens.” The safe detention of dangerous prisoners was essential, Hitler told Himmler on June 20, 1935, and he approved special machine gun units at concentration camps. In case of domestic unrest or war, Hitler added, SS guards could even serve as shock troops outside camps.103

Emboldened by Hitler’s support, Himmler launched the first of many “preemptive” nationwide strikes. On his orders, issued on July 12, 1935, the police arrested well over a thousand former KPD functionaries; the mere suspicion of a “subversive attitude” was enough to warrant arrest.104 But Himmler’s sights were set higher, as we have seen, targeting all alleged enemies. Once more, he could count on Hitler’s support. When the two men met on October 18, 1935, they discussed not only the attack on Communists, but abortionists and “asocial elements,” too.105 Before long, raids on social outsiders by the criminal police intensified, sending ever more prisoners to the KL.106


The triumph of Himmler’s model marked a major defeat for the legal authorities. “Only those who still mourn a past liberalistic era,” a Gestapo official crowed in the leading legal journal, “will regard the application of protective custody measures as too harsh or even illegal.”107 Jurists now faced a parallel and permanent apparatus of detention outside their jurisdiction, typical for the duplication of powers under the polycratic Nazi system of rule.108 True, legal officials could console themselves in the knowledge that their prisons remained the main site of state detention, dwarfing the camps; despite Himmler’s best efforts, his KL held no more than around 3,800 inmates by summer 1935, compared with well over 100,000 inmates in regular prisons.109 But jurists had to accept that the camps were here to stay, and just like most Germans, they gradually got used to their existence.110

Although there were still flash points in the second half of the 1930s, the legal authorities developed a largely cordial relationship with Himmler’s terror apparatus.111 Their collaboration rested on a division of labor in the fight against suspected enemies of the new order: lawbreakers would be sent to prison by courts, while those who could not be convicted of new offenses ended up in concentration camps.112 In addition, thousands of state prisoners were transferred to the KL following the completion of a judicial sentence. When the former KPD Reichstag deputy Karl Elgas came to the end of his three-year sentence for high treason in 1936, the Luckau penitentiary governor advocated his transfer to a concentration camp as there was no certainty that “he will leave his seditious activities behind him in the future”; the Gestapo agreed. Occasionally, prisoner transfers also went in the opposite direction, as KL inmates convicted of criminal offenses could be taken to a prison to serve their sentence, before returning to the camp.113

The growing complicity of legal officials was summed up in a letter by the Jena general state prosecutor in September 1937. After he informed the Reich Ministry of Justice of the recent opening of a large new camp named Buchenwald, he added: “During the first few weeks seven inmates have been shot dead by the guard posts while trying to escape. The judicial proceedings have been stopped. Cooperation between the camp management and the Public Prosecutor’s office has so far been good.”114

The New KL

On the afternoon of August 1, 1936, after athletes from more than fifty countries had filed into the world’s largest sports stadium, during a lavish ceremony watched by more than a hundred thousand spectators, Adolf Hitler stepped up to the microphone and officially opened the Olympic Summer Games. The Berlin Games were a master class in Nazi propaganda. The German capital had undergone a facelift, with gleaming streets and colorful flags greeting foreign visitors, while Nazi leaders were on their best behavior, downplaying the regime’s repressive reality and basking in the reflected glory of the games.115 But Nazi terror was never far from the surface. Even as the Olympic torch was lit inside Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, a group of exhausted prisoners, driven on by SS guards, were clearing a vast pine forest less than twenty-five miles to the north, on the edge of Oranienburg; they were preparing the ground for a new concentration camp called Sachsenhausen.116

Heinrich Himmler saw the creation of a big KL near the German capital as an urgent necessity. At the time, there was only one SS camp in Berlin, the Columbia House, a notorious former Gestapo prison taken over by the IKL in December 1934.117 And this building was far too small for the mass of enemies Himmler targeted. The SS was looking for a suitable location for a large camp, and Oranienburg, the town that had housed one of the biggest early camps, seemed like the perfect spot. Since spring 1936, SS planners had their eyes on a large area of secluded woodland to the northeast of the town, which offered ample space for a new camp, and could be reached easily from Berlin. Following site visits by Himmler and his enforcer Eicke, the SS went ahead in July 1936 with the construction of Sachsenhausen. The new camp quickly took in prisoners from other KL now regarded as redundant. By early September, it had absorbed the remaining inmates from Esterwegen, who later commemorated their move in the “Sachsenhausen Song”:

From Esterwegen we set out,

away from moor and mud,

and Sachsenhausen was soon reached,

the gates were once more shut.118

Among the first prisoners was Ernst Heilmann, who had somehow survived until now. “I have returned from the moor,” he wrote in a first letter to his wife from Sachsenhausen on September 8, 1936. Esterwegen, meanwhile, was hastily closed down and turned into yet another judicial prison camp (the timing was fortunate for the SS, since the Emsland land cultivation project proved largely fruitless). The next camp to shut was the cramped Columbia House, bringing even more inmates to Sachsenhausen in autumn 1936; by the end of the year, the new KL already held some 1,600 prisoners.119

Sachsenhausen was the first of many purpose-built KL sites and came to rival Dachau as the new model camp. Its construction was part of the wider consolidation of the concentration camps in 1936–37 by Himmler and Eicke, who remained in close contact during this time. Now that the future of the KL system was secure, they reshaped it, replacing most of the existing camps with two brand-new ones: Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald (in Thuringia).120

Himmler and Eicke had already hoped in 1936 to set up a large new KL in Thuringia, around the same time as Sachsenhausen, but the project only got off the ground the next spring. Following personal inspections in May 1937, they finally approved a suitable site, a large forested area on the northern slopes of the small but steep Ettersberg (a beauty spot favored by the nearby Weimar population). The new camp was provisionally named after the mountain, but when this met with local opposition because of the association with Weimar’s most famous citizen, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), Himmler opted instead for Buchenwald (“beech forest”), a pastoral term that would come to stand for institutionalized inhumanity. The connection with Goethe, however, could not be severed. A large oak tree, under which he had supposedly met with his muse, stood right on the new camp grounds; because it was protected, the SS had to build around it. Prisoners came to see the presence of Goethe’s oak in the midst of Buchenwald as a desecration of the memory of Germany’s greatest writer, symbolic of the wider destruction of culture under National Socialism.121

The first prisoners arrived in Buchenwald on July 15, 1937, and more transports followed over the next weeks. By early September, some 2,400 men had been placed in the new camp. Almost all had arrived from three older KL, which now closed down. There was Bad Sulza, a small camp only recently taken over by Eicke; Sachsenburg; and Lichtenburg, which would reopen a few months later, in December 1937, as the first SS concentration camp for women. Among the prisoners moved out of Lichtenburg was Hans Litten, who had spent three comparatively bearable years there. He found no such respite in Buchenwald. In his first letter to his mother, sent on August 15, 1937, he told her in code that he was once again brutally abused.122

The landscape of SS terror was changing fast in the second half of the 1930s. Camps that had been hurriedly set up during the Nazi capture of power were replaced by tailor-made structures meant to last.123 Of the four camps under Eicke’s IKL in late 1937, only Lichtenburg and Dachau had their roots in 1933. And Dachau was already in the midst of a major rebuilding program; much of the old munitions factory was torn down to make way for a permanent new camp.124 SS leaders saw newly built KL as the future.Himmler and Eicke enthused about such modern camps, as they called them, and over the coming years added another three: Flossenbürg (May 1938), Mauthausen (August 1938), and Ravensbrück (May 1939), the first SS concentration camp specially constructed for women, replacing Lichtenburg.125

What made the new camps so novel, in the eyes of Himmler and Eicke, was not their internal organization or the guards’ ethos, both of which followed the old Dachau model.126 Rather, it was their functional design. The new concentration camps were planned as small cities of terror, holding masses of prisoners. At a time when the entire SS system held less than five thousand prisoners, Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald were projected for six thousand men each.127 In fact, following Himmler’s vision of unrestrainedpolice terror, there was no fixed limit on prisoner numbers. In contrast to older camps in narrow buildings, the new KL was designed to be “capable of expansion at any time,” Himmler wrote in 1937, shortly after he and Eicke inspected the Sachsenhausen prototype. Boundless terror required boundless camps.128

This was one reason why the new grounds were so large: Sachsenhausen encompassed almost eighty hectares of land (1936) and Buchenwald more than a hundred (1937).129 In the growing camp cosmos, the prisoner compound itself made up only one part, and by no means the biggest. Outside, there were storage rooms, garages, workshops, administrative offices, petrol stations, and water and sewage pumps, as well as large SS quarters and residential settlements, all connected by a network of roads built by prisoners.

Prisoner compounds looked rather similar across the new KL. They were clearly organized and easy to survey. The SS prided itself on strict security and surrounded the sites with wire, fences, towers, ditches, and a no-go zone. Inside stood a few administrative buildings—such as the laundry, kitchen, and infirmary—as well as a large roll call square. Then there were the prefabricated single-story wooden prisoner barracks (in Buchenwald, two-story stone barracks were added in 1938). The barracks resembled the ones Wolfgang Langhoff had seen in Börgermoor back in 1933. Such parallels with the Emsland camps were not accidental, since the SS architect of Sachsenhausen had previously worked there (there was one major change, though: most of the new barracks were longerand split into two wings, with prisoner quarters at each end and washrooms in the middle). Despite many similarities, the new KL compounds were not identical to each other, owing in part to the terrain on which they were built. Also, the SS still experimented with different designs. The Sachsenhausen compound was initially laid out as a triangle, with prisoner barracks forming a half-circle around the roll call square at the base; but this shape impeded the camps’ expansion and surveillance, and was later loosened. In Dachau, by contrast, the SS opted for a rectangular design, with rows of symmetrical barracks on either side of the main camp road. This would become standard in most SS concentration camps.130

There was one more central feature of the new KL: secrecy. To be sure, even these camps were never completely isolated. Social contacts to locals living outside continued as the SS system grew; by 1939, for example, SS men made up nearly one-fifth of the local Dachau population.131 Still, the new camps were largely shielded from sight. In contrast to most early camps, they were set up in more remote and concealed locations, keeping curious spectators away.132 These KL were also more autonomous from the surrounding infrastructure. Many citizens had initially expected economic benefits from a camp in their midst. A few traders did indeed profit, as did some other locals; a Lichtenburg farmer, for example, used prisoner excrement as fertilizer on his fields. But on the whole, hopes for major material benefits were dashed, not least because the new camps became more self-sufficient, with workshops for blacksmiths, shoemakers, tailors, joiners, and others. Dachau even had its own bakery and butcher, leading the way for the other KL.133 As a result, camps became less visible for the men and women living in nearby villages and towns, just as they did to most other Germans in the second half of the 1930s.134


