KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps

Wachsmann, Nikolaus. KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016. ISBN: 978-0-374-53592-6

Sometime in early 1944 children in the Brikenau family camp performed a musical  based on Disney’s Snow White. This special camp was primarily Czech Jews deported from the Theresienstadt ghetto. The children’s teachers, led by inmate Fredy Hirsch, managed to provide a school curriculum that included songs, stories, German lessons and even their own newspaper. Nikolaus Wachsmann includes this story in his history of the Nazi concentration camp system not to lighten our understanding of the murderous work of Brikenau. Rather, Wachsmann’s project demonstrates the complexity of the camps, which even so was embedded in a  brutal system.  By March the SS sent most of the family camp residents to the gas chambers. Two brothers, now orphans, who looked over the living quarters after the operation, remembered that “it seemed eerily empty; all they saw were  ‘flames flickering from the chimney of the crematorium.’”

In KL we learn about the full sweep of the history of the camp system. In the early months of Nazi rule SA thugs rounded up political enemies for “protective custody” (Schutzhaft), removing them from active opposition to HItler’s power grab. But this also gave Nazi activists opportunities for brutalizing their enemies. These camps were often small, sometimes in SA bars, and at other times “camps” were set up in regular prisons. By late 1933, however, Heinrich Himmler moved to assert control, soon making the SS the organizational basis for the entire camp system. In the course of the 1930s SS recruits and officers developed their self-understanding as “political soldiers” who were defending the Nazi state against its political and social enemies. 

The identity of those enemies shifted over time, becoming more inclusive. Socialist and Communists activists were the primary target in the early years of the regime. But any known opposition to Nazi rule could qualify someone for incarceration. The largest religious group until at least 1938 was the Jehovah’s Witness, who rejected nation-worship. Later in the decade the camps received large numbers of “asocials,” generally common criminals or the “work shy” who threatened to undermine the Nazi ideal of racial solidarity. Brutality was intrinsic to the camp ethos. The SS expected toughness of their camp guards and staff. Himmler frequently referred to inmates as scum, worthy of harsh living conditions and harsh treatment. 

Nazi rule depended on the camps to intimidate its enemies and prop up its utopian claims. Even so, prisoner numbers remained low for most of the 1930s. In 1937 fewer than 8,000 inmates were spread over a few major camps. That population grew by 200%  in early 1938 as the military mobilized for actions in Austria and Czechoslovakia, and then quickly doubled to about 50,000 right after Kristallnacht. By 1939, though, the numbers had dropped again, lower even than early 1938. Throughout the 1930s, the only time that Jews were more than a small part of the camp system related to the Kristallnacht imprisonments. Even with the beginning of war in the East and the establishment of Auschwitz in 1940, the camps played only a small role in Nazi Jewish policies. In early 1942, when Himmler’s protege Reinhard Heydrich chaired the Wannsee conference that laid general plans for the annihilation of Jews currently or propsectively under Nazi control, no one saw the camps playing a major role.

And yet they would. Although most of what we now know as the Holocaust took place in other places, the camps–with Auschwitz at the center–were ready instruments for genocide. By 1942 the systematic murder of Soviet POWs provided camp commandants and SS planners opportunities for building and assessing every feature of the industrial mass murder that would characterize their share of the Holocaust. Gas chambers, with the use of Zyklon B. Gas vans. Crematoria. All of this technology had been developed and deployed at Auschwitz and other camps. By the end of 1942 German and western European Jews were being deported East, primarily to Auschwitz, destined for selection and immediate murder or for registration and slave labor. Of 1.7 million who were murdered in the camps, 1.1 million were victims of the Auschwitz-Birkenau compound.

While the so-called final solution was the main product of the eastern camps, slave labor ultimately became the central pursuit of the camp system. Even as the slaughter of prisoners continued in the final two years of the war, the prisoner population grew. As the transition toward war production became the primary goal for the camps, the number of prisoners, including Jewish prisoners, increased rapidly. From August of 1943 to August of 1944, the camp population more than doubled, and grew again by almost half, to more than 700,000 by January 1945. By the end of the war there were more than two dozen main camps but hundreds more of satellite camps (Wachsmann estimates more than 500). As the Nazi regime collapsed from East and West, prisoners were moved in desperate death marches, to save slave laborers for what, by then, was a fantasy of Nazi resistance and survival. The brutality and murder continued to the end of the system.

KL provides extraordinary value in understanding both the Nazi state and the Holocaust, in revelatory details but even more in analysis of the camp system. Even though this work takes a deep look at the system, the writing never becomes dense. But the subject matter remains demanding. Waschsmann introduces us to individuals, both victims and perpetrators. Yet knowing the subjects of the camps better, just like knowing about the children’s musical in Birkenau, does not lighten the grim project that Wachsmann has taken on.