The NAZI Concentration Camps

Ravensbrück Memorial

Ravensbrück Memorial

The NAZI Concentration Camps

Leslie Jones considers three complementary accounts

Sarah Helm, If this is a Woman: Inside Ravensbrück: Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women, Little, Brown, 2015, 748 pp

Dan Stone, The Liberation of the Camps: the End of the Holocaust and its Aftermath, Yale University Press, 2015, 277 pp 

Nikolaus Wachsmann, KL, a History of the Concentration Camps, Little, Brown, 2015, 865 pp

In Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, (reviewed by the writer in QR, see “Go East, Young Woman”, June 26, 2014) Wendy Lower considers the role of German women in the Holocaust. She presents thirteen meticulously researched portraits of “Witnesses, Accomplices, [or] Killers”. Professor Lower notes that in the immediate aftermath of the war there was an emphasis on German women as victims, notably in “Emerging feminist” discourses and that this had obscured the “criminal agency” of numerous female facilitators and perpetrators (page 10). She rebuts the dogmatic assumption (espoused by certain feminists) that “violence is not a feminine characteristic” (page 158).

If This is a Woman; Inside Ravensbrück: Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women, by journalist Sarah Helm, bears some similarity to Hitler’s Furies. Helm, too, presents illustrative portraits of various women, including camp inmates such as Käthe Leichter, a sometime feminist and former member of the anti-fascist resistance in Austria, and camp personnel such as Johanna Langefeld, the Oberaufseherin or chief woman guard at Ravensbrück*. Both authors maintain that work in the camps offered women of humble origins opportunities for improving their pay and status. Unlike Lower, however, Helm is somewhat given to simplistic feminist formulae. Witness her suggestion (introduction, page xiv) that nothing much has been written about Ravensbrück, the only concentration camp built for women, because “Mainstream historians” are “nearly all of them men”. And prone to purple prose too, such as the following description of the liberation of women under the Weimar Republic, when “…middle-class girls…[so she informs us] chopped off their hair, watched plays by Berthold Brecht and tramped through forests with comrades of the Wandervogel…”

Nikolaus Wachsmann, Professor of modern European History at Birkbeck College, University of London, is doubtless merely another “mainstream historian”. Yet KL**, his history of the Nazi concentration camp system, is nothing if not comprehensive, running to 865 pages. He can hardly be accused of describing “an entirely masculine world” (Helm, introduction, page xiv).

Wachsmann records that in 1943, there was a mass influx of women into the KL system and that by late 1944 they provided slave labour in one hundred satellite camps throughout Germany. He points out that in the so-called satellite camps, survival rates were much better for women than for men, for two main reasons. Firstly, the camp SS did not think that women prisoners, unlike the men, constituted much of a threat. Women, accordingly, tended to treated better. Indicatively, when the T4 programme was extended to the KL system in 1941, the selected victims were killed in far away euthanasia centres to prevent possible (male) prisoner uprisings. Secondly, whereas the ratio of women working in production as compared to construction was 4:1 in the Ravensbrück satellites, for men the ratio was reversed. Making munitions or electrical parts for fighter planes in the factories attached to the satellite camps was clearly more conducive to survival than hauling giant slabs in the quarry at Mauthausen or working as a “caveman” in the tunnels of Dora in the Harz Mountains, to which V2 production was re-located in 1943. At Majdanek, even carrying heavy buckets of excrement (the “shit commando”) was preferable to construction work. Note also that co-operating with the SS by helping do their dirty work was another way for a woman to survive. The Kapos enjoyed various privileges such as more food and better clothing.

Professor Wachsmann identifies several distinct, albeit overlapping phases in the development of the KL system from 1933 to 1945. The establishment of death factories for exterminating Jews, notably the Globocnik*** camps in the General Government, namely Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, is a later development (1942). The first concentration camps such as Dachau, set up in 1933, constituted part of a largely successful attempt to terrorise and neutralise the new regime’s left-wing and liberal enemies within Germany. In the mid 1930’s, Himmler then switched his focus to “cleansing” the German nation of “asocials”, notably criminals, gypsies, prostitutes and the allegedly work shy. The victims of the first mass killings in the concentration camps, in 1941-1942, were not in fact Jews but Soviet POW’s identified by the SS as commissars. Auschwitz, likewise, was originally set up in 1940 not to kill Jews but to enforce German rule in Poland. The evolution of the camps illuminates what Sarah Helm calls “the wider Nazi story” (introduction, page xvii).

