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Concentration Camps and Satellite Camps

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Jewish prisoners queuing up in front of barracks at the concentration camp Salaspils in Latvia, Russia

Source: Federal Archives, Bild 101III-Duerr-056-12A; Photograph: Dürr

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The concentration camp system in Europe involved a total of 24 main camps and more than 1,000 satellite camps in the period between 1936 and 1945. In concentration camps of the early days in particular, but also in those camps that had been erected resp. taken over in the occupied territories borderlines were becoming blurred. This is in line with the contemporary perspective: Various places or detention and terror between 1933 and 1945 were perceived as concentration camps but officially they were not. The "early" concentration camps in 1933 and 1934 differ in their functional operation significantly from "late" concentration camps as from 1936 as well as the concentration and extermination camps that were only erected during the war like Auschwitz-Birkenau. The "early" concentration camps were primarily used by National Socialists for combatting their political enemies following the seizure of power. Since March 1933 more than 70 concentration camps had been set up in a very short time. There were also protective detention departments in justice and police prisons. Some of these early camps like Oranienburg near Berlin only existed a few weeks or months. They were places of terror against political enemies, mainly Communists and Social Democrats, who were arbitrarily sent to concentration camps by detention order. Those held prisoner there experienced the concentration camps as a situation of entire deprivation of rights and complete arbitrariness. They were defenceless against the violent sadism of guards and had to carry out pointless work, which was solely directed at humiliating people. Poor hygienic conditions belonged to everyday life the same as malnutrition. The prisoners’ clothes, the permitted hair length as well as accommodation in mass facilities were aimed at the National Socialist intention of dashing their spirit. The early concentration camps did not show a uniform structure. They were different with respect to the administrative structure and in terms of guarding. The Concentration Camp commander Theodor Eicke introduced a camp regulation in the concentration camp Dachau in October 1933, which was introduced with only minor changes in all other camps that were existing at that time which lasted throughout the war. This led to a first systematisation of camps. From May 1934 the smaller concentration camps were gradually closed and a number of bigger concentration camps (KL) according to the "Dachau Model" was established. These were subject to the "Inspection of Concentration Camps" (IKL).

The concentration camp Sachsenhausen near Berlin served as a "model camp" as of summer 1936 – a permanently established new type of camp. Based on that, new bigger concentration camps were set up like the concentration camp Buchenwald, the concentration camp Flossenbürg and the women’s concentration camp Ravensbrück. These camps had a uniform organisational structure consisting of the Command, a political section, protective detention camp, administration, camp or site physician as well as the guards. These were under the control of the SS. The political police was responsible for confinements. The IKL determined the conditions in the individual camp. In addition to political enemies, an increasing number of other population groups were taken prisoner in the concentration camps, who did not comply with the National Socialist ideal of the so-called "Volksgemeinschaft" (National Socialist’s idea of a racial community). This happened mainly from the second half of the 1930s. These included - amongst others -religious communities like Jehovah’s Witnesses but also homosexuals, Jews and other minorities persecuted for racial reasons like Sinti and Roma; the latter were usually categorised in the category of the so-called social misfits in addition to various other groups of people. People deemed "professional criminals" were taken prisoner relatively early. They were sometimes transferred from justice to camp management.

When the war began, the camp system started expanding. Until 1942 another 6 concentration camps were established, most of which were located in the border regions of the German Reich. From this point in time, any releases from the concentration camps were no longer scheduled. At the same time the mixture of prisoners changed: In addition to the increased persecution and imprisonment of actual and alleged political enemies of the NS regime, there were large numbers of prisoners from the occupied territories, amongst them Soviet POWs as well as prisoners from cloak-and-dagger operations, who were deported to the concentration camps from the occupied territories without notice as to their personal tragedy and which was supposed to be a determent for the population from 1941. This affected some 7,000 who were suspected to have been involved in any resistance activities from France, Belgium and the Netherlands. They were kidnapped and condemned. With the beginning of the war prison conditions were getting worse: ill-treatment, hunger, lacking medical care and massive exploitation up to complete extermination through forced labour as well as arbitrary and systematic murder of prisoners were a common occurrence.

