Economics and Extermination

Shortly after Heinrich Himmler put him in charge of the KL system, Oswald Pohl summoned the top Camp SS officials to a major two-day conference at his WVHA headquarters in Berlin-Lichterfelde. Brimming with confidence, Pohl used the meeting on April 24 and 25, 1942, to set out his agenda. His reign would be all about economics, he announced, with the immediate goal of kick-starting armaments production. The only way to reach this goal, he added, was to drive prisoners until they dropped: working hours would be unlimited and lunch breaks reduced to the bare minimum. “To attain the utmost performance,” Pohl concluded, “this action must literally be exhausting.” Underscoring the order’s importance, Pohl put the responsibility for its implementation onto the shoulders of individual commandants.1 But his message went beyond economics. He also wanted to impress and intimidate his new subordinates. Facing a gathering of Camp SS veterans—led by Richard Glücks, and including commandants of all fourteen main KL in existence at the time—he was keen to put down an early marker. And although some officials grumbled about his ascent, Pohl swiftly established himself as the overall head of the concentration camp system.2

Pohl’s close ties to Heinrich Himmler—they corresponded frequently, and also regularly met up or talked on a secure phone line installed in the WVHA—strengthened his position; all Camp SS men knew that the Reichsführer held him in great respect. Pohl, in turn, was slavishly devoted to his younger mentor. He treated Himmler’s wishes as hallowed commands and lambasted anyone who dared to question them.3 Himmler was still the true master of the KL: no major initiative went ahead without his approval during the second half of the war. He received updates about prisoner numbers and deaths from the WVHA, and repeatedly demanded additional details.4 Himmler even found time for further inspections, making at least five trips to concentration camps in 1942.5 Such visits were not empty ceremonies; Himmler remained an exacting, stern ruler. When he arrived unannounced in Dachau on May 1, 1942, for example, and passed a prisoner detail on a vegetable patch that worked too slowly (to his mind), he jumped out of his car, bawled out the Kapo, the sentries, and the SS commando leader, and ordered the prisoners to continue until nighttime. Told that most of the inmates were priests, Himmler exclaimed: “These bastards shall work until they collapse!”6

As the war dragged on, Himmler’s inspections and interventions grew less frequent. As a leading proponent of total war, he accumulated more and more power. Himmler became Reich minister of the interior (August 1943) and commander of the reserve army (July 1944), and his new posts absorbed much of his time.7 Yet he never forgot the KL, and continued to set their general direction. And as we will see, certain pet projects—such as human experiments and the exploitation of prisoners for the German war economy—still brought out the micromanager in him, stirring subordinates like Pohl to ever more radical initiatives.


The absorption of the concentration camps into Oswald Pohl’s WVHA coincided with major shifts in the German economy. At the beginning of 1942, Nazi leaders stared into an uncertain future. The army had suffered a dramatic setback in the USSR, war production stagnated, and Germany faced an open-ended global war. To increase its armaments output, the regime took several significant steps, symbolized by two key appointments. In February 1942, Hitler installed his protégé Albert Speer as minister for armaments and war production, and in March 1942, he named the Thuringian Gauleiter Fritz Sauckel as the new general plenipotentiary for labor mobilization. Their fierce activism and ebullient rhetoric quickly made both men into major players in the German war economy.8

This development spelled danger to Heinrich Himmler, who worried that Speer and Sauckel would push him aside.9 To keep his two rivals at bay, and away from KL labor, Himmler in early March 1942 hastily ordered the incorporation of the Camp Inspectorate into the recently established WVHA.10 Mindful of appearances, Himmler justified the restructure on economic grounds. Absorbing the camps into Pohl’s WVHA would guarantee the utmost exploitation of prisoners, harnessing “every last working hour of every person for our victory.”11 Hitler was persuaded, at least for now, and personally agreed to the expansion of armaments production in concentration camps.12

Putting the camps into Pohl’s hands made perfect sense to Himmler. Pohl was no stranger to the KL and had gained major influence over the previous years. And unlike the obscure camp inspector Richard Glücks, who hardly ever got an audience with Himmler, Pohl was a close confidant and SS notable, reflected in his promotion to Obergruppenführer, agreed on in a meeting between Himmler and Hitler on March 17, 1942. He had great ambitions and the WVHA seemed destined to become a major force under his leadership. Deeply committed to the cause—he claimed to be a “National Socialist before there even was National Socialism”—Pohl was single-minded, well connected, and politically astute, and had long cultivated a forbidding image; his subordinates marveled at his resilience and feared his temper. His second wife summed up her husband’s image, in a letter to Himmler, as “indestructible, robust, and utterly strong.”13 Clearly, Himmler hoped that other Nazi bigwigs would think twice before pushing Pohl around.

Inside the WVHA

The WVHA was a large outfit, with up to 1,700 officials in five main departments overseeing tens of thousands of workers across Europe. Its remit went far beyond the KL; as its name suggests, it was involved in all aspects of SS business and administration, from the acquisition of real estate to the provision of accommodation for SS troops. Nonetheless, all five WVHA departments had close links to the concentration camps. Office Group A dealt with personnel matters, budgets, and payrolls, and with the transfer of funds to individual camps. Among the duties of Office Group B was the supply of food and clothing. Office Group C, meanwhile, was involved in construction projects, including the gas chambers and crematoria in Auschwitz; it was led by SS Oberführer Hans Kammler, who was poised to become a dominant figure in the camp system. As for Office Group W, headed by Pohl himself, it oversaw SS enterprises such as the German Earth and Stone Works (DESt), which continued to rely heavily on KL slave labor; at its height in 1943–44, the SS economy included around thirty different companies, which exploited up to forty thousand camp inmates.14 The administrative heart of the KL system, however, was Office Group D, the former Camp Inspectorate, still based in the so-called T-Building in Oranienburg.

Compared to the other WVHA offices, Office Group D was rather small.15 In early September 1944, it had no more than 105 employees. Among them were nineteen officers; the rest were auxiliary staff, like secretaries, telex and telephone operators, caretakers, and canteen staff, as well as drivers (Camp SS cars had their own registration numbers, running from SS-16 000 to SS-16 500).16 The atmosphere inside the T-Building reflected the martial values of the Camp SS. Officials normally wore boots and uniforms to work, and put in long hours, until six or seven o’clock in the evening, with some working well into the night; a few officers even slept in private rooms in the T-Building, probably after a meal and some drinks in the local Waffen SS mess hall (other officials lived in Oranienburg or nearby Berlin).17 Like most concentration camps, the KL headquarters were an almost exclusively male workspace. In September 1944, just one woman, a Frau Bade, was listed among the staff members; working as a personal assistant, she was alsothe only civilian employee and non-SS member.18

Office Group D had four departments.19 Every two weeks or so, the four department heads would meet in the large office of Richard Glücks on the first floor of the T-Building. Glücks’s deputy Arthur Liebehenschel ran department D I, the so-called central office. Most of the correspondence went through this office. It collated statistics about prisoner numbers, transfers, releases, and deaths, and ruled on applications by commandants for official punishments of individual prisoners. Department D I also transmitted many other orders—from Office Group D, the RSHA, Pohl, and Himmler—to the KL, and kept some oversight of executions and systematic killings inside.20 For example, the officials in D I received the figures of Jews sent to Auschwitz, divided into those gassed on arrival and those selected for labor; Glücks regularly presented a summary of these figures to Pohl.21 The Nazi Final Solution was common knowledge among WVHA officials, and so were many other crimes: “down to the last little clerk,” Pohl testified after the war, “they all must have known what went on in the concentration camps.”22

Department D II managed KL slave labor, and as the camps’ economic significance increased, so did its status. Its remit was enormous: to oversee the deployment of prisoners across all concentration camps. The D II officials supplied prisoners for SS-owned enterprises, operating as the “labor exchange” of the SS economy, as one former manager put it. Later on, the Oranienburg officials allocated hundreds of thousands of prisoners to state and private industry. To keep track of its slave labor force, D II regularly collected data from the KL about prisoners no longer available for work—because of death, illness, exhaustion, or other reasons—and about the current deployment of their prisoners; executive summaries went to Glücks and Pohl.23

Health matters in the KL were coordinated through department D III. Its officials liaised with Camp SS doctors—several hundred SS physicians worked in concentration camps at one time or another—by sending orders and checking reports; a monthly summary of prisoner illnesses and casualties by D III was presented to Pohl.24 Dr. Enno Lolling, the chief of D III, frequently traveled to the camps and initiated doctors into various killing programs that required their participation.25 Despite his tough demeanor, however, Lolling’s position was weak. He had the fewest staff in Office Group D, and his Oranienburg colleagues repeatedly encroached on his turf.26 What is more, his department held an outsider status inside the WVHA, because it also reported to the medical office of the Waffen SS (based in the SS Leadership Main Office), which provided the camps with equipment and medical supplies.27 The standing of D III was further damaged by Lolling himself. His superiors showed some goodwill toward him, but other Camp SS officials were less charitable about his abilities. To boot, a scandalous reputation preceded him. Stories about his morphine and alcohol addiction were legend, and he was said to suffer from syphilis. “He was so easy to deceive during inspections,” Rudolf Höss later wrote, “especially, as happened most times, when he had been plied with alcohol.”28

The fourth and final department, D IV, dealt with administrative issues, including budgets and accommodation. Collaborating with Office Group B, it was also involved in the supply of food and clothes to Camp SS troops and prisoners.29 Initially led by Anton Kaindl, D IV was later headed by Wilhelm Burger.30 Born in 1904, Burger had trained in business and joined the SS in September 1932. Before long, he worked full time as an SS bureaucrat, eventually in the administration of the Death’s Head troops (his rise was not impeded by an ideological blot on his SS résumé: until his divorce in 1935, Burger had been married to a woman of Jewish descent). Following a spell with the Death’s Head division in the early war years, Burger moved to the KL. In June 1942, he became director of administration in Auschwitz, just as the camp turned into a major site of extermination. Burger proved himself there—he was one of the few senior officials to gain unreserved praise from Commandant Rudolf Höss, who commended his “organizational abilities,” “ruthless zeal,” and “hard will”—and after less than one year, on May 1, 1943, Burger was promoted to his new post in the WVHA.31

This was no exceptional move: several SS officers gained senior positions in Office Group D after first serving in concentration camps. The most prominent was Höss himself, who left Auschwitz in November 1943 to head department D I. Known as “Rudi” to his colleagues, he was one of the zealous officials who often slept in the T-Building. As a hugely experienced practitioner of terror from the largest KL, Höss had much to offer the WVHA and became Pohl’s main troubleshooter.32 Conversely, many men from Office Group D moved in the opposite direction, with two senior managers leaving Oranienburg to take up the top position inside camps. Arthur Liebehenschel became commandant of Auschwitz (in November 1943), effectively swapping jobs with Höss, while Anton Kaindl became commandant of Sachsenhausen (in September 1942), next door to the T-Building. Senior posts within the WVHA may have been better remunerated, but Kaindl’s move still advanced his career. Little more than a year after his transfer, he was promoted to Standartenführer, climbing one rank above Höss in the SS hierarchy.33

There were pragmatic reasons for moving SS managers like Kaindl from headquarters to the camps. KL staff were in short supply and it made sense to plug sudden gaps with experienced officers.34 However, the rotation of staff—which affected more than half of all the officers working in the Oranienburg T-Building—was about more than expedience.35 Oswald Pohl dreamed of “soldierly officials” who combined bureaucratic skills with experience on the battlefields of the Third Reich, and was keen to employ KL veterans as managers; many of his Oranienburg officials had served apprenticeships inside the camps.36 As for the men transferred from WVHA-D to the concentration camps, there was an expectation that they would prove themselves anew as “political soldiers” at the “front,” lest they become “comfortable, fat, and old” in their office jobs, as Theodor Eicke had once put it.37 Just like the terror experts in the RSHA, the Camp SS managers saw themselves as part of a “fighting administration,” wielding both pen and sword in the name of the SS.38

Managing the KL

Immediately after the collapse of the Third Reich, the mighty Oswald Pohl fled from his wife’s Bavarian manor before U.S. soldiers could catch him. He set off on foot to northern Germany, at the other end of the country, where two daughters from his first marriage (both married to SS men) hid him.39 After British soldiers finally arrested him in May 1946, Pohl had another stab at escaping his past. Facing the gallows at his forthcoming trial at Nuremberg, he disowned any responsibility for the crimes in the camps. He had had little involvement, he protested, even after the KL system had come under his WVHA. Apart from labor deployment, which Himmler had asked him to supervise, it was Richard Glücks who had continued to direct “the whole internal operation”; this was why, Pohl added, the Camp Inspectorate had been left unchanged, except for its new name as Office Group D.40 Although some historians have since echoed this claim, presenting Pohl as a rather peripheral character, his self-serving account had little basis in fact.41

Oswald Pohl was far more than the remote figurehead of the concentration camps. True, there were continuities in the operation of the KL system. Most of its managers came from the old Camp Inspectorate, among them Richard Glücks and three of his four department heads, who effectively continued their previous jobs in the WVHA.42 If we probe more deeply, however, a different picture emerges. Changing the doorplate of the T-Building from “Camp Inspectorate” to “WVHA Office Group D” was more than an exercise in rebranding. The camps really did become part of the WVHA, and Pohl their energetic leader. He may have left day-to-day matters to Glücks and his staff in Oranienburg, but Pohl’s fingerprints were all over the major decisions regarding the camps. His focus on camp labor certainly did not limit his engagement with other matters. After all, by the second half of the war, slave labor touched on most, if not all, aspects of the KL—in line with Himmler’s wishes, who urged Pohl to ensure the “total priority of labor.”43

And so Pohl’s involvement stretched from medical matters to construction, from prisoner privileges to mass extermination. In addition to a constant stream of reports and statistics from Office Group D, Pohl held weekly meetings with Richard Glücks, and regularly saw other senior Camp SS managers.44 Pohl also summoned the KL commandants for face-to-face conferences; following the inaugural meeting in April 1942, they came together every few months in the German capital.45 Meanwhile, the physical distance between Pohl’s headquarters (in Berlin-Lichterfelde) and the T-Building (in Oranienburg) was bridged by telephone and a designated SS courier.46 All these contacts contributed to the gradual integration of the camp administration into the WVHA.

