Military history



On 7 November 1942 Albert Speer was travelling with Hitler to Munich on the Leader’s own train. ‘In earlier years,’ Speer recalled, ‘Hitler had made a habit of showing himself at the window of his special train whenever it stopped. Now these encounters with the outside world seemed undesirable to him; instead, the blinds on the station side of the train would be lowered.’ Late that evening, the train was halted in a siding and Hitler and the rest of the Leader’s entourage sat down to dinner. Speer reported what happened next:

The table was elegantly set with silver cutlery, cut glass, good china and flower arrangements. As we began our ample meal, none of us at first saw that a freight train was stopped on the adjacent track. From the cattle wagon, bedraggled, starved, and in some cases wounded German soldiers, just returning from the east, stared at the diners. With a start, Hitler noticed the sombre scene two metres from his window. Without as much as a gesture of greeting in their direction, he peremptorily ordered his servant to draw the blinds. This, then, in the second half of the war, was how Hitler handled a meeting with ordinary front-line soldiers such as he himself had once been.178

Hitler, indeed, withdrew increasingly from public view from 1942 onwards. Goebbels and Speer both tried to persuade him to visit bombed-out areas of German cities to boost morale, but without success. 179 There were rumours that he had fallen ill or been wounded. Yet when he did speak, it no longer had the effect it had once been able to produce on popular opinion. A speech broadcast on 21 March 1943, for example - his first public address since Stalingrad - was so brief, and delivered at such speed and in such a dull monotone, that people wondered whether he had been racing to get it finished in case it was interrupted by an air raid, or indeed whether it had been spoken by a stand-in.180

Even to his intimates, Hitler became less openly friendly. From the autumn of 1943 onwards, Speer thought that lunch with him was ‘an ordeal’. His dog, an Alsatian, was, Speer noted, ‘the only living creature at headquarters who aroused any flicker of human feeling in Hitler’. His distaste for bad news meant that his subordinates played up positive reports and presented insignificant, temporary successes as if they were major victories. He did not visit the front, and had no contact with the harsh realities of the fighting. He always assumed that the divisions marked on the maps he used to direct strategy were up to full strength. Equipped with the latest technology, with telephone and two-way radio, he was able to communicate with the generals on the ground, but the real communication was all one-way; if any generals objected, or tried to bring him back to reality, he would bawl them out and, in some instances, dismiss them. He bullied and browbeat the General Staff officers at his headquarters, and lost his temper when bad news was presented to him. The generals were cowards, he would rage, ‘the training of the General Staff is a school of lying and deception’, the information the army was conveying to it was false, ‘the situation is deliberately being represented as unfavourable - that’s how they want to force me to authorize retreats!’181

Underneath it all, Hitler was aware that the military situation was deteriorating, but outwardly he always presented a fac¸ade of optimism. His will had triumphed before: it would triumph again. With his concentration of power in military affairs, he now, for the first time in his life, had to work extremely hard, abandoning the casual and chaotic lifestyle of his earlier years as dictator, with its social evenings listening to music, watching old movies or playing with the architectural models created by Speer. Now he spent his time conferring with, or rather arguing with and browbeating, his generals, poring over military maps and thinking out military plans, often down to the last detail. Convinced more than ever of his own infallible genius, he became increasingly consumed by suspicion and distrust of his subordinates, expecially in military matters. No major decisions could be taken without him. Never one to take physical exercise, he relied increasingly on pills and remedies prescribed him by Dr Theo Morell, his personal physician since 1936: over twenty-eight different pills a day by the later stages of the war, and so many injections that Göring dubbed Morell ‘The Reich Master of Injections’. Morell controlled Hitler’s diet as well as he could in the face of his patient’s vegetarianism and his liking for foods such as pea soup, which caused him indigestion. Morell was a qualified physician, and no quack, and all the medicines he prescribed Hitler were clinically approved. His bedside manner enabled him to deal effectively with his patient, who relied on him increasingly as the war went on, and indeed he kept Hitler on his feet for virtually the whole time, apart from one bout of illness in early August 1941. But he was unable to deal effectively with Hitler’s physical deterioration under the strain to which he was now subjecting himself. From 1941 onwards electrocardiograms began to show progressive heart disease, probably caused by sclerosis of the coronary arteries. Beginning in the spring of 1943 Hitler suffered from chronic indigestion, with periodic stomach cramps (at least twenty-four bouts by the end of 1944), which may have been made worse by Morell’s treatment. A tremor began in his left hand, becoming markedly worse from the end of 1942, and accompanied by a growing stoop and jerking movements in his left leg. By 1944 he was shuffling rather than walking, and the symptoms of a mild but generally worsening case of Parkinson’s disease were becoming clear for all medically informed observers to note. Even Morell, whose preference was for psychosomatic diagnoses, accepted this early in 1945 and began applying the standard treatment available at the time. More generally, observers began to note how rapidly Hitler was ageing, with his hair turning grey and his appearance no longer that of a vigorous and energetic middle-aged man, but - thanks not least to his Parkinsonism - of an elderly, increasingly debilitated one. Hesitation about revealing this to the outside world may have been an important factor in his growing refusal to appear in public.182

Hitler gave nine public addresses in 1940, seven in 1941, five in 1942, and only two in 1943. On 30 January 1944, the eleventh anniversary of his appointment as Reich Chancellor, he delivered a radio broadcast, and on 24 February, the anniversary of the promulgation of the Nazi Party programme, he spoke in Munich to ‘Old Fighters’ of the Party, but he declined Goebbels’s offer to broadcast this speech, and it was not even reported in the newspapers. After this he was heard no more in public, except briefly, under special circumstances (as we shall see) on 21 July 1944. Otherwise, he made no attempt to communicate directly with the German people by word of mouth, and even his traditional speech in Munich on 8 November 1944 was read out to the ‘Old Fighters’ by Heinrich Himmler. Most of his time he spent at his field headquarters, almost entirely preoccupied with the conduct of the war, repairing to his mountain retreat on the Berghof, in the Bavarian Alps, for three months in 1943 and again from late February to mid-July 1944.183 Letters began arriving in growing numbers at the Propaganda Ministry asking, as Goebbels noted on 25 July 1943, ‘why the Leader does not even speak to the German people to explain the current situation. I regard it,’ the Propaganda Minister confided to his diary, ‘as most necessary that the Leader does that.’ Otherwise, thought Goebbels, the people would cease to believe in him.184 Hitler’s admirers amongst ordinary Germans became impatient too. Why didn’t Hitler speak on the ‘dramatic’ military situation in September 1944, asked one supporter in a letter to the Propaganda Ministry.185 Goebbels became increasingly critical of Hitler’s preoccupation with military affairs to the evident neglect of domestic politics. His absence from Berlin was creating a ‘leadership crisis’, he complained. ‘I can’t influence him politically. I can’t even report to him about the most urgent measures in my area. Everything goes through Bormann.’186 The shadowy Bormann’s power became even greater when, on 12 April 1943, he was given the title of ‘Secretary of the Leader’. Goebbels began to feel that Hitler had largely lost his grip on domestic affairs.187

Superficially, at least, it seemed as if the gap might be filled by the ‘second man in the Reich’, Hermann Go ̈ring. On 30 August 1939 Göring had succeeded in persuading Hitler to set up a Ministerial Council for the Defence of the Reich, whose role was to co-ordinate the civil administration. Hitler retained the power of veto over its orders, but in effect he had largely handed over control of domestic affairs to G̈ring, who became the Council’s chairman. The Council’s obvious importance attracted a number of key figures to its meetings, including Goebbels, Himmler, Ley and Darre’, and by February 1940 it was beginning to look like a kind of substitute cabinet. Alarmed, Hitler ordered that it should not meet again, and it never did. G̈ring did not attempt to revive it: the right he had acquired to append his signature to laws and decrees after Hitler’s was enough to satisfy his vanity. Despite his wide-ranging powers as head of the Four-Year Plan, G̈ring was becoming less energetic and decisive, perhaps under the influence of his morphine addiction.

