‘may the world at least behold a drop, a fraction of this tragic world in which we lived.’ (Salutation by Chaim Zalman Gradowski, Auschwitz 1943)
When I first encountered Nikolaus Wachsman’s book ‘KL – A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps’, I half-expected an account of the Holocaust in the vein of so many others. (The title should have been a clue…duh). Within a few pages it was clear that this was unlike any book I’d ever read on the subject; indeed, unlike any other book. It traces the path not of the Holocaust, but of one of it’s most monstrous tools – the Konzentrationslager system.
Reading KL, I was struck by the opportunity it offered as a framework whereby I could elucidate, largely for my own benefit, my observations and feelings on what the Nazis did, and perhaps attempt to define those feelings. Here I’ll give some of my thoughts on this horrific chapter in human history, within the context of Wachsman’s book. It’s a large and comprehensive study, and I’m not attempting a review, but rather using it as I read to frame my thoughts. I won’t try to explain or understand the part played by Germans as a whole; that’s outside the scope of the book, and I won’t get into it here.
The holocaust, as applied to the systematic murder of people by the Nazis, is, as a subject, mind-blowingly enormous. The sheer force of the statistics – the numbers of inmates, the numbers murdered, the numbers put to crippling work, the incarceration not only in camps but in ghettoes, the number of camps – these numbers alone are stunning.
Consider the mechanics of the whole enterprise – how the Nazis aimed to create space for their thousand year empire, and to purloin massive natural resources that they didn’t have in Germany itself, to fuel an endless conquest. To do so needed to relocate millions of people who weren’t German, or didn’t fit the definition of German, or were simply different; and ultimately, through a combination of greed and hatred, to turn killing into an industrial exercise.
Then there’s the development of the camp system – how a task of locking up opponents grew to encompass the ‘elimination’ – with its various connotations – of non-Germans, Social Democrats, Communists, Jews, Gipsies, Homosexuals, troublesome clerics and anyone else who they simply didn’t want around, until it became an exercise in overcoming the mechanics and mathematics of disposal. As I say, mind-blowing.
Nikolaus Wachsman’s history, KL, takes a single aspect of the Third Reich – the physical means of detention without judicial oversight under the National Socialist regime – and weaves a story that is to some beyond comprehension. The question has been asked time and again as to how the Holocaust could be perpetrated in a modern world, and particularly by a nation which could produce an Einstein and a Schweitzer, a Dürer or a Strauss. The answers are often elusive. Wachsman doesn’t seek to answer this; it’s been well covered elsewhere. His task here is rather to illustrate the myriad of paths that the camp system followed. He cites examples of the British in the Boer War, and the Soviet Union’s Gulags; but it’s the Nazi use of camps first as an instrument of oppression, then of terror, to their use in slavery and finally mass murder, which is the truly shocking story here. And it isn’t a straight path – it was all of these things simultaneously.
Wachsman’s use of statistics brings home, as the Holocaust numbers always do, the disturbing scale of the Nazi regime’s darkest side. (And let’s be honest, none of its sides could be described as light). For instance, in the opening pages, he delivers a statistic which none of the many books on the subject I’ve read ever mentioned. During the twelve years of Nazi rule, the camp system encompassed death camps designed for murder, work camps for slavery, and what were effectively prisons to suppress and silence voices of opposition. Few, apart from Dachau, operated throughout from 1933 until 1945. Many were little more than temporary holding prisons, used for months, without becoming anything more substantial. And many were “sub-camps” supporting the purposes of more major establishments. A number were operated by SA or local police units until the SS exerted it’s fatal influence. But it’s when his book tells me that in total, these places together numbered around 42,500 – just think of that for a moment – that the scale, the reach, the breath-taking evil which these Germans and their acolytes were capable of, becomes clear.
And it’s not just this statistic which shocks. As early as his prologue, Wachsman has others. For instance, 2.3 million inmates of SS camps between 1933 and 1945, of which 1.7 million died. Of these, one million were Jews murdered in Auschwitz – 870,000 went straight from the trains to the gas chambers without even being registered.But the book doesn’t simply become a litany of numbers, which could otherwise tend to make the reader lose sight of such picture of bleak humanity. If statistics are the pencil lines of Wachsman’s picture, then the darkest colours are abundantly provided by his use of human stories. The tale of Erwin Kahn, for instance, illustrates the early days of the terror. Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in January 1933. Dachau was established in March 1933. No time wasted there, then. Erwin Kahn, a young German prisoner, (before you wonder, he also happened to be Jewish) who’d been in the camp since it opened, was taken with three others on a late April afternoon into nearby woods, supposedly for work, if the tools they were made to carry were anything to go by. All four had already been whipped by SS Private Hans Steinbrenner, until they were covered in blood. Ironically, Erwin had previously written to his parents saying his treatment was fine, and that he hoped to be released soon. As they walked between the trees, the SS men raised their rifles and shot all four. Three died immediately; Kahn fell badly wounded in the head, and as one of the murderers approached to deliver the coup de grace, a state police officer arrived and halted the slaughter. A little late. This police officer ensured Kahn was taken to a Munich hospital, where his wife visited him a few days later. Fully conscious, Kahn told her what happened. Hours later, he was dead. It’s suspected that he was strangled during the night by the guards outside his room. It struck me how although in the beginning, more reasonable voices could be raised against this terror and murder born of hatred – as time went on, these voices were soon stilled, drowned out, or came to submit to the reality that Nazi evil was the norm.
