The Nazi Concentration Camps

Prisoner groups

SS markers for different prisoner groups

The Wiener Library

The concentration camps are associated, above all, with the Nazi war against the Jews. But Jews were not the only prisoner group in the camps. In fact, until the Holocaust hit the camps in 1942, Jewish inmates had been a small minority. The only exception was a brief period in late 1938, when the Nazis temporarily forced over 26,000 German and Austrian Jews into the camps, following the November pogrom.

Children in Bergen-Belsen after liberation

The Wiener Library

Almost all the inmates in the early camps (1933–4) had been German political prisoners. From the mid-1930s, the concentration camp population became increasingly diverse. Some prisoners, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, were persecuted on religious grounds. Many more were arrested as social outsiders. The main targets were criminals and so-called asocials, such as beggars and the homeless. The authorities also sent some homosexual men to the camps. By the late 1930s, the prisoner population was made up of Germans from many different backgrounds. To tell them apart, the SS placed coloured triangles on their uniforms, indicating the grounds for their detention.

During the Second World War, the camps filled up fast with foreign prisoners from all over Europe; before long, they far outnumbered German inmates. Early on, the largest group of foreigners were Polish: following the Nazi invasion in 1939, many Poles were dragged to the camps. Then, from 1941, large numbers of Soviet citizens followed, both POWs and slave labourers. From 1942, mass deportations of Jewish prisoners reached the camps from across Europe. As the Nazi regime stepped up its attacks on “racial enemies”, a growing number of youths and children were registered as prisoners, mostly young Jews and Gypsies.