Review of Wachsmann, KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camp

By Peter Gengler / May 25, 2017

Nikolaus Wachsmann. KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camp. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015.
Reviewed by Peter Gengler

 “We don’t say: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. No, if someone knocks out one of our eyes, we will chop off his head, and if someone knocks out one of our teeth, we will smash in his jaw.” Württemberg State President Wilhelm Murr’s brutal exaltations, uttered at a March 1933 mass rally, reflect the ethos of the Nazi regime on the eve of Hitler’s absolute grasp of power. The radical will to target Germany’s enemies, to detain, punish, “reeducate” them, to bring about the “revolution” that the Führer had prophesied, heavily relied on the elite “political soldiers” of the SS and a new institution that embodied the fascist order unlike any other: the Konzentrationslager, or KL. More than two million victims would walk through the gates of the Third Reich’s concentration camps, and most did not live to see liberation. Nikolaus Wachsmann’s brilliant study is as much a meticulous investigation of the history and evolution of the concentration camps as it is a moving testament to its victims. In tracing the trajectory of the KL, Wachsmann not only documents the institution that symbolizes Nazism and its various roles, but also the rise and fall of the Nazi regime itself.

Given the hundreds of books dedicated to documenting Nazi terror, one might ask why there is a need for more works on the concentration camp system. KL does not necessarily provide any new, earth-shattering discoveries, and many historians will be familiar with Wachsmann’s evidence. But the impressive marshalling of the material and judicious interpretations makes KL much more than mere synthesis. The author draws from a deep well of secondary and primary resources and infuses his study with an impressive amount of original sources not previously utilized by historians. Concisely written and clearly argued, Wachsmann combines cultural, political, and social history to create a magisterial resource accessible to specialists and a general audience alike.

Wachsmann argues that the concentration camp was a macabre fusion of institutions such as the prison, the military, and factory, imbued with Nazi ideology. Prisoners were enemies of the people to be mercilessly punished and destroyed, inmates to be reeducated and rehabilitated into productive members of the “people’s community,” and sources of labor to be exploited in the wartime economy. Moreover—and this is arguably the author’s most significant contribution—the camps were not static. They evolved to become a dynamic tool of the regime and were subject to and indeed revealed political, social, and cultural developments between 1933 and 1945. In some ways, concentration camps were a microcosm of the Third Reich. Wachsmann’s chronological organization authoritatively takes readers from their chaotic, improvised, and even tenuous nature during Hitler’s careful consolidation of power, to their deadly apogee as a means of ruling occupied Europe during the war years, to their vicious and furious dissolution during the Third Reich’s death throes. Throughout its existence, however, the concentration camp was the key fixture of the “Nazi web of terror.” Its ability to “absorb change and to adapt, without losing its core mission, would prove to be one of its most terrifying strengths.”

Besides the nuanced analysis and painstaking yet never dull historical context that explain the concentration camp’s evolution, there are several dimensions that readers might find especially impressive in this work. To begin with, Wachsmann is careful to differentiate between concentration and extermination camps, thereby countering popular notions that conflate the two institutions and that focus on the Holocaust. This is crucial not only for establishing the various phases of Nazi repression and their influence on the development of the concentration camps, but also for explaining the multitude of prisoner groups and why they were targeted and at what times, as well as their varying experiences based on gender, class, religion, nationality, ethnicity, or race. Wachsmann’s dedication to this diversity not only recreates the pluralism of the inmate population, but also rescues from obscurity many persecuted groups that have been overlooked or ignored in many histories of the Third Reich.

A perfect case is Wachsmann’s treatment of the “eradication of the criminal class” that targeted professional criminals and “asocials.” Postwar narratives hardly made room for these social outsiders. In order to establish itself as the party of law and order, the Nazi regime aggressively targeted convicted criminals as well as those suspected of illegal activities, even when no evidence existed. Particularly hard-hit were “asocials,” a broad term that included the “work-shy” and “national pests.” Readers are introduced to Wilhelm Müller, whose only crime was that he was a pauper on welfare who could not “accustom himself to the discipline required by the state,” as the court who sent him to Sachsenhausen in 1938 concluded. Once there, he would wear the black triangle, the category that in the mid to late 1930s constituted the largest prisoner group: “tramps,” “whores,” and women who had multiple sexual partners; beggars, vagrants, and welfare recipients whom welfare offices eagerly tried to purge from their rolls; the unemployed or “lazy” who simply did not work hard enough; alcoholics or those arrested in bars of ill repute; or outsiders who “refuse to integrate into the community” through some sort of perceived moral defect or mental instability. Fellow prisoners shared the scorn and prejudices of their SS tormentors toward these men and women, which carried into the postwar period and explains their marginal existence in the literature.

But Wachsmann goes even further in his analysis to show how the persecution of this group matters and is tied to larger developments in Nazi society. Their sudden increased incarceration reveals a transition from repression of political opponents to a policing of the “people’s community” once the party had consolidated power, combining ideological imperatives of “cleansing” the polity and increasing productive labor with the need  to shore up support among broad segments of the German populace   who approved of the harsher treatment of “scum.” Moreover, this had consequences for these victims, as the criminal and “asocial” prisoner groups died in much higher numbers than any other group before the war. Unable to rely on their fellow prisoners and with no commonality to forge a united group within the camp, they lacked protection. A merciless SS targeted them with violence and humiliation, forcing them to work in “idiots’ companies” with white armbands with the words “stupid” on them, and the regime earmarked these prisoners for the deadliest labor camps of Mauthausen and Flossenbürg, believing that the worst prisoners deserved the worst labor. Wilhelm Müller survived and was being released through a pardon to mark Hitler’s fiftieth birthday. Nearly 800 “asocials” who were imprisoned did not survive, and between January 1938 and August 1939, well over 1,200 perished through brutal work and inhumane  treatment across all of the Nazi concentration camps.

Although readers encounter the motivations and worldview of the perpetrators, as is so often the case in studies of Nazi terror, the experience of the victims of the KL system lies at the heart of this monograph. Using individual fates to put a face on the meticulous marshaling of statistics, Wachsmann’s research never leaves the prisoners out of sight in his analysis. This inclusion of the personal fates and details of daily prisoner life makes for some of the most powerful writing in what stands as the definitive history of the German concentration camp system between 1933 and 1945.