In a speech to Wehrmacht generals on 21 June 1944, SS leader Heinrich Himmler praised the Kapo system in his concentration camps. Although his account was full of exaggerations and lies, it offers a good insight into SS thinking: not only did the Kapo system allow relatively few SS staff to dominate the camps, it also helped to spread discord among the prisoners.
[In the concentration camps] we have established so-called Kapos. This arrangement was put in place by Obergruppenführer Eicke, who has done very creditable work in general in organizing our system of control over these subhumans. So one prisoner is the overseer or senior prisoner, if you like, with responsibility for 30, 40 or even more than 100 other prisoners. The moment he becomes a Kapo he no longer sleeps with them. He is responsible for meeting work targets, for preventing any sabotage, for seeing they are all clean and that the beds are set up. You soldiers would be pleased with this lot, though most cannot speak a word of German. A new recruit in an army barracks could not be more spick and span. The Kapo sees to that. He has to get his men to work and the minute we are not satisfied with him he stops being a Kapo and goes back to sleeping with the others. He knows only too well that they will kill him on the first night. A Kapo gets special privileges. Of course, I can say quite candidly that it’s not my job to featherbed anybody but to rid the streets of subhumans and use them to bring us victory. That’s my task and I keep it in view. These camps hold the lowlifes from all the European nations: Jews and Russians and Poles and Czechs and French. Wherever criminals are found in the territories under German occupation they are sent to us. Because we can’t get by only with Germans, we naturally arrange things so that a Frenchman is Kapo in charge of Poles, or a Pole is in charge of Russians, so that one nation is played off against another.
Source: Bundesarchiv Berlin, NS 19/4014, Bl. 167–8
Translation: Lesley Sharpe and Jeremy Noakes