Much as Pohl learned about the KL from his vantage point in Berlin, he was no born bureaucrat. Contrary to the image of the efficient desk-bound perpetrator, so popular among some historians of Nazi terror, SS managers like Pohl were often hands-on.47Modeling himself as the ideal “soldierly official,” he went on the road to impose his vision, ruling on many local issues. His master Heinrich Himmler drove him to ever more vigorous action, demanding in March 1943 that Pohl or Glücks should travel each week toa different camp to push everyone to work harder. “I believe that at the present moment we have to spend an enormous amount of time in person in the enterprises out there,” Himmler told Pohl, “to crack with the whip of our words and to help on the spot with our energy.”48

These words were Pohl’s mantra. Like Eicke before him, he was always on the move and became a familiar face in many KL, from small satellites to huge complexes like Auschwitz, which he visited at least four times between April 1942 and June 1944.49 Local officials must have dreaded his arrival—like Himmler, he sometimes appeared unannounced—for Pohl was hard to please and quick to punish. He inspired fear in his men, just as Eicke had done, though far less affection. His memory was unforgiving and his zeal unsurpassed. Even the single-minded Rudolf Höss had finally found his match. During joint inspections, Pohl, who was in his early fifties, would hasten from one stop to the next, wearing out the younger man. “Having to join him on a business trip,” the weary Höss concluded, “was no pure pleasure.”50

Pohl’s ascent over the KL system eclipsed Richard Glücks. To be sure, as the head of Office Group D, Glücks was still an influential figure, supervising the everyday operations and participating in personnel and policy decisions; in November 1943 he was rewarded for his long service in the Camp SS with promotion to Gruppenführer. But there was no doubt that Pohl was in overall charge, as even Glücks himself accepted.51 Crucially, Glücks’s position was also eroded from below by one of Pohl’s protégés, Gerhard Maurer, who joined Office Group D in spring 1942 to head department D II (labor action of prisoners). In the past, the Oranienburg managers had only paid limited attention to forced labor.52 But there was no overlooking Maurer’s new department, which grew into a dominant force, as did Maurer himself; in charge of camp labor until the end of the war, he became the most powerful man inside the T-Building.53

In many ways, Gerhard Maurer was typical of the SS managers who thrived under Pohl: ambitious young men who combined experience of modern business administration with firm commitment to the Nazi cause, allowing them to harness SS economic activities for the Nazi national community.54 Born in 1907, Maurer apprenticed in business after leaving school and worked as an accountant. Like so many others, he drifted to the radical right as the Weimar Republic crumbled. Maurer signed up with the Nazi Party in December 1930, days shy of his twenty-third birthday, and joined the SS the following year. Soon after the capture of power, Maurer married his political beliefs and professional skills, first as chief accountant of a Nazi publishing house and then, in 1934, as a full-time SS official. Maurer never looked back. He rose through the burgeoning SS bureaucracy, gaining glowing reports along the way, and was poached in summer 1939 by Oswald Pohl for the new SS Main Office Administration and Business. He had reached one of the top managerial positions, with the rank of Sturmbannführer, by the time he moved to Oranienburg to take up his new post.55

Although Gerhard Maurer came from outside the Camp SS, he was no freshman. His previous work had brought him into close contact with the concentration camps, and he hit the ground running in spring 1942; as Pohl’s point man, he was in a strong position to impose his will. Maurer accompanied Richard Glücks to the weekly meetings with Pohl, which were mostly about labor allocation, and he had direct access to Pohl at other times. Uncompromising, unflappable, and untiring, Maurer quickly gained the respect of other SS men in the Oranienburg HQ and inside the camps. He often spent half the week on the road, traveling from camp to camp, sometimes accompanied by other senior colleagues like Wilhelm Burger and Enno Lolling.56 In the KL, Maurer built up especially close relations with the labor action leaders, who now became powerful figures. These men were his local enforcers, and he regularly summoned them to Oranienburg for conferences to discuss new initiatives.57 Maurer also liaised with many outside agencies, including Speer’s ministry and private industry, cementing his status as the principal SS manager of forced labor. When Speer scheduled a central planning meeting for late October 1942, Pohl immediately recalled the indispensable Maurer from an inspection to Auschwitz, rather than send another SS official to the meeting.58

The more intense the SS fixation on slave labor, the higher Maurer’s star rose over the KL system. Maurer was officially appointed as Glücks’s deputy in autumn 1943 (following Liebehenschel’s departure for Auschwitz), and the other Oranienburg officials knew that he was the real power behind Glücks’s throne. Compared to the dynamic Maurer—just thirty-four years old when he joined the Camp SS staff—the portly Glücks, almost twenty years his senior, seemed like a spent force. Even Glücks’s sidekick Liebehenschel saw that “the old man,” as he called him, was out of touch. For his part, Glücks was ready to take a backseat, though he still enjoyed the trappings of his job. Many of the key decisions, however, were now taken two doors down from his lavish room in the T-Building, in Maurer’s small office.59

Pohl’s Commandants

As the commandants fanned out from Berlin back to the concentration camps across Nazi-controlled Europe, following their inaugural conference with Oswald Pohl in late April 1942, they wondered what the new era would bring. All of them must have been struck by Pohl, who came across as a “brute force of nature,” in the words of Rudolf Höss; there was no doubt that Pohl was serious about changing the KL system.60 But none of the commandants could have foreseen just how soon they would be affected personally. Pohl was not content with remaking the Oranienburg HQ. He was determined to put his stamp on the individual camps, too, and in summer 1942, he made sweeping changes among the commandants, with Himmler’s approval. A minor restructure was already on the agenda, after several officers had become embroiled in scandal. Pohl’s ambitions went further, however, and when the dust had settled in October 1942, all but four concentration camps had a new commandant.

Pohl’s shake-up started further down the Camp SS hierarchy, when the WVHA ordered individual camps in early May 1942 to report long-serving SS block leaders for relocation.61 The resulting rotation of low-level staff disrupted set routines and old cliques, as the WVHA had evidently intended. In Sachsenhausen, for example, the death squad was broken up and several members moved to another KL (only a few indispensable experts in torture and death stayed behind).62 Others left the camps altogether, after SS leaders stepped up transfers to the Death’s Head division, which had suffered huge losses during ferocious fighting on the Eastern Front since early 1942.63 Among the Sachsenhausen block leaders who departed for military training were Wilhelm Schubert and Richard Bugdalle. Schubert later fought in Poland, Hungary, and Austria. Bugdalle, by contrast, did not last long as a soldier. He was unable to control the violent urges that had served him so well in the camps, and was thrown in an SS prison camp for beating up a commander who had found fault with his military salute.64

The Camp SS entered a major period of flux under Pohl, as new staff joined and experienced men moved on. Although all ranks were affected, it was his summer 1942 reshuffle at the top of the KL that caused the greatest upheaval. Of fourteen commandants, five were kicked out of the Camp SS altogether. In addition to Piorkowski (Dachau), Loritz (Sachsenhausen), and Koch (Majdanek), Pohl also sacked Karl Künstler (Flossenbürg) and Arthur Rödl (Gross-Rosen); a sixth commandant, Wilhelm Schitli, left after the closure of the Arbeitsdorf KL. Of the remaining eight commandants, four kept their old jobs—Hermann Pister (Buchenwald), Franz Ziereis (Mauthausen), Rudolf Höss (Auschwitz), and Adolf Haas (Niederhagen)—while the remaining four were transferred to a different KL: Martin Weiss moved from Neuengamme to Dachau, Max Pauly from Stutthof to Neuengamme, Egon Zill from Natzweiler to Flossenbürg, and Max Koegel from Ravensbrück to Majdanek. Finally, five SS officers were newly appointed as camp commandants: Fritz Suhren (Ravensbrück), Wilhelm Gideon (Gross-Rosen), Anton Kaindl (Sachsenhausen), Paul Werner Hoppe (Stutthof), and Josef Kramer (Natzweiler).65 When the KL commandants assembled for their next conference with Pohl in Berlin, it became clear just by looking around the table how much had changed since April 1942.

The scale of Pohl’s reorganization is not in doubt; but what about its significance? After the war, Pohl claimed it was all down to his kindness: he had wanted to establish a more humane spirit, he said, by removing “roughnecks” educated in “Eicke’s school.”66No credible historian would buy this tale of compassion. But the depiction of the reshuffle as a break with the Eicke era has gained some traction, as has the argument that Pohl was aiming to mobilize forced labor by appointing better managers.67

Pohl clearly had high hopes for his five new commandants. They were comparatively young men, thirty-seven years old on average, and had all previously served in the Camp SS. Josef Kramer, for example, had gained almost all his professional experience inside, serving on the Commandant Staff of six different concentration camps between 1934 and 1942.68 Three of the new commandants had belonged to the Death’s Head division, with both Hoppe and Gideon wounded at Demjansk in 1942.69 They could boast some administrative skills, too, none more so than the new Sachsenhausen commandant, Anton Kaindl, the chief administrator in the Camp SS (as the former head of WVHA-D IV). Kaindl was a manager through and through, and with his round, horn-rimmed glasses, the slight man looked a breed apart from beefy thugs of the prewar years like Hans Loritz. Born in 1902, Kaindl had served for twelve years in the Weimar army as an accountant and paymaster. In the Third Reich, he put his skills into the service of the SA and then Pohl’s SS Administration Office. In 1936, he joined Eicke’s staff and soon became chief administrative officer of the Death’s Head troops. He took the same post in the Death’s Head division in autumn 1939, before returning to the Camp Inspectorate some two years later. Pohl had long admired Kaindl’s organizational talent and hoped that he would bring it to Sachsenhausen in 1942.70 Likewise, Pohl’s vision of productive KL influenced his dismissal of commandants.71 With Germany’s victory no longer a foregone conclusion, incompetence became a threat to the war effort. Koch’s time was up after he messed up one time too many, leaving Majdanek in a shambles. Künstler, too, finally had to go. A chronic drunk, he had failed to mend his ways, and when news of yet another bacchanalia at Flossenbürg made the rounds, SS leaders lost patience; a failure like Künstler was out of step with the Pohl era.72

Despite its far-reaching changes, however, we must not exaggerate the impact of Pohl’s 1942 reshuffle. For a start, he was no more adept than his predecessors at imposing a fully coherent personnel policy. Some new commandants like Kaindl may have approached Pohl’s ideal of the soldierly official, but most did not. Indeed, many appointments were makeshift, the result of chance and connections.73 Just as in the early years of the Camp SS, there was a high turnover of staff. Some of Pohl’s commandants fell fast, proving themselves just as inept and corrupt as the men they had replaced. Wilhelm Gideon, for example, lasted barely one year at Gross-Rosen. Perhaps Pohl’s most unusual appointment, Gideon had been chief administrative officer in Neuengamme, and was the first such official to rise to commandant. He was also the last; more devoted to alcohol than to his job, Gideon was sacked in autumn 1943.74 Pohl proved no more sure-footed in his other appointments, with three commandants anointed by him at later dates—Karl Chmielewski, Hermann Florstedt, and Adam Grünewald—arrested by the Nazi authorities for violence and corruption.75And far from provoking a rupture with the Eicke era, Pohl drew heavily from the “talent pool” filled by his old adversary. Most commandants who stayed on—experienced men like Höss, Koegel, Weiss, Ziereis, and Zill—had thrived during Eicke’s time; they were experts in terror, first and foremost, not in business. The same was true for new commandants. Even Anton Kaindl had been taken under Eicke’s wing back in 1936 and remained one of his closest associates until 1941.76

In the final analysis, then, Pohl’s reshuffle was meant to refresh the camps, not to reinvent them. Clearly, Pohl wanted to pave the way for more effective slave labor. At the same time, though, he wanted to retain the spirit of the Camp SS and continued to put his trust in veterans of violence. In a pattern repeated elsewhere, Pohl expected radical change without making radical changes. More generally, his reshuffle was not just about economics; it was also about power.77 Pohl was a master of gesture politics and wanted to prove to Himmler that he would fight corruption and incompetence. Simultaneously, he gave notice to the Camp SS staff that he would be no pushover like Glücks. The message was understood, and by autumn 1942, Pohl’s authority over the KL had been cemented. As a piece of political theater, then, his reshuffle succeeded. As an economic initiative, it failed, for the concentration camps would never turn into significant hubs for the German economy.78

SS Armaments Works

Oswald Pohl was hoping to press more prisoners into the war effort. Previously, SS thinking had been dominated by visions of vast settlements, but these dreams were already fading fast when Pohl took control of the KL in spring 1942, punctured by the harsh reality of a war that would not end. True, SS leaders found it hard to let go of their dreams, which continued to offer relief from the growing gloom enveloping the Third Reich, just as Hitler later lost himself in architectural models of his imaginary cities when much of Germany lay in ruins.79 As a practical policy, however, the construction of huge new SS buildings in the east was losing its urgency. In the end, most plans remained in drawers, grim reminders of what might have been.

The attention of SS leaders shifted from the future to the present, from German cities and settlements to weaponry. At a time when the entire German economy was gearing up for the war effort, the SS could not stay on the sidelines. There was widespread agreement among the Nazi elite, starting with Adolf Hitler, that the KL had to focus more intensively on arms production.80 Oswald Pohl was one of the greatest proponents of the new course. The priority, he confirmed to Himmler in late April 1942, was no longer the SS peacetime building projects; it was the increase of armaments.81 But how would this be done?

