The Anatomy of Hell

Books discussed in this review

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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,…


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