On the morning of September 1, 1939, Adolf Hitler, wearing a simple gray military uniform, addressed the hastily convened Reichstag in Berlin. Unusually tense and nervous, Hitler announced to millions of Germans listening on the radio—among them KL prisoners lined up on roll call squares—that war with Poland had broken out. In his speech, Hitler played the victim. Germany was forced to act because of Polish provocations and border violations, he claimed, including no fewer than three serious incidents during the previous night. “Tonight,” Hitler announced, “Poland has for the first time fired on our territory with regular troops. Since 5:45 a.m., fire is being returned!”1 There had indeed been trouble on the German-Polish border in Upper Silesia. But it had all been stagedby the Nazis themselves: dramatic political theater—devised by Hitler and Himmler, directed by Heydrich, performed by special Nazi forces—to give an excuse, however flimsy, for German aggression. “The victor,” Hitler had bluntly told his military commanders a few days earlier, “will not be asked whether he told the truth or not.”2

The sinister plot had been prepared for some time, and on August 31, in anticipation of the imminent German attack, Heydrich gave the final go-ahead to his men in Upper Silesia. That evening, a covert commando stormed a radio station in the German border town of Gleiwitz. The men brandished pistols and announced over the airwaves that the station was in the hands of Polish freedom fighters; for effect, shots were fired in the background. Later that night, other Nazi special commandos staged the “Polish assaults” on German territory that Hitler later referred to in the Reichstag. The SS and policemen involved had trained for weeks at secret locations, even learning to sing Polish songs and growing beards and sideburns to look the part. The most elaborate mock attack came at Hochlinden, where one group, wearing Polish army uniforms and screaming in Polish, attacked and demolished the German border post, before another group, dressed as German guards, overpowered them.

To make this farce look more convincing, the conspirators decided that bodies of killed “insurgents” were needed. Looking for men who could be executed on cue, their eyes fell on KL prisoners. Sometime in mid-summer 1939, Heinrich Müller, who headed the central Gestapo department for domestic matters, arranged for top-secret transports of prisoners—or “supplies,” as he apparently called them—from Sachsenhausen, Flossenbürg, and other concentration camps to a police prison in Breslau, where they were placed in solitary confinement. On August 31, 1939, some of these prisoners were taken out of their cells. An SS doctor apparently drugged them, before their lifeless bodies, dressed in Polish uniforms, were driven to Hochlinden in black Mercedes limousines with drawn blinds. After the staged attack began, the bodies were dragged out, dumped at the border post, and shot. To obscure the identity of the dead, the killers smashed their faces with hammers and axes. Then they took photos of the slain at the scene, which were sent to Berlin as “proof” of the Polish attack. The following morning, as the actual German troops were advancing into Poland, the special commando hastily buried the prisoners’ corpses in the forest near Hochlinden.3

It could be said that the first victims of the Second World War were concentration camp inmates. Many more casualties would follow, and when the war finally ended, six years later, more than sixty million men, women, and children were dead, including more than 1.7 million KL victims.4Nazi leaders had long despised the prisoners, their savage mind-set summed up in spring 1938 by Joseph Goebbels, following a private conversation with Hitler and Himmler about the concentration camps. “There is only scum inside,” he noted in his diary. “It has to be annihilated—for the benefit and welfare of the people.”5 This was no empty talk. During World War II, mass death engulfed inmates in almost all the camps. And although the great majority of victims died during the second half of the war, the lethal turn of the KL system began early, in the years between 1939 and 1941.


War came,” Rudolf Höss wrote in early 1947, looking back on the Nazi invasion of Poland, “and with it the great turn in the life of the concentration camps.”6 Höss was right, at least up to a point. The prisoner population doubled in little more than a year, reaching around fifty-three thousand at the end of 1940, and it continued to rise. A year later, by early 1942, around eighty thousand men and women were locked up, many of them crammed into new concentration camps. Because just as inmate numbers grew, so did the KLsystem. In autumn 1939, the SS had controlled six main camps; by early 1942, it was thirteen.7 Considered in isolation, the expansion of the concentration camps might seem exceptional. But the KL system remained part of the wider Nazi web of terror, which also grew much denser during the early war years; existing sites flourished and new ones sprang up everywhere, with camps, jails, ghettos, prisons, and dungeons holding millions of men, women, and children. And yet, the war did not change everything; it did not revolutionize the Third Reich.8 As far as KL terror was concerned, there was no immediate break with the past. The SS remained in overall charge and saw no need to redraw the basic outlines. The ability of the concentration camp system to absorb change and to adapt, without losing its core mission, would prove to be one of its most terrifying strengths over the coming years.

Eicke’s Legacy

Hitler envisaged the war with Poland as more than an ordinary military campaign. His view of the Polish people as racial enemies—“subhuman” Slavs who had to be enslaved or destroyed—helped to make the Polish campaign the first of the Nazis’ racial wars.9This was Himmler’s moment. Since summer 1939, his deputy Reinhard Heydrich had overseen the formation of special SS and police task forces, primed to follow the army and fight against “anti-German elements.”10 After the invasion, these task forces wreaked havoc in Nazi-occupied Poland, targeting politicians, state officials, priests, and noblemen, as well as local Jews. Other troops went on a rampage, too, and by the end of 1939, after the German victory, tens of thousands of Polish civilians had been murdered, including at least seven thousand Jews.11

Among the fiercest killers in newly occupied Poland were Death’s Head SS troops, led by none other than Theodor Eicke. Eicke had long styled himself as a “political soldier” and now moved from the imaginary inner front of the camps to the real front line. During the invasion, he commanded three SS Death’s Head regiments, giving some of his orders from the safety of Hitler’s armored train. For weeks, his men laid waste to villages and cities, robbing, arresting, torturing, and murdering many of the locals. As a reward, the insatiable Eicke was entrusted with the formation of the SS Death’s Head division, which gradually developed its own organizational structure, separate from the KL, as Eicke’s move from the camps to the front became permanent. He was joined by thousands of SS sentries as well as several senior KL officials, who came to occupy almost all leading positions in the new division (some later returned to the Camp SS). Once more, Eicke drummed his core values—brutality, racism, ruthlessness—into his men, and they did him proud. The SS Death’s Head division was responsible for countless war crimes and became one of the most feared units during the Second World War.12

The SS men chosen for Eicke’s division initially assembled for training on a site many of them knew well—Dachau. Eicke had started his career there as commandant in 1933 and now returned, six years later, as a general. On November 4, 1939, Himmler himself came to check on Eicke’s progress, finding the whole complex much changed; to make room for the SS troops, Dachau had been cleared of almost all prisoners in late September 1939, with some 4,700 men transported to Mauthausen, Buchenwald, and Flossenbürg. The survivors returned after January 1940, once Eicke and his SS troops had left for another training ground.13

With Eicke gone, the Camp SS had lost the headmaster of its school of violence. But Eicke’s spirit remained; the essence of his teachings had entered the core of the Camp SS. Also, Eicke never fully severed his ties to the camp system, acting as its elder statesman. His family still lived in the SS settlement in Oranienburg, and whenever he was on leave, he was welcome at the nearby IKL office, where he was more than happy to share his thoughts with his successor as inspector of the concentration camps, Richard Glücks.14

A sturdy man in his early fifties—born on April 22, 1889, just two days after Hitler—Richard Glücks had spent most of his adult life in uniform. During the First World War, he mainly fought in France, participating in the battles of Verdun and the Somme. Following a brief interlude in a Freikorps after the German defeat, the decorated soldier served in the much-reduced German army, aiding its illegal rearmament. Glücks eventually lost his post in 1931, during the depression, and was briefly unemployed. He was already a member of the Nazi Party by then, having joined in March 1930, and in November 1932, he entered the SS: the professional soldier became a professional SS officer. Glücks quickly moved ahead and caught the eye of Theodor Eicke, who appointed him on April 1, 1936, as his chief of staff, the second most powerful position in the IKL. The querulous Eicke was difficult to please, but Glücks was a man after his taste. Efficient and energetic, he was devoted to his boss, a key quality for advancing in an organization built on personal connections and favoritism. Eicke duly secured Glücks an early promotion to Oberführer, and as his boss got increasingly bogged down in military schemes in the run-up to war, it was Glücks who took over much of the day-to-day management in the IKL, well before his appointment as inspector in October 1939. He would head the KL administration for more than five years, longer even than Eicke, right up to the collapse of Nazi Germany.

Ideological commitment Glücks had in abundance; but of charisma he had none, and he was always destined to remain in the shadow of his mentor, Eicke. Compared to the overbearing Eicke, who led from the front, Glücks appeared indecisive, a serious character flaw in SS circles. And while Eicke had sought the company of his men, Glücks was a more remote figure. The intense male world of SS camaraderie was not really for him. “I live very frugally, don’t drink, and have no passions,” he wrote in 1935. Some senior Camp SS members viewed him with suspicion because he had never served an apprenticeship inside a KL, complaining that he was just a desk-bound bureaucrat. His superiors were more positive, but even here Glücks could not emulate Eicke. Although he was directly subordinate to Himmler, the two men were never close and rarely met.15 Himmler had promoted Glücks not for his initiative or leadership skills, but because he stood for continuity, promising to consolidate his predecessor’s legacy.

The same message was sent by the appointment of Arthur Liebehenschel as Glücks’s second-in-command. More than ten years Glücks’s junior, he had also been a career soldier, leaving the German army after twelve years in late 1931 as an NCO. Just a few months later, he enlisted in the SS, and in summer 1934 he joined the Camp SS, which he served for almost all of the Third Reich. As adjutant in Lichtenburg, Liebehenschel gained hands-on experience and then moved to the IKL in summer 1937. Here, he headed the political department and worked closely with Glücks, who valued his managerial skills. Some of his other colleagues, by contrast, saw Liebehenschel as a weak figure, describing him as “sensitive,” “quiet,” and “kind”—damning words in the martial world of the Camp SS. Rudolf Höss, his former neighbor in the genteel SS settlement in Sachsenhausen, where their children had sometimes played together, pictured him as a man “who could not even hurt a fly.” In reality, Liebehenschel was deeply implicated in the increasingly murderous IKL policies, and he later got a chance to prove himself as commandant of Auschwitz.16

In the early war years, then, the camp administration was headed by two old hands, Glücks and Liebehenschel, who had learned their trade under Eicke. Continuity was the watchword in the individual camps, too, at least inside the Commandant Staffs, where key positions, from senior officers down to block leaders, were largely held by Camp SS veterans. Most of the eleven men promoted by Glücks to camp commandant between 1939 and 1942, for example, had previously held senior KL positions, and they, too, had internalized Eicke’s values.17 Take Martin Weiss, appointed in April 1940 as commandant of the new SS camp Neuengamme. Weiss was a first-generation member of the Camp SS, having started his career in April 1933, aged twenty-seven, as a sentry in Dachau. He later moved to the Commandant Staff, and by 1938 had risen to adjutant. An electrical engineer, Weiss was better educated than most of his comrades, but like them, he had frequented radical nationalist circles in the Weimar years and had been active early on in the nascent Nazi movement. Weiss was part of the new breed of technocrats of terror, graduates of Eicke’s school who came to the fore during the Second World War. Above all else, Weiss saw himself as a professional: just as other people became army or police officers, he had become a camp commandant, and he was so proud that he used his job title even on his private notepaper.18 In the daily running of their KL, commandants like Weiss needed little prompting from above. Inspector Glücks was not looking for administrators but for men of action who knew the rules of the game, and he was generally happy to let them get on with it. According to Rudolf Höss, Glücks often dismissed questions from commandants: “You all know much better than me what’s going on.”19

And yet, the early war-time commandants were never autonomous, despite their considerable might. Glücks and his IKL managers were in constant contact with individual camps, ruling on requests and issuing instructions about labor, punishment, transfers, promotions, discipline, and much else besides; the IKL also updated Eicke’s old camp regulations.20 Some commandants grumbled about “unrealistic” directives sent by Oranienburg pencil pushers.21 But although they could sidestep some central rules, local camp officials implemented most orders. They also sent a stream of statistics to the IKL, including daily updates on inmate numbers and categories, and monthly figures of fatalities and causes of prisoner deaths.22 Of course, the managers at the IKL gained no complete picture from this data, thanks not least to cover-ups by individual commandants. “What the camps really looked like,” Rudolf Höss cautioned, “could not be seen from the correspondence and the files.”23 But the IKL officials had more than reports to go on. They inspected camps and called local officials for regular meetings to Oranienburg, keeping up the informal contacts so important in the Camp SS.24 Overall, then, the IKL kept a watchful eye on its camps.

Other agencies and individuals interfered with the concentration camps, too. The police continued to hold great sway; in charge of arrests and releases, it regulated the prisoner flow to and from the KL system, and involved itself in many internal matters.25 Other branches of the SS were shaping the camps as well, none more so than Oswald Pohl’s buoyant business and administration empire. Finally, some of the most critical choices were still made at the top of the Nazi state. The personal power of Heinrich Himmler grew enormously during the war; among all the pretenders to Hitler’s throne, it was Himmler who gained the most, outflanking more senior rivals. And despite his increasingly hectic schedule, he retained an intense interest in the KL, his own creation. Himmler continued to involve himself on all levels, from trivial minutiae to pivotal decisions, sometimes bypassing the police and the Inspectorate altogether.26 In fact, SS officials could barely keep him away; in 1940 alone, his itinerary included at least nine trips to KL and associated sites.27 The camps were still very much Himmler’s camps.