During a speech on German radio on January 29, 1939, to mark the Day of the German Police, Heinrich Himmler made a rare public reference to the SS concentration camps. After reassuring his listeners about the decent conditions in the “strict but fair” KL, Himmler turned to their function: “The slogan that stands above these camps is: There is a path to freedom. Its milestones are: obedience, diligence, honesty, orderliness, cleanliness, sobriety, truthfulness, readiness to make sacrifices, and love of the fatherland.”135The SS was so taken with Himmler’s motto that it was soon displayed in several KL—on signs, roofs, and walls—for all inmates to see; a photo of prisoners before one of the placards featured in the Nazi press.136 Similar SS slogans had appeared before. Since 1936, for example, the wrought-iron doors leading from the Dachau gatehouse to the prisoner compound bore the words “Work Makes Free,” a phrase later added to the gates of Sachsenhausen, Flossenbürg, and Auschwitz.137 SS men used such cynical phrases to torment prisoners. During the war, guards in Sachsenhausen would direct new inmates to the solemn slogan from Himmler’s 1939 speech, painted in huge letters on the barracks around the roll call square, and then point to the nearby crematorium: “There is a path to freedom, but only through this chimney!”138

In his own warped way, however, Himmler had been quite serious about the “path to freedom.”139 He liked to think of himself as a strict teacher and regarded camps in general as instruments of mass education—a popular view in Nazi Germany, with its many different types of camps for molding “national comrades.” As for his KL, Himmler saw them as part reformatories, and prisoners who had been made to change their “inner attitude,” as the SS called it, might be allowed to rejoin the national community.140 In line with this approach, many prisoners detained during the second half of the 1930s were eventually released again.141 None of them had been educated, of course; they had been broken. When Himmler talked about SS “methods of education,” what he really meant was coercion, punishment, and terror—the only ways to deal with all the deviant, dirty, and degenerate “scum” and “rubbish” in the KL, as far as he was concerned.142 What is more, Himmler insisted that not all prisoners be freed, even after they were broken. Echoing contemporary criminological thinking, with its division of offenders into reformable and incorrigible, Himmler was certain that one “must never release” the most depraved common criminals and the most dangerous political enemies, those who would infect the German people once more with the “poison of Bolshevism.”143

Only SS men with special qualities, Himmler claimed, could navigate the dangerous terrain of the KL: “no other service is more devastating and strenuous for the troops than just that of guarding villains and criminals.”144 Some historians have taken Himmler’s aspirations at face value, falling for his idealized image of SS guards as a select force of fighters.145 The prisoners, meanwhile, often reversed the official image and described guards as a freak show of misfits and sadists.146 In Sachsenhausen, they even made up their own ditty, mocking Himmler’s famous slogan: “There is a path to the SS. Its milestones are: stupidity, impudence, mendacity, boasting, shirking, cruelty, injustice, hypocrisy, and love of booze.”147 Although this witticism holds some truth, it offers only a partial picture of the background and actions of men serving in the KL and the IKL. Collectively, these men can be called the Camp SS, though at the time they were known under a far more sinister name. By 1935, they were wearing a badge with a skull and bones on their uniforms: “he who joins our ranks enters into comradeship with death,” as the histrionic Theodor Eicke put it. The macabre symbol gave rise to the official name that Himmler bestowed on the Camp SS men in spring 1936—Death’s Head units.148

Constructing the Political Soldier

An elite unit of political soldiers: this is how Himmler and Eicke liked to depict the Camp SS. In peacetime, Eicke kept telling his men, they were the only soldiers protecting the German fatherland, fighting day and night against the enemy behind the barbed wire of the concentration camps.149The figure of the “political soldier” had first been popularized by the SA in the Weimar years.150 But it was quickly appropriated by Heinrich Himmler and his SS leaders, who loved to style themselves as hard soldiers.151 Theodor Eicke laid full claim to the term, which became so closely associated with him that after his plane was shot down on the Eastern Front on February 26, 1943, his obituary in the Völkischer Beobachter carried the subheading: “Eicke, the political soldier.”152

The construction of Camp SS men as political soldiers was made up of several components. To start with, there was the “superb esprit-de-corps,” as Eicke called it, based on “cordial comradeship.” The ideal of military camaraderie—derived above all from the myth of German fraternity in the First World War trenches, with its glorified images of solidarity and sacrifice—had become a powerful political tool in postwar Germany, not least for the mobilization of Nazi activists.153 The flip side of comradeship was the closing of ranks against others, and Eicke exhorted his men to show no pity to prisoners. The empathy of Camp SS men toward one another, he insisted, had to be matched by their hostility toward inmates. “In service there is only merciless severity and hardness,” Eicke reminded his subordinates, “outside service hours there is heart-warming comradeship.”154The SS men had to show their teeth to prisoners, he demanded, leaving no room for empathy. “Tolerance means weakness,” he said, and for Eicke there was nothing worse than compassion for enemies.155 Weaklings were not cut out for the Camp SS and would be better off in a monastery. “Keep our ranks pure,” he told his men: “Tolerate no softies or weak characters amongst yourselves.”156 Behind all this stood a reverence of masculine virtues like military bearing, toughness, physical strength, and cold-bloodedness. Only real men would make the grade in the Camp SS.157

But how should SS recruits be molded into political soldiers? Heinrich Himmler tried to show the way. Once he had secured the future of the KL system in 1935, he remained hands-on during its consolidation and expansion. Himmler passed on orders, appointed senior staff, conferred with Eicke, visited new sites, and inspected existing ones. Some of his visits were closely stage-managed, so that the camps came closer to their official image, in order to impress Himmler as well as other dignitaries.158 Occasionally, however, Himmler appeared unannounced, to the alarm of the local SS. For all his talk of comradeship, Himmler was not popular among his men, who disliked his reserve and feared his fastidiousness; one long-serving Camp SS man later described the SS leader as “a mean-minded pedant” and “petty tyrant.”159

By contrast, Theodor Eicke enjoyed a good working relationship with his boss, based on their shared vision for the camps, on Eicke’s undying gratitude to Himmler, and on Himmler’s respect for the man he regarded as the perfect manager of the SS camp system. The decision to give the disgraced Eicke another chance had paid off handsomely for Himmler. He trusted Eicke, and when it came to the creation of the Camp SS, he gave him plenty of leeway, admiring and perhaps even envying the rapport Eicke built with his men.160

Eicke quickly put his stamp on the concentration camps. He transformed the Camp Inspectorate from a small backroom operation to an influential agency. His IKL staff increased from five (January 1935) to forty-nine (December 1937), spread across several departments; there was the main (or political) office, as well as separate offices for personnel, administrative, and medical matters.161 The IKL became the nerve center of the SS camp system. From here, key decisions by Eicke and his officers were transmitted to the individual camps. From 1937, the IKL also printed a monthly newsletter, a set of musings and instructions by Eicke on organizational matters (from staff IDs to weapon maintenance), SS deportment, and prisoner treatment.162 Demonstrating his independence from the Gestapo, Eicke soon moved the IKL office out of Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse into larger premises, first, in June 1936, to Friedrichstrasse in central Berlin, and then in August 1938 to a brand-new office block in Oranienburg, right next to Sachsenhausen (some prisoners were forced to work on the construction). Because of its shape, the long three-story structure later became known as the T-Building. Eicke himself occupied the most lavish office, overlooking the large landscaped square outside, and in the evenings retired to wine and dine in his luxurious new villa nearby. Commensurate with their growing status, the men from Camp SS headquarters now resided in some style.163

But Eicke never saw himself as an aloof manager. Like other Nazi activists, he worried that too much paperwork might turn him into a pencil pusher; he and his followers had to stay true to themselves as men of vigor and action.164 Eicke led by example and kept up a hectic schedule of meetings and inspections. “For twenty days each month I am traveling and exhausting myself,” he wrote to Himmler in August 1936, eager as ever to impress. “I live only to fulfill my duty to my troops that I have come to be fond of.”165 In addition, Eicke held regular conferences with his commandants. On one memorable occasion in late 1936, they all met in a picturesque hotel at the foot of the Zugspitze, Germany’s tallest mountain; a snapshot shows Eicke and his officers milling around in the snow, wearing their long black SS coats and caps bearing the skull and bones.166

Eicke’s authority over his men was absolute, and although it ultimately derived from Himmler, it was fed by the force of his personality. Eicke was a charismatic leader, and many of his men felt bound to him by their belief in his heroic character, his exceptional abilities, and his vision.167 His followers revered him as Röhm’s killer and projected all kinds of other epic deeds onto him, picturing Eicke as a titanic warrior.168 And although Eicke reveled in the trappings of his office, he made a show of breaking barriers of rankand status, asking his men to address superiors with the informal “Du” and telling them, “I am ready to listen at any time to the youngest comrade and will stand up for any comrade if he proves an open and honest character.” In an ostentatious celebration of SS comradeship, Eicke even met with regular guards, carousing, drinking, and smoking late into the night—quite unthinkable behavior for the uptight Himmler.169

Many of his men, in turn, worshiped Eicke. They bought into his ideal of the Camp SS as a surrogate family—“My men are dearer to me than my wife and family,” he once wrote—with Eicke as the omnipotent father figure; his underlings even called him “Papa Eicke” (as Eicke proudly relayed to Himmler).170 One of these fawning SS men was Johannes Hassebroek, a twenty-five-year-old hand-picked by Eicke in 1936 as platoon leader, after passing an elite SS leadership academy (Junkerschule). Hassebroek’s devotion to Eicke remained undimmed even decades after the war. “Eicke was more than a commander,” the misty-eyed sixty-five-year-old reminisced in 1975. “He was a true friend and we were his friends in the way that only real men can be.”171

The Janus Face of Punishment

When Heinrich Himmler fantasized about his political soldiers, there was one virtue he prized above all others—decency. Among all the commandments he issued, and there were many, this was paramount. However brutal the fight against the enemy, his men had to remember that they were fighting for the greater German good, not for personal gain or pleasure. Speaking to SS leaders in 1938, Himmler insisted that sadism toward prisoners was just as wrong as compassion: “to be hard, without being cruel” was the guiding principle.172

Himmler’s call for propriety was echoed in Camp SS orders. As early as October 1933, Theodor Eicke, only a few months into his reign as Dachau commandant, instructed guards that any “maltreatment or chicanery” of prisoners was strictly forbidden. Other SS commandants followed suit.173Later on, SS guards were even required to sign a written declaration that they would not “lay a hand” on any opponent of the state.174 Disobedient Camp SS men were threatened with sanctions. In March 1937, Theodor Eicke warned in a newsletter that Himmler might expel guards for “the least maltreatment (box on the ear)” of inmates.175 Just a few months later, another newsletter carried this stunning announcement: “SS Oberscharführer Zeidler in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp has, because of sadistic tastes, beaten a prisoner in a most vile manner. He was reduced to the rank of SS man, permanently expelled from the SS and handed over to the criminal judge. This case is being made known as a warning example.”176 What was going on here? Were Himmler and Eicke serious about clamping down on SS assaults in the KL?

