Wednesday, January 8, 2020

How Were German Prison Camps Set Up?

The Reich Was Full of Prisoner Camps

Germans rounding up Jewish men in Amsterdam during World War II
February 22, 1941, the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam. Jews are arrested and herded on the Jonas Daniel Meijer Square. Because the local citizens had fought efforts to detain Jews in this area, the Germans were angry and shipped them to Mauthausen.
How were German prison camps set up during World War II? The word "camps" is thrown about quite a bit in reference to Germany during World War II. The Germans segregated prisoners into many different camps and segregated the prisoners further within those camps. The most basic division was between Prisoner of War (POW) camps and concentration camps, which were two vastly difficult things because all they had in common was being prisons. However, since many people get them confused, let's look at how both were structured. We'll do POW camps first.

Colditz Castle during World War II
The Colditz Castle POW camp during World War II.

POW Camps

Prisoner of War Camps were not concentration camps. The two have very, very little in common. They were both prisons that kept people from escaping, but there the similarities end. Prisoners of war held military prisoners who were treated relatively well and who received care packages through the International Red Cross ("IRC"). The Germans had an interest in making a good show of things for the IRC because there were a lot of Germans in POW camps in the Allied nations who essentially were hostages.

German prison camp Stammlager IVB,
The entrance to Mannschafts-Stammlager IVB  in Mulhberg, Germany, one of the largest POW camps.
German POW camps were divided into categories. Typically, captured prisoners of war first passed through a Dulag, short for the German Durchgangslager or transit camp (this applied to both POWs and concentration camp inmates). From there, they were taken to Stalags (short for Stammlager and intended for non-commissioned troops), or Oflags, short for the German Offizier Lager or officer camps. There also were Stammlager Luftwaffe, run by the Luftwaffe and initially intended to house airforce prisoners, and Marlags, short for the German Marinelager or naval camps. A Stalag Luft would have been a POW camp for enlisted men run by the Luftwaffe. Prisoners who tried to escape from any of these camps or caused too much trouble were sent to Colditz Castle, Oflag IV-C, a camp for "incorrigible" Allied officers. Colditz was converted from a transit camp on 1 November 1940 and originally intended to house Polish POWs). So, you can see right off the bat that there were different camps for different types of prisoners. In practice, there were officers in the Stalags and sometimes enlisted men in the Oflags, especially as the war progressed and the numbers accumulated.

Soviet prisoners during World War II
Austria.- Mauthausen concentration camp, new arrival of Soviet prisoners of war in Mauthausen concentration camp, October 1941 (Federal Archive Picture 192-360).
At least at first, prisoners were put in camps containing their own countrymen, or at least in sections of large camps devoted to inmates of their same background. So, as noted above, some camps or sections of camps were intended for Russians, Poles, Gypsies, etc. This probably made communications easier. Some prisons changed their character over time and retained vestiges of their former character. For instance, while Colditz at first was intended for Polish prisoners of war, that changed to make it the repository for escape artists from the other camps. However, the Poles who were sent there first remained there even after Colditz became the repository for troublemakers from all the other camps. The Poles were kept in a different part of the prison (on a separate floor) throughout the war. However, since Colditz soon was loaded with the most expert lockpickers from the entire prison system, after lights out the POWs would leave their cells, mingle, and teach each other escape skills.

Soviet prisoners during World War II
Russian POWs at Stalag XVIIIA near Wolfsberg in Austria (Russian POWs, Second World War, (New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 29-Aug-2014).
Probably the most noticeable segregation within the POW camps was between Russian prisoners and everyone else. The Germans viewed the Russians as subhumans and kept them segregated from the Western POWs. Since the Germans did not feel they had any Geneva Convention obligations to the Russians, they were treated horribly. US POWs who talk about the Russian POWs write about smelly, dirty masses of men who were given no creature comforts whatsoever, left to live outside or in filthy unheated barracks, and the like. Many Russian POWs perished from exposure out in the open in barbed-wire enclosures.

Map of German concentration camps of World War II
This map shows the enormous geographical spread of German concentration camps. There were camps in the Channel Islands to Odessa, from Italy to Norway.

