Review of Nikolaus Wachsmann ‘A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps’ by Merilyn Moos

Wasserman, in this minutely researched tome, addresses many of the myths and misconceptions that have grown up over who were the victims of Nazism as well as the contradictory and shifting impulses behind the concentration camps. An earlier paradigm: to understand the Nazis as primarily focused on destroying Communists and the left (a perspective which was also dominant in E. Germany) has shifted in the last decades to a focus on the extermination of ‘Jews’. This review will focus on these narratives, rather than the minute and distressing details of how the CCs operated or attempt to provide an explanatory framework for why the Holocaust happened (which anyway is not Wachsmann’s objective). This book provides us with a warning from history.

What is regularly forgotten or overlooked is that the SA and SS’s first enemies were socialists. The Freikorps, essentially mercenaries made up of violently anti-Communist (but not especially anti-Semitic) World War 1 ex-soldiers, sent in by the Social Democratic Government, defeated the workers militias (led by Ernst Toller) in Bavaria in May 1919. They killed about 1000, during this failed attempt at a Soviet Bavarian republic.1 The Freicorps formed the Nazi Party’s first members in Bavaria in 1918,; numerous future leaders, for example Röhm, the future head of the SA, and significantly, Himmler, future head of the SS, had belonged to the Freikorps.

From the start, the Nazis were committed to breaking working class organisation and rooting out Marxism. While it is important not to judge future Nazi atrocities as the natural or inevitable outcome of the Nazi Party’s original beliefs, the Nazis visceral hatred of the left, with whom both Himmler and Hitler were obsessed, is nevertheless present at its birth.

As Wachsmann highlights, the Nazis wanted to settle scores with the left after Hitler became Chancellor in January 1933. The Reichstag fire of February 1933 provided a wonderful excuse (though one they may well have helped design). Leading Communists and many other significant members of the liberal and left elite were detained.2 Within 3 days, about 5,000 Communists were arrested; in March- April alone, 40-50,000 political opponents were taken into ‘protective custody’. The SA/SS trashed ‘town halls, publishing houses and party and union offices and hunted down political and personal enemies’.

The local roots of the SA meant they knew who the local ‘left’ were. Their assault on the left was the culmination of a civil war that had waged with the KPD and to a lesser degree the SPD since 1918 in working class communities. Now they had the chance for revenge. The SA and SS were already claiming a quasi-legal independence and they arrested just about whom they liked.

The focal point was ‘Red Berlin’ but the SA/SS did not just come for the leading revolutionaries but also for members of a network of sports clubs, artistic circles, humanist and cultural groups etc, all linked with the KPD. All were seen as ‘terrorists’. ‘Up to 200,000 political prisoners were detained…in 1933.’ Indeed the first camps were constructed for Communist prisoners where hundreds lost their lives in 1933.

Although many of the early political prisoners were eventually released (though those who didn’t get out of Germany, were picked up again first in 1938 and, if still alive, again in 1944 with deadly consequences), Communists still accounted for about 80% of camp inmates in 1934 and were the main focus for the sweeps of 1935. In 1936, 3,694 of all the 4,761 concentration camp inmates were political prisoners. Even by mid-1938, the majority of inmates were classified as political prisoners. The hatred of the Nazis towards Communists was so overwhelming that, as revealed in a footnote, Soviet POWs were the only nationality in the camps where Jews were not separately listed.

Other groups were also targeted, for example some Christians, in particular Jehovah Witnesses with their ‘passive resistance’, ’homosexuals’ and later ‘roma’.3 Significantly, despite the systematic deprivation of legal rights, in the early years, German Jews only constituted about 5% of those detained.

The group whose fate is particularly illuminating and who are rarely acknowledged are the ‘asocials’: the ‘degenerates’. The pursuit and exclusion of social deviants was a major aspect of Nazism: to cleanse the nation and get rid of ‘deviants’, the immoral, criminals and the jobless. By the end of 1938, ‘asocials’ made up 70% of the entire prisoner population, forming the largest group in the camps up till the beginning of the war. From 1938, their death toll in the camps rocketed (not to ignore the continuing use of sterilisation and the later deadly T4/euthanasia programme).4

There was a ‘reason’ for the Nazi’s repression of the ‘asocials’. What Wachsmann brings out is the increasingly economic- as opposed to ideological – imperative of Nazi decision making. The camps were expanding in number and size and increasingly under the control of the SS. ‘Asocials’ were seen as workshy: non-productive. This proved their death warrant. 5

The camps were increasingly seen as contributing to the SS economy, using forced or slave labour, a policy Himmler pioneered. No room to go into detail here but between 1938 and 1945, camp inmates were used as slave labour in many of Germany’s commanding industries eg VW and IG Farben (‘an active partner in the policy of annihilation through labour’ at Auschwitz6) and in the last couple of years in the war were used extensively in preparing for and creating armaments. Indeed, though Wachsmann does not provide figures presumably because none are available, millions died because of hard labour -and starvation, possibly more than were deliberately exterminated.