To Himmler, the answer was obvious: it was time to establish the SS as an arms manufacturer. This quickly turned into another of his flights of fancy. By summer 1942, he was fantasizing about arsenals of high-tech weapons rolling out of factories “erected and run by us.” Himmler’s enthusiasm was contagious. His enforcer Pohl was equally optimistic that SS enterprises in concentration camps could undertake “armaments tasks on the largest scale.”82 Shortsighted though they were, even Himmler and Pohl saw that they could not go it alone, at least not at first; the SS needed help from private industry. Still, Himmler hoped to maintain ultimate control over such joint ventures, and insisted in spring and summer 1942 that all production take place in the KL. While he was prepared to accept (at least in theory) that private companies would retain economic supervision over shared enterprises, his general ruling was clear: arms manufacturers had to erect their factories inside his concentration camps.83

Perhaps Himmler’s basic rule was a reaction to the first major collaboration between the SS and the armaments industry, which had quickly gone awry. On January 11, 1942, Hitler had signed off on a deal for the SS to participate in the construction of a light alloy foundry on the grounds of the Volkswagen (VW) works in Wolfsburg. On paper, this order put the SS into pole position, as Himmler was in charge of the “completion, extension, and operation” of the foundry, using “manpower from the concentration camps.” However, VW was unwilling to cede control on its home turf and the SS soon gave in. VW would run the factory, while the SS would merely supply and guard the prisoners. A new KL—tellingly named Arbeitsdorf (village of labor)—was set up for this purpose on the foundry’s building site, and in April 1942 hundreds of inmates arrived for construction work. But their hard labor proved pointless. Albert Speer had undermined the project since his appointment as armaments minister, not least because of its limited relevance for the war effort, and quickly used his influence over production planning and raw materials allocation to bring it down; the Arbeitsdorf camp closed within a few months. When the prisoners were withdrawn in October 1942, they left behind a half-completed and empty shell.84

Himmler was unfazed by the failure of Arbeitsdorf. Frustrated that SS armaments production amounted to no more than “peanuts,” as he put it in September 1942, he pressed ahead with more joint ventures, though this time inside existing KL.85 Himmler was pursuing four key projects: the production of rifles in Buchenwald (working with the Wilhelm Gustloff company), handguns in Neuengamme (Carl Walther company), antiaircraft guns in Auschwitz (Krupp), and transmitters in Ravensbrück (Siemens & Halske). The SS was building all these factories, and Himmler expected them to provide supplies for the Waffen SS.86 He also tried to impress Hitler, dazzling him with tales of vast armies of slaves churning out weapons in the KL. “The Führer,” Himmler informed Pohl in March 1943, “counts so very firmly on our production and our support.”87

By that time, the momentum behind the SS plans had already stalled. Still, Himmler and Pohl plowed on, determined to establish yet more KL armaments factories. To this end, they were even prepared to transform established SS businesses. In some concentration camps, DESt now moved into war production, gradually shifting from bricks and stones to weaponry. In Flossenbürg, its construction of fighter planes began in 1943, with Messerschmitt providing raw materials and technical training; forced labor in the quarry, meanwhile, the symbol of the camp since its inception, came to an almost complete standstill. In SS circles, the Flossenbürg project was hailed as a triumph—Pohl personally inspected the new factory—and it seemed to stick closely to Himmler’s blueprint: production took place inside the camp and was supervised (at least nominally) by the SS, which sold the finished goods to Messerschmitt at a profit.88 Such apparent successes made Himmler bullish about the significance of the SS economy, and he acted as its greatest cheerleader. In October 1943, he bragged to SS leaders about “giant armaments works” run by the SS in concentration camps.89 But this was just wishful thinking. In truth, the SS had failed to become a serious arms manufacturer.

Among all the SS businesses in concentration camps, DESt was alone in turning to arms manufacturing, and even this move was partial and reliant on unsophisticated production methods. Many SS businesses remained largely untouched by the war. Peacetime production simply continued, despite an explicit order by the WVHA in autumn 1942 to abandon all permanent KL labor details that were not engaged in work important or essential for the war effort. In several camps, even DESt still focused on building materials and other goods. The DESt factory in Berlstedt, for example, staffed by prisoners from nearby Buchenwald, actually stepped up its production of flowerpots, turning out nearly 1.7 million in 1943 alone. SS managers made absurd attempts to designate such work as indispensable, even passing off the production of porcelain as “war essential.” In reality, much of the SS output had little to do with the war effort, never mind high-tech weaponry.90 These shortcomings were plain to see, and in April 1943, Himmler suffered the indignity of being patronized by Albert Speer, who complained that the SS was wasting its resources.91

As for the wider SS collaboration with the arms industry, none of the four pet projects pursued by Himmler came to much, hampered by changing military priorities and shortages of adequate machinery. In Ravensbrück, production expanded only slowly; in summer 1943, after one year, no more than six hundred female prisoners were toiling for Siemens & Halske. Elsewhere, the picture was even less flattering to Himmler’s ambitions. Rifle production in Buchenwald only got under way in spring 1943, on a much smaller scale than planned. In Neuengamme, the partial production of firearms began even later, with negligible results, while the production of antiaircraft guns in Auschwitz never even started.92 SS efforts to dominate their business partners ended in defeat, too, as it largely failed to wrest control over production in KL factories. The reason was simple, as Speer pointed out bluntly to Himmler: industrialists were “not keen to build up the SS as competition.”93 For his part, Speer, who had long backed economic ventures in the KL, threw his weight behind industry. While Himmler and Pohl were still dreaming about the SS production of weaponry, he dealt them a fatal blow.

War and Satellites

The future of concentration camp labor was determined not in spring 1942, when Oswald Pohl took over the KL system, but in autumn, at a time when only around five percent of prisoners were working for the war industry.94 And its future was determined not by Pohl but by Albert Speer, who was fast becoming one of the most powerful men in the Third Reich. During a crucial meeting on September 15, 1942, Speer outwitted Pohl. Blinded by Speer’s enticing (but empty) talk of a big SS armaments complex, the giddy Pohl stumbled into a major concession: he abandoned Himmler’s rule of moving all production into the camps and allowed that prisoners could be sent to armaments works elsewhere. Speer pounced on this concession and used it a few days later, during a conference with Hitler. After he persuaded Hitler that it would be impossible to set up substantial weapons production inside the KL—Speer highlighted the poor infrastructure—he received backing for the deployment of prisoners in established arms factories, without major SS influence.95 Instead of moving arms factories inside the KL, prisoners increasingly moved outside to factories owned by private and state industry. Appointed to strengthen the SS economy, Oswald Pohl had hastened its decline, loosening the grip over its slave labor force.

Hitler’s basic decision in September 1942 was a catalyst for the growing cooperation between industry and the SS. From now on, the SS guarded more and more of its prisoners at new satellite camps near arms factories and construction sites. Previously, as we have seen, neither the SS nor industry had shown a burning desire to work together. The SS preferred to use its prisoners for its own schemes while industry preferred more flexible sources of labor. Ambitious projects such as Monowitz (IG Farben) and Arbeitsdorf (VW) had been the exception, not the rule, and further joint ventures had remained sporadic even during the early months of Pohl’s stewardship of the KL system.96 This began to change from late 1942, and so did the function, spread, and size of satellite camps. Though a few small sites had existed before, some going back to the prewar years, it was only now that the systematic spread of KL satellites (administratively attached to main concentration camps) started. The SS established a whole raft of new camps, largely near factories; by summer 1943, there were already around 150 satellite camps (up from around eighty at the start of the year). Some of their inmates worked for the SS, though many more worked for the war industry, often in manufacturing.97

Many of the new satellite camps supplied forced labor for the aircraft industry, which faced particularly severe shortages. The two largest camps were connected to state-of-the-art factories run by Heinkel and BMW. The exploitation of Dachau prisoners by BMW had begun as early as March 1942, at its new factory for airplane motors in the Munich district of Allach. Prisoner numbers initially remained small, however, and inmates were transported back every evening to the main camp, some seven miles away. But in March 1943 the SS set up a satellite camp outside the factory gates, and within six months almost two thousand male KL prisoners worked in Allach, together with other forced laborers.98 Even bigger was the satellite camp at the Heinkel works in Oranienburg, just around the corner from Sachsenhausen, which became a model for the collaboration between the SS and industry. Here, too, the local Camp SS initially supplied only a small prisoner commando, which expanded rapidly after the establishment of a permanent satellite camp on site in September 1942; barely a year later, 150 prisoners had become over six thousand, producing all the parts for the biggest German bomber, the Heinkel 177.99

The mass deployment of KL prisoners for arms production required a rethink from both SS leaders and industrialists, as demonstrated in the case of AFA, Germany’s largest manufacturer of batteries (rebranded as Varta after the war). In 1941, the SS had floated the idea of using Neuengamme prisoners at the AFA factory in Hanover, which produced batteries for submarines and torpedoes. However, the stringent SS conditions—including the total separation of the prisoners from other workers—put off the firm, which still had sufficient workers anyway. By spring 1943, however, the situation had changed. After the supply of workers from labor exchanges had dwindled, AFA grew interested in KL prisoners. The SS, meanwhile, was more cooperative than before. Accepting the priority of production, it relaxed its rigid rules and allowed its prisoners to work with other foreign laborers. Chivied along by Speer’s ministry, both sides reached an agreement, leading to the creation of the Neuengamme satellite camp Hanover-Stöcken in summer 1943; it stood some four hundred feet away from the factory and held up to one thousand prisoners by autumn 1943.100

In addition to satellite camps for war production, the SS established satellites for repairing war damage. Since 1940, selected prisoners (from KL and prisons) had had to defuse unexploded Allied bombs, on Hitler’s orders; numerous men were blown to pieces in front of their terrified comrades. As the air raids intensified, the German authorities drafted many more prisoners. Following a tour of devastated German cities in late summer 1942, Heinrich Himmler ordered the urgent dispatch of mobile prisoner squads to clear up the debris. By mid-October, the WVHA had designated three thousand inmates from Neuengamme, Sachsenhausen, and Buchenwald. In close cooperation with Speer’s office and other Nazi agencies, these prisoners were stationed in barrack camps and converted buildings in several major German cities. They were forced to clear rubble, gather bricks, wood, food, and roof tiles, build air raid shelters, bury the dead, and rescue survivors. This work was exhausting and dangerous, but the SS and municipal authorities regarded it as a great success, paving the way for the expansion of these so-called SS Building Brigades, which formed some of the largest satellite camps in early 1943.101

Although KL labor changed during 1942–43, this was still an experimental phase. It would be wrong to think that almost all prisoners now worked flat-out for the war industry or cleared bomb damage. These pioneering projects were just that, pioneering, and they were not yet representative of the KL system as a whole. By summer 1943, no more than an estimated thirty thousand of two hundred thousand prisoners worked in satellite camps; the vast majority of prisoners remained inside main camps and at the disposal of the SS.102

There was a simple reason for the slow pace of change: the German arms industry was still in no hurry to draw on KL labor. Industry managers saw numerous pitfalls of working with the SS. High levels of security and myriad rules could disrupt production; prisoners, widely regarded as dangerous enemies, might engage in sabotage and incite the rest of the workforce; or they might be too exhausted to work properly. As one leading industrialist put it in October 1942, after Speer suggested the redeployment of prisoners from the Mauthausen quarry: “I already looked at them myself; they are no use to me in coal mining.” In general, therefore, German industry still preferred other sources of labor power, such as foreign workers. Only after these sources began to dry up did it become more proactive, resulting in a scramble for KL prisoners from autumn 1943.103

Even though the full impact of the new direction of concentration camp labor was not felt until later, the earlier developments were significant nonetheless. The groundbreaking cooperation with leading firms like IG Farben, Heinkel, BMW, AFA, and VW provided the blueprint for future agreements between SS and industry. So what did this emerging blueprint look like? The allocation of KL prisoners would be handled centrally by the WVHA, one of the main innovations made by Pohl in spring 1942, following a discussion with Himmler.104 Typically, companies submitted their requests for forced workers via the local commandants or via the offices of Speer, Sauckel, or Göring (some companies also contacted the WVHA directly). Gerhard Maurer and his men in Office Group D II, who would often meet managers of the interested firms, assessed all applications, and then presented their recommendations to Pohl, who made the final decision. If Pohl gave permission to proceed, local camp officials would work out the contractual details with company representatives. Once the WVHA had approved the contract and all preparations were complete, the prisoner deployment would begin.105

When it came to the establishment of new satellite camps, there was a clear division of labor between SS and firms. In addition to the prisoners, and their basic clothing and food, the SS provided the personnel (Guard Troops and Commandant Staff) to oversee sentry duties, prisoner transports, punishment, and medical care. The companies, in turn, were in charge of technical supervision during work, and paid for the construction and maintenance of the compound, which had to conform to strict SS standards.106 Firms also paid daily rates for prisoner labor, revised in October 1942. In Germany, the daily price for each qualified male prisoner now stood at six Reichsmark, and four Reichsmark for an unskilled one. In occupied eastern Europe, including Auschwitz, the daily rate was reduced to four and three Reichsmark respectively, presumably because less output was expected from the even more ravaged prisoners. There was no such distinction between skilled and unskilled labor in the case of female prisoners, who were regarded as less able workers; instead, there was a flat rate similar to the one for unskilled men.107 Contrary to the claims of some historians, the SS benefited from most payments only in a roundabout way. Since the prisoners were regarded as the property of the state, most of the income from their labor—perhaps around two hundred million Reichsmark in 1943, rising to around four to five hundred million the following year—officially went into the coffers of the Reich (though this helped to finance the state-sponsored KL system).108

If there was little immediate financial gain for the Camp SS, why did it lease inmates to the war industry? For a start, the SS remained subject to outside influence, and as the demand for labor grew, so did the pressure (above all from Speer) to surrender prisoners for war production. But the SS also expected advantages from its collaboration with industry. In addition to tangible benefits, such as the preferential allocation of weapons for SS troops, Himmler, who never quite abandoned his dream of an SS arms complex, hoped that working with industry would enhance the expertise of his own managers. And then there was power and prestige. With labor becoming an increasingly precious resource, the SS could present the KL as vital cogs in the Nazi war economy; the larger the SS army of forced workers, the greater its potential influence.109 This was one reason, no doubt, behind the strenuous efforts by Pohl and his WVHA managers in 1942–43 to extend the overall number of prisoners in the concentration camps, as well as their output.


