The Nazi Concentration Camps
Nikolaus Wachsmann, Birbeck College, University of London
Research Grant, 2011
The goal of this project was to write the history of the prewar Nazi concentration camps, from their uncertain beginnings in 1933 to their coordination under the SS and expansion in the final years before the outbreak of the Second World War. The study draws on a wide range of published material, survivor testimonies, and original documents, such as circulars, local orders, statistics, and prisoner files. It will be published in spring 2015 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux as part of a general history of the SS concentration camps.
My research charts the origins of the Nazi camp system, exploring the influence of disciplinary traditions in the German army and penal system, as well as the far-right paramilitary culture that emerged during the Weimar Republic. It also highlights the multiple functions of the growing prewar SS sites, which operated at various times as boot camps, reformatories, prisons, forced labor reservoirs, and torture chambers.
The basic outline of the SS camps had been drawn before the war and the camps proved extremely adaptable to new and more extreme demands of violence.
Much of my work focuses on daily practices of violence. I have examined the transition from the improvised abuse in the early camps to the structured violence of later years, charting the process by which SS terror became routine. I also explore the effects of violence on the victims and their responses. Crucially, the prewar experience left an important legacy for the wartime period, when the camps descended into mass death and genocide. The basic outline of the SS camps had been drawn before the war and the camps proved extremely adaptable to new and more extreme demands of violence.
I found that the prewar Nazi concentration camps did not hurtle straight towards the abyss, towards ever greater violence and death; rather, periods of rising terror alternated with periods of comparative moderation. The largest group of victims of the concentration camps in the final years before the outbreak of World War II were probably not political prisoners or Jews but social outsiders pursued as “criminals” and “asocials.”