Recent scholarship has undermined the idea that Nazi Germany possessed an overwhelming police apparatus that completely terrorized or intimidated the general population (8). From 1933 to 1939, Germans with the right “racial” characteristics and no record of political opposition to the Nazis had little to fear, provided that they did not speak out openly against the regime. The police were neither so numerous nor so effective that they could tightly monitor the entire population; rather, they depended on public cooperation – and informants – for information on violations of laws or Nazi standards of behavior. They often got what they needed, in part because the Nazi regime was popular – and Hitler even more so. Once the war began, however, high-ranking SS officials tightened their security standards. Haunted by what they viewed as the collapse of German morale during World War I, Hitler and Himmler aimed to prevent a repeat situation. As a result, Heydrich issued a strong directive that criminalized expressions of doubt about a German military victory. His guidelines mentioned “special treatment” [ Sonderbehandlung], a euphemism – one of many used in Nazi Germany – for execution.
Wartime offered the Nazis a welcome opportunity to rid German society of “unclean” or “undesirable” elements. Additional concentration camps were built in the newly annexed or conquered territories, partly to neutralize potential or actual sources of resistance to local Nazi rule. On January 2, 1941, Heydrich tried to introduce a degree of logic into the expanding camp system by categorizing prisoners according to the severity of their crimes and assigning them to appropriate camps. His directive was sent to the Reich Security Main Office, to the heads of all state police offices, to all commanders of the Security Police and the Security Service, and to camp commanders, among others, but not to the local police. Such discrepancies in access to information typified not only the SS, but also the regime as whole. Heydrich’s directive also illustrates a further point: namely, that the expansion of the camp system had already been planned when his memo was issued. Here, his reference to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II is significant, since in January 1941 Auschwitz still consisted of a single camp for mostly Polish prisoners.
In the end, the growing camp system did not reflect the tiered categories initially envisioned by Heydrich. Instead, the occupation of additional lands, labor shortages, and intensified persecution contributed to a general expansion and diversification of the camp system under the management of former naval officer Oswald Pohl (1892-1951), one of Himmler’s most trusted subordinates. In 1942, Pohl became head of the reorganized SS Economic and Administrative Main Office. Although Pohl had overseen most economic and administrative matters since the start of the war, the subordination of the camp system to his office represented a new area of responsibility.
In an April 30, 1942 memo, Pohl sketches the history of the concentration camps, emphasizing the use of camp labor to increase armament production. Certain camps, however, were also used to “contain” individuals suspected of having engaged in resistance to German control of occupied territories. On December 7, 1941, Hitler had issued the “Night and Fog Decree,” whereby he ordered the “disappearance” (i.e. secret arrest and imprisonment) of such suspects.
Scholars have come to rely heavily on interviews with liberated prisoners, oral histories, postwar memoirs, and even novels by survivors to construct a picture of everyday life in the camps. One historical account was provided by Benedikt Kautsky (1894-1960), who survived imprisonment at Dachau, Buchenwald, and Auschwitz from 1938 to 1945. The son of Karl Kautsky (1854-1938), a famous political theorist and prominent German Social Democrat, Benedikt Kautsky dissected the inmate hierarchy within the camps and described the daily struggle for survival (9).
(8) See, for example, Robert Gellately, Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).
(9) Following Kautsky’s precedent of analyzing social differentiation among the prisoners, Wolfgang Sofsky, The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp, translated by William Templer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).