Nazi German camps

Nazi German camps – sites of imprisonment, isolation, forced labour and mass extermination established by the Nazi German authorities in years 1933–45 in both the Third Reich and the occupied territories.

In years 1933–39, these camps served as tools for isolating opposition supporters and gradually depriving opposition movements of their strength; subsequently, in years 1939–45, these sites have been further developed and transformed into the principal instrument of the policy of terror, the exploitation of forced labourers and the implementation of the Nazi programme of genocide of the subjugated nations of Europe. The main component of the system of Nazi German camps had been the concentration camps, which until 1939 constituted the only type of Nazi German camps in existence; they were established at the initiative of Hermann Göringa and Heinrich Himmler following the rise of Adolf Hitler to power.

The formal basis for their existence were the regulations “on the protectionof the state and the nation” and “on the treason of the German nation and conspiracy to high treason” dated 28 II 1933, which introduced significant restriction on civic liberties that remained in force until the fall of the Third Reich and which allowed the authorities to detain indefinitely all those who were considered to be enemies of the state and the nation – a decision which was purely a political one and which was not subject to judicial review. From June 1934 onwards, the SS remained solely responsible for the supervision of concentration camps; the camps established during that period included the camps in Dachau, Oranienburg, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Mauthausen and Ravensbrück.

The total number of prisoners who had been imprisoned in concentration camps at some point in years 1933–39 is estimated at 165–170 thousand. After September 1939, the existing camps in Germany have been extended, with new ones being added as the territories occupied by the Third Reich grew (Stutthof, Auschwitz, Neuengamme, Natzweiler-Struthof, Gross-Rosen, Bergen-Belsen, Majdanek, ’s-Hertogenbosch, Dora-Mittelbau, Płaszów); in addition, branches of existing camps were being established as well. The establishment of numerous Nazi German camps in the occupied territories of Europe east of the Third Reich itself (including mostly the territory of Poland) was intended to serve the Nazi German plans for the extermination of the elites in occupied countries as well as for the subsequent extermination of Jewish and Slavic population and the colonisation of these territories by the Germans (the Master Plan East – Generalplan Ost). When choosing the sites for concentration camps, factors such as location (which had to be convenient in terms of transportation as well as conducive to the subsequent concealment of the traces of the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis), proximity to population centres scheduled for extermination, proximity of manufacturing plants, mining facilities (Silesia) or quarries (use of forced labour) as well as unfavourable atmospheric conditions which would quicken the death of those imprisoned (marshy, rheumy areas such as Auschwitz-Birkenau or Dachau) were taken into account.

In 1941, the construction of gas chambers intended for the mass extermination of prisoners has begun. Concentration camps were a tool of both the extermination of prisoners and the inhuman exploitation of those prisoners by the German economy, including, in particular, large corporations. The causes of death common among those imprisoned included extreme living conditions, hunger, torture and executions. Prisoners were being killed by phenol or petroleum injections or using a gas called Zyklon B in gas chambers. The dead bodies were incinerated on piles, in crematoriums or buried in pits filled with quicklime; from early 1942 onwards, the SS physicians conducted heinous experiments on a mass scale, infecting the prisoners with malaria, typhoid, tuberculosis and phlegmon; other pseudo-scientific practices, resulting in death or permanent disability, included freezing, muscle and bone transplants, mass castration and sterilisation.

From January 1945 onwards, the evacuation of prisoners (the so-called death marches) was being conducted, with a few dozen thousand people dying from the cold and exhaustion as well as from the bullets of Nazi executioners. The SS, in the course of implementation of the decision of the supreme authorities of the Third Reich concerning the genocide of Jews, established numerous death camps within the territory of Poland, where the Jewish population was the most numerous. Those deported to these camps were being immediately executed in gas chambers without any records of those killed being made. Death camps were established in Auschwitz-Birkenau, near Chełmno (Culmhof) on Ner (here the prisoners were killed using engine fumes in purpose-built “gas vans”) as well as in Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka, the latter camps being controlled by the Aktion Reinhard staff. The Nazis have also created an extensive system of forced labour camps (including penal labour camps, re-educational labour camps as well as camps for labourers from Eastern Europe); these operated under the command of the local SS and police commanders as well as the Gestapo, the Kripo, various German corporations, the Organisation Todt or the civilian administration (these included the camps established in Poland in Rawicz, Mysłowice, Starachowice, Częstochowa, Wieliczka, Cracow, Lubicz and Sulejów); the living conditions of prisoners were not much different to those in concentration camps. The companies which took advantage of slave labour included I.G. Farben, Siemens, Röchling, Flick, Krupp, Mannesmann, Hoesch, Hawiel, AEG, Hermann Göring.

Forcible displacement and transit camps were designed for displaced civilians as well as for those being taken away to the Reich to perform forced labour.  Camps of this type which existed in Poland were being established from 1939 in Poznań, Potulice, Łódź, Działdowo and Inowrocław; there were also designated camps for Polish prisoners known as the Polenlager which existed in Silesia as well as in Zamość and Zwierzyniec (the latter in years 1942–44); these camps were used for the detention of Poles relocated from Greater Poland, Silesia, the area of Łódź, from Pomerania and southern Mazovia as well as from the area around Zamość.

