The Nazi Concentration Camps

Camp system

Nazi terror in 1933 was often chaotic and improvised. The early camps were never streamlined: different camps were run by different authorities under different rules. This changed in 1934. SS leader Heinrich Himmler took charge, just as he took charge of the political police forces across Germany. All concentration camps were now run by the SS. To coordinate his camps, Himmler set up a new agency: the Camp Inspectorate.

Himmler inspects Flossenbürg (1940)

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of David Mendels

But the future of the concentration camps was not yet clear. Some Nazi leaders believed that the camps should disappear. They thought that regular courts and prisons would be enough to defend the dictatorship, and supported mass releases from camps, which stood almost empty by autumn 1934. Himmler strongly disagreed and demanded a permanent camp system. His model was simple: bypassing courts, the police (under Himmler) sent suspects straight to SS camps (also under Himmler).

Crucially, Adolf Hitler backed Himmler’s model for lawless terror. With Hitler’s support, Himmler oversaw a major overhaul of the camp system. Old camps were replaced by specially built new ones, such as Sachsenhausen (1936) and Ravensbrück (1939), the first purpose-built camp for women.

Location of SS main concentration camps and satellites

Anne K. Knowles, T. Cole, A. Giordano (eds), Geographies of the Holocaust (2014). Map by Benjamin Perry Blackshear

During the Second World War, the camp system spread far beyond the German pre-war borders, especially into occupied Poland. Camp SS leaders often complained about poor conditions in the new camps in the east, such as Auschwitz (1940) and Majdanek (1941).

Prisoner numbers grew faster than ever in the second half of the war. In December 1942, the concentration camps held around 115,000 prisoners. One year later, there were around 315,000 prisoners. This was a result of the brutal police repression of resistance in occupied Europe, of the SS hunger for slave labour, and of mass deportations of Jews during the Holocaust. This vast expansion of Camp SS terror was masterminded by a new agency, the WVHA. Prisoner numbers peaked in early 1945, at more than 700,000. When the war ended, just a few months later, many of these inmates were dead.