A good historian always has an eye for the telling detail. Wachsmann tells us that at Auschwitz, SS doctors complained of cramps from signing so many death certificates; that the four crematoria at Birkenau could turn 4,416 corpses to ash in 24 hours; that the ash and bone from Auschwitz were used to grit nearby roads and fertilise fields; and that at Majdanek, Jewish children deemed too young to work were made to march in circles all day. Helm, likewise, records that at Ravenbrück, Dr Walter Sonntag extracted healthy teeth without anaesthetic; that new born babies were drowned in a bucket; and that the shinbones of Polish prisoners were smashed with hammers to see whether they would eventually grow again.

Medical experiments

Medical experiments

After the liberation of the camps the suffering of the former inmates continued. This was no “joyous affair, bringing an end to the inmates’ torments”, as Dan Stone remarks in The Liberation of the Camps (page 2). Many survivors had lost their families and homes. When Gerhard Durlacher returned to his parents’ house in Apeldoorn, its new inhabitants would not let him in. And Jewish Poles soon realised that there was no future for them in post war Poland, especially after the Kielce Pogrom of July 1946. Some survivors at Ravensbrück were raped by their Soviet “liberators”.

Regrettably, Professor Stone never addresses the hypocrisy of the strident Soviet denunciations of the German concentration camps. One German Communist, Grete Buber-Neumann, a former inmate of Karaganda, a Soviet forced labour camp in the Kazak Steppe, was handed over to the Nazis under the terms of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. She was then sent to Ravensbrück where, as she recalls, at least there were proper lavatories and washing facilities (Helm, page 76). There were striking similarities between the Nazi and Soviet systems of oppression, notably the extensive exploitation of slave labour and the ruthless use of divide and rule tactics.

A British parliamentary delegation visited Buchenwald a week after its liberation. In its report, cited by Stone (page 74), the delegation concluded that “such camps as this mark the lowest point of degradation to which humanity has yet descended”. But a US infantryman Harry Herder, after entering Buchenwald, made an arguably more pessimistic assessment. “Maybe [he concluded] this is what we are.”

Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Ramp

Auschwitz-Birkenau, the ramp

*Helm claims on page 8 that in 1933, Langefeld “found a new saviour in Adolf Hitler”. Yet she also records that in 1937, when Langefeld was dismissed from her post at Brauweiler, a workhouse for prostitutes near Cologne, she had still not joined the Nazi Party, membership of which was obligatory for all prison staff!

**KL, acronym for Konzentrationslager

***SS Brigadefuhrer Odilo Globocnik was the SS and police leader in the Lublin district

LESLIE JONES is Editor of QR

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2 Responses to The NAZI Concentration Camps

  1. It is my impression that the camps were originally under the jurisdiction of the SA, otherwise called the Storm Troops. I imagine this changed after the “Night of the Long Knives.”

  2. David Ashton says:

    The troubling thing about accounts of the Nazi camps, as also the Soviet camps with which they had several but not complete similarities, is the diversity of the raw material in personal accounts and documentary evidence, the diversity in their authentication and interpretation, and the diversity of the subsequent political, cultural, ethnic and philosophical serviceability. What if anything is the mathematical impact, upon the established approximation of “six million” Jewish victims of the “official” reduction of the total of deaths at Auschwitz-Birkenau from the post-WW2 Soviet figure of 4 million to less than 1.5 million?

    To illustrate these problems without too much predicable outrage, home in upon just one topic: the fate of the Gypsies (Roma, Sinti, &c) and consider the sheer variety and contradictions in their reported wartime experiences, and in the number and causes of their death toll.

    These are legitimate inquires for historians, who have substantially reduced long accepted inmate numbers and death-rates in Soviet camps, and likewise the mortality rates from the Maoist invasion and occupation of Tibet.

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