Friday the thirteenth of May 1938 was a date etched into the memory of Buchenwald prisoners. The day had begun balmy and bright; spring was in the air and the countryside around the camp glowed vibrantly. It was still early in the morning, with the sun rising fast across the clear sky above the Ettersberg, but a large prisoner detail was already hard at work in the forest outside the camp, digging trenches for sewage pipes. At around nine o’clock, two of the prisoners, Emil Bargatzky and Peter Forster, went to collect coffee for the others, as usual, walking along a secluded path when they suddenly attacked the guard who escorted them. Before he had time to fire his rifle, SS Rottenführer Albert Kallweit was hit over the head with a spade. The two prisoners, who had long planned their escape, dragged the guard’s body into the undergrowth, grabbed his weapon, and ran for their lives.1

The killing of Rottenführer Kallweit sent shock waves through the SS. Successful breakouts were extremely rare since Inspector Eicke exhorted his men to shoot at fleeing prisoners without warning. And a deadly attack on the SS was unprecedented.2 Heinrich Himmler flew to Weimar the next day to inspect the camp and Kallweit’s corpse, accompanied by Theodor Eicke. He also ordered a manhunt for the escaped prisoners. Regional papers carried sensational reports about the killing of the SS man and announced a hefty reward of one thousand Reichsmark for information leading to the fugitives’ capture; for weeks, the incident was the talk of the town in Weimar and beyond, a rare moment when the camps penetrated public consciousness in the late 1930s.3

On May 22, 1938, after Emil Bargatzky had spent nine days on the run, the police found him hiding in a brick factory some 140 miles north of Buchenwald. Within a week, he faced a hastily arranged show trial before the Weimar Special Court. Reporting on the trial, the regional press made much of his criminal record. Born into a poor family in 1901 as one of fifteen children, Bargatzky had struggled to hold down a job during the calamitous Weimar years—working as a carpenter, butcher, and coachman—and committed several offenses. The press pounced on these transgressions as further proof of his subhuman nature. The Weimar state prosecutor, meanwhile, commended the KL guards who protected the national community from dangerous asocial elements like Bargatzky. He also spoke out in favor of the “preventive” policing against social outsiders, which was intensifying during the late 1930s and swept many thousands into overcrowded concentration camps—among them Emil Bargatzky, who had been held since 1937 because of his criminal past.4

The judges at Bargatzky’s murder trial on Saturday, May 28, took less than two hours to pronounce the death penalty. He was now on death row and faced execution by the legal authorities behind prison doors. But his fate was to take a final twist after Heinrich Himmler asked Hitler for permission to have Bargatzky hanged in Buchenwald instead, near the scene of the crime. Hitler approved.5 Early on the morning of June 4, 1938, the Buchenwald prisoners lined up on the roll call square. SS guards surrounded them, some pointing machine guns at the crowd. Shortly before 7:00 a.m. the main gate opened and the manacled Emil Bargatzky was led onto the square, past rows of SS men. He walked as if in a trance and some prisoners speculated that the SS had drugged him. After a judge dressed in a black robe read out the death sentence, Bargatzky stepped onto a wooden box on the newly erected scaffold and put his head through a noose. On the word of Commandant Karl Otto Koch, the box was pushed away and a prisoner, designated as the executioner, pulled the rope; Bargatzky twisted and turned for several minutes until he died. The SS left his disfigured corpse dangling for some time on the roll call square, as a grisly warning to all prisoners.6

The SS staged this first official execution of a concentration camp inmate, which echoed ritual German executions in the early modern era, as a demonstration of might, attended by high-ranking dignitaries like Theodor Eicke, who eagerly reported the details to Himmler.7 SS leaders brazenly turned an ignominy—two escaped inmates and a dead guard—into political capital, presenting it as proof of the barbarity of the prisoners and the fundamental importance of the camps. Already before Bargatzky’s hanging, a popular SS periodical had tried to boost the status of the Camp SS in a graphic article, complete with mug shots of the two fugitives and a photo of the slain guard in heroic pose. The article, which drew heavily on Eicke’s worldview, claimed that the “cowardly attack” by the two “racially inferior criminals” showed just how dangerous the mission of the political SS soldiers really was (in reality, Camp SS men were far more likely to be injured by friendly fire from other guards than by prisoners). Under the headline “He died for us!” the influential SS weekly waxed lyrical about the pasty Rottenführer Kallweit, hoping to elevate him into the pantheon of Nazi martyrs, and also praised the other unsung heroes of the Death’s Head SS, who were “permanently facing the enemy” while the rest of Germany was “peacefully going about its daily business.”8 The image of SS guards as valiant guardians of the nation was meant to strike a chord at a time when Eicke was in the midst of a major recruitment drive, greatly expanding the size of the Camp SS in the run-up to war.

Most important, the Camp SS saw the death of Rottenführer Kallweit as a signal for more violence. Even in distant Dachau, guards threatened prisoners with brutal retaliation.9 In Buchenwald itself, SS men went on a rampage. Collective punishment was common after escapes, but it reached new heights on Friday, May 13, 1938. Screaming guards beat the remaining prisoners from the sewage plant detail back to the compound, where a mob of SS men whipped and punched them until some maimed victims collapsed. The guards murdered at least two Buchenwald prisoners that day. All others, Commandant Koch demanded, would face much greater hardship in the future.10 He was true to his word, as one assault followed another. During one such attack, some three weeks after Bargatzky’s execution, SS men smashed several windows in prisoner barracks, tore up dozens of bed covers, ripped apart hundreds of straw mattresses, and left three inmates dead.11

SS leaders supported this hard line. In a paean to the killed guard in the Völkischer Beobachter, Theodor Eicke threatened that “enemies of the state” would face “iron hard” discipline.12 Himmler said much the same during his visit to Buchenwald on May 14, 1938, and two days later, he repeated his demand for tough action in a letter to Reich minister of justice Gürtner. Earlier that spring, Himmler claimed, he had responded to a complaint by Gürtner about excessive SS shootings by ordering his men to use their weapons more sparingly, with “devastating” results. This attempt to blame Gürtner for the killing in Buchenwald was absurd—Rottenführer Kallweit had walked too closely to the two prisoners, in breach of SS protocol—but this did not stop Himmler from announcing that guards would now reach more readily for their rifles, preempting future judicial criticism.13

Himmler’s swagger reflected his rising status in the late 1930s. To be sure, his SS was not yet all-powerful. The presence of a judge during the execution of Emil Bargatzky in Buchenwald was a reminder that a court had pronounced the death sentence, not the SS. Moreover, the execution remained an exception in the prewar KL. Still, it was a sign for the growing confidence of SS leaders and for their desire to usurp legal powers like the judicial monopoly over the death penalty. In practice, the SS already did so: Camp SS men murdered far more prisoners during the late 1930s than ever before. In Buchenwald, the SS conducted a major killing spree in the weeks after the death of Rottenführer Kallweit; in June and July 1938, 168 prisoners lost their lives, compared to seven prisoners during March and April.14 In other camps, too, the SS stepped up its violence in the final years before the Second World War, which also saw a great expansion of KL sites and of slave labor. The relentless rise of the concentration camp complex seemed unstoppable.


Heinrich Himmler had big plans for his camps. In a secret speech in November 1937, he told SS leaders that he expected the three KL for men—Dachau, Sachsenhausen, and Buchenwald—to hold twenty thousand prisoners in all, and even more in the case of war.15 This was an ambitious aim, at a time when his camps held fewer than eight thousand prisoners. But Himmler’s target was quickly reached and exceeded in 1938–39, during a frantic period that saw the foundation of the three camps in Flossenbürg, Mauthausen, and Ravensbrück. Thanks to large-scale police raids, prisoner numbers climbed fast, and by the end of June 1938, there were already twenty-four thousand or more inmates in the camps, a threefold increase in just six months.16 Even that was not enough for police and SS leaders, who soon envisaged a further rise to thirty thousand inmates and more.17

As the size of the prisoner population changed, so did its composition, moving ever further away from the preponderance of left-wing German prisoners that characterized the camps early on. Camp SS officials struggled to keep up with all the new prisoner groups. In Sachsenhausen, for example, five separate prisoner categories (early 1937) became twelve (late 1939).18 Among the new prisoners were thousands of foreigners, after Nazi leaders began to flex their muscles on the international stage. In March 1938, the Third Reich invaded and annexed Austria, and the new rulers quickly arrested tens of thousands of alleged opponents. On the evening of April 1, 1938, the new criminal police office in Vienna dispatched a first transport of Austrian prisoners—among them many members of the old political elite, including the mayor of Vienna—to Dachau; the men suffered extreme abuse on the train, which continued after their arrival the next day. “For a long time, we Austrians were the main attraction in the camp,” the nationalist politician Fritz Bock recalled. In all, 7,861 Austrian men were taken to Dachau during 1938 (almost eighty percent of them Jews).19

Prisoners from Czechoslovakia were next, after Hitler bullied French and British leaders into accepting the German annexation of the Sudetenland at the Munich conference. In October and November 1938, well over 1,500 prisoners from the Sudetenland arrived in Dachau, including many ethnic Germans.20 The isolated Czechoslovakian government also succumbed to German pressure to extradite Peter Forster, who was in their hands after his escape from Buchenwald. Unlike his accomplice Emil Bargatzky, Forster had evaded the German police and managed to cross the border in late May 1938. Forster, a committed left-wing opponent of the Nazi regime, pleaded for asylum and defended the killing of the SS guard. “We acted in self-defense,” he was quoted as saying, “because every prisoner in that camp lived in danger of being killed.” Despite an international campaign to save him, Forster was handed over to Nazi Germany in late 1938. His fate was the same as Bargatzky’s. Sentenced to death on December 21, he was hanged later that day in Buchenwald, the only other prisoner officially executed in a KL before the war.21 After the German invasion of the remaining Czech territory in March 1939, which was designated as the Reich Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, the German police dragged further victims to the KL, among them numerous German émigrés and Czech Jews. However, in view of the international condemnation of Nazi aggression, the police moved rather cautiously and did not repeat the mass deportations that had followed the incorporation of Austria one year earlier.22

The arrival of prisoners from abroad foreshadowed the dramatic later changes in the concentration camps. Before the war, however, the number of foreigners generally remained small. In the late 1930s, the regime still saw the KL primarily as weapons against its own people, including Austrian nationals subsumed into the Third Reich (and largely classified as German by the SS). Above all, the authorities were homing in on social outsiders, who were fast becoming the main target.

Early Attacks on “Criminals” and “Asocials”

The pursuit of social deviants was a major part of the Nazi policy of exclusion, aimed at removing all those who did not (or could not) fit into the mythical national community. The motives of the officials in the welfare services, the courts, and the police were as diverse as the men and women they targeted, and often reflected demands which predated the Nazi rise to power. Some officials had utopian visions of rooting out all social ills; some placed their trust in the teachings of racial hygiene; some hoped to stimulate the economy by terrorizing the jobless. The ensuing offensive against Germans on the margins of society led to benefit cuts and surveillance, as well as to detention, not just in traditional state institutions like prisons and workhouses, but in the concentration camps, too.23

The fate of social outsiders in the KL was widely ignored after the Second World War, when these prisoners joined the ranks of other forgotten victims. If writers mentioned their persecution at all, it was in a derogatory manner, describing it as a tactical maneuver by the Nazi authorities to gain popular support or to besmirch the reputation of political prisoners.24 Only in recent decades have historians recognized the assault on social outsiders as a key Nazi policy in its own right.25 Many historians now argue that the police and SS turned to a policy of “racial general prevention” from 1936, attacking social outsiders in a bid to “cleanse” the “body of the nation” of alleged deviants and degenerates.26 Important as this new research has been in revealing the ideological drive behind the mass detention of social outsiders in the late 1930s, it neglects previous Nazi attacks on the same groups. While the early camps in 1933–34 were primarily about political opponents, the authorities had also used them to detain and punish social outsiders.27

As soon as Heinrich Himmler became Munich police president in March 1933, he declared the “eradication of the criminal class” as a priority.28 Over the coming months, he developed his vision of policing as social cleansing, with the early camps as places of detention, retribution, and correction.29 Himmler’s approach altered his model camp Dachau already from summer 1933, when the police dragged the first alleged criminals and vagrants inside.30 Their numbers soon increased, after the police arrested tens of thousands of beggars and homeless in nationwide raids in September 1933. Although the authorities quickly released most detainees, some ended up for longer in camps and workhouses.31 Just a year after the SS had set up Dachau, the composition of its prisoner population had changed markedly. Political prisoners still accounted for the great majority of all Bavarian inmates in protective custody, but their proportion had fallen to around eighty percent by April 1934, with social outsiders making up the rest; among them were 142 “work-shy” men, 96 “national pests,” and 82 men accused of “asocial behavior.”32

The detention of social outsiders in Dachau did not escape the attention of the Bavarian Reich governor von Epp. During his general drive to reduce prisoner numbers, Epp protested in March 1934 that the arrest of alleged criminals and asocials violated the “meaning and purpose of protective custody.”33 Himmler was undeterred. In the rude reply he drafted (see chapter 2), he dismissed any criticism and spelled out his wider convictions: “The observation that imposition of protective custody for alcoholism, firewood theft, embezzlement of moneys belonging to organizations, immoral lifestyle, work shirking, etc., do not quite correspond to the letter of the valid regulations, is entirely accurate. They do, however, correspond to National Socialist sentiment.” In Himmler’s mind, Nazi “sentiment” trumped everything, including the law. Because the courts did not deal swiftly and firmly with asocials and criminals, he argued, the police had to take the suspects to Dachau. The results, he added, were impressive: the arrests played “the most essential part in the decline of criminality in Bavaria.” Himmler saw no reason to change course.34

Heinrich Himmler may have faced some internal critics, but he was not alone in his aggressive pursuit of social outsiders.35 All over Germany, state and party officials placed social outsiders into protective custody during 1933–34, with the initiative often coming from below. In Hamburg, the police temporarily arrested hundreds of beggars, pimps, and homeless in 1933, as well as several thousand female prostitutes. Elsewhere, too, Nazi officials moved against so-called asocials, especially after the “beggar raid” in September; on October 4, 1933, the Völkischer Beobachter reported on the “first concentration camp for beggars” in Meseritz (Posen).36

As for the fight against crime, Prussia pursued an even more radical policy than Bavaria in 1933, inspired by a nationwide offensive against persistent criminals. German jurists had pushed for years for indefinite sentences against dangerous re-offenders and their wish finally came true in the Third Reich. Under the Habitual Criminals Law of November 24, 1933, judges could punish defendants with custodial sentences followed by open-ended security confinement (Sicherungsverwahrung) in a prison or penitentiary; by 1939, judges had passed almost ten thousand such sentences, chiefly against minor property offenders.37 However, senior Prussian police officers saw the new law as deficient, since it only targeted those found guilty of new crimes. To wipe out the criminal underclass, they argued, it was also necessary to detain “professional criminals” who could not be brought to court due to insufficient evidence. Hermann Göring shared this view and had introduced preventive police custody (polizeiliche Vorbeugungshaft) by decree on November 13, 1933. From now on, the Prussian criminal police could hold so-called professional criminals in state concentration camps without trial or sentence. The main targets were ex-convicts with long criminal records for property offenses; but even someone who had never been tried before could be detained if the police alleged “criminal intent.”38

At the time, the Prussian criminal police did not envisage mass arrests. Senior police officials believed that a small hard core of offenders was responsible for the great majority of property crime, and that their selective detention would suffice to deter the others. The Prussian Ministry of the Interior initially set an upper limit of 165 prisoners, soon raised to 525; at first, the arrested men were gathered in Lichtenburg, where they soon made up the majority of inmates.39 Despite the relatively small number of arrests, the Prussian initiative amounted to a radical new approach to preventive policing and set the stage for the future.

