A range of different groups operated and organised the early camps in Nazi Germany: the SS, the SA, the local police and prison guards.
Most early prisoners were held in conventional prisons, which fell under the jurisdiction of the existing local prison guards and authorities. As these prisons became overcrowded, victims were concentrated in camps. These camps were considerably more degrading with tougher treatment.
Many of the early camps were run by the SA and the SS. One example of this is Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp, which was established on 22 March 1933. The brutality of the SA and SS guards was considerably more intense in comparison to prisons. On arrival, it was made clear to prisoners that they were under the complete control of the guards. Victims were subject to extreme, horrific verbal and physical abuse. This was often so painful and degrading that some prisoners were driven to suicide rather than continue to endure it.
As historian Nik Wachsmann writes ‘every prisoner – young and old, male and female – was fair game for SA and SS guards. They beat inmates with hands and fists, and an array of weapons like truncheons, whips and sticks. Skin was slashed, jaws smashed, organs ruptured, bones broken’ [Nik Wachsmann, KL, A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, (Great Britain: Little, Brown, 2015), p39].
The unruly nature of the early camps, particularly those led by the SA, soon became a problem for the Nazis. A number of experiments in Prussia and purpose built camps at Emsland in late 1933 and 1934 failed to bring the camps under any semblance of order.
Once the SS had become an independent organisation on the 20 July 1934 (following the Night of Long Knives), they took over control of the camps.