A harrowing, thorough study of the Nazi camps that gathers a staggering amount of useful and necessary information on the collective catastrophe.
In a tightly organized, systematic narrative, Wachsmann (Modern European History/Birkbeck Coll., Univ. of London; Hitler’s Prisons: Legal Terror in Nazi Germany, 2004, etc.) presents an “integrated” treatment of the Konzentrationslager of the title that moves beyond any attempt to endow the camps with universal meaning. He looks at forces both inside and outside the camps, from Hitler’s ascension in early 1933 to the liberation by the Allies in the spring of 1945. The author tries to move away from looking at the camps as occupying “some metaphysical realm” and stick to primary sources that reveal the voices of the prisoners and the perpetrators. To deal with the mass arrest of Hitler’s enemies in the spring and summer of 1933, the earliest camps morphed from existing workhouses and state prisons located all over Germany (Wachsmann provides maps of the camps as they evolved over the years), housing mostly political prisoners and communists, with Jews constituting only a small percentage, to a template fixed at Dachau, which SS leader and Munich police president Heinrich Himmler established as the “first concentration camp.” Schooled in brutal, bloodthirsty methods, the guards were encouraged to treat the prisoners as animals, running the camps in relentless military fashion, employing routine terror, forced labor and euphemisms regarding the murders of inmates as “suicides” and “shot trying to escape” for PR purposes. The camp system grew with the purge of SA leader Ernst Röhm and other “renegades” in July 1934 and took off with the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938, after which Jews numbered predominately. As the war progressed, so did the methods of mass extermination, from mass shootings to the Auschwitz gas chamber: first weak prisoners, then Soviet POWs, then Jews.
A comprehensive, encyclopedic work that should be included in the collections of libraries, schools and other institutions.