He spent more and more time in his various hunting lodges and castles, and devoted a good deal of what energy he had left to building an opulent, extravagant mode of life for himself. In March 1943 a visitor who spent a day with G̈ring at Carinhall reported on the Reich Marshal’s now ‘grotesque’ lifestyle:

He appeared early in a Bavarian leather jacket with full white shirt sleeves. He changed his costume often during the day, and appeared at the dinner table in a blue or violet kimono with fur-trimmed bedroom slippers. Even in the morning he wore at his side a golden dagger which was also changed frequently. In his tiepin he wore a variety of precious stones, and around his fat body a wide girdle, set with many stones - not to mention the splendour and number of his rings.188

In these circumstances, there was no chance of G̈ring taking over the day-to-day management of domestic affairs in the Reich. In addition, the poor performance of the air force, of which he was the head, caused a sharp fall in his reputation from 1942 onwards, not only with the general public, but also with Hitler himself.

The Third Reich was clearly becoming increasingly leaderless on the home front. Yet somehow the machinery of government continued to function. The civil administration, staffed largely by traditional, conscientious and hard-working bureaucrats, carried on business on its own right up to the end of the war, ministers and state secretaries implemented policies the broad lines of which had been laid down by Hitler before the war, and responded to changes initiated by him when they came. They did not dare to formulate policies on major issues without his express approval. As before, Hitler’s own interventions in policy were intermittent, arbitrary and often contradictory. Finding it increasingly difficult to gain access to him, ministers, beginning with Goebbels, started sending him regular briefing papers on matters of importance. Hitler sometimes took note of them, more often not; it is very unlikely that he actually read all the 500 or so briefing papers sent to him by the Propaganda Ministry, for example, or every one of the 191 that reached him from the Reich Ministry of Justice during the war. Conscious, perhaps, of the fact that he had less time than before to intervene in the conduct of domestic affairs, he issued orders in May 1942 and again in June 1943 that he was to be known exclusively as the ‘Leader’ and not ‘Leader and Reich Chancellor’, even when signing official laws and decrees. Hitler was unable to provide any kind of overall direction of domestic affairs, so that government departments found it increasingly necessary to issue their own regulations on matters of detail, often without consulting other departments about their contents. In 1941, for example, 12 formal laws were passed, after consultation with ministries, 33 decrees were issued by Hitler, 27 decrees were ordered by the Ministerial Council for the Defence of the Reich, and 373 regulations and orders were issued by individual government departments. In the absence either of a formal cabinet or of any consistent direction by Hitler, government was becoming more and more fragmented. ‘Everybody does and leaves undone what he pleases,’ complained Goebbels in his diary on 2 March 1943, ‘because there’s no strong authority anywhere.’189 A co-ordinating ‘Committee of Three’ (Bormann, Keitel and Lammers) was, as we have seen, established early in 1943, but it ran up against the hostility of powerful figures like Goebbels and Speer, and ceased to meet after August.190

As time went on, the Nazi Party began to move into the domestic power vacuum. On 20 August 1943, Hitler dismissed Interior Minister Frick, providing him with a meaningless title (Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, where Karl Hermann Frank, now appointed State Minister for Bohemia and Moravia, continued in practice to be in charge). Goebbels had been arguing for Frick’s dismissal for years. He was old and worn out, the Propaganda Minister said, and the decline in popular morale needed a tougher approach to the home front. The man Hitler chose to replace Frick was Heinrich Himmler, whose elevation implied an escalation of police repression to confront the possibility of demoralization turning into open resistance.191 At the same time, Martin Bormann effectively used his control over access to Hitler to sideline the civil administration and many of its ministers. By the beginning of 1945, Lammers was complaining that he had not seen Hitler since September the previous year and that he was ‘continually being pressed from all quarters to obtain the numerous decisions which are urgently awaited from the Leader’.192 The head of the civil service was thus reduced to asking the head of the Party Chancellery to allow him to see the head of state. The eclipse of the traditional state administration in comparison to the Party could not have been made more obvious. And it was underlined still further by the growing power of Goebbels, whose initiative for ‘total war’ in 1943 succeeded, among things, in bringing him closer to the centre of economic management than ever before.193

As soon as the war began, the Party’s Regional Leaders had been appointed to the new posts of regional Reich Defence Commissioners, a position that enabled them to act independently of the existing civil governors and regional military authorities. The subsequent quarrels over competence ended in victory for the Party on 16 November 1942, as the number of Reich Defence Commissioners was increased from thirteen to forty-two and the regions they covered made identical to the Party Regions. Further struggles for power ensued as Bormann’s attempts to control them from the Party Chancellery were frustrated by the direct access they enjoyed to Hitler. Increasingly, they tended to use their own people to put their orders into effect, rather than going through regional state administrations as they were supposed to. After March 1943 they ran up against the new Reich Interior Minister Heinrich Himmler, surely a more formidable opponent than his predecessor, Wilhelm Frick, but Himmler too was faced with the loss of effectiveness of the civil administration under the impact of war. A report he commissioned from Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Heydrich’s successor as head of the SS Security Service, submitted on 26 August 1944, confirmed that the Regional Leaders were bypassing state administrators with their own staff. Kaltenbrunner noted despairingly:

The public does not appreciate it when, in the present situation, comradely cooperation does not always have priority and instead people take the opportunity of contriving shifts in the domestic balance of power. The constant necessity for the local government organs to defend their position causes a loss of energy, inhibits initiative, and on occasion produces a sense of helplessness.194

As the military situation deteriorated, Party officials became ever more concerned to shore up morale and isolate ‘grumblers’ and complainers. Each Block Warden, according to a set of instructions issued by Robert Ley in his capacity as Reich Organization Leader of the Party on 1 June 1944, had to visit every household at least once a month and reassure himself that the inhabitants had the correct level of political and ideological commitment. The worse things got, the more the Party tried to re-create the atmosphere of the ‘time of struggle’ before 1933.195 The growing power and influence of the Nazi Party was welcomed by many in its ranks, who had seen themselves overshadowed to this point by the military. ‘On the whole,’ wrote Inge Molter, whose father had joined the Nazi Party in Hamburg in 1932, to her husband, Alfred, on 7 August 1944, ‘these times remind me at the moment strongly of the time of struggle. Just like in those days, Papa has to give every free minute to the Party.’196


The higher levels of ideological commitment demanded during the war were enforced by a whole new raft of legal sanctions. As Roland Freisler, State Secretary in the Reich Justice Ministry, declared in September 1939:

Germany is engaged in a fight for honour and justice. More than ever, the model of devotion to duty for every German today is the German soldier. Anyone who, instead of modelling themselves on him, sins against the people has no place in our community . . . Not to apply the most extreme severity to such pests would be a betrayal of the fighting German soldier!197

Looming behind such considerations was the perennial spectre of 1918. Another statement from the Reich Justice Ministry in January 1940 made the point clear:

During the war, the task of the judicial system is the elimination of the politically malicious and criminal elements who, at a critical moment, might try to stab the fighting front in the back (e.g. the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils of 1918). This is all the more important in that experience shows that the sacrifice of the lives of the best at the front has the effect of strengthening the inferior elements behind the front.198