Changing the Guards

While there was much continuity at the top of the Camp SS, the situation was different further below. After the invasion of Poland, a large number of sentries, who had long trained for military duties, departed. In all, an estimated 6,500 to 7,000 Camp SS men joined the SS Death’s Head division in autumn 1939.28 The gaps were filled with new recruits, who were quickly trained and deployed, generally as sentries in the Guard Troop.29 Camp SS veterans passed on the basics. Shortly before he left to take up his militarycommand, Theodor Eicke assembled SS men in charge of training in Sachsenhausen. They had to teach the novices to treat prisoners with absolute severity, Eicke ordered, as all foes and saboteurs had to be exterminated.30 SS publications reminded new recruits of their duties, too, rehashing the old story of guards performing a soldier’s job.31 The fictional parity with the combat troops was upheld in other ways, as Camp SS men were soon subsumed under the large umbrella of the Waffen SS (Armed SS), which included all the militarized sections of the SS.32

The longer the war lasted, the more diverse the Camp SS became. This trend was set already in autumn 1939. The replacements arriving in the KL were far older than Eicke’s “bright-eyed” youngsters had been. Many were in their forties or fifties, judged unfit for frontline duties and drafted from the regular SS.33 The Buchenwald prisoner Walter Poller remembered most of these recruits as “elderly SS men with minor physical ailments.”34 It was not just their appearance that counteracted SS ideals. Many of the new men were markedly less enthusiastic than the prewar volunteers had been. And although some had previously received basic training as sentries, or had gained military experience during the First World War, they were frequently lambasted for their incompetence by Camp SS veterans.35 A few newcomers even committed the sin of showing a human face to prisoners. Having lived through the German Empire and the Weimar Republic, they had retained some sense of right and wrong, and were not cut out for the KL.36 In Dachau, for example, an older SS man on sentry duty confessed to prisoners that he was disgusted by his job and did not want to shoot at “helpless and desperate people.”37

The new recruits were pushed hard to fall into line. Camp Inspector Glücks signed a thundering directive in early 1940, threatening anyone guilty of “sentimental humanitarianism” with severe consequences; newcomers had to handle all prisoners as “enemies of the state of the worst kind.”38More reminders kept on coming.39 Such interventions probably had some effect, as did the passage of time; what had first seemed unbearable to some novices quickly became acceptable. Many new guards soaked up the spirit of the Camp SS and became inured to the violence, just as members of Nazi killing squads in occupied Europe found that their bloody task became easier over time.40 In a private letter soon after his arrival in Flossenbürg, one new recruit expressed his “pride” in protecting the German public from all the “bums and public enemies” inside the KL.41

Camp commandants piled added pressure on their men, old and new. The most domineering figure in the early war years was the Buchenwald commandant Karl Otto Koch, as the following directives from autumn and winter 1939 demonstrate. Again and again, Koch blasted his men for being lazy, stupid, and useless. Prisoners were not worked hard enough, he ranted: building sites were dirty, output “pretty much zero,” and discipline “rotten.”42 It was no better inside the prisoner barracks, thanks to “indifferent” SS block leaders, who were practically “asleep.”43 His men showed no initiative, Koch railed, leaving everything to him. “It won’t be long,” he sneered in October 1939, “before I will have to make sure that everyone wipes their own asses.”44 Worst of all, some SS men colluded with inmates. Rather than punish or shoot prisoners who foraged for food in the camp’s no-go zone, guards had asked the prisoners to fetch some vegetables for them, too. “Truly a charming way,” Koch remarked acidly, “to fraternize and cooperate with criminals.”45

Punishment was never far from Commandant Koch’s mind. His main targets were prisoners, of course.46 But the failings of SS men called for strict sanctions, too, like special drill exercises.47 Koch habitually spied on his men through SS confidants, and in late November 1939, he took the drastic step of grounding all block leaders for two weeks; even married SS men who lived outside the camp complex were forbidden to leave.48 The final punishment for miscreant SS men, Koch said more than once, would be their own detention in the KL: “He who gets involved with prisoners will be treated like a prisoner.”49 Other Camp SS officers made similar threats and occasionally followed through; in Sachsenhausen, an SS man was publicly whipped because he had been bribed (by prisoner relatives) to treat some inmates better.50

Koch’s tirades infuriated many Buchenwald SS men. To them, Koch’s posing as a paragon of propriety must have smacked of grand hypocrisy, for the commandant was corrupt to the core. Not for him the small-scale scams of most SS men; as greedy as he was brutal, Koch had bigger ambitions. He had already demonstrated his ruthlessness after the 1938 pogrom, when he systematically robbed imprisoned Jews, and he became ever more brazen during the war, squirreling away tens of thousands of Reichsmark in secret bank accounts and hoarding gold ripped from the mouths of prisoners. He spent his loot on food and drink and on his mistresses in Weimar; he also bought himself a motorboat and extended his lavish villa. Koch lived like an SS king. His greatest extravagance was the massive indoor riding hall, complete with mirrors, which he had commissioned in February 1940 for himself and his wife, who often took her turns in the morning, accompanied by music from the camp orchestra. The prisoners paid for her pleasure with their lives; dozens had died during the breakneck construction of the riding hall, which stood near the prisoner canteen.

Eventually, Koch’s crimes caught up with him. He had alienated too many SS men inside the camp and outside, including the regional higher SS and police leader, who ordered Koch’s arrest in late 1941 (he was succeeded as Buchenwald commandant by Hermann Pister, who had previously run the small SS special camp Hinzert). But Koch was not finished yet. As a key member of the Camp SS, and a protégé of Eicke’s, he still had powerful friends, and following an intervention from Himmler, Koch was swiftly released.51 On probation, he was sent in January 1942 to one of the new camps in Nazi-occupied Poland. Luckily for Koch, the camp system was expanding quickly during the war, affording him another opportunity for violence, theft, and abuse.52

New Prisoners

Adolf Hitler always saw the Second World War as a conflict fought on two fronts. On the battlefield, he believed, Germany waged a life-and-death struggle for survival. But there was another war going on, at the home front, where Germany had to face down its remaining internal enemies. Hitler had been obsessed with the home front ever since the defeat of 1918, which he (like many Germans) blamed on the collapse of civilian morale and the “stab in the back” by Jews, Communists, Social Democrats, criminals, and others.53 Lessons had been learned, Hitler swore in the Reichstag as he announced the attack on Poland: “A November 1918 will never be repeated in German history!” This was a rallying cry he would return to again and again during the Second World War.54

Policing the home front was Himmler’s domain. His terror apparatus was consolidated on September 27, 1939, when the security police and the SD merged into the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA), led by Heydrich. The RSHA became the center of Nazi repression. Over the coming years, all the most radical measures were coordinated in the RSHA, a new type of Nazi institution without limits and restraint, run by young, ambitious, and educated fanatics.55

The police swung into action at the start of the war, pulling many more Germans into the KL. Using up-to-date databases of potential “enemies of the state,” Gestapo raids caught several thousand political suspects, mainly former activists from the KPD and SPD.56 Some were veterans of the prewar KL and now returned to the place they feared the most.57 The criminal police, meanwhile, wanted to use the cover of war to cleanse Germany of deviants. In autumn 1939, its targets included the “work-shy,” “Gypsies without fixed residence,” and “criminal psychopaths,” as well as homosexual men and female prostitutes.58 As a result, the number of social outsiders in concentration camps gradually increased once more; by the end of 1940, there were over thirteen thousand prisoners in preventive police custody, slightly more than two years earlier.59 German Jews were on the police radar, too. As early as September 7, 1939, the criminal police ordered that former Jewish camp inmates should be rearrested if they had made no real effort to leave the country—never mind the fact that escaping Germany was fast becoming impossible. Jews working “productively” were supposed to be exempt from imprisonment, as were elderly and ill Jews, at least for now.60

This detention of German Jews, political opponents, and social outsiders could build on prewar practices. What was new, during the war, were mass arrests of foreign nationals. As Nazi Germany staked its claim on Europe—following the conquest of Poland in 1939, Denmark was occupied in April 1940, Holland and Belgium capitulated in May, and France and Norway followed in June—more and more people from abroad were dragged to the KL. At the beginning of the Third Reich, the camps had been conceived as weapons against Germans; a decade later, they threatened the people of Europe.

Foreigners began to arrive in larger numbers in concentration camps from autumn 1939. Among the first were further Czech nationals. At the start of the war, the Nazi occupation authorities arrested hundreds of politicians and officials as “hostages” to deter resistance. But the Czech population was not cowed, resulting in large demonstrations at universities in Prague and elsewhere. The Nazi authorities quickly crushed these protests, apparently on Hitler’s orders, and forced more prisoners into the KL.61 The largest transport, with some 1,200 Czechs, arrived in November 1939 in Sachsenhausen. Among them was Jiri Volf, arrested with fellow students in his hall of residence, who later recalled the SS reception: “We were immediately beaten with truncheons, so that I lost four teeth.”62

Other foreign political prisoners, such as those who had been on the side of the doomed Republic during the Spanish Civil War, fared even worse. Many left-wing veterans had fled Spain after Franco’s victory and sought refuge in France, together with their families. It was here, often fighting for the French army, that they fell into Nazi hands. Reinhard Heydrich ordered that they should normally be taken to the KL, with Mauthausen, the most punitive camp at the time, set as the main destination. The first prisoners arrived on August 6, 1940, and within a year, more than six thousand men had been taken to the camp. Some were Germans and Austrians who had fought in the international brigades, but the great majority of the “Red Spaniards,” as the Nazis called them, were Spanish.63

Despite the arrests across Nazi-controlled Europe, the KL did not become truly international overnight; in all, foreign prisoners still made up a rather small group until summer 1941. There was just one exception—Polish prisoners. The Nazi invasion of Poland was accompanied by extreme violence, as we have seen. The German forces started as they meant to go on, and over the coming months a brutal occupation regime was set up, aimed at the destruction of the Polish nation, the plunder of its economic resources, and the enslavement of its people. One radical project was the ethnic cleansing of the western Polish territory, which was incorporated into the Reich; by the end of 1940, more than three hundred thousand Poles had been deported from here to the so-called General Government, the eastern part of Nazi-controlled Poland, under German civilian administration (headed by Hans Frank).64 At the same time, the occupation of Poland also radicalized Nazi anti-Jewish policy.65

Terror was ever-present in German-controlled Poland. Mass arrests had been in the cards well before the invasion; in late August 1939, Reinhard Heydrich envisaged that his task forces would take some thirty thousand people to the KL, far more than the entire camp population at the time.66The first Polish prisoners duly arrived in autumn 1939, among them resistance fighters and members of the intelligentsia, including 168 academics from Krakow University.67 But the number of prisoners from the newly occupied Polish territory initially remained much smaller than the SS had anticipated.

Far more Poles were detained inside the old German borders in autumn 1939; above all, police leaders wanted to remove Polish Jews, sanctioning the arrest of men who had often lived in Germany or Austria for decades.68 Police terror against Poles inside the German heartland expanded further during the following year, after the mass influx of civilian workers. The Nazi regime was determined to place most of the war’s burden on other shoulders and increasingly exploited foreign workers. In the early war years, most of them were Poles. Some came voluntarily, deceived by Nazi promises of a rosy life, while many more were dragged westward by force. Conditions were poor and discipline harsh, and the police were never far away. Prejudice and paranoia were ingrained in the minds of the policemen, who saw Polish foreign workers as potential thieves, saboteurs, and rapists. Infractions of the strict rules—written and unwritten—were severely punished, not least with transfer to the concentration camps.69

Mass arrests in occupied Poland were stepped up, too, and in line with Himmler’s wishes, countless prisoner transports set off for the KL from spring 1940. Often, the Gestapo offered no more than a stereotypical phrase to justify their detention, such as: “Belongs to the Polish intelligentsia and harbors the spirit of resistance.” In Dachau alone, 13,337 Polish men arrived between March and December 1940, mostly from the incorporated Polish territories; among them were hundreds of Polish priests, after Dachau was designated as the central concentration camp for arrested clergymen.70

In some of the older KL for men, the number of Polish prisoners soon began to rival that of German inmates.71 The Ravensbrück women’s camp was affected, too; in April 1940, more than seventy percent of all new arrivals were Polish. As they watched Ravensbrück fill up with even more Polish women over the coming months, other prisoners began to wonder whether Hitler had decided “to wipe out the Polish people altogether.”72

Extending the KL System

Heinrich Himmler had never expected his camp system to stay still. Speaking candidly in November 1938, he told the top brass of the SS that during a war “we won’t be able to make do” with the existing concentration camps. He was worried about another so-called stab in the back, no doubt, and his prescription was clear: more people would be arrested, more space would be required.73 Himmler’s vision soon came true, though even he did not foresee what would become of his terror apparatus—a sprawling, squalid maze of hundreds of camps.

This apocalyptic final stage was still some years off. Nonetheless, the wide-ranging arrests after the outbreak of war quickly led to overcrowding; by late 1939, the KL population had already risen to around thirty thousand prisoners, and SS leaders cast around for more camps.74 It was around this time that Heinrich Himmler ordered a survey of provisional prisoner camps set up since the start of the war. Primarily, he wanted to stop regional Nazi officials from running their own private camps, as they had done in 1933. “Concentration camps can only be established with my authorization,” he insisted in December 1939. But Himmler was also thinking about adding one of these provisional sites to his official KL portfolio.75

Several of his lieutenants, including Camp Inspector Glücks, championed a new KL “for the East,” to hold down the Polish population.76 After much deliberation, the SS settled on a site in the provincial Polish border town Oświęcim, southeast of Katowice (Kattowitz). Oświęcim, part of the Habsburg Empire until 1918, had been occupied in the first days of the Second World War, and incorporated into the German Reich in late October 1939, together with the rest of east Upper Silesia. Even before then, the occupiers had taken the symbolic step of renaming the town, reverting to its old German name—Auschwitz.77

The origins of the Auschwitz camp go back to the First World War, when a temporary settlement for seasonal workers en route to Germany had been set up just outside the town. Most of the grounds, containing brick houses and wooden barracks, were later used by the Polish army, before being taken over by the Wehrmacht in September 1939 as a POW camp. But it was quickly closed down again and by the end of the year the site was almost empty, if only for a short time.78 In the early months of 1940, SS experts repeatedly inspected the location, weighing up the pros and cons of its use as a KL. In their eyes, it was not perfect; the buildings were run down and the groundwater of poor quality. Worst of all, two rivers, the Soła and Vistula, met nearby, creating a flood-risk area infested with insects. At the same time, the SS noted several advantages. The site was already established, lay close to a railway hub, and could easily be shielded from prying eyes. In the end, these arguments won the day, and in April 1940, work on the grounds began.79 Faced with new demands in wartime, the Camp SS was willing to improvise; contrary to its recent policy of purpose-building new camps, it returned to the old practice of converting existing structures.

