Nazi Concentration Camps Begin Operating Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The opening of Nazi Germany’s first concentration camps was an early step in a process of destruction that culminated in the Holocaust.

Summary of Event

Although the Nazis never gained a majority in any freely contested election, their control of Germany began on January 30, 1933, when Adolf Hitler was named chancellor by Paul von Hindenburg, president of the Weimar Republic. Six months later, the Nazis were the only legal political party in Germany, Hitler’s decrees were as good as law, basic civil rights had been suspended, and thousands of the regime’s suspected political opponents had been interned in a growing number of concentration camps. Before the Third Reich fell twelve years later, millions of people—including two-thirds of the Jews in Europe—would perish in concentration camps. [kw]Nazi Concentration Camps Begin Operating (Mar., 1933) [kw]Concentration Camps Begin Operating, Nazi (Mar., 1933) [kw]Camps Begin Operating, Nazi Concentration (Mar., 1933) Nazi concentration camps Concentration camps, Nazi Holocaust Jews;Holocaust Death camps, Nazi [g]Germany;Mar., 1933: Nazi Concentration Camps Begin Operating[08290] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;Mar., 1933: Nazi Concentration Camps Begin Operating[08290] [c]Human rights;Mar., 1933: Nazi Concentration Camps Begin Operating[08290] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Mar., 1933: Nazi Concentration Camps Begin Operating[08290] Hitler, Adolf Himmler, Heinrich Eicke, Theodor Göring, Hermann Höss, Rudolf Röhm, Ernst Hindenburg, Paul von

As part of their early program of making life as difficult as possible for German Jews, the Nazis began a boycott of Jewish businesses in 1933. The sign reads, “Germans, defend yourselves, do not buy from Jews.”

(NARA)

Nazi concentration camps disregarded the principle that one should not be punished unless found guilty in a fair trial. Instead, they removed people who could not be confined through the normal workings of a state’s criminal code. The Nazis did not invent the concept of a concentration camp, nor did they have a systematic design for developing such places when they came to power in Germany. Gradually, however, a deadly camp system evolved. An early step in that process occurred at Dachau, a town about ten miles northwest of Munich, where one of the first concentration camps was established. The site of a vacated World War I munitions factory provided the needed space for Dachau’s first prisoners, who entered the camp in late March of 1933. Those early inmates were political opponents of the Nazis—mainly Communists and Social Democrats—who were kept under “protective custody.”

Heinrich Himmler established Dachau. Dachau concentration camp In 1925, he had joined the SS (Schutzstaffel), SS (Schutzstaffel) a small group of dedicated Nazis who served as Adolf Hitler’s personal bodyguards. Hitler appointed Himmler head of the SS in 1929. At the time, the SS included about two hundred members, but under Himmler’s direction it eventually numbered in the hundreds of thousands and formed an awesome empire within the Nazi state. Meanwhile, shortly after Hitler became chancellor in 1933, Himmler gained important police powers in Munich and in the entire province of Bavaria. He used his authority to create the Dachau camp.

Bavarian state police guarded the camp at first, but in April, 1933, SS personnel took control. Theodor Eicke became Dachau’s commandant in June. As he regulated camp life, including stating rules about work and punishment, Eicke ensured that Dachau’s procedures would be systematic and replicable as well as harsh. After Eicke was appointed head of the Nazi network of concentration camps in July, 1934, the system he had developed at Dachau became standard. The SS personnel who trained under him saw to it that his policies were established at other camps as they rose to new positions of leadership in the system. One who did so, for example, was Rudolf Höss, whose Dachau training prepared him to become the commandant of Auschwitz Auschwitz death camp in German-occupied Poland in 1940.

Although the Dachau model fostered by Himmler’s SS leadership eventually dominated the Nazi camp system, that outcome was not a foregone conclusion in the early months of the Third Reich. By the end of July of 1933, Nazi Germany held nearly twenty-seven thousand political prisoners in protective custody. Dachau contained its share, but thousands more could be found in a variety of other detention centers. These centers, however, lacked overall coordination, and their only common trait was that the incarcerated people were “guilty” only in the sense that they were judged politically suspect by the Nazis.