The Social Darwinist thinking in statements such as this was reflected in a further move towards the prosecution and punishment of offenders because of who they were, not because of what they had done. The new laws, often cast in vague terms, replete with references to ‘national pests’ (Volksscḧdlinge) made this clear. As soon as the war broke out, the death penalty was applied to anyone convicted of ‘publicly’ trying to ‘subvert or cripple the will of the German or of an allied people to military self-assertion’.199 A Decree Against National Pests issued on 5 September 1939 subjected to capital punishment anyone convicted of crimes against property or persons committed during the blackout, including looting, and anyone damaging the will of the German people to fight. The use of guns in committing violent crimes was made punishable by death from 5 December 1939. The Reich Criminal Code was amended to apply the death penalty to anyone causing a ‘disadvantage’ to Germany’s war effort. These offences included, for example, making ‘defeatist’ comments. Another decree made the hoarding or concealment of food supplies punishable by death. This was also the sanction applied to anyone found deliberately damaging military equipment or producing faulty munitions. Altogether, by early 1940, more than forty different offences, some of them, like the above, extremely vaguely defined, were punishable by execution. In 1941 the death penalty was extended to cover serious ‘habitual criminals’.200

Not surprisingly, executions for criminal offences now began to increase. In 1939 329 people were sentenced to death in the Greater German Reich; in 1940 the figure went up to 926, and in 1941 to 1,292, before leaping dramatically to 4,457 in 1942 and 5,336 in 1943. Altogether, the courts of the Third Reich, and especially the regional Special Courts and the national People’s Court, handed down 16,560 death sentences, of which 664 were passed in 1933-9 and 15,896 during the war. Roughly 12,000 of them were carried out, the rest being commuted to life imprisonment. The People’s Court itself handed down more than 5,000 death sentences during the whole course of its life, over 2,000 in 1944 alone. Since 1936, executions in Germany had been carried out by the guillotine, but by 1942 the official state executioners were also using hanging, on the grounds that it was quicker, simpler and less messy. So many executions were taking place in Germany’s state prisons by this time that the Ministry of Justice allowed them at any time of the day instead of, as previously, only at dawn. New executioners were hired, virtually all of them from the long-established milieu of the professional executioner, with its connections to the old trades of butchery and horse-knacking. By 1944 there were ten principal executioners at work, with a total of thirty-eight assistants working for them. One subsequently claimed to have dispatched more than 2,800 offenders during his term of office from 1924 to 1945. The time that was now allowed to elapse between sentencing and execution was often no more than a few hours, certainly not long enough for appeals for clemency to be prepared and considered. Nevertheless, the death rows in German prisons began to suffer from serious overcrowding. Roughly half the executions carried out up to the end of 1942 were of non-Germans, mainly Polish and Czech forced labourers, who, as we have seen, were subject to particularly draconian legal sanctions. On the night of 7-8 September 1943, the Ministry of Justice ordered the immediate hanging of 194 prisoners in the Pl̈tzensee jail in Berlin to reduce the overcrowding, which had become worse since an air raid had damaged a number of cells in the prison. After seventy-eight had been killed, in batches of eight, it was discovered that the wrong files had been taken out of the prison office, and six of the prisoners executed had not been sentenced to death at all. Characteristically, the Ministry officials focused not on dealing, even if retrospectively, with this injustice but on finding the six other prisoners who should have been executed. By the morning of 8 September the executioner, his request for a twenty-four-hour break in the middle of the process having been brusquely rejected, had completed his work with a further 142 hangings. The bodies were left lying about in the open, in very hot weather, for several days until they were removed.201

Such measures, especially when applied to native Germans, reflected not least Hitler’s own long-held belief that the German judicial system was too lenient. On 8 February 1942, for example, he complained privately that too many burglars and thieves were sent to prison, where they were ‘supported at the expense of the community’. They should be ‘sent to a concentration camp for life or suffer the death penalty. In time of war,’ he added, ‘the latter penalty would be appropriate, if only to set an example.’ But the judicial system was still obsessed with ‘finding extenuating circumstances - all in accordance with the rites of peacetime. We must have done with such practices.’202 In March 1942 he was so outraged when he read a newspaper report of a five-year prison sentence handed down by a court in Oldenburg to a man who had beaten and abused his wife until she had died that he phoned up State Secretary Schlegelberger in the Justice Ministry ‘in the greatest passion’ to complain about it.203 The matter obviously still rankled when he came to deliver a major speech in the Reichstag on 26 April 1942, broadcast all over Germany. ‘From now on,’ he declared to vigorous applause, ‘I am going to intervene in these cases and relieve of their office judges who are obviously failing to realize the requirements of the day.’204 The judges were appalled. Not even the Nazis had up to this point suggested breaching the long-established principle of the irremoveability of judges. Such a threat made them all the more amenable to the pressure that was now put on them to impose harsher sentences on offenders. In many cases, it had already come from Hitler. He had ordered the Ministry to be telephoned on some eighteen occasions since the beginning of the war to demand that criminals whom he had read about in the morning papers as having been sentenced to imprisonment should be ‘shot while trying to escape’. The conservative Minister of Justice, Franz G̈rtner, had tried to impose some sort of regular procedure on these interventions, but in January 1941 he had died, and his office had been handed over to Franz Schlegelberger, the senior civil servant in the Ministry. This made the Ministry extremely vulnerable. On 20 August 1942 Hitler finally replaced him with Otto-Georg Thierack, a hardline Nazi and President of the People’s Court; the State Secretary in the Ministry, Roland Freisler, moved over to the People’s Court to take his place.205

At the lunchtime meeting held to mark this transition, Hitler made clear his belief that justice was essentially a matter of eugenics. In war, he said, ‘it’s always the best men who then get killed. All this time, the absolute ne’er-do-well is cared for lovingly in body and spirit’ in prison. Unless something was done, there would be ‘a gradual shift in the balance of the nation’ towards inferior and criminal elements. The judge, he concluded, thus had to be ‘the bearer of racial self-preservation’.206 Thierack sprang into action right away. At the beginning of September 1942 he began issuing ‘Judges’ Letters’, outlining to the courts cases in which their alleged leniency had run into criticism from Hitler, the SS or elements in the Party, and instructing them on how to handle similar cases in future.207 He dispensed advice on general principles too. On 1 June 1943, for instance, he told them that ‘the purpose of sentencing lies in the protection of the people’s community’, and that punishment ‘in our time has to carry out the popular-hygienic task of continually cleansing the body of the race by the ruthless elimination of criminals unworthy of life’.208 In pursuit of this objective, Thierack also moved to regulate the relationship between the judicial system and the SS, which - not only at Hitler’s behest - had been taking offenders condemned to terms of imprisonment and shooting them ‘while trying to escape’, or indeed executing offenders on its own initiative before they even got to court. What the Ministry delicately termed the ‘correction of insufficient judicial sentences through special treatment by the police’ was to cease; Bormann and Himmler would refer such cases to the Ministry, along with appeals for clemency, so that Hitler’s time would no longer be taken up with such trivial matters. Local and regional Party and SS offices were ordered from now on to cease interfering in the judicial process. As a quid pro quo, Thierack agreed at his meeting with Bormann and Himmler on 18 September 1942 that ‘asocials’ would be handed over from state prisons to the SS ‘for extermination through labour’. ‘Persons in protective custody will be delivered without exception, Czechs or Germans with sentences of more than eight years on the recommendation of the Reich Minister of Justice.’209

Large numbers of non-German offenders were from this point onwards dealt with by the SS, though others continued to pass through the courts. This largely accounts for the fact that the officially registered number of death sentences in the Reich fell from 5,336 in 1943 to 4,264 the following year, though part of the reason for the drop may also lie in the fact that fanatically Nazi judges of the younger generation were being called up to the front, leaving the courts in the hands of older judges who retained at least some vestigial allegiance to the judicial process.210 The statistical decrease, in other words, marked a continued growth in the number of native Germans sentenced to death. To their number were added the ‘asocials’ and ‘habitual criminals’ consigned by Thierack to the SS for ‘extermination through labour’. After Hitler had approved of the killings on 22 September 1942, the transfer of prisoners from state jails and penitentiaries began. Most of them were ‘security confined’, repeat offenders who had been in prison since the early years of the Third Reich. Gypsies and Jews in the prisons were also included in the process. Individual prisoners whose transfer to a concentration camp had to be recommended by the Ministry were examined in their prison by officials, usually in a very brief session lasting no more than a few minutes. Some were kept in prison beyond their release date so that they could be examined in this way. Prison governors tried, and in many cases succeeded, in retaining prisoners whose labour was particularly economically valuable to the prison. Altogether more than 20,000 prisoners were handed over. Most were taken to Mauthausen, where they were savagely beaten, sometimes to death, on their arrival, then, if they survived this ordeal, they were forced to haul stones weighing up to 50 kilograms each up the 186 broad steps of the camp quarry. If they staggered and fell, the prisoners were shot by the SS guards, who would sometimes throw them down into the quarry from 30 or 40 metres up, or force them to empty trucks of stones on to the men working below.

