Concentration Camps

Between 1933 and 1945, Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany and their allies founded nearly 50,000 concentration camps, ghettos, and detention centres. These sites served various purposes, including detention, forced labour, and mass murder. Let's examine the system of concentration camps and its role in Nazi Germany.

Concentration Camps Concentration Camps

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    Concentration Camps

    A type of detention site where prisoners are forced to live and work in horrendous conditions. Prisoners would be sent to concentration camps without trial and would not receive legal counsel.

    Types of Prison Camps

    Before discussing concentration camps during the Second World War, it is essential to differentiate between the different types of prison camps. The term concentration camp is often used to describe all incarceration centres during the Nazi regime. However, this is not the case.

    Type of CampDescription
    Concentration CampsConcentration camps were used to detain citizens deemed a threat to Nazism.
    Labour CampsIn labour camps, prisoners were forced to work in inhumane conditions.
    Prisoner-of-War CampsPrisoner-of-war camps were used to house Allied prisoners of war.
    Transit CampsTransit camps were temporary holding camps for Jews before they were deported. Transit camps were often the last stop for Jews before they were sent to death camps.
    Death CampsEstablished primarily during the Final Solution, death camps had the sole aim of mass murdering inmates immediately upon arrival.

    Final Solution

    Also known as "The Final Solution to the Jewish Problem", the Final Solution was Nazi Germany's policy of mass murdering Jews during the Second World War.

    German Concentration Camps

    When Adolf Hitler gained control of Germany in 1933, there was no plan to establish a system of concentration camps. The concentration camp system was only launched following the Reichstag Fire in February 1933.

    The Reichstag Fire was an arson attack on the German Parliament building. Hitler used the arson attack to consolidate power in Germany.

    Over the following months, the Nazi regime began to establish detention centres. These sites would be used to detain and eliminate 'enemies of the state'. The Reichstag Fire Decree – passed in February 1933 – allowed people to be arrested and imprisoned without trial.

    By March, the first concentration camp, Nohra, had been established.

    Concentration Camps Oranienburg StudySmarterFig. 1 - Oranienburg, one of the earliest concentration camps

    In the early days, most detainees were political opponents; between 1933 and 1934, approximately 80% of prisoners were German Communists. Prisoners also included Roma Gypsies, homosexuals, 'asocial' citizens, and members of specific religions.

    Hitler's Reason for Concentration Camps

    In the early days, Hitler used the concentration camp system to strengthen his totalitarian leadership and consolidate power in Germany. By detaining opponents without trial, Hitler could silence vocal dissenters and set a precedent of fear in Germany.

    As the concentration camp system developed, so did the system's emphasis on racial ideology. Hitler increasingly relied on the camps to create a 'Master Race' of pure Germans in Germany. Consequently, the camps increasingly became used to purge social minorities and those whom the Nazis deemed 'racially inferior' – most notably, the Jews and Romani Gypsies.

    Theodor Eicke and Concentration Camps

    Senior SS member Theodor Eicke became one of the leading masterminds behind the organisation of concentration camps in Germany and a key figure in the Holocaust.


    This term refers to the systematic mass murder of six million Jews by the Nazis during the Second World War.

    Dachau Concentration Camp

    Opened on 22 March 1933, Dachau was the first concentration camp. While Nohra had opened earlier that month, it was a temporary detention centre. Located near Munich in southern Germany, Dachau was initially used to imprison communists and other political opponents of the Nazi regime. After its establishment, however, its purpose changed to detain social minorities such as Romani Gypsies and Jews.

    Such an influx of prisoners prompted Theodor Eicke – the commandant of the Dachau concentration camp – to establish a hierarchy of leadership to coordinate his camp effectively. The model that Eicke developed at Dachau became the precedent for the future concentration camp system.

    Concentration Camp Hierarchy
    Camp Commandant
    Security Officer and assistant who would keep prisoner records up to date.
    Detention Camp Commandant and his staff (roll-call officer, labour allocation officer, individual prisoner officer).
    Administrative staff who carried out financial and administrative duties.
    SS physician and medical team.

    Dachau was the first concentration camp to use 'Kapos' – Jewish prisoners forced by the SS to carry out camp-related work such as supervising prisoners, guard duties, or administrative work.

    Centralisation of the Concentration Camp Network

    Until 1934, there was no national system for concentration camps. Camps would often be established in disused schools or factories, with the headquarters run by local police forces. Only in 1934, when Theodor Eicke became the Concentration Camps Inspectorate, did new purpose-built concentration camps come into being.

    Eicke established a series of regulations and procedures for concentration camp guards regarding how they should treat their prisoners. Furthermore, specialist units were introduced to oversee the running of the concentration camps. Originally called the 'SS Guard Unit' in 1935, the section was renamed the 'SS Death's-Head Unit' in April 1936.

    Concentration Camps Dachau StudySmarterFig. 2 - Dachau Concentration Camp

    By 1938, only two original concentration camps (Dachau and Lichtenburg) remained in function. The camps that were shut down were replaced with new camps such as Sachsenhausen (1936) and Buchenwald (1937). These new purpose-built camps were built in isolated areas outside the rule of law. Furthermore, prisoners incarcerated in these camps were forced to wear uniforms displaying Nazi concentration camp badges.

    Expansion of the Concentration Camp System

    In 1938, the power to send individuals to concentration camps was taken away from the judiciary and given exclusively to the Gestapo and German Criminal Police. Consequently, between 1938 and 1939, the network of concentration camps expanded rapidly. The Nazis expanded their definition of 'criminal' to include Jehovah's Witnesses, Czech and Austrian anti-Nazis, the mentally ill, the homeless, and the Jews. To house the influx of new prisoners, the camps of Flossenburg (1938), Mauthausen (1938), and Ravensbruck (1939) were established.