Concentration Camps

German concentration camps did not hold military prisoners. Instead, they held only civilians who were arrested and imprisoned for a variety of reasons. The Germans began building concentration camps as soon as Hitler took power. The first camps went into operation in March 1933. At first, they were used for very marginal people in Hitler's society such as political opponents, homosexuals, communists, socialists, Social Democrats, Roma, and Jehovah's Witnesses. Basically, they were a private prison system for Hitler and his top cronies. The categories of people incarcerated in the camps expanded throughout the 1930s. By the early years of World War II, the concentration camps were being used for basically anyone the top leaders of the Third Reich did not like.

Theresienstadt  prison camp of World War II
The nice, orderly barracks at Theresienstadt (originally Terezin).
The Germans were very wary of allowing the outside world to learn what the concentration camps were really like. They invited the International Red Cross to visit and inspect one camp, Theresienstadt, to put all those "silly rumors" about concentration camps to rest. Theresienstadt (formerly Terezin) became known as the "model camp," with an outward appearance of a Summer Camp. The IRC went away satisfied that concentration camp inmates were being treated properly.

German Red Cross worker during World War II
A German Red Cross worker tends to a Polish inmate in a concentration camp. This image is sometimes used to show how the Red Cross helped inmates during World War II. However, this photograph was taken on 11 April 1945, after the camp was liberated. Before that, the Red Cross had no access (Herbert Budowle, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Source Record ID: 111-SC-203538 (Album 3208)).
However, there was a major flaw in the IRC's involvement. While its members did "inspect" the model camp, the IRC actually only had the authority to help prisoners of war. The concentration camps were an internal German matter outside of the IRC's international portfolio. The German national Red Cross, on the other hand, had responsibility only for civilian internees. As for the people thrown into concentration camps because they were Jewish or Poles or whatever the reason was, neither the IRC nor the national Red Cross had any responsibility for them whatsoever. They were completely on their own. Thus, the worst concentration camps were never visited by any outside relief agency.

Dachau camp at Kaufering during World War II
Kaufering was composed of eleven subcamps of the Dachau concentration camp located around the town of Landsberg am Lech in Bavaria. It was built to house slave labor for the construction of massive underground bunkers that would be impervious to Allied air attack. It was built after the original "categories" of camps had basically disappeared.
As with many things within the Third Reich, the organization of the concentration camp system came about somewhat haphazardly. In fact, it was virtually a personal project of just one man. Reinhard Heydrich, the Head of the Security Police and the SD, issued a letter (styled as a "decree" because it was directed at his underlings) on 2 January 1941. It was intended only for internal distribution to the Security Police. It stated that Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler had approved new divisions within the concentration camp system. The new categories were:
  • Category I: prisoners "definitely capable of being reformed," to be held at Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Auschwitz I;
  • Category Ia: "old prisoners" to be held at Dachau;
  • Category II: prisoners facing "strong accusations" but still capable of reform, to be held at Buchenwald, Flossenburg, and Auschwitz II;
  • Category III: "asocial" prisoners with criminal convictions and "virtually incapable of correction," to be held at Mauthausen.
While these classifications are quite vague, they do provide some hints for the future. The Category III camp, Mauthausen, would become renowned for its brutality and savagery as prisoners were worked to death and invariably do not survive their mistreatment. The other camps eventually became outright extermination camps, without so much of the "work" or "punishment" aspect of Mauthausen.

Rounding up Poles for slave labor during World War II
Germans rounding up random people off the streets of Warsaw in Autumn 1941 for transport to German concentration camps as slave labor.
Inmates were accorded a certain classification upon forwarding to the system. However, as the war progressed, assignment to any of the camps usually became a death sentence. Heydrich's categorizations relied on his personal authority and quickly became meaningless, a process probably accelerated by his assassination in mid-1942. Even in his original decree, Heydrich did not require that recommendations for Category III prisoners be "justified" based upon previous convictions or anything else. Everything was arbitrary and based upon decisions made on the spot. Whoever was making the decision could just send an inmate to Mauthausen with no questions asked. Heydrich also mentioned in his decree that the goal was to "reform" inmates to return them to society, but few inmates were ever "reformed" sufficiently to exit the system altogether. In other words, Heydrich's system of categories quickly dissolved into chaos with the goal of either extermination or permanent imprisonment for purposes of producing slave labor. In fact, many people were sent to the camps in the first place simply because they were randomly rounded up in the manner of press gangs used to crew naval ships in the 18th Century.