The extralegal detention of social outsiders grew during the mid-1930s. In Prussia, the police arrested more men as professional criminals, focusing on “usual suspects” like burglars and thieves with many previous convictions. In 1935, the police authorities concentrated them in Esterwegen, prompting Inspector Eicke to describe that KL as the most difficult to rule; by October 1935, it held 476 so-called professional criminals, forming the largest prisoner group.40 Meanwhile, several other German states adopted the radical Prussian policy and placed criminals into preventive police custody in concentration camps, too.41

Parallel to the pursuit of criminals, the detention of so-called asocials also continued in the mid-1930s. As before, Nazi officials mainly targeted the destitute. In Bavaria, for example, the political police arrested more than three hundred “beggars and vagabonds” in summer 1936 and sent them to Dachau, in a cynical attempt to smarten up the streets before the Olympics.42 In addition, the authorities trained their sights on “indecent” individuals. Dozens of female prostitutes were dragged to Moringen, among them Minna K., arrested by the Bremen police in late 1935 as a streetwalker. The forty-five-year-old had been held many times before and was accused of drunken attempts to “capture men” in seedy bars, undermining police efforts “to keep the town’s streets and establishments clean in a moral respect,” thereby endangering public order and the Nazi state.43

By the mid-1930s, then, the KL had become well-established weapons against social outsiders. To be sure, their primary focus was still on political opponents, broadly defined. But social outsiders now made up a significant part of the prisoner population, in Dachau and elsewhere. When a delegation of the British Legion visited Dachau on July 21, 1935, the SS hosts (who included Theodor Eicke himself) told them that of the 1,543 prisoners inside, 246 were “professional criminals,” 198 “work-shy,” 26 “hardened criminals,” and 38 “moral perverts”—in other words, some thirty-three percent of inmates were detained as social deviants.44 Such figures would rise even further across the KL in 1937–38, as the police centralized and escalated the earlier measures against social outsiders.45

The Green Triangle

With the appointment of Heinrich Himmler as chief of German police in summer 1936, the path was clear for the creation of a nationwide criminal police. Over the following years, Himmler oversaw the formation of a large and modern force, centrally coordinated in Berlin.46 Himmler quickly used his new powers to mastermind a strike against ex-convicts. On February 23, 1937, he ordered the Prussian State Criminal Police Office (the later Reich Office, or RKPA) to conduct the first nationwide raid against “professional and habitual criminals,” who would be arrested “abruptly” and taken to concentration camps. Using lists compiled earlier by regional police officials, the Criminal Police Office selected the suspects and instructed forces around the country to strike on March 9, 1937. The raids went ahead as planned and over the coming days, some two thousand prisoners—the target set by Himmler—arrived in the KL, which had been primed by Eicke. Almost all the prisoners were men, among them Emil Bargatzky, who was picked up by the police in Essen and sent to Lichtenburg with five hundred other so-called criminals.47

The raids in spring 1937 resulted primarily from Himmler’s determination to wipe out the criminal subculture. Earlier preventive police measures had not been as successful as anticipated and Himmler worried that the persistence of serious crime would damage the reputation of the Nazi regime, which had promised to clean up Germany. The time had come, he believed, to extend preventive arrests beyond the few hundred most obvious suspects.48 Naturally, Himmler was quick to declare his initiative a great success, claiming in a speech to SS leaders a few months later that the crime rate had “dropped quite significantly” as a result. He predicted even greater benefits for the future, since some of the detained criminals could be released after several years, once the SS had broken their will and taught them order.49 Himmler still believed in the transformative power of the camps, no doubt influenced by the conclusion of German criminologists that certain offenders could be reformed through discipline and labor.50

Himmler had some additional motives for the spring 1937 raids, beyond his obsession with crime.51 Economic factors, in particular, began to influence police and SS policy. By the late 1930s, mass unemployment, which had helped propel the Nazis to power, was becoming a distant memory. Following the rapid recovery from the depression, Germany was beginning to face serious labor shortages, accompanied by growing concerns about workers’ discipline.52 At a meeting of senior government officials on February 11, 1937, chaired by Göring, Himmler floated the idea of forcing some five hundred thousand “work-shy” individuals into “labor camps.”53 His proposal, which he had probably discussed with KL chief Eicke, was too radical even for the Nazi state, so when Himmler met senior civil servants from the Reich Ministry of Justice two days later, he only mentioned plans for the selective detention of the “work-shy.” Hard work in a camp for up to fourteen hours a day, he announced (according to the minutes), would “show them, and others, that it is better to seek work in freedom than running the risk of being taken to such a camp.”54 Just ten days later, Himmler authorized the March 1937 raids, ordering the police to detain criminals “not in work.”55 No doubt, Himmler intended these arrests as a warning shot to the so-called work-shy.56

As an ambitious empire builder, Himmler also saw the mass raids as a way to enlarge his camps, and thereby his power. Indeed, his purpose for calling a meeting with legal officials in February 1937 had been to poach their prisoners: Himmler wanted to get his hands on thousands of inmates in state prisons. Reich minister Gürtner was still strong enough to brush aside Himmler’s advance, but it would not be the last time Himmler tried to add state prisoners to his fast-growing KL empire.57

SS concentration camps were soon packed, following the March 1937 raids against alleged criminals; further suspects arrived over the coming months.58 Meanwhile, the RKPA clamped down on their release, so that the great majority of those arrested in spring and summer 1937 were still inside when war broke out over two years later.59 The total number of “criminal” prisoners remained high as a result, with several thousands held in the camps during 1937–38.60 In 1937, most of them ended up in Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald, completely changing the composition of the local prisoner population. Shortly after it opened, the new Buchenwald KL took in over five hundred “professional criminals” from Lichtenburg, among them Emil Bargatzky, who arrived on the afternoon of July 31, 1937, with the same transport as his later accomplice Peter Forster.61 By January 1938, the Buchenwald SS counted 1,008 so-called criminals, making up more than thirty-eight percent of the camp’s prisoner population.62 Later in 1938–39, most of them would leave for the new camp in Flossenbürg, which together with Mauthausen became the main KL for alleged criminals.63

Men arrested as professional criminals often faced the wrath of the Camp SS. Rudolf Höss spoke for many SS colleagues when he described the prisoners as “brute and base” villains devoted to a life of crime and sin. He claimed that these “real enemies of the state” were impervious to normal punishment, however strict, thereby justifying the extreme violence of the Camp SS.64 A political inmate in Dachau later recalled the relish with which SS camp compound leader Hermann Baranowski greeted so-called criminals in spring 1937:

Listen up, you filth! Do you know where you are?—Yes?—No, you don’t know? Well then, I’ll explain it to you. You are not in a prison and you are not in a penitentiary, either. No. You are in a concentration camp. That means you are in an educational camp! You are to be educated here—and we’ll educate you all right. You may rely on that, you stinking swine!—You will be given useful work here. Anyone not performing it to our satisfaction will be helped by us. We have our methods! You’ll get to know them. There’s no loafing about here and let no one believe he can run away. No one escapes from here. The sentries have instructions to shoot without warning at any attempt to escape. And we have here the elite of the SS!—our boys are very good shots.65

Baranowski was not bluffing. Camp SS officers really did regard so-called professional criminals as masters of escape and warned guards to be vigilant and to use their weapons without hesitation.66 And SS men were quick to attack “criminals” inside the KL, too; they were easy to pick out because of special markings on their uniforms, with a green triangle becoming standard in the late 1930s.67 In Sachsenhausen, at least twenty-six “criminals” died in 1937, ten of them in March and April, exceeding the death rate among political prisoners in this period.68 The same was true in Buchenwald, where at least forty-six so-called professional criminals died during their first year inside the camp in 1937–38.69

Prisoners with the green triangle could expect little support from other inmates, whose hostility toward the “BVer,” as they were often called (short for Berufsverbrecher, or professional criminal), sometimes matched that of the SS men. Just like Soviet politicalprisoners in the faraway Gulag, many political inmates in the KL despised so-called criminals as coarse, cruel, and corrupt—“the dregs of society,” as one of them put it.70 Such loathing grew from social prejudices against men thought to have been arrested as brutal thugs and from the daily encounters inside the KL, with political prisoners claiming that the new arrivals used their criminal energies against fellow inmates and collaborated with the SS.71

The picture of the “criminal greens” has long been shaped by these testimonies of political prisoners.72 But it requires correction. Even in the late 1930s, the vast majority of so-called professional criminals were property offenders, not violent felons; just like Emil Bargatzky, most of those arrested during the spring 1937 raids were suspected burglars and thieves.73 Also, the “greens” forged no united front against other KL inmates.74 Of course, some formed friendships and cliques inside, since they often worked together and slept in the same barrack.75 These bonds appear to have been looser than those among political prisoners, however, since so-called criminals could rarely build upon a shared past or ideological beliefs.76 Finally, although the tensions between some “red” and “green” prisoners were real, they did not always arise from the latter group’s alleged brutality, but simply from competition for scarce resources, a struggle that would escalate during the war.77

Following the 1937 police offensive against so-called criminals, Himmler and his police leaders soon plotted the next move in the war against social outsiders. To coordinate and extend the preventive fight against crime, the RKPA drafted the first nationwide regulations, introduced in a confidential decree of the Reich Ministry of the Interior on December 14, 1937.78 This decree enshrined preventive police custody of criminal suspects in the KL, drawing on the earlier Prussian regulations. Even more important, it greatly extended the number of suspects. In addition to hardened offenders, it threatened “anyone who, without being a professional or habitual criminal, endangers the general public through his asocial behavior.”79 The scene was set for a massive police crackdown on deviance.

Action “Work-Shy Reich”

Why was a pauper like Wilhelm Müller hounded as an enemy of the German state? Divorced and unemployed, the forty-six-year-old was living hand to mouth in Duisburg, deep in the German industrial heartland. The welfare authorities forced him to perform menial labor, four days a week, in return for a paltry 10.40 Reichsmark, barely enough to get by. He occasionally asked for money on the streets, and on the afternoon of June 13, 1938, a police officer caught him in the act. Wilhelm Müller had been fined twice before for begging. This time, the police took a far more drastic step and placed him into preventive custody as an “asocial human being.” Müller found himself labeled as a work-shy beggar and criminal who “cannot accustom himself to the discipline required by the state,” and on June 22, 1938, he was taken to Sachsenhausen.80

Wilhelm Müller was among some 9,500 “asocial” men arrested during mass raids in June 1938 and dragged to concentration camps.81 These nationwide raids by the criminal police, its most radical attack yet on social outsiders, had begun in the early hours of June 13 and lasted several days, with officers searching railway stations, bars, and shelters.82 The raids followed an earlier concerted action: in the last ten days of April 1938, the Gestapo had arrested almost two thousand “work-shy” men and forced them to Buchenwald.83 Meanwhile, local police forces carried out their own measures against so-called asocials in 1938–39, bringing even more suspects to the camps, including several hundred women accused of moral offenses.84

Many of the men rounded up during the 1938 mass raids were shocked and bewildered by their sudden detention.85 Regional police officials had an almost free hand when it came to arrests, as the definition of “asocial” was left deliberately vague, a catch-all term for all kinds of deviant behavior. According to Reinhard Heydrich, the chief of the security police (which combined the criminal and political police), the targets included “tramps,” “whores,” “alcoholics,” and others who “refuse to integrate into the community.”86 In practice, the mass raids centered on vagrants, beggars, welfare recipients, and casual workers. In addition, the police arrested a number of suspected pimps, some of whom were guilty of nothing more than frequenting bars of ill repute.87

German police leaders also extended the attack on “asocials” to men regarded as racially suspect. In his orders for the June 1938 raids, Reinhard Heydrich specifically targeted “criminal” Jews. In addition, he picked out men described as Gypsies, who had a criminal record or “have shown no liking for regular work.”88 Because of their often nonnormative lifestyle, the small minority of so-called Gypsies (today frequently referred to as Sinti or Roma) had long faced official harassment in Germany. State-sponsored discrimination escalated dramatically in the Third Reich, especially from the late 1930s. After the June 1938 raids, hundreds of male Gypsies arrived in the KL; Sachsenhausen alone held 442 by August 1, 1938 (almost five percent of the prisoner population). Many had been arrested as self-employed musicians, artists, or itinerant merchants.89 One of them was the thirty-eight-year-old August Laubinger, a father of four who had been living in poverty with his family in Quedlinburg near Magdeburg. Although he had no criminal record, had worked for years as a textile trader, and had tried to find a steady job, the criminal police still arrested him on June 13, 1938, as “work-shy,” accusing him of having “wandered around the country” without fixed employment. A few days later, Laubinger arrived in Sachsenhausen, where he would remain for more than a year.90

There was no single driving force behind the all-out assault on “asocials” in 1938. Nazi leaders were attracted to the chilling vision of the police as a doctor that could cleanse Germany of all deviants and degenerates, a vision increasingly inflected with racism.91Meanwhile, regional police officials and others involved in the raids—in German welfare offices and labor exchanges—used the mass raids as a pragmatic opportunity to eliminate men long seen as nuisances and threats, including alleged benefit cheats, welfare clients resistant to state control, persistent beggars, and criminal suspects who could not be legally prosecuted. So enthusiastic were regional police officials about rounding up social outsiders that they far exceeded the minimum arrest targets set by Heydrich for theJune 1938 raids.92

Economic factors were important, too, even more so than before.93 The charge of “work shyness” had already featured prominently in early campaigns against social outsiders in the Third Reich. Not only were the “work-shy” seen as biologically inferior, as many scholars and scientists insisted at the time, they failed one of the major demands made on national comrades—the performance of productive labor.94 The Nazi leaders’ desire to force “work-shy” men to work gained added urgency as the German economy was gearing up for war. As Reinhard Heydrich put it, the regime “does not tolerate asocial persons avoiding work and thereby sabotaging the [1936] Four-Year Plan.”95 Adolf Hitler shared these views and strongly supported—and possibly even initiated—the mass detention of the “professional unemployed” and “scum,” as he called them.96 At the same time, SS leaders were beginning to pursue a far more ambitious economic policy inside the KL, and were eager to get their hands on forced laborers. Himmler’s hunger for more prisoners clearly influenced the raids in 1938, with the police orders for mass arrests of “asocials” stressing the importance of targeting men who could work.97

