My research project explored the different manifestations and causes of aggression and violence in the carceral institutions of a totalitarian state, focusing on Nazi prisons. Widely overlooked by historians, these institutions played an indispensable part in the terror of the Third Reich, incarcerating many hundreds of thousands of men and women: common criminals, political opponents, “racial aliens,” and other social outsiders.
The HFG grant enabled me to examine discipline and punishment in Nazi prisons during the Second World War. This period saw a dramatic escalation of violence inside prisons. Local penal institutions were dominated by brutal forced labor, starvation rations, harsh disciplinary punishment, and physical violence, killing an estimated twenty thousand inmates. At the same time, the German prison authorities implemented large-scale extermination programs directed in particular at Jews, select Poles and political prisoners, and social outsiders labelled as asocial, disabled, or mentally ill. At the center stood the ”annihilation through labor” of some fourteen thousand prison inmates.
Much of my research has been concerned with explaining the involvement of legal officials in this violence. Unlike SS men controlling the concentration camps, many jurists were not fanatical Nazis and had already held state office before Hitler came to power. So why did these men (and a few women) become involved in violence and killings? Why did the existence of a long established, traditional legal system in Germany, and a professional body of trained jurists, provide no secure barrier against a descent into legal terror?
The thinking of officials was also shaped by their long-standing belief that certain offenders were "incorrigible." Crucially, this belief was a product not of Nazi ideology, but of modern criminology which insisted that objective scientific methods could determine the future social behavior of offenders.
It soon became clear that monocausal theories would not go far in answering these questions. Instead, the causes of violence turned out to be complex. Looking at the senior legal officials, racial prejudice against Jews and Poles—radicalized by Nazi policy during the war—played an important part. The thinking of officials was also shaped by their long-standing belief that certain offenders were “incorrigible.” Crucially, this belief was a product not of Nazi ideology, but of modern criminology which insisted that objective scientific methods could determine the future social behavior of offenders. But such doctrinaire views—no longer restrained in the Third Reich—were not all decisive. Senior legal officials were also driven by the opportunistic desire to satisfy Hitler, who held jurists in particularly low esteem.
Turning to local prison officials, their actions were influenced by the ideological factors already mentioned, given added weight in directives from above. Racial abuse was common, as was the maltreatment of supposedly “incorrigible” offenders. But more “practical” concerns were vital, too. To start with, economic considerations were crucial. Production for the war increasingly became the yardstick by which a governor’s performance was measured. As a result, local officials were determined to work the inmates harder than ever before, and to get rid—in one way or another—of those who obstructed the work process because of illness or old age. Local officials were also brutalized by the massive increase in the number of judicial death sentences, carried out inside prisons, and by the growing pressures of their jobs due to overcrowding and understaffing. More and more officials took out their frustrations on the prisoners.
The main focus of my research was on state violence. But I also uncovered examples of interprisoner conflict, fueled by the social and racial prejudices of individual inmates. Often, this resulted in collaboration with the prison authorities, for example by denouncing fellow prisoners. However, I found relatively little evidence for physical violence among the prisoners, so common in the contemporary prison. Overall, it seems that such violence was mostly limited to prison camps, where the authorities delegated important supervisory functions to inmates (just as they did in concentration camps). In regular prisons, by contrast, prisoners did not gain comparable power. It would seem as if the traditional military discipline still widely practiced here, centered around the strict supervision of inmates by warders, may have limited prisoner-on-prisoner violence. But more research is necessary here, to allow for firmer conclusions to be drawn.
My research is published by Yale University Press as Hitler’s Prisons (New Haven, 2004). The findings presented in this book have already played an important part in the decision by the German government foundation “Memory, Responsibility and Future,” made in summer of 2003, to pay reparations to individual former inmates in Nazi prisons who had suffered under the poor conditions and forced labor.