Is it right to call SS prisoners “slaves”? The term is commonplace in many accounts of the concentration camps, but some scholars have questioned its use. Slaveholders, these critics suggest, had an innate interest in their bondsmen’s survival, since they represented economic value; prisoners, by contrast, were worthless to the SS, who deliberately drove them to their graves. However, this argument is not fully convincing. After all, the SS always assigned some value to its prisoners. Even at the height of their destructiveness, when some prisoner groups were singled out for annihilation, the camps never aimed at the systematic destruction of all their inmates. More generally, there are different definitions of slavery. If used broadly—to describe a system of domination based on force and terror, which aimed at economic gain through the unrestrained subjugation of social outcasts—then the term captures the fate of many KL prisoners in the Second World War, especially during its latter stages.110

This is what many prisoners themselves thought when trying to make sense of their suffering. In February 1943, the Dachau inmate Edgar Kupfer described the SS use of inmates for the war effort as “modern slave rental.”111 This verdict chimed with the views of the perpetrators. In March 1942, Himmler himself told Pohl that the SS should feed its KL prisoners cheaply and simply, like “slaves in Egypt.”112 The term seemed so apt to Himmler that he repeated it on further occasions. Just a few months later, he spoke to SS generals about “work slaves” in the camps, who were building the new Germany “without consideration for any losses.”113

Himmler expected extraordinary results from his slaves, insisting that their output should equal or exceed that of ordinary German workers. “Herein lies the largest reservoir of manpower,” he lectured Pohl.114 One early SS initiative to increase productivity aimed at the reduction of inmates working in maintenance (in KL kitchens, laundries, barracks, and elsewhere). To free more prisoners for other jobs, Richard Glücks announced in early 1942, no more than ten percent of those judged fit for work should be deployed in this way (in early 1944, the target figure was reduced to six percent). However, even if commandants had been willing to implement these orders fully—which they were not—it would have done little to satisfy the economic ambitions of their superiors, who pursued many more measures in 1942–43 to create a more industrious KL slave labor force.115

Privileges and Productivity

Most prisoners had known only one main reason for working—fear. Since forced labor was primarily about punishment, not productivity, the Camp SS had not seen any real reason to rewarding diligent prisoners: Why offer carrots if one could use sticks, whips, and boots? As economic imperatives became more pressing, however, SS leaders decided to break with convention and allow incentives. They could build on some precedents; since 1940–41, for example, a few prisoners in SS quarries had received bonuses.116Heinrich Himmler was sympathetic to such initiatives. As he told Pohl in March 1942, rewards for hard-working men would guarantee “an enormous increase in the labor performance.” Above all, he regarded monetary and carnal bribes as surefire bets: prisoners would step up if promised money and sex.117 In fact, Himmler had advocated sexual incentives for prisoners before, in October 1941, when he ordered the establishment of a brothel in Mauthausen; the “special building” (Sonderbau) opened in June 1942, the first inside any KL.118

The Camp SS initially remained reluctant to reward prisoners. Attitudes only started to change in spring 1943, and the impetus came once more from Himmler. Following an inspection of the troubled Wilhelm Gustloff rifle factory in Buchenwald on February 26, 1943, he ordered Pohl to introduce a “performance system” for the KL as an “incentive” for harder work. Himmler pointed to the Nazis’ greatest rival, the Soviet Union, and its use of food and financial rewards in driving its people to “the most incredible feats.” In his own camps, Himmler envisaged a graded system, with benefits rising from cigarettes and small payments to the greatest reward of all: a visit for male prisoners, once or twice a week, to a camp brothel. In Himmler’s mind, it was still sex—not food, drink, or clothes—that the prisoners craved most of all.119

Pohl acted straightaway. Within weeks, he agreed to a set of prisoner privileges, valid from May 15, 1943, which would guide the Camp SS in the future (with some later amendments). The aim, Pohl explained, was the urgent increase in prisoner output. Taking his cue from Himmler, he outlined the conditions for earning tobacco and money. He also fleshed out the procedure for entrance to camp brothels, a special prize for “star performers” who had made “truly outstanding efforts.” Other bonuses included additional letters to relatives, extra rations, and the privilege of wearing longer hair. Typically, the SS drafted these regulations with men in mind; female prisoners, by contrast, were still banned from smoking, at least in Ravensbrück, and their only way into camp brothels was as forced sex workers.120

Camp SS managers no doubt regarded the new privileges as a major concession. In reality, they were far from revolutionary. Token payments for forced labor had long been common in Nazi Germany, even in state prisons.121 What is more, vast numbers of KL prisoners never received any rewards. Too weak and exhausted to qualify, they were often even worse off than before, as the SS diverted some of the meager rations to “diligent” prisoners.122 And some of these inmates were left empty-handed, too, after local Camp SS officers delayed the introduction of the rewards system; elsewhere greedy guards and Kapos simply pocketed the bonuses themselves.123

Even prisoners who received rewards—an estimated fifteen percent in a camp like Monowitz—were often disappointed.124 The WVHA had swiftly ruled out the possibility of paying money, since it could easily be used for bribes (from 1942–43, inmates were forbidden to carry cash and to draw on money sent by relatives). Instead, the WVHA introduced vouchers, whose monetary value was only redeemable inside the camps. Kapos stood to gain the most; typically, labor supervisors could earn the equivalent of four Reichsmark per week (in vouchers), three or four times more than ordinary workers in the KL. Not only were the authorities often miserly in handing out vouchers, there was little to purchase in KL canteens. True, some prisoners bought cigarettes for barter, and others enjoyed the alcohol-free malt beer. But food was of poor quality and in short supply, as were other essentials.125 Nicholas Rosenberg, a Hungarian Jew in the Auschwitz satellite camp Bobrek, who worked as a mechanic in a Siemens-Schuckert factory, spoke for many when he described the vouchers as fairly pointless. The camp canteen was rarely open, and when it was, it “generally sold nothing but toothbrushes and toothpaste.” Hardly surprising, then, that the vouchers never became the main currency on the concentration camps’ black markets.126

The vouchers also served as admission tickets to the KL brothels, at the equivalent cost of two (later one) Reichsmark per visit. The creation of these brothels caused both excitement and outrage among prisoners, and some red faces among the SS. Even Heinrich Himmler, their chief advocate, was rather sheepish, admitting that the whole affair was “not particularly edifying.” Oswald Pohl felt the same and ordered the brothels to be built on the far edge of the compounds; in Sachsenhausen, the new brothel was located right above the morgue.127 Although the SS strictly regimented brothel visits—male prisoners had to ask in writing for permission and undergo prior health checks—some witnesses later claimed that the establishments had enjoyed great popularity. According to Tadeusz Borowski, large crowds gathered in the Auschwitz main camp: “For every Juliet there are at least a thousand Romeos.”128 In reality, only a tiny fraction of the prisoner population ever set foot inside the brothels. The Buchenwald brothel, for example, recorded no more than fifty-three daily visitors on average during October 1943. Some prisoner groups were barred altogether, on racial or political grounds; although each KL had different rules, Jews and Russian POWs were not admitted anywhere. In fact, the very idea of visiting the brothels never crossed the minds of most prisoners, who only thought about survival. As for the small elite of better-fed prisoners, who still had sexual desires and the means (vouchers) to satisfy them, some refused on principle to frequent the brothels. Old friends and comrades argued bitterly over such boycotts, and in Dachau, the first men to enter were mocked and jostled by hostile prisoners waiting outside. In the end, most regular users came from among the senior Kapos, who used their visits as demonstrations of their privileged status and virility.129

The forced sex workers—fewer than two hundred women in all—were themselves prisoners, selected in different concentration camps. Most wore the black triangle of “asocials,” and many, though by no means all, had worked as prostitutes earlier in their lives. Although SS officers prided themselves on picking volunteers, they actually relied heavily on compulsion, cajoling the women with promises of better conditions (true) and eventual release (false). Selecting a brothel over a lethal labor detail was just another choiceless choice for these women. As one of them put it in autumn 1942: “Half a year in a brothel is still better than half a year in a concentration camp.” What they had not expected was the scorn of some fellow inmates. After the war, a Polish political prisoner recounted how she and ten other inmates had assaulted another Polish woman in Ravensbrück, whom they suspected of volunteering as a prostitute: “We cut her hair a bit and cut her, too, a bit as we were doing it.” Such assaults remained rare, however. And despite the dread, distress, and degradation of the brothels, the survival chances of the forced sex workers did improve, since they now received better provisions. For the victims, then, sexual exploitation proved a strategy for survival.130

Looking at the reward system as a whole, the high hopes of Himmler and Pohl proved misplaced. Bribes prompted few prisoners to work harder. After all, working harder was not a matter of choice for most, given their poor physical condition. As for the group of prisoners that did benefit the most, it largely consisted of Kapos, who were rewarded not for their output but for their already exalted position in the prisoner hierarchy. Instead of a significant increase in KL productivity, Pohl’s initiative led to a further deepening of the gulf between the small upper class of prisoners and the rest. Growing longer hair, for example, became another visual signifier dividing the privileged few, with their immaculate clothes, from the great mass of shaven-headed, dirty, and starving inmates.131

Growing the Camps

Sergey Ovrashko was still a boy when he was deported in 1942 from his native Ukraine to Nazi Germany for forced labor. Born in 1926 in a small village near Kiev, he was supporting his family as a cowherd when German troops invaded the Soviet Union. One year later, he found himself toiling in a high-tech arms factory in Plauen (Saxony), some nine hundred miles away. Worse was to come. After a mistake on the assembly line, he was accused of sabotage, arrested by the Gestapo, and sent in late January 1943 as a political prisoner to Buchenwald.132 Ovrashko was one of more than forty-two thousand prisoners arriving in Buchenwald in 1943, part of an unparalleled surge in inmate numbers that affected the entire concentration camp system.133

The KL prisoner population never grew faster during the war than in 1943, shooting up from an estimated one hundred and fifteen thousand at the start of the year to an estimated three hundred and fifteen thousand at the end.134 In terms of their overall size, the main camps (and their attached satellites) fell into three groups by the end of 1943. Auschwitz, with 85,298 prisoners, was by far the largest and in a league all its own. It was followed by a group of camps established before the war: Dachau, Ravensbrück, Mauthausen, Sachsenhausen, and Buchenwald, which now held between twenty-four thousand and thirty-seven thousand prisoners (the new KL Kovno, with some nineteen thousand prisoners, also belongs to this group). Finally, there were the remaining eleven main camps, many less than a year old, which formed the smallest group, with an average of perhaps six thousand prisoners each.135 To put these figures into perspective: back in September 1939, when war broke out, the largest KL, Sachsenhausen, had held no more than 6,500 prisoners.136

Most new prisoners were caught during an unprecedented wave of arrests sweeping across Germany and much of Nazi-occupied Europe from late 1942 onward. Economic motives played a major part here (as we shall see below), but they overlapped with other Nazi measures. Above all, there was the Holocaust. Deportations of Jews to Auschwitz increased sharply in 1943, compared to the previous year, bringing more prisoners than ever to the camp.137

Another important factor was the determination of the RSHA to stamp out any whiff of opposition at home and resistance abroad, a resolve that grew more radical as German confidence in victory began to crumble. From 1942, Nazi leaders became ever more obsessed with the stability of the home front, as the distorted memory of the German defeat and revolution of 1918, so crucial for early Nazi terror, once more dominated their minds. Adolf Hitler, in particular, imagined the catastrophe of an internal collapse in the most garish colors. He was personally responsible, he told his entourage on May 22, 1942, for thwarting “the creation of a home front of scoundrels like in 1918.”138 Ruthless action was required against criminals, political enemies, and other deviants who might attack the regime. During a time of crisis, Hitler repeated again and again, one had to “exterminate,” “eliminate,” “execute,” “beat to death,” “shoot,” or “liquidate” large numbers of “scum,” “rats,” and “asocial vermin.”139 Hitler saw the concentration camps as the most powerful weapon in this war on the home front. On May 23, 1942, toward the end of a blazing speech to the Nazi top brass, he singled out the KL as the main bulwark against an uprising. If Nazi Germany should ever face an internal crisis, Hitler exclaimed, Heinrich Himmler would have to “shoot the criminals in all concentration camps, rather than let them loose on the German people.”140

Himmler did not expect to use these emergency powers. Rather than wait until the Third Reich was in danger, his police forces would root out any threats in advance. Facing a sharp rise in common crime, linked to growing deprivation, dislocation, and damage caused by the war, the criminal police stepped up its policy of crime prevention and sent more Germans straight to the KL, sometimes with explicit instructions that their return was undesirable. Looking at prisoners from the territory of the German Reich, Himmler declared in a speech in autumn 1943, those detained as “asocial” and “criminal” far exceeded political prisoners. Among them were ex-convicts and minor property offenders, whose deviant behavior was characterized as a dangerous attack on the home front. On the same grounds, the police arrested several thousand German women, charged with illicit contacts with foreigners; before being dragged to camps, some women accused of sexual relationships were publicly shamed and humiliated.141

The German police also targeted Gypsies inside the Third Reich with unprecedented zeal. In autumn 1942, after years of escalating Nazi persecution, including segregation, sterilization, detention, and expulsion, the leaders of the criminal police in the RSHA advocated a systematic solution to the “Gypsy Question.” Depicting Gypsies as a criminal and biological threat to the home front, they lobbied Himmler for mass deportations. Himmler agreed. With Hitler’s blessing, he ordered on December 16, 1942, that the great majority of Gypsies should be sent to a concentration camp. Police guidelines, passed in the following month, left some leeway for local officials; determined to make their districts “Gypsy free,” they generally opted for the hardest approach. Starting in late February 1943, some fourteen thousand men, women, and children—among them many families—were deported from Germany and annexed Austria to Auschwitz-Birkenau; as the biggest Nazi camp, it seemed best placed to absorb a large number of prisoners at short notice (another 8,500 Gypsies arrived from elsewhere, mostly from the occupied Czech territory). Their arrival marked the birth of the so-called Gypsy camp in sector BIIe of Birkenau.142 One of the first prisoners was the forty-three-year-old trader August Laubinger from Quedlinburg, who arrived on March 4, 1943, together with his wife, Hulda, and four children. This was not his first time in a KL; in summer 1938, as we have seen, the police had sent him as “work-shy” to Sachsenhausen. Back then, he had been lucky to be released, and returned home to his family just before the outbreak of the war. This time, there was no way out. August Laubinger, prisoner number Z-229, died in Birkenau sometime before the end of the year.143

The primary focus of police terror on the home front was not on Gypsies or German social outsiders, however, but on foreign workers; in summer 1943, more than two-thirds of all new Gestapo prisoners were foreigners, who were routinely suspected as troublemakers, subversives, and criminals. The growing number of foreigners living in Germany, which swelled because of the merciless pursuit of foreign labor by Fritz Sauckel, only intensified these fears. By the end of 1943, the total number of foreign civilian workers and POWs inside the Third Reich had reached a staggering 7.3 million, turning the Nazi vision of an ethnically unified “people’s community” on its head. The great majority of foreign workers came from Poland and the Soviet Union (especially from Ukraine), with hundreds of thousands more from western Europe, above all from France. Worst off were the hungry and exhausted men and women from eastern Europe, who had to wear special markers, resembling the KL triangles, to identify them in case they broke the draconian rules.