All concentrations camps had satellite camps resp. external commands. The satellite camps, which were of different size and duration, were subject to the management and power of control of the respective main camp. Prisoners, who had to do forced labour in the external commands usually returned back to the main camp at the end of their workday. While the main camps were fortified and had a complexe supervision structure, this varied with the satellite camps. They were only partly fenced in by barbed wire or the prisoners were accommodated in buildings that were close to their workplaces. Mobile external commands were escorted and supervised by SS guard forces.

Through the growing use of prisoners in the settlement and construction projects of the SS and the defence industry the IKL was subjected to the "SS – Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt" run by Oswald Pohl. As of 1942 the concentration camps served on the one hand primarily as places of exploitation for forced labour on the other hand they became places of mass murder like the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau erected in 1940 and the concentration camp Majdanek in the "General Government".

After the murder of European Jews had been agreed in summer 1941, the concentration camp erected in Auschwitz in May 1940 – near Krakau – was selected to be the central place of mass extermination. Auschwitz, the biggest extermination camp, was as of summer 1942 the main destination of deportation trains from the occupied European countries. Auschwitz and Majdanek from time to time had a dual function of concentration camp and extermination camp. Those deported in trains to Auschwitz were screened at the ramp and separated according to employability or inability. Old people, sick people, mothers with young children were removed immediately and taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau to be gassed with Zyklon B. Those who were able to work were taken to different subcamps for forced labour. Auschwitz-Monowitz with the Buna factory was the best known of them. Pure extermination camps were in contrast Chelmno close to Lodz, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, which had been established in spring/summer of 1942 in the so-called General Government. In Treblinka alone approximately 900,000 Jews were murdered. Non-Jewish prisoners like Sinti and Roma and POWs were also killed in these death camps. These camps were closed during 1943, all evidence was destroyed and levelled.

As of 1943 the number of external commands resp. satellite camps was growing considerably. Further places of terror in Eastern and Southern Europe - ghettos, Gestapo prisons and forced labour camps for Jews – were declared as concentration camps resp. satellite camps, which were however of a different structure and were rather serving as collective and transition camps. As of 1944 the National Socialists began relocating war-relevant production facilities which had not yet been the target of bombing raids. In this context, further self-contained major concentration camps were established like for example the former Buchenwald satellite camp Dora-Mittelbau. In the last year of the war the number of prisoners held at satellite camps exceeded that of the main camps.

When they started clearing the concentration camps with the approaching Red Army there were still 15 main camps as of summer 1944. Between one third and almost half of the more than 700,000 concentration camp prisoners who had still been held prisoner in January 1945 were killed in the last months of the war. Due to the living conditions in the camps which had deteriorated dramatically, many of the inmates died of malnutrition, disease and cachexia following extermination through labour. Another part of prisoners was finally shot in mass shootings by the guards at the camps or during death marches in the last months and days of the war.

Selected Literature:

Benz, Wolfgang & Barbara Distel (Hg.). Der Ort des Terrors. Geschichte der nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager. Bd. 1-9. Munich 2005-2009.

Herbert, Ulrich; Orth, Karin & Dieckmann, Christoph (Hg.). Die nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager. Entwicklung und Struktur. Frankfurt am Main 2002.

Kogon, Eugen. Der SS-Staat. Das System der deutschen Konzentrationslager. Munich 2004.

Orth, Karin. Das System der nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager. Eine politische Organisationsgeschichte. Hamburg 1999.

Tuchel, Johannes. Konzentrationslager. Organisationsgeschichte und Funktion der „Inspektion der Konzentrationslager" 1934-1938. Boppard am Rhein 1991.

Tuchel, Johannes. Die Inspektion der Konzentrationslager 1938 – 1945. Berlin 1994.