Origins of the Nazi Concentration Camp System

Soon after the Nazis came to power in 1933 in Germany, Nazi leaders began to unleash a wave of terror against the regime’s political opponents. Using emergency powers to suspend civil liberties, the German police, and its auxiliaries, the Nazi SS and SA, took into “protective custody” (Schutzhaft) tens of thousands of Communists, Social Democrats, and others. They were imprisoned and brutalized in makeshift camps set up in workhouses, abandoned factories, cellars, and even taverns.

At this early stage, the Nazis themselves used a variety of terms, such as detention, work, or transit camps, to describe these facilities, but the most frequent designation was concentration camp. These early facilities were rather haphazard in structure and policies. Some of the early Nazi camps were run by the SA (Storm troopers), the SS, and by local Nazi Party officials, and are frequently labelled “wild camps.” Dachau was the first major concentration camp, run by the SS and existing from 1933 to 1945It quickly became the model for all subsequent concentration camps.

The Problem of Incorrect Terminology

Beginning in 1934, control of the Nazi camp system fell more and more into the hands of Heinrich Himmler and the SS. Using his growing power as head of the political police in most of the German states, Himmler set about taking over, sometimes by force, the camps run by the SA, Order Police, and local Nazi officials. To standardize practices, the SS established the Inspectorate of Concentration Camps. Furthermore, the full authority to take individuals into “protective custody” and transport them to concentration camps fell to the Gestapo (Secret State Police). All concentration camps were officially designated by the initials KL (Konzentrationslager; Concentration Camp), though SS guards, inmates, and the public often used the initials KZ. Today, camp memorials tend to use the initials KZ.

Not every camp created by the Nazi regime fell under the jurisdiction of the Inspectorate of Concentration Camps or, after 1942, the SS Economic and Administrative Main Department. The killing centers, also called extermination camps, with the major exception of Auschwitz II (Birkenau) did not fall under the Nazi concentration camp system. Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, and Chelmno were never officially designated by the SS as concentration camps, though they were under the control of the SS.

Differences between a Concentration Camp and a Killing Center

Generically defined, a concentration camp is a site for the detention of civilians whom a regime perceives to be a security risk of some sort. What distinguishes it from a prison (in the modern sense) is that incarceration in a concentration camp is independent of any judicial sentence or even indictment, and is not subject to judicial review.

The term concentration camp was used long before the Nazis came to power. It came into popular usage at the end of the nineteenth century, when it was applied to the housing of military troops and especially to the imprisonment of civilians during the Boer and Spanish-American Wars. Officials also referred to certain types of prison camps for civilians in World War I as concentration camps.

It was the Nazis, however, who gave the term concentration camp its current connotations. It has become synonymous with SS brutality and persecution.

 The Nazi concentration camps essentially had three purposes:

  1. To incarcerate indefinitely people whom the Nazi regime perceived to be a security threat in the broadest possible sense (for example, from a Jew with presupposed "international connections" or perceived racial deficiencies, to an alcoholic who was incapable of holding a job)
  2. To eliminate—by murder—individuals and small, targeted groups of individuals
  3. To exploit the so-called labor-potential of the prisoner population.

Although gas chambers were used for small-scale killing at Mauthausen, Sachsenhausen, Stutthof, Auschwitz I, Ravensbrück, and Majdanek (Lublin), the killing centers were different altogether. In some of the major concentration camps, the SS either installed or had plans to install gas chambers to assist in their daily business of killing prisoners too weak or sick to work as well as killing small targeted groups of individuals whom the Nazis wanted to eliminate (such as Polish resistance fighters and Soviet prisoners of war).

In contrast, a killing center was a facility established primarily or exclusively for the assembly-line style murder of large numbers of human beings upon their immediate arrival. A few victims, however, were usually kept alive temporarily to support the "industry" of murder, such as sorting clothing and other personal property. The facilities that fit this definition are: the three Operation Reinhard killing centers (Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka II), Chelmno (Kulmhof), and Auschwitz II (Birkenau).

Evolving Terminology 

Scholars and institutions sometimes differ in how they describe Nazi killing centers. In the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, the terms, extermination camp (Vernichtungslager) or death camp (Todeslager), were commonly used to describe Nazi camps as diverse as Auschwitz II (Birkenau), Bergen-Belsen, and Sachsenhausen. In the popular press, they were often applied elastically to incorporate those sites where the Allies found large numbers of dead prisoners.

Today, a growing number of historians prefer the term killing center rather than death camp and extermination camp. They argue that death camp is a rather vague concept that could be applied broadly to all Nazi camps where death occurred. Likewise, some scholars have objected to using the Nazi-inspired term extermination camp, which conveys the notion that the prisoners were akin to vermin or pests that needed to be eradicated. The term killing center more precisely identifies the function of the facility without any such pejorative connotations about the victims.