The living conditions in the ghettos established for the Jewish population of both Southern and Central and Eastern Europe were similar to those in Nazi German camps (ghettos). Other institutions which served the purpose of mass extermination were the police prisons established by the Gestapo (which included the Fort VII in Poznań, the Pawiak prison in Warsaw, the Fort VII in Toruń, the Castle in Lublin, the Rotunda in Zamość, the Palace in Zakopane, the Radogoszcz prison, the Montelupich prison in Cracow and others). There was also another, special type of prison camps – the camps for children and youth (including the camps within the territory of Poland – in Łódź and Potulice), which were similar in nature to ordinary concentration camps; in addition, underage prisoners were also present in nearly all Nazi German camps. Special Germanisation camps were being set up for those children whose racial characteristics were considered to make them fit for the purpose; such children were then allocated to German parents in the Third Reich (the kidnapping of children by Nazi Germany). Prison camps functioning under the command of the Wehrmacht (the oflag, the stalag and the dulag) were formally different to other Nazi German camps, although many of them have subsequently been converted into extermination camps in contravention of international law.

To give an example, the living conditions at the camps for Soviet prisoners as well as in the penal and special units for prisoners of other nationalities (Dęblin, Hohenstein, Łambinowice, Rawa Ruska, Szebnie, Żagań) were in no way different from those in concentration camps. Units for Soviet prisoners were also set up in concentration camps (Auschwitz, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald). Polish prisoners were being held in nearly all of the existing Nazi German camps; many of them were treated as political prisoners and were therefore subjected to particularly acute forms of terror and extermination. On 15 II 1940, in his speech to the concentration camp commanders, Himmler stated that “the Polish leaders must be identified, sought out and neutralised; Poles must be exterminated quickly, over a number of successive stages – the German nation should consider the extermination of all Poles to be its primary objective”; this programme of planned genocide of the Polish nation is confirmed by numerous Nazi documents examined in the course of the proceedings of the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg (1946) as well as of the Supreme Tribunal in Poland (1946–48); over 2 thousand activists of the Union of Poles in Germany as well as other Polish diaspora members, students and teachers in the Third Reich were imprisoned and sent to the Nazi German camps as early as August and early September 1939, with the systematic programme of detention of Polish citizens commencing in September 1939. Poles formed the first group of prisoners that were sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp near Oświęcim, which has, with the passage of time, become one of the primary sites of Nazi war crimes in Europe.

Depending on the type of the Nazi German camp involved, those scheduled for imprisonment were sent to the camps pursuant to decisions of the security police, military authorities, civilian administration and the prosecution service. The inhuman living conditions resulted in the death of a large number of prisoners; those who survived were forced to endure lasting physical and mental health problems which were attributable to their stay at the camps. An organised resistance movement existed in many Nazi German camps, taking on various forms: prisoner mutinies (e.g. Birkenau, Sobibór, Treblinka), organisational and political activities, preparation for an armed uprising (Auschwitz, Majdanek, Buchenwald, Mauthausen), provision of aid, especially to the sick and the ailing (medicines, clothing, food), numerous escape attempts, establishing contact and cooperation with the resistance movement outside the camps (which happened mostly in Poland), provision of information on political events and military developments as well as the provision of information on the crimes perpetrated at the camps to the outside world. The activities mentioned above were conducted by prisoners of various nationalities and political affiliations, joining their forces in pursuit of a single goal.

In total, the Germans established about 12 thousand camps, sub-camps, forced labour facilities etc. in the Third Reich and in 17 occupied countries. About 18 million prisoners and POWs from many countries in the world had at some point been held in those camps, with approximately 11 million losing their lives. Among the 8.9 million of concentration camp prisoners at least 7.2 million (81%) lost their lives. The sheer scale of terror and genocide in occupied Poland is evidenced by the fact that nearly 6 thousand such camps were established in the Polish territory, with approximately 7.5 million prisoners being held there. 6.7 million of those prisoners, most of them Jews and Poles, lost their lives, with approximately 3.5 million of the 5 million Poles held at the camps dying or being killed in captivity. The exact number of victims of Nazi German camps is impossible to determine due to the fact that the Nazis were able to erase the traces of their crimes to a considerable extent. The authorities of the Third Reich, Nazi war criminals and criminal Nazi organisations have been held accountable for the genocide perpetrated at the camps; these included the NSDAP, the Gestapo, the SS, the SA and the SD and other police formations as well as the Wehrmacht, German industrial corporations, judicial authorities, propaganda institutions and science and research centres.

The Nazi German camps have subsequently become the subject of ethical, political, legal and scientific reflection and research. The subject of Nazi German camps has been examined on a great number of occasions in literature and art. Numerous memoirs and reports of former prisoners haver also been published. See also: Holocaust, Jews (extermination).



  • A.J. Kamiński, Hitlerowskie obozy koncentracyjne i ośrodki masowej zagłady w polityce imperializmu niemieckiego [The Nazi German Concentration Camps and Centres of Mass Extermination as Tools of the German Imperial Policy], Poznań 1964;
  • Obozy hitlerowskie na ziemiach polskich 1939–1945 [Nazi German Camps in Polish Territory in Years 1939–1945] , Warsaw 1979;
  • W. Kiedrzyńska, Międzynarodowa bibliografia hitlerowskich obozów koncentracyjnych [International Bibliography of Nazi German Death Camps], „Biuletyn Głównej Komisji Badania Zbrodni Hitlerowskich w Polsce”, vol. 30, Warsaw 1981;
  • K. Dunin-Wąsowicz, Ruch oporu w hitlerowskich obozach koncentracyjnych [Resistance Movement in Nazi German Concentration Camps], Warsaw 1983;
  • A.J. Kamiński, Koszmar niewolnictwa. Obozy koncentracyjne od 1896 do dziś [The Nightmare of Slavery. Concentration Camps from 1896 Until Today], Warsaw 1990;
  • A. Pawełczyńska, Wartość a przemoc: zarys socjologicznej problematyki Oświęcimia [Values and Violence: An Outline of the Sociological Issues Related to the Death Camp in Oświęcim], Warsaw 1995.

The content of this entry has been prepared on the basis of the source materials provided by the Polish Scientific Publishers (PWN)

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