What really concerned SS leaders was not prisoner abuse as such, but what one of Himmler’s aides, in a telling aside, called “unnecessary torture” that breached decorum or caused disorder.177 To stop such acts, SS leaders introduced two key measures. First, they issued an approved catalogue of punishments for all KL, largely modeled on practices tried and tested in Eicke’s old stomping ground at Dachau.178 Second, they regulated the execution of these official punishments; only the commandant could impose them. If guards spotted an infraction, they were supposed to follow the rule book. Rather than assaulting the guilty prisoner themselves, they would send a written report up the chain of command.179 Even the commandants were not fully autonomous. When it came to flogging, the most brutal sanction, they had to send a written application in triplicate to the IKL.180

Flogging prisoners was a favorite punishment of the Camp SS, and indeed of Himmler himself. The use of sticks and whips had already been widespread in early camps, as SA and SS men preferred to use torture instruments instead of their bare hands; this way, they could inflict greater damage, at little risk of injuring themselves. Such assaults carried symbolic weight, too, with a long history of masters whipping their slaves.181 In addition to wild beatings, some early camps had practiced formal flogging. In Dachau, SS men under Commandant Wäckerle staged regular “welcome” beatings of new prisoners, who were pulled over a table and whipped, often until they fainted. Wäckerle also introduced corporal punishment for alleged infractions. “Guilty” prisoners received five to twenty-five blows with a bullwhip or a long willow rod.182 This torture continued under the new Commandant Eicke, who included the “twenty-five blows” in his official Dachau punishment regulations of October 1933. Later, as camp inspector, he rolled out the same rules to the other KL.183

Most ritual floggings took place behind closed doors. But the Camp SS also staged regular performances of cruelty on the roll call squares, to shame its victims and intimidate others (in Buchenwald, well over 240 prisoners were publicly whipped during the second half of 1938 alone). On such occasions, all inmates were forced to stand to attention and watch as the victims, strapped to a special wooden buck, were whipped on the behind, with blood running down their legs; some overeager SS men hit so hard the canes broke.184 This, then, was Himmler’s ideal of “decent” punishment.

An equally gruesome practice was the so-called tying to a post.185 It was another official form of SS torture—drawing on practices dating back to the Inquisition and beyond—that had been pioneered in Dachau before spreading to other KL.186 Prisoners, their hands tied behind their backs, were hung from a pole by their wrists. Sometimes they were left to touch the ground with the toes; or they were suspended without any support, often for several hours. To intensify the torment, SS men pulled on prisoners’ legs or punched them so that they swayed from side to side. The pain from torn ligaments and dislocated or broken bones was so excruciating that prisoners were soon bathed in sweat and struggled for breath, although some fought hard to keep their composure, to demonstrate to the SS and other prisoners that they would not be broken. Their bodies were marked for many days. An inmate who had been tortured for three hours in Sachsenhausen in summer 1939 testified not long afterward that “for around ten days, I did not know if I still had a pair of arms attached to the shoulders, my comrades had to do everything for me … because I could not touch anything, because I had no sense of feeling in the arms.” Some victims did not survive; others were so traumatized they tried to kill themselves.187

Hanging and flogging were only two of the approved SS torture methods. In addition, Eicke’s catalogue of official punishment included penal labor, pack drill (or “sport”), cuts to rations, detention in the dreaded bunker, and transfer to a special penal company (or penal block).188 Most of these sanctions remained in force until the end of the Third Reich, one of the many pernicious legacies of the prewar camps.

By the late 1930s, the SS had built up an elaborate bureaucracy of torture: before a prisoner was officially punished, reports were written and forms were signed. SS leaders saw several advantages in this formal system. To begin with, it imposed some oversight. The leadership principle applied to the camps just as it did to other parts of the Nazi state, and some central control was deemed necessary to prevent chaos.189 Also, the new system had the desired effect of terrorizing prisoners. Since every behavior could be construed as an infraction of the rules, every prisoner was at risk of punishment—and prisoners knew what this meant. As for the victims, the pain of torture was preceded by another torment. They had to wait for days or weeks, following their initial “infraction,” to find out how they would be punished.190 Finally, torture-by-the-book protected the Camp SS. Its leaders were still concerned about the reactions of other Nazi agencies and used the official catalogue of punishments to erect a façade of orderliness around the KL. As Eicke told his men, he had plenty of sympathy for those who hit “cheeky detainees,” but he could not openly condone it “or we would run the risk of being described, by the Ministry of the Interior of the German Reich, as incapable of dealing with prisoners.”191

But the official KL regulations did not put an end to other excesses. Nor were they meant to. SS guards saw violence as their birthright. They continued to torment prisoners and found ways to aggravate regular punishment, for example by flogging prisoners more than officially allowed.192 This happened with the support of local Camp SS officers, who knew that wild assaults added yet another layer of fear for prisoners. Indeed, most commandants led from the front: at the same time as they signed official torture orders, they abused inmates without recourse to the written rules.193 It was this duality of regulated and spontaneous violence that created the unusual potency of SS terror in the camps.

The Janus face of Nazi terror—with its normative and prerogative side—reflected the wider beliefs of Himmler and Eicke.194 In normal circumstances, they expected their men to respect the rules of engagement and the lines of command. But in an emergency, no political soldier could wait for written permission to strike. If the enemy behind the barbed wire went on the offensive—and prisoners were always suspected of being on the brink of insubordination—then guards had to throw out the rule book. In the moral universe of the Camp SS, almost all attacks on inmates could be justified as acts of necessity. This had pragmatic advantages, too, as it would thwart judicial investigations. In a secret order, the leader of the Dachau sentries reminded his men that all prisoner abuses should officially be recorded as self-defense.195

Only in exceptional circumstances did SS leaders discipline abusive guards. This is what happened to Paul Zeidler, mentioned in Eicke’s newsletter above. However, Zeidler was not expelled for torturing a prisoner, as Eicke suggested; if prisoner abuse had been a ground for dismissal, most SS guards would have been fired. Zeidler’s real crime, as far as his superiors were concerned, was that he had let himself be caught by the judiciary. Zeidler had been part of a gang of SS guards who murdered the prisoner Friedrich Weissler in February 1937 in the Sachsenhausen bunker: after slowly beating Weissler to a pulp, they had strangled him with his own handkerchief. During the ensuing routine investigation, the local Camp SS covered up the crime. But it did not go away. Weissler had been a leading official in the Protestant Confessing Church—he was arrested after a petition to Hitler, critical of the regime and the camps, was leaked to foreign newspapers—and his death caused alarm in German church circles and abroad. Moreover, Weissler was a former colleague of the Berlin state prosecutors; until he was dismissed in 1933 because of his Jewish heritage, he had been the presiding judge at a regional court. This prompted a more persistent investigation than usual, quickly unraveling the SS lies. Only then, after the case threatened to engulf the Sachsenhausen SS more widely, was Paul Zeidler cut loose. By sacrificing the shifty Zeidler, who was later sentenced in a secret trial to one year of imprisonment, SS leaders managed to protect other implicated Sachsenhausen officials—men like Commandant Karl Otto Koch, who would go on to become a dominant figure of the prewar KL.196

Death’s Head Careers

The Death’s Head SS expanded fast during the second half of the 1930s, growing from 1,987 men (January 1935) to 5,371 (January 1938).197 In each KL, these men were divided into two main groups. A select few, easily identifiable by the letter “K” on their uniforms, joined the so-called Commandant Staff and controlled most key aspects of the camps, including the prisoner compound itself.198 The rest belonged to the so-called Guard Troop sentries, with one Death’s Head battalion (later regiment) stationed at every concentration camp for men. The Guard Troops were responsible for external security. They patrolled the camp perimeter and manned the watchtowers, and shot prisoners who crossed the sentry line. They also guarded prisoners working outside, offering them the opportunity for hands-on violence.199 Although there were many points of contact between Guard Troops and Commandant Staff, the SS tried to maintain a division of duties; normally, sentries were not even permitted inside the camp compound. This separation between running a camp and guarding it—a separation already in place in early camps like Dachau—became the basic organizational feature of the KL.200

The great majority of Camp SS men served as sentries in the Guard Troop, outnumbering Commandant Staff personnel by a ratio of around 11:1 in late 1937.201 Like other SS members at the time, these sentries had gone through a selection process, essential for maintaining the elite image of the SS. All recruits had to be healthy and at least 5 feet, 6 inches tall, with physical prowess equated with manliness and character. And they had to conform to Himmler’s crank ideas of racial purity, tracing their “Aryan” heritage back to the eighteenth century.202 Beyond these general requirements, selection for the camps had initially been haphazard. But with the coordination of the KL system in the second half of the 1930s, Theodor Eicke pursued a more systematic recruitment strategy for the Guard Troop, focusing on two aspects—youth and voluntarism.203

Eicke was after “bright-eyed” and “brawny” sentries. He welcomed even sixteen-year-olds into the fold, while he considered anyone much over twenty “only a burden.” The “boys,” as Himmler called them, were thought to be easily malleable into political soldiers. A more pragmatic motive, given the tight purse strings of the SS, was that single young men came cheap.204 Eicke’s obsession with youth changed the Camp SS, with the average age dropping to around twenty by 1938; many new recruits had enrolled straight out of the Hitler Youth.205 But Eicke did not welcome all applicants. They were supposed to show passion for their chosen path and be eager to devote their lives to the SS. Here, Eicke was drawing on the ideal of the volunteer soldier, a figure long associated in nationalist circles with dedication and self-sacrifice.206

Although Eicke could not afford to be too selective, given the fast expansion of his troops, he achieved his primary aim. By the late 1930s, the Camp SS was made up almost entirely of volunteers, and mostly of teenagers.207 What had drawn many of them to the Death’s Head SS was its image as a crack military formation. SS recruitment material painted parallels to the army and alluded to special missions for the Führer, holding out the promise of playing at war while Germany was still at peace. By contrast, the camps and their prisoners were not mentioned at all. Most applicants must have known where they would be stationed, but recruiters did not consider the KL a selling point.208

The training of Guard Troop recruits—with continuous parades, marches, obstacle courses, and weapons exercises—was hard. The newcomers were at the mercy of older SS officers, some of them First World War veterans, who harassed and humiliated their charges at every turn. “They drilled us,” one SS man later recalled, “till we howled with rage.” This brutal induction was designed to weed out “weak” men, and more than a few recruits collapsed or broke down in tears; they had signed up for four (later twelve) years of service, but did not even last the three months of probation. Others, by contrast, positively enjoyed the hazing—the harder, the better—as a showcase for their toughness.209

Recruits who endured the initiation rituals were taken over into the Guard Troop. But their daily lives bore little resemblance to the adventures some had expected. By the late 1930s, Guard Troops worked on strict rotation. Most of the time was taken up with routine military exercises and training, interrupted by one week of sentry duty each month, which often proved tiring and tedious. Most men lived regimented communal lives and some grumbled that they were no more than “prisoners with rifles.” The sentries envied other SS formations bearing arms, like the Leibstandarte, which were better equipped and paid. These were the real elite units, while the Guard Troops were mocked as dull watchmen.210 “Morale among the comrades is not very good,” one guard admitted in 1935. There was a great gap between the heroic self-image of the Camp SS and their mundane lives, a gap that even Eicke’s bombastic oratory could not always bridge. “I am aware of your hardships and am striving every day to remove them,” he assured his men, “but this can only be done one step at a time.”211

There were plenty of Guard Troop recruits who believed Eicke, despite the privations, and such men could reap rich rewards. The Camp SS offered rapid advancement toward better pay and other perks. Nowhere else in the SS could men with a modest education go further; it was not uncommon for recruits to ascend from private to officer in just a few years.212 Their rise often led them to the Commandant Staff. In the eyes of their superiors, they had proven themselves as political soldiers and were now allowed to rule the lives of prisoners inside the compounds.213