The concentration camps expanded dramatically in 1938 and social outsiders were soon in the majority. According to one estimate, so-called asocials made up seventy percent of the entire prisoner population by October 1938.98 This figure would have dropped over the following months, but overall numbers still remained high, as many “work-shy” men waited in vain for their release.99 On the eve of the Second World War, more than half of all the inmates in Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen were still classified as “asocial,” instantly recognizable by the black triangle on their uniform (some Gypsies wore brown markings instead).100 Initially, Buchenwald had been designated as the KL for all men detained in the 1938 mass raids.101 But the police arrested so many in June that Dachau and Sachsenhausen threw open their gates, too; in fact, Sachsenhausen took in most detainees, with the total number of “work-shy” prisoners reaching 6,224 by June 25, 1938.102

Camp SS men labeled these prisoners “asocial parasites,” and dismissed them as dirty, dishonest, and depraved.103 The SS immediately set out to break them with overwhelming force. On arrival in Sachsenhausen in June 1938, prisoners were greeted with invective, kicks, and slaps. Afterward, Commandant Baranowski, a recent appointment from Dachau, ordered his men to select some victims, who were strapped on a buck and whipped in front of the other horrified newcomers. And just as he had threatened “professional criminals” in Dachau, Baranowski had a word of warning for any “asocials” in Sachsenhausen who thought about escape, loudly announcing the motto of his trigger-happy sentries: “Bang—and the shit is gone!”104

The prisoners with the black triangle endured particularly poor living conditions. The mass arrests in summer 1938 had caught the Camp SS off guard, leading to chaotic scenes inside overcrowded camps. In Sachsenhausen, the SS replaced bed frames with straw sacks to press some four hundred “asocials” into space meant to hold 146 men; as an emergency measure, the SS also threw up eighteen new barracks, northeast of the roll call square, which formed the so-called little camp. The new prisoners’ uniforms were ill fitting and dirty, and the shortage of shoes and caps caused bleeding feet and sunburned heads.105 If anything, things were even more harmful in Buchenwald. Not only was it still under construction, but the local SS men were also fired up after the murder of SS Rottenführer Albert Kallweit just a few weeks earlier.106

To make matters even worse, the “asos” (as they were known) stood near the bottom of the prisoner hierarchy. Just like those with the green triangle, they faced plenty of contempt from fellow inmates. Unlike them, however, prisoners with the black triangle largely failed to gain influential Kapo positions, despite their much larger numbers. And while there was some camaraderie—with inmates helping others, or diverting them with jokes and with romantic tales of life on the road—their sense of shared identity was weak, as “asocials” had even less in common than so-called criminals.107 Worst off were those regarded as disabled or mentally unstable, who often found themselves isolated under the most dreadful conditions. In Buchenwald, the SS pressed them into the so-called idiots’ company, wearing white armbands with the word “stupid.”108

Some “asocial” prisoners were butchered in the name of Nazi eugenics. The new German rulers had lost no time in 1933 in introducing a law for the compulsory sterilization of the “hereditary ill.” By 1939, at least three hundred thousand women and men (many of them inmates of mental asylums) had been mutilated, owing largely to the prejudices of physicians and judges at newly established Hereditary Health Courts.109 Professor Werner Heyde supervised the sterilization program inside the KL, having been put in charge of “hereditary monitoring” after a 1936 meeting with Inspector Eicke, whom he had last encountered as a patient in his Würzburg clinic. Apparently, all prisoners were to be screened for possible sterilization, with so-called asocials especially vulnerable, since Heyde believed there to be “quite a few feebleminded” among them. Having initially worked alone, Heyde soon taught Camp SS doctors to complete the formal court applications. In the late 1930s, some otherwise indifferent SS doctors developed a sudden zeal when it came to prisoner sterilizations, which were largely carried out in local hospitals.110

Inhumane SS treatment, together with the general deterioration of conditions in the late 1930s, killed prisoners on a scale never seen before in the concentration camps. The first huge rise in the death rate came in summer 1938, after the victims of the June raids arrived. During the first five months of 1938 (January to May), ninety men are known to have died in all the KL. Over the next five months (June to October), at least 493 men perished—almost eighty percent of them “asocials.”111 In Sachsenhausen, at least thirty-three “asocials” lost their lives in July 1938 alone, when one year earlier (in July 1937) the Sachsenhausen SS had recorded just a single death among all its inmates.112

Worse was yet to come; if summer and autumn 1938 were already toxic, the following months were truly lethal. From late 1938, the death toll among “asocials” rocketed to new heights. During the six-month period between November 1938 and April 1939, at least 744 “asocial” men perished in the KL.113 In Sachsenhausen, the most deadly month was February 1939, when 121 so-called asocials died, dwarfing the eleven deaths among all other prisoner groups that month. In total, at least 495 “asocials” lost their lives in Sachsenhausen during a single year, from June 1938 to May 1939, accounting for a staggering eighty percent of all prisoner fatalities. The main causes, one survivor of the camp recalled, were “starvation, freezing, shooting, or the effects of abuse.”114 Clearly, death became far more commonplace in the KL during the late 1930s, and men arrested as asocial bore the main brunt: between January 1938 and August 1939, well over 1,200 “asocial” men died across all the SS concentration camps.115 Even today, it is widely unknown that these men from the margins of society made up the largest group of KL victims in the final period before the war.

Propaganda and Prejudice

The shift from browbeating political opponents to terrorizing social outsiders shaped the public presentation of the KL. To be sure, the regime never drew a strict line between its opponents, and the longer it stayed in power, the more the criminal, racial, and political enemy categories merged in the minds of Nazi leaders; by the end of the war, Heinrich Himmler spoke of having faced a “Jewish-communist asocial organization” in 1933.116 Still, the early camps had concentrated on the destruction of the left-wing opposition, as we have seen, and this target had also dominated reports and rumors at the time.117 As the function of the KL changed, however, so did their official image in Nazi Germany. Already in the mid-1930s, media reports placed growing emphasis on the detention of social outsiders.118 Most prominent was a five-page story on Dachau, published in late 1936 in a glossy Nazi magazine, with twenty pictures of the camp and its inmates. Right from the beginning, the article stressed how much the prisoner population had recently changed:

These are no longer the political inmates of 1933, of whom only a small percentage is still in the camp while the rest have long since been released, but for the most part a selection of asocial elements, recidivist political muddle-heads, vagabonds, work-shy persons, and drunkards … émigrés and Jewish parasites on the nation, offenders against morality of every kind, and a group of professional criminals on whom preventive police custody has been imposed.

Said prisoners were now learning strict military discipline, rigorous cleanliness, and hard labor, “which many of them have shunned all their lives.” Lest anyone worried about SS abuse, the article reassured readers that prisoners were healthy and well fed. Indeed, some of the inmates “from totally wrecked social circumstances” had never had it any better. This was just as well, since it was clear that many of them would never be allowed to taste freedom again—locked up for good to protect the national community.119 Other Nazi propaganda underscored this last point, stressing that the permanent detention of social outsiders was driving down crime.120

Such claims found a receptive audience inside Germany. Weimar society had been fixated on crime, especially during its final years, with an ever-louder chorus clamoring for harsher measures against deviants.121 The Third Reich could build on this noxious legacy, with even some political prisoners supporting the indefinite detention of selected social outsiders.122 Nazi media reports about the KL exploited existing prejudices, with staged photos of prisoners in menacing poses and covered in tattoos. “On our walk through the camp,” the 1936 magazine feature about Dachau declared, “we often encounter the typical face of the born criminal,” playing on popular beliefs in physiognomic theories.123 Such stories had some impact in the Third Reich, perpetuating the image of the camps as places full of dangerous deviants and strengthening the common conviction that Hitler had made the streets safe again, a myth that long outlived the Nazi regime inside Germany.124

Nevertheless, the camps were not foremost in the minds of ordinary Germans in the second half of the 1930s; the strong emotions of 1933—curiosity, acclaim, anger, fear—had given way to greater indifference; even among former supporters of the Left, the novelty of the KL had long worn off. In addition, the detainees now largely came from the margins of society, and were often arrested away from the public eye. Even the mass raids against so-called asocials and criminals, despite their propaganda potential, went largely unreported in the German press.125

This was part of a wider trend, as the KL gradually faded from view. Many factors were in the mix. To start with, hundreds of semipublic early camps had been replaced by a handful of secluded sites. At the same time, eyewitness accounts by victims—the main source of popular knowledge about the camps in 1933—largely vanished. There were fewer prisoners, and those who returned were often too scared to say much at all.126 The ones who did speak, meanwhile, could barely make themselves heard, now that the organized resistance was in tatters. Most important, perhaps, the audience for critical reports was smaller than ever, as the Nazi dictatorship grew in popularity. The German population did not forget the KL, of course, nor did it forget earlier stories of terror inside; in the public mind, the camps remained associated with violence and abuse—to the irritation of some local notables, like those in Dachau, who realized that the bad reputation of the camp was driving away tourists from their town.127 Still, for the great majority of Germans—content with the regime or at least resigned to it—fears about the KL were now at most dim and abstract.128

As for the Nazi dictatorship itself, it was content to let the KL blend into the background, with only occasional reminders of their existence for deterrence. Beyond that, the regime showed no desire to push the KL back into the media limelight. There was no more need for rescuing their reputation, now that rumors about abuses were less virulent.129 What is more, the Nazi authorities were still unsure about the popularity of the KL, despite their alleged contribution to the Nazi fight against crime. Barely a week after the big Dachau photo spread had appeared in 1936, the authorities even issued a secret order to cut down on press reports about incidents inside camps; such reports, Reich press chief Otto Dietrich announced confidentially, “are apt to trigger damaging effects at home and abroad.”130

Dietrich’s reference to foreign opinion was telling. While the regime had become more adept at managing public knowledge about the camps inside Germany, foreign opinion inevitably proved much harder to manipulate. Not that the Nazis didn’t try. To improve the image of the KL abroad, the Camp SS continued to use both pressure and deception.131 Among those who were fooled were members of the British Legion, who came away from their 1935 tour of Dachau convinced that every SS man “was out to help any prisoner to make the best of himself and of the situation,” as they put it in a memorandum to the more skeptical British Foreign Office.132 Similar apologetic accounts sometimes found their way into the press abroad.133 But they were far outweighed, at least in the mid-1930s, by reports about terror, abuse, and murder in the KL, which continued to appear in German émigré papers and the foreign media.134

Foreign criticism of the KL still coalesced around the fate of individual political prisoners. In Britain, for example, the ongoing public appeals for Hans Litten led the German ambassador to conclude that his discharge would significantly improve the image of the Third Reich. However, the Nazi regime rebuffed all demands for Litten’s release; at a speech at the Nuremberg Rally in September 1935, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels himself denounced Litten as one of the main Jewish enemies behind a global Communist conspiracy.135 In another, even more high-profile case, however, Nazi leaders partially gave in to foreign pressure.

The pacifist writer Carl von Ossietzky was easily the most famous concentration camp prisoner in the mid-1930s, at least outside the German borders, where a campaign to award him the Nobel Peace Prize was gathering strength. Ossietzky’s health had deteriorated dramatically since his arrest in February 1933. He was still in Esterwegen, gravely ill with pulmonary tuberculosis and barely able to speak; a visiting Red Cross official regarded his condition as “desperate.” Theodor Eicke, who knew that Ossietzky could die at any moment, still advised Himmler to ignore the clamor for his release, concerned that Ossietzky’s iconic stature and insights into SS crimes would make him the “chief witness against Nazi Germany.” Heydrich took a similar view, but Hermann Göring overruled them both, evidently worried that the affair would overshadow the forthcoming Olympics. In late May 1936, Ossietzky was moved out of Esterwegen and spent the rest of his life under strict police guard in Berlin hospitals. It was here that he learned that he had won the Nobel Prize. Despite intense Nazi pressure, he accepted the award in a last show of defiance, but the German authorities prevented him from leaving the country to accept the honor. Ossietzky never recovered from the KL and died on May 4, 1938, aged forty-eight.136

Although the campaign for Ossietzky momentarily lifted the Nazi camps into the international news, general media interest abroad was on the wane, partly because details were harder to obtain, and partly because of what one historian has called “compassion fatigue,” following several years of reports about Nazi atrocities.137 One cause célèbre that briefly punctured the growing silence in the late 1930s was the detention of the Protestant pastor Martin Niemöller.138 A right-wing nationalist and one-time sympathizer of the Nazis, Niemöller had become increasingly critical of the regime’s pressure on the Protestant Church and emerged as a leader of the breakaway Confessing Church. Niemöller was arrested in 1937; his trial before a Berlin special court in March 1938 ended in a shambles, after the judges found him not guilty of malicious attacks on the state and set him free. Hitler was furious, accusing the legal system of yet another blunder, and ordered Himmler to take the pastor to Sachsenhausen. The police arrested Niemöller inside the court building and took him away, causing worldwide condemnation. Nazi leaders had anticipated this furor, but regarded it as a price worth paying. In contrast to their earlier attempts to pacify foreign critics with their cynical show of compassion for Ossietzky, they ignored all calls for Niemöller’s freedom, even when it became widely known that his health was failing; he would spend the next seven years in Sachsenhausen and Dachau.139

The obstinacy of the Third Reich reflected its growing strength in the late 1930s. As Nazi leaders became more aggressive and steered the country toward an open confrontation with the West, foreign opinion seemed to matter less and less. The drive to war was transforming Germany’s international standing, and also left a mark on the Camp SS.

