The Nazi Concentration Camps


Adolf Hitler was the architect of the murderous Nazi regime. “No Hitler, no Holocaust”, as it is often said. But Hitler did not mastermind every atrocity. His destructive dreams took shape through the actions of a vast army of followers, who often took things into their own hands.

SS men on the Sachsenhausen roll call square (winter 1940-1)

The Wiener Library

Among the perpetrators were tens of thousands of concentration camp staff. Their backgrounds varied, as did their jobs and behaviour. The camps were dominated by a group of committed SS men, who enjoyed their enormous power over helpless prisoners; some other SS staff, however, proved more reluctant to commit crimes.

The Camp SS was created by the first Camp Inspector, Theodor Eicke, who promoted young, loyal and violent volunteers. A ruthless leader, Eicke was devoted to his superior Heinrich Himmler; the same was true of Oswald Pohl, who oversaw the SS camp system for much of the Second World War.

Inspector Eicke regarded prisoners as enemies deserving the most brutal punishment. Eicke’s men acted on his words: the pre-war camps were marked by torture and abuse. During the war, as Nazi terror escalated, Camp SS terror escalated, too. SS staff committed countless murders, some on orders from above, others on their own initiative.

The war changed SS recruitment. The SS needed more staff because there were far more camps and prisoners. The new recruits were different from those employed earlier. There were many more women and foreigners among them. And there were many more older men, mostly army reservists. Even though these new recruits were often less fanatical than the hardcore Camp SS, they generally did their duty – even if this meant killing prisoners.