One of these fast risers was Rudolf Höss. Born in 1900, he dreamed of becoming a soldier, and soon after the First World War broke out, he escaped from his stifling home into the army, just fifteen years of age. He threw himself into the war and was repeatedly wounded and decorated. Even the German defeat could not dim his devotion to a martial male lifestyle. He spent most of the hated Weimar years among far-right paramilitaries, fighting vicious battles in the Freikorps and then joining isolated rural communities of like-minded men. He never lost his taste for violence, either, and in 1924 Höss was convicted for his part in the slaughter of a supposed Communist traitor (he served four years in a penitentiary). The radical right-wing connections Höss forged during the Weimar years would later bring him to the SS concentration camps. He had joined the Nazi movement in the early 1920s, when he met Himmler for the first time. Their paths would cross again over the coming years, and in summer 1934, during an inspection of the regular SS in Stettin (Höss had joined up the previous year), Himmler advised him to enter the Camp SS. Höss accepted, tempted not least by the prospect of rapid promotion. He joined the Dachau SS as a sentry in December 1934. Just four months later, Eicke plucked him from the Guard Troop and transferred him to the Commandant Staff, the springboard for his later meteoric rise.214

Höss would advance faster and further than almost any other new recruit, but his background was similar to many others in the KL Commandant Staffs. Like Höss, they were largely in their late twenties and thirties, far older than the youngsters from the Guard Troop. Most had gained their first military or paramilitary experiences prior to 1933, often showing early enthusiasm for the Nazi movement; in spring 1934, eight of the eleven officers in the Dachau Commandant Staff carried prestigiously low SS membership numbers of ten thousand or lower.215

Among the most experienced Camp SS men were the commandants. Almost all prewar SS commandants had seen action during the First World War—around half of them as professional soldiers—and had later drifted to the Nazi movement, joining the SS before 1932 and reaching officer rank by early 1933.216 These commandants reported to Eicke’s IKL, but inside their camps they exercised the ultimate authority over prisoners and SS men; to do so, commandants relied on their staff office, above all on their adjutants, who often became powerful figures in their own right.217Commandants had authority over the Guard Troops on sentry duty.218 And they controlled the Commandant Staff, passing on orders and directives during large assemblies, and supervising officers from the various KL departments.219

From the mid-1930s, the Commandant Staff included five main departments, a basic division—based on the organizational structure of Dachau—which would remain largely unchanged until the end of the war.220 In addition to the commandant’s staff office (Department I), it included the so-called political office (Department II), which registered prisoner arrivals, transports, releases, and deaths, keeping files as well as photographs of inmates. In addition, it was in charge of the bunker and prisoner interrogations, using a range of torture methods. This was why a summons to the political office “was quite likely to induce a heart attack in a prisoner,” a former Buchenwald inmate wrote after the war. Crucially, the leaders of the political office reported not just to the commandant but to the police, as well. They were career policemen appointed by the police authorities, and as a sign of their special status frequently wore civilian dress.221

The chief camp doctor, who headed the medical office (Department V), stood under dual subordination, too. In addition to the commandant, he answered to the chief medical officer in the IKL, Dr. Karl Genzken, a former navy doctor and old Nazi activist, who in turn reported to the SS Medical Authority (which posted the doctors to the camps) and the SS Reich physician. Camp doctors were in charge of all medical matters, supervising the provision for both SS troops and prisoners, for whom basic infirmaries existed.222These doctors loomed large in the lives of inmates, in contrast to the bureaucrats from the administration office (Department IV), who operated largely hidden from view. In many ways, though, the administration office proved no less important. Not only were the officials overseeing the camp budget, they were in charge of food, clothing, and lodging (for prisoners and the SS), as well as maintenance in the camp, working closely with the SS Administration Office under Oswald Pohl.223

The most powerful figure in the Commandant Staff, with the exception of the commandant, was the camp compound leader, who headed the protective custody camp (Department III). A more visible presence than the commandant, for whom he deputized, he was a key figure for inmates and SS men alike. Rudolf Höss called him the “real ruler over the entire life of prisoners.” This was reflected in the location of his office, in the gatehouse directly overlooking the prisoner compound. The camp compound leader directed the largest department in the Commandant Staff. His personnel included one or more deputies at the top, a report leader (responsible for prisoner discipline and roll calls), a work service leader (supervising SS commando leaders in charge of prisoner labor details), and the block leaders (in charge of prisoner barracks). Dedicated SS men quickly moved up the ranks, sometimes all the way to the top.224

Rudolf Höss was among the brightest stars of the Camp SS. In the Dachau Commandant Staff, he was soon fast-tracked from block leader to report leader, and after a visit in 1936, Heinrich Himmler himself promoted him to Untersturmführer; just three years after joining the SS, Höss was now an officer. He moved to Sachsenhausen in summer 1938, first as adjutant, then as camp compound leader. These two posts were the main gateways for striving SS men to become commandants, and sure enough, when his superiors searched for a dynamic officer to head one of their new KL in 1940, Höss was their choice. He packed his bags and traveled east to a place “way back in Poland,” as he wrote, as commandant of a camp called Auschwitz.225

Camp SS Professionals

Theodor Eicke never tired of conjuring up the SS Death’s Head “spirit”—the mortar, as he called it, which bonded his men.226 But Eicke’s rhetoric could not smooth over the cracks in the Camp SS. For all his bluster about breaking down barriers, for example, there were many formal and informal hierarchies separating leaders, NCOs, and ordinary men, both in the camp and off-duty; officers often lived in spacious and well-appointed houses in newly built SS settlements, while their men slept in large and shabby huts which sometimes faced the prisoner barracks, separated only by the barbed wire.227

Instead of a unified community of SS comrades there were rival groups, an inevitable consequence of drafting so many ruthless and hard-nosed men.228 Conflicts also erupted over the daily duties, with plenty of men failing to live up to Eicke’s ideals. Camp SS leaders frequently reprimanded their men for slovenly dress and poor posture, for chatting with inmates, for stealing from SS stores, and for reading, or worse still, for falling asleep on duty.229 A few errant guards even ended up as prisoners themselves, after Himmler introduced a new sanction for disgraced SS men in summer 1938: on his personal orders, they would be placed into protective custody in Sachsenhausen. By September 1939, seventy-three ex–SS men—including former guards—were held here in the so-called Education Platoon, under comparatively lenient conditions. Their former SS comrades regularly set them upon fellow prisoners, who greatly feared these “bone men,” a nickname derived from the crossbones on their prisoner uniforms, a daily memento of how they had fallen.230

Despite Eicke’s exaggerations, the SS Death’s Head spirit was not entirely imaginary. Like a true corporate leader, Eicke did impress a distinct organizational identity onto the Camp SS—with its own traditions, values, and vocabulary—and the hard core among his men fully embraced it. “We in the KL were a completely isolated clique,” one of them recalled proudly after the war. They signed up for Eicke’s ideal of the political soldier and pursued long-term careers as concentration camp professionals. There may not have been more than a few hundred of them in the prewar years, mostly inside the Commandant Staff, but it was these men who ultimately dominated the KL.231

Life as a political soldier was a full-time commitment. The core members of the Camp SS spent much of their free time together on the grounds. They met up in SS canteens and celebrated festive occasions together. In Dachau, SS men mingled at their own private swimming pool, bowling alley, and tennis courts; there was even a nature reserve with wild animals. Senior officials socialized outside the camp grounds, too. Most of them were married with two or more children—another signifier of masculine SS identity—and their families often lived together in the nearby SS settlements. In this way, the private and professional lives of dedicated Camp SS men merged into one.232

At the center of their lives stood violence. This was the real mortar binding together the Camp SS professionals, as their shared practice of abuse created close bonds of community and complicity.233 So strong was the violent energy at the core of the SS, it spread beyond the camps, leading to scuffles and brawls between guards and locals; the worst incident occurred in April 1938 in Dachau, when an SS man used his ceremonial dagger to stab two workers to death, apparently after an argument about his uniform and golden Nazi Party badge.234

Violence was the essence of the Camp SS spirit, and it was soaked up by the SS professionals. In addition to official prisoner punishments, they practiced many other forms of violence, starting with slaps. For prisoners the first slap in the face was a humiliating reminder of their servitude—slaps were commonly used by German men to discipline minors and inferiors—but it was preferable to many other abuses.235 Punches and kicks, for example, caused real bodily harm, as did another violent SS ritual, the nighttime raid, when screaming guards would descend on sleeping prisoners, followed by carnage and torture.236

By contrast, murder was still unusual in the mid-1930s. On average, between four and five prisoners died monthly in 1937 in each of the big SS camps for men (Dachau, Sachsenhausen, and Buchenwald), which held a daily average of around 2,300 prisoners each.237 In all, perhaps three hundred prisoners perished in the KL between 1934 and 1937, most of them driven to suicide by SS men or killed outright.238

Violence came easy to the hard core of the Camp SS, justified (as in early camps) as the only way to hold down dangerous inmates. True, the fiction of the savage prisoner was more difficult to maintain, now that the Third Reich was fully entrenched. But Camp SS leaders worked hard to fan the flames of hatred. New recruits received ideological instruction, which continued throughout their service. In lectures, leaflets, and directives, SS leaders painted prisoners as dangerous enemies, never to be trusted, never to be left alone, never to be spared. These slogans often stuck, partly because the KL were staffed by self-selected National Socialist believers, partly because prisoners began to resemble the stereotypical image of convicts, with shaved heads and striped uniforms (see below). SS revulsion against prisoners became so intense, Rudolf Höss wrote, it was “unimaginable for outsiders.”239 Not every slap or kick was prompted by burning hatred, however. SS men found many practical reasons for assaults, to punish infractions or to maintain discipline. And sometimes, they simply assaulted prisoners out of sheer boredom, to liven up their dull days.240 Whatever the motive, however, all attacks grew out of a deep disdain for the victims.

To make his men even harder, as Theodor Eicke put it, they were ordered to attend official prisoner floggings. The first time, Rudolf Höss recalled, he was shocked by the screams, but he got used to it, just like his comrades, some of whom appeared to enjoy the suffering of their “enemies.”241Professional Camp SS men were more than passive observers, of course. A few of them received specialist training in torture methods.242 But most men learned on the job, copying the behavior of more experienced colleagues and superiors.243 They could deaden any remaining scruples with alcohol, which fueled violent excesses; some men got so drunk they hurt themselves as they stumbled around the camp.244

Violence not only united Camp SS hard-liners, it propelled their careers. In a community based on the veneration of the political soldier, brutality brought valuable social capital. Ambitious SS men knew that a reputation for ruthlessness would impress superiors and boost their prospects. This was one reason why block leaders attacked prisoners and volunteered to carry out floggings. Senior officials, meanwhile, did not want to be outdone by their men. “I could not ask block leaders to do more than I was willing to do myself,” the former Sachsenhausen report leader testified after the war. “That is why I personally punched and kicked.” To maintain their status, Camp SS men had to reaffirm their brutality, over and over again. Unlike prisoners, who were desperate to lie low—a common motto was “don’t be conspicuous”—committed SS men were eager to stand out, impressing their SS audience with theatrical displays of cruelty; the ensuing competition ratcheted up the spiral of terror.245 In sum, the SS perpetrators did not simply commit violence for its own sake.246 Rather, their actions were driven by an explosive mix of ideological and situational factors.

