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Berga: Soldiers of Another War
Stories of Berga What Would You Do? Timeline & Maps Berga and Beyond War Crimes
Intro Prisoners of War Civillian Prisoners
Civilian Prisoners
Intro The Civilian Camp System Extermination Camps Labor Camps Transit Camps The Berga Camp

The Civilian Camp System
Man on barbed wire

The victim of an unidentified concentration camp in Yugoslavia.
Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi concentration camps, embodies the complexity of the Nazi camp system as a whole. Not a camp per se, Auschwitz was actually a series of camps: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II (Birkenau), and Auschwitz III (Monowitz). Auschwitz I was a detention center, originally for German criminal prisoners and Polish political prisoners. Auschwitz II was divided into nine sections and held the largest total prisoner population. This was the location of the first experiments with Zyklon B poison gas, where the Nazis built four large crematorium buildings, each enclosing a disrobing area, a gas chamber capable of holding 2,000 people at a time, and crematorium ovens. Prisoners in Auschwitz III were forced to work for Buna synthetic rubber works.

In addition to these camps, Auschwitz encompassed various subcamps (associated with Auschwitz III) in which inmates worked in coal mines, stone quarries, fisheries, on farms, and for the armaments industry. Jews were shipped to Auschwitz from every country in Europe occupied by or allied with Germany. Trains arrived on a daily basis from transit camps -- such as Westerbork in the Netherlands, Mechelen in Belgium, and Drancy in France -- where Jews were temporarily detained. Most of the prisoners arriving on these trains were immediately executed.

Shortly after the Nazis came to power in 1933, they began establishing a system of concentration camps for "enemies of the state."

Shortly after the Nazis came to power in 1933, as prisons were already overcrowded with political and ideological opponents of the regime, the Nazis began establishing a system of concentration camps for "enemies of the state." The first concentration camp, Dachau, opened in June of 1933 as a work camp. The first concentration camp prisoners were mainly Communists, Social Democrats, socialists, trade unionists, and other political opponents of the Nazis. Soon, the camps would include Roma (Gypsies), Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, and others whose behavior was considered "asocial" or socially deviant (repeat criminals, prostitutes, etc.).

In the fall of 1937, the Nazis began seizing Jewish property. They began arresting German and Austrian Jews and imprisoning them in the camps at Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen (all located in Germany) after the German annexation of Austria in March of 1938. More Jews were sent to concentration camps after Kristallnacht, a violent anti-Jewish pogrom that took place throughout Germany and German-occupied Europe on November 9 and 10, 1938. The first ghetto was established in Piotrkow, Poland in the fall of 1939, shortly after the Nazi invasion of Poland. Soon thereafter, the Reich began deporting Jews from Austria and the "Protectorates" (Germany's imperial holdings) and implementing forced labor for Jews in the Generalgouvernement (occupied Poland).

At this point, the Nazis had, in fact, been forcing Jews to perform manual labor for some time; as of 1938, most Jewish males in Germany had been put to work for the Third Reich. By August of 1942 there were nearly 100 factories within the ghetto at Lodz. Starting in the spring of 1940, large forced labor camps for Jews were constructed in occupied Poland. A total of 437 such camps were eventually built. The largest such camp was Belzec (later an extermination camp), where thousands of Jews constructed fortifications and anti-tank ditches along the new German-Soviet border in occupied Poland.

The Jews weren't the only people exploited to fuel the Nazi industrial effort. Between 1939 and 1945, at least 1.5 million Poles were put to labor. Millions of Soviet citizens, including roughly 3 million Soviet P.O.W.s, were forcibly removed from their country and sent to work for the Nazis. The conditions under which these prisoners worked were quite simply intolerable. Their living conditions were meager and unsanitary; their rations insufficient. The camps were effectively designed to work their inmates to death.

After SD (Security Service) chief Reinhard Heydrich revealed the plan for the Nazis' Final Solution at the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942, concentration camp labor was integrated into private businesses. Dachau, for instance, established more than 30 satellites near armaments factories in southern Germany, employing 30,000 prisoners in the production of armaments. The Final Solution, of course, held even darker implications. Between January and September of 1942, 70,000 Jews and 5,000 Roma were deported from the Lodz ghetto and sent to the Chelmno extermination camp.

Chelmno was the first camp to employ poisonous gas as a means of mass execution. Overall, there were six extermination camps created in occupied Poland for the execution of Jews. Again, Nazi persecution was not necessarily limited to Jews -- 200 Poles and 650 Soviet prisoners of war were executed in the first gassing experiments at Auschwitz, where 70,000-75,000 Poles, 21,000 Roma, and 15,000 Soviet P.O.W.s were murdered in addition to some 1.1 million Jews.

-- John Uhl


Pile of clothes

A pile of clothing that had been removed from prisoners before their execution.

© 2003 Educational Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.

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