The Nazi Concentration Camps

Early camps

Mass arrests of Nazi opponents began during the night of 27–8 February 1933, less than a month after Adolf Hitler’s appointment as German Chancellor. The regime used an arson attack on the German parliament (the Reichstag) as an excuse for rounding up opponents. Many more arrests came in the weeks after the last multiparty election of the Third Reich, on 5 March 1933, as Germany rapidly turned into a dictatorship.

The Nazis seized up to 200,000 political opponents in 1933. Many were sent to regular prisons. But many others were held outside the law, after mass arrests by Nazi paramilitaries (SA and SS) and other forces. There were no detailed plans for holding these opponents: the Nazis had no blueprint for camps. Nazi officials improvised. They grabbed any space they could: victims of lawless arrests were dragged to makeshift camps in bars, hotels, castles and sports grounds. In Dachau, a broken-down munitions factory became the first SS concentration camp.

Nazi camps in the German capital Berlin, by district

N. Wachsmann, KL. A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps (2015). Map © Jeffrey Ward

Many guards in early camps were young SA (Storm Division) and SS (Protection Squad) men, who had fought against Nazi opponents in the past. Now the Nazi movement was in power, these men abused their imprisoned opponents. The guards’ superiors often encouraged them, urging them to show no mercy. Violence was common, though murders remained rare (because murder could still be punished by regular courts). Guards often singled out prominent left-wing prisoners for special abuses. The same was true for German Jews: while Jews only made up a small proportion of prisoners in 1933 (perhaps some 5 per cent), they were brutally tormented by guards from the start.

The early camps were not hidden from view. Despite official warnings to stay away, many locals witnessed abuses. Also, relatives and friends saw the signs of torture on the bodies of released prisoners. The regime responded by pumping out propaganda, presenting the camps as tough but fair. This was an obvious lie: many Germans knew that the early camps were places of brutal violence.