SS Military Ambitions

Himmler liked to see the Camp SS as soldiers. By presenting his men as warriors fighting “the scum of Germany,” he hoped to boost their profile and elevate them above mere prison guards.140 But Himmler’s use of military imagery was more than rhetoric. From early on, he envisaged his guards as paramilitaries, who patrolled not only the make-believe battlefields inside camps, but who would also serve beyond the barbed wire during national emergencies, as the Dachau SS had done during the Röhm putsch in 1934. Hardened by the confrontation with “enemies” in concentration camps, he argued, his special forces could be trusted to fight terrorists outside.141

The transformation of the SS Guard Troops into a paramilitary force began early, already in the mid-1930s.142 Sentry service around the KL was just one of their duties. As we have seen, the men spent considerably more time on military drills. Initially, Guard Troop commanders struggled with poor equipment; in Dachau, they did not even have enough reserve munitions. This changed after Hitler agreed to fund the Death’s Head SS from the Reich budget. More weapons for combat now poured into the Guard Troops, which set up additional machine gun formations. In Dachau, the dilapidated old barracks were replaced by a vast training camp, symbolizing the military intentions of the SS. In Sachsenhausen, too, a big new complex was built (by prisoners) near the camp, as a base for SS excursions. In Sachsenburg, meanwhile, prisoners constructed a new and modern shooting range, complete with movable targets. Most significantly, the SS continued to recruit far more Guard Troops than it needed for running the camps; SS personnel rose from an estimated 1,700 in January 1935 to 4,300 three years later, keeping the staff–inmate ratio well below 1:2. Although the force was still small, there was no mistaking the ambitions of its leaders.143

The creeping militarization of the Camp SS was part of a bigger plan by Himmler: the creation of independent SS formations for deployment at the front. The German army, ever since its conflict with SA leader Ernst Röhm, was paranoid about the military aspirations of Nazi leaders, and in Himmler’s case, the generals were right to worry. Despite his hollow denials, Himmler was not content with establishing the SS and police as a force inside Germany. He was gunning for the army’s monopoly of military might. Speaking to senior SS commanders in 1938, he claimed that it was their solemn duty to stand tall on the battlefield: “Were we not to bring blood sacrifices and were we not to fight at the front, we would lose the moral right to shoot at shirkers and cowards at home.” Using all his guile, his direct line to Hitler, and his talent for bureaucratic sparring, Himmler won the upper hand in the turf war with the army. Initially, his hope of creating an SS division centered mainly on the new SS Troop for Special Duty (Verfügungstruppe), formed in autumn 1934 out of different smaller armed units. But he also began to consider the use of SS Guard Troops beyond the German borders, erasing the boundary between internal and external front.144

The military role of the SS was cemented in the late 1930s, as a European war loomed ever closer. One landmark was Hitler’s secret decree of August 17, 1938, drafted by Himmler, which confirmed that SS formations would be deployed on the battlefield. As for the Death’s Head units specifically, they would greatly expand to serve as a “standing armed SS troop” for “tackling special duties of a police nature.” This cryptic phrase still pointed to a domestic deployment of Camp SS men. However, a few months earlier, members of the Dachau Guard Troop had already engaged in a first foray onto foreign soil, marching into Austria in March 1938 under the command of the German army. Soon, another opportunity presented itself. In autumn 1938, four Death’s Head battalions took part in the occupation of the Sudetenland; they were led by Theodor Eicke, who presented his men during a first review on Czech soil to Hitler. The following May, soon after Death’s Head troops had participated in the takeover of the rest of the Czech territory, Hitler issued yet another decree, officially recognizing the military role of SS Death’s Head units: in wartime, some Camp SS men would join the front line.145

If there was anyone more delighted about the combat status of the Camp SS than Himmler, it was his lieutenant Theodor Eicke. Having fancied himself for some time as a general (commensurate with his SS rank), Eicke was able to realize his dream through the militarization of the Camp SS. In the late 1930s, he threw himself into the expansion of the Guard Troops—even at the expense of the KL, as a resentful Rudolf Höss noted. Eicke showed “incredible generosity” when it came to the Guard Troop, Höss complained, always demanding the best equipment and the biggest quarters.146 In addition, Eicke pushed hard for new recruits. The criteria for enlistment were relaxed and Eicke even ordered SS “head hunters,” as he called them, to poach enlisted soldiers from the armed forces: “Bring them from the bars, bring them from the sports clubs, bring them from the barber. As far as I’m concerned, you can bring them from the brothels. Bring them from every place you meet them.”147

While this particular scheme probably met with little success, Eicke still managed to attract many new recruits. During the course of 1938, the size of the Death’s Head SS more than doubled, reaching 10,441 men in November. By the following summer, the figure had grown further, to around twelve or thirteen thousand full-time staff.148 At the same time, the Death’s Head SS stockpiled weapons. According to Eicke, his units possessed over 800 machine guns, almost 1,500 machine pistols, and nearly 20,000 carbines by mid-1939.149 Eicke and his political soldiers were ready for a war beyond the camps.


When an esteemed German encyclopedia described the SS concentration camps, a new entry within its pages in 1937, it explained that prisoners were “formed into groups and made to perform useful work.”150 It was almost inevitable that the dictionary would highlight forced labor, since labor featured in almost all official Nazi accounts of the KL; no article or speech seemed complete without it. And although these references were all about propaganda, they pointed to a larger truth—that work dominated daily KL life and the thoughts of the prisoners, as this extract from the “Sachsenhausen Song” illustrates:

Behind barbed wire is our work,

our backs are sore from bending,

we’re turning hard, we’re turning tough,

our work is never-ending.151

The Third Reich did not invent forced labor for captives, of course. It was central to traditional conceptions of prisons and workhouses, as we have seen, promising many practical benefits. On the most basic level, labor was a useful organizing principle for keeping inmates occupied. Moreover, productive labor was said to drive down the cost of detention. As for its wider purpose, some officials regarded it as rehabilitative, preparing deviants for a life on the straight and narrow, while others championed it as an instrument to inflict the right amount of pain, for retribution or deterrence.152

This last aspect dominates postwar accounts of the KL, exemplified by the study of Wolfgang Sofsky, who describes the primary function of forced labor as “violence, terror, and death.”153 This conclusion certainly captures a key aim of the Camp SS: the use of work to humiliate and harm prisoners. But this is not the whole story. Reducing camp labor to a demonstration of absolute power oversimplifies SS policy, which was also guided by other ideological, economic, and pragmatic considerations.

Work and Punishment

Although all-out forced labor became an essential element of the KL system, it was not one of its founding principles. In the early camps, labor had played a far less dominant role. In their rush to set up temporary sites, some officials simply disregarded it. Those who did emphasize the importance of labor, meanwhile, were often frustrated by the difficulty of finding any, given the mass unemployment across the country. More generally, there was still uncertainty (especially in protective custody wings of state prisons) as to whether the inmates should be forced to work at all, given the long German tradition of treating some political prisoners as honorable offenders (one beneficiary had been Adolf Hitler, who used his time in Landsberg fortress in 1924, after his failed putsch, to write parts of his opus, Mein Kampf). In the end, it was not unusual for prisoners in 1933 to be entirely without work. Some guards in early camps forced these unemployed inmates to perform military drills. Elsewhere, however, the prisoners were left idle in their cells, barracks, and dormitories.154

Camp inmates who were compelled to work in 1933 faced two main types of labor. First, there was work on the outside, which enhanced the visibility of Nazi terror. Prisoners were deployed in large-scale projects for the supposed benefit of the nation (like moor drainage in the Emsland) or to improve the local infrastructure, by building paths, roads, and canals, or helping to bring in the harvest; in Breslau, prisoners even had to drain a muddy pond so that locals could use it as a swimming pool. Second, many prisoners,especially at larger sites, were forced into camp construction and maintenance, putting up or repairing the different buildings, and installing the barbed wire that surrounded them. Others had to provide essential services such as cleaning rooms and corridors, preparing food or distributing it.155 In theory, this captive labor served a practical purpose, but in reality, abuse often took center stage, as guards used the occasion to torment those prisoners they despised the most. These inmates were also most likely to endure pointless labor; in Heuberg camp, for example, prominent political prisoners had to fill baskets with pebbles, only to tip them out and start all over again.156

During the coordination of the KL in the mid-1930s, the general approach to labor changed. To start with, the Camp SS would not tolerate “idleness” and made work compulsory for all. As Theodor Eicke’s regulations for Esterwegen put it: “Anyone refusing to work, evading work, or, for the purpose of doing nothing, feigning physical weaknesses or sickness, is regarded as incorrigible and is made to answer for himself.”157 Meanwhile, the SS put an end to much of the labor outside the KL. Trying to shield its camps from prying eyes, it scaled back work for the wider community, epitomized by the abandonment of moor cultivation in Esterwegen.

When the Camp SS looked at the economic use of prisoners in the mid-1930s, its gaze turned inward, to the construction and maintenance of the KL. All five concentration camps set up between 1936 and 1939, starting with Sachsenhausen, were built on the backs of prisoners, and the first weeks and months in a new camp always ranked among the worst; afterward, the Buchenwald survivor Eugen Kogon wrote, “misery at least consolidated itself.” In summer and autumn 1937, the first Buchenwald prisoners had to fell trees, erect barracks, dig trenches, and carry stones and tree trunks, struggling for twelve hours a day or more as the camp slowly grew. Illness and injuries were frequent, and prisoners who could not keep up, like the frail Hans Litten, faced slaps, kicks, and worse. What is more, the prisoners had to endure the primitive conditions typical of new camps. In the beginning, there were no beds, blankets, or running water in Buchenwald; mud was everywhere, clinging to the prisoners’ shoes, uniforms, and faces. These conditions, combined with SS terror and exhausting labor, had fatal consequences. Between August and December 1937, fifty-three prisoners died in the new camp at Buchenwald (over the same period, fourteen prisoners died in Sachsenhausen, which was already up and running). Of course, heavy construction work did not cease after the foundations had been laid. None of the large camps were ever finished, and the SS continued to exploit prisoners for repairs and extensions; during the prewar years, around ninety percent of all Buchenwald prisoners worked on the camp itself.158

Beyond the building of the growing KL complex, the Camp SS pursued few serious economic activities in the mid-1930s. Himmler and other SS leaders had no real long-term strategy and showed little desire to enter large-scale production. Instead, the SS ran a patchwork of small and obscure businesses outside the KL, among them a porcelain factory producing tawdry statuettes of sausage dogs and Hitler Youths. As for the most valuable resource in the hands of the SS, its prisoners, their deployment was generally overseen locally, by the commandants.159

The commandants, in turn, left much of the initiative to guards, who often continued to see labor as an excuse for abuse; however pressing a project was, there was always time for torture. Many years later, Harry Naujoks still remembered the day in 1936 when an SS man had suddenly forced him and other Sachsenhausen prisoners to stop flattening some cleared woodland and dig deep holes instead, at an ever-increasing pace. “We are only robots now,” Naujoks recalled. Driven on by kicks and punches, the prisoners shoveled manically until the area they had just leveled resembled a moonscape. “All our earlier work is being destroyed, completely pointlessly.”160

Overall, then, SS economic ambitions for the KL remained modest in the mid-1930s—with one exception: the prisoner workshops at Dachau. These were not only the earliest SS economic ventures, but one of the most significant of the prewar years. It had all started in 1933, when the Camp SS set up workshops to cater for the immediate needs of the new camp. Despite some protests from local businesses about SS competition, the complex grew quickly over the coming years and soon started to supply SS troops elsewhere; by 1939, 370 prisoners in the big carpentry workshop produced bed frames, tables, and chairs for general SS use.161 Of course, SS terror still trumped economics. But the success of the Dachau venture—the most profitable SS business of the prewar years, thanks to forced labor—also demonstrated that prisoners could be exploited without compromising the general mission of the KL. SS leaders realized that effective production was compatible with terror. This paved the way for a much more aggressive economic policy in the late 1930s, spearheaded by one of the rising stars of the SS, Oswald Pohl.162

Oswald Pohl and the SS Economy

Looking for a manager to professionalize the expanding SS organization in 1933, Heinrich Himmler’s eyes fell on Oswald Pohl, at the time a navy paymaster. The two men met for the first time in May that year in the garden of the Kiel navy mess, and Himmler was immediately taken with the tall and imposing Pohl, eight years his senior at forty years of age. Pohl had exactly the kind of résumé Himmler was looking for, combining managerial expertise with ideological fervor. He came from a middle-class family and had joined the navy as a trainee paymaster in 1912, specializing in budgetary and organizational matters. At the same time, he was a far-right activist and Nazi veteran. After the German defeat in the First World War, Pohl served in the Freikorps and then the nascent Nazi movement. He claimed to have joined the party as early as 1923, “following the call of the blood,” as he later wrote, and became an SA member in 1926, rising to Obersturmführer by 1933. Himmler had found the right man to build up the SS administration, and apparently offered him a free hand to do so. Pohl jumped at the chance. An impulsive man burning with ambition, he felt trapped in the backwater of the navy. He was desperately seeking an “outlet” for his “lust for work,” he wrote to Himmler two days after they met, and promised to serve him “until I drop.” Pohl started his new job as chief of the SS Administration Office, with a pay raise and promotion, in late February 1934.163

Over the coming years, Pohl accumulated more and more power. He centralized large parts of SS administration and finance, negotiated budgets with the Nazi Party and the Ministry of Finance, and audited SS branches. Pohl also began to reach beyond his original brief, gaining control over SS construction work and the fledgling economic ventures. Pohl’s ascent to the top echelons of the SS was swift, and in 1939, following a major restructure of SS operations, he was appointed as head of two separate main offices—administration and business, as well as budget and buildings.164Pohl’s rise was accelerated by his ruthlessness, which hit both rivals and subordinates, and by his unwavering loyalty to Himmler, who backed him all the way.165

The KL system was not immune to Pohl’s pull. The stronger he became, the more he drew the camps into his orbit. Pohl was closely involved with the Dachau workshops from 1934—he lived and worked nearby (the SS construction office was based in Dachau in 1933–34) and frequently inspected the sites, before taking sole charge in the late 1930s. He had his hand in other matters, too. By 1938, Pohl controlled the financial and administrative affairs of the camps and the SS Death’s Head troops, and supervised various building programs inside.166

Pohl’s inroads into Camp SS territory set him on a collision course with Theodor Eicke. They held the same SS rank, following Pohl’s promotion to Gruppenführer in early 1937, and had a certain grudging respect for each other, using the informal “Du” even in official correspondence. Both men occupied special positions inside the SS, answerable directly to Himmler, and both were determined to make the most of their powers. They were “brutal characters,” Rudolf Höss later wrote, and probably recognized each other as kindred spirits.167 However, their relationship was far less amicable than some historians have suggested.168 They clashed over the camps’ administration, budgets, and buildings, and Eicke must have also begrudged Pohl’s occasionally taking credit for the KL; when Himmler conducted an official tour of Dachau in April 1939, for example, it was Pohl who gave the introduction, not Eicke.169

Pohl’s position strengthened in the late 1930s, after Himmler ordered the massive expansion of the SS economy. Having long neglected economic matters, Himmler displayed a sudden zeal and oversaw the establishment of several major SS enterprises in 1938. It was a landmark year in the development of the SS economy, although historians still disagree about Himmler’s intentions; most likely, he sensed another opportunity to enlarge his SS empire, this time at the expense of private industry.170 Whatever Himmler’s motives, the thrust of his policy was clear enough: concentration camp labor would become the main capital of the burgeoning SS economy, and Oswald Pohl its overall manager. In autumn 1938, Pohl bragged that it was his task “to find employment for the very numerous layabouts in our concentration camps,” a claim endorsed by Himmler.171 In practice, however, Pohl was not yet fully in charge, as commandants and the IKL also had their say.172 But there was no denying Pohl’s growing influence, and his control over the SS economy would prove the key to his takeover of responsibility for the entire KL system later on in the war.

By far the most significant SS economic initiative in 1938 was the creation of the German Earth and Stone Works (Deutsche Erd- und Steinwerke GmbH, or DESt), which became Pohl’s first significant enterprise. The catalyst was Hitler’s monumentalconstruction program for German cities, masterminded by the young architect Albert Speer, who had recently been appointed as inspector general of building for the Reich capital, Berlin, the biggest prewar building site of the Third Reich. As Hitler’s megalomaniac vision required far more bricks and stones than German industry could ever deliver—Speer estimated an annual need of around two billion bricks—the SS stepped in. During a meeting in late 1937 or early 1938, Hitler, Himmler, and Speer agreed that KL prisoners would supply vast amounts of building materials. Himmler saw this as an attractive proposition, a first step toward large-scale SS production. Not only would it boost the status of the SS, but Speer provided much of the startup costs, offering an interest-free advance of almost ten million Reichsmark to DESt.