17. German Prisons and Penitentiairies

A number of prisoners put an end to their suffering by jumping off the cliff into the quarry depths. By the end of 1942, the mortality rate of the transferred prisoners stood at 35 per cent, far greater than that of any other group of camp inmates apart from Jews.211


Those inmates who remained behind in Germany’s state prisons experienced steadily deteriorating conditions as the war progressed. The need for labour sharply increased the pressure on the Justice Ministry to effect what Thierack called the ‘mobilization’ of prisoners. They were increasingly lent out to arms manufacturers, for a suitable fee, in the same way that concentration camp inmates were. Similarly, this often involved their being sent out to sub-camps rather than staying in prison. In the prisons themselves, food supplies started running low, and inmates were sometimes reduced to eating animal fodder and mouldy vegetables. Thus in 1943, for example, prisoners at Pl̈tzensee were reported to be grabbing leaves from the trees in the prison yard as they went round it on their daily exercise, to add nourishment to their soup. Weight loss and vitamin deficiencies weakened the prisoners and made them susceptible to infection.212 Food supplies were not keeping pace with the increase in the prison population, particularly among women. The number of women convicted of criminal offences rose from 46,500 in 1939 to 117,000 in 1942, and that of juvenile offenders from 17,500 to 52,500. Many of these were sentenced for offences against wartime laws and regulations, particularly economic offences, which increased from under 3,000 in 1940 to more than 26,500 two years later. Convictions for illegal association with prisoners of war, a new offence, reached 10,600 by 1943. But the number of people sentenced for other crimes was on the rise too: theft convictions rose from 48,000 in 1939 to nearly 83,000 in 1943, for example. By contrast, sexual offences declined steeply, with pimping convictions down by over 50 per cent, rape by more than 65 per cent, and sexual offences with minors by more than 60 per cent. Evidently the police were so concerned to enforce wartime restrictions that they were starting to neglect other areas of the criminal law, though the fall in sexual offences would also have reflected the departure of millions of young men to the battle-front.213

Inevitably in these circumstances, overcrowding became a serious problem in Germany’s state penal institutions during the war. The total prison population grew from just under 110,000 in mid-1939 to 144,000 in mid-1942 and 197,000 in mid-1944. In the Old Reich - the area within the borders of 1937 with some small additions during the war - the number rose from around 100,000 at the beginning of the war to 140,000 in September 1942 and 158,000 two years later. The proportion of female inmates increased from 9 per cent of the prison population in 1939 to 23 per cent four years later, by which time German penal institutions were keeping more than 43,000 women behind bars. These numbers were far higher than the prisons had been designed to hold. Dirt and disease were the result, as prisoners were packed in several to a cell, hygiene facilities were strained beyond their limit, and washing and showering, particularly in the final year of the war, became nigh impossible. Infestations with scabies and lice became common, and several prisons were hit by epidemics of typhus and other infectious diseases. Prison warders became increasingly short-tempered and prone to use violence to maintain order, as the ratio of warders to prisoners deteriorated from 1:6 (in 1939) to 1:14 (in 1944). In some cases, prisoners were chained to the wall or floor when they were being punished. Beatings, relatively uncommon in the 1930s, became commonplace in the last two years of the war. The prison authorities’ decision to help the collection of winter clothing to assist the German troops freezing before the gates of Moscow in December 1941 netted more than 55,000 socks and nearly 5,000 jumpers confiscated from inmates, exposing prisoners to cold and leading to a rise in the death rate. Prisons did not possess air-raid shelters, and those in or near the centre of large towns and cities were particularly prone to destruction in bombing raids, leading to more deaths and further overcrowding as the number of cells was further reduced.214

Even after 1943, more Germans were held in state prisons than in concentration camps. But conditions in the latter deteriorated too. From the mid-1930s, the camps had begun to function mainly as centres of detention for ‘asocials’ and other minorities, after most of the political opponents of the regime for whom they had originally been intended had been released on good behaviour. As soon as the war began, however, the camps began to resume their earlier function as centres of detention and deterrence for the wider German civilian population, above all former Communists and Social Democrats. At the beginning of the war, Hitler gave Himmler new powers of arrest and detention, which he used, with the Leader’s agreement, to apprehend people suspected of opposing the regime. On 26 October 1939 the Gestapo ordered that if anyone from an arms factory was taken off to a camp for behaviour hostile to the state or likely to undermine the morale of the workforce, a notice had to be put up in the factory announcing the fact, adding in severe cases that he had been put in a punishment block. Care should be taken, the order added, not to announce the length of the sentence or the date of release. If corporal punishment in the camp was ordered for the worker, this should be publicized too.215 If this was not enough of a deterrent, the camps began to function as places of execution for people arrested by the police as ‘saboteurs’ or ‘shirkers’. Executions were widely publicized. While he was still at Sachsenhausen, Rudolf Ḧss later reported, an ex-Communist at the Junkers aircraft factory was arrested after refusing to carry out air-raid protection work; Himmler personally ordered his execution, which was to take place at the nearest concentration camp. The man was taken to Sachsenhausen, where it fell to Ḧss to carry out the execution. He ordered a post to be erected in a sandpit near the camp workshops and had the man tied to it. ‘The man was completely resigned to his fate,’ he remembered later, although ‘he had not expected to be executed. He was allowed to write to his family, and was given cigarettes, for which he had asked.’ A firing-squad shot him through the heart and Höss ‘gave him the coup de grˆce’. ‘In the days to come,’ he added, ‘we were to have plenty of experiences of this kind. Almost every day I had to parade with my execution squad.’216

Most Germans sent to the camps became long-term inmates. Thus ‘political’ prisoners once again became an important part of the camp population. They had to wear a red triangle on their uniforms to distinguish them from the other categories of prisoner, such as the green-triangled ‘criminals’. Political prisoners’ later accounts of their experiences in the camps portrayed the ‘criminals’ in particular as brutal and ruthless men who were deliberately put in positions of responsibility by the SS in order to intimidate the rest. The reality was rather different. Both ‘criminals’ and ‘politicals’ were used by the SS to work with the camp administration in controlling the other inmates because they were Germans and thus fulfilled the racial criteria demanded by the SS for positions of responsibility. Benedikt Kautsky, son of a leading Social Democrat of the Imperial era, later recalled from his own time as a prisoner in a variety of concentration camps that a ‘bitter struggle’ was constantly being waged between the ‘reds’ and the ‘greens’, in which each side would denounce members of the other to the SS, engage in ‘despicable intrigues’ and stage ‘palace revolutions’ against their opponents. The winners were able to get relatively safe jobs in the camp office, better food, better clothing, more freedom of action, more power and more status. Attaining the position of ‘block leader’ or ‘capo’ meant a better chance of surviving. By such means, the political prisoners succeeded in some camps, notably Buchenwald and Neuengamme, in dominating the internal self-administration of the inmates themselves. There is no convincing evidence that the ‘criminals’ were any more brutal or unscrupulous than other, political capos. The survival of all of them depended on carrying out the orders of the SS.217