Camp SS men who failed the test of violence were marginalized and mocked. Just as Eicke had demanded, they were shamed as weak and effeminate. This created significant group pressure on individual men to “toughen up.” Rudolf Höss, for one, was terrifiedof ridicule. “I wanted to become notorious for being hard,” he wrote, “so that I would not be considered soft.” Those written off as failures were sidelined into office jobs, punished, or dismissed—“for the Death’s Head strikes its wearer,” Eicke wrote in his inimitable style, “if ever he deviates from our prescribed course.” Eicke’s drive to remove “soft” men claimed several prominent casualties, none more so than the commandant of the largest SS concentration camp.247

The Dachau School

When Heinrich Himmler cast around for a permanent new Dachau commandant to replace Theodor Eicke, he turned to one of his oldest followers. Born in 1890, Heinrich Deubel had returned from Allied captivity in the First World War as a decorated lieutenant and settled into a steady job as a customs official. His real passion, however, was for far-right politics. He joined the fledgling SS in 1926 as member number 186, rising fast through its ranks. By 1934, Oberführer Deubel was commanding a regiment of Austrian SS men, stationed on the same grounds as the Dachau camp. As an army veteran and passionate SS officer, with a violent temper to boot, Deubel seemed as good a choice as any to succeed Eicke and took over as Dachau commandant in December 1934.248 His appointment was rather typical of the haphazard personnel policy in the early phase of the KL, when so-called old Nazi fighters, some of whom had fallen on hard times, were rewarded with posts for their early dedication to the movement, often on the spur of the moment.249

But impeccable Nazi credentials were no guarantee of a successful Camp SS career. Like several other Nazi veterans, Heinrich Deubel failed the expectations of his superiors. It quickly became clear that in terms of terror, he was anything but Eicke’s double. Dachau remained a brutal SS camp, to be sure, with thirteen known prisoner deaths in 1935. But these were still better days for most inmates. They faced less severe punishment, worked less hard, and mingled more freely. Supported by his camp compound leader Karl D’Angelo (who had shown himself as a more moderate officer in the early camp Osthofen), Deubel championed new methods of prisoner reform, including lessons in math and foreign languages in a so-called camp school. He even suggested sending a Communist on a Nazi-sponsored cruise to win him over for the national community.

Significant as the Deubel era was, as early evidence that the KL did not move inexorably from bad to worse, it was short-lived. Eicke soon attacked Deubel for compromising the flagship KL, and inside Dachau, too, hard-line guards complained about the “disgusting humane treatment” of inmates. In late March 1936, Eicke had enough and removed Deubel. As with other failed officers, the principle of SS comradeship dictated that he would get another chance. But after Deubel spent a few unhappy months as commandant of the Columbia House, Eicke kicked him out as “completely unsuitable.” Soon after, Deubel found himself back in his old job in the customs office.250

His place in Dachau was taken by the forty-year-old Oberführer Hans Loritz, who would become a pivotal figure in the Camp SS. His background was remarkably similar to Deubel’s. Here was another First World War veteran and former POW, whose humdrum life as a civil servant in the Weimar years had become secondary to his SS career (he had joined in 1930). In one crucial respect, however, Loritz was different. He had volunteered for the KL, professing a deep admiration for Eicke, and had already proven himself as uncompromising during his tenure as commandant of Esterwegen.251

Loritz, a coarse and barrel-chested man with small dark eyes and a black Hitler moustache, did not disappoint after he arrived in Dachau in spring 1936. In several letters to Eicke, he posed as the defender of the Camp SS spirit. He banned the camp school and denounced Deubel’s “lazy” regime, with its almost “comradely” treatment of prisoners, vowing to clean up the “muck.” Loritz started as he meant to go on, and supervised a mass flogging during his first prisoner roll call. Nicknamed Nero by the prisoners, he even laid hands on prisoners himself.252 Those officers who followed his lead prospered. They included the new Dachau camp compound leader Jakob Weiseborn—another notoriously brutal Camp SS man—who succeeded the “soft as butter” D’Angelo (as Eicke put itwhen he dismissed him). This was part of a major reshuffle, as Loritz purged men tainted by Deubel’s regime and brought in veterans from other KL. The result was a sharp rise in the Dachau death rate.253

The appointment of Hans Loritz in Dachau signaled the beginning of a more coherent SS personnel policy. Following the consolidation of the KL system in the mid-1930s, several hastily appointed “old fighters” like Deubel were dismissed as commandants. They were replaced by a new breed of SS men, who had learned their trade inside the camps. The system became more stable as a result; Loritz, for example, served for more than three years in Dachau, followed by more than two years in Sachsenhausen.254

Dachau remained the most promising springboard for ambitious Camp SS men. Seven of its ten prewar camp compound leaders were later promoted to commandant, among them Jakob Weiseborn, who headed Flossenbürg from 1938. Prior to his appointment, he had been dispatched from Dachau as camp compound leader to Sachsenhausen, highlighting another element of the emerging SS personnel policy: through the transfer of committed officers, Eicke exported the Camp SS spirit from established KL to new ones.255Like Weiseborn, most of the new Sachsenhausen staff were KL veterans; the leader of the Guard Troop, for example, was none other than Eicke’s old confidant Michael Lippert. The same process repeated itself in summer 1937, when Buchenwald was established. This time, trusted SS men arrived from Sachsenhausen, including Lippert, Weiseborn, and the commandant Obersturmbannführer Koch, who would dominate the new camp for over four years.256

Karl Otto Koch was the leading SS commandant of the prewar years, together with Hans Loritz. Another keen soldier, he had experienced the German defeat in the First World War in British captivity. Koch struggled through a succession of white-collar jobs during the Weimar years and became unemployed in 1932. He then devoted himself fully to the Nazi movement, having joined the SS one year earlier. His official KL career began in October 1934, when, aged thirty-six, he became commandant of Sachsenburg. Over the following months, he held the same position in Lichtenburg, Columbia House, and Esterwegen, before his appointment as Sachsenhausen commandant in September 1936. The flabby and balding Koch, who had once been a bank clerk, now modeled himself as the ideal political soldier. He even got married in the forest around Sachsenhausen, wedding his second wife Ilse in a ghostly nighttime ceremony surrounded by uniformed Camp SS men holding torches.257

Koch was a cruel commandant and unforgiving superior. Not content with terrorizing the prisoners, he micromanaged the lives of his staff. Some of his SS men, in turn, were weary of Koch. The prisoners, meanwhile, despised him. It was hard to decide, a Buchenwald survivor wrote in 1945, which was Koch’s most evil trait, “his sadism, his brutality, his perversity, or his corruption.”258 For now, none of these features slowed his career. On the contrary, Koch’s brutality strengthened his standing. Eicke relied on him, as he did on Loritz, and sought their opinion when it came to the appointment of other senior Camp SS officials.259

By the late 1930s, Theodor Eicke had molded the Camp SS into a rather cohesive corps, more uniform than ever before or after. Close networks had formed, bound together by patronage, comradeship, and nepotism, rather than formal hierarchical structures. However, the Camp SS was far from united. There was plenty of disaffection at the fringes and infighting at the core. What is more, the KL failed to attract the cream among SS recruits, leaving Eicke with limited choice when it came to senior positions. He was stuck with some men he regarded as utterly unsuitable, like Karl Künstler. A senior officer in the Dachau Guard Troop, Sturmbannführer Künstler fell out of favor after a drunken rampage. Künstler had behaved “like a brewer’s drayman,” Eicke fumed, adding that the miscreant was a bad influence on his men. As punishment, Künstler was sent into the wilderness, serving from January 15, 1939, in a Death’s Head reserve regiment in eastern Germany, on reduced pay. But Eicke immediately recalled him. Following the unexpected death of Jakob Weiseborn on January 20, 1939, Eicke urgently needed an experienced officer to fill in as Flossenbürg commandant. Installed just a few days later, Künstler would oversee the camp’s descent into mass death during the following years, which claimed the lives of thousands of inmates.260


In the wake of SS coordination, a more standardized concentration camp system had emerged in the mid-1930s. The outlines of different camps began to resemble one another, as did the background and careers of the staff. The SS also imposed greater uniformity on prisoners. Inmates even began to look alike: by 1936, most male prisoners had their hair shorn on arrival and at regular (often weekly) intervals thereafter.261 Later on, from around 1938, they wore identical uniforms, too. Instead of the assorted clothes of earlier years—a colorful jumble of civilian outfits, old police garments, and more—prisoners were dressed in the same striped clothing, the so-called zebra uniform, blue and white in summer, blue and gray in winter, with numbers sewn on jackets and trousers. In the small early camps, guards had often addressed inmates by name; in the large KL of the late 1930s, prisoners were reduced to numbers.262

Newcomers often felt lost among the sea of seemingly identical inmates. But when they looked more closely, they soon noticed different prisoner groups and hierarchies. Some prisoners were better dressed, housed, and groomed than others, for example, and it was they who often wore signs that identified them as so-called Kapos.263 There were also badges for different prisoner backgrounds. Pioneered in some early camps, such insignia were standardized around 1937–38, when the Camp SS placed colored triangles on trousers and jackets to differentiate inmates according to the grounds for their detention.264 The color of the triangle had a profound impact on prisoner lives in the camps, and so did their gender, with men and women facing very different treatment.

