The Anatomy of Hell

Books discussed in this review

John da Cunha/National Archives
Ravensbrück guards Dorothea Binz, Margarete Mewes, Grete Bösel, Vera Salvequart (‘Dr. Vera,’ in the row behind, who worked as a ‘nurse’), and Eugenia von Skene on trial at the War Crimes Court in Hamburg, circa December 1946

In the popular imagination, the Nazi concentration camp now features mainly as a place where Jews were taken to be gassed. In a recent German opinion poll, most respondents associated the camps with the persecution and murder of Jews; under 10 percent mentioned other categories of camp prisoners, such as Communists, criminals, or homosexuals. The power of the “Holocaust” as a concept has all but obliterated other aspects of the crimes of the Nazis and the sufferings of their victims and driven the history of the camps from cultural memory. No crime in human history outdoes the genocidal extermination of six million European Jews on the orders of the leader of Germany’s self-styled “Third Reich.” Yet the majority of the Jewish victims of Nazi mass murder were not killed in the camps; they were shot, starved to death, or left to die of diseases that could easily have been prevented or treated but were not. The concentration camp was in no way synonymous with the Holocaust.

While facilities such as Treblinka or Auschwitz-Birkenau, constructed for no other purpose than mass murder, were first established during World War II, the history of the concentration camp, as Nikolaus Wachsmann reminds us in his impressive and authoritative new study, begins much earlier. The idea of concentrating a state’s enemies in a camp went back at least to the end of the nineteenth century, following the invention of barbed wire and the machine gun, in the Boer War and the Spanish-American War, and found expression in the Soviet system of labor camps and other products of twentieth-century dictatorships. But these camps neither formed the template for the Nazi concentration camps nor resembled them in all respects, even if they were similar in some. Ninety percent of inmates survived the Soviet Gulag, for example, while in the wartime camps of the SS, even for prisoners who were registered as inmates and not killed immediately on arrival, the survival rate was less than half. Of some 2.3 million men, women, and children who were put into Nazi concentration camps between 1933 and 1945, more than 1.7 million lost their lives, almost a million of them Jews killed in Auschwitz.

Wachsmann’s gripping, humane, and beautifully written narrative begins with the establishment of the first of the Nazi camps, at a disused munitions factory outside the town of Dachau, near Munich. During the first half of 1933, as Hitler gathered the reins of power to himself, makeshift camps were improvised all over Germany to incarcerate Communists and Social Democrats, the main political groups who resisted the Nazis’ violent seizure of power. Only gradually were these closed down, with the release of the prisoners, many of whom had been badly beaten and tortured (even the official estimate reckoned that over six hundred were murdered by the Nazis), on promise of refraining from political engagement. By 1934, as Wachsmann showed in his previous book, Hitler’s Prisons (2004), the function of political repression had been taken over by the police, the courts, and the regular state prisons and penitentiaries.

The remaining concentration camps, which held fewer than four thousand inmates by 1935, then became the dumping grounds for “asocials,” alcoholics, vagrants, and social deviants. By 1939 there were six such camps, at Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen, Dachau, Flossenbürg, and Buchenwald in the “old Reich” and Mauthausen in the annexed territory of Austria. During the war, however, as the German economy experienced a rapidly growing labor shortage, with millions of men at the front and millions of women staying at home in obedience to the Nazi image of women as mothers and homemakers, supported by generous subsidies to enable them to do so, the camps were transformed into centers of forced labor, buttressed by the industrial sub-camps that spread like a cancer through the body of the German Reich.

The conditions under which the workers were held were so murderous that for many of them the Nazis coined the term “extermination through labor,” while Auschwitz in particular acquired the unique dual function of providing a labor force and exterminating almost a million Jews brought from other parts of Europe. By the end of the war there were more than 700,000 forced laborers held in this vast network of camps and subcamps in rapidly deteriorating conditions; half of them did not survive the war.