It was prisoner’s workability which drove the decisions about who was to live, whom to die. We are all familiar with how people in one of the queues at the camps were going to be sent straight to their deaths. But this is even more telling than we recognise.

Prisoners were seen as potential slaves: if the work killed them, which it usually did, there was always another consignment of prisoners being delivered. Indeed, the original supply were the tens of thousands of Russian POWs -and as Slavs as well as Communists, they were doubly ‘sub-humans’. But as the war turned against Germany and the Russian prisoners had almost all been worked to death, it was the ‘sub-human’ Jews who were seen as their natural replacement and who were put onto convoys from the ghettoes and prisons across Europe to the camps. (Even by 1943, most European Jews were still in ghettoes, not camps.)

While Nazi policy towards Jews has been heatedly debated, Wachstmann highlights that before 1938, few Jews were taken to the camps and of those who were, most survived. But after the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, there was mass incarceration of Jews, firstly from Austria, although many, if not most, were subsequently released. The Nazi policy at this point was not extermination but expulsion: Jews were encouraged to leave eg to Palestine, although Wachtsmann suggests, this was as much to get hold of their property as for more ideological reasons. Only when that failed, was the policy to push them east and incarcerate them in ghettoes. Hundreds of Poles and Germans were detained in forced labour camps and ghettoes, the largest in Warsaw, but not yet generally in camps. Even when war first broke out, in theory, ‘productive’ Jews were exempt from imprisonment. As Wachsmann explains, ‘Nazi Germany did not follow a preordained path to extreme terror’: the death camps were not an inevitability.7

But from 1939, the camps changed drastically: the level of violence and terror increased as did the number of camps. The language irrevocably shifted. Communist agitators were singled out for ‘eradication’. Political prisoners were again one of the first groups of prisoners to be chosen for special punishment, particularly those picked up in France who had fought in the Spanish Civil War who were especially targeted.8

It was Germany’s takeover of Poland, the first of their ‘racial’ wars, which pushed racial/genetic stereotypes up the agenda, argues Wachsmann. The largest ghetto in Warsaw now held some 445,000 Jews, far more than at that point in the camps. But a figure which deserves more attention than it frequently receives is that about 6 million Poles perished under the Nazis, almost all civilians, about half of whom were Jewish, but half not.9 Poles were sent to the camps where they were regularly executed and subjected to extreme labour, especially in Auschwitz.10 Massacres were becoming commonplace.

By 1941, the camps had also become death traps for Jewish prisoners who were now a prime target. But mass gassing was yet to come. Victims were in their dozens, not even hundreds. According to Wasserman, Himmler’s interest in Auschwitz up till July 1942 was more to do with the SS economy than the annihilation of the Jews. But then, although the SS’s economic emphasis continued, and although there was as yet no –even unspoken- national policy of mass extermination of the Jews, within the camps, there was a transition to the practice of mass extermination. Himmler issued an order that the entire Jewish population in the General Government should be resettled i.e. exterminated.11 Thousands started to be gassed. Yet the first large scale gassing was of course of Soviet POWs in Auschwitz.

Auschwitz is the camp we most associate with the Holocaust and the mass killing of Jews, deported from much of E. Europe, especially Poland, accelerating in 1942. But, Wachsmann reminds us, Auschwitz was not just about murdering Jews: many ‘non-Jewish’ Poles were sent here, especially oppositionists, as well as Soviet POWs.

And Auschwitz was the hub of the SS’s forced labour programme, the SS’s desperate attempt to boost war production, increasingly stressed as Germany’s position deteriorated from late 1942. The plan was to produce armaments, including the V2s, and repair war damage. In January 1943, Himmler ordered the police to deliver some 50,000 prisoners to the camps for slave labour, in particular Jews to Auschwitz. This led to a rapid rise in the camp population from 1943. Many were already weak or sick and over half died ‘naturally’. But the contribution of camp labour to the war economy remained marginal.

