Concentration camps in Nazi Germany served a number of purposes. First, these camps were used to jail those who opposed Hitler’s government or were thought to threaten it. Second, knowledge of what life was like in a concentration camp was allowed to leak out – or came out when someone was released. The fear of ending up in such a camp was sufficient for a great many Germans to openly declare their loyalty to Hitler even if this was not the case. Therefore for the Nazi leaders, concentration camps served the dual purpose of controlling the majority of the population because of the fear they engendered and also locking away those who crossed the line- a line imposed by the Nazi government.
Hitler had no issues with the harshness of these institutions. Even before he became Chancellor in January 1933 he said to Hermann Rauschning:
“We must be ruthless. We must regain our clear conscience as to ruthlessness. Only thus shall we purge our people of their softness and sentimental philistinism, of their easy going nature and their degenerate blight in beer-swilling. We have no time for fine sentiments. I don’t want the concentration camps transferred into penitentiary institutions. Terror is the most effective instrument. I shall not permit myself to be robbed of it simply because a lot of stupid, bourgeois mollycoddlers choose to be offended by it.”
Officially concentration camps were to “reform” those who had expressed opposition to Hitler’s regime and to turn “anti-social members of society into useful members”. Hitler argued that the Weimar constitution made such camps legal but just in case this was not the case, a law was passed on February 28th 1933 that suspended the personal liberties of dissenters and allowed for them to be kept in “protective custody”.
The first concentration established in Nazi Germany was at Dachau. As the name of the camps suggest, these camps incarcerated a large number of people into a relatively small area – i.e. concentrated their numbers into a small space. Dachau served southern Germany. Very quickly concentration camps were also established at Buchenwald that served middle Germany, and Sachsenhausen that served northern Germany. Others were built at places such as Ravensbrück (for women), Mauthausen in Austria, Flossenberg and Bergen-Belsen.
Those arrested and put into “protective custody” included Jews, trade union leaders, Socialists, Communists, Roman Catholics and Protestants. In fact, anyone who deviated from Gleichshaltung could be included.
Before the start of World War Two, it is thought that 200,000 people had been sent to a concentration camp. Some were sentenced to a short term in the hope that they would have ‘learned their lesson’ by the time they were released. Others spent far longer in these camps. Those sent to a concentration camp frequently had no trial and consequently they had no right of appeal against the sentence. When World War Two broke out in September 1939 it is known that at that time there were 50,000 inmates in the camps. During the war, the number of inmates greatly increased.
Inmates were put into four groups: political opponents, members of “inferior races”, criminals and the “shiftless element”. Those classed as criminals found the group subdivided further into BV’s and SV’s. BV’s were criminals who had served several short stays in the camps and had been sentenced to another one. SV’s were in secure custody and were serving long term sentences. Homosexuals were classed as part of the “shiftless element” group and post-war research found that they were especially pick-out by guards for appalling treatment and their fatality rate in the camps was very high.
All concentration camp inmates had to wear a sign on their clothing that indicated what group they were from. The sign was worn on the left breast of the jacket and on the right trouser leg. Jews had to wear a yellow Star of David, homosexuals wore a pink triangle, political prisoners had to wear a red triangle while criminals wore a green triangle. Those in the camps who were deemed to be simple wore a jacket with ‘Blöd’ (Stupid) written on it. Those who the guards thought posed a threat with regards to escape had a jacket with a shooting target in red and white on the front and back of their jacket.
As the Allies advanced east and west in 1944 and 1945, camp guards did what they could to destroy any documentary evidence as to the crimes committed at these camps. However, they could not destroy all of the most obvious of evidence – the victims in the actual camps. When the Americans first entered and filmed the concentration camp at Dachau they were horrified at what they saw. The same occurred at Bergen-Belsen when the British relieved the camp. Concentration camp commandants and the guards who could be traced were punished after the war, as were the doctors at Dachau who had performed inhuman operations on camp inmates.
However, despite the arrival of the Allies, the suffering of those in the camps continued. The Allied authorities took the decision that the risk of disease spreading was so great that the inmates were confined to the camps. Food and other essential supplies were brought in but the authorities could not afford risking the spread of typhus or typhoid until that risk had passed. It was only then that a process started whereby those in the camps started their journey home.