How many of the prisoners were actually Jewish? For most of the period of the camps’ existence, up to the final phase of the war, Wachsmann reckons that Jews made up no more than 10 percent of the inmate population. Kim Wünschmann, in her excellent monograph on the subject, completed as part of a large-scale research project under Wachsmann’s overall direction, reckons that of the 150,000 to 200,000 Germans incarcerated in the camps in 1933, during the Nazi seizure of power, around 5,000 to 10,000 were Jewish, or 5 percent of the camp population up to the middle of 1938. These low figures should not surprise us. Jews, as defined by their religion, made up less than one percent of the German population as a whole in 1933. Despite the small numbers, on the other hand, Jews were clearly overrepresented in the camps from the very beginning.

Most of the Jews imprisoned in the camps, as Wünschmann shows, were middle-aged businessmen and professionals. They were there for a wide variety of reasons. Initially, in 1933–1934, most of them were left-wing activists, politicians and political journalists, or businessmen denounced by rivals and competitors for supposedly corrupt or criminal practices. Later on, after the Nuremberg Race Laws were passed in 1935, they were joined by men arrested for consorting with non-Jewish women. Some Jews had been imprisoned for homosexuality and taken to the camps on release from prison. Then, as the camps’ function changed in the mid-1930s to house the “asocial,” the regime’s relentless assault on the Jews’ economic position and its continued drive to force Jews out of business and professional life brought a growing number of them into the camps for being “work-shy” or engaging in desperate acts of petty crime in order to stay alive.

Following the Nazi Anschluss of Austria in March 1938, there were mass arrests of Jews, above all in Vienna, along with known opponents of the Nazis and supporters of Austrian independence. Most of these people were sent to Dachau, where 2,000 of the 3,500 Austrians who arrived in the camp were classified as Jewish. Shortly afterward, in June 1938, a special “Reich Work-Shy Action,” in which vagrants, deviants, and petty criminals were rounded up on Himmler’s orders across the newly enlarged German Reich and sent to the camps, brought thousands more Jews into the camps. Thirteen percent of the 6,224 men taken to Sachsenhausen in the course of this action, 19 percent of those taken to Dachau, and no fewer than 53 percent of those put in Buchenwald were Jews: altogether 2,259 Jews were added to the overall camp population in June 1938.

Then in November 1938 Hitler ordered the arrest of 30,000 Jewish men in the course of the nationwide pogrom sarcastically dubbed by Berliners the Reichskristallnacht, or “Reich Night of Glass Shards,” from the splinters that lay on the streets of Germany’s towns and cities after the Nazis shattered the windows of 7,500 Jewish shops on November 9–10, as well as burning down over one thousand synagogues across the land. This was the first occasion in which an order had gone out to arrest Jews solely because they were Jews. One prisoner already in Buchenwald noted that the inmates were in a state of bewilderment as

Jews were brought in. Jews, Jews, Jews, by the dozen, by the carload, by the hundred and by the thousand. In all stages of life—wounded, sick, crippled, with broken limbs, missing eyes, fractured skulls, half dead, and dead.

As this report indicated, the new inmates were subjected to extraordinary degrees of violence and brutality by the SS. The camps were not prepared for their arrival, and even without repeated beatings and torture the conditions under which they were held were dire.

Most of the Jews arrested in 1938 were released before the war, a good number after bribing the camp authorities or selling their properties and businesses to local authorities at knock-down prices. Those arrested in November were the first to be set free, but their heads were shaved immediately before their release so that they would be stigmatized in public as former inmates. The intention of the regime was that they should emigrate, and many had to sign official exit documents to do so before gaining their freedom. By the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, half the Jewish population of Germany had gone, leaving mostly the elderly behind. The Jewish population of the camps subsided once again to not much more than its pre-1938 level. On the eve of the war the total number of Jews in the SS concentration camps amounted to about 1,500 out of 21,400.

Most of the Jews who were imprisoned in Nazi camps before the outbreak of war thus survived. But even if, at least up to the November action, they were brought in for reasons other than the fact that they were Jewish, these were often pretexts, and once they had been admitted to the camps they were invariably singled out for especially violent and brutal treatment. The first four inmates of Dachau to be murdered were all claimed by the Nazis to be Communists, but they were also, not coincidentally, Jews; from every truckload of new prisoners in 1933 the SS selected Jews for beating and torture, and in other camps they were treated with a special, sadistic savagery. From the late 1930s onward, Jewish inmates were made to wear a special badge singling them out as Jewish, in addition to or instead of the colored triangles identifying them as political, criminal, or “asocial.” This made their persecution even easier than before.