Inspecting Female camp guards during World War II
An inspection of the female camp guards at Ravensbrück.
One of these exceptions was how women were treated. There was a separate camp for females (Ravensbrück) which featured primarily female camp guards. Just because it was a female-run camp doesn’t mean it was genteel, some of the most brutal guards of the system were females who worked there (such as Jenny-Wanda Barkmann). There also were different types of camps for different classes of inmates arranged in tiers.

The stairs of death at Mauthausen during World War II
The Mauthausen Stairway of Death. Prisoners were forced to carry large stones up the stairs over and over. If they faltered, they were executed. Few survived.
Mauthausen was the only Tier 3 camp and was somewhat analogous to Colditz for POWs. It was the place where the most “incorrigible” inmates and political enemies were sent. In other words, if they really didn’t like you but felt you were fit enough so they could get work out of you, you were destined for Mauthausen where they would work you to death. Since it turned out that the Germans didn't like a whole lot of people, Mauthausen mushroomed in size and acquired various annexes and satellite sites. There were female inmates at most camps as well as men, but they were kept separate. The women and young/old males were not considered as valuable to the Germans as workers, so they often were disposed of quicker than the men. Thus, the camps skewed heavily male.

A German gas van during World War II
A German "gas van," one of the early means of eliminating inmates. Victims were put in the back of the van, then the vehicle's exhaust was routed to suffocate them. The van then drove to a crematorium. This was adapted from similar methods used by the Soviet secret police NKVD in the late 1930s during the Great Purge.
The Germans were big on racial segregation, of course. Often, that was put into practice by simply exterminating the races they didn’t like (Jews, Gypsies, and so forth). This was done in a variety of ways that changed throughout the wars to accommodate the increasing numbers of "undesirables" that were being handled. At first, the victims were shot, but this was found to be bad for morale (there were some awkward cases of members of the firing squads refusing to do their job and being put among the prisoners to be shot). Later, the victims were put in trucks with the truck exhaust fed inside. This, however, was inefficient. Finally, the camps were equipped with gas chambers disguised as showers. It became difficult to bury the corpses, so ovens were built to incinerate them. This led to huge piles of ashes that remained in the camps after the war.

Germans rounding up Gypsies during World War II
Gypsies (Sinti and Roma people) being rounded up for deportation. This photograph was taken in the German town of Asperg, 22 May 1940. A special camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau was built for the Gypsies. Other Gypsies were sent to Treblinka and other camps. Often, however, Gypsies were just rounded up and shot without being sent to camps.
In general, both POW and concentration camps had distinctive ethnic characters depending on their locations: Poles, German Jewish people, French, Romanians, Russian Jews, etc. So, a camp in, say, Lithuania would hold Lithuanian inmates, there was no need to “segregate” as the segregation flowed naturally from the location of the camp. Prisoners were divided up along lines such as rank and country of service. A black U.S. Army POW would have been treated just like other POWs from the same country.

Ovens at Mauthausen during World War II
Ovens at Mauthausen.


Regarding German camps, the vital distinctions were between POW camps and concentration camps. Because the POW camps were open to international inspection, they were well-maintained and the prisoners were treated relatively well. The concentration camps, however, were not open to inspection by anyone.

Justice meted out to female camp guards during World War II
We can't leave this topic without showing what happened to sadistic German prison guards. Here, justice is meted out to female camp guards such as Jenny-Wanda Barkmann (nearest).
The concentration quickly degenerated into a chaotic system of barbarism with little uniformity, few rules, and no scruples. The only thing giving them structure was Heydrich's personal authority, and they lost all rules after his death in July 1942. Concentration camps were built throughout the Greater Reich and acquired distinct individual reputations based on their personnel, but those reputations invariably were evil. Once they became extermination camps, few survived to describe the true horrors that they became.

Female prisoners at Mauthausen during World War II
Female prisoners at Mauthausen.


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