The SS, which had already begun a search for suitable quarries and clay reserves back in 1937, greatly accelerated its efforts from spring 1938 onward, at the same time that the nationwide police raids started to drag more forced laborers into the camps. By summer 1938, Oswald Pohl was overseeing several DESt projects. Prisoners were feverishly building two new brick works, a small one in Berlstedt, some five miles from Buchenwald, and a much larger one near Sachsenhausen. Elsewhere, prisoners were setting up two entirely new KL, near quarries that were meant to provide blue-gray granite for building the Germany of Hitler’s dreams; these two new camps were Flossenbürg and Mauthausen.173

The Quarry Camps

Sometime during the second half of March 1938, Oswald Pohl and Theodor Eicke set off on a business trip across the south of the German Reich, accompanied by an entourage of SS experts. They were scouting locations for KL suitable for the planned economic ventures.174 Around March 24 the group traveled through the impoverished and inhospitable landscape of eastern Bavaria, near the Czechoslovakian border, with its dense forests and barren soil. What had brought them to this remote corner of Germany, sometimes jokingly referred to as the Bavarian Siberia, were the quarries around the village of Flossenbürg, which had operated there since the nineteenth century. Thanks to the building mania in the Third Reich, production had recently increased, and Pohl and Eicke agreed that there was an opportunity for the SS to join in. Later the SS search party crossed what had until recently been the Austrian border, heading toward Linz to inspect the nearby granite quarries around Mauthausen. Here, too, Pohl and Eicke found what they wanted and lost no time. Within days of their visits, the establishment of the two new camps was under way.175

Flossenbürg opened first, receiving its first prisoners on May 3, 1938, and the camp continued to grow over the coming months. The SS leadership regarded it as an important project. Himmler himself visited on May 16, together with Oswald Pohl, and Theodor Eicke even spent his summer holidays there, sending pictures to Himmler; one snapshot showed an armed guard looking toward a large SS flag, with a white skull on dark ground, fluttering high above the heads of prisoners toiling below.176 In Mauthausen, meanwhile, the first prisoners arrived on August 8, 1938. The SS initially forced them into provisional quarters in the Wiener Graben quarry (recently leased by DESt from the city of Vienna), and later moved them to a permanent compound on the hill above the quarry.177

The SS quickly put its stamp on the two new concentration camps. Their general layout followed the template of other KL, and the core of the SS staff, arriving from Dachau, Sachsenhausen, and Buchenwald, imported proven methods of terror and domination.178 Still, Flossenbürg and Mauthausen were different: for the first time, economic concerns had dictated the choice of KL locations.179 The focus of both camps on quarrying even shaped their appearance, with big granite watchtowers rising up; in Mauthausen, these towers joined up with vast granite walls that enclosed much of the compound, making it look less like a camp than a forbidding castle.180 Initially, Flossenbürg and Mauthausen were also much smaller than other KL for men, in terms of their prisoner numbers; by the end of 1938, Flossenbürg held 1,475 men and Mauthausen 994, at a time when Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, and Dachau held over eight thousand inmates each.181 Ambitious SS plans to enlarge the two new camps showed little immediate effect.182 Only during the Second World War did they catch up with the other KL.

There was another striking difference—the makeup of the Flossenbürg and Mauthausen prisoner population. In 1938, the Camp SS launched its most ambitious attempt yet to gather the same prisoner groups in the same location, reserving the two new camps almost exclusively for social outsiders, especially so-called professional criminals. Mass transports of selected prisoners, rounded up in the big three KL for men, began as soon as the new camps opened.183 As a result, almost all Flossenbürg prisoners before the war wore the green triangle. In Mauthausen, too, the “greens” made up the largest group, closely followed by “asocials,” who arrived from other KL in 1939, with many Gypsies among them.184 More than a hundred so-called criminals died in Flossenbürg and Mauthausen before the war broke out, more than in the other three KL for men taken together.185

Why did the SS concentrate “professional criminals” in the two new quarry camps? Forced labor in quarries was regarded as particularly punishing, and many Nazi officials believed that the worst prisoners deserved the hardest labor. When a senior SS officer suggested in late 1938 that concentration camp prisoners should be sent to lethal radium mines, Himmler responded enthusiastically, proposing to make “the most serious criminals” available.186 Although this particular plan came to nothing, the SS later adopted the principle of sending “criminally recidivist and asocial” inmates to the KL with the worst working conditions.187 Heinrich Himmler made no secret of his hatred for prisoners with the green triangle. In a speech in 1937, he described them as dangerous and violent born criminals, who had spent much of their lives behind bars. Himmler painted a terrifying picture of murderers, robbers, and sex fiends, like a seventy-two-year-old man who had committed sixty-three indecent assaults. “It would be an insult to animals to call such a person an animal,” Himmler raged, “because animals don’t behave that way.”188 When it came to filling the quarry camps in spring and summer 1938, Himmler and other SS leaders felt that it was these prisoners who should suffer.189

The prisoners who arrived in the two new camps bore little resemblance to the gargoyles of Himmler’s imagination. Typical for men wearing the green triangle, they mostly were persistent but petty property offenders, from especially deprived social backgrounds, who fell back on small-time theft, fraud, and begging for subsistence and survival.190 One such man was Josef Kolacek, who had been living in poverty with his parents, whom he supported on his own, in a large working-class district of Vienna. Kolacek, who was suffering from tuberculosis, was detained by the criminal police on June 14, 1938, shortly before his thirtieth birthday. When he arrived in Dachau, he was still wearing the cheap jacket and collarless shirt with a missing button that he had been arrested in the previous day; the SS also noted with great interest the tattoos on his arms. Although the police had apparently picked him up during the nationwide raid on the “work-shy,” he was classified as a “professional criminal” in the KL. But Kolacek was no dangerous convict. Although he had been sentenced eight times by the courts, the first time in his teens, almost all sentences were for trivial property offenses, punished with no more than a few days’ or weeks’ detention. Only his last conviction in 1937, for attempted burglary, had merited a longer term of eight months in a penitentiary. And yet, the SS labeled him a criminal menace, and on July 1, 1938, he was transported with many dozens of other “professional criminals” from Dachau to Flossenbürg, where he faced brutal forced labor and abuse. As one SS official noted ominously a few months later, Kolacek “is lazy and sluggish during work and has to be reproved all the time.”191

The early months in the quarry camps of Flossenbürg and Mauthausen were especially hard. As in other new camps, prisoners had to build the infrastructure—exhausting and perilous work aggravated by the primitive living conditions in makeshift compounds. Meanwhile, hundreds of other inmates were already toiling in the quarries. Work began early in Flossenbürg, where three quarries were operational at the end of 1938. In Mauthausen, too, labor in three different quarries began in 1938, soon the largest such complex controlled by DESt. Prisoners had to carry out the most arduous jobs, preparing the ground with pickaxes and drills, and hauling huge granite blocks.192 Adolf Gussak, an Austrian Gypsy who came to Mauthausen on March 21, 1939, on a large prisoner transport from Dachau, later recalled the first days in the Wiener Graben: “In the quarry we had to carry heavy stones. With them on our backs we had to climb the 180 steps up [toward the compound]. The SS beat us. As a result there often was some pushing: everybody wanted to escape the blows. If anyone fell down he was finished off by a bullet in the back of his neck.”193

Death was frequent in Mauthausen. In the first year between August 1938 and July 1939, at least 131 prisoners perished, divided almost evenly between so-called criminals and asocials.194 Relative to the small size of its prisoner population—there were only 1,431 inmates on July 1, 1939—Mauthausen may well have been more lethal than any other KL during this period. In other camps, inmates began to dread a transfer to Mauthausen, after returning prisoners described the huge quarries as hell on earth.195 Those in Flossenbürg had a better chance of survival: fifty-five prisoners perished before the outbreak of war (almost eighty percent of them so-called professional criminals).196 Among the survivors was Josef Kolacek from Vienna, who was eventually released after more than nine months in Flossenbürg.197

A High-Tech Factory

No project better sums up the economic hubris of the SS in the late 1930s than its giant new brick works at Oranienburg. In summer 1938, on the wooded banks of a canal little more than a mile from Sachsenhausen, the SS began to build what would have been the world’s largest brick factory, with a projected annual output of 150 million bricks, around ten times more than large factories normally produced. The project—probably initiated by Albert Speer, who advanced the necessary funds to DESt—was heavily promoted by the SS as a showcase for its economic prowess. Determined to prove its ability to harness modern technology for the Nazi regime, the SS opted for the most costly and cutting-edge equipment, so-called dry press machines, which promised both speed and efficiency. SS managers staked their reputation on a successful outcome. Heinrich Himmler apparently attended the ceremonial laying of the foundation stone on July 6, 1938, and remained keenly interested in progress at the building site.198

The entire project rested on forced labor. Although the SS used some civilian contractors for the brick works, the bulk of the labor force came from Sachsenhausen. In the prewar years, a daily average of 1,500 to 2,000 prisoners was deployed, making it the largest labor detail in any SS concentration camp at the time. After the prisoners had cleared many of the trees on site, they began the building work, excavating a dock area, moving and leveling the ground, and constructing the main factory building. Another labor gang worked on a railway line for transporting clay, from its source a few miles away, to the plant.199

The contrast between the plant’s high-tech design and the primitive conditions on the construction site could hardly have been greater. Prisoners performed the most strenuous labor with the most basic tools or no tools at all. Large groups of inmates carried piles of sand in their uniforms, worn back-to-front so that the back of jackets formed a kind of apron. Others moved large mounds of earth on rickety wooden stretchers or shifted sacks of cement on their shoulders. Elsewhere, prisoners climbed scaffolds and poured down cement, barely clinging on in their wooden clogs. There were many accidents—severed limbs, crushed bones, and the like—but no respite. SS terror was as abundant as facilities were scarce; the latrine, for example, was no more than a beam across a ditch, and SS guards liked to push exhausted inmates into the pool of excrement below.200

The Sachsenhausen inmates feared the brick works as a particularly destructive labor detail.201 In the mornings, they faced a long march to the building site, moved along with clubs and whips by SS men, only to stagger back to the compound in the evenings, carrying the sick, the wounded, and the dead. On site in Oranienburg, the prisoners spent the entire day without shelter; after the glistening heat of summer 1938, they braved the bitter winter, always working at a ferocious pace. Because the deluded SS managers had agreed on an impossibly tight schedule for their flagship plant, guards and Kapos drove prisoners with a brutality unusual even for a KL.202

Countless prisoners perished on the desolate Oranienburg building site, succumbing to exhaustion, accidents, and abuse; there were some suicides, too.203 The worst period came in winter 1938–39, when a renewed SS push to complete the project coincided with a cold snap across the Berlin region. Prisoners worked in thin uniforms and without gloves as the temperatures fell below freezing for almost three months; often, the soup they ate for lunch would turn to ice.204 Between December 1938 and March 1939, at least 429 Sachsenhausen prisoners died at the brick works and elsewhere in the camp, more than in any other KL during this period.205 The great majority of the dead were so-called asocials, who made up the largest prisoner group at the Oranienburg building site and often faced special harassment by SS and Kapos.206

One victim was the fifty-five-year-old agricultural laborer Wilhelm Schwarz, who was part of a fifty-man-strong earth-leveling detail—all of them, like him, “asocial” prisoners—toiling at the brick works. Schwarz died on the morning of March 21, 1939, some nine months after he had arrived in Sachsenhausen as a “work-shy” prisoner. According to the responsible Kapo, who was interviewed during a routine investigation, Schwarz had been crushed to death as he tried to empty a dump truck filled with sand. This may not have been the whole story, but whatever the truth, the Kapo, a political prisoner, clearly had no sympathy for inmates like Wilhelm Schwarz, even in death: he complained bitterly that the “asocials” in his unit were extremely “lazy” and “unreasonable,” refusing to “make the slightest effort during work.”207 The SS guards cared even less about the gruesome death of Wilhelm Schwarz, or any of the other fatalities at Oranienburg. The dead could be replaced straightaway, as there was no shortage of prisoners, and so the Camp SS worked more prisoners to death, in an early display of lethal disregard for its forced laborers.208

But even with a boundless supply of forced labor, the Oranienburg brick works would not have become the expected triumph, as SS ambitions far exceeded SS abilities. The brick works turned into a giant disaster, reminiscent of some vast and pointless state projects pursued by the Soviets in the Gulag. The decisive moment came in May 1939, during the first proper trial run, with the plant already months behind schedule. SS officials watched in disbelief as their dreams turned to dust, quite literally: the bricks that left the brand-new kilns just crumbled and fell apart. In their ignorance and haste, SS managers had committed a litany of elementary errors. Most grievously, they had never bothered to check whether the local clay was suitable for dry press production. It was not. The vast new factory, which had claimed so many lives, would never produce a single usable brick.209

The debacle at Oranienburg was a devastating indictment of SS incompetence. Clearly, the SS was in no position to run a large high-tech factory.210 The reaction of Oswald Pohl was equally telling. Instead of scaling back SS ambitions, he pressed ahead with brick production in Oranienburg, whatever the price. Obstacles would not stop the SS; they had to be overcome. To save face, and his own career, Pohl moved fast in the summer of 1939, hoping to keep Himmler in the dark about the true scale of the disaster. Looking for scapegoats, he got rid of the private building contractor and the hapless chief executive of DESt. Pohl handed control of DESt to younger men with a greater understanding of modern management, who combined opportunism, drive, and professionalism with commitment to the Nazi cause. Soon, prisoners had to tear down structures they had only just erected in Oranienburg; they demolished kilns and ripped out machines and concrete foundations. Meanwhile, a huge rebuilding program added new parts, this time using the more reliable wet press process. All this cost yet more lives and money, and the SS still had little to show for it. In 1940, after production had restarted on a small scale, the plant barely produced three million bricks, almost all of which were needed on site. And although the output rose in the following years, it never even came close to the original targets.211 However, SS hubris remained unchecked, as SS managers stubbornly clung to the belief that any plans, however far-fetched or deadly, could be willed into reality.

Illness and Death

The KL of the late 1930s were no full-scale slaughterhouses. Living conditions were not lethal for most prisoners, and systematic mass extermination was not yet on the SS agenda. As a result, the bulk of the inmate population survived, at least for now. This was true, above all, for female prisoners, only a handful of whom perished during the late 1930s.212 Although the prospects for men were bleaker, the great majority of them pulled through, too. True, death was no longer the exception; but it was not yet the norm, either. Of the well over fifty thousand men taken to concentration camps sometime between January 1938 and August 1939, 2,268 are known to have lost their lives inside. Despite the immense hardship of the camps, then, survival remained by far the most likely outcome.213

Still, many more men died in KL than in the mid-1930s, especially during the most lethal phase, between summer 1938 and spring 1939. To some degree, this reflected the general growth of the prisoner population at the time. But the death rate rose much faster than inmate numbers. In Dachau, for example, the average prisoner population doubled in the late 1930s, while the death rate shot up tenfold.214 There were several causes. Daily forced labor became more ruinous than before, as we have seen, with most prisoners forced into heavy construction. At the same time, basic living conditions declined due to shortages and overcrowding. Another important factor was the poor medical care for ill and injured prisoners, a crucial aspect of the KL that requires further scrutiny.

