Prior to and during World War II, Nazi Germany under Hitler maintained concentration camps (Konzentrationslager, abbreviated KZ or KL) throughout the territories it controlled. The first Nazi concentration camps were greatly expanded in Germany after the Reichstag fire in 1933, and were intended to hold political prisoners and opponents of the regime. They grew rapidly through the 1930s as political opponents and many other groups of people were incarcerated without trial or judicial process. The term was borrowed from the British concentration camps of the Second Anglo-Boer War. Holocaust scholars draw a distinction between concentration camps (described in this article) and extermination camps (described in a separate article), which were camps established for the sole purpose of carrying out the extermination of the Jews of Europe—the Final Solution. Extermination camps included Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, and Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Pre-war camps

The Nazis were one of a number of political parties in Germany with paramilitary organizations at its disposal, the Schutzstaffel (SS) and the Sturmabteilung (SA), both of which perpetrated surprise attacks on the offices and members of other parties throughout the 1920s. After the 1932 elections it became clear to the Nazi leadership that they would never be able to secure a majority of votes and that they would have to rely on other means to gain power. While gradually intensifying their acts of violence to wreak havoc among the opposition in the run-up to the 1933 elections, the Nazis set up concentration centers in Germany, many of which were established by local authorities, to hold, torture or kill political prisoners and "undesirables" such as outspoken journalists and Communists.[citation needed]

These early prisons (usually basements and storehouses) were eventually consolidated into full-blown, centrally run camps outside the cities and somewhat removed from the public eye. By 1939, six large concentration camps had been established: Dachau (1933), Sachsenhausen (1936), Buchenwald (1937), Flossenbürg (1938), Mauthausen (1939), and Ravensbrück (1939).

In 1938, the SS began to use the camps as a source of forced labor for profit-making ventures. Many German companies used forced laborers from them, especially during the war (see Forced labor in Germany during World War II).

Additionally, historians speculate that the Nazi regime used abandoned castles and similar existing structures to lock up the undesirable elements of society. The elderly, mentally ill, and handicapped were often confined in these makeshift camps where they were starved or gassed to death with diesel engine exhaust. The Final Solution was therefore initially tested on German citizens. (See Action T4, the Nazi program of racial hygiene.)

Camps during the war

A gas chamber at Auschwitz concentration camp.

After 1939 with the beginning of the 2nd World War, concentration camps increasingly became places where the enemies of the Nazis were killed, enslaved, starved, and tortured. During the War concentration camps for “undesirables” spread throughout Europe. New camps were created near centers of dense “undesirable” populations, often focusing on areas with large communities of Jewish, Polish intelligentsia, Communists or Roma. Most camps were located in the area of General Government in occupied Poland for a simple logistical reason: millions of Jews lived in Poland. It also allowed the Nazis to transport the German Jews outside of the German main territory.


The two largest groups of prisoners in the camps, both numbering in the millions, were Jews and the Soviet prisoners of war (POWs). Large numbers of Roma (or Gypsies), Poles, left of center political prisoners, homosexuals, people with disabilities, Jehovah's Witnesses, Catholic clergy, Eastern European intellectuals, and others—including common criminals . In addition, a small number of Western Allied POWs were sent to concentration camps for various reasons.[1] Western Allied POWs who were Jews, or whom the Nazis believed to be Jewish, were usually sent to ordinary POW camps; however, a small number were sent to concentration camps under antisemitic policies.[2]

Sometimes the concentration camps were used to hold important prisoners, such as the generals involved in the attempted assassination of Hitler; U-boat Captain-turned-Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller; and Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, who was interned at Flossenbürg on February 7, 1945, until he was hanged on April 9, shortly before the war’s end.

In most camps, prisoners were forced to wear identifying overalls with colored badges according to their categorization: red triangles for Communists and other political prisoners, green triangles for common criminals, pink for homosexual men, purple for Jehovah's Witnesses, black for Gypsies and asocials, and yellow for Jews.[3]


A truck load of bodies of prisoners of the Nazis, in the Buchenwald concentration camp at Weimar, Germany. The bodies were about to be disposed of by burning when the camp was captured by troops of the 3rd U.S. Army.