The vast expansion of the camps as they were converted from centres of punishment to suppliers of forced labour transformed their character. From 21,000 mostly German inmates in mid-1939, the system grew to hold 110,000 by September 1942 and nearly 715,000 in January 1945, including over 202,000 women. At Buchenwald, for instance, nearly 100,000 new prisoners were admitted in 1944 alone. The camp contained prisoners from more than thirty different countries, and foreigners outnumbered Germans many times over.218 In these circumstances, as camp authorities were unable to keep pace with building programmes to cater for the massive influx of new prisoners, death and disease, aided by the brutality of the camp guards, became more common even than before. Below the camp aristocracy of ‘greens’ and ‘reds’, the broad mass of prisoners lived in a state of continual fear and privation. Camp life was, with rare exceptions, a war of all against all for the survival of the fittest, in which the worst jobs were given to those least able to defend themselves. Jews and Slavs received the lowest rations and the least adequate accommodation, and hunger, overwork, beatings and disease turned the weakest into ‘Moslems’ (Muselmänner), the inmates’ designation for those who had given up. Such people no longer tried to keep clean or to stop other prisoners stealing their food or survive the blows that were inevitably rained down on them by the guards and the capos, until they died of ill-treatment and exhaustion.219

The transformation of the camps into centres of labour supply for industry, and the influx of hundreds of thousands of new prisoners, provided opportunities for self-enrichment that commandants and officers were not slow to exploit. Aware of the corruption problem, Himmler addressed senior SS leaders in Posen on 4 October 1944, reminding them that they had taken from the Jews ‘what wealth they had’ and handed it over to the Reich.

We have taken none of it for ourselves. Individual men who have lapsed will be punished . . . A number of SS men - there are not very many of them - have fallen short, and they will die without mercy. We had the moral right, we had the duty to our people, to destroy this people which wanted to destroy us. But we have not the right to enrich ourselves with so much as a fur, a watch, a mark, a cigarette or anything else. We have exterminated a bacterium because we do not want in the end to be infected by the bacterium and die of it. I will not see so much as a small area of sepsis appear here or gain a hold. Wherever it may take hold, we will cauterize it. 220

Himmler was referring here, at least implicitly, to a commission of investigation under an SS judge, Konrad Morgen, that had uncovered widespread evidence of corruption in the administration of a number of camps. Only a few of those responsible were, in fact, shot out of hand; most were usually dismissed or transferred to other duties. The most prominent among them was the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, who was transferred to administrative duties in the concentration camp inspectorate on 22 November 1943. Several other camp commandants were disciplined in a similar way, including, as we have seen, at Majdanek and Treblinka. The case of Karl Otto Koch, who was dismissed as commandant of Buchenwald at the end of 1941, was unusual in its severity. Morgen’s extensive investigations during the course of 1942 and 1943 revealed that Koch had not only embezzled large sums of SS money but also allowed prisoners to escape, destroyed vital evidence of his corruption and had key witnesses murdered. With Himmler’s approval, Morgen arrested Koch on 24 August 1943, brought him before an SS tribunal and had him condemned to death: he was eventually shot in Buchenwald a few days before the camp was liberated by US forces.221


As overcrowding got worse in the camps, disease began to spread, and the malnourished and ill-treated inmates increasingly succumbed to infections, including at times murderous epidemics of typhus. Hospital blocks in the camps began to suffer under the strain. Early in 1941, therefore, Himmler approached the T-4 ‘euthanasia’ unit in Berlin with a request for help. Initially, because they were fully occupied in killing the mentally handicapped and mentally ill, the members of the T-4 team were unable to assist. But when the killing programme was halted in August 1941 following the intervention of Bishop von Galen, the unit’s two leading administrators, Philipp Bouhler and Viktor Brack, began sending T-4 doctors to assess camp inmates who had become seriously ill. They operated under the bureaucratic designation ‘Special Treatment 14f13’, devised by the head of the concentration camp inspectorate, where ‘Special Treatment’ meant killing, ‘14’ referred to reported deaths in the camps and ‘13’ to the cause of death, namely gassing (other file series were labelled ‘14f6’, suicide, ‘14f7’, natural death, and so on).222 Under the 14f13 programme, commissions of doctors from the euthanasia organization visited the camps from September 1941 onwards. After a merely visual inspection of the prisoners paraded before them by the SS, they filled out forms of the kind usually employed in the T-4 Action for those they singled out for killing. The forms went to Brack’s office in Berlin, from where they were sent to a selected killing centre (Bernburg, Hartheim or Sonnenstein), which then requested that the relevant camp should deliver the designated inmates. As a letter from one of the medical referees, Friedrich Mennecke, to his wife on 26 November 1941, written from the concentration camp at Buchenwald, made clear, in many cases the selection process was a ‘purely theoretical task’ that had little to do with medicine. This applied particularly to ‘in total 1,200 Jews’, he wrote, ‘who don’t all have to be “examined”, but whose reasons for being arrested (often very extensive) have to be taken from the files and copied on to the forms’. Mennecke diagnosed the non-Jewish inmates he selected for killing with phrases such as ‘compulsive, rootless psychopath, anti-German mentality’, or ‘fanatical German-hater and asocial psychopath’. Under the heading ‘symptoms’, Mennecke put descriptions like ‘dyed-in-the-wool Communist, not worthy to join the armed forces’, or ‘continual racial defilement’.223

Those selected for killing were told they were being moved to better conditions. After the first inspection, the remaining inmates knew better, and told their fellow prisoners to take off their spectacles before they paraded before the doctors, and not to register with minor injuries if they could manage it. The fact that the selected inmates were told to leave their spectacles behind, along with artificial limbs and other accoutrements of the disabled, before they embarked on the transport, was rightly taken as a clear indication of the fate to which they were going. The numbers of those selected were considerable. Already in the first trawl, of the camps in the Old Reich and the former Austria - Buchenwald, Dachau, Flossenbürg, Mauthausen, Neuengamme and Ravensbrück - the doctors selected no fewer than 12,000 victims. This was not altogether to the liking of Himmler, who instructed the camp commandants that only those inmates incapable of work should be killed; in April 1943 this was restricted still further to the mentally ill. Nevertheless, the total number of concentration camp inmates murdered in the gas chambers of the T-4 programme has been put at around 20,000. From April 1944 the concentration camp at Mauthausen, where 10,000 out of some 50,000 inmates were registered sick, began to send inmates directly to the gas chamber at Hartheim without involving the euthanasia organization in Berlin; an unknown number of inmates were killed in this way. The programme was important enough for the planned demolition of the gas chamber to be put off until 12 December 1944.224

This was not the only purpose for which Hartheim and the other killing centres of the T-4 programme were used after August 1941. Brack and Bouhler not only sent their experts to the camps, or seconded them to the Reinhard Action in the east, they also used them to carry on the original killing programme in secret. Galen’s protest had weakened the political position of their organization, which became the object of bureaucratic in-fighting between the T-4 group, based in the Leader’s Chancellery, and the Interior Ministry, ending in an uneasy compromise in which the programme was put under the formal control of Herbert Linden, who filled the new post of Reich Commissioner for Healing and Care Institutions within the Ministry of the Interior. But the T-4 group continued to do its work. Viktor Brack, its leading figure, explained to those involved ‘that the “Action” was not ended by the stop that happened in August 1941 but will continue’.225 Subsidiary organizations such as the transport group that moved the patients to the killing centres also remained in existence. It was clear to all that the mass killings now had to give way to individual murders, so as not to arouse public suspicion. For the closure of the gas chambers had not quelled public unease. On 18 November 1941, for example, in what was undoubtedly the strongest open attack on the programme by any medical man in the course of the Third Reich, Franz B̈chner, a professor of medicine at Freiburg University, asked rhetorically in a lecture on the Hippocratic Oath: ‘Is the human being of the future only to be assessed for his biological value?’ His answer was unambiguously negative. ‘Every physician who thinks Hippocratically will resist the idea that the life of the incurably ill should be described in the sense of Binding and Hoche as a life not worth living.’ Binding and Hoche, the authors of an influential tract advocating involuntary euthanasia, were thus in his view advocating the violation of basic medical ethics. ‘The only master the physician has to serve,’ declared B̈chner, ‘is life.’226