Daily Lives

No day was ever the same in the KL. Schedules varied, depending on the camp, the season, and the year. Also, the SS men, masters over time in the camp, did not want life to become too predictable, keeping inmates in a state of suspense. Every day, prisoners woke up dreading the terror of the known and of the unknown, aware that their repetitive daily grind might be interrupted at any moment by a spell of unscripted SS abuse.265 Still, the streamlining of the camps created similar routines. In all camps, days were split into distinct segments, marked by sirens or bells sounding across the grounds—yet another element borrowed from the regimented life in the army and the prison.266

An average day in a concentration camp for men began very early, when it was still dark outside; during the summer, the inmates had to rise around 4:00 a.m. or even earlier. Prisoners splashed some water on their faces and bodies, wolfed down breakfast (bread or porridge, with tea or ersatz coffee), hastily washed tin cups and plates, stored them in lockers, and attended to the “bed building.” Then prisoners left their quarters and marched to morning roll call, in a “silent, speedy, and military manner,” as the Buchenwald camp compound leader demanded in 1937. Weak and sick inmates were supported by others, as the roll call was obligatory for all (except those in the infirmary). Once all prisoners were assembled, the SS report leader verified the total number; if there were mistakes, prisoners had to stand for a long time, sometimes hours. During roll call, SS officers also made announcements over loudspeakers and ordered brief military drills, while block leaders punished alleged infractions such as poor posture and dirty shoes. Finally prisoners split into their labor details and marched away at double time, often for work outside the compound.267

Forced labor took up most of the prisoners’ daytime hours, only briefly interrupted by lunch.268 Lunch was generally bland, often some kind of vegetable stew with bread. Stomach complaints were frequent and so was hunger, with some prisoners suffering sharp weight loss. But overall, the food was just about bearable. From the vantage point of prisoners who went through the wartime KL, it was positively rich in retrospect, not least because inmates were allowed to augment their daily rations. Although relatives were now banned from sending food (or any other goods), they could transfer small sums of money to prisoners for additional supplies in SS-run canteens. In Dachau, an inmate who received four Reichsmark a week in 1938 could purchase half a pound of butter, half a pound of biscuits, a tin of herring or sardines, some artificial honey, a few personal goods like soap, shoelaces, or toothpaste, a few dozen cubes of sugar, and two packs of cigarettes (inmates were allowed to smoke after meals and also used cigarettes as an unofficial currency).269

The early evening roll call, following the return of all external labor details, was particularly feared by prisoners. Exhausted, they had to stand to attention, irrespective of the weather, until the SS determined the final tally. SS men liked to prolong the prisoners’ agony, forcing them to sing songs or making them watch the execution of official punishments. Finally prisoners went off for dinner in their quarters, eating some more soup, or bread and cheese. Afterward, they sometimes endured more forced labor inside the compound or performed chores like cleaning their uniforms. However, prisoners also snatched some spare time. Private conversations were officially forbidden for much of the day, but now prisoners came together and talked; others read Nazi newspapers (which they paid for). Then taps sounded—between 8:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m.—and prisoners had to move inside their quarters. Some spent a few more minutes reading, but soon the siren sounded for lights off. Prisoners were now forbidden to leave their quarters, at the threat of death, and fell into a fitful and uneasy sleep, never long enough before they had to face another day in the KL.270

Most prisoners looked forward to Sundays, which followed a different rhythm. While prisoners occasionally worked, for once labor did not take center stage. SS men still dictated life in the compounds, of course. Sometimes they insisted on longer roll calls and forced prisoners to polish their quarters. Or they would blast speeches by Nazi leaders and approved music from loudspeakers (as they did on some weekday evenings), or oversee orchestra performances. Following the establishment of the first official prisoner orchestra in Esterwegen in 1935, several KL set up similar ensembles, whose main function was to perform for SS and prisoners.271 At first, there were also religious Sunday services, as in regular prisons. Even in Dachau, the SS initially allowed a local priest to celebrate mass on the roll call square. During the wider Nazi confrontation with the churches in the mid-1930s, however, such services petered out and were eventually banned altogether by Himmler.272

Despite their dominance, the SS stranglehold over the KL was never absolute. Although some guards hated the idea of prisoners “idling,” reduced staffing levels on Sundays meant that SS control had to be relaxed, leaving more space for prisoner initiative. Occasionally, they were permitted to play sports outside their quarters. More often, they sat inside and played board games or read. Initially, some inmates had been allowed to keep their own books, though this changed later on. When Hans Litten was moved from Lichtenburg to Buchenwald in 1937, he had to send home his entire collection. “You can well imagine what that means to me,” he wrote to his mother in despair. Litten now had to rely on rudimentary camp libraries that had sprung up since 1933, sometimes funded with monies extorted from prisoners. Though the SS purchased plenty of propaganda tracts, there were enough books—almost six thousand titles in Buchenwald by autumn 1939—to include the occasional gem.273

Inmates also used their spare time to write to loved ones. Prisoners could send a brief letter or postcard every week or two, though they had to stay clear of any topic that could be construed as criticism; the ideal letter, one prisoner recounted, would have read something like this: “Thanks for the money, thanks for the mail, I am fine, all is well, your Hans.” Bland as most messages inevitably were, they gained added significance, as visits were now only allowed in exceptional circumstances. Delayed or withheld letters could therefore cause alarm among relatives, who were already under great strain. Sometime in 1938, the wife of a Dachau prisoner contacted the commandant’s office, asking bluntly: “Have you shot my husband, because no mail is arriving anymore?”274

In principle, all prisoner activities took place within a narrow space demarcated by the SS. In practice, prisoners often used this space to undermine SS control. They smuggled hidden references into letters, as we have already seen. Similarly, prisoners from early on subverted artistic performances sanctioned by the SS. Take the “Circus Concentracani” in Börgermoor. One Sunday afternoon in August 1933, a group of prisoners directed by the actor Wolfgang Langhoff put on a show of acrobatics, dance, and music, including the premiere of the defiant “Song of the Moorland Soldiers.” They made jokes at the expense of SS men, too, who watched in amusement and some disbelief. Such daring displays were very rare, however, especially after the SS tightened its grip on the camps. In the later 1930s, the SS allowed only a few cabaret performances, wary of blurring the boundaries between oppressors and oppressed. Of course, prisoners did not always seek SS permission to act, and also asserted their identities during illicit cultural, religious, and political meetings.275


One of the secrets of the success of the KL, Heinrich Himmler told German generals in summer 1944, was the deployment of prisoners as surrogate guards. This ingenious scheme for “holding down subhumans,” he added, had been pioneered by Theodor Eicke. A few select inmates, Himmler explained, forced others to work hard, keep clean, and make their beds. These prisoner supervisors were known, Himmler added, as “so-called Kapos.”276 Himmler was right to regard the Kapo, a word widely thought to derive from the Italian capo (head or leader), as a central cog in the Camp SS machinery of terror. Indeed, it had proven so effective in the prewar KL—allowing a small gang of SS men to dominate large camps and driving a wedge between prisoners—that Nazi officials later introduced a similar mechanism of “divide and rule” in Jewish ghettos and slave labor camps.277

The origins of the Kapo system, however, were very different from the airbrushed picture Himmler presented in 1944. To start with, there was nothing new about co-opting prisoners.278 In German prisons, inmates had long been appointed to menial positions as “trusties” (back in 1927, for example, Rudolf Höss became a clerk in the Brandenburg penitentiary, following his conviction for homicide). Since many KL inmates had previously spent time inside Nazi prisons, they were already familiar with the idea of assuming influential posts. “We arrived from the penitentiary,” one Communist activist later described his arrival in Buchenwald, “and were used to a comrade serving as a trusty.”279 What distinguished the KL was not the deployment of prisoners as such, but the powers some Kapos gained.

Neither was Theodor Eicke the creator of the Kapo structure, as Himmler claimed in his bid to depict the KL as products of intelligent SS design. In truth, such purpose and planning had often been lacking during the birth of the camps. In some early camps, it had been the prisoners themselves—well versed in the practice of political organization—who selected representatives for overseeing order and taking grievances to the authorities. Shortly after Wolfgang Langhoff arrived in the protective custody wing in Düsseldorf prison in spring 1933, the inmates, mostly Communist workers, elected a young KPD functionary called Kurt as their leader. In other early camps, such appointments were initiated by the SS or SA, but it was still the prisoners who selected their own spokesmen. When Langhoff was transferred to Börgermoor in summer 1933, the deputy commandant told the new arrivals to pick a block elder; following lengthy discussions, the prisoners elected the same man who had led them back in Düsseldorf, Kurt, who then climbed on a table and gave a brief speech, recorded in Langhoff’s memoirs. The most important thing, Kurt told the others, was “to demonstrate to the SS, by our impeccable order and discipline, that we are not subhumans”—inadvertently summing up the appeal of the Kapo system for the captors.280

The Kapo system was firmly entrenched by the mid-1930s and continued to grow as the KL expanded. At the end of 1938, for example, when Buchenwald held around eleven thousand prisoners in all, there were over five hundred Kapos.281 Senior Kapos were now appointed by the SS—though the officers often listened to proposals by prominent prisoners—and formed a parallel organizational structure to the SS.

Broadly speaking, Kapos fell into three functional groups. The first were the work supervisors, with larger labor details—sometimes holding hundreds of inmates—having several prisoner foremen in addition to a chief Kapo. Such Kapos had various duties, like reporting delays and preventing escape. Above all, they had to be “good slave driver[s],” as one survivor put it. SS expectations were summed up in an internal manual: “The Kapo is responsible for the strictest implementation of all orders and for all incidents in the labor detail.”282

Second, there were Kapos who supervised prisoner life inside the quarters. Each barrack (or block, as it was often called) was led by a block elder, supported by a few block service inmates, room elders, and table elders. In the absence of SS guards, who only entered the barracks intermittently, the block elder held full authority. Each morning, he supervised the rigorous routine after reveille. Then he led his prisoners to the roll call square, where he reported the tally to the SS. After the others had left for work, he would inspect the barrack, to ensure—as SS regulations demanded—that beds were made “impeccably” and no “work-shy prisoners” were hiding inside (only the block elder and his men were allowed into barracks during the day). Come evening, he controlled the distribution of food, reported missing prisoners, initiated new arrivals, and prepared for lights-out. Afterward, he was “responsible for quiet at night,” as the SS regulations stated.283

Finally, more and more inmates served as Kapos in the camp administration. Prisoners had already been drafted as orderlies into infirmaries of some early camps, a practice that would become more widespread from the late 1930s.284 Kapos also worked in the prisoner kitchen, storeroom, and bunker, and as clerks in various SS offices. At the top of the hierarchy stood the camp elder (often with two deputies), who supervised the other Kapos and reported to the SS, acting as the main conduit between oppressors and oppressed. Few prisoners were mightier than the camp elder. However, it was a dangerous post, and by no means all inmates aspired to it. The political prisoner Harry Naujoks, for instance, initially resisted attempts by others to install him in Sachsenhausen, until some of his Communist comrades—who dominated Kapo positions in the prewar concentration camps—persuaded him to accept. His general strategy, Naujoks wrote in his memoirs, was to make Kapos indispensable by ensuring the smooth operation of roll calls and labor details, thereby keeping the SS at bay. But he knew that the SS wanted more, aiming to use Kapos as auxiliaries of terror. How individual Kapos reacted to these pressures and how they used their “small room for maneuver,” as Naujoks called it, determined their standing among the rest of the inmates. Some became the scourges of prisoner lives; others, like Naujoks, won a reputation for decency.285

All Kapos gained a measure of influence over other prisoners, and some enjoyed great powers, issuing commands and hitting out.286 This led some inmates to speak of the Kapo system as a form of “self-administration,” a term widely adopted in the historical literature.287 But the term is misleading, implying a level of autonomous decision-making absent in the KL.288 After all, Kapos had to serve, first and foremost, the wider interests of the SS; block elders reported to SS block leaders, medical orderlies to SS doctors, labor supervisors to SS commando leaders, and so on. A Kapo who failed to fulfill SS expectations faced punishment and dismissal.289 Despite the privileges that came with being a Kapo, then, it was a precarious existence. Even Harry Naujoks, who was more adept at playing the SS than most, did not last. After he had spent three and a half years as Sachsenhausen camp elder, the SS one day threw him into the bunker, accusing him of a Communist conspiracy, and then dispatched him to another camp.290

Inmate Groups

“The camps were a veritable circus, as far as colors, markings, and special designations are concerned,” the Buchenwald survivor Eugen Kogon wrote shortly after the war, ridiculing the SS obsession with emblems, acronyms, and badges.291 Triangles—which came in eight colors, with various additional markings—became the main visual markers to differentiate the prisoner population. Of course, the classification by the camps’ political office was often erratic. Some Communists who had fought the Nazis were designated as asocials, while some Jews who had broken anti-Semitic laws were labeled as professional criminals.292 Nonetheless, Camp SS men relied on the triangles for initial guidance, and prisoners, too, used these SS symbols to distinguish one another. The color of the triangle shaped each inmate’s identity, whether they liked it or not.

