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Nazi Camps – Background Information

The interviewees had been detained in various categories of Nazi camps.

There were different categories according to the specific function of the camp: Extermination camps, concentration camps, subcamps of concentration camps, Arbeitserziehungslager (work education camps), ghettos, prisoner-of-war camps and “civilian” forced laborer camps.

Extermination Camps

The extermination camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka or Sobibor served the execution of systematic genocide. The victims were millions of Jews and several hundred thousand Sinti and Roma. The perpetrators came primarily from the ranks of the SS and the SD; but also responsible were state institutions such as the Reich Railway, which transported the people to the camps, as well as private companies such as Topf & Sons, responsible for manufacturing the crematoria.

Concentration Camps

The concentration camps served as centers for imprisonment, isolation and exploitation, for humiliation and intimidation. Unlike the extermination camps built in occupied Poland, most of the over 20 main camps were in the territory of the Reich – the most well-known ones are Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald and Ravensbrück. These prisoners – men, women and children – included political opponents, homosexuals, Jews, Sinti and Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, “asocials”  or “criminals”. These distinctions were of course SS-defined categories. They served, among other things, to play off the groups of prisoners stigmatized with differently colored triangles against each other. Less than 10% of the some 700,000 prisoners were Germans. The SS was also responsible in this case; in particular, the Inspektion der Konzentrationslager (inspection of the concentration camps) and the Wirtschaftsverwaltungshauptamt(economic administrative office) in Oranienburg, but also the Wehrmacht, which increasingly assumed guard duties. From 1941, companies such as IG Farben, Heinkel and Siemens established factories in the camps, building camps in their plants from 1943.

Concentration Camp Subcamps

Since 1943, over 1,000 concentration camp subcamps and external camp detachments came into existence, in which concentration camp prisoners performed forced labor for the SS as well as for state and private enterprises. There were various categories of concentration camp subcamps. Along with the smaller SS detachments at manufacturers and for unskilled work, there were detachments such as Bombensuchkommandos (for searching bombs) and Reparaturkommandos (for repairs), subcamps in the arms production (Siemens, Daimler, BMW, etc.) and – the most murderous of all – the subcamps at underground construction sites (Organisation Todt, Hochtief, etc.). Most prisoners were housed in subcamps; the main camps now only served to register, provide the administration for, and quarantine the prisoners, and as camps for the dying; it was here that the firms selected their prisoners and the wardens were trained.

Work Education Camps

Work education camps were a sort of “short-term concentration camp” for the discipline of the so-called “work-shy”, above all of foreign forced laborers. The penal camps that were not established by the SS, but by the regional Gestapo offices, hired out their prisoners, who were usually only interned for a few weeks, to private firms for slave labor. Altogether there were around 200 work education camps.


As intermediate stop on the way to extermination, the ghettos served in the isolation and exploitation of deported Jews. In Theresienstadt, Łódź, Warsaw, Riga and over 600 other cities, close to four million Jews were intermittently squeezed into ghettos. The occupying troops and the police, who served the "Judenräte" as well as numerous private firms such as Neckermann, which took advantage of cheap production in the ghetto of Łódź, were responsible.

Prisoner-of-war Camps

The prisoner-of-war camps were operated by the Wehrmacht offices. Except for the collection camps and transit camps just behind the front, in every military district there were several Oflags (officers camps) and Stalags (camps for non-commissioned officers) as well as thousands of Arbeitskommandos (sub-camps of prisoner-of-war camps for holding prisoners of war of lower ranks) who were working in industries and on farms and in forestry. Over three million Soviet prisoners of war were deliberately starved to death. About two million prisoners of war performed forced labor for the German war economy, among them an additional 600,000 Italian military internees after 1943.

Civilian Forced Labor Camps

Civilian forced labor camps accounted for by far the most camps. Some 5.7 million “civilian” forced laborers from 20 European countries lived in the German Reich in the summer of 1944. A third of them were women; the largest nationality groups were the 2.1 million “OST-Arbeiter” (Eastern workers) from the Soviet Union and the 1.7 million people from Poland. Many of those abducted were adolescents, even nine-year-old children. Most of the people in Western Europe were forced to work in Germany. In 1942, 40,000 people from the Soviet Union were abducted off the streets per week. Throughout the Reich there were over 30,000 civilian forced labor camps – drafty and bug-infested barracks or overcrowded guesthouses, factory buildings and boat houses.

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