Auschwitz officially operated from June 14, 1940, when the first mass transport of Polish inmates arrived: 728 men from Tarnów prison near Krakow, across the border in the General Government. Most of them were young men, including students and soldiers, accused of a wide range of anti-German activities.80 On arrival, they were assaulted by SS men and by some of the thirty German Kapos who had come from Sachsenhausen more than three weeks earlier. Soon, the shirts and jackets of the Polish prisoners were covered in sweat and blood. One of them was twenty-one-year-old Wiesław Kielar, who received inmate number 290. Once he and his fellow prisoners had lined up on the roll call square, they were addressed by the new camp compound leader, Hauptsturmführer Karl Fritzsch, previously stationed at Dachau and one of around 120 SS men in Auschwitz, who told them that this was not a sanatorium but a German concentration camp. “We were soon to experience,” Kielar wrote later, “what that meant, a concentration camp!”81

The Auschwitz commandant was another old hand of the Camp SS. Rudolf Höss was officially appointed (by Himmler) on May 4, 1940, having just returned from an inspection of the site. As commandant, the tireless Höss was eager to apply what he had learned in Dachau and Sachsenhausen. For over a million prisoners, Auschwitz was death. For Höss, it was his life. When he arrived, he envisaged a new model camp, with himself at the helm. But the dilapidated place he took over was far removed from his dreams. There was not enough wood or bricks during the initial construction, and Höss could not even put up a fence around his camp: “So I had to steal the urgently needed pieces of barbed wire.”82

Auschwitz remained a wasteland, as even the SS acknowledged, though this did not stop its rapid expansion into one of the largest KL.83 At the end of 1940, just half a year after it opened, nearly 7,900 prisoners had been transported to Auschwitz, where they were held in one-story and two-story brick buildings on the former army barrack grounds.84 Many more arrived over the following year, as the grounds were extended. By early 1942, Auschwitz had become the largest concentration camp of all (except for Mauthausen), with nearly twelve thousand men locked up inside. More than three-quarters of these men were Poles, as the camp’s main purpose remained the battle against the conquered population.85 Today Auschwitz is synonymous with the Holocaust, but it was built to impose German rule over Poland.86

In addition to Auschwitz, the SS established four other KL for men between spring 1940 and late summer 1941.87 The first was Neuengamme, close to Hamburg. Previously a satellite camp of Sachsenhausen, it was now turned into a main camp, a few months after an inspection by Himmler in January 1940. The SS transferred more prisoners from Sachsenhausen, who had to build the new main camp, working for up to sixteen hours a day in frost and rain. One inmate recalled that, early on, the ground had been completely frozen: “We had to dig the foundation for the barracks. The pickaxes were heavier than we were.” On June 4, 1940, survivors and recent arrivals were finally relocated to the new compound, which was far from ready; around eight hundred prisoners were crammed into three half-finished barracks. Nonetheless, the camp grew quickly; at the end of 1941, Neuengamme held 4,500 to 4,800 prisoners.88

Gross-Rosen, another of the new main camps, had started out as a satellite camp, too. Situated in Lower Silesia, on a hill near the town of Striegau, it had operated as an outpost of Sachsenhausen since early August 1940, when the first prisoners were taken to two provisional barracks surrounded by a fence. Himmler himself visited in late October 1940, and in the following spring, on May 1, 1941, Gross-Rosen was designated as a main camp. At first, it remained rather small, however, as there were no funds for its enlargement, and by October 1, 1941, no more than 1,185 prisoners were held inside.89 Its moment as a place of mass detention and death was still to come.

At the same time as Gross-Rosen, another main camp was founded—Natzweiler, in idyllic surroundings on a steep hill in the Vosges Mountains in Alsace. It also started out as a small camp, with the first three hundred prisoners arriving toward the end of May 1941. As in the other new camps, the SS was forced to improvise during the construction phase. At the outset, inmates were held on a temporary site, while the SS administration was housed in a hotel in the nearby village of Struthof.90 And just as in Gross-Rosen, the camp grew more slowly than the SS had anticipated; the initial target figure of 2,500 prisoners was only approached at the end of 1943.91

The final new SS concentration camp, located near Paderborn in Westphalia, was Himmler’s private folly. Devoted to mysticism, he wanted to create a spiritual home for the SS. He selected the renaissance castle Wewelsburg in Niederhagen, and from 1934 turned it into an enormous SS shrine. In May 1939, during a time of severe labor shortages in Germany, Himmler drafted KL prisoners to help with his pet project. Initially, they were held in a small labor camp on a hill opposite the castle, run as a satellite camp of Sachsenhausen, but on September 1, 1941, Himmler turned it into a main camp, called Niederhagen. On paper, it was a regular SS concentration camp. Given its specific focus, however, it remained the smallest of all the main camps, holding no more than around six hundred prisoners in early 1942. And yet, it was no less lethal than other KL. Some prisoners died in quarries, others during the construction of the “crypt” (presumably designed for worshipping SS leaders) under the northern tower of the castle. In the end, Himmler’s eerie plan was never fully realized. In early 1943, as Germany diverted more and more resources to total war, even he could not justify the project anymore. The surviving prisoners were transferred elsewhere and the main camp closed down on April 30, 1943; in all, Niederhagen had existed for less than two years.92

Despite its hurried expansion during the early war years, the KL system did not fragment. Before long, life inside the new camps largely resembled life in the old ones. There were structural reasons for this: all camps received orders and directives from the IKL and RSHA. And there were personal links, too. In all the five new camps, the first Kapos had arrived from Sachsenhausen, the springboard for the expansion of the KL system, and they quickly fitted into the routines they knew so well.93 Many of their SS masters, too, had breathed the air of the camps for years. Among the new commandants were ambitious young officers like Höss. SS leaders also gave another chance to veterans judged to have failed elsewhere, as in the case of Karl Koch. Another beneficiary was the first Gross-Rosen commandant, Arthur Rödl, who had previously held senior positions in Lichtenburg, Sachsenburg, and Buchenwald. Wherever he went, Rödl had offended his superiors; he was incompetent and barely literate, they complained, and had been promoted way above his station. Even Theodor Eicke regarded him as an embarrassment, but had been unable to get rid of him; as a highly decorated stalwart of the Nazi movement who had participated in the 1923 putsch, Rödl could count on Himmler’s protection. His promotion to Gross-Rosen commandant in 1941 would be his final opportunity to prove his worth in the Camp SS.94

The new camps contributed to the spread of wartime terror. As we have seen, Auschwitz was designed to combat dissent and opposition among the Polish population. And three of the other new KL—Neuengamme, Gross-Rosen, and Natzweiler—had a political function, too. All three were located close to the German border and helped to subjugate occupied peoples. Neuengamme was situated near Denmark and Holland and grew into the most important camp in northwestern Germany; Natzweiler lay in territory recently annexed from France; Gross-Rosen lay in eastern Germany, between incorporated Poland and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and already at the beginning some forty percent of its prisoners were Polish and Czech.95 And yet, the early wartime expansion of the KL system was not about terror alone. It was also about forced labor, with SS economic ambitions growing fast as the German army went from strength to strength.

Bricks and Stones

Following the crushing victory over France, Adolf Hitler fulfilled an old dream: he embarked on a brief tour of the country he had fought against more than two decades earlier, returning as the avenger of the traumatic German defeat of 1918. The highlight of his trip came on the morning of June 28, 1940, when his Mercedes motorcade entered Paris. The French capital glowed in the early summer sun as Hitler surveyed his new possessions, ticking off the tourist itinerary. He played the guide during his tour, impressing his entourage with details about history, art, and architecture he had gleaned from books. One of the sycophantic hangers-on was Albert Speer, who had been invited to share in his mentor’s triumph.

Returning to his temporary headquarters that night, a euphoric Hitler ordered Speer to intensify the monumental plans for rebuilding Berlin and the other so-called Führer Cities (Hamburg, Linz, Munich, and Nuremberg), which had been put on hold after the war broke out. Hitler called it the “most important building project of the Reich,” lasting a full ten years. But why restrict himself to just a few cities? Germany would dominate Europe for centuries, Hitler believed, and needed to show a proud face to the world. By early 1941, he had designated more than twenty German cities to be remodeled, fantasizing about new streets and squares, theaters and towers.96

The SS was just as eager as Speer to make Hitler’s wishes come true, and its cooperation with Speer’s office, inaugurated before the war, became closer than ever. Speer needed building materials, and the SS pledged to deliver through its company DESt. Speer was more than happy to bankroll it, and by mid-1941 he had made at least twelve million Reichsmark available to DESt, which grew into a midsize company.97 The main burden of the work would be borne by KL inmates. In September 1940, in a speech to SS officers, Himmler stressed that it was essential for prisoners to “break stones and burn stones” for the Führer’s great buildings.98

The entire SS economy was expanding, not just DESt, and the early years of the war saw its greatest period of growth.99 It was still overseen by Oswald Pohl, who promoted several skilled managers to the top, more determined than ever to turn his ramshackle outfit into a professional operation.100 Not all the businesses relied on forced labor, at least not early on. Still, the exploitation of prisoners was the backbone of the SS economy, and because private industry was not yet showing any real interest, the SS had a more or less free hand over its inmates.101

Forced prisoner labor bolstered the growth of the German Equipment Works (DAW), an SS enterprise that incorporated many of the camp workshops and produced a range of goods, from bread to furniture. Set up in May 1939, DAW came into its own during thewar. By summer 1940, the workshops in Dachau, Sachsenhausen, and Buchenwald had been swallowed up, and by early 1941, some 1,220 prisoners worked for DAW in these three camps; numbers were set to rise sharply over the next years, as DAW expanded into the largest of all SS-run companies.102 Another major SS operation was the grandly titled German Experimental Institution for Nutrition and Provision (DVA). Founded in January 1939, it grew quickly during the war, too, spearheaded by the gardening and herb cultivation on the Dachau plantation, which became one of the largest work details inside the camp; in May 1940, some one thousand Dachau prisoners toiled here every day.103 The SS authorities had even bigger plans for agricultural production in Auschwitz (largely independent from DVA), keenly watched by Heinrich Himmler, who expected major breakthroughs for the German settlement of the east.104

Himmler’s attention was soon diverted by an even more ambitious project in Auschwitz, a pioneering collaboration between the SS and private industry. In early 1941, the chemical giant IG Farben decided to build a vast factory by the Polish village of Dwory, a couple of miles from Auschwitz town. The company was primarily attracted by nearby natural resources and good transport links, though it also welcomed the availability of forced laborers from the local KL (at a rate of three or four Reichsmark per prisoner per day). Himmler jumped at the chance of cooperating with industry, hoping to advance the economic standing and expertise of the SS. After his first visit to Auschwitz on March 1, 1941, accompanied by Richard Glücks, he ordered the extension of the main camp, partly to provide more workers for IG Farben. Soon after, in mid-April of 1941, the first prisoner commando commenced work on the new IG Farben construction site, helping to erect the foundations for a vast factory complex aimed at the production of synthetic fuel and rubber. By early August 1941, more than eight hundred Auschwitz prisoners worked on the site, under terrible conditions, with numbers rising further in the autumn.105

Enthusiastic as Himmler was about the budding chemical plant in Auschwitz, his main focus in the early war years was still on bricks and stones. In 1940, some six to seven thousand KL prisoners worked in six different DESt businesses daily; demonstrating his priorities, Himmler personally inspected all six sites in 1940–41.106 Building materials had been very much on the mind of Himmler and his SS managers as they established their new concentration camps. Neuengamme was all about bricks from the start. It had been set up as a satellite camp in December 1938 on the grounds of a disused brick factory, recently purchased by DESt, though the work did not really get off the ground before the war. Production was pushed ahead when Neuengamme became a main camp, and gained further momentum after the German victory over France; bricks were needed urgently, especially for buildings in nearby Hamburg.107

In Gross-Rosen and Natzweiler, the eyes of SS officers were drawn to granite, not brick. In Gross-Rosen, it was black-and-white granite that attracted their attention; DESt bought the quarrying works in May 1940, and the later decision to make Gross-Rosen a main camp was partially influenced by the expectation that this would increase output. In Natzweiler, too, the exploitation of KL prisoners in quarrying was part of SS plans from early on. The DESt work there was established after Himmler inspected the local quarry on September 6, 1940; apparently, Albert Speer had spotted some rare red granite that was perfect for the new German Stadium in Nuremberg.108

Existing concentration camps were also affected by the SS building boom, with extra workshops, machines, and prisoners boosting DESt production. On Speer’s initiative, stone-processing works were set up from late summer 1940 in Oranienburg. Nearby, other prisoners from Sachsenhausen were still rebuilding the failed Oranienburg brick works. Himmler kept a close watch on progress, just as he did elsewhere; having promised massive deliveries of bricks to Speer, he inspected the troubled Oranienburg factory twice in 1940–41. In Flossenbürg, meanwhile, the SS developed an additional quarry from April 1941, following the example of Mauthausen. Here, quarrying had expanded for some time, especially after the creation of a new subcamp in Gusen, a couple of miles west of Mauthausen (officially operational from May 25, 1940). As a result, Mauthausen remained the largest of all the SS granite works, deploying an average of almost 3,600 prisoners across its three main quarries in July 1940.109

The SS looked to prisoners to boost its output and DESt managers even championed the training of KL inmates as stonemasons. Following a meeting with commandants in Oranienburg on September 6, 1940, it was announced that the participating prisoners would be offered privileges such as money, fruit, and separate quarters. In addition, prisoners were to be lured by the prospect of freedom; if they did well, they had the “best prospects” of being freed before long.110 But these were empty promises. In practice, most bonuses were limited to cigarettes and extra rations. Moreover, hardly any prisoners benefited; by early 1941, fewer than six hundred inmates were training as stonemasons in the different KL.111 Nonetheless, the SS initiative was a sign of things to come. True, this was not the first time the Camp SS had offered rewards. But in the past such benefits were largely restricted to Kapos responsible for order and discipline. During the war, in recognition of the growing importance of forced labor, the SS was prepared to extend preferential treatment to some productive prisoners.