An early pretext for arrests of the politically suspect was the fire that ravaged the German parliament building on February 27, 1933. Although Nazis were suspected of setting the blaze to serve their own purposes, Hitler blamed the Reichstag’s destruction on arson by Communists. The next day, President Paul von Hindenburg signed the emergency decree that the Nazis wanted: By suspending basic rights guaranteed by the Weimar Constitution, and thereby allowing detention for persons suspected of hostility to the state, the decree opened the door for a policy of Schutzhaft, or protective custody, that would guard the Reich’s security by imprisoning those who were suspected of threatening it. Taking advantage of this sweeping decree, the Nazis launched a wave of arrests throughout the country.

Many victims of this campaign were interned in camps quickly set up by the SA, the brown-shirted Nazi storm troopers led by Ernst Röhm. Others, especially in the state of Prussia, were imprisoned in detention centers created by Hermann Göring, the chief of the Prussian police, who was also organizing the Gestapo, Gestapo a secret police force dedicated to maintaining the security of the Nazi state. Precisely how many of these camps existed in 1933 remains unclear, although informed estimates indicate that Prussia alone had twenty of them.

In a regime where terror loomed so large, anyone who could gain control of the Nazi concentration camps would wield immense power. Göring attempted to outdo his rivals, but his efforts were surpassed by Himmler. By early July, 1934, Himmler had not only established the SS camp at Dachau but had also gained control of the political police in the Reich’s various states, including Göring’s Gestapo in Prussia. In addition, he had masterminded a purge of the SA, and appointed Eicke, his SS subordinate, to supervise the concentration camps throughout Germany.

This consolidation of power eliminated most of the small camps that had sprung up in 1933. By September, 1935, the six official concentration camps in the Third Reich were at Dachau, Lichtenburg, Sachsenburg, Esterwegen, Oranienburg, and Columbia Haus (near Berlin). On the eve of World War II, in the late summer of 1939, even those camps—except for Dachau, which was reconstructed in 1937 and 1938—had been eclipsed by newer and larger installations at Sachsenhausen (1936), Buchenwald (1937), Flossenbürg (1938), Mauthausen (in Austria, 1938), and Ravensbruck (a concentration camp for women, 1939).

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In the period from 1933 until the outbreak of World War II in 1939, there were changes in the concentration camp population. The number of prisoners fluctuated. Although mostly political prisoners were incarcerated at first, the concentration camps gradually engulfed many other types of people in addition to the Communists, Social Democrats, and trade unionists who had been initially targeted. By 1938, Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of the clergy, and “asocial elements” (such as homosexuals and so-called habitual criminals) as well as Roma and Jews were among those in the camps. Treatment varied from person to person and place to place, but exhausting labor, severe punishment, poor food, filth, disease, and execution were all among the possible and persistent threats. Release from a concentration camp was possible, but death while in a camp was likely.

Significance

Nazi concentration camps of the kind that began at Dachau in March, 1933, were only the beginning of an unprecedented twelve-year assault on human rights. Although all the Nazi camps derived partly from impulses and intentions that brought Dachau into existence, not every camp in the Nazi system was simply a holding pen for political detainees. After World War II began (with the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939) different but related institutions started to appear. There were, for example, labor camps, transit camps, prisoner-of-war camps, and, most destructive of all, extermination or death camps.

The Nazis violated human rights in virtually every possible way, but no group received more inhumane treatment than the Jews. In the early years, however, relatively small numbers of Jews were interned in concentration camps such as Dachau and Buchenwald. Not until the summer of 1938, and especially after the Kristallnacht pogrom in November, 1938, were large numbers of Jews imprisoned strictly on religious grounds. Even then, most of these Jewish prisoners were eventually released after paying a ransom or proving that they were about to emigrate from Germany. This practice would change catastrophically with the outbreak of World War II, however.