But medical staff at the T-4 headquarters in Berlin and in psychiatric and care institutions continued to be committed to the idea of killing ‘life unworthy of life’. The murder of children through fatal injections or deliberate starvation continued as before, but these methods were now applied to adult patients as well, and in a far wider range of institutions than the original killing centres. At Kaufbeuren-Irsee, patients who could work on the asylum farm or in some other capacity were fed what was categorized as a ‘normal diet’, and those who could not were given a ‘basic diet’, consisting of small amounts of root vegetables boiled in water. After three months of ingesting virtually no fats or proteins, they would be so weak that they could be killed with an injection of a small quantity of sedatives. By late 1942 so many were dying that the director of the asylum banned the ringing of the chapel bell during burials, in case its frequency alarmed local people. Conferences were held between the directors and staff of different institutions to determine the best way of starving inmates to death, and orders were issued, for example by the Bavarian Interior Ministry, providing for the food rations of the ‘unproductive’ to be cut. At Eglfing-Haar, patients selected for killing were isolated in special pavilions, soon dubbed ‘hunger houses’. The director, Hermann Pfannm̈ller, was quite open about the purpose of these diets, and regularly inspected the asylum kitchens in order to ensure that they were enforced. Aware of what was going on, the cook added fats to the cooking-pot after he left. Nevertheless, from 1943 to 1945 some 429 inmates died in the hunger houses. At Hadamar, patients deemed incapable of working were fed on a diet of nettle soup, just three times a week; relatives who received letters from them asking for food parcels were told that feelings of hunger were a symptom of their illness, and that in any case soldiers and people who were working for the nation had to get priority in the distribution of food supplies. 4,817 patients were transported to Hadamar between August 1942 and March 1945: no fewer than 4,422 of them died.227

By this time, starvation and lethal injections were also being used to kill poorly disciplined and refractory patients, as well as any whom the asylum directors felt would be poor workers, irrespective of the form-filling operations run by T-4 headquarters. At Kaufbeuren-Irsee, for example, a fifteen-year-old Gypsy who stole from hospital stores was killed with a lethal injection, which he was told was a typhus inoculation; at Hadamar, in December 1942, an inmate who worked on the estate was found to be telling stories about the asylum in the local town, confined to quarters, and died within three days. Corruption played a part too: patients who owned a good watch or a stout pair of shoes would sometimes be killed by nurses eager to acquire their possessions, while in the Kalmenhof psychiatric reformatory, produce from the institution’s 1,000-acre estate frequently went to the director and the staff instead of the inmates, who had to survive on about half their planned allocation of milk, meat and butter.228 The killing programme even became more intensive in 1944-5, and continued in some institutions all the way up to the end of the war; in Kaufbeuren-Irsee, indeed, one killing was recorded on 29 May 1945, nearly a month after the war had officially ended.229

In the intervening period, new categories of victims had been added to the original list. Towards the end of 1942 the central directorate of the euthanasia programme began to organize the killing of foreign forced labourers, particularly Poles, who had become mentally ill or had contracted tuberculosis; over a hundred of them were murdered in Hadamar between the middle of 1944 and the end of the war, and more in Hartheim and other established killing centres as well as new camps and institutions designated for the purpose. The killings extended to babies born to female forced labourers who had resisted the pressure to have an abortion; sixty-eight children under the age of three were killed at the Kelsterbach institution from 1943 to 1945 because they were classified as the racially undesirable offspring of such women.230 At Hadamar, more than forty healthy children moved there in April 1943 were killed because they had been classified as ‘mixed-race of the first degree’, that is, one parent was Jewish. Often they had been taken into care because their parents were dead, or the Jewish parent had been killed and the remaining parent had been ruled incapable of caring for them. The chief physician at Hadamar, Adolf Wahlmann, justified these murders by classifying the victims as ‘congenitally feeble-minded’ or ‘difficult to educate’, although there was no medical or psychiatric justification for such a designation at all.231

The killing of psychiatric patients also extended beyond the Reich. Already in 1939-40 it had encompassed asylums in occupied Poland. From the summer of 1941 it also operated in the parts of the Soviet Union conquered and occupied by the German armies in the course of Operation Barbarossa. As well as killing large numbers of Jews and Communist Party officials, the SS Task Forces that followed the German army sought out psychiatric hospitals and systematically killed the inmates by shooting them, poisoning them, depriving them of food, or putting them outside in the winter cold to die of exposure. From August 1941, on Himmler’s instructions, they began to look for other means, in view of the stress that these direct methods placed on the SS men, some of whom were turning to drink or suffering from nervous exhaustion. With the help of equipment provided by Albert Widmann and the Criminal-Technical Institute, the SS first tried locking patients into a building and blowing them up with explosives. This turned out to be too messy for their taste. So they went over to gassing them with carbon monoxide in mobile gas vans as suggested by Widmann. Carried out in this way, the Task Force killings of psychiatric patients in the occupied Soviet Union continued sporadically until late 1942. Although the exact number will never be known, Soviet sources suggest that about 10,000 people were exterminated in this way.232

Increased efforts were made after August 1941 to keep such murder programmes from attracting public attention. The transportation of patients was now justified as a means of removing them from the danger posed by air raids, for example. Yet the killings could not be kept entirely secret. On 21 October 1943 Herbert Linden complained to the President of Jena University that his staff were being too open about the continuing ‘children’s euthanasia’ programme:

According to Director Kloos in Stadtroda, the mother of a young idiot boy was told the following in the clinic at Jena: ‘Your boy is an idiot, without any prospect of developing, and he must therefore be transferred to the regional hospital in Stadtroda, where three physicians from Berlin examine the children at certain intervals and decide whether they should be killed.’233

This laxness had to be stopped, he said. ‘As you know,’ he added in a second letter, ‘the Leader wants all discussion of the question of euthanasia to be avoided.’234 Voices were also raised in protest from within the Confessing Church, most notably in October 1943, when a synod in Breslau stated publicly: ‘The annihilation of human beings simply because they are relatives of a criminal, old, or mentally ill, or belong to a foreign race, is not wielding the sword of state given to the authorities by God.’235 Protestant welfare institutions like Bodelschwingh’s Bethel Hospital sometimes tried to delay the transport of patients to the killing centres, or to send them out of harm’s way, but even Bodelschwingh met with only limited success in these efforts.236 The Catholic Church was initially hesitant, though it soon realized that the killing programme was continuing. A joint pastoral letter on the topic, drafted in November 1941 by a group of bishops, was suppressed by Cardinal Bertram, who was reluctant to exacerbate the situation still further in the wake of Galen’s sermon. Instead, early in 1943, the bishops instructed Catholic institutions not to co-operate with the registration of patients for the Reich Ministry of the Interior, which had ordered it at the end of the previous year with the obvious intention of compiling lists of people to be killed.237 On 29 June 1943 Pope Pius XII issued an Encyclical, Mystici Corporis, condemning the way in which, in Germany, ‘physically deformed people, mentally disturbed people and hereditarily ill people have at times been robbed of their lives . . . The blood of those who are all the dearer to our Saviour because they deserve the greater pity,’ he concluded, ‘cries out from the earth up to Heaven.’238 Following this, on 26 September 1943, an open condemnation of the killing of ‘the innocent and defenceless mentally handicapped and mentally ill, the incurably infirm and fatally wounded, innocent hostages and disarmed prisoners of war and criminal offenders, people of a foreign race or descent’ by the Catholic bishops of Germany was read out from the pulpit in churches across the land. The breadth of the terms in which it was couched was remarkable. Its overall effects were minimal.239