Until 1938, the majority of inmates were classified as political prisoners, mostly wearing red markings on their uniforms.293 In November 1936, for example, the authorities identified 3,694 of all 4,761 concentration camp inmates as political prisoners.294 Among them was a hard core of political activists, first and foremost Communists.295 Many were veterans of the early camps. Following their release in 1933–34, they had often rejoined the underground resistance and soon found themselves back in the KL.296 On Himmler’s orders, issued in March 1936, such prisoners, held for a second time, faced extra punishment and were only considered for release after a minimum of three years (not three months, as in the case of other inmates).297 In Dachau, there were an estimated two hundred so-called second-time-rounders by early 1937, wearing special markings. Their barrack was fenced off from the rest of the compound, effectively creating a camp inside the camp. For the first time, an entire group of inmates was isolated from the others, setting an inauspicious precedent. These second-time-rounders received no books, fewer letters, and less medical care, while facing the most exhausting work. One of the prisoners was the German-Jewish lawyer Ludwig Bendix, whose time in Dachau in 1937 was a far cry from his first spell in protective custody back in 1933. Bendix, who was now weak and ill, experienced forced labor in Dachau as a martyrdom “which I feared I would not survive and which I could only bear by mobilizing all my strength.”298

Despite Himmler’s obsession with left-wing opponents, the overall proportion of underground activists among KL inmates decreased in the mid-1930s, reflecting both the gradual demise of the resistance and the general shift to policing other forms of deviance. When it came to opposition against the regime, the police now cast its net wider than before. Grumbling and dissent probably accounted for some twenty percent of all protective custody cases in 1935–36; in some months, as many individuals were detained for jokes or verbal attacks as for Communist activities.299 It did not take much to be branded a dangerous enemy of the state. Magdalene Kassebaum, for example, endured two spells in Moringen, first for singing “The International,” then for burning a picture of Hitler.300

The police also detained some clergymen, part of the wider Nazi confrontation with Christian churches in the mid-1930s. Although the number of arrests remained very small—no more than a few dozen Catholic and Protestant priests were held in the KL in 1935—they carried symbolic weight and caused some disquiet within German society.301 The clergymen, who had to wear the red markings of political prisoners, were frequently singled out for violent abuse. The Camp SS was militant in its anticlericalism, even more so than the general SS, and most men renounced the Church, goaded by the fanatical Eicke, who summed up his views as follows: “Prayer books are things for women and for those who wear panties. We hate the stink of incense.”302 Eicke’s hatred erupted spectacularly in 1935, after the Berlin Cathedral chaplain Bernhard Lichtenberg had privately questioned the conditions in Esterwegen. Responding to the accusations in a note to the Gestapo, Eicke blasted the interference of “Rome’s black agents,” who “leave their excrement on the altars,” complained about the stain of “poisonous state-eroding saliva” on his SS uniform, and called for Lichtenberg to be sent to Esterwegen himself.303 Many guards emulated Eicke when they encountered imprisoned priests. So brutal were the verbal and physical assaults that even the wives of some Camp SS men expressed sympathy for the plight of clergymen.304

By far the largest group of religious prisoners in the mid-1930s was Jehovah’s Witnesses, who, having pledged their allegiance to God, resisted the total claim of Nazism. Their persecution had started early in the Third Reich and soon intensified, after they refused to serve in the new German conscript army, continued to proselytize after their religious association was banned, and distributed critical leaflets. The regime tried to stamp out such defiance, with some paranoid Nazi officials picturing the Witnesses as a mass movement in cahoots with Communists (in reality, they only had some twenty-five thousand members). Several thousand believers were arrested in the mid-1930s. Most ended up in regular prisons, but others were taken to the KL. At the height of repression in 1937–38, more than ten percent of all men in Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald were Jehovah’s Witnesses. So large was this prisoner group that the Camp SS gave them a special insignia: the purple triangle.305

Prisoners with the purple triangle endured great hardship. “The Jehovah’s Witnesses are the daily targets for every kind of persecution, terror, and brutality,” one of them wrote in 1938, not long after his release. Some abuse was ideologically motivated, with Camp SS men mocking their victims as “heaven clowns” and “paradise birds.” Asked after the war why he had buried one of the prisoners up to the neck, the former report leader in Sachsenhausen replied: “He was a conscientious objector. As such he had no right to life, in my view.”306 What really enraged the SS men, however, was not the prisoners’ religious beliefs but their “obstinate” behavior, as Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to carry out certain orders and even tried to convert other prisoners.307 The leaders of the passive resistance were hit with great venom. One of them, the miner Johann Ludwig Rachuba, was punished by the Sachsenhausen SS between 1936 and 1938 with more than 120 days strict detention, more than one hundred lashes, four hours hanging from a post, and three months in the punishment company (he later died in the camp). Such brute tactics rarely worked, however, as many prisoners saw the torture as a test of their faith. Only later in the war did SS officials become shrewder, realizing that many Jehovah’s Witnesses made reliable workers as long as they were not deployed in ways that conflicted directly with their beliefs.308

Just as the German police continually expanded the circle of political suspects, so, too, did it widen its assault on social outsiders. The main victims were those pursued since 1933 as asocial or criminal, identified in the camps by black or green triangles. They were joined in the mid-1930s by another group: men arrested as homosexuals, who had to wear pink triangles. Following the murder of Ernst Röhm, the regime cracked down hard on homosexuality. Existing legislation became stricter in 1935 (though women were still exempt) and the police stepped up its raids, led by the obsessively homophobic Himmler; it was regrettable that gay men could not be killed, Himmler told SS leaders in 1937, but at least they could be detained. Again, the vast majority of arrested men were sent to prison, but some found themselves in the KL.309 In 1935, these men were briefly concentrated in Lichtenburg—in June, 325 of all the 706 inmates here were classified as homosexual—but mostly they were distributed across the SS camp system.310

Men detained as homosexuals suffered unusually harsh treatment in the KL. The SS saw them as perverts deserving special punishment. To “protect” others, some officials put men with the pink triangle into isolated barracks. And to “cure” them, guards often forced them into particularly hard labor details, like the latrine and punishment company.311 In addition, several prisoners were castrated. Under Nazi law, homosexuals had to consent to such operations, but Camp SS officials forced some into submission. Among them was the Hamburg tailor Otto Giering, who, having been convicted repeatedly for homosexual acts, was taken to Sachsenhausen in early 1939, at the age of twenty-two. In mid-August 1939, Giering was called to the infirmary and sedated. When he woke up, with a heavy bag of sand on his stomach, he was told that he had just been castrated. A few days later, the commandant himself walked in and triumphantly held up a glass: “You can have one more look at your balls, but as a conserve.”312

SS men watched homosexual prisoners with great suspicion, and those accused of sexual contacts inside the KL were tortured to extract “confessions”; occasionally, the men were then handed over for criminal trials to courts.313 Some of the suspects had been denounced by other inmates. Given the force of SS homophobia, accusations of homosexuality proved a potent weapon against competitors and antagonists. More generally, many fellow inmates shared the social prejudices against homosexuals and ostracized them; even sympathetic prisoners kept their distance. As soon as he received the pink triangle on his uniform, Otto Giering recalled, he was “subjected to mockery and harassment” by prisoners “of all categories”—just one example of the many rifts between inmate groups.314

Solidarity and Friction

Harry Naujoks felt at home inside the Communist movement. He had been born in 1901 into a poor working-class family, not far from the ships on the Hamburg docks, and the small and sturdy man even looked like a sailor, with his strangely swaying gait. He had actually trained as a boilermaker, leaving school early, and quickly became politicized in his local union. In March 1919, not yet eighteen years old, he joined the recently founded KPD and later led the party’s Hamburg youth wing. Naujoks was a loyal local functionary and in 1933 joined the resistance against the Nazis. He would pay a heavy price: detention in several early camps in 1933–34, more than two years in a penitentiary, and well over eight years in the KL. Throughout, Naujoks remained devoted to the cause and was repaid with support from other Communist inmates. From the moment he set foot inside Sachsenhausen on November 11, 1936, his comrades took him under their wing. As he entered the camp, he was shown to the storeroom by a fellow Hamburg Communist; his block elder, another Hamburg comrade, told him about the most important rules of camp life; then yet another former KPD functionary from Hamburg took Naujoks to get food from the camp kitchen. At the end of his first day in Sachsenhausen, Naujoks later wrote, he already felt a sense of belonging.315

Newcomers from other large prisoner groups—such as Social Democrats and Jehovah’s Witnesses—could count on friends and comrades for moral and material support, too.316 Solidarity within these groups was often close and could pave the way to better positions inside the camp, as in the case of Naujoks, who was transferred in early 1937 (with the help of another old Hamburg associate) from the exhausting forest clearing detail to a coveted post as a joiner. “There are no [more] screams, no beatings, not even any pressure to work fast,” Naujoks wrote. Prisoners united by a shared past maneuvered trusted individuals into Kapo positions to gain greater influence. The Communists proved particularly adept at this, thanks to their large numbers and tight discipline. Harry Naujoks himself was installed in late summer 1937 in the storeroom, beginning his rise to camp elder.317

Since members of the same prisoner group spent much of their free time together—because the SS tended to assign barracks based on triangle colors—these groups became focal points for collective self-assertion. In the evenings, prisoners would conduct illicit discussions and lectures about politics, religion, history, and literature. In Esterwegen, the much-weakened Carl von Ossietzky seemed to revive when he engaged fellow prisoners in debate. “It was always quite an experience to listen to him, to argue with him, to ask him questions,” a former Communist prisoner recalled reverently.318

There were some bigger meetings, too. In Sachsenhausen, Harry Naujoks and his comrades held a first large gathering in December 1936, as SS guards were getting drunk at their staff Christmas party. The covert meeting was organized by a former KPD Reichstag deputy, who gave a brief speech, followed by the recitation of poems and songs of the labor movement. “Each one of us at that event was touched by the power of the collective, giving us the strength to withstand the terror,” Naujoks wrote in his memoirs.319 Communist prisoners were not alone in fostering a community spirit. Jewish prisoners held cultural events in their barracks—with music, poetry, and plays—and Christians came together to pray on festive days.320

Any more direct challenges to SS dominance remained extremely rare. In the early camps, prisoners had occasionally stood up to protest, emboldened by their belief in the imminent demise of the Third Reich.321 But there was no sign of the Nazi regime crumbling, and by the mid-1930s SS guards took great pleasure in crushing even hints of defiance. Only a few individuals still dared to confront the SS. Among them was the Protestant pastor Paul Schneider, held in Buchenwald since late 1937. The following spring, Schneider was dragged into the bunker, where he was starved and abused for months, after he had refused to salute a new swastika flag hoisted above the main gate. But Schneider was not deterred. On Sundays and holy days, he sometimes shouted brief words of encouragement from the bunker to prisoners on the roll call square, before furious SS guards silenced him with whips and fists; his voice finally fell quiet in summer 1939, when he succumbed to the SS torture.322

