Published: May 10, 2016
Nikolaus Wachsmann, the author of the first complete history of German concentration camps, thinks that Auschwitz should not be associated solely with the Jewish Holocaust, since its primary purpose was to exterminate the Polish underground resistance movement, and then Soviet prisoners of war. “Auschwitz has become a synonym for the Holocaust,” remarked the German historian while promoting his book, KL. The History of Socionationalist Concentration Camps, at the Topography of Terror Museum in Berlin. The book is available in German from May.
Wachsmann stated that Auschwitz must not be a substitute term for the Jewish Holocaust, as most Jews were killed away from concentration camps. “They were killed in trenches and woods, in ghettos on occupied territories of Eastern Europe, and death camps such as Treblinka – which had a single purpose – to kill as many Jews as possible. Auschwitz was more than the Holocaust. It was established in 1940 in order to exterminate the Polish underground resistance movement, rather than European Jews. From 1941, Auschwitz was used to exploit and murder Soviet prisoners of war, and it was for that purpose, that the camp was expanded to Birkenau. Only later gas chambers were built there to kill Jews,” explained Wachsmann.
He added that even when Auschwitz became the primary place of Jews’ extermination, the camp continued to be used for other reasons. It was a place of cruel medical experiments, as well as a center for military productions.
Wachsmann’s book is nearly 1000 pages long. The author presents the genesis and functions of the system, which consisted of 27 concentration camps and more than 1100 linked sub-camps at the peak of its existence. Wachsmann describes each phase of the system’s development, emphasizing that the course of its development was not planned, but rather was a result of conflicts between different Nazi influence groups.
First concentration camps were formed immediately after Adolf Hitler came to power on January 30, 1933. They were destined for German oppositionists, mainly communists and union members. Prisoners were placed in abandoned factory buildings, hotels, ships, castles, and even in basements of residential houses. Those makeshift prisons were soon to be abandoned, and most of the prisoners were freed several months later.
At the turn of 1934 and 1935, the power apparatus discussed whether camps were still required. According to Wachsmann, Hitler won this dispute. He considered the illegal terror as “a useful instrument of power.” Hitler followed a model of Dachau camp to introduce his official, organized system.
Wachsmann emphasizes that before World War II the concentration camps had just over 20 000 prisoners consisting mainly of people considered antisocial – homeless, beggars, prostitutes and petty criminals.
The turning point in the history of concentration camps was World War II. Its breakout caused a “dramatic change,” as Wachsmann stresses.
Wachsmann claims that before 1939 the Stalinist gulags were much more brutal than German camps. After the war broke out, the situation changed and concentration camps, from being a place of isolation for German oppositionists of the Nazi Germany, transformed into an instrument of terror aimed at occupied nations, to finally become a place of the Jewish Holocaust. By the end of the war, Germans deported around 2.3 million people to the concentration camps, where most of them died.
In his book, Wachsmann focuses on the economic aspects of concentration camps as well. According to one of the prisoners with whom Wachsmann spoke, the SS had a “contemporary slave agency,” taking money for “outsourcing” the prisoners to military manufacturers.
Wachsmann considers as significant the attitude of the German public towards the concentration camps. “After the war ended, Germans claimed they knew nothing about the concentration camps. It is one of the myths of the RFN,” stated Wachsmann. His view is that such myth is completely untrue, and that the German public was aware of the camps from the start. “Germans are aware of the camps’ existence from the start; they see, hear, and know the deported people. The SS propaganda does nothing to hide the truth. To the contrary; the SS uses the knowledge about the camps to intimidate German citizens. From mid-1930s, concentration camps did not need to be mentioned, as everyone knew about them and feared them,” wrote Wachsmann.
Wachsmann, who lives in the U.K., has been working on his book for the last 10 years. Ian Kershaw, a well-known British historian and an expert on the history of Nazi Germany, commented on the English edition of the book, published last year, that it was “a masterpiece no other can match.”
In Berlin, Wachsmann emphasized that historians must continue to write books about the concentration camps, no matter how many have already been written. “Should historians stop writing about them, the voice will be given to insane, amateur people who question crime, and this is something we can’t allow,” said Wachsmann.