Then from 1941 onward, as the Nazis’ program of mass extermination of Jews began to unfold, Jewish inmates were removed and taken to extermination centers, where they were killed along with Jews brought from every part of Europe over which the Nazis had control. By the time the war ended, the Nazi need for workers who could contribute to the war economy was bringing increasing numbers of Jews into the camp system rather than the gas chambers—overwhelmingly, adult men rather than women, the old, or the very young, whom the SS did not consider capable of work. Even at this stage, however, Wachsmann estimates that only a third of the camp population consisted of Jews.

Most of the camps were for men, but in the late 1930s a new camp was opened for women, at Ravensbrück, just over fifty miles north of Berlin. In her substantial new book, Sarah Helm, a journalist, recounts the history of the camp from start to finish, along with the many stories of its inmates. Although this is not an academic work, it is based on thorough and wide-ranging research in archives in twelve countries, on a comprehensive knowledge of the existing literature, and on interviews with survivors. It makes for absorbing and often horrifying, moving, and sometimes, when acts of resistance are described, inspirational reading. Like Wachsmann, Helm rejects the common view that the inmates all passively accepted their fate.

Friedrich Franz Bauer/Bundesarchiv
Heinrich Himmler with a political prisoner in the Dachau workshops during an official inspection of this ‘model’ camp, May 8, 1936

Ravensbrück was opened in May 1939 to house around one thousand women prisoners transferred from other facilities, principally an earlier camp for women prisoners at Lichtenburg. It held female Communists and other opponents of the Nazis, as well as prostitutes, “race defilers,” “asocials,” petty criminals, and Gypsies. On average, about 10 percent of the camp’s prisoners were Jewish. After the war began, the number of inmates climbed steadily, reaching more than seven thousand by 1941 as new arrivals from Poland and then other conquered countries were brought in. By the end of the war, with the expansion of war production and the opening of subcamps, the total reached some 45,000. There was also a smaller subcamp for male prisoners.

Initially, conditions at Ravensbrück were better than at the men’s camps in general, with work in areas like sewing and, later, war components production, rather than heavy labor, and better hygiene and generally less harsh conditions. As elsewhere, however, the situation began to deteriorate during the war. Evacuations, including the release of around 7,500 prisoners negotiated by the Swedish diplomat Count Folke Bernadotte, meant that there were only some three thousand sick and emaciated women left in the camp when the Red Army arrived at the very end of April 1945. The pitiable state of the inmates, whose shaven heads and emaciated figures had robbed them, as Helm notes, of all traces of femininity, did not prevent the soldiers from raping a large number of them.

Over the entire period of the camp’s existence, Ravensbrück held some 130,000 women, of whom it is thought that at least 30,000 died or were deliberately murdered. The women came from many different countries. They included 40,000 Poles, 18,000 Russians, 8,000 French, 1,000 Dutch, and much smaller numbers from many other nationalities. Some inmates were selected for medical experimentation: their bones were smashed or their calves cut open and injected with gangrenous material, gas bacteria, or staphyolcocci before being injected with sulphonamides, a precursor of antibiotics, to see if the treatment worked. Toward the end of the war, Rudolf Höss, the former commandant of Auschwitz, arrived with a crew from his old camp to set up a mobile gas chamber, in which an unknown number of inmates were put to death.

Helm does not confine herself to discussing the terrible experiences of the prisoners, but also has interesting things to say about the guards and camp officials. Many, she notes, were young and inexperienced and not particularly pleased to have been drafted there by the Nazi women’s organizations to which they belonged. Later, during the war, the businesses that took prisoners as forced laborers had to supply their own guards, who quickly became a byword for corruption, sexual license, and brutality.

In her carefully researched monograph on Majdanek in the second half of the war, Elissa Mailänder puts the behavior and motivation of twenty-eight female guards under close scrutiny. She uses memoirs, filmed interviews, and postwar trial and other records to show how the experience of almost unlimited power over the inmates brought them to identify closely with the regime, whose propaganda and pressure to deliver “results” strengthened the women’s allegiance to Nazi ideology.