The overall balance sheet of the SS economy in the early war years was mixed. State subsidies and cash infusions by Speer were always welcome, and the SS also gained from corporate scams.112 Turning more closely to the flagship company DESt, its quarries, heavily reliant on manual work, proved profitable. Above all, DESt benefited from the extremely cheap labor, since SS businesses paid the state no more than a nominal 0.30 Reichsmark per prisoner per day. It was cut-rate forced labor that made the SS quarries lucrative.113 Despite this competitive edge, other DESt enterprises filed losses. In particular, the SS continued to struggle with more complex technologies, with the calamitous brick works in Oranienburg posting bigger losses than ever.114

Looking at Germany as a whole, the early wartime SS ventures remained insignificant. To be sure, they provided some materials for Hitler’s megalomaniac building plans. But DESt, like the whole SS economy, never delivered what it promised: production lagged behind targets, prisoners achieved only a fraction of the output of free laborers, and the quality of the stones remained inferior.115 By the summer of 1941, the SS was no closer to being a significant economic player than it was at the start of the war. While the economic turn of the SS had a negligible effect on the German economy, its impact on life behind barbed wire was dramatic, bringing more death and destruction than ever to KL construction sites and quarries.


“[If] I could enclose all the evil of our time in one image,” Primo Levi wrote in his memoir of Auschwitz, “I would choose this image which is familiar to me: an emaciated man, with head dropped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of thought is to be seen.” Such prisoners were still moving, but they were no longer alive, Levi added, “the divine spark dead within them.” Before long “nothing will remain of them but a handful of ashes in some nearby field.” Levi called these doomed prisoners, who died without anyone remembering them, the “drowned.”116 In the wartime KL, such men and women had been known by other names, such as “cripple,” “derelict,” or, with heavy sarcasm, “jewel.” Most common of all was a term used in Auschwitz and several other concentration camps—Muselmänner (sometimes Muselweiber for women).117

The Muselmänner (Muslims) were the living dead. Exhausted, apathetic, and starved, they had lost everything. Their bodies were no more than bones and dry skin covered in sores and scabs. They could barely walk, think, or talk, and stared ahead with a hollow, blank gaze. Other prisoners dreaded them as a harbinger of their own fate, for it did not take much—a cold, a beating, a sore foot—to set a prisoner on the road to perdition. The yearning for food, which still animated the Muselmann early on, was the last sign of life to be extinguished. Some died while eating, their fingers gripping a last piece of bread.118 Life had lost its meaning for the Muselmann, and so did the camp’s survival strategies. Exercise, washing, mending, barter, and keeping a low profile—none of this was possible anymore. How could he follow orders he no longer heard? How could he obey rules he no longer understood? How could he march when his feet no longer supported him?

In the years after liberation, the Muselmann has come to embody the horror of Nazi concentration camps, a harrowing and heartbreaking figure closely associated with the Holocaust and the final stages of the KL system.119 However, the doomed prisoners had actually appeared much earlier. From autumn 1939, conditions in the camps deteriorated to such an extent that thousands of prisoners joined the ranks of the dying. It was the early wartime period that gave birth to the Muselmann.

Hunger and Disease

The last thing new prisoners expected to see in concentration camps, after the brutal SS “welcome,” was flower beds. But during spring and summer, blooming flowers and well-tended lawns were everywhere, outside the barracks, around SS buildings, and alongside the main paths. In the early war years, the Camp SS still insisted on decorum and order, cladding the camps in a thin veneer of normality, both for themselves and for visitors. “Sometimes when I was thinking about the loving care the Gestapo henchmen lavished on these flower beds,” a prisoner who had come to Sachsenhausen in autumn 1939 recalled, “I thought I was going to go mad over it.”120

The contrast between the blossoms outside the barracks and the misery inside could hardly have been greater. Once prisoners entered, they were often overwhelmed by a stench of dirty and diseased bodies crammed together.121 Although the SS continued to insist on barracks being cleaned, as part of the abusive drill that passed for education, this did little to overcome the often dreadful conditions.

Overcrowding was a massive problem early in the war. Buchenwald grew the quickest. In just four weeks, it virtually doubled in size, from 5,397 (September 1, 1939) to 10,046 prisoners (October 2, 1939).122 The inmate population in Sachsenhausen, too, nearly doubled before the year was out.123 All aspects of life were affected. Uniforms, soap, bedding, and more were in short supply. Barracks were packed, exceeding their already unviable maximum capacity by two or three times. Only later in 1940 did conditions in Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen ease, after their prisoner populations declined; in Buchenwald, the peak of 12,775 prisoners (October 31, 1939) was not passed again until spring 1943.124 Now it was other KL that absorbed the general rise in inmate numbers: the reopened camp at Dachau, the extended camp at Mauthausen, and new camps such as Auschwitz. These camps, too, were soon crowded, forcing more and more prisoners to fight over space to sleep, wash, and dress.

The prisoners also faced starvation, as soups became thinner and bread portions smaller. While some shortages were caused by growing pressures on resources during war, the SS deliberately aggravated the situation. On September 1, 1939, the Sachsenhausen SS marked the outbreak of war with cuts to inmate rations, perhaps on orders from above; war meant sacrifice, and prisoners should be the first to suffer. The same reasoning informed the official rations set centrally by the Nazi regime in January 1940. KL prisoners (and inmates in state prisons) were now entitled to much less meat, fat, and sugar than the general public, even though they often worked much harder.125 To make matters worse, the prisoners received less than their due, as SS men and Kapos continued to siphon off supplies. Often, only the worst food found its way onto the tin plates of ordinary prisoners. As it arrived, a former Sachsenhausen inmate later testified, “the smell of foul vegetables filled the room”; some prisoners gagged and threw up.126

Hunger haunted the barracks. Many inmates could only think about food, and some even fantasized about cooking the dogs of SS men. Often, prisoners talked about lavish meals, seasoning and frying imaginary steaks; inmates kept notes on these elusive dishes, collecting books of delicious recipes. Even their nights were marred by hunger. As he was lying in his Flossenbürg barrack one night in late 1939, Alfred Hübsch (a prisoner temporarily transferred from Dachau) dreamed about the butcher shop in his hometown; it was filled with sausages and the butcher told him: “Have a good look around; I’ll give you all the ones you want.”127

Prisoners supported themselves as best they could. There was a burgeoning black market, while those with nothing to trade scavenged scraps of rotten vegetables and kitchen waste, risking food poisoning and SS punishment. Inmates who took from camp supplies were in even greater peril; in Sachsenhausen, a young French prisoner was battered to death in 1941 by an SS block leader for taking two carrots from a sheep pen.128 More and more prisoners, including inmates known as good comrades, stole from one another. Bread thefts became so common that block elders obstructed or patrolled prisoner lockers, and threatened brutal punishment. But hunger was sometimes greater than the fear of getting caught.129

Starvation was often the beginning of the end. Exhausted prisoners quickly fell behind at work, and SS men, in turn, punished them as work-shy, pushing them even closer to their graves. In Flossenbürg, all “lazy” prisoners had to stay away from the big pots of soup as other inmates ate their fill. Only when the others had finished were the starved allowed to approach. A horrified Alfred Hübsch watched as the desperate men fought over the scraps, seemingly numb to blows and kicks by Kapos: “They used their spoons to scour the pots and their fingers to scrape the last bits of food from the sides.”130

Emaciated prisoners were also more susceptible to illnesses, which spread fast in the early war years. Many prisoners already arrived in a poor state from workhouses, jails, and forced labor camps, as the police had few qualms about dropping ailing prisoners at the camp gates; in Sachsenhausen, the transports included an eighty-year-old blind Serbian man who, though he could barely stand upright, was classified as a dangerous habitual criminal.131 Whether they arrived healthy or not, almost all nonprivileged prisonersfell ill. Extreme malnutrition, in particular, had dire consequences for prisoners’ skin, tissue, and inner organs; hunger edema grew rapidly, as did large ulcers.132 Frostbite and colds were common, too, often followed by pneumonia. Conditions were already critical in the bitter winter of 1939–40, which covered Germany for months in frost and ice. Some of the barracks had no heating at all. Where there were stoves, prisoners tried to steal—or “organize,” as it was called in the KL—more wood. Others stuffed blankets or paper bags under their uniforms. But no matter what they did, they could not escape the cold and dreaded each new day. The Camp SS, meanwhile, did little to help and much to harm, holding back or withdrawing warmer clothes.133

Epidemics were rife, too, far more than before the war. Harmful contagious diseases such as scabies were widespread; in January 1941, at least one in eight prisoners in Sachsenhausen were afflicted.134 Filth and poor sanitation led to mass outbreaks of dysentery, which caused violent diarrhea and extreme dehydration. Many prisoners already suffered from hunger diarrhea and soiled themselves on a daily basis. Michał Ziółkowski, one of the first prisoners in Auschwitz, recalled that at night, sick prisoners who walked to the latrines defecated on others sleeping on the floor.135Another constant threat was typhus, a typical disease of mass confinement; it spread through lice, and lice were ever-present in the concentration camps.136

The main SS response to the growing misery in the KL was telling. Instead of pushing for improvements and allowing more than a fraction of ill inmates into infirmaries, the Camp SS created additional spaces to isolate the sick and dying in 1939–40.137Individual barracks were reserved for prisoners with tuberculosis, open wounds, scabies, and other diseases. The inmates had their own names for these places: the dysentery barrack in Dachau was known as “shit block” and the block for invalids was called “cretin club.”138 Many healthier inmates—afraid of infection and deprived of sleep by the sick—welcomed this isolation. In fact, some of them had already taken similar measures on their own initiative, forcing sick comrades from shared dormitories into the freezing washrooms.139

Conditions in the special areas for the sick were shocking even to veterans of the KL, who generally avoided going anywhere near them. The blocks, often empty except for beds or sacks of straw, were crowded with skeletal figures, whose long days and nights were occasionally interrupted by violent outbursts from Kapos. Worst of all was the gnawing hunger. It was no coincidence that the Sachsenhausen barracks for invalid prisoners, established around late 1939, were known as “hunger blocks.” Here, and in other spaces for the ill, the Camp SS cut back further on the small rations, hoping to speed up the process of “natural selection” among the sick.140

Work and Death

After setting eyes on the devil, Dante in his Divine Comedy finally leaves hell on the epic journey that will take him to the heights of paradise. First, though, he climbs through purgatory, where his guide, Virgil, soon draws his attention to an eerie procession of men, barely recognizable as human beings, bowed to the ground by heavy rocks. Even the one “who bore himself most patiently seemed, weeping, to say: ‘I can stand no more.’”141 The horrors conjured up in Dante’s medieval poem were a frequent reference point for KL prisoners (and even some SS men), and it was the infernal image of men carrying rocks that came to the minds of Buchenwald survivors, when they tried to explain the prisoners’ suffering in the quarries to their U.S. liberators. “Even the name of the stone quarry detail,” one of the survivors recalled, “was enough to fill the strongest men with the greatest fear.”142

Prisoners everywhere dreaded the quarries.143 After the war, the Polish prisoner Antoni Gładysz still vividly remembered the day in 1941 when he was forced for the first time to climb down the precarious ladders into the Gross-Rosen excavation site. With three other prisoners, all wearing flimsy wooden shoes, he hauled heavy rocks through the grounds. “It was a dreadful day,” Gładysz recalled. “We injured our hands. We tried to support ourselves with our knees. We worked in a trance, almost unconscious, without thinking about the day’s end.”144 When the prisoners finally did march back to camp, they bore the signs of the quarry all over their bruised bodies.

The Camp SS had long seen the quarries as particularly torturous, and the RSHA agreed. In 1940, with Himmler’s blessing, it divided the KL for men into three groups (mirroring the stages system for individual prisoners in early camps, which had been abandoned by Eicke). Each group of camps would hold different prisoner types, based on their “personality” and “threat to the state.” Men judged “definitely reformable” would be taken to camps in stage 1 such as Dachau and Sachsenhausen (which had no quarries). Camps in stage 2, like Buchenwald, Flossenbürg, and Neuengamme, were reserved for “more heavily damaged” men who were, however, still “reformable.” The lowest rung, stage 3, was to accommodate “heavily damaged” men, especially those who were “asocial and criminally recidivist” and therefore “barely reformable.” Initially, there was only one such camp—Mauthausen, which had the largest and most lethal quarry. A former Mauthausen guard later admitted that in practice, stage 3 meant that inmates were “not intended to leave the camp alive”; among the prisoners, the camp became known as Mordhausen.145

On paper, the SS took the new classification scheme seriously.146 Its actual impact was limited, however. From the beginning, a camp’s grade was no true guide to conditions inside. In 1940, for example, more than twice as many prisoners lost their lives in Sachsenhausen (stage 1) than in Buchenwald (stage 2).147 Later on, the scheme lost all relevance: although Auschwitz was officially categorized as a stage 1 and 2 camp, it had by far the highest death rate of all KL.148 In the end, other factors—such as the colors of the inmates’ triangles—were far more decisive in determining their fate than the camp’s official classification.

Still, the attempt to create a hierarchy among the camps gives an intriguing insight into the thinking of SS and police leaders in the early war years. In the first place, they evidently responded to the growth of the KL system by trying to differentiate more clearly between individual sites. More surprising, perhaps, was their continued emphasis on prisoner reform. This was not about propaganda, as the classification of camps was kept secret. Rather, the officials were deceiving themselves: they still wanted to believe that the camps had another function, beyond terror. In reality, this pedagogical mission was even more fanciful than before the war. Any new skills prisoners learned were about naked survival—how to endure lashes without losing count; how to make a small piece of bread last for days; how to conserve energy by pretending to work hard.

