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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: L’univers tentaculaire des camps nazis


The Tentacular World of the Nazi Camps

Translated Sunday 11 March 2018, by Arwen Dewey

KL by Nikolaus Wachsmann. In his book, Nikolaus Wachsmann retraces the history of the horrors of the concentration camps, from the opening of Dachau in March of 1933 to the death marches of 1945.

On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler was elected Reich Chancellor. The Dachau concentration camp was opened on March 22. Between that date and the camp’s liberation in 1945, over 40,000 prisoners died there. Its first prisoners, just over 100 in all, were mostly communists from Munich. Surely they had no illusions about the violence of the Nazis. But could they have imagined back then that a total of 1,100 concentration camps would be established within the Reich’s territory, in which 2.3 million men, women and children would be imprisoned, and in which 70% of those prisoners would die? These numbers refer to prisoners held in the concentration camps, not to the extermination of Jews for which victims were immediately taken to the gas chambers or murdered en masse by other means. For the most part, prisoners only saw the smoke from the crematoriums. But they knew that it represented what would happen to them should they fall ill, be too exhausted to work, or be singled out by an SS guard or a kapo. Certain camps, such as Sobibor, Belzec, and Treblinka, near Warsaw, where nearly a million Jews were murdered, served only as extermination sites. Historian Nikolaus Wachsmann focuses on the 12-year history of the KL, or Konzentrationslager, in his 1,000-page book, analyzing both the system’s growth and the role of its Nazi leaders.

The Right to Kill Without Justification

In the beginning, the camps were intended for the imprisonment of political dissidents: communists, union activists, and socialists. Their purpose was political: to destroy the opposition through arbitrary detention and torture, with the goal of instilling a climate of fear. However, the history of the camps isn’t linear. Camp openings sometimes had to be improvised when local Nazi authorities were successful at their work. The early guard units were often made up of inept brutes from the SA who carried out their work with extreme violence. The system became more professional when Himmler took over. Himmler put his own men in charge of the camps, and transferred all powers to the SS. These men were sometimes veterans, or unemployed workers who had been retrained. Not all of them corresponded to the propaganda images. Corruption, drunkenness, and bestiality reigned in their ranks too, even at the highest levels. In 1936, they formed the Death’s Head Units, with the right to kill without justification. At the same time, the camps’ populations were changing. The political opposition had been defeated. The undesirables, those that Hitler referred to as "scum," were taking its place; the unemployed, the homeless, petty criminals and prostitutes were all rounded up along with felons in order to cleanse Germany. They would become the breeding ground for kapos.

The massive internment of the Jews began after Kristallnacht. They were arrested by the thousands, without any justification other than the fact that they were Jewish. The camp system soon became its own little world. There were giant complexes like Auschwitz, a factory of death by systematic extermination as well as from starvation and exhaustion due to forced labor, where hideous "medical" experiments were carried out on the inmates, including the children. The camps’ end was apocalyptic, with forced death marches as the Red Army advanced. In short, this book is a major work and valuable historical reference, one that is much needed to deepen our understanding of totalitarian terror and the nature of Nazism, beyond the clichés of the "madness" of one man and his accomplices.

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