Organized resistance

Most resistance groups were formed by political prisoners, who already had experience in fighting the Nazis. In camps on German soil, Communists played a particularly prominent role. One of them was the Sachsenhausen camp elder Harry Naujoks. In his post-war memoirs, Naujoks paints a vivid, if rosy, picture of the resistance. In truth, even Communists were not united; they often clashed over personalities and politics. There were also strict limits to what the resistance could achieve. Naujoks himself was removed as camp elder by the SS in 1942 for “seditious activities” and deported to another camp to die; against the odds, he survived.

086 – The Communist Harry Naujoks on political resistance in Sachsenhausen

The natural political cell of the prisoners was usually their shared table in the barrack. This offered the opportunity to speak, as well as providing support and help whenever a personal crisis had to be mastered. It encouraged the individual to take part in the solution of any problems of the day. It involved them in discussions of political and moral problems. Based on the community at table, the barrack elder exercised an authority recognized as a rule by everybody. Conflicts resulting from living together in a very small space and from the consequences of SS terror could be kept within limits and any bad behaviour by individual fellow prisoners could mostly be settled within the barrack […].

to act against the intentions of the Nazis

However, provision of work, mutual help, observation of the SS and their intentions could not be a matter for the barrack functionaries alone. […] Rapid decisions could only be taken centrally. An urgent need therefore was the creation of an illegal leadership that enjoyed the respect and trust of the anti-fascist prisoners and which would not be obvious to the SS.

Among the political prisoners the Communists were the strongest group: it excelled by its closed ranks and solidarity, by its fundamental and consistent opposition to the Nazis, by its experience and theoretical knowledge. Most of them had been imprisoned for years. Right from the beginning they had looked for opportunities, by legal and illegal work, to defend the interests of the prisoners and to act against the intentions of the Nazis. Whenever the administration or the Gestapo succeeded in breaking up a resistance group, a new circle would become active again soon afterwards.

Source: H. Naujoks, Mein Leben im KZ Sachsenhausen (Cologne, 1987), pp. 100–1

Translation: Ewald Osers