Backbreaking physical labor characterized all KL in the early war years, whether they had quarries or not. Building work was most prominent, and threatened exhaustion, torture, and death. In new camps like Auschwitz, nearly all prisoners were forced into construction, erecting their own camp; they built the paths they walked on, the roll call squares they stood on, the barracks they slept in, and the fences separating them from the outside world.149 Construction work was not limited to the new camps, of course. There was hectic activity at the older ones, too, as prisoner numbers expanded. The Camp SS was forever building and rebuilding, with prisoners paying the price. Many of the around 1,800 inmates who died in Mauthausen between December 1939 and April 1940, for example, lost their lives during the construction of the new Gusen subcamp. As a Gusen prisoner noted in a secret diary on March 9, 1940: “Nothing special. Here, the dead are no news, they appear daily.”150

In Sachsenhausen, a daily average of two thousand men worked on the construction of the brick works in 1940, still the most feared detail in the camp. Many prisoners were forced to demolish the failed old factory, a massive task that claimed hundreds of lives. Other inmates were erecting a new subcamp in Oranienburg to cut out the daily march from the main compound (it opened in late April 1941). Yet more inmates worked at the few furnaces which now produced bricks. Finally, there were the nearby clay pits, dubbed “hell inside hell”; prisoners had to stand up to their knees in water and mud, and shovel clay onto carts. “In ancient times,” concluded the German political prisoner Arnold Weiss-Rüthel, “the slaves of the pharaohs erected the pyramids under much better conditions than Adolf Hitler’s slaves did the Oranienburg brick factory.”151

While the economic ambitions of the SS shaped the general direction of forced labor, they did not make it any more efficient. Most local SS men still showed little interest in output. In their eyes, the camp remained, first and foremost, a battleground against enemies of the Nazi state. This was evident in all the petty rules designed to torment prisoners during work. In Gusen, for instance, inmates had to toil without gloves and coats in 1939–40, despite the bitter cold, and were barred from coming near the fires lit by SS and Kapos.152

The priorities of the Camp SS become even clearer when looking at prisoners who did not work because they were too weak, because they had not yet been assigned a labor detail, or because of bad weather and job shortages. Since no ordinary prisoner (apart from the dying) was allowed to be idle, the Camp SS looked for other ways to occupy them. As before the war, some guards used pointless labor and abusive drills. But the SS also invented new forms of torment. In Sachsenhausen, it introduced so-called standing commandos for the unemployed and ill in autumn 1939, having already used “standing still” as a punishment before the war. Hundreds were crammed into barracks where they had to stand all day, with just a brief break at lunch. “We stood pressed together like sardines,” one former prisoner later wrote. For eight or nine hours, they were not allowed to move, talk, or sit; they could not even lean against the walls. Soon, every part of their bodies was aching. But any motion was out of the question: real or imagined infractions were swiftly punished by Kapos and SS.153

This was part of the wider escalation of Camp SS terror in the early war years, when deadly violence lurked all around. Among the spaces most closely associated with murder were the infirmaries and, above all, the bunker, which had long stood at the center of violence. But guards now killed almost everywhere, and crucially, they killed far more frequently. Previously, they had often stopped short of murder. Why was there no more holding back after the outbreak of the Second World War?


Shortly before midnight on September 7, 1939, a police car pulled onto the Sachsenhausen grounds. Inside, flanked by police officers and held in shackles, sat a muscular man with thick, curly hair. His name was Johann Heinen and he only had an hour left to live. Heinen, who looked younger than his thirty years, was a man who had known little good fortune in his short life. In the turbulent Weimar years, the trained metalworker had lost his job, and in the early Nazi years, he was locked away for his Communist sympathies. After his release, he had worked for the Junkers factory in Dessau, but shortly before the Second World War broke out, he was arrested once again, this time for refusing to dig a trench for German air defenses. His resistance proved fatal, as Nazi leaders decided to make an example of him. Having received the go-ahead from Hitler himself, Heinrich Himmler sent a telex to Heydrich in the early evening of September 7, 1939, ordering the immediate execution of the “Communist Heinen” in Sachsenhausen. The commandant alerted Camp Inspector Theodor Eicke, who was still in Oranienburg and rushed over. Heinen himself was informed of his fate after he arrived in the camp. He spent his last moments smoking feverishly and writing a farewell message to his wife: “Please be brave and think about our boy; you have to live for him. I think the hour is up soon. Please forgive that this letter is so rambling and incoherent. I think I am already dead.” Rudolf Höss, then the Sachsenhausen adjutant, led the prisoner to the industry yard, stepped back, and ordered three NCOs to open fire. Heinen collapsed immediately, but Höss stepped up anyway and shot him once more at close range. Afterward, the SS men walked to the officers’ mess. “Strangely, there was little conversation,” Höss recalled, “as everyone was caught up in his own thoughts.”154

The killing of Johann Heinen inaugurated a momentous new Nazi procedure. A few days earlier, on September 3, 1939, the day France and Britain declared war against Nazi Germany, Hitler had publicly announced that anyone undermining the home front would be “destroyed as an enemy of the nation.”155 He apparently reiterated this point privately to Himmler the same day, asking him to take any measures necessary to maintain security inside the Reich.156 Himmler quickly translated Hitler’s general wish into policy. In a typical case of working toward the Führer, to use a concept advanced by Ian Kershaw, he launched the regime’s execution program, with the KL as semiofficial execution sites for men (later also women) condemned without trial.157

The administrative basis for the new policy was laid in a directive by Reinhard Heydrich, on the same fateful September 3, 1939. Following their arrest of dangerous suspects, regional Gestapo staff were told, Heydrich’s office would decide on “the brutal liquidation of such elements”; it was understood that the victims would normally be killed in the nearest KL.158 But the new measure was not implemented as SS leaders had hoped. After four days, Heydrich sent an urgent telex to regional Gestapo officers, demanding that many more offenders be reported for execution. Just twelve hours later, Johann Heiden was shot in Sachsenhausen. However, Heydrich was still not satisfied. After two weeks, he cabled again, insisting that anyone guilty of dangerous acts—such as sabotage or Communist activities—had to be “mercilessly eradicated (that is, through execution).” Once more, Heydrich spoke openly to his subordinates. Only later, as Nazi murders mounted, did officials use camouflage language to cover their bloody tracks in internal documents.159

The SS executions of Johann Heinen and two other men in September 1939 alarmed officials in the Reich Ministry of Justice, who learned about the killings through headlines in the press like: “Saboteur shot dead: There is no place in the community for people like that.”160 Such lawless executions challenged the judiciary’s hold over capital punishment and Reich minister Gürtner pleaded with Hitler to change course, arguing that the regular court system was perfectly capable of dispensing punishment without SS interference (indeed, the number of judicial death sentences shot up during the war, already reaching 1,292 in 1941).161 But his intervention backfired. When the head of the Reich Chancellery, Hans Heinrich Lammers, raised the issue on October 13, 1939, Hitler not only took responsibility for the earlier killings in the KL, he ordered the execution of two bank robbers who had been legally sentenced to ten years in a penitentiary, in a much-publicized trial.162 SS executions were here to stay, and as the war got bloodier, Hitler condemned dozens more Germans convicted of sex offenses, theft, fraud, and arson.163

Registered KL prisoners fell under the new execution policy, too. Once again, Sachsenhausen was the testing ground. The first victim was August Dickmann, a twenty-nine-year-old Jehovah’s Witness and veteran inmate, who had resisted Camp SS pressure to declare his willingness to serve in the army. After his case reached Nazi leaders, Himmler ordered his execution, with Hitler’s agreement. In the early evening of September 15, 1939, all prisoners assembled on the roll call square where the commandant announced the death sentence and then screamed at Dickmann: “Turn around, you swine.” An SS commando shot him in the back and Rudolf Höss delivered the coup de grâce. As the SS had intended, the other prisoners—among them Dickmann’s brother, who had to put the corpse into a coffin—were terrified. But Himmler also had an eye on wider deterrence and once more sanctioned reports in German papers and on radio.164

Himmler also condemned prisoners when he visited camps, as he did in Sachsenhausen on November 22, 1939. After inspecting the bunker that morning, he ordered the guards to murder one of the inmates, the Austrian teenager Heinrich Petz, to whom he had briefly spoken. Petz had been involved in several highly publicized killings during car robberies—the fourteen-year-old was not charged because he was underage—and had recently been dragged to Sachsenhausen. The local Camp SS acted straightaway. In the yard of the bunker, Petz was told to walk toward the fence and was shot as he did so. Since this was no legal killing, the SS draped the youth’s body over the barbed wire to “pretend that it had been a failed escape,” as one of the perpetrators later admitted.165

Early on, some Camp SS men grumbled that such prisoner executions were not worthy of them. But before long, killings on the orders of Himmler and the RSHA were routine, although Rudolf Höss exaggerated when he claimed that he had “lined up almost every day” with his Sachsenhausen firing squad.166 Still, KL executions became so frequent that detailed guidelines were issued, fixing the procedures in writing.167 Normally, prisoners were executed out of sight, often at the shooting range, the bunker, or the infirmary. In exceptional cases, when the SS wanted to teach the others a lesson, all inmates had to watch.168 The job of hangman—traditionally regarded as a dishonorable profession—was often left to specially selected prisoners, who were rewarded with cigarettes, and sometimes coffee, alcohol, or food.169

Once the Nazi leadership had designated the KL as execution sites for individual men, it did not take long before the policy was extended. From 1940, the Camp SS executed groups of Germans and foreigners, sometimes killing dozens of victims together.170 At times, these executions were coordinated across several camps. The first such bloodbath was committed in November 1940, when more than two hundred Poles were murdered in Sachsenhausen, Mauthausen, and Auschwitz, on the orders of Himmler and Heydrich. Some of the dead had been regular prisoners, others had arrived only for their execution. The exact reason for this killing spree remains unclear, though it was clearly connected to Nazi occupation policy in Poland, which was shifting from open to more covert executions of opponents.171 Among the victims was the distinguished doctor Józef Marczyński, who had been deputy director of the Warsaw municipal hospitals. After the German invasion, he had joined the resistance and was arrested during a Gestapo action against the Polish intelligentsia. In May 1940, he was transported from Pawiak prison in Warsaw to Sachsenhausen. Six months later, on the morning of November 9, he was led out of his barrack, together with thirty-two other Poles who had arrived via Pawiak. Apparently, the men expected to be released. Instead, the SS wrote the inmate numbers on their foreheads, for easy identification of the corpses, and drove them to the nearby industry yard; after they had undressed, they were all shot. In the evening, the other Polish prisoners in Sachsenhausen held an impromptu memorial with prayers and hymns, singing quietly to avoid detection.172

Mass executions of Poles in the KL continued over the following months and years.173 Some inmates were executed as “hostages” for supposed crimes by Polish civilians.174 Others were already doomed when they arrived, sentenced to death by police summary courts. Operating in occupied Poland since 1939, these were courts in name only; they were really police tribunals beyond the law, handing out death sentences at every turn.175 The summary courts worked closely with the Camp SS, particularly in Auschwitz, where proceedings eventually moved inside the camp itself, so that the SS could execute the defendants straight after the farcical trials.176

Camp SS Killers

The execution policy had a profound impact on the local Camp SS. As state-ordered executions mounted, SS men on the ground felt emboldened to dispense their own brand of justice. Their moral compass was already defective, and once Nazi leaders had set the precedent of lawless executions, an upsurge in murderous initiatives by local Camp SS men was almost inevitable. Such unauthorized killings remained officially prohibited, to be sure, as SS leaders sought to keep a grip on the camps.177 But it was impossible to draw a line between “right” and “wrong” murders.

Some commandants led from the front, none more so than the indomitable Karl Otto Koch in Buchenwald, who oversaw a first unauthorized mass execution in autumn 1939. The background was the unsuccessful attempt on Hitler’s life on November 8, when a bomb planted by a lone resister detonated in the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich. It killed seven spectators on the spot, but Hitler escaped unharmed, boosting the belief in his divine mission (the would-be assassin, Georg Elser, was murdered in Dachau in 1945).178Hitler was riding a wave of popularity at the time and many Germans were appalled by the attempt on his life.179 Few were more determined to exact revenge than the men in the Camp SS, who launched brutal attacks on imprisoned Jews. The claim that Jews were behind the attack—too far-fetched even for Nazi propaganda—was enough for obsessive anti-Semites to justify vicious assaults, exactly one year after the 1938 pogrom. In Sachsenhausen, SS men tormented Jewish men during the night of November 9 while Jewish women in Ravensbrück were locked into their barrack for a month, at the mercy of a particularly abusive female guard. “Our hearts raced as soon as she appeared,” one prisoner testified later.180

All this was overshadowed by events in Buchenwald, where so many Jews had already suffered before the war. On the morning of November 9, 1939, all prisoners assembled as normal for roll call. But it soon became clear that this was no normal day, for the SS forced the men back into their barracks. Then the Jews were ordered to return. Among them, the SS picked out a group of German and Austrian men, mostly in their twenties and thirties. The others went back inside, where they were isolated for days in complete darkness, without food and drink. Meanwhile, the selected men walked to the camp gate, where they waited anxiously while the SS guards—some still drunk from the previous night—commemorated the anniversary of the 1923 Nazi uprising. After a small parade, the SS returned and lost no more time. On orders of Commandant Koch, the twenty-one Jews were marched from the gate toward the quarry. When they reached flat terrain, SS men drew their weapons and shot the prisoners from behind; anyone who tried to run was quickly hunted down.181

This massacre was unparalleled. Never before had the local Camp SS murdered as many prisoners in broad daylight, and without any instructions from above. Perhaps the fanatical Koch felt entitled to act because his camp compound leader Rödl had been slightly wounded in the Bürgerbräukeller blast. Whatever Koch’s motives, he had no problems finding willing executioners among his Buchenwald men.182 And although his SS superiors were suspicious about the cover story he had concocted—that the Jewish prisoners were shot during a mass escape—an internal investigation came to nothing. Koch got away with murder.183

