Why are Nazi camps different than other camps? Part V

Part V of a Six-Day Series


Historically, major world powers established concentration camps in their own countries or in their colonies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries before the Nazis did. Among them, the British Empire’s South African camps and Russia’s Gulags stand out as the early models of the Nazi concentration camps in functionality but not in purpose. The British camps’ objective was either to enslave native populations, colonize or plunder lands with rich natural resources, or in the case of Russia’s Gulags, to imprison political enemies. Both empires’ camps were a military response to guerrilla warfare and uprisings. “Colonial powers aimed to defeat local insurgents through the mass internment of civilian non-combatants in villages, towns, or camps.” No doubt that inexcusable mass deaths, illness, and hunger occurred in these camps out of “colonial authorities indifference and ineptitude,” but unlike Nazi camps’ extermination by crematorium of an entire population of Jews criminalized for lack of Aryan blood, was never the empires’ method or objective.

The consensus among scholars in this survey is that the leading innovator of concentration camps was par none the British Empire which named and established them in its colonies to stop counterinsurgencies. The camps’ original purpose was social discipline for guerrillas and humanitarian protection for non-insurgents, but the authorities’ mismanagement caused massive deaths such as in the case of the South African concentration camps set in1900 for Afrikaners also called Boers in Dutch — descendants of 17th-century Dutch-German and French settlers— who rebelled against the empire in the Boer War of Independence. The forty-five camps for some 100,000 Boer prisoners were marked by epidemics and neglect, because of logistical difficulties and food shortages. The severe lack of food, medical care and bedclothes resulted in a huge loss of life; one in five Boers died in the camps. With the increase of rebellions in the colonies, Britain learned and perfected its tactics without borrowing ideas from outside but building knowledge by own experience. On the contrary, other empires appropriated the model of the British camp for their own ends. “Germany, for example, adopted the language and idea of the concentration camp from Britain, but applied it to new non-guerrilla circumstances.”

Europe did not have concentration camps except for the ones in its colonies before World War I. How or when did they come to be a common sight in Europe? Scholars conclude that the inter-imperial learning of buildings, systems, and tactics used in concentration camps was transferred from the British colonies to Europe, especially to Germany and the Soviet Union during WWI. The sheer volume of soldiers and civilians created the need for new types of camps such as POWs, forced labor, refugees, and civilian internment camps driven by radical nationalism movements and the redrawing of the European map. As a result, a proliferation of camps followed the emergence of totalitarian regimes that sought to punish their enemies. A case in point was the Soviet Union’s mass detention centers also known as Gulags (an acronym for Main Administration of Camps in Russian or Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei) which encompassed labor camps, colonies, and prisons. Established under Stalin’s rule in the early 1930s, the Gulags’ purpose was to remove enemies and contain their influence on the citizens of the utopian communist society. Prisoners such as counter-revolutionaries, the working-class, and the bourgeoisie lived in meager conditions including limited food, overcrowding, inadequate housing, hygiene, and health care. As reprehensible as the Gulags were, the extermination of prisoners was not their main purpose. Wachsmann states that inmates were more likely to be released than killed and in all, some ninety percent of inmates survived the Gulags.

In this inter-imperial learning of buildings, systems, and tactics of concentration camps, neither the British nor the Soviet camps became as deadly as the Nazi camps. Drawing parallels among all three regimes presents several specific problems and it should prevent future comparisons. First, the purpose of camps was different for each nation. The Nazis presented their camps as essential for preserving their racial stock, while the British camps were set for imperialistic economic gains and the Soviet camps’ goal was to remove non-communists from their utopian society. Second, British and Soviet camps were lethal out of mismanagement, neglect, and incompetence which led to massive deaths, but they were rarely deliberately set up as death camps as in the case of the Nazis whose camps were designed to fully exterminate non-Aryans, specifically Jews. The Auschwitz complex best illustrates the false equivalency with other camps as it had no precedent in the USSR, Britain, or in history. “As the philosopher Hannah Arendt put it in her pioneering study of totalitarianism, the Soviet camps were purgatory, the Nazi ones pure hell.”

In Germany, before Hitler came into power, the Weimer Republic — Germany’s post-WWI democratic government, 1919 to 1933 — only had scattered references to camps “owing much to the political rhetoric of the time,” but such political threats did not manifest in actual camps. When Hitler became Chancellor in 1933, he had to invent the concentration camps as there were no blueprints in government files, drawing mainly from their own prison system and the army. The intra-imperial learning for Nazi camps came from the British camps. Hitler admitted his a priori knowledge of the South African camps during a speech he gave at a rally in 1940 after the British press criticized the Nazi pogrom of 1938 known as Kristallnacht. He counterattacked by declaring that it was not Germany but Britain, the inventor of concentration camps: “we merely read up on it in the encyclopedia and then later copied it.” His blunt cynicism was only outdone by his lack of originality. Afterward, Nazi propaganda made use of this speech to attack the British hypocrisy about their own camps during the Boers War in South Africa.

Early Nazi concentration camps such as Dachau (1933) in Germany were established in existing munition factories, warehouses and state prisons where most of the infrastructure, from buildings to guards was already in place. Originally cleared for protective custody of perceived enemies such as Communists and Social Democrats, they gradually held Jehovah’s Witnesses, gypsies, homosexuals, disabled, asocials, racially inferior, work-shy, social deviants, and political opponents. Jews who had violated the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 were brought here for the first time. Initially, these centers were relatively safe for inmates who were exposed to low-level harassment and a monotonous daily schedule and had adequate food and shelter. Most inmates were released after a period of punishment.