In these concentration camps, millions of prisoners died through mistreatment, disease, starvation, and overwork, or were executed as unfit for labour; though they were not extermination or death camps which started in 1942. These camps were located in occupied Poland and some territories of today's Belarus, on the territory of the General Government. More than three million Jews would die in them, primarily by poisonous gas, usually in gas chambers, although many prisoners were killed in mass shootings and by other means.

Prisoners were often transported under horrifying conditions using rail freight cars, in which many died before they reached their destination, and there were instances where only ten prisoners-to-be would be alive to come out of a cart packed with one hundred.[citation needed] The prisoners were confined to the rail cars, often for days or weeks, without food or water. Many died of dehydration in the intense heat of summer or froze to death in winter. Concentration camps also existed in Germany itself, and while they were not specifically designed for systematic extermination, many of their prisoners perished because of harsh conditions or execution.


In the early spring of 1941 the SS, along with doctors and officials of the T-4 Euthanasia Program, began killing selected concentration camp prisoners in “Operation 14f13.” The Inspectorate of the Concentration Camps categorized all files dealing with the death of prisoners as 14f, and those of prisoners sent to the T-4 gas chambers as 14f13. Under the language regulations of the SS, selected prisoners were designated for “special treatment (German: Sonderbehandlung) 14f13”. Prisoners were officially selected based on their medical condition; namely, those permanently unfit for labor due to illness. Unofficially, racial and eugenic criteria were used: Jews, the handicapped, and those with criminal or antisocial records were selected.[4] For Jewish prisoners there was not even the pretense of a medical examination: the arrest record was listed as a physician’s “diagnosis”.[5] In early 1943, as the need for labor increased and the gas chambers at Auschwitz became operational, Heinrich Himmler ordered the end of Operation 14f13.[6]

After 1942, many small subcamps were set up near factories to provide forced labor. IG Farben established a synthetic rubber plant in 1942, at Monowitz concentration camp (Auschwitz III); other camps were set up next to airplane factories, coal mines and rocket propellant plants. Conditions were brutal and prisoners were often sent to the gas chambers or killed, if they did not work fast enough.

After much consideration, the final fate of the Jewish prisoners (the “Final Solution”) was announced in 1942 at the Wannsee Conference to high ranking officials.[citation needed]

Near the end of the war, the camps became sites for horrific medical experiments. Eugenics experiments, freezing prisoners to determine how exposure affected pilots, and experimental and lethal medicines were all tried at various camps. Female prisoners were routinely raped and degraded in the camps.[7]

The camps were liberated by the Allies between 1943 and 1945, often too late to save the prisoners remaining. For example, when the UK entered Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945, 60,000 prisoners were found alive, but 10,000 died within a week of liberation due to typhus and malnutrition.

The British intelligence service had information about the concentration camps, and in 1942 Jan Karski delivered a thorough eyewitness account to the government.

Post-war use of Nazi concentration camps

Most Nazi concentration camps were destroyed after the war, though some were made into permanent memorials.

In West Germany, Dachau was used as a prison for arrested Nazis and after that as cheap working-class housing.

Auschwitz was easily the largest concentration camp (or Death camp) during the jewish holocaust. (a period of jewish exile and extermination. 1933-1945)

Notes and references

  1. One of the best-known examples was the 168 British Commonwealth and U.S. aviators held for a time at Buchenwald concentration camp. (See: luvnbdy/secondwar/fact_sheets/pow Veterans Affairs Canada, 2006, “Prisoners of War in the Second World War” and National Museum of the USAF, “Allied Victims of the Holocaust”.) Two different reasons are suggested for this: the Nazis wanted to make an example of the Terrorflieger (“terror-instilling aviators”), or they classified the downed fliers as spies because they were out of uniform, carrying false papers, or both when apprehended.
  2. See, for example, Joseph Robert White, 2006, “Flint Whitlock. Given Up for Dead: American GIs in the Nazi Concentration Camp at Berga” (book review)
  3. “Germany and the Camp System” PBS Radio website
  4. Friedlander, Henry (1995). The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution, p. p. 144, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  5. Ibid., pp. 147-8
  6. Ibid., p. 150
  7. Morrissette, Alana M.: The Experiences of Women During the Holocaust, p. 7.

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