Concentration Camps – The Early Years

“Concentration Camp” – I immediately think – Auschwitz.   Then I think– Dachau, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen.  Since I was a child these names were drummed into my head as epicenters of evil.

Names like Sonnenburg, Brandenburg, Lichtenburg, Emsland, Esterwegen, Columbia House, and Sachsenburg were unknown to me.  These – all concentration camps in Germany and Prussia – were built between 1933 and 1935.  They were not built for genocide or even for Jews.  In fact, the Jewish prisoner population of these early camps was a mere 5%.   Himmler explained the national imperative – to imprison “all left wing opponents” of the Nazi regime, who “threaten the security of the state.”

Name recognition goes up after 1937 with Buchenwald (1937), Mauthausen (1938), Ravensbruck (1939), Auschwitz (1940) and Majdanek (1940).

And the numbers.  When I think of concentration camps, I think of huge numbers of prisoners.   Well, at the end of 1938, the “big” camps were Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald and Dachau, each holding 8,000 prisoners (above picture is of Sachsenhausen).   Flossenburg had a mere 1,475 and Mauthausen only 994.  Flossenburg and Mauthausen housed the “worst” criminals.  These camps were built near quarries to best exploit the prisoners’ labor.   The quarries required the hardest labor of any of the concentration camps.  Nazis believed that the “worst” criminals should have the hardest labor.

The Jewish population of Dachau jumped after Kristallnacht (Nov. 9-11, 1938).  Kristallnacht – the “night of the broken glass” — was a pogrom instigated by Goebbels that shattered synagogues’ glass windows, as well as the thin veneer of normalcy in the lives of German Jews.  During those three days, 91 Jews were killed, 7000 Jewish businesses were destroyed, hundreds of synagogues were burned, and thousands of Jews were arrested and imprisoned at Dachau.  So many Jews were brought to Dachau that they became known as the “November Jews” and a makeshift tent, haphazardly built, became their barracks.  By the end of 1938, Dachau’s prisoner population jumped to 11,000.   These November Jews were freed more quickly than other prisoners IF they promised to leave Germany.

The invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 brought the arrest of thousands of Poles and an accompanying demand for more concentration camps.   By end of the summer of 1941 new camps sprang up.  These included more unfamiliar names such as, Neuengamme, Gross-Rosen, Natzweiler, and Niederhagen.   Terror and death in these camp was only the side show.  Center stage was the forced labor used to build up the German army machine.   After all, Germany was at war!

Finally, back to the familiar – Auschwitz.  After 7 years of experience and much practice at terror and death, Auschwitz was established as a huge labor camp.  It became operational on June 19, 1940.  Like farm mules, Poles, Jews and POWs were harnessed for their labor in the name of the Third Reich and the superiority of the Aryan race.

With this extensive infrastructure in place, the Germans were ready for their next big move – the invasion of the Soviet Union.  Stay tuned for the next episode of the “The Evolution of the Concentration Camp.”


  • Wachsmann, Nikolaus.  kl: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps. New York. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  2015.
  • Snyder, Timothy.  Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. New York, NY. Basic Books. 2010.

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