Nazi ideology held that Jews were the chief obstacle to the racial and cultural purity that Hitler craved for the Third Reich. Political opponents were dealt with ruthlessly to ensure Nazi domination, but the Jews were soon identified as an even more virulent threat. Their polluting presence, Hitler believed, had to be eliminated. For a time, the Nazis relied largely on punitive laws to segregate Jews, expropriate their property, and deprive them of their professions and other rights. The Nazi strategy was to make life so difficult that the German Jews would be forced to leave. This plan did not achieve its goals, and when Hitler went to war with the aim of expanding the German nation, Nazi policies aimed at population reduction had to change.

Hitler’s conquests, especially in Eastern Europe, brought millions of Jews under German domination. What gradually evolved was a policy of mass murder—the “final solution”—that was implemented from late 1941 until late 1944. Its most devastating effects occurred in the gas chambers that operated at six death camps in occupied Poland: Chełmno, Belżec, Sobibór, Treblinka, Majdanek, and Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Dachau and the other early concentration camps on German soil were never death factories like Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau. The violations of human rights initiated at the first camps, however, were part of wide-ranging aims to stamp out every element of dissent and diversity that stood in the way of Nazi domination. Concentration camps such as Dachau helped to pave the way for other camps, which were even worse because they were specifically designed to remove unwanted lives, especially Jewish ones, through unrelenting mass murder. Six million Jews died in the camps, as well as millions of non-Jews, especially people from the Slavic countries occupied by Germany during the war. Nazi concentration camps Concentration camps, Nazi Holocaust Jews;Holocaust Death camps, Nazi

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Feig, Konnilyn G. Hitler’s Death Camps: The Sanity of Madness. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1979. This detailed study gives an overview of the Nazi concentration and death camps and, focusing on their structure and function, a camp-by-camp analysis of many of them, including Dachau. Contains helpful maps and photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gutman, Israel, ed. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. 4 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1990. Contains articles on many concentration camps as well as on the camp system as a whole. Provides surveys of the SS, SA, and Gestapo, as well as essays about individual SS leaders in the camp system. All of the essays in this extensive work have been carefully prepared by highly qualified scholars. Useful maps and illustrations included.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hilberg, Raul. The Destruction of the European Jews. 3d ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003. An unrivaled study of the bureaucratic process of destruction that the Nazis directed toward the Jews of Europe. Analysis situates the concentration and death camps within that systematic process. Focuses especially on developments that transformed the conventional concentration camps into centers of mass murder such as those at Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau in German-occupied Poland.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Höhne, Heinz. The Order of the Death’s Head: The Story of Hitler’s SS. Translated by Richard Barry. New York: Ballantine Books, 1979. Offers a detailed study of the rise of the SS, its immense power in Nazi Germany, and its central role in administration of the concentration and death camps. Focuses on individual figures as well as on the overall organization of the SS.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Krausnick, Helmut, Hans Buchheim, Martin Brozat, and Hans-Adolf Jacobsen. Anatomy of the SS State. Translated by Richard Barry, Marian Jackson, and Dorothy Long. New York: Walker and Company, 1968. Supports a theory of concentration camp crimes and genocidal treatment of Jews as essential features of Nazism. Martin Brozat’s “The Concentration Camps, 1933-1945” provides particularly effective documentation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Laqueur, Walter, and Judith Tydor Baumel, eds. The Holocaust Encyclopedia. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. Detailed, comprehensive survey of all aspects of the Holocaust. Includes more than 200 photos and many helpful research tools.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rubenstein, Richard L., and John K. Roth. Approaches to Auschwitz: The Holocaust and Its Legacy. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1987. An overview of the Holocaust. Discusses the emergence and development of the concentration and death camps that played a central role in the mass death unleashed by Nazi Germany. Focuses on the victims as well as on the perpetrators.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wistrich, Robert S. Hitler and the Holocaust. New York: Random House, 2001. An authoritative work recounting the major issues of the Holocaust.

Beer Hall Putsch

Mein Kampf Outlines Nazi Thought

Hitler Comes to Power in Germany

Enabling Act of 1933

Great Blood Purge

German Troops March into the Rhineland

The Anschluss

Munich Conference

Kristallnacht

Nazi Extermination of the Jews

Nazi-Soviet Pact

Gypsies Are Exterminated in Nazi Death Camps

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