Earlier this week I had one question and one statement about concentration camps. The question was “What are the differences between a concentration camp and an extermination camp?” This question I will try to address as much as possible in this blog.
But before I do that I want to mention the statement which was put to me, I am only doing this because it was followed by a disturbing bit of ignorance. The statement was “Concentration camps were already used during the Boer wars” which is true. However this person followed the statement, which he made on a blog about a Jewish school. that most of those children were not murdered but they died of typhus. It is undoubtedly true that some children will have died of typhus, but a bigger number would have been murdered in the gas chambers. Even if they died of typhus, it still would have been murder. I just felt compelled to mention this.
In order to understand what a concentration camps is , we first need to know what its definition is.
The term concentration camp was used long before the Nazis came to power. It came into popular usage at the end of the nineteenth century, when it was applied to the housing of military troops and especially to the imprisonment of civilians during the Boer and Spanish-American Wars. Officials also referred to certain types of prison camps for civilians in World War I as concentration camps.
According to the Oxford and Merriam Webster dictionaries it is : “a place where large numbers of people (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees, or the members of an ethnic or religious minority) are detained or confined under armed guard”
However in the context of the Nazi regime that definition, although technically correct, it is a very weak description.
Most people don’t realize that there were about 40,000 camps throughout Nazi controlled Europe, this included all subcamps too.
There were even a few on the British channel islands.
The first of these camps was opened at Dachau, near Munich in Bavaria, in March 1933. In the early years of the regime, inmates included Communists, Socialists, Social Democrats, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, criminals, and others considered to be deviants.
So what was the difference between the camps.
The Nazi concentration camps essentially had three purposes:
- To incarcerate indefinitely people whom the Nazi regime perceived to be a security threat in the broadest possible sense (for example, from a Jew with presupposed “international connections” or perceived racial deficiencies, to an alcoholic who was incapable of holding a job)2.
- To eliminate—by murder—individuals and small, targeted groups of individuals.
- .To exploit the so-called labor-potential of the prisoner population.
Extermination camps were used by the Nazis from 1941 to 1945 to murder Jews, Roma and other groups deemed subhuman by the Nazis
To implement the ‘ Final Solution ’, the Nazis established six purpose built extermination camps on Polish soil. These were:
Chełmno (in operation December 1941-January 1945)
Bełżec (in operation March-December 1942) it was basically the laboratory or template for Auschwitz. It was also the only camp where Polish laborers were used to build it.
Sobibór (in operation May-July 1942 and October 1942-October 1943)
Treblinka (in operation July 1942-August 1943)
Majdanek (in operation September 1942-July 1944)
Auschwitz-Birkenau (in operation March 1942-January 1945)
Chełmno was the first extermination camp to be established in December 1941. Its purpose was to murder the Jews of the surrounding area and the Łódź ghetto. The facility contained three gas vans in which victims were murdered by carbon monoxide poisoning. Once dead, the vans were driven to a nearby forest and the victims were buried in mass graves.
After the Wannsee Conference of 1942, the Nazis built additional extermination camps at Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka. These camps were specifically built near railway lines to make transportation easier. Instead of vans, stationary gas chambers, labelled as showers, were built to murder people with carbon monoxide poisoning created using diesel engines.
A concentration camp had been established at Majdanek in 1941. In the spring of 1942, following the Wannsee Conference, the camp was adapted to become an extermination camp by the addition of gas chambers and crematoria.
Auschwitz-Birkenau was a complex, consisting of a concentration camp, a forced labour camp and an extermination camp. Eventually it had a network of more than 40 satellite camps. Following tests in September 1941, the lethal gas Zyklon B was selected as the method of murder. Auschwitz initially had one gas chamber at the Auschwitz I camp, but this was soon expanded. By 1943, four new crematoria, with gas chambers attached, had been built in Auschwitz II. Approximately 1.1 million people were murdered in the Auschwitz gas chambers.
Some who arrived at the extermination camps were not murdered on arrival. They were selected for various work tasks to help the camp operations run smoothly. Jobs included sorting and processing the possessions of everyone who arrived at the camp, administrative work and heavy manual work.
The majority of those selected for any kind of work within this type of camp would still die within weeks or months of their arrival from starvation, disease, mistreatment or overwork. Those that survived were often murdered after a short period and replaced with new arrivals.
Transit camps were camps where prisoners were briefly detained prior to deportation to other Nazi camps. Overall, the conditions in the transit camps were similar to that of concentration camps – unsanitary and awful. Facilities were poor and overcrowding was common. These camps were mainly run by the SS.
Westerbork was the oldest camp for Jews and the largest. In February 1939 the Dutch government decided to construct one ‘Central Refugee Camp’ for Jews and on October 9, the first 22 German refugees arrived at the new small wooden houses. The Committee for Special Jewish Affairs, established by the Dutch Jewish community organizations in 1933, had financed the construction. It was located in a remote heath area in the northeast of the Netherlands, near the village of Westerbork. The internal affairs of the camp were run by the refugees themselves, in cooperation with the Committee. In May 1940, at the beginning of the German occupation, there were about 750 refugees living in the camp. It remained under the administration of the regular Dutch authorities during the first two years of the occupation. From December 1941 onward, on German orders, more Jewish refugees were sent to Westerbork and the camp was expanded with large wooden shacks. On July 1, 1942, when there were about 1,500 Jews in the camp, it was taken over by German Security Police, and an SS-commander and staff were appointed. The camp’s name was changed to Polizeiliches Durchgangslager (Police Transit Camp) and it was surrounded with barbed wire and seven watch towers.
