Instytut Pileckiego has interviewed Nikolaus Wachsmann, Professor in Modern European History at the Birkbeck University of London.
Professor Wachsmann, what were the concentration camps in the Third Reich? Why were they created?
NW: The concentration camps were set up in 1933, within weeks of Hitler coming to power, initially as places to destroy, to deter any political opposition within Nazi Germany against the new regime. The vast majority of prisoners early on were German political prisoners, largely German communists. The focus of the camps later changed. By the late 1930s the majority of inmates were German and Austrian social outsiders, those persecuted for their non-normative lifestyles: beggars, prostitutes, homeless people, and also small-time petty criminals. During the war, the function of the camps changed once more, bringing terror, slave labour and mass murder to much of Europe. The camp system spread with the Nazi occupation forces, and by the later stages of the war, the vast majority of inmates were foreign prisoners from different parts of Nazi-controlled Europe.
How big was this camp system?
Prisoner numbers grew dramatically during the war, as did the camp system as a whole. When war broke out in 1939 there were six main concentration camps. By 1944 there were over 20, as well as many hundreds of attached satellite camps dotted across Nazi-controlled Europe. And this camp system no longer held about 20,000 prisoners as it did in 1939, but over 700,000 by early 1945. And this despite the fact that huge numbers of prisoners had died in the camps since the war started.
We often talk about Auschwitz as a signifier for the entire camp system. What was Auschwitz in relation to the whole system?
The SS camp system was huge. More than two dozen main camps were set up in the course of the Third Reich, and over 1100 attached satellite camps, spread across Nazi-controlled Europe. These camps didn’t all operate at the same time, as some were closed down and others opened up. This had a lot to do with the shifting priorities and functions of the camp system. Now Auschwitz was very much a part of this SS camp system and it was closely connected to other concentration camps. When Auschwitz was established in 1940, the core of its SS staff came from other concentration camps: they were veterans of camps like Sachsenhausen and Dachau. In the following years, prisoners came in transports from other camps to Auschwitz, and then also went from Auschwitz to other camps. Likewise, material and goods arrived from other camps and also went the other way, right up to the end of the war.
So Auschwitz was part of this wider network of SS concentration camps. But at the same time it was also exceptional, standing apart from the other camps. It was exceptional because it was, for most of its operation, by far the largest camp in terms of prisoner numbers and staff. And it was also by far the most lethal concentration camp of them all. And that is because Auschwitz was the only concentration camp to play a major role in the Holocaust, from 1942 onwards right up to the end of the camp’s existence. In all, almost one million Jews were murdered in Auschwitz. So that very much sets Auschwitz apart from other concentration camps. Here, too, there was mass death by slave labour, execution, starvation, illness, human experiments. But only Auschwitz also operated as a major Holocaust death camp.
What did the world of the camp prisoners look like?
Sometimes when we see photos of prisoners in the camps – who were dehumanized by the SS, with their shaved heads, their regulation uniforms – we might think that all prisoners were alike. But actually, the prisoner population was incredibly diverse. The SS itself introduced categories for differentiating between prisoner groups, identified by triangles or other markings on their uniforms. There was the red triangle for political prisoners. There was the black triangle for so-called asocials, the green triangle for so-called criminals. There were also categories for Jehovah’s Witnesses, for homosexual prisoners, and others. So the SS tried to differentiate between prisoner groups, and so did the prisoners themselves. We might like to think of the prisoner population as being united in suffering, but there were huge differences and also tensions between prisoners, on account of their nationality, their background, their political or religious beliefs, and all of this was exacerbated in the camps by the daily struggle for survival, for a piece of bread, for a better post, for better clothing.
Were any acts of resistance or opposition possible in the camps, that is, in such a very repressive environment? What did these look like?
When we talk about resistance, about defiance, about self-assertion in the camps, we first have to talk about all the barriers to this. And there were many, almost insurmountable obstacles. When prisoners arrived in the camps, they were often already sick and starved. They had been beaten and tortured in other sites of Nazi terror, in prisons, jails, ghettos, in other concentration camps. So when they arrived, bewildered and confused, sometimes after days on transport, they were in no position to organize resistance. They were unarmed, hungry, ill, weak. And the SS inside the camps tried to make organized resistance impossible. It tried to control pretty much all the movements of prisoners, who were forced into destructive labor for hours and hours upon end. There was mass disease, starvation, illness and death. And finally, there were the divisions within the prisoner community, which made it hard for all prisoners to come together even if they could have.
