The Nazi Concentration Camps


SS men murdered hundreds of prisoners in the pre-war camps. Because such killings were not covered by law – the death penalty was in the hands of judges – they were normally hushed up. The first official Camp SS execution did not take place until 1938, and even then, the death sentence had been passed by a court, not by the SS. All this changed after the outbreak of the Second World War. The Nazi leadership now used the camps as execution sites for political and criminal suspects, who had been condemned without regular trials – some of them by Adolf Hitler himself. Hitler brushed aside objections by German legal officials, making executions of prisoners and civilians a regular feature of the camps. In some months, the SS recorded well over 1,000 executions.

The gallows in Gross-Rosen

The Wiener Library

In 1941, the Camp SS launched two programmes of mass killing, several months before the Holocaust entered the camps. The first programme targeted weak, ill and disabled prisoners, who were selected by doctors and deported to special killing centres across Germany. By summer 1942, when the killings slowed down, some 6,500 or more prisoners had been murdered. The second programme targeted Soviet prisoners of war. Until summer 1942, some 40,000 or more Soviet soldiers were transported to the camps for execution. The SS experimented with different methods, including poison gas in Auschwitz. Later, the Auschwitz SS used the same method during the Holocaust.

During the Second World War, prisoners were also subjected to medical experiments. Several thousand of them died, while survivors were scarred for life. SS leader Heinrich Himmler took a close personal interest in the gruesome trials: the experiments were meant to advance Nazi racial policy and Germany’s ability to win the war. Victims were burned, maimed, poisoned and infected, or exposed to tortures like freezing water. Experiments were supported by the medical establishment, the military and private companies, who all saw prisoners as “guinea pigs”.