By human stories such as this, Wachsman manages to give colour to an otherwise colourless tale. And the stories of those who managed to survive go a little way, at least, to balance the overwhelming sadness of those who didn’t.
In Chapter 2, ‘The SS Camp System’, Wachsman describes the rise of Theodore Eicke, who, besides being the murderer of Ernst Rohm, was also instrumental in putting Himmler’s vision of the camp system into reality. By the mid-1930’s many in Germany, including Nazis, saw the camps as a short term measure, and one which had fulfilled their purpose of achieving and stabilising the National Socialist revolution, and could therefore be gradually scaled down. But Himmler saw them as having a permanent and prominent place in Nazi Germany; of being a huge and brutal instrument of oppression, of control, and of being the Nazi’s bulwark against any dissent or opposition. Long before the KL became, in part, the means of delivering death on a huge scale, they were a weapon which Himmler was not prepared to forego, and one which he saw as enforcing his own hegemony in the Nazi sphere.
Congruent with the camps, and essential to their success, were the soldiers who administered them. And just as the camps started out as instruments of political control, so were the men who quickly displaced the SA as the rulers of the KL. As the Waffen SS quickly grew from a defensive, security force to protect Hitler and provide a Nazi bulwark against the German Army into a fully fledged armed force, so the SS-Totenkopfverbände, or ‘Death’s Head’ soldiers became the weaponised political force of the Third Reich, first in Germany, then in camps throughout occupied Europe. The early occupants of the KL were the Nazi’s political opponents, so the guards were also indoctrinated to be tools of political control – “political soldiers”.
As Wachsman demonstrates this he points out what he neatly calls the ‘Janus face of Nazi terror’ – describing how the camp guards would be encouraged to obey a carefully, if selectively, structured approach to the prisoners, where punishment formed part of a clear framework, and transgressions by the guards were punished, yet at the same time cruelty, torture, and even murder was tolerated as long as the Nazis could argue that the victim did something, however slight, to deserve their fate. (Of course, as time went on, being Jewish, or Communist, or “racially inferior” was soon sufficient to justify violence.) It made me ponder how this superficial adherence to a perception of propriety was designed to demonstrate to Germans and the wider world that the regime was reasonable and considered, in its detention and control of opponents, whilst at the same time assuaging the Nazi’s own consciences, insofar as a Nazi conscience isn’t too much of an oxymoron!
Reading of how men were attracted to the KL, either to serve as “Commandant Staff”, controlling prisoners inside the compounds, or as “Guard Troop”, essentially sentries guarding the outer perimeters of the camps, and how any man with relatively little education could advance if he was prepared to withstand the harsh training and conditions, made me consider what may have been a particular element of why the Nazis came to and held on to power in the 1930’s. For many men born around the turn of the 20th century, they’d lived through the Great War; they’d experienced the crushing effects of the depression, and had certainly observed, if not participated in the constant political turmoil and violence of much of the Weimar period. Others, denied the chance to serve the Fatherland due to youth, were eager for a chance to demonstrate their patriotism and courage through the Nazi movement. These men often suffered from the effects of mass unemployment and were sufficiently attracted to the nationalist movements, (and afraid of Communist ascendancy,) to be drawn to the Nazi message. So by the middle of the 1930’s, there was a huge pool of men, in their twenties and thirties, who saw in the SS-Totenkopfverbände glamour, opportunity, and an escape from an otherwise uncertain existence. The propaganda promised excitement, comradeship, and a chance to serve Germany and the Führer – the reality didn’t always match up, (although no doubt for many it did, at least for a while) but it was enough to draw them in the first place.
And whilst it was only a minority of Germans who were lured, there were enough to provide a force easily sufficient to run the system. By January 1938 there were over 5,300 members of the Death’s Head. Some, like Rudolf Höss, were an example of what could be achieved. Disillusioned by the outcome of the First War, he gravitated to the Freikorp and the far-right, served four years for the murder of a Communist, and joined the NSDAP in the early 1920’s. He joined the SS in 1933, and the Camp SS in 1934 as a sentry. Whilst most of the Guard Troop were teenagers, men such as Höss found their way via the Commandant Staff into the higher echelons of the KL, in his case becoming the longest serving commandant of Auschwitz in 1940. Of course his long rise was brought to a halt by a short drop when he was hanged in 1947 – appropriately enough, on a gallows outside the Auschwitz crematorium he’d helped to feed. I do hope the irony wasn’t lost on him….
The persistent myth of the Nazis as the ‘master race’, of semi-supermen who followed the creed with an unmatched vitality and belief is thrown into focus by the reality. They were in large part of mixture of thugs, thieves, failures, misfits, and outcasts who only found a calling and acceptance in the twisted world of the SS camp system.