The police habitually handed out brutal penalties. This was true, above all, for Poles and Soviets, whose punishment the compliant legal authorities now largely left to the police. There was no reason to worry about the millions of foreign workers, Heinrich Himmler assured SS group leaders in Posen on October 4, 1943, “as long as we come down hard on the smallest trifles.” Most alleged offenses were indeed trivial. Turning up late for work or disagreeing with a German superior was enough to be accused of “loafing” or “obstinacy.” The most common police sanction for supposedly grave offenses was a brief spell in a Gestapo camp (so-called Work Education Camps, or AELs, and Extended Police Prisons); these were harsh wartime additions to the Nazi landscape of terror, designed to discipline and deter “recalcitrant” workers through short but sharp detention. The most serious cases, however, were dealt with elsewhere: prisoners accused of sabotage, such as Sergey Ovrashko, and others regarded as especially dangerous, were dragged to the KL, which filled up with many tens of thousands of foreign workers in 1943. In this way, the SS gained more slave laborers and simultaneously increased the pressure on foreign workers outside to conform to Nazi demands. Punishment and deterrence went hand in hand.144

Like Ovrashko, many Soviet foreign workers were still in their teens when they came to the KL. In Dachau alone, some 2,200 Soviet youths, aged eighteen or under, arrived in 1942. Their average age soon fell even further, after the German occupation authorities in the east dispatched ever-younger boys and girls for labor to the Reich. The police had no qualms about dragging these children to concentration camps, and in January 1943 Heinrich Himmler officially lowered to sixteen years the minimum age for committing Soviet forced workers.145 In practice, some were younger still. The Russian prisoner V. Chramcov, himself a teenager when he was forced to Dachau, recalled that one barrack had been packed with more than two hundred children, aged between six and seven.146 Some veteran prisoners looked on in horror. In his Dachau diary, Edgar Kupfer noted on April 11, 1943, that the “many little Russians in the camp” were “utterly miserable with hunger.”147

The tentacles of Himmler’s terror apparatus also reached far beyond the borders of the Third Reich, pulling even more foreigners into concentration camps from abroad. As the war turned further against Germany in 1943, resistance across Nazi-occupied Europe intensified. So did the Nazi response. Himmler led from the front, insisting on overwhelming force. In northern and western Europe, he authorized selective assassinations of public figures as a form of “counterterrorism,” while his men ran wild in eastern and southeastern Europe, using antipartisan warfare as an excuse for blanket executions. When it came to locking up foreign suspects, Himmler often opted for his trusted concentration camps. The call for mass deportations of foreign resisters, deviants, and hostages to the KL became a reflex for him, and contributed to the sharp rise in prisoners from Nazi-occupied Europe. Among them were the so-called NN prisoners, held in almost total isolation. To discourage resistance in northern and western Europe, Hitler had ordered that some suspects should secretly be deported to Germany, never to be seen again by their families; they would disappear in “night and fog” (Nacht und Nebel, or NN).148

The mass arrest of foreigners in 1943 left its mark on the KL system. In most camps inside the Third Reich’s prewar borders, German prisoners had still constituted the largest or second-largest inmate group in early 1943. Now these camps began to change. In Buchenwald, for example, the proportion of Germans among the inmate population fell from thirty-five percent to thirteen percent during 1943 (even though the number of German prisoners still rose by more than one thousand), while the share of east European prisoners increased correspondingly; on December 25, 1943, there were 14,451 Soviet and 7,569 Polish prisoners in Buchenwald, making up almost sixty percent of the prisoner population (37,221). By contrast, there were only 4,850 Germans, who were almost outnumbered by the 4,689 French, a prisoner group that had been virtually nonexistent one year earlier.149

Hunting for Slave Laborers

In late May 1942, Heinrich Himmler sent a word of warning to Oswald Pohl: it was important to avoid the impression “that we arrest people, or keep them inside [the KL] after their arrest, to have workers.”150 He may have been anxious about appearances, but Himmler had long resolved to grow the slave labor force inside his concentration camps. Economic considerations had already influenced the arrest of “work-shy” men back in the late 1930s, and by 1942, Himmler’s appetite for forced laborers had become ravenous.151

Seizing prisoners from other Nazi authorities was one way of boosting the KL slave labor force. Before the war, Himmler’s bids for regular state prisoners had been rebuffed. But the stance of the legal authorities relaxed after the appointment of the hard-liner Otto-Georg Thierack as Reich minister of justice on August 20, 1942. Desperate to shore up the standing of the judiciary—which had reached a low point in spring 1942, following a public broadside from Hitler—Thierack was willing to throw one of the last legal principles overboard: the rule that defendants sentenced by the courts served their time in state prisons. In a meeting with Himmler on September 18, 1942, Thierack agreed to hand over whole groups of judicial prisoners: those sentenced to security confinement, “asocial” German and Czech penitentiary inmates sentenced to more than eight years, convicts at the bottom of the Nazi racial hierarchy (that is, Jews, Gypsies, and Soviets), as well as Poles serving sentences of over three years. Brushing aside the rule of law, or what was left of it, Germany’s leading jurist condemned many of his own prisoners to death in Himmler’s concentration camps.

The ensuing prisoner transfers accelerated the shift in power between legal and SS terror, and helped the camps finally to outstrip prisons. Although inmate numbers in the latter swelled during the war, too, they could no longer keep up with lawless terror; by June 1943, the KL prisoner population had grown to some two hundred thousand inmates, around fifteen thousand more than German state prisons. Himmler must have been gratified to overtake the much-maligned legal authorities. But this was now a secondary concern, overshadowed by his quest for more slave labor. Like Hitler, Himmler believed that the incoming state prisoners would be in great shape, having been pampered in plush prisons; working them to death in concentration camps could only benefit the SS.

Deportations from German state prisons to Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Mauthausen, Neuengamme, and Sachsenhausen began in November 1942, and were largely completed late the following spring. In all, the legal authorities had handed over more than twentythousand state prisoners. Most of them were German nationals, above all petty property offenders, while Poles made up the largest group of foreigners.152 Thousands more Polish state prisoners arrived in Auschwitz and Majdanek from prisons in the General Government (run by the police), following a Himmler order on December 5, 1942, that targeted long-term prisoners judged fit for work.153

Himmler’s efforts to bolster his slave labor force became more frantic from late 1942, as Germany’s strategic position deteriorated. Following the encirclement of the Sixth Army in Stalingrad and losses in North Africa, not even Himmler could ignore the whispers of impending defeat. War production became more pressing than ever, increasing demands on the RSHA (still in charge of arrests and releases) to deliver more slaves to concentration camps.154 Some of this pressure came from the WVHA, with Oswald Pohl insisting in a letter to Himmler on December 8, 1942, that many more prisoners were required for armaments production.155 Himmler reacted straightaway. On December 12, he attended Pohl’s wedding as the guest of honor and used the joyous occasion for a confidential chat about the KL.156 Only a few days later, Himmler issued an urgent order to Gestapo leader Heinrich Müller: by the end of January 1943, the police had to deliver some fifty thousand new prisoners to the concentration camps for slave labor.157Müller grasped the significance of Himmler’s demand and exhorted his police forces that “every single worker counts!”158

The result was a major police operation against Jews and foreign workers from eastern Europe. On December 16, 1942, Heinrich Müller informed Himmler about plans for the deportation of forty-five thousand Jews—thirty thousand from Bialystok district, most of the others from Theresienstadt—to Auschwitz. The great majority of them, he added, would be “unfit for work” (in other words, they would be gassed on arrival), but at least ten to fifteen thousand could be “set aside” for forced labor.159 Just one day later, Müller ordered mass transfers from German police jails and AELs, targeting Soviet workers and others of “alien blood,” who had been arrested for offenses against labor discipline. Müller hoped that this initiative would net at least another thirty-five thousand prisoners “fit for work” for the concentration camps.160 Meanwhile, Himmler pushed for even more prisoners. On January 6, 1943, he demanded that boys and girls arrested as “suspected partisans” in the General Government and the occupied Soviet Union should become apprentices in KL enterprises in Auschwitz and Majdanek. And just twelve days later, he responded to bomb attacks in Marseilles by calling for the deportation of one hundred thousand members of the local “criminal masses” to concentration camps, an outlandish target that speaks volumes about Himmler’s state of mind (in the end, some six thousand persons were arrested).161

The manhunts in early 1943 led to a rapid rise in the KL prisoner population. In Auschwitz, the number of registered Polish inmates doubled, from 9,514 (December 1, 1942) to 18,931 (January 29, 1943). Even more significantly, the SS deported more than fifty-seven thousand Jews to Auschwitz in January 1943, a grim record not surpassed until the mass transports of Jews from Hungary in late spring 1944.162 Not only did the number of KL prisoners increase, but fewer were allowed to leave, as RSHA regulations for releases, already highly restrictive, were tightened further to retain more slave laborers.163

Prisoner numbers across the KL system would have risen much higher still had it not been for the dreadful conditions, the murderous violence, and the systematic killings that decimated Himmler’s much-heralded workforce. According to incomplete SS figures, almost ten thousand registered inmates lost their lives in January 1943 alone.164 Mortality figures had apparently been even higher during the preceding months, and Camp SS leaders would no doubt have continued to ignore these deaths had the growing focus on war production not started to drive up the value of slave labor. For the first time in its history, the Camp SS came under sustained pressure to improve conditions. As the RSHA suggested in a biting letter to Pohl on December 31, 1942, what was the point of all the mass arrests if so many new prisoners died so quickly inside the concentration camps?165

Reducing Death Rates

Richard Glücks was not a man of many surprises. But on December 28, 1942, he delivered a stunning message to the Camp SS: Heinrich Himmler had ordered that prisoner mortality in the concentration camps “must absolutely become lower” (this phrase was lifted almost verbatim from Himmler’s order, sent two weeks earlier to Pohl). Glücks pointed to grim figures. Although some 110,000 new prisoners had arrived during the last six months (June to November 1942), almost 80,000 inmates had died during the same period, 9,258 after executions and another 70,610 from illness, exhaustion, and injury (Glücks did not include Jews gassed in Auschwitz on arrival, without registration). This huge death rate meant that “the number of prisoners can never be brought up to the [right] level, as the Reichsführer SS has ordered.” Consequently, Glücks decreed, senior camp doctors had to take all available measures to drive down “significantly” the number of deaths. This was not the first time Camp SS leaders had reminded their men that greater output required at least a minimum of care; but never before had such an order been made with such urgency.166

Signaling its seriousness about raising living standards, the WVHA issued several further directives in 1943. In January, taking his cue from Himmler once more, Glücks made local KL commandants and administration leaders responsible for using all available means to “preserve the labor power of prisoners.”167 Oswald Pohl also weighed in, summing up his views in a long letter to commandants in October 1943. Arms production in the camps was already a “decisive factor in the war,” he fantasized, but to further increase output, the SS would have to look after its prisoners. In order for Germany to win “a great victory,” Camp SS officers had to ensure the “healthiness” and “well-being” of slave laborers in concentration camps. Pohl then outlined a range of practical improvements. To underline their importance, he announced that he would personally supervise their implementation.168

After years of endorsing and escalating violence in concentration camps, senior SS officials in Berlin and Oranienburg now seemed to play a different tune, jarring to some guards raised in the school of violence. Of course, SS leaders had not undergone a sudden conversion from cruelty to compassion. His demands owed nothing to “sentimental humanitarianism,” Pohl reassured the commandants. It was a purely practical strategy, since the “arms and legs” of prisoners were needed to support the German war effort.169 The WVHA was not alone in rethinking its approach. As it dawned on Nazi leaders that the supply of labor power would not be limitless, other groups of forced laborers, too, could hope for some improvements of their conditions.170

Since starvation was probably the greatest cause of death among registered KL prisoners, a better food supply was the most pressing task—as even Heinrich Himmler recognized.171 However, SS leaders were reluctant to distribute additional resources and instead promoted measures that came at no extra cost. Some were just an outlet for the eccentric ideas of Himmler, who fancied himself as a visionary nutritionist. Foremost was his preposterous plan to distribute onions and other raw vegetables, an initiative that would have caused more misery for inmates already suffering from intestinal infections.172 Drawing on expert SS advice, meanwhile, Oswald Pohl circulated his own proposals to the camps, full of banal cookery tips (“Don’t boil warm meals to death!”) and stern reminders to be thrifty (“There must be no kitchen scraps in the KL”).173

Another initiative by Himmler proved more significant. In late October 1942, the Reichsführer SS had permitted prisoners to receive food packages from outside, reviving the old practice from the prewar camps. Soon, parcels arrived from relatives, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and some national Red Cross societies.174 Rare luxuries now found their way into the KL; packages by the Danish Red Cross included sausage, cheese, butter, pork, fish, and more. Such parcels were a blessing for inmates and they talked about little else; some even dreamed about the packages. In her secret Ravensbrück diary, the French prisoner Simone Saint-Clair recorded how desperately she longed for mail: “Never before have I waited like this for packages and letters!” Those who received regular supplies were less likely to suffer from edema, diarrhea, tuberculosis, and other illnesses. Helena Dziedziecka from Warsaw, another Ravensbrück prisoner, later testified that the parcels “kept us alive.”175

But not every inmate benefited, far from it; there were always many more hopeful prisoners than parcels.176 For a start, the national Red Cross societies restricted the circle of recipients; in Majdanek, for example, packages by the Polish Red Cross went to Polish prisoners only. Moreover, the SS only passed on parcels addressed to individual inmates; prisoners whose names and whereabouts were unknown to welfare organizations and relatives—or who had no more relatives outside—went hungry. Meanwhile, SS staff and Kapos found a new opportunity for corruption and helped themselves freely to the packages; when Anna Mettbach, a German Gypsy in Auschwitz, received a parcel from her mother, she found the original contents replaced by rotten apples and bread.177 The local Camp SS barred whole groups of inmates from receiving food parcels altogether, above all Soviets and Jews. “All of us are very needy,” Edgar Kupfer wrote in his Dachau diary, “especially the Russians, because they get no parcels.”178

In addition to parcels, some prisoners received extra food from the German state, again at no extra cost for the SS. Although the Reich Ministry for Food and Agriculture had cut official prisoner rations substantially since early 1942, as Germany suffered a general food crisis, most prisoners did qualify for additional food allowances for heavy labor. However, these allowances were not handed out automatically, and local Camp SS officials were slow to complete the necessary paperwork (some of those who did kept back the extra rations). Eventually, more inmates received their due, though it is likely that most prisoners were left empty-handed.179

SS leaders knew that efforts to improve conditions could not stop at the food supply. They would have to do something about all the gravely weak and ill inmates. In late 1942, Himmler complained to Pohl that far too many prisoners—some ten percent, by his count—were currently unable to work.180 In the past, the Camp SS had been quick to kill such invalids. These murderous reflexes were now more restrained, however, as SS leaders aimed to press prisoners who recovered back into work.181 In some camps, these considerations led to restrictions on local SS selections.182Himmler also effectively abandoned the central program for murdering frail prisoners (Action 14f13), scaled down earlier. In the future, the commandants were told in spring 1943, all prisoners “unfit for work” would be exempt from selections by the doctors’ commissions (with the sole exception of mentally ill inmates). Instead of killing “bedridden cripples,” the Camp SS should force them to work, as Himmler had demanded for some time.183

As for the medical treatment of the sick, Camp SS leaders called for a new approach, too. “The best doctor in a concentration camp,” Glücks insisted in late 1942, “is not the one who thinks he has to distinguish himself by inappropriate toughness, but the one who keeps the ability to work … as high as possible.”184 This demand resulted in at least one notable change: the SS staffed the KL infirmaries with more inmates who were trained doctors, bringing back another custom from the prewar camps. Soon, these prisoner physicians carried out most of the day-to-day duties. In contrast to their often inept SS superiors, they were highly qualified and secured some improvements for patients; the construction of new buildings and the enhanced provision of equipment and medicines also helped, at least in some camps.185

