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Section: What were the ghettos and camps?

The early camps

This is a page torn from the prisoner book at Esterwegen by a Polish soldier following the camp’s liberation in 1945. Prisoner books listed the prisoners kept at the camp, as well as other biographical details. Esterwegen was one of the earliest concentration camps to be established under Nazi rule and was opened in August 1933.

This is a page torn from the prisoner book at Esterwegen by a Polish soldier following the camp’s liberation in 1945. Prisoner books listed the prisoners kept at the camp, as well as other biographical details. Esterwegen was one of the earliest concentration camps to be established under Nazi rule and was opened in August 1933.

Courtesy of The Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

Shortly after the Nazi rise to power and the Reichstag Fire, they arrested thousands of their opponents. The scale of these arrests led to the creation of early concentration camps to hold the prisoners.

The early concentration camps primarily held political prisoners as the Nazis sought to remove opposition, such as socialists and communists, and consolidate their power.

In 1933 alone, approximately 200,000 political prisoners were detained.

The early camps were haphazard and varied hugely. This section will explore what these camps looked like, how they were run and how the camp administration and staff treated the prisoners.

What did the early camps look like?

Following the Nazi rise to power prisoners were initially taken to existing prisons and workhouses, but these institutions were soon unable to cope with the scale and rate of arrests. Camps then appeared wherever the SA, SS and police could securely detain people: from SA pubs, to airfields, to vacant hotels, to castles, to sports grounds, to apartments.

Facilities such as toilets, heating, and washrooms were lacking in these camps. Where these facilities were present, they were usually in a poor and unsanitary condition.

By the end of 1933, most of these early makeshift camps had been shut down. By the end of 1934, following the Night of Long Knives, the camp system was firmly in the hands of the SS.

Organisation

This rule book is taken from Esterwegen. Esterwegen was an early Nazi concentration camp within a series of camps first established in the Emsland district of Germany. It was established in the summer of 1933 as a concentration camp for 2000 so-called political Schutzhäftlinge (protective custody prisoners) and was for a time the second largest concentration camp after Dachau. The rule book was issued by SS Gruppenführer Theodor Eicke on 1 August 1934 and is split into two parts: general rules and regulations, and then discipline and punishment.

This rule book is taken from Esterwegen. Esterwegen was an early Nazi concentration camp within a series of camps first established in the Emsland district of Germany. It was established in the summer of 1933 as a concentration camp for 2000 so-called political Schutzhäftlinge (protective custody prisoners) and was for a time the second largest concentration camp after Dachau. The rule book was issued by SS Gruppenführer Theodor Eicke on 1 August 1934 and is split into two parts: general rules and regulations, and then discipline and punishment.

Courtesy of The Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

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.

Treatment of prisoners in the early camps

The early camps were not meant for long-term use, and those who ran them did not aim to murder their prisoners. However, most showed a distinct disregard for their inmates health and welfare. Whilst the majority of those who were imprisoned in 1933 survived, the conditions in which they were held were horrific and inhumane.

Across almost all camps there was a lack of facilities, such as heating, beds and washrooms. Where these were available, they usually had to be shared between hundreds of prisoners. As a result, disease was common.

Torture was the defining common feature of the early camps and inmates were subject to regular beatings and humiliation. In addition to this, access to facilities was often withheld as a form of torture and control.

In most camps, inmates were also subject to brutal and exhausting forced labour, such as agricultural work. As historian Nik Wachsmann writes ‘forced labour featured fairly prominently in early camps, not least because it could be presented as a means of both repression and redemption’ [Nik Wachsmann, KL, A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, (Great Britain: Little, Brown, 2015), p62].

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Treatment of prisoners in the early camps

Treatment of prisoners in the early camps

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