The bold defiance of prisoners like Pastor Schneider briefly united inmates of all backgrounds in admiration. Such unity was rare, however, as the KL bred much division and discord. The most pronounced chasm, at least until the late 1930s, existed within the large group of left-wing prisoners, between German Communists and Social Democrats. The long history of antagonism between the parties—with each accusing the other of betraying the working class and enabling the rise of the Nazis—often crippled closer contacts in the camps.323

In the early camps, Communists and Social Democrats were still sore from their recent clashes during the Weimar Republic. True, there was some solidarity across party lines, especially among the rank and file. But many revolutionary Communists had not forgotten their suppression at the hands of the pro-democratic forces in Prussia and elsewhere, and openly snubbed SPD-affiliated prisoners. Some Social Democrats, in turn, were dismayed at being sidelined by the more numerous and better organized Communists; one complained that Communists in his barrack treated him “like a leper,” while another lamented the absence of even “a minimum of comradeship.” On occasion, Communist inmates even denounced SPD prisoners to the camp authorities, or attacked them physically.324 Former SPD leaders, ridiculed as “bigwigs” by Communists and Nazis alike, endured the greatest hostility. Ernst Heilmann, for example, had been known for his uncompromising opposition to the KPD and did not change his views in captivity, earning him the lasting contempt of Communists in all the camps he was dragged through; no one had a trace of sympathy or compassion for him, the Communist Wolfgang Langhoff recalled. Apparently, guards also ordered KPD inmates to assault Heilmann, typical of SS attempts to inflame existing tensions between left-wing prisoners.325

The conflicts between left-wingers continued into the mid-1930s and beyond. The scars of the Weimar battles healed only slowly, if at all, and there were repeated clashes over the distribution of Kapo posts, with Social Democrats complaining about Communistdomination. Some individual friendships evolved, as they had done in the early camps, and open-minded prisoners like Harry Naujoks reached out and supported others irrespective of political differences. But the dominant mode was still that of mutual distrust, and the Left never formed a united front in Nazi captivity.326

Women in the Camps

It seemed a day like any other when, one Friday morning in early 1936, a guard unlocked Centa Beimler’s cell in Stadelheim. She expected to be escorted to work, as usual, but there was exciting news: she was about to leave the prison. Beimler began to hope that she would finally be set free, almost three years after her arrest. But the Gestapo had other plans. As long as her husband Hans remained at large, following his spectacular escape from Dachau, his wife would stay put. Rather than being released, Centa Beimler was moved from Stadelheim to the Moringen workhouse, which had become the central German protective custody camp for women.327

Fortunately for Centa Beimler, Moringen was a world away from the camps for men. Moringen was not even an official SS concentration camp, as it was still controlled by the Prussian state, not by the IKL; its civilian director—a rule-bound bureaucrat from the civil service—was the antithesis of Eicke’s “political soldier.” Compared to the KL, inmate numbers were much smaller, with a monthly average of no more than ninety women on the protective custody wing. These women wore their own clothes, not uniforms, and faced monotonous but bearable labor; most of them knitted or mended clothes, working for less than eight hours a day. Most important of all, there were no physical assaults by the staff.328

On the whole, Moringen resembled a regular prison, with many of the related hardships, like rigid schedules, bland food, and poor hygiene. However, the Moringen women—divided into several communal rooms and dormitories, according to their backgrounds—could mingle relatively freely. After her long time in a tiny cell in Stadelheim, Centa Beimler was grateful for the company of other Communists, including her own sister. The women played games and sang together, and held political discussions. “You could talk about everything, and that made it easier for all of us,” Beimler later wrote.329

Centa Beimler was a leading figure among the Communist women of Moringen. Her husband, Hans, was a hero of the resistance, while Centa impressed even prisoners of different beliefs with her strength of will, unbowed by her long imprisonment.330 But the women around Centa Beimler did not dominate Moringen in the same way Communist men did in the KL. For a start, female Kapos gained far less power and influence.331 Moreover, the prisoner population in Moringen was more diverse. Jehovah’s Witnesses made up a sizable proportion already in 1935, reflecting the high level of female activists, and during 1937 they became the largest prisoner group; by November, around half of the protective custody prisoners were Jehovah’s Witnesses.332

These changes in Moringen went hand in hand with sharply rising prisoner numbers, up from 92 in early January 1937 to around 450 in November 1937.333 Centa Beimler herself was no longer among them, having been released in February under tragic circumstances. Several months earlier, the Communist women in Moringen had heard that Hans Beimler was fighting with the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War, further boosting his reputation. Then rumors spread that he had been killed during the defense of Madrid. Centa Beimler was tormented by uncertainty—she “walked around more dead than alive,” one fellow inmate recalled—until the director confirmed the news. Soon after, she was set free. Now that her husband was dead, the Nazis no longer needed her as a hostage; her sister followed a few months later.334 Most other inmates, however, stayed behind until the entire protective custody wing in Moringen was closed down and all remaining prisoners were transferred to Lichtenburg.

Opened in December 1937, Lichtenburg was the first KL for women. It had taken Theodor Eicke three years to establish such a camp, highlighting the peripheral place of female prisoners in his vision; for him, the “enemies behind barbed wire” were men. Still, he finally felt forced to act. Not only was the detention of protective custody prisoners outside the IKL an anomaly, but the numbers of female inmates just kept on rising. Moringen was becoming too small, as Himmler himself had seen during an inspection in late May 1937, while the bigger Lichtenburg stood empty after its closure as a camp for men. It was quickly redesignated and soon filled up again; by April 1939, 1,065 women were held inside.335

Upon arrival in Lichtenburg, Erna Ludolph—a thirty-year-old Jehovah’s Witness from Lübeck—immediately realized that the premises were much bigger than Moringen. Soon, Ludolph and the others saw further differences, almost all for the worse. As an SS camp, Lichtenburg was run along far more military lines, with roll calls in the corridors and the yard. Leisure time was cut back and forced labor extended by about two hours. The SS also made far greater use of Kapos. Above all, the women endured harder punishment and occasional violence. Jehovah’s Witnesses made up the largest prisoner group, and conditions were particularly grim for those, like Erna Ludolph, who were isolated as “incorrigible.” One day in 1938, after these women refused to line up to a radio speech by Hitler, the guards attacked them and sprayed them with high-pressure water hoses.336

Although the local SS staff ensured the stricter treatment of female prisoners, they stopped well short of running Lichtenburg like a KL for men. It developed a distinct identity all its own, removed from the other SS concentration camps. The differences started with the camp’s appearance. The old castle in Lichtenburg, with its large dormitories, was a long way from the SS ideal of a modern barrack camp. More generally, the Lichtenburg women faced less terror than male KL prisoners. Forced labor was not yet all-consuming, violent excesses were infrequent, and punishments were less severe (according to the official regulations, there was no flogging, for example). As a result, the death rate was very low, with two confirmed prisoner deaths—both of them Jehovah’s Witnesses—between late 1937 and spring 1939, when the SS closed down the KL Lichtenburg.337

“In the middle of May 1939,” Erna Ludolph recalled after the war, “we Jehovah’s Witnesses, all 400 to 450 of us, were brought by truck with the first mass transports to Ravensbrück.” Expecting the number of female prisoners to grow further, SS officials had decided sometime in 1938 to establish an entirely new camp for women. After plans to build it near Dachau fell through, attention soon turned to a secluded site by the town of Fürstenberg, some fifty miles or so north of Berlin. Once a small detachment of men from Sachsenhausen had erected the first barracks and buildings in the early months of 1939, the new camp, called Ravensbrück, was ready.338

The prisoners’ living conditions deteriorated after the move from Lichtenburg, just as they had done after the prior move from Moringen. “Everything escalated to an unbelievable degree,” Erna Ludolph recalled. Roll calls in Ravensbrück were more torturous, forced labor more exhausting, punishment more severe, and life more rigid, with women now wearing identical dresses with blue and gray stripes, as well as an apron and headscarf.339 Still, terror remained gender-specific, as the Camp SS continued to reserve its most violent abuse for men. Although flogging was introduced as an official punishment in Ravensbrück, some other excesses, including hanging from a post, were still absent. Instead of brutal assaults, the local SS relied more heavily on guard dogs, because Himmler believed that women would be particularly scared of them.340

The special status of Ravensbrück shaped its staff, too. When the SS first decided to open a concentration camp for women, it faced a dilemma. Until now, the Camp SS had been conceived as an exclusive male club, resting on hypermasculine values. But the deployment of men in a women’s camp was problematic, as the sexual abuses in early camps had shown. In the end, Himmler opted for a compromise. In Lichtenburg and Ravensbrück, SS men acted as sentries and occupied the senior positions in the Commandant Staff, starting with the commandant himself. The guards inside, however, who had most day-to-day contacts with prisoners, were women, though Himmler balked at admitting them into the SS; although female guards were part of the Camp SS, they were never full SS members. Even during the war, when they came under the jurisdiction of the SS, these women merely belonged to its retinue (Gefolge), wearing special field-gray uniforms.341

The female guards of Ravensbrück differed from their male counterparts in other SS camps. True, most of them were volunteers, too, often in their mid to late twenties, but they normally had no previous history of political violence; the brawls of the Weimar and early Nazi years had been a male domain. Also, only a fraction of the female guards were NSDAP members, while the bulk of SS men had signed up with the party. What attracted most female recruits to the KL was not any ideological mission, but the prospect of social advancement. Many were poor and unmarried, with few professional qualifications, and the camp promised regular employment with decent pay and other benefits, such as comfortable quarters and even (from 1941) an SS kindergarten.342 Once inside Ravensbrück, the lives of the female guards were strictly regimented, though they were never subject to the same drill as male “political soldiers”; indeed, the frustrated Ravensbrück commandant repeatedly reprimanded his female guards for breaches of military decorum.343

For now, women remained marginal in the KL system, both as guards and as inmates. True, the overall proportion of female prisoners was rising fast—from around 3.3 percent in late summer 1938 to 11.7 percent one year later—but Ravensbrück still lagged far behind concentration camps for men, both in size and severity.344 Nonetheless, its creation was significant, concluding the shift from the more traditional detention of women to the new forms of SS domination.345

*   *   *

The camps for women were late additions to the KL system, which had been created and cemented in the mid-1930s. Toward the end of 1934, it seemed as if the camps might disappear. Just three years later, they were firm fixtures of the Third Reich, outside the law, funded by the state and controlled by a new agency, the IKL. The SS had also developed a basic blueprint for the KL, drawing on its first camp at Dachau. Its key features were a uniform administrative structure, a common architectural ideal, a professional corps of SS men, and a systematic brand of terror. The simultaneous extension of the SS system—the prisoner population rose from around 3,800 in summer 1935 to 7,746 at the end of 1937—points to another key aspect of the KL, first highlighted by Hannah Arendt shortly after the Second World War. In a radical totalitarian state like the Third Reich, terror did not decrease after the regime established itself. Nazi leaders pursued ever more extreme aims, and so the KL expanded, even as domestic political opposition diminished.346 This extension was not yet over by late 1937; it was only just beginning.

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