KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, by Nikolaus Wachsmann

Suum cuique
–Cicero; motto over Buchenwald gate (Jedem das Seine)

Not a history of the Holocaust (which included hundreds of thousands shot in the forests of Eastern Europe) or of all WWII German incarceration (POW camps as such are not included), this thorough but readable history documents the “KL” (Konzentationslager) system overseen by Rudolf Höss and ultimately by Himmler. By defining his subject in this way, Wachsmann also leaves out the extermination camps of Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec, which operated independently of the KL, and did not pretend to exist to house anyone for any length of time.

The title may be a place to start. “KZ” is the more familiar German term for the Nazi concentration camps, still taken from the same German word. According to Wachsmann, the SS, which ran the system, called them KL, and so he sticks with that term. (A recent award-winning German film, The People vs. Fritz Bauer, about the Frankfurt prosecutor who helped track down Adolf Eichmann, had the character use “KZ” to describe the camp where he briefly spent time, before exile in Sweden.)

The story begins in Dachau, established almost immediately after January 1933 as a dumping ground for political enemies, later to include other undesirables such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and even common criminals. Jews were not the focus early on–the regime preferred to make life uncomfortable enough so that they would choose emigration. This changed after Kristallnacht, when a large number of Jews were sent to the camps, but they were mostly released within a few months.

The focus shifts to Auschwitz-Birkenau after 1939. The plan originally had been for it to hold Soviet POWs, but that changed to include other persecuted groups, and then the transported Jews who were not killed immediately. One of Wachsmann’s themes is that the concentration camp system did not develop according to a master plan, and conditions even would improve for a short while here and there, then descend again.

The book is a kind of encyclopedia, though presented in a 630-page narrative. More detail is in the 200 pages of endnotes, for those who want it. Issues covered and not often discussed include:

  1. The “Camp SS”–Himmler’s SS took over the concentration camps after the fall of the SA in 1934 and established a dedicated set of guards, the Camp SS. These later were supplemented with captured foreigners who were pressed into duty, reducing the original esprit de corps.
  2. Red Cross packages began to be allowed in late 1942, but only went to prisoners whose names and whereabouts were known to welfare organizations and relatives. Others continued to starve.
  3. The short-lived family camp at Birkenau, housing thousands from Theresienstadt. Conditions were still very poor, but greatly improved over the rest of the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex. Even children were allowed there and had some normalcy. They even put on a musical based on the Disney movie Snow White. The family camp was only temporary and for the benefit of propaganda. On one night in March 1944, 3,800 of the inmates were wiped out. The rest were eliminated by June 1944.

Individual stories, though brief in themselves (St. Maximilian Kolbe gets seven lines) are what make the history a story and not just a body count. More than one survivor shows that luck made all the difference.

Still, the focus on Auschwitz takes the history away from the camps on domestic soil (primarily Dachau, Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, and Mauthausen in Austria) after the war begins. The narrative comes back to these camps when the eastern prisoners are again resettled, but this time west. The remaining political prisoners in Germany in 1945, some who had the leisure to read or play chess, are dumbfounded by the appearance of the “Muselmänner” (the Nazi slang for the walking dead of the east). The camps within prewar borders were overwhelmed with the uprooted, emaciated, and diseased. Such were the conditions when the Americans came across Dachau and the British opened Belsen.

There is a short epilogue on the crude work of justice after the war and in the later decades. Nearly every commandant was tried and hanged. There is a photo of Höss in his gallows on the grounds of Auschwitz in 1947.

Fidelio, playbill of the premiere, Vienna, Kärntnertortheater, 23 May 1814

Fidelio, playbill of the premiere, Vienna, Kärntnertortheater, 23 May 1814

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