Important as these changes were for individual inmates, they did not transform prisoner care as a whole. Any hygienic improvements were often negated by growing overcrowding, a direct result of the SS push for more slave laborers.186 The infirmaries continued to be characterized by desperate shortages, neglect, and abuse. Describing the hospital barracks in Sachsenhausen, a recently escaped prisoner wrote in summer 1944 that the “stench of rotting flesh, blood, and pus is unbearable.”187 The best care was reserved for a small number of skilled, well-connected, and privileged prisoners.188 By contrast, the SS still left most seriously ill inmates to die or murdered them outright. In particular, the practice of deporting dying prisoners to other camps continued, with Auschwitz replacing Dachau as the favored destination. Late on December 5, 1943, for instance, a so-called invalid transport from Flossenbürg arrived in the camp. The packed train included the corpses of more than 250 men who had died en route to Auschwitz. Many of the surviving 948 men, some weighing less than ninety pounds, were close to death. The SS threw the weakest onto the snow-covered ground, pouring water over them to hasten their death. The remaining men soon died, too; by February 18, 1944, just 393 were still alive.189

But the WVHA did not abandon its overall ambition to bring down the death rate. And because the climate of cruelty inside the KL was another major cause of injury and death, the officials tried to curb some of the most blatant excesses. They cut back on the number and duration of roll calls (a frequent occasion for SS torture) and instructed local guards to leave prisoners in peace at nighttime, to allow them some more rest. The authorities also pressed for a reduction in corporal punishment and abandoned the infamous “hanging from a pole” (at least on paper).190 More generally, the WVHA reiterated its ban on rogue attacks on prisoners. Further reminders came from local Camp SS officers, some of whom openly rebuked and even punished violent guards.191

Again, these measures showed some effect, although much of the day-to-day terror continued. Many local Camp SS officials lived in a world where the most heinous abuse of prisoner bodies was considered normal, even after death (in Buchenwald, SS men produced shrunken heads and objects made from tattooed prisoner skin). It is not surprising that SS veterans steeped in a culture of cruelty would resist even modest efforts from above to reduce the violence.192 Their immediate superiors often condoned their stance. Some local SS officers told block leaders to keep battering inmates, even as they asked them, with a wink, to sign the official undertaking not to touch any prisoners.193

The persistence of local terror owed much to SS leaders. It would be wrong to imagine a simple clash between reformist WVHA managers and local SS torturers.194 The central orders for the KL in 1942–43 were by no means clear-cut. At the same time that the WVHA demanded better conditions and treatment, it pushed for the brutal exploitation of prisoners, despite the obvious contradictions. Oswald Pohl himself had set the tone in spring 1942 with his call for “exhausting” forced labor. Gerhard Maurer, Pohl’s slave driver, tried to realize this demand. In early June 1942, he repeated his master’s words, urging KL commandants to “utilize” the labor power of inmates to the “absolute maximum.” To this end, Maurer continued, prisoners had to work not only during the week, but all day on Saturdays and on Sunday mornings, too.195 It was doubtful whether this order brought any economic benefits; some private companies were unable to operate on Sundays, while utterly exhausted prisoners produced less, not more.196 The WVHA was undeterred, and in November 1943, Pohl reiterated the orders: “The extensive operations which are being carried on today and which are important for our warfare and decisive for victory do not permit under any circumstances that the net daily working time amounts to less than 11 hours.” In practice, prisoners often worked even longer, driven on by the local Camp SS.197 The result was more illness, injury, and death.

A New Direction?

Still, Oswald Pohl was triumphant. Prisoner fatalities inside the KL were falling fast, he boasted in a letter to Himmler on September 30, 1943; thanks to all the recent innovations, the WVHA had accomplished the mission set by the Reichsführer SS. The monthly death rate among registered prisoners had fallen steadily, Pohl announced, from eight percent in January 1943 to less than three percent in June. This was not simply a seasonal adjustment, he added, but a sharp decline in real terms (the figure for July 1942 had stood at 8.5 percent). To drive home his point, Pohl dazzled Himmler with statistics, graphs, and tables, all of which led to the same conclusion. Himmler was delighted by the good news—which reached him amid more military setbacks for the Nazi regime—and thanked Pohl and his men profusely.198

Some historians have accepted Pohl’s claims wholesale, including his figures.199 But caution is in order: after all, Pohl was desperate to be seen to reduce prisoner deaths. Looking more closely, it is clear that his numbers do not quite add up. Not only did the Camp SS simply omit many deaths of registered prisoners from the official record, but Pohl’s figures did not even tally with other (higher) SS figures. There can be no doubt, in short, that more KL prisoners died than Pohl suggested.200 This is not to say, however, that the general trend he outlined was a fabrication.201 Prisoner mortality across the KL system really did decline; overall, inmates had a better chance of survival in autumn 1943 than eighteen months earlier.202

This conclusion must be qualified, however, in three ways. First, the KL system was still lethal. Even though the relative death rate declined, total mortality increased in several camps in 1943, as the inmate population expanded. In the Auschwitz complex, for example, the estimated number of deaths among registered prisoners rose from sixty-nine thousand (1942) to more than eighty thousand (1943).203 Even though the basic conditions in Auschwitz improved somewhat during this period—one Polish prisoner even suggested that “there was a huge difference between now and then”—they remained deadly. Hermann Langbein, a privileged prisoner with direct access to confidential SS statistics, later reported that the monthly inmate mortality in Auschwitz had fallen from 19.1 percent (January 1943) to 13.2 percent (January 1944). In other words, the SS had prolonged the suffering of prisoners, but most died all the same.204

Second, there were enormous differences between camps. Far more prisoners lost their lives in occupied eastern Europe than farther west. According to the figures Pohl presented to Himmler, the most deadly concentration camp in August 1943 was Majdanek, where prisoners were ten times more likely to die than in Buchenwald.205 Even in established main camps within Germany’s prewar borders, however, conditions developed unevenly. In Mauthausen, the situation improved markedly and the annual inmate mortality halved, from an estimated forty-five percent (1942) to twenty-five percent (1943). By comparison, there were few, if any, improvements for the women in Ravensbrück or the men in Flossenbürg over the same period.206

Third, the geographical imbalance of the KL system owed much to the different mortality rates of individual prisoner groups. In Majdanek and Auschwitz, the two biggest camps in the occupied east, Jews made up the largest prisoner group in 1943; and these registered Jewish inmates rarely lived for much longer than a few months, as the basic SS approach toward them remained unchanged—“annihilation through labor.” The Camp SS even extended this policy to some other inmate groups, notably state prisoners arriving under the agreement between Thierack and Himmler. By the end of March 1943, almost half of the 12,658 state prisoners deported since November 1942 were already dead. Most had survived for no more than a few weeks, pursued mercilessly by the Camp SS. In Buchenwald, for example, the monthly death rate of former state prisoners stood at a staggering twenty-nine percent in early 1943—compared to less than one percent among German “greens” (so-called professional criminals).207

Even if the overall trend was less dramatic than the triumphant Pohl suggested, the KL system did become less deadly in 1943, as the WVHA initiatives showed some effect. While the impact of each particular measure was limited, their cumulative effect proved significant. The dramatic descent into squalor and death, which had begun with the outbreak of war in autumn 1939, was temporarily arrested and reversed. As we have seen before, the KL did not develop along a straight line. And they were not impervious to directions from above. Just as SS leaders in Berlin had escalated terror in the past, they could also rein it in. Some central orders took time to sink in and others were subverted and ignored, but the WVHA was able to set the general direction for its camps.208Although they succeeded in lowering the death rate, however, the SS managers had no desire to transform the whole ethos of the camps. As a result, the main coordinates of the KL system—which rested on neglect, contempt, and hatred—remained largely unchanged.


Siegmund Wassing, a thirty-six-year-old Austrian Jew, arrived in Dachau in November 1941. Five months later, the former film technician from Vienna was condemned to the most dreadful death. On April 3, 1942, he was locked into a pressure cabin, inside a special truck stationed between two infirmary barracks, and wired up to machines measuring his heart and brain activity. Then the air was pumped out of the cabin, simulating a rapid ascent to a height of over seven miles. Within minutes, Wassing, still wearing his striped prisoner uniform, was sweating and shaking and gasping for air; after half an hour he stopped breathing, and SS Untersturmführer Sigmund Rascher, an air force doctor, prepared for the postmortem. The ambitious thirty-three-year-old Rascher had ordered the medical execution as part of a series of air pressure experiments, which had started in late February 1942, and also included simulated pressure loss and ejections from a height of up to thirteen miles. In all, several hundred prisoners were abused during the trials in Dachau; dozens died. But Dr. Rascher was upbeat. In a letter on April 5, 1942, just two days after the murder of Siegmund Wassing, he envisaged “entirely new perspectives for aviation.”209

The recipient of this letter, Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler, who had authorized the experiments, was equally excited. So fascinated was he that he decided to see for himself, just as some air force and SS officers had done before him. With Oswald Pohl in tow, Himmler came to Dachau on the afternoon of May 1, 1942, and observed around a half dozen simulated ejections at high altitude; none of the prisoners died, apparently, but they cried and fainted, while the Reichsführer SS watched intently. Himmler left contented, but not before he confronted a few local SS men for making free with the coffee and cognac he had sent to the victims as a last meal.210

It was around the time of Himmler’s visit to Dachau that human experiments proliferated in the KL. Although some trials had taken place earlier, they expanded greatly as Germany’s military fortunes declined. By 1942, SS leaders were grasping at projects that promised renewed hope, whatever their human cost, and treated the bodies of KL prisoners as commodities to be exploited for final victory—not just during slave labor, but also during experiments. Many of these trials, like the ones in Dachau, were explicitly conducted for the war effort. As losses at the front and at home grew, anxious officials looked to medical science to turn the tide. The abuse of KL prisoners was supposed to generate new treatments to save German soldiers from cold and hunger, injuries and epidemics, and to protect German civilians from infections and burns. “I thought it my duty to do everything to ensure this protection,” one doctor later said, trying to justify his part in the murderous experiments, “and to save the lives of thousands of Germans.”211

KL Experiments

Human experiments accompanied the rise of modern medicine, in Germany and beyond. Firm regulation was a long time coming, but after several scandals shook the Weimar Republic, the German medical authorities in 1931 drafted pathbreaking guidelines for research on humans, banning any coercion of test subjects as well as experiments on dying persons and those endangering children.212 Just a few years later, however, physicians in the KL threw out these fundamental rules. The first trials using prisoners, which took place before the outbreak of the Second World War, were still small-scale and comparatively harmless.213 Once Germany was at war, however, the SS supported potentially lethal tests, with events at the front influencing many of these experiments.

Probably the first such experiments took place in the Sachsenhausen infirmary, where two Camp SS doctors poisoned dozens of prisoners with mustard gas between October and December 1939. The order had come from Himmler, gripped by widespread hysteria about possible chemical attacks on German troops, which awakened traumatic memories from the Great War. To determine the effectiveness of two potential remedies, the Sachsenhausen doctors applied mustard gas onto the arms of prisoners, causing burns that spread all the way up to the neck; in some cases, the doctors infected the wounds with bacteria. In the end, the drugs they tested turned out to be useless. The doctors conceded as much in their final reports, forwarded to Himmler by SS Reich physician Ernst Robert Grawitz, who had personally observed the trials.214

Many more experiments followed over the coming years, above all during the second half of World War II. In all, doctors abused more than twenty thousand prisoners from over a dozen KL during the war; several thousand of them died.215 As the number of victims swelled, WVHA managers became concerned about the possible impact on forced labor and asked individual camps in late 1942 how many workers were being lost to the experiments.216 The doctors, meanwhile, covered their tracks, describing the deliberate infection of prisoners with viruses and poison as “vaccinations.”217 Occasionally they slipped up, however, and spoke their minds, calling their victims “guinea pigs” and “rabbits”—terms appropriated, with gallows humor, by some of the victims themselves.218

Heinrich Himmler presided over these experiments, probably with Hitler’s backing.219 Although this was no centrally coordinated program, with many of the most radical initiatives coming from below, Himmler held the keys to the “guinea pigs” and insisted that no KL experiments go ahead without his say-so.220 Scientists with personal connections like Sigmund Rascher, whose wife was a close acquaintance of Himmler, could appeal to him directly.221 Another route led via the Ahnenerbe, Himmler’s pseudoscientific research institute. Originally set up to uncover the mythical roots of the Germanic race, it drifted into military research during the war, and facilitated the supply of KL prisoners for various experiments.222 A third path went through SS Reich physician Grawitz, who became a more influential figure during the war and took control of all SS medical services in 1943. Despite Himmler’s repeated attacks on the professionalism of his chief physician, Grawitz proved himself no less enthusiastic about experiments in the camps than his boss, for whom he evaluated applications from scientists.223

Himmler was an obsessive micromanager of medical torture, devouring reports and suggesting bizarre new treatments. He was dazzled by science and easily captivated by radical schemes of supposed experts, especially when they chimed with his own worldview. The sacrifice of worthless subhumans in the KL would save the lives of German soldiers, he argued, and anyone who objected to this was a traitor. In Himmler’s mind, war justified any means, and he opened the door to many lethal experiments, with Dachau emerging as one of the main centers.224

Himmler’s Favorite Doctor

The history of human experiments in Dachau is closely linked to Dr. Sigmund Rascher, whose murders in the air pressure cabin were the first in a series of often deadly trials. Born into an affluent family in Munich (his father was a doctor, too), he had qualified in 1936 and served as a physician in the air force from 1939. His rapid rise thereafter owed little to his political activism (he only joined the SS in 1939), and even less to his abilities as a physician. Rather, Rascher was propelled by his ambition and his equally determined wife, who made the most of her contacts with Himmler. With the patronage of the Reichsführer SS, who always had time for young firebrands promising scientific breakthroughs by unorthodox means, he became the doyen of human experimentation in Dachau.

Not everyone was taken in by the brash upstart. Professor Karl Gebhardt, the leading clinician in the Waffen SS and a former assistant to Germany’s most famous surgeon, Professor Sauerbruch, dismissed Rascher as a quack. Tellingly, his charge was not that Rascher’s work was inhumane—Gebhardt himself carried out experiments in Ravensbrück—but that it was useless. Reviewing one of Rascher’s reports, Gebhardt told him to his face that if a first-year undergraduate had handed it in, he would have thrown him out of his office. Rascher’s superiors in the air force also grew wary. Grateful that he had initiated aviation experiments in Dachau, they became frustrated with the way Rascher used his direct line to Himmler to go over their heads. On Himmler’s wishes, Rascher was eventually discharged from the air force in 1943 and now butchered and killed solely for the SS (with the rank of Hauptsturmführer), running an experimental station in Dachau bearing his own name.225

As long as he had Himmler’s backing, Rascher kept busy. After the air pressure trials ended in May 1942, Rascher and some colleagues quickly moved on to the next experiment, suspending prisoners in icy water. Again, the trials were driven by military considerations. In view of the growing number of German pilots who crashed in the British channel, the air force wanted to learn more about lengthy exposure to water. During the tests, prisoners had to climb into a freezing tank, with pieces of ice floating inside. Some victims wore full pilots’ outfits; others were naked. One young Polish prisoner begged his tormentors to stop, over and over in broken German: “Nothing more water, nothing more water.” Another Polish prisoner, the priest Leo Michalowski, later testified at the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial about his ordeal, the only survivor to do so: “I was freezing badly in this water, my feet became stiff as iron, my hands too, I was breathing very shallowly. I started again to tremble badly, and cold sweat ran down my head. I felt like I was about to die. And then I pleaded once more to be pulled out, because I could not bear the water any longer.”

