The Nazi Concentration Camps


The Holocaust raged from 1941 onwards. The Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union that summer was accompanied by mass shootings of Jews on a vast scale. Over the following months, the Nazis began to realize plans for the extermination of Jews from across Europe. In all, up to six million Jews, largely from eastern Europe (where most murders took place), would be dead by 1945.

The majority of Jews died outside concentration camps. They were shot by SS and police forces in forests and fields, or gassed in special death camps like Treblinka (in occupied Poland). Treblinka was not a concentration camp. It was built for mass extermination only (not for any other reasons, like slave labour). Treblinka claimed more than 800,000 victims in 1942.

Still, concentration camps played a major part in the Holocaust. Before 1942, Jews made up only a small proportion of the prisoner population (except for a few weeks after the November 1938 pogrom). But in early 1942, SS leader Himmler ordered mass deportations of Jews to concentration camps. Within months, trains from across Europe were carrying Jews to Auschwitz, the main destination of these deportations.

From 1942, Auschwitz consisted of three separate complexes: the old main camp (Auschwitz I); Birkenau, with its gas chambers (Auschwitz II); Monowitz and other satellite camps (Auschwitz III).

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

Around one million Jews died in Auschwitz. Many had arrived sick and scared, following harrowing train transports. On arrival, the Auschwitz SS normally carried out a murderous selection. Some stronger Jews were chosen for slave labour, often at the IG Farben building site in nearby Monowitz (where few survived longer than a few months). But most new arrivals were sent to one of the gas chambers in Birkenau (a huge extension near Auschwitz main camp). For the local SS, mass extermination became routine. SS officials became used to deceiving their victims, murdering them and plundering their belongings. The height of the Holocaust in Auschwitz came in spring and summer 1944, when hundreds of thousands of Jews (mostly from Hungary) were murdered in just a few months.

Auschwitz was not the only concentration camp involved in the Holocaust. In 1942–3, some mass deportations went to Majdanek in occupied eastern Poland, where Jews were murdered with guns and gas. Other Jewish prisoners died in camps in the Baltic region in 1943–4, falling victim to illness, slave labour and SS executions. Finally, in 1944–5, the SS sent large numbers of Jewish prisoners to camps deep inside Germany. Most of them were worked to death or killed in the final months before liberation.