The coercive hierarchy of the camp also brought the guards within a short time to begin maltreating the prisoners on their own initiative. Most of the women were from a lower-middle-class background; many of them were nurses. Using comparative material from Ravensbrück, Mailänder argues that refined cruelty, often seen as feminine in the popular imagination, gave some of the most sadistic guards an aura of glamour, while crude and brutal violence, seen as masculine, caused inmates to regard those who inflicted it as ugly and unattractive. “In both Ravensbrück and Majdanek,” she concludes, “female violence was regarded as something exceptional.” In postwar trials, such as that of Irma Grese, “the Beautiful Beast,” violent female guards were seen as denatured, unfeminine, and unnatural beings, objects of peculiar and often prurient fascination for the international press. However, the distinction between cruelty and violence is not always easy to draw, and overall, Mailänder’s thesis is less than entirely convincing.

The horrors of the camps shocked international opinion when they were uncovered to their full extent as the Allied forces entered them at the end of the war. As the prolific Holocaust historian Dan Stone shows in his new book, The Liberation of the Camps, Red Army soldiers were appalled at the discovery of the emaciated, lice-ridden bodies of the survivors and the piles of corpses that littered the grounds of the camps. Their outrage fueled the savagery of their treatment of the German population they encountered and was subsequently used to justify the orgy of rape and murder in which they indulged. In the West, the most that Allied troops did was to force German civilians to visit the camps and see the results of Nazism for themselves, and in some cases force them to bury the dead and assist with clean-up operations.

As Stone notes in his engrossing and illuminating book—the first full and comparative study of the subject—the fact that the extermination camps were located in the East for a long time skewed public perceptions in the West. When the Soviets liberated the major death camps, they found relatively few inmates left, either because they were dead or because they had already been evacuated by the Nazis. Thus the great majority of survivors were in camps liberated by the Western Allies, and it was their stories that created the image by which the camps were long after known. The Soviet regime did not encourage its troops to talk openly about what they found, and it presented Nazi atrocities as crimes against the citizens of Eastern Europe, not specifically against Jews. In the immediate postwar years the extermination camps and the genocide against the Jews were generally pushed to the margin of public consciousness.

Stone usefully points out that liberation was not always a matter of Allied troops arriving at camp gates to be greeted by cheering inmates; there were many more prosaic encounters, particularly away from the main centers, when prisoners simply walked away, while in some places German prisoners were rearrested by suspicious Allied soldiers on their arrival. Liberation was also a gradual process, as survivors readjusted to normal life, were transferred to displaced persons camps, or decided what to do with the rest of their lives. Many were unable to recover despite the efforts of Allied medical personnel. Others felt guilt and shame at having survived, or began a desperate search for missing relatives who in all likelihood had perished.

Stone’s approach, however, carries with it some problems. The subtitle of his book, The End of the Holocaust and Its Aftermath, raises the question of the extent to which the camps in general can be subsumed under the “Holocaust” as a concept. He is aware of course of the fact that Jews only formed a minority among the inmates of the camps, but in practice he is constantly conflating the two categories, referring to “Jewish camp inmates” as if these were all there were. Stone tells us that “there was a collapse in the distinction between the murder of the Jews and the function of the concentration camps” because Jews evacuated from camps in the East in “death marches” ended up in the camps in western and central Germany that were liberated by the Allies, but even here there was a majority of non-Jews in the camps, as Wachsmann and Wünschmann both point out.

The genocide of the Jews was directed against a “world-enemy” whom the Nazis attempted to exterminate wherever its members could be located; but their killing was only one part, if a unique one, of a far wider program of mass murder. The official “General Plan for the East,” for example, envisaged the deliberate killing of up to 45 million “Slavs” in Eastern Europe, to clear the way for German settlement. Stone misrecognizes a crucially important aspect of this landscape of mass murder when he claims that “over the course of the war some 3 million Soviet POWs died in SS captivity.” In fact (as the source he cites for this claim makes quite clear) these unfortunate soldiers were killed not by the SS but by the regular German army, thus frustrating Himmler’s plan to use them as slave labor. It was not just the SS that committed mass murder in the name of the German people during the war, and not just Jews who were killed.

