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auschwitz: inside the nazi state
Auschwitz 1940-1945 Introduction Surprise Beginnings Orders & Initatives Factories of DeathCorruptionMurder & IntrigueLiberation & Revenge


Killing EvolutionVictims & PerpetratorsGermany & the Camp System

Germany and the Camp System

Auschwitz and the Nazi Camp System | by Dr. Doris Bergen

Auschwitz II Birkenau

Auschwitz II Birkenau

Auschwitz was one of a dense network of camps of various kinds that the Nazis set up to deal with people they defined as threats and enemies.

Types of Camps

The term concentration camp is often used to describe any detention site that existed in Nazi Germany after 1933 or in German-occupied Europe during World War II, but it is useful to differentiate among different kinds of camps in order to understand the Nazi system and how it operated. In addition to concentration camps, there were labor camps, prisoner of war camps, killing centers and death camps, and other camps for special uses, such as brothels or camps for building armaments. Camps of different kinds developed as German authorities conquered new territories, identified new enemies, and targeted them for imprisonment, persecution, and destruction.

Nazi authorities opened the first concentration camp at Dachau, just outside of Munich. No attempt was made to keep the camp a secret. It opened with fanfare and publicity.

The First Camp

Hitler came to power in Germany in January 1933. Only two months later Nazi authorities opened the first concentration camp at Dachau, just outside of Munich. No attempt was made to keep the camp a secret. It opened with fanfare and publicity, as part of the new Nazi government's promise to bring order to Germany and as a way to intimidate potential dissidents.

Early Inmates

The first inmates were mostly political prisoners: communists, social democrats, and other Germans who openly opposed Hitler's rule. The SS and police authorities in charge of the camp also brought in some criminals from regular prisons as inmates. These convicts—among them murderers and other serious offenders—were often given positions of privilege in the camp that allowed them to brutalize other inmates and ease the job of the camp guards.

Types of Camps and Populations Expand

By the mid-1930s, there were concentration camps for various purposes in all parts of Germany.

As the new Nazi regime consolidated its power, it attacked more and more groups within Germany and introduced laws and measures against them. Such assaults, in turn, produced more potential inmates and spawned construction of additional camps.

By the mid-1930s, there were concentration camps for various purposes in all parts of Germany, including Sachsenhausen, not far from Berlin; Ravensbrück, a camp for women; Buchenwald, near Weimar, and many others. Among their inmates were Jehovah's Witnesses who refused to serve in the German military and persisted in distributing religious literature after police banned their activities; homosexuals; women accused of prostitution;s men and women convicted of "Rassenschande" (racial defilement or sex between so-called Aryans and Jews); and some Catholic priests who defied laws prohibiting youth work and other church activities.

The 1936 Summer Olympics

In preparation for the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, German police rounded up thousands of people they deemed undesirable and sent them to concentration camps. These detainees included homeless people, beggars, and others labeled "asocial," as well as hundreds of Gypsies (Sinti). German authorities set up new camps for Gypsies, such as the site at Marzahn, on the outskirts of Berlin, which was not so much a camp as it was an open-air detention site with no facilities, not even toilets.

German Territory Expands

The annexation of Austria to Germany in early 1938 provided more victims for the Nazi camps and also sites for new camps. Most notorious of the Austrian camps was Mauthausen, which continued to function until the end of the war in 1945.

In November 1938, as part of the Kristallnacht pogrom—also known as the "Night of Broken Glass"—German police arrested approximately 30,000 Jewish men and sent them to concentration camps. This was the first time that large numbers of Jews were imprisoned in the camps for no other reason than that Nazi law defined them as Jews.

Killing Centers for the "Euthanasia" Program

At the concentration camps constructed inside Germany between 1933 and 1939, guards treated prisoners brutally. They beat, tortured, and humiliated inmates, and in some cases they killed them. But these concentration camps were not killing centers: many prisoners served their sentences and then were released.

In some cases these were hospitals and asylums, but under the supervision of Nazi police and doctors, they became sites of mass murder.