The Camp SS generally neglected the prisoners’ health, focusing instead on security, punishment, and labor. In the absence of firm direction from above, the medical infrastructure varied from camp to camp. And although the different infirmaries expanded during the late 1930s, adding more space and technical equipment—in Sachsenhausen, there was now a regular operating room and an X-ray department—the overall standard of care remained woefully inadequate.215

The biggest threat were the Camp SS men themselves. It was a basic SS tenet that ailing inmates were still dangerous enemies. SS men automatically suspected sick prisoners of being cheats and stopped many of them from receiving medical help altogether. When an ill Dachau prisoner dared to approach camp compound leader Hermann Baranowski for permission to see the doctor, one day in 1937, he provoked a wild tirade: “So what! During the [First World] War, people marched for hours with their guts in their hands! You have to learn to endure pain! I will make sure of it! Dismissed!”216 SS doctors, meanwhile, actively searched for supposed malingerers, following orders from Theodor Eicke. “Prisoners trying to avoid work by unfounded or prissy sick-reporting,” Eicke insisted, “are detailed to the ‘penal work’ section.”217 KL doctors were also complicit in countless other acts of terror. They routinely declared prisoners “fit” to be whipped, denied them care for wounds, and covered up murders by forging autopsy reports and death certificates.218

SS doctors were in short supply, and although it is hard to generalize, it seems that those who ended up inside the KL were often inexperienced, incompetent, or both. As graduates, they stood out from other Death’s Head SS officers, almost none of whom had set foot inside a university, except perhaps to beat up left-wing students in the Weimar years. Many KL doctors had only recently qualified and saw the camps, and the harsh treatment of prisoners, as a springboard for their medical careers. One of this breed of young SS physicians was Dr. Ludwig Ehrsam, the head of the Sachsenhausen infirmary. Not yet thirty years of age, Dr. Ehrsam rarely bothered to examine his patients. Instead, he would force them to perform physical exercises, supposedly to determine whether they were ready to return to work. His callousness cost numerous prisoner lives, earning him a fitting nickname among the Sachsenhausen prisoners: Dr. Gruesome.219

There were exceptions, of course. A few SS doctors tried to improve the treatment in the KL and occasionally even sent inmates to specialists in proper hospitals.220 Mostly, though, sick prisoners could expect poor provision, neglect, and abuse. It would have been easy to improve things, if only the SS had wanted. After all, there were experienced physicians among the prisoners who could have assisted in infirmaries, as they had done in some early camps.221 Camp SS men knew very well that these inmates were often much better qualified than SS doctors were.222 However, by the late 1930s, the SS often refused to draw on prisoner doctors, some of whom now helped their fellow inmates in secret.223 Instead, it left most daily duties in the infirmaries to prisoners with little or no medical training. These Kapos worked under SS orderlies, who were often even more ignorant, and SS doctors, who rarely deigned to deal with routine matters.224

The indifference of SS doctors threatened the entire prisoner population. Poor hygiene created a breeding ground for infectious diseases, and several epidemics spread through KL in the late 1930s. Buchenwald was hardest hit, following an outbreak of typhoid fever in the overcrowded camp in late 1938. The epidemic soon spread beyond the compound, after wastewater contaminated a nearby stream. Alarmed municipal officials placed several villages under quarantine and blamed the Buchenwald SS for its negligence. By the time the SS medical staff finally took action—isolating sick prisoners in a special barrack and banning the use of the open latrine—it was too late. The epidemic in the camp raged for weeks, killing scores of inmates.225

One of the last victims was Jura Soyfer, a young poet and writer arrested as a left-wing opponent in Austria after the Nazi takeover in spring 1938. The Buchenwald SS had forced him to work as a corpse carrier and it was here that he caught typhoid fever. Jura Soyfer died on February 16, 1939, only days after he had learned that the SS was about to release him. He was mourned by other inmates, who had been inspired by the witty parodies of the SS he had secretly performed in the barracks. As his wooden coffin left the camp on the back of a van, on its way to the Weimar crematorium, a fellow prisoner wondered “how many unwritten poems, how many unfinished works have we locked inside with him!”226

Jura Soyfer was one of around one thousand men who perished in Buchenwald between January 1938 and August 1939, making it, in absolute terms, by far the most deadly KL at the time. In Dachau, by contrast, just over four hundred prisoners lost their lives over the same period, even though it admitted slightly more men than Buchenwald.227 How do we account for Buchenwald’s wretched record? It was the most recent among the big SS camps, and sanitary conditions were worse there than in Dachau and Sachsenhausen, epitomized by the typhoid epidemic. And the Buchenwald SS was particularly violent, whipped up by the traumatic killing in May 1938 of SS Rottenführer Albert Kallweit. But there was another crucial factor, perhaps the most important of all. Buchenwald held far more Jewish prisoners than any other KL at the time, and Jews remained the favorite victims of the Camp SS; of all the Buchenwald prisoners who died in the late 1930s, almost half were Jewish, Jura Soyfer among them.228


“I would not like to be a Jew in Germany,” Hermann Göring quipped on November 12, 1938, at a top-level Nazi meeting on anti-Jewish policy, only days after a devastating state-sponsored pogrom had engulfed Germany, with Nazi mobs razing thousands of synagogues, shops, and houses, and humiliating, robbing, and assaulting tens of thousands of Jews; hundreds had died, murdered during the storm of violence or driven to suicide.229 The pogrom was the climax of years of Nazi persecution, which saw the gradual but relentless exclusion of Jews from German social, cultural, and economic life, pursued by radical forces from below and above. It was becoming impossible for Jews to live in Germany, and around half of the estimated five hundred thousand Jews left their fatherland during the prewar years, despite the uncertainties of life abroad, the Nazi levies on emigration, and the difficulties of securing visas. The remaining Jews—impoverished, isolated, and deprived—faced a desperate future trapped inside the Third Reich.230

The history of Jews in prewar Nazi Germany has been told before, though rarely with more than a passing glance at the concentration camps.231 There is an obvious explanation for this oversight: except for a brief moment after the pogrom, only a fraction of the Jewish population was held in the camps. In the prewar years, the focal point of anti-Jewish policy was elsewhere—in schools, at work, in courts, on the streets. And yet, the persecution of Jews in the prewar camps was important, too, as the KL spearheaded anti-Semitic terror and pioneered several radical measures that later hit all Jews under Nazi rule.232

Take racial legislation. It was an article of faith for Nazi leaders that sexual relations between Jews and non-Jews were a monstrous sin. But even though there had been talk of an official ban since 1933, the regime initially bided its time. From spring 1935, local Nazi thugs across Germany, frustrated with the general direction of the dictatorship, took matters into their own hands and attacked “mixed” couples. The police, in turn, dragged numerous “race defilers” to concentration camps in summer 1935. German courts could not yet punish them; the police and the SS could. “To put an end to his sensual greed,” the Magdeburg Gestapo noted in one such case, involving a Jewish man accused of sex with his “Christian” housekeeper, it was “absolutely necessary to confine him in a concentration camp.”233 Such cases declined only after the promulgation of the Nuremberg Laws in September 1935, which formally made Jews into second-class citizens, and outlawed extramarital relations and future marriages, threatening culpable men with prison or penitentiary (women did not fall under this provision). From now on, the Gestapo reserved protective custody for “race defilement” largely for men suspected of “particularly serious” offenses, and later some Jewish women, too (or “Jewish whores,” as one police officer put it).234

The KL also broke new ground when it came to driving Jews out of the country. Forced emigration only emerged as the primary aim of Nazi anti-Jewish policy in the late 1930s.235 But the police had already gained extensive experience inside concentration camps. From 1935, the Gestapo had routinely taken German émigrés who came back home into protective custody, suspecting them of “atrocity propaganda” abroad.236 Among them were many hundreds of Jews. Before they were released again, normally after around six months, the Gestapo insisted that they would have to leave the country, preferably for Palestine or beyond. Before long, the release of other Jewish prisoners had become conditional on emigration, too, pushing even more of them out of Germany; anyone returning once more to German soil was threatened with lifelong detention in a concentration camp.237

The prewar camps foreshadowed the later all-out assault against the Jews in many ways. Not only were KL prisoners the first Jews under Nazi control to be marked with the yellow Star of David, but the prewar camps functioned as a “motor of radicalization” for anti-Semitic policy more generally, as the historian Jürgen Matthäus put it, driving forward the isolation, forced labor, and murder of Jews in the Third Reich.238 The transmission of these measures from the KL across German society was aided by senior SS personnel, starting at the top with Heinrich Himmler, who not only steered the camps, but also helped to propel anti-Jewish policy.

Coordinating Anti-Jewish Abuse

Before 1938, few Jews were taken to the KL. Despite the detention of Jewish “race defilers” prior to the promulgation of the Nuremberg Laws, there were still no more than a few dozen Jewish prisoners in each camp during the mid-1930s; even a large KL like Sachsenhausen only held around fifty Jewish men by early 1937.239 Despite the small size of the Jewish prisoner population, it always loomed large in the minds of Camp SS men, who eagerly anticipated their arrival, just like some guards in the early camps had done.240

Radical anti-Semitism was part of the Camp SS code, a wild mix of traditional prejudice, racial mania, perverse fantasies, and political paranoia. Many SS men had been steeped in anti-Semitism long before they entered the camps, and once inside, their hatred was fanned daily, in word and deed. So deeply ingrained was this mind-set that even an SS guard formally questioned about his part in the murder of a Jewish prisoner (the attorney Friedrich Weissler in Sachsenhausen) saw no cause to conceal his feelings. “[Scharführer Christian] Guthardt acknowledged that he is a fanatical Jew-hater,” a Berlin state prosecutor noted after an interrogation in 1937, “and declared that for him, a Jew was less than a head of cattle.”241

Almost every day in the mid-1930s, SS guards made Jews run the gauntlet. They showered their victims in invective and made them debase themselves with humiliating tasks, like singing the Buchenwald “Jew Song,” which ended as follows:

But now at last the Germans know our nature

And barbed wire hides us safely out of sight.

Traducers of the people, we are fearful

To face the truth that felled us overnight.

And now, with mournful crooked Jewish noses,

We find that hate and discord were in vain.

An end to thievery, to food aplenty.

Too late, we say, again and yet again.242

At the center of SS abuse stood, once more, forced labor. The guards, who derided Jews as lazy cheats, were determined to teach them a lesson about labor they would never forget.243 Just like in the early camps, Jews had to perform particularly heavy and revolting jobs. The infamous latrine squads—widely mocked by the SS as “4711 commandos” (after a German eau de cologne)—almost always included Jews. The same was true for the most exhausting labor details. As they were breaking boulders with heavy hammers, Sachsenburg prisoners had to shout things like “I am an old Jewish swine” or “I am a race defiler and should peg out.”244

Such work was often accompanied by blows and kicks, as SS guards stayed especially close to the Jewish commandos. In Sachsenhausen, for example, Jews who cleaned the guardhouse regularly suffered “broken ribs, knocked-out teeth, and other physical injuries,” two survivors wrote after the war.245 The guards also tortured Jews with senseless work, even more so than others. In Esterwegen, SS men repeatedly forced Jewish prisoners to pile up a large mound of sand. Once they had finished, they had to pull an iron cart to the top, climb inside, shout “Comrades, a new age is dawning, we’re setting off for Palestine!” and ride down; the cart would inevitably crash, causing serious injuries.246 In view of such excesses, it is not surprising that Jews were far more likely to die than the average inmate during the mid-1930s.247

Even so, most Jewish prisoners survived the concentration camps during this period. The SS did not reserve its worst violence exclusively for Jews, at times hitting other prisoner groups just as hard. And Jewish prisoners still received some of the privileges open to others, like permission to buy additional goods with small sums sent by relatives; a few Jews also gained access to Kapo positions, giving them added influence.248 In Moringen, Jewish women were even allowed to celebrate Chanukah in late 1936—lighting the menorah, exchanging small gifts, and singing hymns—after they were granted two days off work by the senior guard.249 This would have been unthinkable in camps for men, where conditions were far worse and would soon deteriorate further.

In the second half of the 1930s, the SS increasingly coordinated its anti-Jewish abuse across the KL. Whereas earlier assaults had originated with local Camp SS men, SS leaders now tried to guide terror from above. From August 1936, all releases of Jews from protective custody required the personal approval of Heinrich Himmler, who had discussed the question of releases with Hitler himself.250 An even more important initiative came in February 1937, when Himmler designated Dachau as the central camp for all male Jewish prisoners.251 Nazi policy had been moving in this direction for some time. From 1936, the Camp SS had separated Jewish prisoners more systematically from others, forming additional Jewish blocks and labor details in the KL. Now segregation was taken to the next stage.252

Dachau seemed the obvious choice as the central camp for Jews. It already held the largest number of Jewish prisoners and had pioneered their separation into a special “Jew company” as long ago as spring 1933. Following Himmler’s decision, some eighty-five men arrived from other camps in early spring 1937, bringing the total number of Jewish prisoners in Dachau to around 150, rising further to an estimated three hundred by the end of the year (around twelve percent of the Dachau prisoner population).253 The prisoners faced a familiar catalogue of SS abuses and occasional murder—like in summer 1937, when an SS block leader forced a prisoner accused of “race defilement” inside a running cement mixer.254

The segregation in Dachau made it easier for SS leaders to impose collective punishment against all male Jewish prisoners. On November 22, 1937, for example, Heinrich Himmler announced a general ban on releasing Jews from Dachau, which apparently remained in place for well over six months.255 Another collective punishment was the isolation of Jewish prisoners in their barrack. This seclusion was enforced at least three times in Dachau in 1937, the first time in March, just as Jews from other camps arrived. It was imposed centrally by the Camp Inspectorate in Berlin, and although Eicke took credit as its inventor, the orders probably emanated from Himmler himself.256

SS leaders pronounced such collective punishment as a penalty for “atrocity lies” about the camps, which they blamed, in their fanatical belief in a Jewish world conspiracy, on the collusion between prisoners and Jews abroad. Many regular Camp SS men agreed. “At the time,” Rudolf Höss recalled, “I thought it was right to punish Jews we held in our hands for the spread of horror stories by their racial brethren.” By using the Jews as hostages—an idea that had preoccupied Nazi leaders for some time and became more virulent in the late 1930s—the Camp SS hoped to put an end to foreign criticism.257 The Dachau SS also forced the prisoners to send protest letters about “lying reports” in foreign papers. Hans Litten, who had arrived in Dachau from Buchenwald on October 16, 1937, informed his mother on November 27, 1937, that he and the other Jewish prisoners were punished with isolation and that she should try to “influence the emigrant Jews … to abstain in the future from such idiotic lies about the concentration camps, since the Jews in Dachau as racial comrades will be held responsible for them.” Such crude SS blackmail did not fool anyone, of course, and was quickly exposed by the press abroad.258

During those periods when the Dachau Jews were isolated, their seclusion was nearly total. For several weeks at a time, they were cut off from all other prisoners. Except for a brief spell of “sport,” they spent day and night in their barrack, with doors locked and windows painted over, allowing only dim light inside; the air was stale and humid, especially during the hot summer months. Prisoners spent most of their time lying on their sacks of straw, lethargic and tense, as well as hungry, since they could not supplement their rations with food from the canteen.259 Worst of all, perhaps, was the mail embargo, which hit the prisoners as hard as their relatives outside. In late August 1937, after she had waited in vain for more than a month for a letter from her husband in Dachau, Gertrud Glogowski, herself imprisoned in Moringen, sent a desperate plea to the camp authorities: “So far, his letters have held me up. Now, because there is no news at all, I am completely done for.”260

Cruel as the Dachau isolation was, it had some unintended benefits for the victims. Since Jewish prisoners were excluded from roll calls and forced labor, they temporarily escaped some of the worst SS excesses. To pass the days in the barrack, they made music, discussed politics, and organized talks. In the midst of it all was Hans Litten, who was temporarily reenergized, almost cheerful, sharing his knowledge of art and history, and reciting literature and poems. But this would be Litten’s last stand. Once the SS lifted the last isolation in late December 1937, normal life resumed, and Litten was pressed into the grueling snow-clearing commando. After almost five years in Nazi hands, he was haggard, listless, and frail, and he walked with a cane like an old man, belying his youth. The end came in early 1938. Following the death of the Jewish Kapo in his Dachau block—tortured by SS men suspecting a conspiracy—Litten was interrogated by Standartenführer Hermann Baranowski and afterwards lost all hope. Shortly after midnight onFebruary 5, his body was found hanging in the latrine. He was only thirty-four years old, one of forty men who lost their lives in Dachau between January and May 1938; at least half of them had been detained as Jews, like Hans Litten.261

Dark Months

The year 1938 was a fateful one for Jews in the Third Reich.262 In the months leading up to the November pogrom, the authorities launched a frontal assault on the remaining Jews, incited by Hitler and other Nazi leaders. Legal discrimination and state-sponsored robbery of Jewish businesses and property intensified, as did attacks on Jews and their belongings. Meanwhile, the Anschluss of Austria, accompanied by looting, violence, and humiliation on a grand scale, gave further momentum to anti-Semitic policy.263 And as Nazi terror against Jews escalated, the KL began to play a more prominent role in their persecution.