Commandant Koch, already drunk with power, soon became fully intoxicated, selecting more and more prisoners for execution. Among his victims were dozens of new arrivals who somehow caught his roving eye. One was killed simply because Koch had met him before in other KL. “Now this bird won’t follow me around anymore,” Koch joked. Others were murdered for disciplinary offenses or because they knew too much about SS corruption. The condemned men were taken to the Buchenwald bunker, run by Oberscharführer Martin Sommer. It is easy to see why Sommer became the unofficial camp executioner. A longtime Nazi activist (he had joined the NSDAP in 1931, when he was just sixteen years old), Sommer was a man of exceptional cruelty. He dispensed the official punishments like whipping, and took part in other outrages, starving and choking prisoners, sexually abusing them, and crushing their skulls; on some days, he later admitted, he had dished out more than two thousand beatings in the bunker. Although Sommer was not the only Camp SS man to graduate with ease from torture to murder, his cold-bloodedness was remarkable even among the SS; after his deadly deeds, he sometimes slept in his office, with the prisoner’s corpse stowed under his bed.184

Among Sommer’s victims were some well-known prisoners. Perhaps the most prominent was Ernst Heilmann, the former Prussian SPD leader. Just as he had foreseen, his suffering came to a terrible end soon after the outbreak of the war. On March 31, 1940, after almost seven years inside the camps, Heilmann was called to the Buchenwald bunker, where he was murdered a few days later. Some of Heilmann’s comrades suspected that he had been denounced by a fellow prisoner for some infraction and avenged his death by murdering the alleged traitor. The climate of the camp was becoming more severe among the prisoners, too.185

The lethal atmosphere, with all the official and unofficial executions, was highly contagious for the local Camp SS. From 1940, more and more SS men turned murderers. Take an officer like Rudolf Höss. Having participated in sanctioned executions in Sachsenhausen from September 1939, he soon initiated his own killings. On January 18, 1940, a freezing winter day, Höss ordered the prisoners from the “standing commandos”—more than eight hundred of them—to assemble outside. An icy wind was blowing over the roll call square, and after several hours, the camp elder Harry Naujoks asked Höss for mercy. In his autobiography, Naujoks describes how he had used the expected military address: “Camp Leader, request permission to dismiss [prisoners].” When Höss did not respond, Naujoks tried again, more urgently: “Camp Leader, the people are finished.” Höss replied: “They are not people but prisoners.” When he finally called off the action, later in the day, the shivering prisoners huddled around stoves in the barracks. Others were carried to the infirmary. Left behind on the snow-covered square were the corpses of the dead, with many more weakened prisoners dying over the next few days.186 The Camp SS had long regarded invalids as a nuisance, but Höss went much further than he would have dared before the war. And he was not an outlier. Elsewhere, too, SS men began to systematically kill selected ill inmates, using lethal injections and other methods, at a time when casual murders in the concentration camps escalated.187

The Sachsenhausen Death Squad

It was during the early months of the Second World War that Gustav Sorge, the twenty-eight-year-old deputy report leader in Sachsenhausen, became a mass murderer. Sorge had killed before, shooting his first inmate soon after joining the Camp SS in Esterwegen in late 1934. His education in the school of violence had continued over the coming years, but only during the war did he turn to mass killing. Unlike some of his fellow SS guards, Sorge had been no underachiever; he had done well in school and trained as a metalworker. Like a disproportionate number of Nazi killers, he had grown up as an ethnic German abroad after his Silesian hometown fell to Poland after the First World War. He was infused with radical German nationalism in his early teens and finally left for Germany in 1930, where he was further embittered by his unemployment. Sorge threw himself into the Nazi cause, joining the NSDAP and SA in 1931, aged nineteen, and the SS in the following year. Although he did not appear brawny, with a puny physique and high voice, he became a feared bruiser in the street brawls of the dying days of the Weimar Republic. It was during one such fight against Communists that he gained the nickname “Iron Gustav” (after a German celebrity of the time), which he later carried as a badge of honor in the KL.188

In the early war years, Gustav Sorge led a small band of Camp SS killers in Sachsenhausen, which acted as an informal death squad; an escaped prisoner, speaking to British agents, described Sorge as the “high priest” over life and death, “whose helpers and aides were constantly competing with each other in shameful and murderous deeds.” The group was largely made up of block leaders, the men who supervised prisoner barracks and labor details. As we have seen, only SS men committed to cruelty could make the grade as block leaders. The rest—judged by their superiors, like Sorge, as “too weak” and “too slack”—moved to less prominent posts or sentry duty; in early 1941, one Sachsenhausen block leader was even committed to a ward for mentally ill SS men because he was plagued by nightmares.189

No single path led to the Sachsenhausen death squad. In all, there were perhaps a dozen men, mostly NCOs in their twenties. The youngest was Wilhelm Schubert, who had joined the Hitler Youth in 1931, aged fourteen. He volunteered for the Camp SS in 1936 in Lichtenburg, joined the Sachsenhausen Commandant Staff in spring 1938, and became a block leader the following summer, aged twenty-two. Mocked by his SS colleagues as immature and erratic, Schubert sought their acceptance by public displays of brutality. He was always quick to reach for his weapon, earning him the nickname “Pistol Schubert” among prisoners. True to form, when he was promoted to Oberscharführer in 1941, he celebrated by beating up prisoners at random and shooting at their barracks.190

Perhaps the most feared member of the death squad was Richard Bugdalle, nicknamed “Brutalla” by prisoners. At twenty-nine years of age, he was slightly older than his colleagues when he became block leader in 1937. But, like them, he was a seasoned Nazi activist, having joined the SS in October 1931, and he was also a veteran of the KL. In Sachsenhausen, Bugdalle directed the notorious penal company. In contrast to Schubert, who became agitated when torturing inmates, the burly Bugdalle was calmness personified. His specialty was punching prisoners; a keen amateur boxer, he could kill with a few well-aimed punches in the ribs and stomach. “If a man had to be liquidated,” Gustav Sorge later testified, “Schubert and I always took Bugdalle with us.”191

The men of the death squad sometimes acted on superior orders. But they also set themselves up as judge and executioner, condemning prisoners for any number of “crimes.” Several men were killed on arrival, after Sorge’s gang stepped up the long-established “welcome” procedures; others were hounded for weeks “with a view to slowly liquidate [them],” as Sorge confessed after the war.192 Some newcomers were murdered as suspected sex offenders or homosexuals.193 Prominent political prisoners and other opponents were targeted, too. After the Austrian state prosecutor Karl Tuppy—who had tried the Nazi murderers of the Austrian chancellor Dollfuss in 1934—arrived in Sachsenhausen on November 15, 1939, the SS went into overdrive. For about twenty minutes, Tuppy was battered in the political office. When the prisoner Rudolf Wunderlich was called in to drag the body away, he recoiled: “I had never seen anything like it. His face was gone. Just a piece of completely undefined meat, full of blood, cuts, the eyes completely swollen up.” He left Tuppy at the gate, where Sorge and Schubert took turns in beating him. He died later the same day.194

The death squad pursued prisoners not just for who they were, but also for what they did in Sachsenhausen. Over a brief period in 1940, Sorge killed an inmate who did not greet him fast enough, one who had stumbled, and one who had left ink stains on a letter (the SS suspected a secret code). Anyone who challenged the SS—mostly new prisoners who did not know better—was in grave danger, too. When Lothar Erdmann, a distinguished former union official, arrived in autumn 1939, he was shocked by the violence. After he was beaten himself by Wilhelm Schubert, he dared to answer back: “What, you’re hitting me? I was a Prussian officer in the First World War and now have two sons at the front!” Erdmann was a marked man; mocked as “the officer,” he was battered for days, especially by Schubert and Sorge, until he could barely move. He died on September 18, 1939, around two weeks after his arrival in the camp.195

Although the violence of Sachsenhausen guards built on prewar practices, their sustained campaigns of murder were greatly heightened by the war. The guards must have been encouraged by the introduction of a perfunctory SS court system in October 1939, which finally removed Camp SS men altogether from the grasp of the regular judiciary.196 Also, the dehumanization of prisoners by the spread of illness and starvation made it easier for the SS to treat its victims as “the scum of all scum,” as one Sachsenhausen block leader put it.197 Even more important was the escalating SS execution policy. The guards knew that their superiors pushed for the murder of individual prisoners, so why should they hold back?

Finally, there was the general eruption of violence during wartime. Hitler’s genocidal rhetoric and the brutal reality of German warfare from autumn 1939 made clear that a new era had begun, and the guards were bound to participate. Prisoners speculated that success on the faraway battlefields brutalized the Camp SS; as the German army vanquished its enemies abroad, guards felt empowered to do the same on the “inner front.”198 This echoes the view of some historians that extermination policy in the Third Reich was radicalized by the Nazi leaders’ elation over apparent victories.199 But just as some SS men murdered because they felt that the Third Reich was untouchable, others got carried away after setbacks and defeats; it is striking how often KL murders were committed in “revenge” for supposed attacks on Germany.

Before long, local Camp SS men like Gustav Sorge claimed the right to murder on their own initiative. Although they knew that killings officially required authorization from above, the perpetrators were convinced that they did the right thing, as Sorge later testified in court: “We believed that we were helping state and leadership when we abused prisoners and drove them to their deaths.”200 To some extent, this was a self-serving lie; after all, Camp SS men sometimes tortured just for fun.201 Nonetheless, the killers did feel that they were realizing the general wishes of their superiors, as Sorge later explained: “Personally, I now believe that orders to act, in so far as they were given, were only meant to point lower-ranking officials in a certain direction, so that they would then try to act, of their own accord, as the top leadership wished.”202 In this way, SS killers saw themselves as working toward their leaders.203 The result was a lethal dynamic, with murderous orders from the top and local initiatives from below radicalizing each other and plunging the KL into a maelstrom of destruction.


The odds for survival fell dramatically in the early war period. On some days, inmates in KL workshops produced nothing but coffins, just to keep up with all the dead.204 In 1938, the deadliest year before the war, around 1,300 prisoners had perished inside.205 In 1940, at least 14,000 prisoners lost their lives; 3,846 are known to have died in Mauthausen (around thirty percent of its inmate population), making it the most lethal KL at the time.206 Hunger and disease were the greatest killers—most of the dead were emaciated, haggard, and hollow-eyed—followed by SS violence and executions.207 Prisoner suicides shot up, too. In Sachsenhausen, twenty-six prisoners are said to have killed themselves in April 1940 alone; some died in a fit of despair, running into the electrified fence, and some had meticulously planned their demise. The other inmates soon got used to the presence of death; on occasion, they even ignored the corpses sprawled beneath their feet as they used the latrines. Pity was becoming an increasingly rare commodity in the early wartime camps.208

Camp SS officers regarded the growing mountain of corpses with some concern. What troubled them was not their conscience, though, but the disposal of the bodies. In the prewar years, prisoner corpses had normally been taken to local morgues. This was no longer viable. Not only was it too time-consuming to store and transfer all the dead, the SS had no desire to advertise the lethal turn of the KL. The solution was simple—the SS would operate its own crematoria inside the camps. Although such plans had been mooted before, they were only realized from late 1939 onward, in cooperation with two private contractors (Heinrich Kori GmbH and Topf & Sons). By summer 1940, all prewar KL for men were equipped with incinerators, and similar machinery was set up in new camps, too; the Auschwitz crematorium went into operation in August 1940.209 Other practical measures followed. From 1941, for example, registry offices were established inside the camps, so that fatalities could be recorded by SS men, not by regular civil servants outside; inevitably, the SS officials classed almost all prisoner deaths as natural or accidental.210

There was no sure way to survive the KL during the war, but there were countless ways to die. Some groups were in much greater danger than others, however. Suffering inside the camps was never indiscriminate, and the gulf between prisoners became evenwider during the early part of the war. The political and racial hierarchies imposed by Nazi rulers were crucial; in general, Poles were more likely to die than Germans, and Jews more likely to die than Poles.211 Gender was decisive, too, as the KL system remained a mostly male construct; at the end of 1940, female prisoners only accounted for around one in twelve inmates, and the fate of these 4,300 women was still very different from that of their male counterparts.212

The Ravensbrück Women’s Camp

When Margarete Buber-Neumann arrived in Ravensbrück on August 2, 1940, she came to the end of an arduous journey that had begun six months earlier, and more than three thousand miles away, in the Karaganda Gulag. Born in Germany in 1901 into a bourgeois family, she had joined the KPD as a young woman. By the late 1920s, she had dedicated herself full time to the cause, working in the Berlin office of the Comintern magazine. Here she met her husband, Heinz Neumann, the high-flying editor of the incendiary newspaper Rote Fahne (Red Flag). When he fell from grace in the early 1930s, after internal party intrigues, Margarete followed him abroad. After moving like fugitives from one European city to another, they finally arrived in Moscow in early summer 1935. By then, the witch hunts were already under way. The Great Terror—fueled by Stalin’s obsession with spies and saboteurs—claimed a million or more victims in 1937–38, including thousands of German Communists. Having escaped the Nazis, they fell to their Soviet heroes instead. Among them was Heinz Neumann, jailed, tortured, and executed in late 1937. A few months later, his wife was arrested, too. Sentenced to five years’ imprisonment, Margarete Buber-Neumann was taken to Karaganda in the Kazakh steppe, one of the largest Soviet labor camps, where around 35,000 prisoners faced harsh labor under appalling conditions. In early 1940, she was suddenly taken back to Moscow, and soon farther to the west. The Soviet authorities, whom she had once revered, delivered her to the Nazis, as one of around 350 prisoners handed over between November 1939 and May 1941, during the time of the Hitler-Stalin pact. Many were released, once they had been pumped for intelligence. Not so Buber-Neumann. The Gestapo accused her of high treason and placed her in protective custody.213

One of the prisoners to suffer both Stalin’s and Hitler’s camps, Margarete Buber-Neumann immediately saw glaring differences with the Gulag. Karaganda had been a vast complex of camps spread across an area as large as a midsize European country. Ravensbrück, by contrast, held around 3,200 prisoners in less than two dozen barracks, surrounded by a high wall with electrified barbed wire. Also, Ravensbrück was a camp exclusively for women, as there was still strict gender separation in the SS system. And Buber-Neumann was struck by the SS drills and exercises; everything was done with Prussian thoroughness, she thought. Painful as it was, such strict order also had its benefits. The new purpose-built barracks, with beds, tables, lockers, blankets, toilets, and washrooms, “seemed a palace” compared to the filth of Karaganda.214

Unbeknownst to Margarete Buber-Neumann, Ravensbrück was also unlike other SS concentration camps at this time. The prewar delay in terror against female prisoners continued into the early war years, as SS leaders persisted with differential treatment. Heinrich Himmler still saw female prisoners as less dangerous than male ones, and more susceptible to reform.215 Obsessed with corporal punishment, Himmler demanded more than once that female prisoners should only be whipped as a last resort; he eventually ordered all such cases to be referred to him personally.216 Such interventions were less important for their specifics than for their message: women, as the “weaker sex,” should be treated with more moderation than men.