Among the many people whom the Nazis regarded as racially inferior, a special position was reserved for the Gypsies. Himmler regarded them as particularly subversive because of their itinerant lifestyle, their alleged criminality and their aversion to regular, conventional employment. Racial mixing with Germans posed a eugenic threat. By September 1939 German Gypsies had been rounded up and registered with a special office in Berlin. Many of them were in special camps. As soon as the war broke out, the SS took the opportunity to put into effect what Himmler had already called the ‘final solution of the Gypsy question’.240 Restrictions were placed on their movements, and many were expelled from border areas in the belief that their wanderings and their supposed lack of patriotism made them suitable for recruitment by foreign intelligence agencies. A plan to resettle them in occupied Poland was shelved while Himmler sorted out the resettlement of ethnic Germans there, but a meeting of SS officials chaired by Heydrich on 30 January 1940 decided that it was time for the plan’s implementation. In May 1940 some 2,500 German Gypsies were rounded up and deported to the General Government. In August 1940, however, it was decided to postpone further deportations until the Jews had been dealt with. While the SS dithered, the persecution of those Gypsies who remained in the Reich intensified. Gypsy soldiers were cashiered from the army, Gypsy children were expelled from schools, Gypsy men were drafted into forced labour schemes. Early in 1942 Gypsies in Alsace-Lorraine were arrested, and some of them were taken to concentration camps in Germany as ‘asocials’. 2,000 Gypsies in East Prussia were loaded on to cattle cars at the same time, and taken to Bialystok, where they were put in a prison, from which they were later moved to a camp in Brest-Litovsk. Meanwhile, Dr Robert Ritter’s research team, based in the Reich Health Office, was painstakingly continuing its registration and racial assessment of every Gypsy and half-Gypsy in Germany. By March 1942 the team had assessed 13,000; a year later the total assessed in Germany and Austria had reached more than 21,000; and by March 1944 the project was finally completed, with a final tally of precisely 23,822. However, by this time, many of those who had been assessed by Ritter and his team were no longer alive.241

The killings began in 1942. The previous year, the Reich Criminal Police Office, which had already concentrated Gypsies from the Austrian Burgenland into a number of camps in the province, had persuaded Himmler to allow the deportation of 5,000 of them to a specially cordoned-off section of the Lo’dz’ ghetto. Plans to use the adult Gypsies for labour duties came to nothing, however. As typhus began to rage in the ghetto, particularly affecting the overcrowded and insanitary quarter where the Gypsies lived, the German administration decided to take them all to Chelmno, where the great majority - more than half of them children - were killed in mobile gas vans. Around the same time, SS Task Forces in occupied Eastern Europe were shooting large numbers of Gypsies as ‘asocials’ and ‘saboteurs’. In March 1942, for instance, Task Force D reported with evident satisfaction that there were no more Gypsies left in the Crimea. The killings commonly included women and children as well as men. They were normally rounded up together with the local Jewish population, stripped of their clothes, lined up alongside ditches and shot in the back of the neck. The numbers ran into thousands and included sedentary as well as itinerant families, despite the fact that Himmler made a clear distinction between the two. In Serbia, as we have seen, the regional army commander Franz Böhme included Gypsies in his arrests and shootings of ‘hostages’. One eyewitness of a mass shooting of Jews and Gypsies by men of the 704th Infantry Division of the regular German army on 30 October 1941 reported: ‘The shooting of the Jews is simpler than that of the Gypsies. One has to admit that the Jews go to their death composed - they stand very calmly, whereas the Gypsies cry, scream and move constantly while they already stand at the place of the shooting. Several even jump into the ditch and pretend to be dead.’ Harald Turner, the head of the SS in the area, alleged (without any evidence) that Gypsy men were working for the Jews in partisan warfare and were responsible for many atrocities. Several thousand were killed, although when the gassing of the remaining Serbian Jews in the Sajmiste camp began in February 1942, the Gypsy women and children held there were released.242

The killing of Gypsies was also carried out by Germany’s Balkan allies. In Croatia, as we have seen, the Ustashe massacred large numbers of Gypsies as well as Serbs and Jews. Similarly, the antisemitic regime of Ion Antonescu in Romania ordered some 25,000 out of a total of 209,000 Romanian Gypsies to be deported to Transnistria, along with 2,000 members of a religious sect, the Inochentists, who refused on grounds of conscience to do military service. Those who were rounded up were mainly itinerant Gypsies, whom Antonescu made largely responsible for crime and public disorder in Romania. In practice, the arrests were often quite arbitrary in character, and the Romanian army protested successfully against the inclusion of some First World War veterans in the deportations. The deportees were described in 1942 as living in conditions of ‘indescribable misery’, without food, emaciated and covered in lice. Increasing numbers died of hunger, cold and disease. Their bodies were found on local highways; thousands had perished by the spring of 1943, when they were transferred to better housing in a number of villages and given jobs on public works projects. Only half of the deportees survived long enough to return to Romania from Transnistria with the retreating Romanian army in 1944.243

18. The Extermination of the Gypsies

Although these killings were on a large scale, they were far less systematic than those carried out by the Germans. On 16 December 1942 Himmler ordered the deportation of more than 13,000 German Gypsies to a special section of the Auschwitz camp.244 The camp commandant Rudolf Höss recalled that the arrest of Gypsies was chaotic, with many decorated war veterans and even Nazi Party members being rounded up simply because they had some Gypsy ancestry. In their case there was no classification as a half- or quarter-Gypsy; anyone with even a small amount of Gypsy ancestry was regarded as a threat. The 13,000 constituted under half the Gypsy and part-Gypsy population of the Reich; many of the others were exempted because they worked in armaments and munitions factories, so that a considerable proportion of those deported were children. Thousands more were deported to Auschwitz from the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. At Auschwitz-Birkenau they filled a special family camp. It eventually contained nearly 14,000 Gypsies from Germany and Austria, 4,500 from Bohemia and Moravia, and 1,300 from Poland. Hygiene was poor, conditions filthy, malnutrition rife, and inmates, especially children, rapidly succumbed to typhus and tuberculosis. The sick were selected on a number of occasions and sent to the gas chambers. Some 1,700 who came in from Bialystok on 23 March 1943 were killed shortly after arrival. Early in 1944 the majority of the Gypsy family camp’s men and women were taken to other camps in Germany for use as forced labourers. On 16 May 1944 the SS surrounded the family camp with the intention of sending the remaining 6,000 inmates to the gas chambers. Forewarned by the camp’s German commandant, the Gypsies armed themselves with knives, spades, crowbars and stones, and refused to leave. Fearful of causing a pitched battle, the SS withdrew. Over the following weeks, more Gypsies were taken in small batches for work in Germany. On 2 August 1944 Rudolf Ḧss, now reinstated as the main camp commandant, ordered the SS to round up the remaining 3,000 or so Gypsies, who were given food rations and told they too were being deported to another camp. His real intention, however, was to free up the Gypsy camp accommodation for large numbers of new incoming prisoners. The Gypsies were taken to the crematoria and put to death. Another 800, mostly children, were sent from Buchenwald in early October 1944 and killed as well. This brought the total number of Gypsies who died at Auschwitz to more than 20,000, of whom 5,600 had been gassed and the rest had died from disease or maltreatment. In his memoirs, unbelievably, Ḧss described them as ‘my best-loved prisoners’, trusting, good-natured and irresponsible, like children.245

Gypsies in Nazi Germany were arrested, sent to concentration camps and killed not because, like Jews, they were thought to be so potent a threat to the German war effort that they all had to be exterminated, but because they were considered to be ‘asocial’, criminal, and useless to the ‘national community’. In Nazi Germany, of course, these supposed characteristics were thought to be largely inherited, and thus racial in origin. But this does not make the mass murder of German and European Gypsies a genocide in the same way as the mass murder of German and European Jews was. In most concentration camps, Gypsies were classified as asocial and made to wear the black triangle that denoted them as such. Sometimes, as we shall see in the next chapter, they were specially selected for medical experimentation; in Buchenwald there is no doubt that they were singled out for especially harsh treatment. At least 5,000 and possibly up to 15,000 remained in Germany during the war, and in January 1943 the police ordered that they were to be sterilized if they agreed to the operation. They were offered the inducement of permission to marry non-Gypsy Germans if they consented.