After several hours, most prisoners were finally dragged out, unconscious, and the doctors then tried drugs, massages, and electric blankets to revive them. Michalowski was saved, but many more succumbed. Others were deliberately left to die in the tank, so that Rascher could study more closely their cause of death. In all, some two to three hundred Dachau prisoners were tortured in the water tank. Many dozens of them died, mostly under Rascher’s sole supervision: after the trials were officially called off in October 1942, because the air force had gathered sufficient data, Rascher himself continued, eager to further his career; and just as he had done during the air pressure experiments, he pushed for ever more extreme setups.226 Following the German catastrophe at Stalingrad in early 1943, he even extended his freezing experiments to dry land. To study extreme frostbite, Dachau prisoners were left to the elements during the winter nights; they were given a sedative to silence their screams. Rascher’s ambition, one former Dachau Kapo recalled, literally made him “walk over corpses.”227

So fascinated was Heinrich Himmler by Rascher’s freezing experiments that he became personally involved once more. The most promising way of reanimating prisoners suspended in icy water, he suggested, was human warmth; to test his hypothesis, he asked Rascher to make naked women fondle the unconscious men.228 Himmler’s suggestion was patently pointless. Even if “animal warmth” (as he called it) had made any difference, which it did not, no one, not even Himmler, would have suggested stationing prostitutes on German navy vessels just in case they fished out a downed pilot.229 But Himmler’s word was sacrosanct in the SS. Ravensbrück duly dispatched four women in October 1942—the first female prisoners to arrive at Dachau—and the experiments could begin. Before long, Rascher’s sordid sideshow had become a magnet for the local Camp SS and other interested parties.230

The voyeur-in-chief was none other than the sexually repressed Reichsführer SS himself. Himmler felt “great curiosity” about the trials and made sure to see for himself, arriving in Rascher’s Dachau station on the morning of November 13, 1942. Himmler watched everything close-up. A naked male prisoner thrown into the water; Rascher pressing him under as he struggled to get out; the man being pulled out unconscious; his frozen body placed in a large bed; two naked women trying to have sex with him. Himmler was satisfied, except for a minor complaint he passed on to Pohl: he felt that one of the women, a young German prisoner, could still be saved for the Nazi national community and should not be used anymore as a sex slave.231

Everything seemed to be going right for Dr. Sigmund Rascher. With Himmler’s help, he had made a name for himself and by early 1944, he was closing in on his ultimate dream, a professorship. Meanwhile, he continued his human experiments. He was particularly interested in a hemostatic drug called Polygal and ordered the execution of several Dachau prisoners to test its effectiveness. The drug had been developed by a Jewish chemist imprisoned in Dachau, and Rascher planned to make a fortune with it, preparing to manufacture it in a factory of his own. Rascher’s professional and financial future appeared rosy, and there was good news in his private life, too. His wife—who generated additional income by blackmailing released prisoners, threatening to have them taken back to Dachau—announced that she was pregnant with their fourth child.232

But all was not as it seemed. Following a child-snatching incident in Munich, the criminal police discovered that the Raschers’ picture-book family life—which had brought them gifts and goodwill from Himmler—was built on crime and deception. They had no children of their own; Frau Rascher had taken all her boys from other women, with her husband’s complicity. The ensuing police investigation also uncovered evidence of her husband’s corrupt deals in the camp. The arrogant Rascher had made plenty of enemies among the local Camp SS, and his bright prospects unraveled spectacularly. He was placed into custody in May 1944, and the SS shot him in the Dachau bunker just before liberation, not far from the sites where he had conducted his murderous trials. Around the same time, his wife, who had repeatedly tried to escape, was hanged in Ravensbrück.233

The SS experiments in Dachau did not stop with Rascher’s fall, however. He may have been the most prominent medical torturer in the camp, but he was not the only one. Since 1942, several other physicians worked on their own trials, infecting prisoners with bacteria to test drugs against blood poisoning and festering wounds, and forcing them to drink seawater to test a substance said to improve its taste.234 In fact, Dachau was the site of one of the largest KL trials, at the malaria research station run by Professor Claus Schilling, a pupil of the legendary bacteriologist Robert Koch (1843–1910). Schilling was already in his seventies and had spent his long career searching in vain for a vaccine. Given his paltry record, his proposal for human trials in the camps promised little success. Undeterred, Himmler—keen to find a drug to protect troops from malaria in the occupied east—gave him permission to proceed. The experiments began in February 1942 and Schilling, who moved to Dachau, continued until the camp fell apart in spring 1945. In all, around 1,100 prisoners, some already too weak to walk, were infected through injections or mosquito bites, to allow Schilling and his men to test a range of drugs. The prisoners suffered swollen extremities, the loss of nails and hair, high fevers, paralysis, and more. Numerous victims died through drug overdoses, while survivors often endured further experiments.235

The Dachau Camp SS participated in these trials, just as it did in others. When Professor Schilling needed new victims, a list of inmates was drawn up in the office of the Dachau camp doctor. This list was sent to the SS labor office; all registered prisoners had to be accounted for, after all, and prisoners held in the experimental stations were officially classified as employed (their job being tortured as a “guinea pig”). Then, the list of names went to the camp compound leader, who often made a few alterations. Finally, it landed on the desk of the commandant for his signature. Only then were the unfortunate prisoners dragged away to Schilling’s malaria station.236 Similar scenes took place in other KL, where the Camp SS assisted doctors as they abused and killed prisoners to aid their careers and help Germany win the war.

Killing for Victory

On August 14, 1942, Władislawa Karołewska, a young and slight teacher who had been part of the resistance in Nazi-occupied Poland, was ordered to report to the Ravensbrück infirmary, together with several other Polish prisoners. Here she was given an injection in her leg, which made her vomit. Then she was carted into the operating room, where she received another injection; pretty much the last thing she saw before she lost consciousness was an SS doctor wearing surgical gloves. When she awoke, her leg was throbbing: “I realized that my leg was in a cast, from the ankle to the knee.” After three days, running a high fever and with fluid oozing from her swollen leg, Karołewska was set upon once more by the same doctor. “I felt great pain,” she testified after the war, “and I had the impression that something was being cut out of my leg.” After Karołewska lay for two weeks in a room filled with the stench of excretions, together with the other Polish women who had suffered a similar fate, her bandages were finally taken off and she saw her leg for the first time: “The cut was so deep that I could see the bone itself.” After another week, the SS released her to her barrack, even though pus was still running from her leg and she could not walk. Soon she was back in the infirmary, where the SS doctor operated once more; her leg immediately swelled up again. “After this operation I felt even worse and I was unable to move.”237

Władislawa Karołewska’s mutilation was as painful and traumatic as it was incomprehensible. She did not know that it was part of a coordinated series of experiments across several KL, testing drugs against so-called gas gangrene. Army and SS physicians had debated the usefulness of sulfonamide drugs for the treatment of wound infections since late 1941, as fatalities of German troops on the Eastern Front shot up. Following the death of Reinhard Heydrich in early June 1942 from gas gangrene—the explosion from a hand grenade thrown by one of his assassins had embedded parts of the car’s upholstery in his body—the issue gained even greater urgency for Himmler, who believed in sulfonamide as a miracle cure.

In Ravensbrück, the experiments began on July 20, 1942, within weeks of Heydrich’s death. SS clinician Professor Karl Gebhardt, who ran a sanatorium and SS hospital in nearby Hohenlychen, supervised the trials. To simulate the symptoms of gas gangrene, doctors made deep incisions into the thighs of dozens of prisoners, mostly young Polish women like Karołewska, and inserted bacteria, earth, wood shavings, and glass fragments. Eventually, Professor Gebhardt determined that sulfonamide drugs had little effect on treating these infections. In fact, Gebhardt had wanted the drugs to fail all along. As the leading SS surgeon, he had a stake in defending the primacy of frontline surgery. More pressingly, he was fighting accusations that he had bungled Heydrich’s treatment (dispatched by Himmler to attend to his wounded lieutenant in Prague, he had opted against the use of sulfonamides). To prove that he had been right all along, Gebhardt needed the drugs trial in Ravensbrück to come to nothing. Several women died after the ensuing operations, and the others bore the physical and mental scars for the rest of their often short lives.238

Like Dr. Rascher’s murderous high altitude and freezing trials in Dachau, the mutilation of Ravensbrück prisoners was part of the war experiments, ostensibly designed to help save German troops from fatal injuries. In several other KL, too, prisoners were deliberately wounded and killed for this purpose. In Natzweiler, for instance, a Professor Otto Bickenbach supervised lethal trials with phosgene, a toxic gas used during chemical warfare in the First World War. To study its effects, and to test a drug meant to protect German troops, well over one hundred prisoners were forced into the small Natzweiler gas chamber in 1943–44. Within minutes, one survivor recalled, he felt such pain he could barely breathe: “It felt like someone was piercing my lungs with needles.” Many prisoners suffocated. Others died a long, lingering death over the coming days, coughing up blood and the remains of their lungs.239

Another series of war experiments aimed to safeguard German troops from infectious diseases, such as hepatitis, tuberculosis, and, above all, typhus.240 The German authorities regarded typhus, frequently contracted by German soldiers in occupied eastern Europe, as a grave threat, not only to the troops but also to the population back home. The most extensive efforts to find a vaccine came in Buchenwald. Here, some twenty-four different trials were carried out in a permanent research station under SS Hauptsturmführer Dr. Erwin Ding (also known as Ding-Schuler), an inept young physician from the Hygiene Institute of the Waffen SS. His deputy was the Buchenwald SS doctor Waldemar Hoven, a dropout from a respectable family who had drifted around the world—including a spell as an extra on the film sets of Hollywood—before opting for medicine and joining the Camp SS, after less than five years of studies (Hoven was so incompetent he asked prisoners to write his thesis for him). The flawed setup of the Buchenwald experiments rendered them largely futile, scientifically speaking. The most tangible result was suffering. During one trial in summer 1943, which tested two drugs developed by the firm Hoechst, twenty-one out of thirty-nine prisoners died; most survivors developed high fevers, swollen faces and eyes, delusions, and tremors. In all, the doctors are said to have experimented on well over 1,500 subjects between 1942 and 1944; more than 200 prisoners did not survive the Buchenwald typhus research station.241

A final series of war experiments was designed to boost the performance of German troops, rather than their protection. Physicians carried out several trials along these lines with Sachsenhausen prisoners. In November 1944, a navy doctor administered high doses of stimulants, including cocaine, in the search for drugs that would allow the deployment of submarine crews for days on end. The Camp SS let him loose on one of the most exhausting labor details, where inmates walked in a circle for up to twenty-five miles a day, shouldering heavy sand bags, to test the design of new footwear. The twenty-year-old Günther Lehmann was among the prisoners selected for the experiments. During the four-day trial with cocaine he slept no more than a few hours, forever stumbling along the test track, with a rucksack weighing twenty-five pounds on his back. Lehmann survived his ordeal, unlike so many other victims of the Nazis’ human experiments.242

Auschwitz and Nazi Racial Science

SS Hauptsturmführer Josef Mengele arrived in Auschwitz at the end of May 1943, aged thirty-two, after spending most of the previous two years on the Eastern Front, as an SS battalion medical officer. During his first year in the camp, he was the main SS doctor in the so-called Gypsy enclosure; later he took over the infirmary sector and became the senior SS physician in Birkenau. Just like the other Auschwitz doctors, Mengele performed a range of murderous duties. He supervised prisoner executions and gassings, and became known among the SS staff for his lethal approach to epidemics. Mengele was also a frequent presence during selections of Jews at the ramp, conspicuous by his elegant looks, high spirits, and theatrical manner, dividing prisoners like a conductor into separate groups. In summer 1944, the chief SS physician in Auschwitz, Eduard Wirths, praised the “prudence, perseverance, and energy” Mengele brought to the job. In addition, Wirths was struck by Mengele’s zealous use of his spare time, “utilizing the scientific material at his disposal” to make a “valuable contribution in his work on anthropological science.”243 What Wirths pictured here as a sideline was Mengele’s chief obsession: the torture of prisoners in the name of Nazi racial science, which formed part of a second area of KL research, different from the war experiments and clustered around Auschwitz in particular.

Dr. Mengele was a disciple of racial biology, putting his faith in science to purify the body of the nation by identifying and removing supposedly inferior races. Although his beliefs were very much in line with Nazi thinking, Mengele (like Dr. Rascher) was no early Nazi fanatic. He came from an affluent national-conservative family and only applied to join the NSDAP and SS in his midtwenties (in 1937 and 1938 respectively). His main calling was racial science. As an eager student, gaining not one but two doctorates, Mengele had specialized early in racial genetics and anthropology. The diligent young scientist was quickly taken under the wing of Professor Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, one of the doyens of German racial hygiene, who later headed the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics in Berlin. Mengele became one of his assistants and continued to work with him after joining the SS full-time.

Auschwitz during the Holocaust was a dream for a striving and amoral racial biologist like Mengele. He was free to test any hypothesis he wanted, however repugnant, and there was always a ready supply of “scientific material.” Prisoners he claimed for his experiments received special status. Isolated from the others, they were at his personal disposal; their bodies, dead and alive, belonged to Mengele.244 Among his victims were those with stunted growth and other unusual features, with Mengele and his assistants eagerly taking photographs, measurements, and X-rays. He was particularly excited in May 1944, when a family of acrobats with diminutive stature arrived from Hungary. Mengele hoped to experiment on them for years and lost no time in getting started, submitting his victims to injections, bloodletting, eye drops, and bone marrow extraction. One of the acrobats, Elisabeth Ovici, later recalled that “we often felt sick and miserable and had to throw up.” She escaped the worst, though, for Mengele had many prisoners with physical abnormalities murdered; after meticulous autopsies, their bones were dispatched to the skeleton collection of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. Specially prepared eyeballs were couriered to the same address, as Mengele supplied one of Verschuer’s otherassistants, Dr. Karin Magnussen, who was researching Gypsies with different-colored eyes.245

The specialty of Dr. Mengele was the torture of twins. Racial genetics in Germany and abroad had long focused on twins, piquing Mengele’s interest early in his academic studies. After his posting to Auschwitz, he systematically scoured the camp for victims on whom he hoped to build his career. In all, he probably selected more than one thousand twins for experiments. Most of them were boys and girls between the ages of two and sixteen, among them some siblings who had passed themselves off as twins to escape the gas chambers. Mengele subjected them to a battery of tests. First came the obsessive collection of anthropological data, as Mengele, always a pedant, believed that enough facts would inevitably yield important insights; for each twin, a form with ninety-six different sections had to be completed. “Examined, measured, and weighed a hundred times,” is how Eva Herskovits later described her ordeal at Mengele’s hands. The SS took so many blood samples that some children died of anemia.

