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Concentration Camps in Europe during the Second World War

The term "concentration camp" appeared during the Boer War and was applied by the British Army to refer to places of keeping the Boer rural population, which was gathered (concentrated) in the camps to prevent them from assisting guerrillas. Originally, the term was used mainly in relation to camps for prisoners of war and internees, but now, it is usually associated with concentration camps of the Third Reich; thus, it is understood as a place of mass imprisonment with extremely harsh conditions of detention.

Legal, Organizational and Economic Preconditions of the Concentration Camps

The first concentration camps were arranged for the purpose of isolation and internment of persons suspected of opposition to the national socialist regime. However, they soon developed into a giant machine of repression and extermination of millions of people of different nationalities - the so-called enemies or members of the "inferior" groups - in countries that fell under the power of the Nazis, and played a crucial role in the fascist policy of extermination of the Jews. Legal sanction of arbitrary arrests after the Nazis came to power in Germany was the Emergency Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of the Nation and the State (February 1933), under which persons suspected of hostility to the regime could be subjected to preventive detention for an indefinite period.


Significant changes in the system of concentration camps took place since the beginning of military actions: the number of prisoners increased; the network of concentration camps on the territory of Germany and abroad expanded; camps functions changed. With the outbreak of war, prisoners from the conquered countries started being directed to camps: the French, the Poles, the Belgians, and others. There were a great number of Jews and Gypsies among them.

Thus, the main purposes of the concentration camps were:

  1. economic exploitation;
  2. mass extermination of prisoners;
  3. provision of cheap labor.

Preventive detention was subordinated to the objectives of economic exploitation and mass extermination of the non-Aryan population as well as their intimidation. In the occupied countries, thousands of "enemies of the regime" were placed in local concentration camps; numerous groups of prisoners were transferred to such camps within the Third Reich.

Thus, it becomes evident that the creation of concentration camps was based on both ideological and practical pillars. The practical one is manifested in the availability of free workforce. Another concept, which is unavoidable in discussion of concentration camps, is absolute power. It was manifested in the monopoly of military means of violence as well as stable and strict organization of social structures.

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Concentration Camps in Europe during the Second World War

Nazi concentration camps existed before and during the Second World War on the territory controlled by Germany. The first of them were corrective-labor camps located within the Third Reich. During the war, millions of people including the Jews, Communists, Poles, Soviet and other prisoners of war, homosexuals, gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses and others were placed in camps for so-called preventive arrest. Millions of prisoners of concentration camps died from brutal abuse, disease, poor prison conditions, exhaustion, heavy physical labor and inhumane medical experiments.

Since 1941, according to the racial theory, appeared "death camps" and "death factories" appeared in Nazi Germany, the sole purpose of which was the systematic murder of European Jews, and in the future - other "inferior" peoples. The set of facilities situated on the territory of camps was commonly the same: barracks (where the prisoners lived), administrative buildings, killing area, crematoriums, and gas chambers. All the prisoners used to live in barracks in hellish conditions. They had one bed for 8-12 people ; they were so hungry that they would have eaten grass if there was some. At the same time, prisoners performed extremely heavy work.

As is evident from the previous paragraphs, concentration camps gathered people from different social layers: from politicians to doctors and simple workers. All prisoners of such camps were required to wear distinctive marks on the clothing including the serial number and a colored triangle (in Auschwitz, the serial number was tattooed on the left forearm). All political prisoners wore red triangles, criminals - green, "the unreliable" - black, homosexuals - pink, gypsies - brown. In addition to the classification triangle, the Jews wore yellow one as well as six-pointed Star of David.

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Buchenwald concentration camp was established in 1937. Its first inmates were German political prisoners and criminals. Although Buchenwald officially did not have the status of death camp, approximately one fourth of its prisoners had died because of various reasons and the first executions of prisoners in it began in the summer of 1937. Later, there appeared separate rooms for torture and executions. Buchenwald also had a network of branches located nearby. Prisoners of the entire system of Buchenwald were exploited on heavy works including underground plants, which used to build German rockets “V-2”. Those who were engaged in secret facilities were later killed. However, many of them died from overwork themselves. At Buchenwald, prisoners were subjected to medical experiments including prisoners specially infected with typhus and tuberculosis for testing of new vaccines. In the spring of 1945, when the outcome of the war was already clear, the Nazi leaders launched a plan of complete extermination of camps with prisoners in order to cover up the traces of their crimes. This caused a mass revolt, which is described in the following section.


Mittelbau-Dora was a Nazi concentration camp, originally a "branch" of the Buchenwald, which operated in 1943-1945. The prisoners of the camp were mainly used in underground missile factories and for cutting tunnels through the mountains. Due to extremely poor working conditions, Mittelbau-Dora was rightfully considered to be one of the most horrible camps of Nazi Germany.
The main concentration camp of the Third Reich was Sachsenhausen. It controlled all other camps as well as a training center for SS guards for all other camps. Sachsenhausen was established in the Oranienburg area, 30 km north of Berlin in the summer of 1936 when the Olympic Games were held in Berlin. Its extension started in 1938 , and since the beginning of the Second World War, trains with the citizens of the occupied countries of Western Europe, then Poland and the USSR started arriving there. Sachsenhausen was equipped with mobile and stationary crematoria, gas chambers, gallows, and other instruments of death.