    The secret police force of Nazi Germany.

    Concentration Camps Flossenburg StudySmarterFig. 3 - Flossenburg Concentration Camp

    Concentration Camps From WW2

    After the Second World War broke out in September 1939, new territory brought new potential prisoners for the concentration camp system. The influx of new prisoners saw the Nazis establish the camps of Neuengamme (1940), Auschwitz (1940), Gross-Rosen (1941), and Natzweiler (1941). Between the beginning of WWII and 1942, the number of prisoners in the concentration camp system nearly quadrupled.

    As the war drew on, the conditions in the concentration camps became even more brutal. In April 1941, Nazi policy demanded the execution of prisoners who were ill or exhausted; such prisoners were selected by camp doctors and murdered in euthanasia centres. 5,000-20,000 prisoners were executed under this new Nazi policy within a year.

    Concentration Camps Neuengamme StudySmarterFig. 4 - Prisoner working at Neuengamme

    In 1942, the concentration camp systems began to emphasise the war effort, with most prisoners used by war industries. Such arduous labour saw the death rate catapult; approximately half of the prisoners admitted in late 1942 died by the end of the year.

    The deportation of Jews during the second half of the war saw another period of rapid expansion of the concentration camp system. Firstly, Auschwitz was expanded; by the summer of 1943, over a third of inmates in the concentration camp system were held in Auschwitz. Several ghettos and labour camps were converted to concentration camps the following year. These new concentration camps were Riga, Kovno, Vaivara, and Krakow-Plaszow.

    Auschwitz Concentration Camp

    Located in Oświęcim, Poland, Auschwitz was opened in May 1940; it quickly became the largest and most deadly camp of the Nazi regime. Initially, Auschwitz was a labour camp consisting of Nazi dissidents and political opponents in newly occupied Poland.

    In 1942, however, as part of Adolf Eichmann's Final Solution initiative, the construction of the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing centre saw the camp reorient to prioritise the mass murder of the Jews. Between 1940 and 1945, approximately 1 million Jews were murdered at Auschwitz.

    Concentration Camps Aushwitz StudySmarterFig. 5 - Aerial Reconnaissance of Auschwitz

    Liberation of the Concentration Camps

    As the Allies closed in on the Nazi territory, the Third Reich accelerated Sonderaktion 1005 – their plan to hide any evidence of the Holocaust. Sonderaktion 1005 – which had been in place since June 1942 – saw records destroyed, mass graves dug up, entire camps dismantled, and the forced migration of inmates. Despite their best efforts, no amount of concealment could hide the horror and brutality that the Nazis had inflicted; as the Allies marched across Europe in 1944 and 1945, they uncovered concentration camps, death centres, and mass graves.

    Concentration Camps Natzweiler-Struhof StudySmatterFig. 6 - Liberation of Natzweiler-Struthof

    Soviet forces first liberated the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland in 1944. The Nazis had depopulated Majdanek the previous spring, sending prisoners to western camps such as Auschwitz and Mauthausen. Upon arrival, the Soviets found numerous prisoners who hadn't been evacuated and considerable evidence that mass murder had been committed.

    Half a year later, in January 1945, Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz; Auschwitz was the largest and deadliest concentration camp of the Nazi regime. Like Majdanek, the Nazis attempted to evacuate the prisoners westwards. With Nazi Germany on the brink of military defeat, the SS forced concentration camp inmates to march long distances in horrendous conditions. This forced evacuation process has become known as the 'death marches'.

    Concentration Camps Death Toll

    As they marched across Europe, the Allies liberated some 250,000 thousand prisoners – despite scenes of jubilation as prisoners were freed, the vast majority of inmates weren't so lucky.

    Here is a quick table outlining how many people fell victim to the Holocaust:

    Demographic Estimated Death Toll
    Jews6 million
    Soviet Citizens5.7 million
    Soviet Prisoners of War3 million
    Disabled People300,000
    Romani Gypsies250,000

    Concentration camps – Key takeaways

    • Between 1933 and 1945, Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany and their allies founded nearly 50,000 camps, ghettos, and detention centres.
    • Originating in 1933 after the Reichstag Fire, the concentration camp system was centralised by Theodore Eicke in 1934.
    • Between 1938 and 1939, the concentration camp system expanded rapidly. This was because the Gestapo and German Criminal Police were given absolute power of detainment.
    • Throughout the Second World War, territorial expansion and the Final Solution prompted the increase in prisoners and the establishment of new camps.
    • Between 1944 and 1945, the Allies liberated the Nazi Concentration Camps.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Concentration Camps

    What are the concentration camps?

    A concentration camp is a type of detention site where prisoners are forced to live and work in horrendous conditions. Prisoners would be sent to concentration camps without trial and would not receive legal counsel.

    How many concentration camps were there?

    Between 1933 and 1945, Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany and their allies founded nearly 50,000 concentration camps, ghettos, and detention centres.

    What were the biggest concentration camps?

    Auschwitz was the largest and deadliest concentration camp of the Nazi regime; approximately 1.1 million people died at Auschwitz.

    How many people died in concentration camps?

    Approximately 2.7 million people died in the six Nazi extermination camps; this figure does not include the rest of the camps nor those executed outside of the camp system.

    When were concentration camps liberated?

    The concentration camps were liberated between 1944 and 1945 by Allied troops.

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