The Nazi Concentration Camps

Slave labour

Hard labour was compulsory in SS camps like Dachau from the start, even for many sick prisoners. Forced labour brought practical benefits for the SS, as prisoners had to build and maintain their own camps. Above all, the SS saw hard labour as a way to punish prisoners. Often there was pointless labour, designed only to torment inmates.

Slave Labour in Sachsenhausen (1937)

Archiv des Föderalen Sicherheitsdienstes der Russischen Förderation, Moskau, Archiv Gedenkstätte und des Museums Sachsenhausen

Slave Labour in Neuengamme (1941-2)

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of KZ-Gedenkstätte Neuengamme

From the late 1930s, SS economic ambitions grew. Early on, prisoners were forced into gruelling work at brickworks and quarries . Later, more and more prisoners were exploited for the war effort. The SS set up hundreds of satellite camps during the war, with the eager collaboration of German industry. SS leader Heinrich Himmler claimed that his slaves produced vital armaments. In reality, they made no major contribution to the war effort.

Countless prisoners were worked to death during the war. Work brought great pain, not freedom, as the cynical SS slogan (“Arbeit macht frei”) at the gates of Dachau, Auschwitz and other camps proclaimed. Prospects were particularly bleak for prisoners in construction. By contrast, the smaller number of prisoners in production enjoyed slightly better conditions. Overall, the main product of SS slave labour was not armaments, or bricks, or stones, but the suffering and death of prisoners.