One of the most interesting and original features of Stone’s book is that he deals not only with the experience of the liberators, but also takes in the perspective of the inmates and the camp personnel. Many of the latter, as he notes, were shot by horrified Allied troops as they uncovered the terrible realities of the camps in their final days and weeks. Some were beaten to death by enraged prisoners; and many were arrested and put on trial for their crimes. Most people know that the surviving leaders of the Third Reich were prosecuted at Nuremberg before an international military tribunal in 1945–1946, and that a substantial number of them, including the head of the Luftwaffe and the “second man in the Third Reich,” Hermann Göring, the former foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, and Hans Frank, the Nazi ruler of Poland, were found guilty and condemned to death.

Less well known are the twelve specialized trials that followed, of senior Nazi judges, industrialists, doctors, and others. And hardly any trace has remained in the public memory of the large number of trials held, mostly from 1946 to 1949, of the lower-level functionaries of the regime, including the personnel of the concentration and extermination camps. The British alone held 358 trials in their zone of occupied Germany, resulting in the conviction of 1,085 people, 240 of whom were condemned to death, with two hundred actually executed. American military tribunals conducted a lengthy series of 489 trials at the former concentration camp in Dachau, most of which concerned offenses that had no direct connection with events at the camp itself. Altogether, these American trials went on for three years, and resulted in the conviction of 1,416 lower-grade servants of the Third Reich. More than two thousand war criminals were tried in the French Zone, while the convention that offenders should be tried in the countries where they had held office under the Nazi regime resulted in a further series of trials in countries formerly occupied by the Germans, including Italy, Norway, and Poland, where over two thousand Germans were extradited and indicted between 1945 and 1949, including the former commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss.

Few of these trials are now widely remembered. Forgotten Trials of the Holocaust, by the legal scholars Michael J. Bazyler and Frank M. Tuerkheimer, is thus especially welcome. Some of these trials, of course, have been the subject of scholarly investigation in their own right, but in bringing all the trials together and contrasting the varying styles of their conduct in the different jurisdictions studied the authors have done legal scholars and students a service. The English commitment to due process, for example, contrasts with the indifference of the French judiciary to it in case of Pierre Laval; the American concern for evidence in the Einsatzgruppen trial differed markedly from the narrow vision of the German court in the Auschwitz case.

Despite the book’s title, not all the trials it covers involved the mass murder of European Jews. The trial of Laval, prime minister of the collaborationist Vichy regime in France following the German defeat of the French armies in 1940, was about his alleged plot to undermine the French Republic and his treasonable collaboration with the enemy, not about his part in the deportation and murder of French Jews, which was mentioned in the proceedings but was not on the charge sheet. The trial of SS guards and other people in positions of authority at the Dachau concentration camp was about their violation of the laws of war through the maltreatment of non-German civilian and military prisoners. And the trial in Hamburg of thirty-eight camp personnel at Ravensbrück was on similar charges, with the addition of cruel and illegal medical experimentation on inmates.

Bazyler and Tuerkheimer have made a good start, if a rather narrowly legal one, but much remains to be discovered about the vast array of trials that took place after the war. Taken together, these books tell us an enormous amount about the crimes of the Nazis and remind us once more of the moral depths to which they sank. In particular, Wachsmann’s monumental study will surely become the standard one-volume account of the Nazi concentration camps for many years to come.

To subsume all of these crimes under the concept of the “Holocaust” is to narrow our vision unduly and to constrain our ability to pursue similar crimes in the future. As the two lawyers remark: “It is tragic that triggers for prosecutions of genocide and other mass atrocities still exist, that the brutalization of civilian populations and massive theft, rape, and dismemberment of peoples is not just a historical vignette, but part of today’s news. At least, however,” they conclude, ending on a note of cautious optimism, “the ideas of the 1940s have evolved into a system of justice to deal with some of these crimes,” and that is “an improvement over where we were seventy years ago.”