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Section: What were the camps?

The first camps

Political prisoners standing in lines during roll call, Dachau concentration camp, Germany.
Many of the first concentration camps were improvised. This picture shows roll call for political prisoners aboard a ship used as a floating camp. Ochstumsand camp, Bremen, Germany, during 1933 or 1934.
The first internment camp for Roma (Gypsies), Marzhan, Germany. Roma were interned here in July 1936, two weeks prior to the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Up to 2,000 remained here until 1943, when they were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where most of them were gassed.

The first purpose-built concentration camps in Germany were established soon after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor in 1933. The SA, SS and the police had established makeshift centres to handle the masses of people they had arrested.

This system did not work – it was inefficient. Therefore there was a need for purpose-built camps. Initially these camps were established on a local level throughout Germany, but soon were disbanded and replaced by centrally organised concentration camps under the exclusive control of the SS.

Dachau, established in March 1933, was situated just a few kilometres north of Munich and was the first of the purpose-built camps. The sign over the entrance gate was ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (work makes you free). This sign would later be used at the gates to the infamous death camps.

Heinrich Himmler, leader of the SS, described Dachau as “the first concentration camp for political prisoners”. The camp became a model for the other camps the Nazis were to set up across the whole of occupied Europe.

Where were the first camps set up?

To stop opposition and to instill terror the Nazis arrested thousands of people and placed them in camps. The first camps were established throughout Germany, by local SA, SS or police units, as detention facilities to imprison so called ‘enemies of the state’. These local internment centres were mainly situated in or around towns and cities. They housed thousands of alleged political opponents to the Nazi regime. Later on the Nazis would use these centres for the detention of many thousands of German Jews, homosexuals and so called ‘anti-socials’, in addition to political prisoners.

Later, most of these early camps were disbanded and replaced by centrally organised concentration camps under the exclusive control of the SS. By 1939 there were seven major concentration camps established by the Nazis (see map above), each housing many thousands of prisoners. The camps, established to house prisoners from across Germany, were in Dachau (1933), Lichtenburg (1933), Sachsenhausen (1936), Buchenwald (1937), Neuengamme (1940) and Ravensbruck (1939).

Two other camps were set up to house Jews and political prisoners rounded up during the Nazi annexation of Austria and the invasion of Czechoslovakia. These were Mauthausen in Austria (1938) and Flossenburg in Germany (1938).

Between 1939 and 1945, the Nazis they invaded and occupied lands all over Europe and established more than 40,000 camps. These camps included concentration camps, transit camps, forced labour or work camps and death camps.

How were camps structured?

The ditch, perimeter fence, watchtower and prisoners' barracks, Dachau concentration camp, Germany
The ditch, perimeter fence, watchtower and prisoners' barracks, Dachau concentration camp, Germany © 2011 Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority

The first makeshift concentration camps were established and managed by local SA, SS and police units. In the spring of 1934, the SS became the only authority able to set up concentration camps.

Theodor Eicke, an SS Lieutenant General, had been the commandant of Dachau since June 1933. Eicke had established a structure for how to run a camp. Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, was impressed with Eicke, so chose him as ‘Inspector of Concentration Camps’. The systems and buildings Eicke had developed at Dachau soon became the basic model by which all concentration camps would be established and managed.The SS would administer life inside the camp, while an SS unit would be responsible for guarding the perimeter fence in addition to an exclusion zone around the camp. An electrified barbed wire fence, ditches and a wall with guard towers would surround the camp.

The camp administration would often be located near to the gatehouse at the main entrance. There would be many support buildings; these contained the kitchen, laundry, showers and workshops, as well as a prison block. There would be an Appell Platz (Roll Call Square) where prisoners would often have to stand for hours while they were counted.

Camps were usually divided into sections, each separated by rows of barbed wire fences. Prisoners were housed in wooden or brick-built barracks which were intended for between 250 to 400 prisoners. However, they would often house 700 to 1200 prisoners in each.

There would be separate sections for male and female prisoners, with children often being housed in the same barracks as the women. Different categories of prisoners were also segregated. For example, there would be separate areas for political prisoners, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Roma. Those who worked in various areas of the camp would also sometimes be isolated from other prisoners.

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How were camps structured?

How were camps structured?

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