Monday, 15 January 2018

Book Review - KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps

From LSHG Newsletter #63 (Spring 2018)

When the Nazis came for the Left 

Image result for KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps

KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps 
By Nikolaus Wachsmann 
ISBN 978-0349118666 
Abacus 2016 
880pp 

Wachsmann, in this extraordinary minutely researched tome, addresses many of the myths and misconceptions that have grown up over who were the victims of Nazism as well as the contradictory and shifting impulses behind Concentration Camps (CCs). This review will focus on these narratives, rather than the minute and distressing details of how the CCs operated. This book provides us with a warning from history.

What is regularly forgotten is that the SA and SS’s first enemies were socialists. Himmler was obsessed with the left. On the night of the Reichstag fire in February 1933, many leading Communists were detained. Within 3 days of the ‘election’ in March, 1933, 5,000 Communists were arrested; in March- April alone, 40-50,000 political opponents were taken into ‘protective custody’. The SA/SS trashed ‘town halls, publishing houses and party and union offices and hunted down political and personal enemies’.

The focal point was ‘Red Berlin’ but the SA/SS did not just come for the leading revolutionaries: the KPD had built close local links with sports clubs, artistic circles, humanist groups etc. All were seen as ‘terrorists’. ‘Up to 200,000 political prisoners were detained…in 1933.’ Indeed the first camps were constructed for Communist prisoners where hundreds lost their lives in 1933.

The hatred of the Nazis towards Communists was so overwhelming that, as revealed in a footnote, Soviet POWs were the only nationality in the camps where Jews were not separately listed. Although many of the early political prisoners were eventually released (though those who didn’t get out of Germany, were picked up again first in 1938 and, if still alive, again in 1944 with deadly consequences), Communists still accounted for about 80% of camp inmates in 1934 and were the main focus for the sweeps of 1935. In 1936, 3,694 of all the 4,761 concentration camp inmates were political prisoners. Even by mid-1938, the majority of inmates were classified as political prisoners.

Other groups were also targeted, for example some Christians, in particular Jehovah Witnesses with their ‘passive resistance’, ’homosexuals’ and later ‘roma'. Significantly, despite serious harassment, in the early years, German Jews only constituted about 5% of those detained. The group whose fate is particularly illuminating and who are rarely acknowledged are the ‘asocials’: the ‘degenerates’.

The Nazi’s treatment of Communists provided the model. By the end of 1938, ‘asocials’ made up 70% of the entire prisoner population, forming the largest group in the camps up till the beginning of the war. From 1938, their death toll in CCs rocketed ( not to ignore the continuing use of sterilisation and the later deadly T4/euthanasia programme). There was a ‘reason’ for the Nazi’s repression of the ‘asocials’.

What Wachsmann brings out is the increasingly economic- as opposed to ideological - imperative of Nazi decision making. The camps were expanding in number and size and increasingly under the control of the SS. ‘Asocials’ were seen as workshy: non-productive. This proved their death warrant. The camps were increasingly seen as contributing to the SS economy, using forced or slave labour. No room to go into detail here but between 1938 and 1945, CC inmates were used in many of Germany’s commanding industries and in the last couple of years in the war were used extensively in preparing for and creating armaments. Indeed, though Wachsmann does not provide figures presumably because none are available, millions died because of hard labour -and starvation, maybe more than were deliberately exterminated. It was prisoners’ workability which drove the decisions about who was to live, whom to die.

We are all familiar with how people in one of the queues at the camps were going to be sent straight to their deaths. But this is an even more telling than we recognise. Prisoners were seen as potential slaves: if the work killed them, which it usually did, there was always another consignment of prisoners being delivered. Indeed, the original supply were the tens of thousands of Russian POWs - and as Slavs as well as Communists, they were doubly ‘sub-humans’.

But as the war turned against Germany and the Russian prisoners had almost all been worked to death, it was the ‘sub-human’ Jews who were seen as their natural replacement and who were put onto convoys from the ghettoes and prisons across Europe to the camps. (Even by 1943, most European Jews were still in ghettoes, not camps.) Wachsmann suggests that one reason for the Jewish inmates’ exceptionally high death toll was that so few were accustomed to physical labour.