Wachsman illustrates a sense of how these ‘political’ soldiers saw themselves as holding a full-time vocation; how they not only worked together, but socialised together, lived in settlements alongside their colleagues, and generally maintained a sense of community together. I suppose that for men in an environment where an adherence to the violence and repression, such as that which hallmarked the KL, it was probably easier, and more appropriate that they shared their lives outside work with the like-minded. And as theirs was a daily experience so removed from other jobs, it’s natural that they gravitated together – shared experience, shared knowledge, shared attitudes, shared secrets.
But whilst the lives of these KL criminals, whatever their rank and compliance, seem to us be wholly unnatural, and so unacceptably evil, to those involved it must have at least become, over time, matter of fact to the point of banality, (with due regard to Hannah Arendt). A bricklayer doesn’t consider going to work every day and laying bricks, mixing concrete, building walls to be anything other than a ‘normal’ job. The undertaker who handles dead bodies, and ensures their sensitive dispatch while considering the feelings of the families doesn’t think of his work as anything other than a ‘normal’, if slightly unusual yet socially acceptable occupation. The teacher who guides and instructs classes of children while delivering a preordained curriculum sees his or her work as necessary and beneficial to society. In other words, these occupations are regarded as contributing positively to the overall good of everyone. Yet if you were to suggest to the bricklayer, undertaker or teacher that they should start to detain, brutalise, intimidate, dehumanise people, and ultimately, to shoot them, hang them, gas them, and generally be prepared to commit mass murder for no other reason than that the victims aren’t sufficiently ‘German’ or ‘Aryan’, (or that they’re fulfilling their Führer’s will) it would seem so outlandish as to be ridiculous. Yet for the men of the KL, that sort of behaviour was seen as just as beneficial, just as socially necessary, just as ‘banal’, as any other job, with the added feelings of patriotism, of community, of a shared pride in their service to the fatherland. This shows how pervasive had become the nationalist fervour that followed Germany’s experience in 1918, through the 1920’s, and how it was then burnished and moulded into shape by the Nazi’s; made into a source of honour and pride; and embellished by an unhealthy dose of anti-semitism and hatred for anyone who might stand in their path. And yet there are plenty of examples of how the Camp SS felt it necessary not to publicise their activities, but to keep it away from the gaze of the majority of German society. It was a strange Nazi contradiction, of massive belief that what they were doing was right, yet recognising that it was sufficiently ‘wrong’ to need shielding.
And it wasn’t only this sense of ‘normal’, of a complete acceptance that what others would consider as outrageous behaviour was, for the SS man, not only acceptable but necessary which made them function like this. They were also subject to pressures to perform these acts, which ranged from slaps, assaults and beatings on prisoners to starving them, torturing them, and ultimately carrying out, or being complicit in, their murder. Wachsman makes the point that in addition to peer pressure, with the need to show their ‘manliness’ and at least match if not outdo the group, membership of the SS, which became a society and culture within and even apart from the rest of the Nazi world, carried with it the demand for violence. As he says, ‘brutality brought valuable social capital’. Progression through the ranks was enhanced by a willingness to show how hard an individual was; how ready to commit extreme acts of aggression. Of course, the availability of a huge pool of incarcerated victims, with little opportunity to retaliate, and a lack of societal disfavour or judicial sanctions made for easy indulgence of such aggression.
It was fully encouraged by senior ranks to exercise this brutal treatment of inmates. In fact, it was encouraged that senior officers themselves regularly showed that they were at least as brutal as their men. And sanctions and punishments were applied to anyone, regardless of rank, who showed any signs of being sympathetic, or ‘soft’ on the prisoners. Wachsmann cites the example of Heinrich Deubel, a confidante of Himmler, who became commandant of Dachau, no less, yet was soon sacked when he displayed a tendency to treat inmates as human beings, and even try to educate and improve them.
In fact, the example of Deubel is illuminative, as is that of Dachau camp. One of the first camps to fully develop, envisaged and encouraged by Himmler, Dachau set early examples for the sort of mindset Himmler wanted for his SS and the KL. Deubel’s approach, enlightened by SS standards, was shown to be completely unacceptable, not least by the way he was summarily dumped from the KL and sent back to his previous bureaucratic post after a short time. His replacement, Loritz, immediately set out to demonstrate the real nature of KL expectations. His was a regime based on brutality and harsh treatment. Eicke’s philosophy, and that of Himmler, saw full flowering through men like Loritz.
The episode also demonstrates how the running of the KL mirrored the psychological gestation of the SS. Deubel was a veteran of the World War 1 who had afterwards gravitated to the extreme right and joined the SS in 1926, and had been rewarded with the Dachau appointment in 1934. But his replacement, Loritz, whilst also a Great War veteran, had joined the SS in 1930, and volunteered for the KL, professing his dedication to Eicke’s principles and methods. So the ranks of the KL were becoming filled by men whose attitudes and mindsets were formed within the KL, and so were much more inculcated in that culture.