Uniformed prisoners with triangular badges are assembled under Nazi guard at the Sachenhausen concentration camp. Sachsenhausen, Germany, 1938.
National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Md.
The Nazi camp system began as a system of repression directed against political opponents of the Nazi state. In the early years of the Third Reich, the Nazis imprisoned primarily Communists and Socialists. In about 1935, the regime also began to imprison those whom it designated as racially or biologically inferior, especially Jews. During World War II, the organization and scale of the Nazi camp system expanded rapidly and the purpose of the camps evolved beyond imprisonment toward forced labor and outright murder.
Throughout German-occupied Europe, the Germans arrested those who resisted their domination and those they judged to be racially inferior or politically unacceptable. People arrested for resisting German rule were mostly sent to forced-labor or concentration camps. The war brought unprecedented growth in both the number of camps and the number of prisoners. Within three years the number of prisoners quadrupled, from about 25,000 before the war to about 100,000 in March 1942. The camp population came to include prisoners from almost every European nation. Prisoners in all the concentration camps were literally worked to death. According to SS reports, there were more than 700,000 prisoners registered in the concentration camps in January 1945.
The Germans deported Jews from all over occupied Europe to extermination camps in Poland, where they were systematically killed, and also to concentration camps, where they were drafted for forced labor -- "extermination through work." Several hundred thousand Roma (Gypsies) and Soviet prisoners of war were also systematically murdered.
SEPTEMBER 3, 1939
DEFEATISTS DEPORTED TO CONCENTRATION CAMPS
Three days after the beginning of World War II, Reinhard Heydrich, commander of the Security Service (SD), orders the immediate arrest of any person who publicly voices doubts concerning Germany's victory in the war or the nature of the war being fought. As the war progresses, an increasing number of people are arrested. Many are deported without trial directly to concentration camps.
DECEMBER 7, 1941
HITLER ORDERS "NIGHT AND FOG" POLICY
On Adolf Hitler's orders, Wilhelm Keitel, chief of the German Armed Forces High Command, issues the "Night and Fog" decree. Those who resist German rule in occupied territories are to be arrested and deported to concentration camps in Germany. Those arrested are simply to disappear into the "Night and Fog." Their relatives are not to be informed. About 7,000 people, mostly from France, are arrested under the provisions of this decree. Most are deported to the Gross-Rosen and Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camps.
SEPTEMBER 18, 1942
PRISONERS SUBJECT TO "EXTERMINATION THROUGH WORK"
The ministry of justice and the SS reach agreement on the systematic transfer of prisoners to the jurisdiction of the SS. The ministry of justice agrees that all Jews, Roma (Gypsies), and Ukrainians, as well as Poles sentenced to more than three years, and Czechs and Germans to more than eight years, are under the exclusive jurisdiction of the SS. Prisoners in these categories are subject to "extermination through work"; they are to be worked to death in the concentration camps.