Austrian Jews were hit first, during a wave of arrests in spring of 1938, following the German invasion. Initially, the police focused on political opponents and prominent men, many of Jewish descent; the first transport of 150 Austrian detainees, arriving in Dachau on April 2, 1938, included sixty-three Jews.264 The new Nazi rulers quickly extended their reach beyond prominent Jews, encouraged by the Gestapo raids across Germany against the “work-shy” in April 1938. While these raids had not specifically targeted Jews, the authorities in May 1938 launched a major action in annexed Austria specifically against Jews described as “asocial,” “criminal,” or otherwise “disagreeable.” Armed with these open-ended orders, SS and police carried out random raids, swooping on parks, public squares, and restaurants, and arrested Jews simply for being Jewish. In late May 1938, the up-and-coming SD officer Adolf Eichmann, recently posted to Vienna, expected that some five thousand Jews, mostly from Vienna, would be dispatched to Dachau over the coming weeks. Although this target proved too ambitious in the end, the authorities did direct three special trains to Dachau, arriving between May 31 and June 25 with 1,521 Jewish men on board.265

The suffering of these Austrian Jews began well before they reached Dachau. Unusually, the trains from Vienna were guarded by SS men from Dachau, not by police officials, and the men with the Death’s Head on their uniforms battered their victims during the grueling journey. Several Jewish prisoners were dead by the time the transports arrived at a new track inside the Dachau complex, where the trains were greeted by a baying SS mob, who kicked and punched the survivors with rifle butts until they panicked and ran toward the camp, protecting their heads. The new arrivals were chased along the way by the frenzied guards, who were cheered by off-duty colleagues watching from their quarters; left behind on the road were the hats, scarves, clothes, and shoes of the Jewish men. So excessive was the violence—SS officers estimated that on one transport, around seventy percent of the prisoners had been assaulted, some suffering deep stab wounds—that representatives from the state attorney’s office came to the camp to investigate, though to no avail.266

The Austrian Jews arrested in spring 1938 were still streaming into Dachau when police leaders moved to the next round of mass arrests, this time across the whole of the Third Reich. The initiative apparently came from Hitler himself, who demanded the detention of “asocial and criminal Jews” in late May 1938, perhaps inspired by the raids in Vienna.267 Heydrich quickly added a special provision to his orders for the forthcoming mass action against “asocials,” instructing regional criminal police officials to take male Jews “who have served a prison sentence of no less than one month” into preventive police custody as well. Although the arrest orders against Jews and asocials went out in the same directive in June 1938, the motives behind them were clearly different. In the case of Jews, the authorities were not interested in forced labor; rather, they wanted to pressure more Jews into giving up their property and leaving the country. This was why subsequent police orders stressed that it did not matter if the arrested Jews were fit for work. All that mattered was that they were labeled as criminals—one of the most enduring anti-Semitic stereotypes—and therefore unwanted in Germany.268

The action began in mid-June 1938, as planned. Simultaneous with the arrest of so-called asocials, the police rounded up Jews in their homes and in public places like bars, cafés, and cinemas. Petty offenders, many of whom had fallen foul of Nazi anti-Semitic laws, were dragged away like dangerous criminals; in Berlin, these arrests were accompanied by open violence and destruction on the streets. Members of the wider Jewish community were left deeply shaken and more terrified than ever of the KL—with good reason.269

There were far more Jews than ever in the concentration camps. The June 1938 raids forced almost 2,300 Jewish men inside, bringing the total number of Jewish inmates to around 4,600 (late June 1938), an estimated tenfold increase since March. Jews now made up almost twenty percent of the prisoner population across the concentration camp system. Faced with this sharp rise, the Nazi authorities abandoned the near-exclusive use of Dachau, already overcrowded, as the collection camp for Jews. Instead, the largest group of “criminal” Jews arrested during the June raids, some 1,265 Jewish men, was sent to Buchenwald, a camp that only a few weeks earlier had held only seventeen Jewish prisoners. In the blink of an eye, Buchenwald turned into the most lethal KL for Jews.270

The general conditions in Buchenwald in summer 1938 were appalling, but they were worst for the Jewish victims of the June mass arrests. As there were not enough barracks, the SS forced hundreds of new arrivals, among them many Jews from Berlin, into a sheep pen; for months, prisoners slept on brushwood spread across the bare ground. And although all the recently arrested “asocials” were assaulted by the SS, the guards singled out Jews for the most vicious abuse. Many Camp SS men were fired up about their first encounters with large numbers of Jewish “enemies”; some screamed things like: “At last we have you here, you Jew pigs. You shall all die a miserable death here.” Often, SS men would abandon assaults on other prisoner groups to concentrate their energies on Jews. As always, labor was the greatest torture. “The Jews shall learn how to work,” the Buchenwald SS leaders announced, and pressed them into the worst jobs, such as hauling limestone in the quarry, at running pace, for ten or more hours a day; even the sick and old had to carry boulders until they collapsed under the weight.271

Jewish prisoners in Buchenwald were soon decimated. Between June and August 1938, at least ninety-two men lost their lives, making Jews far more vulnerable than other inmate groups. There were so many deaths that Camp Inspector Eicke, as early as June 21, 1938, proposed the construction of a crematorium in Buchenwald, to spare his SS men the frequent transfer of corpses to the municipal facilities in Weimar.272 The Buchenwald death toll would have been higher still had the police not released hundreds of Jewish prisoners within weeks of their arrest, often conditional on their emigration. Those who returned from Buchenwald were broken and fearful, an underground report explained: “In general, the men start to cry as soon as you ask them anything.”273

Not every KL was like Buchenwald, however. Despite all the Nazi efforts to coordinate anti-Jewish terror, major differences remained. While Buchenwald was unusually lethal in summer 1938, Dachau proved much less so, with Jewish men around seven to ten times less likely to die.274 Even Buchenwald did not sustain its ferocity. In September 1938 the inmate population grew further, after the transfer of around 2,400 Jews from Dachau made it the undisputed SS center for Jewish prisoners.275 On October 4, 1938, Buchenwald held 3,124 Jewish men (some thirty percent of its total inmate population), putting even more pressure on resources in the packed camp.276 Yet the number of deaths among Jewish prisoners fell sharply, from forty-eight in July to eight in October, after some of the most abysmal lodgings, like the sheep pen, were finally abandoned.277 This would prove no more than a brief lull in anti-Jewish terror, however, soon to be shattered.


On the morning of November 7, 1938, a Jewish teenager from Hanover, Herschel Grynszpan, walked into the German embassy in Paris, drew a revolver, and fatally wounded a German diplomat. This lone and desperate act of protest—Grynszpan’s parents and siblings had just been deported from the Third Reich to the Polish border, together with some eighteen thousand other Jews of Polish nationality—was the spark that set off the pogrom. Two days later, Nazi leaders, who had gathered in Munich for the ritual celebration of the anniversary of Hitler’s failed 1923 putsch, seized on the German diplomat’s death to launch a nationwide orgy of destruction, later called the “night of broken glass” (Kristallnacht) by sarcastic Germans. It was instigated on the evening of November 9, 1938, by Joseph Goebbels, backed by Adolf Hitler, who agreed that the time had come for Jews “to feel the fury of the people,” as the eager Goebbels noted in his diary. Senior Nazi officials frantically sent instructions to their underlings across the country, and within hours, local Nazi thugs were on the rampage everywhere.278

The pogrom was accompanied by mass arrests, after Hitler ordered the urgent detention of tens of thousands of Jews.279 Just before midnight on November 9, Gestapo headquarters instructed its forces to prepare the arrest of twenty to thirty thousand Jews, especially prosperous ones. More detailed orders followed less than two hours later, this time directly from Reinhard Heydrich: police officers should arrest as many Jews—above all wealthy, healthy, and younger men—as they could detain locally and then ensure their rapid transfer to concentration camps.280

In the days after November 9, 1938, more than thirty thousand Jews of all ages and backgrounds were rounded up in German villages, towns, and cities. SA and SS fanatics, drafted in as auxiliaries, abused their victims during the arrests. Regular policemen, by contrast, often acted in a more detached manner. As a middle-aged Frankfurt doctor, whom I shall call Dr. Julius Adler, recalled a few weeks later, the police officer who had detained him at his home on the morning of November 10, 1938, behaved “not particularly friendly but perfectly proper.” Like many other prisoners, Dr. Adler was moved to a temporary holding center, in his case a large hall in the Festhalle, the Frankfurt convention center, where Jews had to hand over valuables and endure occasional harassment and assaults by SS men who mingled among the police.281 Several thousand Jewish prisoners were spared the KL as the authorities released women and also some men (among them seniors and army veterans) from protective custody within a matter of hours or days.282 Many other elderly and weak men, however, had to join the other male Jewish prisoners on mass transports to one of three KL—Dachau, Sachsenhausen, and Buchenwald.

Much of the pogrom unfolded before the eyes of ordinary Germans, and the mass arrests and deportations of Jewish men to the KL took place in plain view, too. In many cities, triumphant Nazis publicly humiliated the prisoners; in Regensburg, the victims were paraded through town with a large placard reading “Exodus of the Jews,” before they boarded a train to Dachau. Popular reactions are hard to gauge, but there was at least some sympathy for the plight of the prisoners. As one regional SD office complained, “hardened democrats” showed great pity for the imprisoned Jews and spread rumors about suicides and deaths in the camps. There were also some anonymous protests to Nazi leaders. But only a few Germans dared to voice open criticism, while hard-liners loudly applauded the deportations.283

The transports were terrifying. When Dr. Adler and other Jews were locked into a special train in Frankfurt, late on November 10, they were warned that they would be shot if they tried to open the windows. Although they were not abused during the journey—unlike prisoners on some other transports—the men were greatly worried about what would happen next. Screaming SS guards met them at Weimar train station and pushed them onto waiting trucks. At Buchenwald, the prisoners had to run into the camp, past more guards who kicked and punched them. “Then we moved at the double across the assembly ground of the camp,” Dr. Adler later wrote, “with those who were too slow being again spurred on by blows with sticks.” During those dark November days, an endless stream of prisoners spilled onto the Buchenwald roll call square, where they faced hours of torment during registration. Some prisoners arrived drenched in blood, with swollen heads and broken bones, following the SS “welcome” at the gate. “I was hit in the eye,” one man later reported, “and as a result lost the sight in that eye.”284 Similar scenes unfolded in Dachau and Sachsenhausen in mid-November 1938, as the SS pressed a total of around twenty-six thousand Jewish men into its three big KL.285

Almost overnight, the SS concentration camps had dramatically changed. Never before had they held more inmates: within days, the prisoner population doubled from twenty-four thousand to around fifty thousand.286 Never since the inclusion of female prisoners in the KL system had there been so few women among them: as there were no mass transports of Jewish women to Lichtenburg, the overall proportion of female prisoners in the camps fell to under two percent.287 Never before had there been as many Jews in the KL: at the start of 1938, they had made up only around five percent of the prisoner population; now they were suddenly in the majority. And never before did as many prisoners die in the KL as in the weeks following the pogrom.

The KL After Kristallnacht

One of the bloodiest and most horrible chapters in the history of Buchenwald”—this is how two veteran prisoners later described the period after the pogrom.288 The SS was largely unprepared for the huge influx of Jewish prisoners in November 1938, plunging the camp system into even greater chaos than after the June raids against “asocials.” In Dachau, barracks that had been cleared for Jews were soon so overcrowded that some new arrivals were forced into a vast tent instead. In Sachsenhausen, the SS used the makeshift barracks of the little camp, first set up after the summer raids against “asocials,” and they, too, were bursting.289 But Buchenwald proved the greatest ordeal.