The next stage in concentration camps escalated in violence and forced labor based under a new jurisdiction authorized by Hitler to centralize all other prisons and detention centers under a new agency, the Inspectorate of Concentration Camps (Inspekteur der Konzetrationslager-IKL) which incarcerated people who were a security threat, murdered targeted minorities and exploited inmates in labor camps. “The terror inside camps can be fully understood by looking outside the barbed wire. After all, camps were a product of the Nazi regime. Prisoner composition, conditions, and treatment were shaped by outside forces such as political, economic and military. These camps were real places which stood in villages, towns and cities” The administration of camps depended on a complex web of agencies such as the Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei-Secret State Police) which investigated politically motivated crimes; the German Security Police (Sicherheitspolizei-Sipo) in charge of arresting, incarcerating, or executing prisoners; and the Protection Squadrons (Schutzstaffel-SS) which carried out security with impunity. Hitler appointed his loyal henchman who would execute his will, Heinrich Himmler as the chief of the Schutzstaffel. In turn, Himmler chose SS Lieutenant General Theodor Eicke as his second in command. “The SS inaugurated its reign over Dachau with an exposition of violence. On their first day in charge, the SS men battered newcomers, saving their worst for the Jews. By mid-April 1933, they had whipped themselves up into a murderous frenzy. Once the Dachau SS men started to kill, they found it hard to stop.”


The period between the outbreak of War World II on September 1, 1939, and the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, was the transition from a policy of forced emigration of Jews to one of physical annihilation. At the beginning of this period, Germany occupied large sections of Poland where two million Jews lived, as well as most other European countries, in which millions more Jews lived. These Jews were subjected to pogroms, branded with numbers in their arms and a yellow patch, and put to work in forced labor camps. Their property was confiscated and they were interned in ghettos, in which they were held under starvation conditions and in which disease and epidemics claimed thousands of victims. Many were sent to labor and concentration camps, and, thousands were put to death.

Along with the preparations for the German invasion of the Soviet Union in the July of 1941, the leaders of Nazi Germany began to devise a new policy toward the Jews. Hermann Goering, Hitler’s deputy, writing under his direct instructions, ordered Reinhard Heydrich, SS general, to submit a general plan for carrying out the desired Final Solution of the Jewish Question. A year later, on January 20, 1942, Heydrich met with Adolf Eichmann, chief of the Central Office of Jewish Emigration, and 15 other officials from various Nazi ministries and organizations met at the Wannsee Conference — named after a Berlin suburb — to coordinate the Final Solution in Europe.

Reports on the Wannsee Conference portray a meeting of evil minds who plotted on gruesome proposals to destroy Jews, from mass sterilization, deportation, working them to death, even sending them to the island of Madagascar. None of these methods were efficient or fast enough for killing. They discussed the gas vans in Chelmno, Poland which were killing 1,000 people a day, but instead of vans, they decided to use the gas Zyklon-b in large installations where they could kill in mass. As a result, these top Nazis established a network of gas chambers to exterminate the entire Jewish people. Initially, six death camps were constructed in Poland: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibór, Majdanek, and Chelmno. The gas chambers in the Auschwitz complex constituted the largest and most efficient extermination method used by the Nazis. Some 6,000 people were gassed every day in chambers built to look like shower rooms in order to confuse the victims. New arrivals were told that they were being sent to work, but first needed to shower to be disinfected. They were quickly gassed to death with the highly poisonous Zyklon-b gas. Other inmates were selected by Joseph Mengele to performed torturous pseudo-medical experiments with twins and other prisoners in the name of eugenics and racial purity. Over 2,772,000 Jews were murdered at these killing centers, while 800,000 Jews were killed in the ghettoes, and over 1,300,000 in open-air shootings.

Overall, the Nazis actually established about 42,500 camps and ghettoes between 1933 and 1945 according to researchers who have reconsidered earlier figures. This number includes 30,000 slave labor camps; 1,150 Jewish ghettoes, 980 concentration camps; 1000 POW camps; 500 brothels filled with sex slaves; and thousands of other camps used for euthanizing the elderly and infirm or transporting victims to killing centers. Berlin alone had nearly 3,000 camps. The total numbers include camps that Nazis established in conquered territories such as Austria, France, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, and even the small British Channel Island of Alderney. For Nazis like Heinrich Himmler, camps were a “time-honored institution,” as he announced in a speech on German radio in 1939 in an attempt to normalize their use and make the Nazi camps less exceptional than the British. Yet, the Nazi camps were indeed exceptional as they became the epitome of human evil by the end of WWII.

About the Author
Hadassah Levinson is a Judaic Studies teacher at Jewish Day Schools and instructor for young adults at Jewish centers in Manhattan. She is a recent graduate of Yeshiva University's M.A. in Modern Jewish History and she is currently enrolled in graduate studies in American Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Touro College. She is an iFellows at the iCenter for Israel Education. She has prior graduate degrees in Communications (NYU '95); and Journalism and International Affairs (Columbia University 2000).
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