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auschwitz: inside the nazi state
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Killing EvolutionVictims & PerpetratorsGermany & the Camp System

Germany and the Camp System

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

Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, Hess

Nazi Hierarchy (from left): Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, Hess

Nazi ideology did not explicitly prescribe the system of camps that has become emblematic of Nazi terror, but the way the camps functioned reflected some key points in Nazi thinking. Central to Hitler's view of the world were the twin goals of expanding Germany's territory and purifying the so-called Aryan race. Camps of various kinds evolved over the twelve years of Nazi rule to further these goals. The development of the camps also reflected pragmatic considerations that changed over time. From surveying the camps, we can see how much power Hitler had to implement his plans, and when he and the rest of the Nazi leadership needed to pay attention to public opinion, both inside Germany and abroad.

The Early Targets

The first concentration camp in Germany opened in Dachau in 1933, at a time when the Nazi government was still consolidating its power. Accordingly, it focused on political prisoners—communists, social democrats, and dissidents who posed a threat to the new regime and were unpopular with most other Germans.

All of these early victims were easy targets, people whom other Germans did little or nothing to protect, and whose disappearance from the public scene they often welcomed.

Soon Nazi authorities and the police began to consign members of other groups to the new camps: homosexual men arrested as criminal offenders; Jehovah's Witnesses who refused to obey demands to cease their activities; women accused of prostitution; people labeled "asocial" because they were homeless, begged, or for some other reason did not fit into Nazi society.

In 1936, in preparation for the Olympic Games in Berlin, German police "cleaned up" the city, arresting people deemed inappropriate—prostitutes, street people, petty thieves—and forcing hundreds of Gypsies (Sinti and Roma) into makeshift camps. All of these early victims were easy targets, people whom other Germans did little or nothing to protect, and whose disappearance from the public scene they often welcomed.

Nazis Increase Power and Targeted Populations

Mass attacks on Nazi targets that included widely respected members of German society did not start until 1938, five years after Hitler was named chancellor. By then Nazis had firm control of all the instruments of state power—the police, courts, laws, civil service, military and press—so they could afford to be less cautious.

This was the first time Jews were sent to concentration camps for no other reason than that they were Jews.

In November 1938 during the Kristallnacht Pogrom (also called the "Night of Broken Glass"), Hitler Youth, stormtroopers, and other thugs torched hundreds of synagogues all over Germany and attacked German Jews, their homes, and their property. At the same time, police arrested approximately 30,000 Jewish men and locked them in concentration camps, where they were held in "protective custody." This was the first time Jews were sent to concentration camps for no other reason than that they were Jews.

The "Euthanasia" Program

During the following year, 1939, Nazi authorities began deadly attacks on one of their major targets: people considered handicapped. Rather than sending them to concentration camps where they would have to be housed and fed along with people who were being held and then sometimes released, disabled people were taken from hospitals and other institutions and sent to designated locations for "special treatment." That "special treatment" was killing. In just a few years, with the cooperation of scores of doctors, social workers, hospital administrators, and others, Nazi officials organized and carried out the murder of at least 70,000 Germans deemed "unfit for life." To the extent possible, the authorities tried to hide these killings from the rest of the population, so that family members would not protest.

German Annexations and Invasions Increase Control Over More People

As Germany annexed territories in 1938 and 1939 from Austria and Czechoslovakia, it built new camps and prisons in those areas. Once World War II began in 1939, German conquests led to construction of all kinds of camps in Poland. Camps in the Netherlands, France, and elsewhere in western and northwestern Europe followed in 1940, and beginning in 1941, in Greece, Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union. These included POW camps for captured enemy soldiers, labor camps for conquered people, brothels based on sexual slavery, ghettos for Jews, camps for Gypsies, and starting in late 1941, death camps equipped with the means to murder thousands of people—almost always Jews—each day.

Nazi ideology needed enemies, and its aggressive expansion provided an ever-growing supply.

By 1945, when Allied troops opened the camps, the types of prisoners they encountered form a catalogue of everyone the Nazis vilified. There were Jews from all over Europe, communists, and Polish intellectuals; partisans and resistance fighters from Yugoslavia, France, Ukraine, and elsewhere; Gypsies, gay men, Afro-Europeans, uncooperative Roman Catholic priests, and Protestant pastors; critics of the regime and people who had merely told jokes about Hitler; male and female forced laborers; conscientious objectors; Germans accused of sexual relations with so-called non-Aryans; Jehovah's Witnesses; Italian soldiers who had surrendered to the Allies; convicted criminals; and many others. As this list indicates, Nazi ideology needed enemies, and its aggressive expansion provided an ever-growing supply.

Divide and Rule

The day-to-day functioning of the camps exhibited another feature of Nazi ideology and practice—its tendency to divide and rule its opponents. Nazis specialized in pitting people against each other, as a way to ease the processes of subjugation and destruction. Within Germany, this approach meant picking on the least popular elements of the population first, so as to maximize public support, or at least indifference. In conquered territories, it meant turning ethnic groups or social classes against each other—like Serbs and Croats in Yugoslavia or Ukrainians, Poles, and Jews in Poland.

To enforce the hierarchy, guards chose some prisoners from higher-ranking groups to help them control the rest of the inmates.

Inside the camps, divide and rule meant using prisoners to tyrannize each other. To this end, guards in most camps marked prisoners of different categories with colored badges: red triangles for communists and other political prisoners, green triangles for common criminals, pink triangles for homosexual men, purple for Jehovah's Witnesses, black for Gypsies and asocials, and yellow for Jews.

Camp authorities then instituted a hierarchy among the inmates that mirrored the Nazi racial hierarchy of "Aryans" on top, Jews at the bottom, and others ordered in between. To enforce the hierarchy, guards chose some prisoners from higher-ranking groups to help them control the rest of the inmates. These kapos, block supervisors, and other privileged prisoners were often extremely brutal. Many understood that brutal behavior would prove their toughness to the guards and result in more privileges, goods, and power for themselves and their friends. This strategy worsened the horror of the camps and revealed the total destructiveness at the core of Nazi ideology and practice.

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.