Forced labour camps
Forced labour camps
Even before the war began, the Nazis imposed forced labour on Jewish civilians.As early as 1937, the Nazis increasingly exploited the forced labor of so-called “enemies of the state” for economic gain and to meet desperate labor shortages. By the end of that year, most Jewish males residing in Germany were required to perform forced labor for various government agencies.
The invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 further heightened demands on the war economy, and in turn, for labour. At the same time, this invasion brought thousands of potential new workers under Nazi control. These prisoners were called Ostarbeiter (eastern workers) and Fremdarbeiter (foreign workers). The Nazis deported these people to forced labour camps, where they worked to produce supplies for the increasingly strained war economy or in construction efforts.
As in most Nazi camps, conditions in forced labour camps were inadequate. Inmates were only ever seen as temporary, and, in the Nazis view, could always be replaced with others: there was a complete disregard for the health of prisoners. They were subject to insufficiencies of food, equipment, medicine and clothing, whilst working long hours. There was little or no time for rest or breaks. As a result of these conditions, death rates in labour camps were extremely high. The aim was to work them to death.
By 1945, more than fourteen million people had been exploited in the network of hundreds of forced labour camps that stretched across the whole of Nazi-occupied Europe.
The Dora-Mittelbau (also known as Dora-Nordhausen or Nordhausen) camp was established in central Germany near the southern Harz Mountains, north of the town of Nordhausen. It was originally a subcamp of Buchenwald. Prisoners from Buchenwald were sent to the area in 1943 to begin construction of a large industrial complex. In October 1944, the SS made Dora-Mittelbau an independent concentration camp with more than 30 subcamps of its own.
The inmates at Dora-Mittelbau were treated in a brutal and inhumane manner, working 14-hour days and being denied access to basic hygiene, beds, and adequate rations. Around one in three of the roughly 60,000 prisoners who were sent to Dora-Mittelbau died.
I find Bergen Belsen hard to place in any of the other categories .Originally established as a prisoner of war camp, in 1943, parts of it became a concentration camp. Initially this was an “exchange camp”, where Jewish hostages were held with the intention of exchanging them for German prisoners of war held overseas.
The camp was later expanded to accommodate Jews from other concentration camps.
At the end of July 1944 there were around 7,300 prisoners interned in the Bergen-Belsen camp complex. At the beginning of December 1944, this number had increased to around 15,000, and in February 1945 the number of prisoners was 22,000. As prisoners evacuated from the east continued to arrive, the camp population soared to over 60,000 by April 15, 1945. People were just left there to die.
Many survivors described it as hell on earth. The actor Dirk Bogarde was one of the liberators and said this about Bergen Belsen, he says April 13 1945, but the camp was liberated 2 days later.
“I think it was on the 13th of April—I’m not quite sure what the date was when we opened up Belsen Camp, which was the first concentration camp any of us had seen, we didn’t even know what they were, we’d heard vague rumours that they were. I mean nothing could be worse than that. The gates were opened and then I realised that I was looking at Dante’s Inferno, I mean … I … I still haven’t seen anything as dreadful. And never will. And a girl came up who spoke English, because she recognised one of the badges, and she … her breasts were like, sort of, empty purses, she had no top on, and a pair of man’s pyjamas, you know, the prison pyjamas, and no hair. But I knew she was girl because of her breasts, which were empty. She was I suppose, oh I don’t know, twenty four, twenty five, and we talked, and she was, you know, so excited and thrilled, and all around us there were mountains of dead people, I mean mountains of them, and they were slushy, and they were slimy, so when you walked through them … or walked—you tried not to, but it was like …. well you just walked through them, and she … there was a very nice British MP [Royal Military Police], and he said ‘Don’t have any more, come away, come away sir, if you don’t mind, because they’ve all got typhoid and you’ll get it, you shouldn’t be here swanning-around’ and she saw in the back of the jeep, the unexpired portion of the daily ration, wrapped in a piece of the Daily Mirror, and she said could she have it, and he” [the Military Police] “said ‘Don’t give her food, because they eat it immediately and they die, within ten minutes’, but she didn’t want the food, she wanted the piece of Daily Mirror—she hadn’t seen newsprint for about eight years or five years, whatever it was she had been in the camp for. … she was Estonian. … that’s all she wanted. She gave me a big kiss, which was very moving. The corporal” [Military Police] “was out of his mind and I was just dragged off. I never saw her again, of course she died. I mean, I gather they all did. But, I can’t really describe it very well, I don’t really want to. I went through some of the huts and there were tiers and tiers of rotting people, but some of them who were alive underneath the rot, and were lifting their heads and trying …. trying to do the victory thing. That was the worst.”
I hope that this explains the differences somewhat.
All of the camps had one ultimate goal though, the death and destruction of Jews, Roma , Homosexuals and other groups deemed subhuman by the Nazi regime and its collaborators.
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