While Nazi policy towards Jews has been heatedly debated, Wachsmann highlights that before 1938, few Jews were taken to the camps and of those who were, most survived. But after the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, there was mass incarceration of Jews, firstly from Austria, although many, if not most, were subsequently released. The Nazi policy at this point was not extermination but expulsion: Jews were encouraged to leave eg to Palestine, although Wachsmann suggests, this was as much to get hold of their property as for more ideological reasons. Only when that failed, was the policy to push them East and incarcerate them in ghettoes.

Even when war first broke out, in theory, ‘productive’ Jews were exempt from imprisonment. As Wachsmann explains, ‘Nazi Germany did not follow a preordained path to extreme terror’. The death camps were not an inevitability. But from 1939, the camps changed drastically: the level of violence and terror increased as did the number of camps. The language had irrevocably shifted. Communist agitators were singled out for ‘eradication’.

 Political prisoners were again one of the first groups of prisoners to be chosen for special punishment, particularly those picked up in France who had fought in the Spanish Civil War. It was Germany’s takeover of Poland, the first of their ‘racial’ wars, which pushed racial/genetic stereotypes up the agenda. Many Poles were sent to the camps where they were regularly executed and subjected to extreme labour, especially in Auschwitz.

A figure which deserves more attention is that about 6 million Poles perished under the Nazis, almost all civilians, about half of whom were Jewish. Massacres were becoming commonplace. Jews in the camps were now becoming a prime target. But mass gassing was yet to come. Victims were in their dozens, not even hundreds. The transition to systematic mass extermination did not occur till late 1941/early 1942, when thousands started to be gassed.

The first large scale gassing was of course of Soviet POWs in Auschwitz. Auschwitz is the camp we most associate with the Holocaust and the mass killing of Jews, deported from much of E. Europe, especially Poland, accelerating in 1942. But Auschwitz was not just about murdering Jews. Many ‘non-Jewish’ Poles were also sent there, especially oppositionists, as well as Soviet POWs.

 But Auschwitz was also the hub of the SS forced labour programme, the SS’s desperate attempt to boost war production, increasingly stressed as Germany’s position deteriorated from late 1942. The plan was to produce armaments, including the V2s, and repair war damage. In January 1943, Himmler ordered the police to deliver some 50,000 prisoners to the camps for slave labour, in particular Jews to Auschwitz.

This led to a rapid rise in the camp population from 1943. Many were already weak or sick and over half died ‘naturally’. But the contribution of camp labour to the war economy remained marginal. Yet these manhunts continued till the very end of the war. It is terrifying that the number of CC inmates was at its highest point in January 1945, when everybody knew Germany had lost.

So Auschwitz represents one of the contradictions at the heart of Nazism; between the ideological goal of destroying the untermensch - and using those fit enough to work to further Germany’s economic interests. But Wachsmann argues that for Nazi hardliners, the goals were not inconsistent: economics and extermination were two sides of one coin as it was ‘only’ people not fit to work who were exterminated.

But the increase in camp numbers in 1944 and 1945 cannot be reduced to Himmler’s drive for slave labourers. As defeat loomed and especially after the unsuccessful attempt on Hitler’s life, ‘Operation Thunderstorm’ first dragged in any remaining leftie and foreign resistance fighters. But it was from this point, in 1944, that more Jews – from France, Holland, Slovakia, Greece and Italy and of course later from Hungary - were sent to the camps than ever before.

This is not the place to explain that tragic escalation, which Wachsmann anyway only suggests. He considers many factors, none sufficient: the switch of line at the time of the Wannsee conference, the shifts in the Nazi policy, the role of the T4 doctors, the need to ‘top-up’ the SS’s ‘work to win’ slave programme, the lethal ‘hysteria’ of some camp commandants and leading Nazis faced with defeat: Himmler stated in April 1945 ‘No prisoner must fall alive into enemy hands.’

Today, we need to learn from the Nazi catastrophe. The rhetoric of the right today is racist and xenophobic. But, but have no doubts, if a ‘neo-Nazi’ government holds power, we will be the first of many of its victims.

Never again!

Merilyn Moos 

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