Gripping history shows how Nazi camp, killing system worked

By Burton Boxerman, Special to the Jewish Light

“KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps” is the first systematic study of the structure of Konzentrationslager, or KL, a network of about 17 key Nazi concentration camps and 1,000 smaller satellite camps located throughout Europe.  

Its author, Nikolaus Wachsmann, a professor of modern European history at Birkbeck College, University of London, has written a massive and somber history that should certainly stand as the definitive work on this subject.  Until now, there had never been a complete analysis of the concentration camp system or the people who helped shape it. This camp system trapped 2.3 million men, women and children and resulted in the deaths of approximately 1.7 million during the course of the war, a significant part of the total of approximately six million Jews killed during the Holocaust.

The earliest camps were established by the two paramilitary wings of the Nazi Party, the SA (Sturmabetilung, or “storm battalion”) and the SS (Schutzstaffel or “protection squad”), in the weeks after  Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933.  The camps were established primarily as holding cells, sometimes in basements or warehouses.  They included six concentration camps in prewar Germany: Dachau, Sachensausen, Buchenwald, Flossenburg, Mauthmasen and Ravensbruck. 

The original purpose of these camps was to act as a tool to improve the German “race”.  In the late 1930s, the camps housed what the Nazis called “asocials”: alcoholics, drug addicts, homosexuals, prostitutes and vagrants.  

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In 1934 the SS destroyed the SA during the three-day Night of the Long Knives purge, in which hundreds of Hitler enemies and skeptics were murdered.  The camps were now under control of Theodor Eicke, an SS general described by Wachsmann as “the godfather” of the KL. 

From the time Hitler came to power in 1933 until 1938, the Germans created conditions intended to compel Jews to emigrate rather than force them into camps.  Even after Kristallnacht in 1938, when 26,000 German Jews were sent to camps, internment was usually for short periods of time with the goal of intimidating these Jewish families to leave Germany.  

Eicke might have been the godfather of the KL but, by late 1938, Heinrich Himmler, who earlier had assumed the role of Reichsfuhrer (field marshal general), was in charge of the “final solution.” Suddenly, the camps took a systematic and malicious turn. They became bigger, deadlier and more dangerously anti- Semitic.  

Once the war began, the SS initiated a systematic series of arrests of Jews, transporting them and other “undesirables” in Germany and in occupied territories to the camps, which generally were located on the outskirts of cities or towns.  

Using terror, brutality, torture, starvation and forced labor, the German government began its calculated plan of eliminating an entire group of people from the face of the Earth.  This was the beginning of the Holocaust and, in 1940, the Nazis built the worst of the camps — Auschwitz and its gas chambers — where at least 1.1 million people, including 870,000 Jews, were murdered on arrival. Wachsmann estimates that 80 percent of the Jews who entered Auschwitz were targeted for immediate death. 

The cruelty did not stop there.  In the waning days of World War II there were still more than 700,000 prisoners in more than 500 camps.  Even before the Allies could liberate and then dismantle the camps in the spring of 1945, the SS executed tens of thousands of frail prisoners as well as the youngest and oldest of the women, by shooting, lethal injection, gas, starvation and death marches, simply to rid the camps of prisoners deemed health risks or obstacles to their own evacuation.  The SS also destroyed KL records and a great many of the installations themselves.  

Wachsmann’s book is a gripping, superb and comprehensive work on a gruesome and at times agonizingly difficult topic to read.  It is massive: 880 pages, which includes 626 pages of text, more than 140 pages of footnotes and more than 40 pages of sources, including archival material housed in the United States, Germany, Israel, England and Austria.  

Wachsmann used electronic sources mostly written in German and unavailable to earlier historians.  He also made ample use of books and journals, most of which are also written in German.  The majority of the sources used by the author had never before been translated.

Despite the grisly topic, Wachsmann’s thorough work is a masterpiece and intensely readable.  His writing style is lucid, and he tells his story in clear prose.  He is both a skillful historian and writer, and the book is divided into 12 chapters that chronologically cover the development of the camps from the early ones that were used for political opponents to the final stage of the war camps in which the Holocaust and mass murders were conducted.  

The author helps clarify what the concentration camp was and was not.

If there is one book on the camp system that should be read, this is the one.  It should be included in the collections of libraries, schools and other institutions as well as one’s personal library.

“KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps”

BY: Nikolaus Wachsmann (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)


Length: 880 pages