The first actual killing centers were sites for the murder of people deemed handicapped. The so-called Euthanasia Program began operation in Germany in 1939, initially targeting institutionalized, handicapped children and then expanding to adults. Rather than sending these people to concentration camps, Nazi authorities designated certain locations to be equipped as killing centers. In some cases these were hospitals and asylums, but under the supervision of Nazi police and doctors, they became sites of mass murder—by injection, poison gas, and other methods. Hadamar and Hartheim are names of two such killing centers.

Camps for Prisoners of War

Germany's invasion of Poland in September 1939 led to the need for more kinds of camps. The capture of hundreds of thousands of Polish soldiers required the creation of POW camps. German occupiers set up labor camps to punish Poles for various offenses and to exploit Polish labor. In addition, the Germans designated parts of certain towns and cities as ghettos into which they forced Polish Jews. In all of these detention sites guards tormented their victims, often fatally, and disease, starvation, and overwork were allowed to kill many people. But these were not killing centers. Murder was not their sole purpose, although it was a frequent occurrence.

Invasion of the Soviet Union

In 1941, German forces invaded Yugoslavia and Greece, and in June of that year, the Soviet Union. Again, with conquest and occupation came more victims and the need for more camps in which to imprison them. In Yugoslavia, the Germans cooperated with Croatian fascists to set up camps for enemies of all kinds, including partisans, Jews, and Gypsies. Those sites were some of the deadliest in Europe. The initial German victories over the Soviet Army brought in massive numbers of POWs, many of whom the Germans housed in makeshift camps. Left outside in the freezing cold with at best tents as shelters and little or no food, over three million Soviet soldiers died in German captivity. German officers and guards also shot many of them.

These killings did not occur in formally established camps, nor did they use poison gas, but they nevertheless took the lives of over a million people.

German armies moved into Soviet territories accompanied by special murder squads, which rounded up people defined as threats to German power—high-ranking communists and above all, Jews—and shot them into hastily dug graves and trenches. These killings did not occur in formally established camps, nor did they use poison gas, but they nevertheless took the lives of over a million people at killing sites such as Babi Yar near Kiev in Ukraine or in the Transnistria region between Romania and Ukraine.

Development of Purpose-Built Killing Centers

It was not until late 1941 that Nazi authorities decided that it would be more efficient to bring the victims to the killers than the killers to the victims. The result was construction of death camps—facilities built solely for the purpose of killing. By early 1942 a number of sites were operating, including Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka in territories seized from Poland.

At Chelmno, most of the killings were done in gas vans, so that there was no need for many camp facilities. Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka were death camps only—their only purpose was to facilitate the murder of as many people as possible in the shortest possible time. Almost everyone killed at these sites was Jewish, although some Gypsies were also sent to be gassed there. In addition to these death camps, German authorities decided to equip two existing camps—Majdanek, near Lublin, and Auschwitz, not far from Krakow—with gas chambers for mass killing. Majdanek and Auschwitz thus became multipurpose camps that functioned as concentration and labor camps as well as killing centers.

Auschwitz Expands Its Functions

They did make some efforts to conceal their genocide of the Jews, but that turned out to be impossible.

The camp system continued to evolve as the Nazi net expanded. Auschwitz expanded to include Auschwitz-Birkenau (Auschwitz II), where the gas chambers were located, and over one million Jews were murdered. The Auschwitz complex also included factories with slave labor from all over Europe; facilities for POWs of various kinds; concentration facilities that held many non-Jewish Poles and others; and a model village where the guards and their families lived in comfort, enriched by the goods plundered from their victims. Such an enormous camp system could not be concealed, and indeed, Nazi authorities intended knowledge and fear of camps such as Auschwitz to serve as a threat to potential opponents of their rule.

They did make some efforts to conceal their genocide of the Jews, but that turned out to be impossible. The stink of burning bodies surrounded camps such as Treblinka, Sobibor, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. And all of the camps, including death camps, depended on workers from Germany and the surrounding areas—secretaries, tradesmen, railroad workers, as well as guards and administrators—so that many people witnessed what was taking place.

Dr. Doris Bergen is Associate Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame where she studies twentieth-century German and Central European history, the Holocaust, and European women's history. She is the author of War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust and Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich. Dr. Bergen serves on the Academic Advisory Board of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.