However, those who refused were liable to be put under heavy pressure to give their consent. A number were threatened with being sent to a concentration camp. Others successfully appealed on the grounds that the admixture of Gypsy blood in their veins was insignificant. Altogether, between 2,000 and 2,500 Gypsies were sterilized during the war, most of them classified by Ritter and his team as ‘asocial mixed-race Gypsies’. They fell into a similar category to that of so-called mixed-race Jews, a group that caused perpetual uncertainty amongst the Nazis as to what should be done with them. Overall, the Gypsies were not, in other words, the subject of a concerted, obsessive and centrally directed campaign of physical extermination that sought to eliminate them all, without exception. But the fact that the majority of them were also classified as ‘asocial’ imposed on them a double burden of discrimination and persecution. That is why so many of them were killed, while the vast majority of so-called mixed-race Jews were not. In the long run, of course, race laws and sterilization programmes were intended to eliminate both categories from the chain of heredity in what some have called a ‘delayed genocide’.246


The various categories of camp inmates also included homosexuals, designated by a pink triangle. Male homosexuality was illegal, under a definition whose scope had already been considerably expanded before the war. The head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, was almost obsessed with hunting down homosexuals, whom he thought undermined the masculinity of the SS and the armed forces; he was supported in this by Hitler, who in August 1941 declared that ‘homosexuality is actually as infectious and as dangerous as the plague’ and urged the use of ‘barbaric severity . . . wherever symptoms of homosexuality appear among young people’.247 On 4 September 1941 the death penalty was introduced for sex with a minor.248 Then, in November 1941, at Himmler’s behest, Hitler issued a confidential order prescribing execution for a member of the SS found committing ‘unnatural acts with another man’.249 It had, Himmler decreed the following March, to be explained to all members of the SS and police and they had to sign a form saying they had read and understood it. In practice, this policy was not implemented very thoroughly, and relatively few cases were brought; in the last few months of the war, indeed, Himmler commuted the sentences of some of the SS men condemned for homosexual behaviour on condition that they joined the Military SS and fought at the front.250

The armed forces were also concerned to combat homosexuality among the troops, and, after a good deal of internal debate, decided on 19 May 1943 to punish serious cases, however these might be defined, with the death penalty, and others by a dishonourable discharge from the forces, incarceration in a field punishment camp or referral to the police. Within the armed forces there were just over 1,100 convictions for contravention of the law against homosexual acts in 1940, rising to around 1,700 a year for the rest of the war. More generally, convictions of civilian men in Germany for contravening section 175 of the Reich Criminal Code, which outlawed homosexuality, fell from around 8,200 in 1939 to just over 4,000 in 1940, reflecting the enlistment of millions of men in the armed forces. Civilian offenders were initially sent to prison after trial, but Himmler ordered in 1940 that all homosexuals found to have had more than one sexual partner were to be taken straight to a concentration camp at the end of their prison sentence. 251Ernst Kaltenbrunner of the SS Security Service wanted to go even further. In July 1943 he pressed the Ministry of Justice to issue an emergency edict ordering the compulsory castration of homosexuals, since too few prisoners had come forward to voluntarily request it. The Ministry pointed out that the lack of volunteers had been caused by its own ban on castrations since the beginning of the war, but added that the ban had now been revoked. Kaltenbrunner was satisfied with this explanation, but he also managed to get the army to review nearly 6,000 prosecutions for homosexuality that had been brought against soldiers since September 1939, with a view to cashiering ‘incorrigibles’ (many of whom would undoubtedly have then been arrested by the Gestapo and put into the camps).252

This meant that at least 2,300 homosexuals were put in one or other of the main German concentration camps every year during the war.253 Here they were housed apart from other prisoners, and forced to work outdoors in all weathers in the hope that this would sort out those who were really ‘manly’ from those who were not. At Sachsenhausen, Rudolf Ḧss thought that, by treating them in this way, young men who had become male prostitutes just for the money ‘were soon brought to their senses by hard work and the strict discipline of camp life’. Those he thought of as genuine homosexuals, however, ‘gradually broke down physically’ under the strain.254 In Dachau, some 31 prisoners were incarcerated because of their homosexuality in 1939, 50 in 1940, 37 in 1941, 113 in 1942, 81 in 1943, 84 in 1944, and 19 in 1945. 109 were still in the camp on the eve of liberation in 1945.255 Sometimes left-wing men who happened to be homosexual were put in a camp because of their homosexuality when the Gestapo was unable to pin a political offence on them. Thus, for example, the clerk H.D., born in 1915, was arrested in 1938 while trying to communicate with the Soviet Embassy in Prague. His partner was arrested and tortured into admitting that he had a sexual relationship with H.D. The Gestapo could not get a conviction for treason, but managed to secure a condemnation in the courts under the law banning homosexuality, and H.D. was sent to a penitentiary for three and a half years. On his release in November 1941, he was immediately rearrested and taken to Buchenwald, where he was made to wear the pink triangle, put to work in the camp quarry and singled out for particularly brutal maltreatment by a capo who was known for his hatred of homosexuals. Only the capo’s own release from the camp saved him. The homosexuals’ block in the camp was ruthlessly exploited by the SS guards, who regularly stole the food packets some of its inmates received from friends and relatives. Homosexuals were also regularly singled out during work at the quarry and ‘shot while trying to escape’. The growing demand for camp labour from the autumn of 1942 onwards put an end to this practice, though not to the everyday brutality of the guards and capos. H. D. was eventually able to secure lighter duties, and survived. Many others did not.256 Altogether, between 5,000 and 15,000 homosexuals were put into the concentration camps over the whole period of the Third Reich, of whom up to a half are thought to have perished.257

There is little doubt that Nazi policy towards homosexuals was becoming more radical and more exterminatory during the war; and indeed, more generally, the vast expansion of the concentration camp system in this period was not just a symptom of the insatiable demand of the war economy for fresh sources of labour but also reflected the growing radicalism of the Nazi regime as a whole. By February 1944, the Ministry of Justice was preparing to introduce a law that would allow the police to arrest, imprison and indeed eventually eliminate anyone who they considered a ‘community alien’. As the legal definition in the draft legislation put it:

A community alien is: (1) anyone who, by his personality and way of life . . . shows himself unable to satisfy the minimal demands of the national community by his own efforts; (2) anyone who (a) from work-shyness or frivolity leads a useless, spendthrift, or disorderly life . . . or (b) from a tendency or inclination to ... minor criminal offences, or from a tendency to disorderliness while drunk, grossly violates his duty to sustain the national community, or (c) persistently disturbs the general peace through irritability or pleasure in quarrelling; or (3) anyone whose personality and way of life make it clear that their natural tendency is to commit serious crimes.258

In a draft preamble, the criminologist Edmund Mezger noted that the Law would be applied to ‘failures’ and the ‘immoral’ as well as ‘criminals’ and the ‘work-shy’.259 The Law was never implemented. It would, Goebbels thought, have made a bad impression abroad, at a time when Germany desperately needed the goodwill of neutral countries. Others within the higher echelons of the regime blocked it because it would have given Himmler’s police system virtually unlimited powers over the whole of German society, enforcing Nazi ideology through a reign of unbridled terror.260 But it was a characteristic product of the era. It breathed the radical spirit of the ‘time of struggle’ that was re-emerging in the final phases of the war: a spirit that now had the entire apparatus of state and Party at its disposal.

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