When Nazi officials set up the first camps in spring 1933, they gave little thought to forced labour. Their main aim was to detain and deter political opponents, not to make them work. This was why there was so much variation in 1933: some prisoners worked hard (inside and outside their camps), while others were left idle. This changed when the SS took over coordination of the camps. Camp Inspector Theodor Eicke saw hard labour as an essential tool to break prisoners, as he made clear to the Esterwegen SS in August 1934.
Compulsory work: Prisoners are, without exception, obliged to perform manual labour. Social position, profession and background are irrelevant. Anyone who refuses work, tries to evade it or claims to have physical infirmities or illnesses in order to do nothing will be regarded as incorrigible and will be called to account. The working hours throughout the camp will be determined exclusively by the camp commandant. The beginning and end of work will be indicated by hooters or by the workshop bell. With the commandant’s approval work may be required at any time over and above the prescribed working hours and on Sundays and public holidays, if the needs of the camp make it necessary. […]
obliged to perform manual labour
Prisoners who claim illness without cause or for trivial reasons and thereby attempt to evade work will be placed in the section for “punitive work”. Anyone wishing to be seen by the doctor must attend an examination the same day. Anyone the doctor judges to be capable of work will be given punitive work.
Source: Besondere Lagerordnung für das Gefangenen-Barackenlager Esterwegen, 1 August 1934; in United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, RG-11.001 M.20, Reel 91, 1367–2–19
Translation: Lesley Sharpe and Jeremy Noakes