Basic living conditions in Ravensbrück were considerably better than in other early wartime KL. Clothes and bedding were changed regularly in 1940, and there was just about enough food. Margarete Buber-Neumann, for one, was surprised by the size of her first meal, which included fruit porridge, bread, sausage, margarine, and lard. As for the treatment of the sick, seriously ill prisoners could still be taken to hospitals on the outside and some were released altogether.217

Ravensbrück was also set apart by forced labor, which was hard, but not yet destructive. While many women worked in construction, there were no quarries or brick works, which claimed so many lives in KL for men. Instead, the Ravensbrück SS increasingly focused on the mass production of uniforms in large tailors’ workshops, since women were “best suited for this kind of work,” as one SS manager noted. Provisional production started in late 1939, spurred on by Himmler, and in summer 1940 the workshops became part of a newly created SS enterprise, the Company for Textile and Leather Utilization (Texled). Prisoner productivity almost reached civilian levels, and because female forced labor was even cheaper than men’s, Texled was probably the only SS business profitable from the start. The Ravensbrück tailors’ workshop produced some seventy-three thousand prisoner shirts between July 1940 and March 1941, as well as other garments, and for a long time, Texled remained the main employer in Ravensbrück. By October 1, 1940, almost seventeen percent of inmates worked for the SS company, rising to an all-time high of around sixty percent by September 1942. The women feared the SS supervisors and the hard work. But it was nowhere near as exhausting as building work; the workshops were partially mechanized, with sewing and knitting machines, and prisoners were sheltered from the elements.218

Most important of all, physical violence was less endemic and lethal than in the KL for men, as the Ravensbrück guards exercised a far less brutal regimen. True, the top posts were occupied by uncompromising Camp SS men, such as Commandant Max Koegel. A grizzled war veteran and right-wing extremist, Koegel had come to Dachau as a guard in April 1933 and never looked back. Before Ravensbrück had even opened, he had already demanded the construction of a large cell block in the new camp to break the defiance of “hysterical women,” as he put it.219 But the leading female officer in Ravensbrück was cut from a different cloth. Johanna Langefeld, the senior camp supervisor, had not signed up with the Nazi Party until her late thirties, in 1937. From a deeply religious family, she worked in social care and the prison service before joining Lichtenburg in 1938. In contrast to Koegel, Langefeld really did see reeducation as an important goal and opposed some of his more violent initiatives. This mattered, because Langefeld set the tone inside the camp and did not push her female guards to excesses.220 While most new female guards quickly got used to slapping prisoners, or even kicking them, they rarely went further in the early war years.221 Their behavior was influenced, no doubt, by the fact that the state execution policy, which had boosted violence levels in the KL for men, was not initially extended to Ravensbrück; the first execution of a woman did not take place until February 1941, apparently, and only in 1942 did such killings become the norm.222

As a result, almost all women survived Ravensbrück during the early war years. Over two years (1940–41), around one hundred female prisoners lost their lives—less than two percent of the prisoner population and a fraction of the deaths in KL for men; only in 1943 did the Ravensbrück SS feel the need to establish its own crematorium. The contrast between the sexes was plain to see even inside Ravensbrück itself. From April 1941, a separate compound for men was set up here, to supply forced labor for the extension of the camp. This was an important development in itself; in the future, more and more camps would become mixed, though male and female prisoners were still held in separate compounds. By the end of 1941, around one thousand men had arrived in the new Ravensbrück subcamp, where conditions soon resembled the other KL for men; in the last three months of 1941 alone, more than fifty male prisoners died here. Proportionally, about as many men died in Ravensbrück in a single month as women did in two years.223

In many ways, the women’s camp in Ravensbrück was still stuck in the prewar period; for the inmates, the real break came not in 1939, but 1942. This is not to say that the camp was unaffected by wider developments. Living conditions deteriorated after the outbreak of war. Food cuts, combined with the freezing temperatures, caused widespread illness during the first winter, and with some 6,400 women arriving in 1940–41, many barracks were overcrowded.224 Then there were the daily hardships and humiliations. The local SS established a particularly degrading ritual on arrival, when women had to undress, shower, and endure a bodily examination; many were also shaved. Any “feeble attempts at modesty had to be abandoned,” Buber-Neumann wrote. These assaults on women’s bodies and their gender identities—“with our bald heads, we looked like men,” another prisoner noted in her diary—had not been common before the war. The trauma was greatly intensified by the presence of SS men, who ogled the naked women, made lewd remarks, or slapped them.225

Like in the other KL, there were scales of suffering within Ravensbrück, too. German political prisoners enjoyed some benefits; their barracks, for example, were often less packed. Meanwhile, Polish women, who replaced German “asocials” as the largest prisoner group in 1941, initially faced added discrimination; in the infirmary, some SS doctors apparently refused to see prisoners who could not speak German.226 And Jewish women—around ten percent of the prisoner population (1939–42)—remained at the bottom of the hierarchy, singled out for the worst labor and abuse.227 In these respects, at least, Ravensbrück moved in line with general SS terror, as the abuse of Poles and Jews escalated across the whole of the KL system in the early war years.

War and Retribution

During the first weeks of the Second World War, the Third Reich was awash with rumors about Polish atrocities. Having blamed Poland for the outbreak of war, Nazi propaganda now accused Poles of gruesome war crimes, in another reversal of reality. From the first days of the invasion, German soldiers sent paranoid reports about ambushes by “snipers.” Such rumors spread fast, amplified by Nazi leaders.228 In particular, Nazi propaganda seized upon events in the Polish city of Bydgoszcz (Bromberg), where several hundred ethnic German civilians were killed in clashes with Polish forces in early September 1939 (German units, among them two Death’s Head battalions, later massacred large numbers of local Poles). For days, Nazi papers carried lurid articles and even fantasized about ritual killings. According to the Völkischer Beobachter of September 10, Poles had “cut off the left breast of an old woman, ripped out her heart, and threw it into a bowl, which had been used to catch her blood”; all this was illustrated with graphic photos of severed body parts.229 A few days later, Hitler himself stoked the flames further. In a frenzied speech in occupied Danzig on September 19, he claimed that Polish troops had butchered thousands of ethnic Germans “like animals,” among them women and children, and mutilated countless captured German soldiers “in a bestial way, gouging out their eyes.”230

Many Germans bought into this atrocity propaganda and demanded swift retaliation.231 Poles taken to the KL felt the full force of public outrage. On September 13, 1939, when 534 Polish Jews were assembled at a Berlin railway station en route to Sachsenhausen, they faced a mob baying for the blood of the “Bromberg murderers” (in fact, the prisoners were residents of Berlin); more spectators waited at the station in Oranienburg, throwing stones and excrement.232 Much worse was to follow, as Camp SS men were itching for brutal retribution and hounded the Poles as soon as they arrived.

The epicenter of KL violence was in Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald, which held the vast majority of Polish prisoners in the early months of war. The Buchenwald SS improvised, just as it had done after the 1938 pogrom, and forced the newly arriving Poles and Polish Jews into a compound next to the roll call square, cordoned off with barbed wire. This so-called special (or little) camp, set up in late September 1939, became an island of extreme suffering. Among the first prisoners were 110 Poles arrested in the border regions during the German advance. The fact that a few of them really came from Bromberg proved their death sentence. Labeled as “snipers,” the SS pressed them into a small cage of planks and barbed wire, where they slowly starved to death; by Christmas Day, all but two of the 110 men inside the cage were dead.233

The other prisoners in the Buchenwald special camp were also fighting for survival. Exposed to freezing temperatures, hundreds of Poles and Polish-born Jews suffered inside a wooden barrack and four large tents. At first, the prisoners still had to work in the quarry. Jakob Ihr, who had been arrested in Vienna, remembered that the “despair was so great, after only a few hours, that a number of our comrades beseeched the SS to shoot them dead.”234 Labor was eventually halted in late October 1939, when a dysentery epidemic spread through the special camp. “The prisoners now dropped like flies,” another witness said after the war. Those who tried to escape to the relative safety of the main compound were whipped by the SS.235 The men in charge formed a terrifying double act. Hauptscharführer Blank, a Camp SS veteran, gained a reputation as a cold-blooded executioner, while his colleague, Hauptscharführer Hinkelmann, a violent drunk, channeled his energy into new forms of prisoner abuse. Apparently, he particularly enjoyed beating hungry prisoners during the distribution of the watery soup. On other days, Hinkelmann and Blank handed out no food at all.236

The Buchenwald special camp was eventually closed down in early 1940. By then, around two out of three prisoners were dead.237 As the last survivors entered the main camp compound in January and February 1940, even longtime inmates, like the camp elder Ernst Frommhold, were shocked: “17-year-old boys barely weighing 50–60 pounds, not a gram of fat on their bodies, only skin and bones. Even today, I cannot understand how such emaciated men could still be alive, and yet they were.”238 In all, well over five hundred Polish-born Jews and three hundred Poles had died in the special camp.239

In Sachsenhausen, too, Polish-born Jews fared the worst in the early months of World War II. About a thousand men arrived between September and December 1939, some from Poland, but most from inside Germany itself. Around half of them came on the very first transport from Berlin on September 13, which had met with such public outrage. Among them was Leon Szalet, a middle-aged estate agent brought up in Warsaw, who had lived in Berlin since 1921. Just before war broke out he had made a daring bid to leave: he managed to board a flight to London without a visa on August 27, but was turned back on arrival by zealous British immigration officials. Two weeks later, he was greeted in Sachsenhausen by a mob of screaming SS men, who “jumped on us like wild beasts.”Szalet himself was beaten unconscious by one of the block leaders. In the evening of their first day, after hours of abuse, he and the other new prisoners fell on sacks of straw in their barracks. But few found any sleep: the horror of the past few hours and the dread of what would follow kept most of them awake all night.

Leon Szalet and the other Polish Jews were held in the Sachsenhausen little camp, first established for “asocials” in summer 1938. As a special punishment, the SS had the barrack windows nailed shut with planks, an extreme form of isolation already familiar from prewar Dachau. There was no light and no ventilation. “Some men were close to suffocating,” Szalet recalled, “others literally died of thirst.” The SS forced prisoners who begged for water to drink their own urine. By September 29, when the action was called off after the capitulation of Warsaw, some thirty-five men had died.240 The torment of the others continued over the following months. Initially, Polish Jews only left their barracks for roll calls and “sport.” The rest of the time was spent inside, at the mercy of Kapos and SS block leaders like Wilhelm “Pistol” Schubert, who regularly raided the barracks at night. Among their many vicious games, SS men forced prisoners to fight each other for bread; those who refused were beaten or killed.241 Later, many of the inmates were pressed into forced labor. Their first destination was the Oranienburg brick works. “Our daily routine,” Leon Szalet wrote, “involved freezing, being chased, carrying snow or sand wrapped in our coats, stumbling, falling and being chased again.”242

Before the Holocaust

Soon all Jewish men in the KL were in mortal danger. In the first months of the Second World War, the SS still differentiated, directing its greatest fury against Polish Jews. But such distinctions soon disappeared, as the police extended its persecution of German Jews—suspected as supporters of the enemy—and the Camp SS extended its terror. “The struggle against the Jews,” the Sachsenhausen death squad leader Gustav Sorge testified after the war, “was a racial struggle.”243 Even the hearts of some guards considered humane hardened when it came to Jews. The Ravensbrück camp supervisor Johanna Langefeld, for example, was a fanatical anti-Semite and let Jewish prisoners feel her hatred.244

A crucial moment came on March 9, 1940, when Heinrich Himmler banned all further releases of Jews; only Jews who held valid visas and could emigrate before the end of April would still be freed.245 The flow of releases of Jews, already small, became a trickle and then dried up altogether.246 One of the lucky few to escape at the last moment was Leon Szalet, thanks to the dogged persistence of his daughter, whom he had brought up alone, as a widower. In early 1940, the mood among Polish Jews in the camp had fluctuated between hope and despair. When Szalet heard that he might be released, some comrades could not hide their envy. When it looked as if his plans would fall through, one gleeful prisoner broke into a popular tune, changing the lyrics: “A ship leaves for Shanghai, and Szalet won’t be nigh.”247 But on May 7, 1940, he really was set free, to the surprise even of SS block leaders. After eight months in Sachsenhausen, he was sick, starved, and depressed, and he never really recovered.248 But at least he escaped more SS torment. This was the fate of the Jews who were left behind, and now faced near-certain death.

Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald, which initially led the way in early wartime terror against Jews, claimed the lives of many Jewish prisoners; in Buchenwald alone, almost seven hundred died during 1940.249 Men accused of intimate relations with “Aryan” women, and marked on their files and uniforms as “race defilers,” were particularly vulnerable, as the combination of sex and race remained irresistible to the SS. On May 3, 1940, for example, Gustav Sorge beat and kicked to death an elderly Jewish prisoner who had just arrived in Sachsenhausen; as Sorge broke his victim’s bones, he screamed: “Oh, you swine, you’re a Jew and fucked our Christian women!”250 Like this inmate, many Jewish men died within days or weeks of their arrival. Those who survived a little longer carried the deep marks of SS excesses. Crushing forced labor was accompanied by extreme violence, wiping out several members of the same families. The Camp SS also continued to cut rations, holding regular “fasting days,” when Jews received no food at all, and occasionally banned all Jews from entering the infirmaries. Young and strong men soon looked old and infirm, and even the most resilient among them fell into despair. “In Sachsenhausen, I did not know whether I was still human,” the Polish-born boxer and mechanic Salem (Bully) Schott remembered. “I did not feel anything anymore, except hunger.”251

In other camps, too, Jewish men lost all hope. In Dachau, the most feared site was a new extension of the plantation, called Freiland II, which was cultivated from spring 1941.252 Karel Kašák, a privileged Czech prisoner who worked as an illustrator on the plantation (the SS planned a book about the different plants), secretly documented the abuses: “21 March [1941]. [Commando leader] Seuss ordered the Jews to immediately take off their bandages from the infirmary, under which they have horrific wounds, and to work without them in the soggy and muddy ground. All 200 Jews are terribly miserable, shattered, abused, and utterly emaciated figures; 90 percent can barely keep on their feet.”253 Almost every day, there were murders or forced suicides on the plantation, as the following extract from Kašák’s notes illustrates:

May 9 [1941]. Again a Jew shot in Freiland II. He started to run. The sentry told us that although he has instructions to shoot without warning, he shouted twice. The [prisoner] stopped and just exclaimed: “I want to go there” and fell after two shots … Again they have put a group of lifeless and unconscious Jews on the cart. Human flesh, the bodies of these sons of God, stacked like logs, arms and legs swaying limply—a horrendous picture that we witness daily …

May 14. In the afternoon they again shot a Jew in Freiland II …

May 15. Again a Jew shot. They threw his cap behind the sentry and the Kapo forced him with a truncheon to fetch it. Complete exhaustion has made [the Jewish prisoners] unrecognizable, like in a trance, with a far-away gaze …

May 16. At nine in the morning two more Jews shot in Freiland II. They threw the exhausted men into the water and held them under water until they had almost lost consciousness, and definitely lost their minds, and Kapo Sammetinger hit them with the spade until he had forced them to cross the sentry line, whereupon they were immediately shot.254

Dreadful as Dachau was, conditions were even worse in Mauthausen. This KL, which had not held any Jews in the prewar period, gradually filled up in the early war years, with almost one thousand Jewish men arriving in 1940–41. The vast majority of them were doomed.255 Most of the victims were Jewish men arrested in the occupied Netherlands. A first large group had been rounded up there in February 1941: after the German authorities and their local allies had met growing resistance to their persecution of Dutch Jews, Himmler ordered mass arrests in retaliation. Their initial destination was Buchenwald, where some 389 young Jewish men arrived as so-called hostages on February 28, 1941.256 “Unbearable conditions soon arose,” one of them testified later, and by May 22, 1941, over forty men had died. That day, almost all the survivors, some 341 men total, were forced on a train to Mauthausen on orders of the IKL; most likely, SS leaders had decided that they should die.257 The prisoners arrived in Mauthausen around midnight and the SS guards set upon them straightaway; within three months, more than half had perished. Most of them died in the quarries, crushed by rocks, beaten to death, or forced over the sentry line. Some committed suicide and threw themselves to their deaths, holding hands; on October 14, 1941, for example, the SS recorded that sixteen Jews had perished by “jumping [in the] quarry.” Whether they had been pushed or not, the SS men were guilty, a responsibility they bore lightly. When further transports of Jews arrived in Mauthausen, SS officials jokingly welcomed their new “battalion of paratroopers.”258

By 1941, concentration camps had become death traps for Jewish prisoners. The sharp rise in the death rate, compared to the prewar years, owed much to the unrestrained rank-and-file guards. But their superiors were involved, too, and several prisoners reported that KL commandants had given explicit orders to kill Jewish prisoners.259 Clearly, the Camp SS was influenced by the general course of Nazi anti-Jewish policy, which turned far more lethal between 1939 and 1941, with the SS in the driving seat. Still, the transition to systematic murder came particularly early in the KL, well before Nazi policy as a whole moved in this direction. While the immediate extermination of European Jews had not yet been decided by early summer 1941, the death of Jews in concentration camps was an almost foregone conclusion by then.

This is not to say that the Nazi Final Solution started earlier than we thought. Despite isolated calls by radical Nazi activists for deporting all Jews to the KL, the camps remained on the periphery of anti-Jewish policy in the early war years.260 Instead, the authorities relied on other sites of mass detention, setting up hundreds of forced labor camps and ghettos in Poland, Germany, and elsewhere; the largest ghetto in Warsaw held some 445,000 Jews by March 1941, suffering mass starvation, disease, and death.261 By contrast, the KL were reserved for selected Jews only, above all men seen as particularly dangerous criminals or terrorists. They were arrested for punishment and deterrence, as in the case of the Jews rounded up in the Netherlands, whose fate was common knowledge among the Dutch Jewish community.262 If the only “crime” of Jewish men, women, and children was being Jewish, however, they were far more likely to suffer elsewhere.

Attacking Polish Prisoners

On August 13, 1940, the daily routine in Mauthausen was briefly disrupted when two middle-aged Polish prisoners, Victor Lukawski and Franc Kapacki, slipped away from the Gusen subcamp. Escapes were still extremely rare, and after the guards realized that two men were missing, they ran amok. As collective punishment, all eight hundred prisoners (almost all Poles) in the escaped men’s work detail were forced to move heavy rocks in the quarry at running pace; those who broke down were battered by Kapos and SS. After they returned to the camp, they had to stand to attention all night without any food. The balance sheet of the day of violence was stark: in all, fourteen Polish prisoners died in Gusen on August 13, 1940. The two escapees met a gruesome end, too; they were dragged back a couple of days later and beaten to death.263

From the beginning, the new Gusen subcamp had been earmarked as a “reeducation camp” for Polish prisoners. The first transport with 1,084 Polish men came on May 25, 1940, the day the camp officially opened, and others soon followed. In all, some eight thousand Poles, many of them members of the Polish intelligentsia, arrived in late spring and summer 1940, mostly from other KL like Dachau and Sachsenhausen. By the end of the year, more than 1,500 had lost their lives in Gusen, where the average monthly mortality stood at five percent.264 The inferno was overseen by SS camp leader Karl Chmielewski. A trained woodcarver from Hesse, he had come to the SS in 1932, after he lost his workshop during the Great Depression. He prospered after joining Himmler’s personal office, and in summer 1935, at the age of thirty-one, he was initiated into the Camp SS; he trained in the Columbia House camp under Karl Otto Koch, one of the best teachers in cruelty, and in the following year he moved to Sachsenhausen, where he was groomed for higher office. Chmielewski’s moment came in 1940, when he was transferred to Gusen to command some sixty SS men. Under his reign, which lasted until late 1942, one in every two prisoners perished. A tall and strong man, Chmielewski led from the front, showing his men how the prisoners should be beaten, kicked, whipped, and killed. His superiors were duly impressed, with the Mauthausen commandant Franz Ziereis praising his “especially pronounced personal toughness.”265

Murderous violence also surrounded Poles in the other KL, after prisoner numbers shot up in 1940–41. In Sachsenhausen, thousands of Poles were isolated in the little camp, now cleared of Jews and known as the “Polish quarantine camp,” where they were tormented like the Jewish prisoners before them.266 Extreme terror characterized the smaller camps, too. After a Polish inmate escaped from Flossenbürg in summer 1941, the local Camp SS made the other Poles stand to attention for three days and nights without food—perhaps the longest roll call in the history of the KL; some prisoners who fell unconscious were murdered by a Kapo, who forced a hose with running water down their throats.267

Nowhere was the SS assault on Polish prisoners more deadly than in Auschwitz, where Poles made up the great majority of inmates in 1940–41. Prisoner numbers had grown rapidly after the camp was set up and so did the dead. The ingredients making up camp life were the same as elsewhere: violent and often senseless labor, never-ending roll calls, hunger, disease, and dirt. “In the camp, one lived from one day to the next, just to be still alive tomorrow,” Wiesław Kielar recalled.268 In its first twelve months, several thousand men died in Auschwitz, and things only got worse. During a twelve-week period from October 7 to December 31, 1941, SS bureaucrats recorded the dispatch of 2,915 prisoner corpses from the main camp’s morgue to the crematorium.269

The rage of the SS extended to other prisoner groups, too, in addition to Poles and Jews. German-speaking Gypsies were often targeted during the early war years, partly owing to deep-seated prejudices among SS men (Rudolf Höss, for one, was convinced that Gypsies had tried to abduct him as a child). In Buchenwald, some six hundred Austrian Roma arrived via Dachau in autumn 1939. They faced extreme hardship and hunger, and around two hundred died during the first winter. Many had suffered frozen limbs and were brought for amputations to the infirmary; SS doctors had no hesitation about killing some with deadly injections. “None of my comrades want to go to the infirmary anymore, because no one comes back,” one young inmate told a fellow prisoner. “I think all of us Gypsies will die in Buchenwald.”270

The SS also selected some political opponents for “special treatment.” In the first half of 1941, the great majority of new arrivals in the Gusen subcamp were veterans from the Spanish Civil War. Among the other inmates, these men quickly gained a reputation for bravery and solidarity. This only confirmed the fears of the SS, who saw them as battle-hardened enemies and singled them out for the hardest punishment. In 1941, almost sixty percent of prisoners classified as “Red Spaniards” or “Spaniards” perished in Mauthausen; many of the 3,046 victims were murdered in the quarries. The steep steps the prisoners had to climb every day, with huge blocks of granite on their backs, resembled “a long cemetery,” one of the survivors wrote.271

Prisoner Relations

The dealings between different inmate groups became more strained than ever as conditions deteriorated. The basic principles of the camp pitted them against one another, and their backgrounds, beliefs, and experiences were too diverse to unite them against the SS. Many Polish prisoners, for example, felt hostile toward prisoners from Germany, the enemy nation. Their dislike extended even to dedicated opponents of the Nazi regime like German Communists. Many Poles despised them as atheists and, even more so, as friends of the Soviet Union, which had invaded the eastern half of Poland in mid-September 1939, under the ignominious Hitler-Stalin pact, and arrested, deported, or executed many tens of thousands of Polish civilians and soldiers.272

German prisoners, meanwhile, were not immune to Nazi racism, which tapped into a long history of chauvinism toward Slavs. In Neuengamme, a German Kapo warned newcomers about Poles: “We know that riffraff: lazy, dirty, and most of them also bread thieves.”273 Jews continued to suffer at the hands of some German inmates, too. In Sachsenhausen, Leon Szalet had briefly worked with political prisoners from the penal company. It was heavy building work and the forty-eight-year-old Szalet, new to the job, could not keep up: “My work colleagues used this to furiously insult me. I was lazy like all Jews, they screamed.” Then they beat Szalet until he collapsed.274

By no means were all German prisoners blinded by racism, of course. Szalet himself praised the Sachsenhausen camp elder Harry Naujoks for helping as much as he could, and he greatly admired his courageous block elder, another left-wing German prisoner.275Other Polish and Jewish inmates received help from German prisoners, too. In the savage world of the camps, even small gestures meant a lot, and were still remembered decades later.276 Nonetheless, the friction between prisoner groups increased under the pressure of war.

Tensions were exacerbated by the preferential SS treatment for selected German prisoners.277 Across the KL system, most of the coveted Kapo posts went to Germans, and the contrast between these inmates and the rest was stark. In the unforgiving winter of 1939–40, hundreds of Sachsenhausen prisoners died in outside labor details and freezing barracks. At the same time, privileged inmates like Emil Büge, who worked as a prisoner clerk, had a desk in a heated office. Together with the other German clerks, Büge enjoyed extra sandwiches, milk, and cigarettes, and celebrated the birthday of one comrade with cake and coffee, a delicacy most other prisoners only dreamed about.278

Not only did German Kapos enjoy better conditions, they often held the fate of foreign inmates and Jews in their hands. Take Johann Brüggen, a German political prisoner who terrorized two hundred men on a large Dachau building site in 1940, pursuing Jews with particular vengeance. One of his victims was Gerhard Brandt, a twenty-seven-year-old graphic designer who arrived in Dachau on May 24, 1940, and joined Brüggen’s commando a few days later. When Brandt fell behind, Kapo Brüggen was all over him, screaming “Dirty Jew,” “Jewish pig,” and “You’re not even human.” On June 5, 1940, the seriously injured prisoner was admitted to the Dachau infirmary; here, he confidentially described the torture he had suffered: “When I fell, Brüggen would always trample over my body. I was also beaten every day on the head and the face with a wooden cudgel. With his hands, too, Brüggen pushed into my face, so that I always bled very heavily from the nose. The handkerchief was so blood-soaked I could not use it anymore for drying off.” A few hours after he gave this account, Gerhard Brandt died.279

Kapo Brüggen was no exception; hundreds of German Kapos were guilty of violent excesses in the early war years. But the other prisoners did not see all such violence as taboo. Quite the contrary. There was widespread agreement that slaps and kicks were in order if a prisoner had stepped out of line. Emil Büge recorded such a case in winter 1939–40. One night, a Polish prisoner moaned and pleaded for water, and grabbed the covers of other inmates in his barrack. Tired of the commotion, a block service prisoner eventually hit the man with a truncheon. “We all approve that he is beaten,” Büge wrote, “and he duly becomes ‘sensible’ and no longer disturbs us.” In fact, the prisoner was dead. In the darkness of the night, no one had realized that he was no troublemaker; he was dying.280

This unknown Polish prisoner was one of many thousands of victims in the early war years, a period of change inside the KL. Many key features of the wartime camps emerged early on: bigger compounds, new camps outside the German heartland, masses of foreign prisoners, lethal living conditions, murderous everyday violence, and planned executions. The terror would intensify in later years, but it had started early in the war. And yet, even during the worst days, victims were still counted in their dozens, not hundreds or thousands. The transition from mass death to systematic mass extermination did not take place until spring and summer 1941, when Nazi leaders took the next steps on the road to genocide in the KL.

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