Then came the experiments. To change the twins’ eye color, apparently, Mengele and his staff injected liquid into their eyes, causing swelling and burns. The SS also infected them with illnesses to test their reactions. In addition, Mengele carried out grotesque surgical experiments, often without anesthetic, to compare the children’s susceptibility to pain. Once, two boys, no more than three or four years old, were stitched together like Siamese twins; they screamed night and day before they died. Death offered Mengele yet another opportunity for his research, and he often set lethal injections himself.246

Given the magnitude of Mengele’s crimes, it is easy to see why he has become the most infamous of all Auschwitz perpetrators. But his notoriety has obscured the deeds of other doctors. Mengele was not a loner. He operated in an environment where medical murders of prisoners were normal. Dozens of physicians carried out racial experiments in Auschwitz, not just other Camp SS doctors like Dr. Wirths, but SS, army, and civilian researchers from outside, as well. As the concentration camp with the largest prisoner population, among them many Jews, Auschwitz proved even more attractive than Dachau for physicians searching for human “guinea pigs,” and no other camp would claim more victims.

Among the physicians lured to the east were two rival doctors, Professor Carl Clauberg and Dr. Horst Schumann, who experimented with fast and cheap mass sterilizations. Keen to eliminate unwanted population groups in occupied eastern Europe, Himmler gave the go-ahead for trials in summer 1942. This triggered a macabre race between the two physicians to find the most effective method. In all, they butchered many hundreds of Auschwitz prisoners (overwhelmingly Jews), in the largest series of experiments in the camp.

The first doctor, Professor Clauberg, who discussed his plans for sterilizing Jewish women with Himmler and Glücks over lunch one day in July 1942, injected a chemical substance into the cervix to cause sterility by closing off the fallopian tubes. The procedurecaused excruciating pain and numerous women died from complications; others were murdered so that Clauberg could examine their organs. One survivor, Chana Chopfenberg, later recalled that Clauberg had treated them all “like animals.” During the injections, she had been blindfolded; she was also threatened with execution if she dared to scream. Unrepentant, Dr. Clauberg claimed after the war that his experiments had been scientifically valuable and saved many women from extermination (he died of a stroke in a German remand prison in 1957).

His rival Dr. Schumann was feverishly working nearby, using extremely high doses of radiation in a careless, hit-and-miss manner (he had no specialist training as a radiologist). The immediate results were deep burns of the sexual organs, serious infections, and many deaths. Unlike his competitor, Dr. Schumann mainly chose male prisoners for his experiments. One of the men, Chaim Balitzki, broke down in tears after the war when he testified about his ordeal. “Worst of all,” he said, “I no longer have a future.” Undeterred by the human cost, Schumann pressed ahead, but eventually had to admit that surgical procedures were more effective than his X-rays. Professor Clauberg claimed victory. In June 1943, he informed Himmler that his trials were close to completion. With the right equipment and support, he claimed, he would soon be able to sterilize up to one thousand women a day. He was not yet done with his experiments, though, carrying out further trials with chemical injections in Ravensbrück in 1944.247

Nazi doctors even selected Auschwitz prisoners for lethal procedures in other KL. The most notorious case involved the skeleton collection at the Reich University of Strasbourg, a hotbed of Nazi race science established in 1941. In February 1942, Himmler received a report from Professor August Hirt, the leading physician of the Ahnenerbe and recently appointed as professor of anatomy in Strasbourg. Hirt’s report included a proposal for killing “Jewish-Bolshevik commissars” to fill gaps in existing “skull collections.” Himmler agreed, and the plan soon expanded: by murdering selected prisoners in Auschwitz, an entire racial-anthropological skeleton collection would be created. Eventually, three Ahnenerbe officials visited Auschwitz in June 1943. They picked out prisoners from different countries, who were measured, photographed, and filmed. One of them was Menachem Taffel, aged forty-two, who had been born in Galicia and later worked as a milkman in Berlin, from where he had been deported to Auschwitz in March 1943 (his wife and fourteen-year-old daughter were gassed on arrival). In late July 1943, the SS deported Taffel, together with eighty-six other Jewish prisoners, to Natzweiler, where the SS drove them into the new gas chamber (except for one woman who was shot for resisting); Commandant Josef Kramer then personally inserted prussic acid and watched the prisoners die. The corpses were sent to the Anatomical Institute in Strasbourg, about forty miles away. As the Allies approached Alsace in autumn 1944, Hirt and his colleagues tried to cover their tracks. But they failed to destroy all the evidence and when the soldiers entered the basement of the Strasbourg institute, they found vats full of corpses, sawn-off legs, and torsos, which had been preserved for Hirt’s skeleton collection.248

Scientific Executioners

After the war, the physicians behind the KL experiments were often depicted as solitary and mad scientists like Dr. Frankenstein, laboring secretly on macabre schemes.249 The truth is less lurid and more disturbing. Most research was inspired by what passed for mainstream scientific thinking, and many perpetrators were respected members of the medical community. Men like Professor Grawitz and Professor Gebhardt belonged to the German medical elite (as well as to the new SS aristocracy).250 So did Professor Clauberg, who was so well respected as a gynecologist that a senior WVHA officer brought his wife, who had suffered several miscarriages, all the way from Berlin to Auschwitz for an exclusive consultation.251

Even the men behind the most gruesome experiments were no rank outsiders. Granted, perhaps Dr. Sigmund Rascher was a psychopath, as several historians have contended. But his experiments were driven, at least initially, by Germany’s perceived military needs; hence the eager cooperation of the air force, whose scientists had called for the air pressure, freezing, and seawater experiments in Dachau.252 As for Dr. Josef Mengele, although his crimes seem to speak for themselves—an Auschwitz prisoner doctor later called him a sadistic “subhuman” who was “veritably insane”—his peers saw him in a different light. Unlike Rascher, Mengele was an academic highflier and he remained associated with his venerable teacher Professor Verschuer. Human organs harvested by Mengele were analyzed at Verschuer’s institute, which was part of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, the elite organization for scientific research in Germany (renamed the Max Planck Society in 1948) that did much to support Nazi racial policy. Mengele also supplied blood samples from “persons of the most diverse racial backgrounds,” as Verschuer put it, for a project on protein funded by the highly respected German Research Association (DFG), which supported several other human experiments in the KL, such as Professor Schilling’s malaria experiments in Dachau.253

Complicity extended far into the wider German scientific community. The experiments were an open secret, at least in some circles, even if it was considered poor form to talk about them. Senior medical officers in the German armed forces were especially well informed, thanks to papers at medical congresses. One such meeting in October 1942 brought together more than ninety leading air force doctors and hypothermia specialists in a plush Nuremberg hotel, where they were initiated into the Dachau freezing experiments. The presentation, led by Professor Ernst Holzlöhner from the University of Kiel, included remarks by Dr. Rascher that left no doubt that some prisoners had died during the experiments; not one physician in the audience raised concerns. Some perpetrators even published details about their work in scientific journals and books. While they remained quiet about the abuse of prisoners, one could read between the lines that the experiments must have taken place in the KL; it did not require forensic skills to figure out that trials on “test persons” in “Dachau” had involved prisoners.254

The German pharmaceutical industry was involved as well. As early as 1941, Dr. Hellmuth Vetter, a Bayer employee (IG Farben) who also served as a Camp SS doctor, was testing a range of sulfonamide drugs on Dachau prisoners. He was delighted to be able to “put our new products to the practical test,” he wrote to his colleagues in the company headquarters, and he assured them that he enjoyed the food, accommodation, and company of the SS: “I feel like I am in paradise here.” Vetter later moved on to other camps, administering potentially lethal drugs (developed by IG Farben) in Auschwitz and Mauthausen. Meanwhile, Buchenwald became a veritable “laboratory of the pharmaceutical industry,” in the words of the historian Ernst Klee, as drug companies vied to test their products on prisoners infected by the SS with typhus.255

Looking at the enthusiastic participation of physicians in medical torture and murder, it is worth recalling that German doctors were among the most fervent supporters of National Socialism, which promised them a national renewal and a brighter professional future. During the Third Reich, half of all male physicians joined the Nazi Party and seven percent the SS. Nazi biopolitics not only increased the standing of doctors; it also encouraged a shift in medical norms. Measures like mass sterilization made clear from early on that the health of the “national community” was everything and that “community aliens” had no rights.256

Once the KL experiments were under way, they created their own dynamic, further extending ethical boundaries. Take the case of Professor Gerhard Rose, the head of the department for tropical medicine at the famous Robert Koch Institute. In May 1943, Rose attended a conference during which Dr. Ding from Buchenwald gave a paper on typhus experiments. To everyone’s surprise, Professor Rose openly challenged Ding, attacking his trials as a fundamental break with medical convention. Put on the back foot, Dr. Ding claimed (falsely) that he was only using criminals already sentenced to death. The flustered chairman quickly ended the discussion. But Professor Rose’s principled stance did not last; as human experimentation became more commonplace, he wanted his own research to benefit, too. Just a few months after his attack on Ding, he contacted the Hygiene Institute of the Waffen SS and proposed a new typhus vaccine for tests in Buchenwald. Himmler agreed to a trial on so-called professional criminals and Dr. Ding was happy to help his erstwhile critic; the experiment took place in Buchenwald in March 1944, killing six prisoners.257

Forced to defend his experiments at the conference in 1943, Dr. Ding had rightly assumed that many of his colleagues would have few objections to killing selected enemies of the state, especially those who were already doomed. There can be no doubt that the use of KL inmates, whose lives counted for little anyway, helped to ease any misgivings about the experiments. The physicians also stressed the utilitarian nature of their trials. Since invalids were being gassed “in certain chambers” anyway, Sigmund Rascher rhetorically asked in summer 1942 (in a veiled reference to Action 14f13), would it not be better to test “our different chemical warfare agents” on them?258 Similar arguments were heard elsewhere in the Third Reich. State prisoners were abused as “guinea pigs,” too, and one doctor collected the blood of guillotined inmates for transfusions in his local hospital; otherwise, he reasoned at the time, the blood just “flows off without use.”259

The allure of amoral science even captivated some prisoners. Dr. Miklós Nyiszli, an accomplished forensic pathologist, was deported with other Jews from Hungary to Auschwitz in May 1944. The SS spared his life because he was healthy and spoke fluent German, and thanks to his medical skills he soon became a prisoner doctor at the Birkenau crematoria complex. His superior was none other than Josef Mengele, with Nyiszli serving as his pathology expert; he assisted in murders, dissected twins, wrote up reports, and prepared corpses for skeleton collections. Although he knew all about the depravity of Nazi race science, and was appalled by it, Nyiszli’s passion for science occasionally carried him away. Writing soon after the war, he referred to the “vast possibilities for research” in the camp, and recalled with excitement the “curious” and “extremely interesting” medical phenomena he had uncovered during autopsies, and which he had discussed at length, like any medical colleague would, with Dr. Mengele.260

As for the victims, a few were saved by the experiments, paradoxically. They were butchered, but escaped certain death at the hands of the SS. The two young Czech brothers Zdenĕk and Jiři Steiner, for example, survived Auschwitz only because Dr. Mengele had claimed them for his experiments. Once, he apparently struck their names from a list of prisoners selected for the gas chamber. “Luckily, Mengele heard about it and saved us,” the brothers testified in 1945, “because he still needed us.”261

Many more victims, however, were butchered and killed. Overall, the SS targeted more men than women, not only because they were more numerous in the KL, but because the war experiments were meant to benefit German soldiers. Most victims stood near the bottom of the Nazi racial scale, with Poles making up the largest national group of victims. At times, the SS could not agree whom to target. When it came to forcing prisoners to drink seawater, different officials proposed different “guinea pigs.” Richard Glücksfrom the WVHA wanted to use Jews; Arthur Nebe from the RSHA suggested “asocial half-Gypsies”; both were opposed by SS Reich physician Ernst Robert Grawitz, who argued that the victims had to “racially resemble the European population.” In the end, no inmate groups were safe. After all, Himmler himself had announced in 1942 that one reason for selecting KL prisoners for potentially lethal trials was that they were “deserving of death”—a label that could be applied to pretty much any inmate, as far as the SS was concerned.262

Not even children were exempt, and from 1943 more and more were targeted. They stood at the center of Mengele’s twin experiments in Auschwitz, as we have seen, and they were also dispatched from there to other concentration camps. In November 1944, for example, the SS sent a group of twenty Jewish children for tuberculosis trials to Neuengamme, where they would meet a terrible fate. Among them was the twelve-year-old Georges Kohn. He had been deported from Drancy in August 1944 together with his father, the director of the Paris Hôpital Baron de Rothschild (the largest Jewish hospital in France), and five other members of his family. By the time the train pulled into Auschwitz, Georges was all alone, except for his eighty-year-old grandmother: an older brother and sister had escaped from the train, his mother and another sister were in Bergen-Belsen, and his father, Armand, was in Buchenwald. His father would be the only one to survive the KL; he returned to Paris after the war, a sick man, and never learned what had happened to his youngest son.263

Armand Kohn had been among a vast number of Jewish prisoners deported to Buchenwald and other KL inside the old German borders during the later stages of the war. Their arrival marked a major shift in policy. By 1944, the regime’s desire for forced labor had become so all-consuming that it trumped some hallowed principles of Nazi racial thinking. After years of feverish ethnic cleansing had made much of the Reich and its concentration camps “free of Jews,” as Himmler had demanded, the regime reversed this course in a bid to build up its slave labor force.264 The mass influx of Jewish prisoners far into Nazi Germany was part of a wider transformation of the KL system, which saw the emergence of hundreds of new camps and the arrival of hundreds of thousands of new prisoners. The concentration camps were entering a new phase, which probably began sometime around autumn 1943, when an eerie new camp was set up in the Harz Mountains. Its name was Dora.

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