These manhunts continued till the very end of the war. The number of camp inmates was at its highest point in January 1945, when everybody knew Germany had lost. So Auschwitz represents one of the contradictions at the heart of Nazism; between the ideological goal of destroying the untermensch – and using those fit enough to work to further Germany’s economic interests. But Wachsmann argues that for Nazi hardliners, the goals were not inconsistent: economics and extermination were two sides of one coin as it was ‘only’ people not fit to work who were exterminated.

But the increase in camp numbers and mass gassings in 1944/45 begs the question as to why the Nazis turned to mass extermination. This cannot be reduced to Himmler’s drive for slave labourers. As defeat loomed and especially after the unsuccessful attempt on Hitler’s life, ‘Operation Thunderstorm’ first dragged in any remaining leftie and foreign resistance fighters. But it was also from this point that more Jews –from France, Holland, Slovakia, Greece and Italy and of course later from Hungary – were sent to the camps than ever before.

This is not the place to try to explain or unpick the Nazi’s shift from virulent anti-Semitism into mass extermination, which Wachsmann anyway only suggests. Given Wachsmann’s argument, with which I agree, that the policy of exterminating Jews was not an inevitable, why did it happen and why did the ideological pursuit of getting rid of the Jews overtake the Nazi’s economic ‘imperatives’?12 Wachsmann considers many possible explanations, none sufficient: the switch of line at the time of the Wannsee conference, the shifts in official Nazi policy, the role of the T4 doctors, the need to ‘top-up’ the SS’s ‘work to win’ slave programme, and the lethal ‘hysteria’ of some camp commandants and leading Nazis faced with defeat, what could be referred to (and this is my comment) as a ‘scorched person’ policy. Himmler stated in April 1945 ‘No prisoner must fall alive into enemy hands.’ But what Wachsmann succeeds in bringing out in a way many commentators on the Holocaust do not is that the Nazi’s first enemy were the European left.

Let us stand tall in their memory and organise to ensure ‘never again’.

1  The Freicorps also fought against the Communists in the BalticsSilesiaPoland and East Prussia after the end of World War 1. In Latvia, Freikorps murdered 300 civilians in Mitau who were suspected of having “Bolshevik sympathies”. After the capture of Riga, another 3000 alleged communists were killed (largely drawn from Mann’s ‘Fascists’).
2 The KPD were lamentably unprepared but my KPD, activist father escaped into the night as the Reichstag burned after the local milkman woke him up before the militia arrived.
3 Black people were mostly African Germans from Germany’s colonial enterprises, considered an ‘inferior race’ or ‘contaminants’. While arguably there was no policy to exterminate them, Wachsmann does not mention their persecution, sterilization, incarceration and murder.
4 Wachsmann does not go into this but there is a shift in the policy of whom to exterminate amongst T4 ‘detainees’. Up till June 1940, those incarcerated in ‘mental hospitals, if they were able to work ‘well’, were not murdered. From June 1940, it is being Jewish that becomes the main criteria for gassing.
5 Foreigners were also arriving in ever larger numbers at the camps from autumn 1939. The first were Czech nationals, especially oppositionists, but also some 6000 Spanish Civil War veterans (Spanish but also German and Austrians) picked up in France, who were subject to the most extreme ‘treatment’.
6 Auschwitz was officially operated from June, 1940
7 There is a heated debate about this which would take more space to develop than this review allows!
8 In 1940, Heydrich ordered they should be taken straight to Mauthausen, the most punitive of the camps, where almost 60% quickly perished, mostly killed by their work in the quarries. In early 1941, almost all new arrivals at the Gusen subcamp were Spanish civil war veterans.
9 Although this falls outside this review, one explanation for the deplorable anti-Semitism which sometimes emerges in Poland is the contention that the fate of non-Jewish Poles has been largely hidden from history.
10 Poles were subject to murderous violence elsewhere eg iin 1940/41, the vicious Sachenhausen camp was cleared of Jews and became ‘the Polish camp’.
11 Under the secret provisions of the German-Soviet agreements of August/September 1939, Poland was divided: Germany’s zone became the ‘General Government of Poland’ in October 1939.
12 My economist ex-KPD father, writing a well-informed Marxist analysis of the Nazi economy in 1939/40, argued that the Nazis would not exterminate the Jews because of their economic contribution to the war economy. He was prescient given this was before the forced labour programme and his position reveals an economic logic widely held on the left at the time but which did not give sufficient weight to the dead weight of ideology.