Concentration camp Auschwitz was the largest of the concentration camps and death camps established on Polish soil. It was a work camp and, at the same time, the center of the immediate destruction of the Jews. Therefore, it was equipped with everything necessary for the mass killings and the burning of corpses. Location of the camp almost in the center of German-occupied Europe as well as convenient rail links were the reasons why the German authorities have decided to expand the camp to enormous proportions and deport to the camp people almost from all over the continent. In the period of its prosperity, Auschwitz consisted of three main parts. The reason for the formation of the camp was a large number of Poles arrested by the German police and the consequent overcrowding of prisons.
All branches of the Auschwitz camp complex were surrounded by towers with barbed wire with electric current. Any contact of prisoners with the outside world was forbidden under threat of death.

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The second German death camp in Poland called Belzec started operating on March 17, 1942. It was not a concentration camp but a death machine. For the period of its functioning, the Germans deported about 600,000 people to Belzec for extermination. Most of the victims were Jews from the urban ghettos of southern Poland. The Germans also deported to Belzec German, Austrian and Czech Jews. Brigades of prisoners who were left alive to perform forced labor, pulled bodies from the gas chambers and buried the victims in mass graves. The other prisoners were forced to sort property of victims and clean wagons in preparation for the next deportation. Camp staff periodically exterminated these work brigades replacing them with new arrivals.
By the end of spring of 1943, the camp was liquidated. In June 1943, the remaining Jewish prisoners were shot in Belzec or sent to the gas chambers of Sobibor death camp. After the liquidation of Belzec camp, the Germans plowed its territory. Soviet troops seized the area in July, 1944.

Other Countries

Maly Trostenets

Trostenets is the biggest death concentration camp on the territory of Belarus and the occupied areas of the Soviet Union created in the vicinity of Minsk. The Nazi deported to Trostenets up to 250,000 prisoners including murdered civilians, prisoners of war, Jews from Poland, Austria, Germany and Czechoslovakia. Nowadays, there is a monument at the site of the concentration camp.


The main camp of Mauthausen was established shortly after the annexation of Austria by Germany (1938). The inmates of the camp were forced to work in a nearby quarry, and subsequently - to build underground tunnels for factories for the production of missiles. The US Army liberated the camp in May, 1945. Now, it is transformed into a complex of memorials, museums and places of learning.

Resistance Movement

An integral part of the history of the camp is the theme of the underground resistance. Each national group of prisoners had its background, its character and its own unique activities for the underground movement. It took quite much time to establish the connection between the different national centers of resistance in attempts to create an international committee.

The origin of the underground movement took place among the Poles, the Spanish republicans, citizens of Czechoslovakia, and Soviet prisoners of concentration camps. A distinct role in the organization of the underground resistance was played by Austrian and German political prisoners. Having no problems with the German language and living in relatively better conditions, the prisoners became the nucleus for developing international movement. Simple workers also played a great role in rebellions. The prisoners who worked in munitions factories, risking their lives, carried weapons parts, which later were used to make rifles and pistols.

However, there were not so many serious attempts to revolt considering that it will turn futile for the weak and unarmed people. Despite this, on the night of February 2, 1945, Soviet officers imprisoned in Block No. 20 of Moutaushen had a shot at escaping, in which only several dozens of people out of 570 survived. Then, a real hunting on the escapees started. It was possible to survive in these intolerable conditions either by luck or through the sacrificial heroism of several Austrian families who, despite the risk of being sent to a concentration camp, sheltered the fugitives.

At the same time, Soviet, Spanish, German and Czechoslovakian prisoners completely independently developed detailed plans for the uprising of prisoners in the event of an attempt of mass liquidation. Such an attempt took place in April, 1945, when the Nazi started concealing traces of their crimes and planned mass murders. On April 11, 1945 prisoners of Buchenwald camp started an armed revolt. Colonel Ivan Smirnov became commander of Soviet prisoners of war. On the same evening, the concentration camp came under full control of the rebels.

Concentration Camps in the Modern World

Fortunately, in the contemporary world, the places of former concentration camps became historical monuments and reminders of the terror they used to be. The number of people who saw them functioning as death factories decreases year by year. The article Crematoria, Barracks, Gateway: Survivors' Return Visits to the Memory Landscapes of Auschwitz by Tim Cole tells the stories of concentration camp survivors who return to the places of their worst fears for different purposes. Some of them guide their children and grandchildren, some mourn for their killed relatives and want to pray for the dead ; some want to come there just to have the opportunity to leave this horrifying place as a free person. Anyway, all the survivors believe that visiting such memorial complexes is a good way to make people experience all the horrors of this anti-human crime and prevent the repetition of such events.

Considering the above mentioned facts, it is especially horrible to know about the existence of concentration camps in modern times. A sound example is Trnopolje camp that existed during the Bosnian War. The pictures of an exhausted man Fikret Alic´ and other prisoners behind the fence show that there are still social problems to be solved and that the mistakes of the past should not repeat.

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Concentration camps can be characterized as a crime against humanity. No purpose can be used as an excuse for such inhumane and racist treatment of people. Based on the example of Nazi Germany, it is evident that the first camps were established for the purpose of isolation and internment of persons suspected of opposition to the national socialist regime, but they soon developed into a giant machine of repression based on racist ideology. People in camps were regarded as material to be destroyed immediately in the event of "wear and tear." These sophisticated methods of human destruction shock even today.

It is also necessary to mention that the problem of concentration camps and their organization requires deeper research as due to the lack of documentation and destruction of many places of detention, some aspects of organization of camps still remain unknown. However, the best way to get to know the truth about these places are the stories of survivors and archeological findings.

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