So with all of these obstacles and barriers in mind, it is striking just how much defiance there actually was. Probably most common was solidarity within smaller groups, where individual inmates came together on the basis of political or religious belief or because they worked together or because they knew each other from their hometowns, and they tried to share food and moral sustenance. They talked together, they kept each other’s spirits up, they tried to help each other when they fell ill, or sing patriotic songs and pray together. All of this was about defying the SS, to hold on to some sense of their pre-camp identity. Then we have some more organised resistance, where prisoners used contacts and insights into how the camp operated to gather information about SS crimes, about SS staff committing these crimes, and smuggled this information outside. There were a number of Polish political prisoners in Auschwitz, for example, who did exactly this. They gathered information and fed it to the Polish underground resistance outside, with the aim of publicising the horrors of Auschwitz abroad. And in some cases, this really did happen during the war. Finally, the rarest form or resistance was for prisoners to stand up directly to the SS in some way. It was the rarest because prisoners knew that open defiance would be brutally punished. Some prisoners tried to escape, for example, including several hundred from Auschwitz. But the stakes were enormously high, because prisoners knew that they would be tortured and probably killed if they were caught, and that their fellow prisoners might suffer terribly, too.
What about Pilecki? Did his escape matter?
His escape was very significant because it allowed him to write a report about what he had seen, the crimes he’d witnessed and heard about in Auschwitz, which was then sent to the Home Army. And this is one of the earliest, detailed reports by any prisoner we have about Auschwitz.
Was the camp system predesigned, or are we dealing with a long learning process?
One of the misconceptions about the concentration camps is that the Nazis had a blueprint to put into practice when they came to power. That they knew exactly what they were going to do. And nothing could be further from the truth.
There was lots of improvisation and change. A site like Auschwitz was never the same from one day to the next. Again and again, the function, operation and conditions of the camps changed. As they changed, they became progressively more murderous, more lethal. Before the war, it was still much more likely for prisoners to survive and be released again. The reverse was true during the war, when death became the hallmark of the camp system.
I would like to ask about your experience as a teacher. What are student reactions? Is Auschwitz difficult to explain, to understand?
Many people think they already know and understand Auschwitz. But there are many myths about Auschwitz. Perhaps the most pervasive one is that Auschwitz is seen as standing for the camp system as a whole, as well as for the Holocaust. In other words, that Auschwitz, the Holocaust and the camp system are essentially the same. But they are not. For a start, there is more to the Holocaust than Auschwitz. To be clear: Auschwitz was the deadliest camp, and in no other site under Nazi control were more Jews murdered than in Auschwitz. Nonetheless, the majority of Jews were murdered elsewhere, in death camps like Treblinka, in ghettos, in forests and fields across eastern Europe. At the same time, there was more to Auschwitz than the Holocaust. People often believe that Auschwitz was set up specifically for the extermination of Jews, and don’t realise that the camp had been established not in 1942, when the Holocaust hit Auschwitz, but in 1940, to destroy the Polish political opposition and resistance in newly-occupied Poland. And Polish political prisoners were still dragged there in 1943 and 1944, as were political prisoners from other parts of Europe. So Auschwitz is more than the Holocaust, though the Holocaust was an absolutely central part of its function from 1942. Finally, there was also more to the concentration camp system than Auschwitz. Though Auschwitz was the most lethal and the biggest camp of them all, it was not by any means the first – the Nazi camp system was not invented in Auschwitz, but in places like Dachau, several years earlier.
Nikolaus Wachsmann, Professor in Modern European History at the Birkbeck University of London
The interview has been published in The Second World War and Its Continuing Relevance. Publication accompanying the exhibition “The Volunteer. Witold Pilecki and his mission to infiltrate Auschwitz” (edited by M. Fałkowski, Pilecki Institute, 2019).