Did the Concentration Camps Exist?

Published: 1998-01-01
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Dear AnswerMan,

Were concentration camps during WWII really used in the way history portrays, did they really exist?

John

AnswerMan!

AnswerMan Replies:

The concentration camps certainly did exist, by the hundreds! Prior to the war they were ordinary prisons that housed, in addition to ordinary criminals, a growing population of political prisoners and those identified as undesirables by the stringent racial and social theories then in place.

When it became obvious that hostilities could no longer be avoided, this nation of 80 millions was faced with the problem of mounting huge armies and still having enough manpower to operate the arms industries that would supply them. As taking on the entire world is not a light venture, they very early saw that the only recourse was slave labor. Every major power who fought against them used the same resource, although to nowhere near the extent that Germany did, except in the case of Russia and her extensive gulags. The name "concentration camp" was coined by a German official charged with organizing some part of this vast network of camps, and referred to concentrating the work forces directly at the factories. Auschwitz-Birkenau, for instance, served the labor needs of the huge I.G. Farben synthetic rubber plant built at that location, as well as many minor satellite efforts.

There is strong evidence that the treatment at many camps was relatively humane, and that the stories of one pail of watery soup per day for a barracks full of inmates is in most cases, dramatic license. As noted in a memo expressing concern for production outputs later in the war, the feeding and care of both physical and emotional needs of these captive workers was vital to achieving the rates needed ever more desperately. What sense would it make to reduce a factory full of workers to a state of stumbling starvation and deprivation? A person who did this to the manufacturing effort he was charged with overseeing would have been properly called on the carpet for creating a serious impediment to the war effort through needless oversight and cruelty.

On the other hand, there are offsetting truths of a darker nature. The people incarcerated were prisoners. Criminals and slave laborers and officially designated pariahs. The camps were prisons, and the guards, like their prisoners and as is true in all societies, were not the cream of the German manpower pool else they would have been in the Wehrmacht. So you had your tough guys, your sadists, and, in the Eastern camps, local talent with a high rate of ethnic hatred for those under their care. The result of this was that the rules were rigid, the punishments severe, and the treatment often brutal. Perhaps about what a black man in a Southern prison in the 40s might expect to see, with the addition of legalized summary executions for certain violations.

With the disintegration of the Reich and its orderly functionings, things got worse in the camps than on the outside in many cases, particularly when they began to hold ten times as many people as they were designed for, a result of rapidly shrinking borders as the Allied armies advanced. Malnutrition, disease, and neglect began to cut huge swaths through the camp populations. The inexplicable decision to bring trainloads of typhus and cholera infected inmates from the East back to Germany in the latter months and place them in camps with the healthy was all that was needed to turn a bad situation into a raging nightmare. It was at this point that some camps, such as Bergen-Belsen, truly became "death camps" but by a combination of evils and misfortunes, not by design. There are those who try to make the case that German hatred of Jews was so intense that they purposely set up these charnel centers to see them die in even greater misery by slow starvation. This monstrous accusation is understandable on the part of those victimized, or those seeing the piles of emaciated bodies and not understanding why, but surely no rational person can believe that a people that demented could have waged war against hugely superior forces for five years while implementing idiocies of this scale.

Addressing crimes of the sort alleged in stock Holocaust literature, yes, there were criminals among the camp personnel too. Prisoners were treated badly, maimed and killed by their guards and kapos. Just as occurs in any brutal prison system, and about at the same levels. Consider that the German field units were some of the most disciplined the world has seen, evidenced partly by the fact that the Wehrmacht in the East executed 15,000 of its own troops for violations of rules and orders. Rapists, thieves, and random murderers were not tolerated by the military, nor by the darkly idealistic SS and party members, lurid tales to the contrary notwithstanding. And yes, the camps were not the venue of the Wehrmacht, but the attitude of stringent adherence to "the rules" existed throughout German society, where simply expressing negativism about the course of the war could earn you a summary execution if the wrong people heard it.

It was a time that called for the best effort of every person in order for the group to survive, and all Germans knew this. I spoke not long ago to a gentleman who was 13 years old when the Russians were about to overrun the city of Danzig. After an air raid, he recounted seeing two women who had been scrounging for food in the rubble placed against a nearby wall and shot. When I reacted to this he quickly said, "Ah yes! It was a terrible thing. There were many terrible things, but everyone knew that there was a war on and that looters were shot without question. If disorder were allowed to set in, it would all be over, and even though we didn't like these things we knew that was how it had to be. Everybody knew, including those women."

Loose cannons simply were not tolerated. A camp guard caught killing inmates at random for his own pleasure would have been collared, given a summary court if he were a German, and publicly executed without delay. In fact, this happened to more than one camp commander, usually for participating in the black markets which flourished in camps where legend has it that a few hundred guards managed to keep their eyes on every movement of more than a hundred thousand people at all hours of the day and night. That isn't even true of our high-security prisons and it assuredly was not the case in these huge, sprawling camps. The greatest portion of brutal maltreatment almost assuredly came from predations of prisoners on prisoners, a surmise backed up by knowledge of "ordinary" prisons, and descriptions given by gulag survivors. It was every person for themselves, and only the strong survived, a fact of brutal prison life that comes through in muted tones in the survivor accounts that seek to focus attention on more bizarre kinds of cruelties and murders that are, on examination, the products of traumatized and vengeance bent minds.

Yes, the camps were hideously bad places for many. But not any more so than their equals at Andersonville, the Russian gulags, the British death camps for Boer civilians in South Africa, the reeducation death camps of Cambodia, and on and on. When it comes to mistreating one's helpless fellow humans, the Germans can claim no exclusivity, and the first claims of successful genocides are to be found in the book of Deuteronomy, the first hard-verified instances in the European empire building years (Arawaks, Tasmanians, various Native American and African tribes, etc.). The Last of the Mohicans didn't get that way because of declining birth rates brought about by erosion of family values in the increasingly technological society around him, disease and predation brought by men who considered themselves the superior beings brought him and his timeless ilk down.

When addressing the subject of murdering prisoners, we are speaking of an evil that has resided in the midst of all human societies since the dawn of time. The terrible mistake in focusing on this one instance as somehow unique - horribly, hugely so, in fact - is that it masks the just stated reality, and in so doing helps mightily to insure its recurrence, not prevent it. By placing it apart from "us" we are able to justify, again and again, that our slaughter of the moment is "different" and all but unavoidable. As when our Secretary of State says on a national TV show that 500,000 Iraqi children dying of disease and malnutrition brought about by our embargo is certainly unfortunate, but when looked at in its broader scope "we" have reluctantly concluded that it is a price that the Iraqi people brought on themselves and now must pay. God help us when we begin to swallow this appalling criminality without protest, or even notice. Such reasoning is nothing short of astonishing when viewed from an outside perspective, and perspective is the major problem. When we look at the German/Jewish experience, we look at ourselves, and that is the thing we should Never Forget.

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Author(s) AnswerMan
Title Did the Concentration Camps Exist?
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Dates published: 1998-01-01, first posted on CODOH: June 29, 1998, 7 p.m., last revision: n/a
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