The Nazi Concentration Camps

The public

All Germans knew about the concentration camps. There had been much talk about the early camps in 1933 and the German population never forgot them. True, the regime later toned down its propaganda. But the camps still sometimes featured in Nazi magazines and on the radio during the pre-war years.

During the Second World War, concentration camps became more visible than ever. As the number of inmates and camps grew, and the SS prioritized slave labour, encounters with ordinary Germans became common. There were labour camps in many towns and villages, and locals saw prisoners march to work or worked nearby; sometimes locals even requested prisoners to work for them. The reactions of ordinary Germans varied. Some tried to help, offering food to prisoners. Others abused them or joined in manhunts for fugitives. Most common was silence: most Germans looked away. By contrast, foreign civilians in occupied Europe were more likely to help, supporting prisoners in the struggle against the common enemy.

Ordinary Germans often associated concentration camps with brutal conditions and hard labour. But they knew less about the systematic mass extermination carried out inside. The widespread rumours about mass killings of Jews, for example, mostly referred to massacres and shootings, not to camps. To be sure, many locals living near camps like Auschwitz learned more about the crimes; news also spread via SS officials, soldiers and other witnesses. Still, Auschwitz was no household name in Nazi Germany.

Abroad, by contrast, more detailed information was available. First reports about Auschwitz had appeared in the Allied press not long after it was set up. Over the coming years, Allied intelligence collected further material on Auschwitz and other camps, as did Jewish groups. By 1944, the mechanics of the Holocaust in Auschwitz were well publicized abroad.