The first so-called November Jews arriving in Buchenwald were crammed into a primitive barrack erected a few weeks earlier for Austrian prisoners. Meanwhile, other inmates had to build, at frantic pace, four more provisional barracks out of thin wooden boards, with no floors, right on the muddy soil. The entire new area, at the far corner of the roll call square, was cut off from the rest of the compound with barbed wire. At night, each barrack was filled with almost two thousand prisoners, who slept on tiny wooden bunks, more like shelves, without mattresses or blankets; the men were pushed so tightly against one another that it was impossible to move. “Our accommodation was such,” the Frankfurt doctor Julius Adler wrote a few weeks later, “that we always felt like cattle locked into a dirty cowshed.” One night, two of the barracks caved in under the weight of the bodies inside.290

Every day in Buchenwald, the Jews suffered from dirt and disease, thirst and hunger. Food was only handed out at irregular intervals, as the SS struggled to maintain any semblance of order, while the persistent water shortages caused terrible dehydration. The men could not wash either, or change their damp and soiled civilian clothes; “one was covered up to one’s knees with a thick crust of clay,” reported Dr. Adler. Inside the barracks, the stench soon became unbearable, especially after a mass outbreak of diarrhea. There were no sanitary facilities to speak of, just two overflowing ditches, where murderous SS men tried to drown several Jewish men. Inevitably, many Buchenwald prisoners suffered from infections and injuries, including frozen limbs, as well as mental illness, but the SS initially refused them any medical care. Instead, the sick were dumped in a rickety shed—“a hovel stinking of excrement, urine, and pus,” as a prisoner orderly remembered; it was nicknamed the “barrack of death.”291

The Camp SS did not quite know what to do with the “November Jews” and never fully integrated them into the regular routines. In Buchenwald, as well as in Dachau, these inmates were not pressed into forced labor, watching as other prisoners marched off to work outside the compound. Instead, they spent most of the day sitting, standing, or running on the roll call square, enduring endless drills, parades, and punitive exercises. Only in Sachsenhausen did the SS decide, after a week or so, to draft Jews into work, often at the brick works, where accidents were frequent, and medical treatment scarce. “For Jews, I only sign death certificates,” the Sachsenhausen SS camp doctor is said to have exclaimed.292

The special status of the so-called November Jews was reinforced by their separation from the other KL inmates, including all other Jews. Despite SS threats, some prisoners—both Jews and non-Jews—passed food and water to the desperate new arrivals, and offered vital advice on how to behave.293 Such support for the “November Jews” remained rather rare, however, not just because of the obvious dangers, but also because of long-standing prejudices against Jews. “Among the prisoners,” an underground SPD report about Dachau concluded, “there are many who despise the Jews.”294

The “November Jews” had to look to one another for help. Inevitably, there were many obstacles to solidarity, starting with the general deprivation. Many of the new prisoners had yet to adjust to the camps, and were bewildered by the daily torment. Moreover, while the SS may have seen all Jews as alike, things looked very different from the perspective of the prisoners themselves, who were acutely conscious of all the barriers of class, religion, nationality, and politics. The so-called November Jews were German and Austrian, secular and orthodox, young and old, Communist and conservative, intellectual and uneducated, Zionist and assimilated, bourgeois and proletarian. Often, they had nothing in common except for being victims of Nazi racial mania. Such divisions were hard to overcome, especially in the face of extreme suffering.295 And yet, there were acts of mutual aid, especially among men who had known each other already before their imprisonment.296

Solidarity could only achieve so much, however, and prisoners were helpless against SS assaults. While Nazi leaders called off the pogrom outside within a day, the looting and violence inside the KL continued for weeks, effectively extending the pogrom. Whenever an SS man approached, Jewish prisoners feared verbal abuse and worse. “Words like Jewish pig are the order of the day,” Dr. Julius Adler recalled, adding: “Woe unto him who was driven to protest.”297 Camp SS men used all their well-honed methods of humiliation, though some were still unsure about how far they should go. When Dr. Adler first arrived in Buchenwald, a guard knocked the glasses off his face; when Adler could not find them, however, the same SS man picked them up for him and handed them back. Other guards had no second thoughts, though, and assaulted the new inmates at every turn, on the roll call squares during the day, and inside the barracks at night. All this violence, as Jewish prisoners recognized only too well, laid bare the true intentions of the Nazi regime. “They have declared war against us,” a Buchenwald prisoner later wrote, “having rendered us defenseless for years.”298

The Camp SS men did not stop at abuse. They also robbed the “November Jews,” on a grand scale. Corruption was as old as the camps; it was not exceptional, it was endemic. In the early camps, for example, officials often blackmailed prisoners, forcing them to pay a ransom to regain their freedom.299 Corruption continued after the SS coordination. Guards forced inmates to carry out household chores in their own homes, ordered prisoners to make goods for them, stole their money, and diverted SS supplies into their own pockets. Few SS men could resist the temptations of near-total power. Almost the entire Camp SS was on the make, from rank-and-file men to leading officers; even Theodor Eicke, who periodically reproached his men for dishonesty, ran a secret account, spending the funds at his discretion.300

SS corruption reached new heights in November 1938. The pogrom outside had involved mass looting, followed by more state-sponsored theft; in the most cynical move, the regime ordered German Jews on November 12 to pay one billion Reichsmark as “atonement” for the damage done by the Nazi mob.301 The Camp SS enriched itself, too, above all in Buchenwald. Here, SS men ordered incoming “November Jews” to throw their valuables into open crates, never to be returned. Prisoners who had kept back money were robbed later on, in various other ways. SS guards sold them basic goods—like water, food, shoes, sweaters, and blankets—at exorbitant prices, and also forced them to make “donations” to escape more violence. The Buchenwald SS was not shy about flaunting its ill-gotten gains; even NCOs were seen around town wearing fancy clothes and driving luxury cars.302

While the Camp SS reveled in its newfound wealth, the balance sheet for Jewish prisoners was grim. After just a few days in the camps, almost all of them carried serious wounds, both physical and psychological. There was a spate of suicides. Several Jewish men, unable to bear their torment, ran into the electrified fence or crossed the sentry line. In the past, the Camp SS had sometimes prevented suicide attempts. Not this time. “Just let them get on with it,” Theodor Eicke told his men.303

In all, at least 469 Jewish men died in the KL in November and December 1938. Buchenwald was by far the most lethal site, accounting for almost two-thirds of these deaths; 297 Jewish prisoners are known to have lost their lives here. Sachsenhausen claimed at least another 58 lives, and Dachau 114. To put these figures into context: in the five years between 1933 and 1937, 108 men (of all backgrounds) are known to have died in Dachau, an average of fewer than two fatalities per month.304

The Pogrom in Perspective

When Dr. Julius Adler was released from Buchenwald on November 18, 1938, after eight days inside, he walked toward the next village with some other freed Jewish men. Famished, they entered a tavern, where the friendly landlord and his wife served them plenty of coffee, water, and sandwiches. Then the former prisoners drove to Weimar and boarded an express train back to Frankfurt, still dressed in the filthy clothes they had worn inside the camp. On his return home, Dr. Adler was grateful for the warm welcome from many non-Jewish acquaintances. But looking back at Buchenwald, he had learned two critical lessons: “Make every effort to get out those who are still in Germany, or in the camp, and second, to tell oneself in every situation: Anything is better than the concentration camp!” By the time he wrote these lines in January 1939, Dr. Adler had already left Germany.305

Many other German Jews did the same. Almost every family had been hit by the mass arrests, in one way or another. And although not all released men would, or could, share their experiences—“My husband does not talk about it,” the wife of Erich Nathorff noted on December 20, 1938, after his return from Sachsenhausen—their suffering was written on their faces and bodies. And so the horror of the KL, together with the devastation of the pogrom itself, led to a desperate scramble to escape the Third Reich—exactly what Nazi leaders had wanted.306

The pogrom was a watershed for Jews in Nazi Germany. But was it a watershed for the KL, too? The answer seems obvious. The camps changed dramatically in November 1938, after all, becoming bigger and deadlier than ever before, while the acts of theft and violence fused the Camp SS even closer together. Also, the camps proved themselves once more as versatile tools of Nazi terror. By quickly locking away tens of thousands of Jews, and terrorizing more into leaving the country, the men of the Camp SS passed another test in the eyes of Nazi leaders, just as they had done during the Röhm purge more than four years earlier.307 And yet, one should not overstate the lasting impact of the pogrom on the KL system. In many ways, it marked an exceptional moment in the prewar years, and the camps soon returned to their prior state.

To start with, Jewish prisoners did not remain in the majority for long. Nazi leaders had wanted to shock them, not to lock them away for good, and most so-called November Jews were quickly freed, far more quickly than previous victims of police raids. Mass releases set in around ten days after the pogrom and continued for weeks, as Heydrich’s office issued various orders for the discharge of elderly, sick, and disabled Jews, as well as First World War veterans. Of course, the ensuing releases were tied to certain conditions. Some men had to sign over their businesses to non-Jews. Many more had to promise to leave Germany. As early as November 16, 1938, Heydrich had ordered the release of Jews “whose date of departure” from Germany was “imminent”—men like Julius Adler, who had long prepared his exit. Emigration thus became closely tied to the release of “November Jews,” with prisoners signing written pledges to get out of the country. “Are any of you not emigrating?” the Dachau commandant Loritz would ask Jewish men, just before they left the camp. But at least the prisoners were released, and at a rapid rate. In Buchenwald, the total number of “November Jews” dropped from almost ten thousand in mid-November 1938 to 1,534 on January 3, 1939, to just twenty-eight on April 19, 1939.308 With the departure of these so-called November Jews, the total number of Jewish KL prisoners declined to pre-pogrom levels. From the regime’s perspective, the camps had served their function—forcing many Jews out of Germany—and there was no need for further mass arrests. Only a few hundred new Jewish prisoners arrived between January and August 1939, and like those Jews still inside, they had largely been detained as asocials, criminals, or political opponents. When war broke out in September 1939, the Nazi regime held no more than 1,500 Jews in its concentration camps, out of a population of 270,000 to 300,000 Jews still living on the territory of the Third Reich.309 The pogrom, in short, did not turn the KL into places for the permanent mass confinement of German Jews.

Neither did it lead to a permanent extension of the KL system. Following the dramatic growth after the pogrom, prisoner numbers quickly dropped again after most of the “November Jews” departed, falling to around 31,600 by the end of 1938.310 Numbers continued to fall over the coming months. True, there were some major police actions—including mass arrests of Austrian Gypsies in summer 1939—but not on the scale of the raids in the previous year; overall, far fewer new prisoners entered the camps.311Meanwhile, the police continued its prisoner releases. Most surprisingly, given his previous hostility to mass releases, Heinrich Himmler agreed to mark Hitler’s fiftieth birthday on April 20, 1939, with a major amnesty, extended to various long-term political prisoners and social outsiders. On the instructions of Himmler and Eicke, the inmates were told that they had reached “the road to freedom” (though their fate would be dependent on their future behavior). Thousands of prisoners were freed in late April 1939, among them the petty criminal Josef Kolacek from Vienna and the beggar Wilhelm Müller from Duisburg, whom we encountered earlier on. Because of the amnesty, which was not publicized in the press, KL prisoner numbers fell to around twenty-two thousand in late April 1939, slightly below the mark for summer 1938.312 This figure was virtually unchanged when Germany went to war four months later; on September 1, 1939, the KL system held around 21,400 prisoners.313

The camps’ seemingly irresistible rise had stalled in the run-up to war. This was not what SS and police leaders had envisaged. In late 1938, Himmler and his men had hoped to use the momentum of the pogrom to enlarge the camps even further. More construction was urgently needed, they argued, so that thirty-five thousand prisoners could be accommodated at any one time. However, the call for an injection of 4.6 million Reichsmark for new buildings met with staunch opposition from Reich minister of finance Count Schwerin von Krosigk, backed by Hermann Göring. Von Krosigk wanted to prevent the unchecked growth of the concentration camps. Every time they were extended, he warned, the police would fill them with more prisoners, and then demand further extensions, setting off an endless cycle of arrests. Instead of enlarging the KL system, he proposed the release of thousands of work-shy prisoners and others who posed no real threat to the state.314 Even in the late 1930s, leading Nazi figures still questioned the radical direction of Himmler’s terror apparatus and saw no need for bigger camps.


What, then, about the long-term impact of the SS assault on the “November Jews” on life inside the KL? In the history of the prewar camps, the weeks after the pogrom stand out as the most deadly by far, in terms of the total number of dead. This is not to say, however, that the Camp SS had suddenly moved to new extremes of violence, as historians have often suggested.315 Rather, the weeks after the pogrom marked a deadly peak in a much longer lethal spell, which began in summer 1938 and lasted until spring 1939, and which claimed many victims in addition to the Jewish men arrested after the pogrom.

As we have seen, the expansion of terror and the deterioration of conditions began several months prior to the pogrom, in summer 1938. Following the raids against the “work-shy,” prisoner mortality across the concentration camp system shot up, from a monthly average of around eighteen deaths between January and May 1938 to around 118 deaths between June and August 1938.316 The main victims were “asocial” men, with the Jews among them being the most vulnerable of all—sometimes even more vulnerable than the so-called November Jews who arrived months later.317As far as Jewish prisoners were concerned, at least, SS terror in the camps did not suddenly intensify after the pogrom. It had started to escalate before.

And the terror carried on for several months after the pogrom. From late 1938, inmates were at greater risk of death than before; on average, 323 prisoners perished each month between November 1938 and January 1939.318 Nearly half of them were Jews arrested after the pogrom. The remaining victims came from other prisoner groups, who were also hit by the rise in SS terror.319 This was especially true, once more, for so-called asocials.320 Crucially, mass mortality in the KL persisted well into spring 1939, long after the release of almost all so-called November Jews.321Despite a drop, the death rate initially remained extremely high; on average, 189 inmates lost their lives each month between February and April 1939. Almost two-thirds of the dead were “asocial” prisoners, for whom lethal SS repression continued almost unchanged into 1939.322

Only later that year did the KL death rate decline more markedly, at a fast pace. Soon, prisoner mortality had fallen well below the highs of the preceding months. During the summer of 1939, the last period of calm before the outbreak of the Second World War, an average of thirty-two prisoners died each month in the camps—far fewer even than in summer 1938, although overall prisoner numbers were almost identical.323 This serves as another reminder that the Nazi camps did not head straight into the abyss. Instead, just like the Soviet Gulag, periods of rising terror were followed by greater moderation. There were structural reasons for the turnaround in summer 1939: the weather was much better, prisoner quarters were less crammed, and other elements of the infrastructure improved, too, such as the water supply at Buchenwald. At the same time, the SS also pulled back from some of its most violent excesses.324

Inmates were grateful for the respite in summer 1939, after the horrors of the previous twelve months. “If we were not prisoners,” the Sachsenhausen camp elder Harry Naujoks wrote, “one could almost describe our life at the moment as peaceful.”325 Long-term prisoners like him were not deceived, however. They had seen enough of the KL to know that their course could change again at any moment, in a far more deadly direction.

One of these veteran prisoners was Ernst Heilmann, who had suffered all the pains of the camps, many times over. Back in summer 1933, as we have seen, he had been beaten and degraded as the “director of the crapper” in the early camp Oranienburg. Later, he was tortured in the Prussian “model” camp Börgermoor, where guards shot and wounded him during a suicide attempt. His abuse had continued after the coordination of the KL system in Sachsenhausen and Dachau, and from September 1938 in Buchenwald, the new central camp for Jews, where he was pressed into a transport detail, carrying heavy stones and earth. It was in Buchenwald that another prisoner, who had known Heilmann in his glory days as a leading Weimar politician, met him in one of the barracks reserved for Jewish inmates, sometime after the November pogrom. Heilmann was unrecognizable; his clothes were soiled and ripped, his face furrowed, his mustache cut off, his hands chapped, his back bent, his spirit broken. “He was no longer the human being Heilmann,” his acquaintance later wrote, “he was just the wreck Heilmann.” After they exchanged some news about mutual friends and politics, Heilmann told him about his torment at the hands of the guards. Asked about the future, Heilmann gave a stark reply: “There will be war. You Aryans will still have a chance, because they will need you. But we Jews will probably all be beaten to death.” This chilling prediction soon came true for Heilmann himself, who died in the early months of the Second World War, as the KL descended into terror on an unprecedented scale.326

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