(Photo: Selection at Auschwitz- Birkenau / May 1944)
Nikolaus Wachsmann, Professor of History at the University of London, takes the reader on a 12-year journey into innermost circle of Hell in his monumental work KL (abbreviation for Konzentrationslager - concentration camp). This 800-page work includes over 150 pages of footnotes: Wachsmann spent years researching original sources, including 45 camp archives that were preserved. How he could read and systematically sort through the statistics and the stories of torture, slave labor,selections, death marches, horrific "medical" experiments on children, mass murder, etc. without going mad is beyond me. There is a danger that the reader grows numb from the sheer numbers of prisoners murdered in the camps - beginning with hundreds in the days following the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, to thousands following the 1938 November Pogrom, to tens of thousands Hitler launches his war, to, finally, hundreds of thousands as the Nazis carry out the Final Solution against Europe's Jews. Of an estimated 2.3 million prisoners who entered the hell of the Nazi concentration camps, over 1.7 million were killed, whether gassed or perished through the Nazi program of Vernichtung durch Arbeit ("annihilation through labor"). Wachsmann does manage to bring the nightmare down to a human scale by recounting the stories of individual prisoners that he obtained from personal memoirs, letters or eyewitness testimony. But nearly a million men, women and children entered the death camp at Auschwitz and were gassed within two hours of the their arrival without registration. They are what the writer and camp survivor Primo Levi called "the Drowned" - we will never know their identities.
Still, as Wachsmann points out, it is mistake to just associate the Nazi concentration camps with Auschwitz. For there were 27 main camps and over 1000 satellite camps. Professor Wachsmann goes into great detail about the camp network, its function and administration. True, we know more about Auschwitz because it was the largest camp which doubled as mass killing center and a vast slave labor facility for IG Farben and other German companies. But we cannot lose sight of the "lesser" camps: Sobibor, for example, murdered about a quarter of a million people, a quarter as many as Auschwitz-Birkenau in one three-hundredth of the space and half the time. Precisely because of this efficiency, we know virtually nothing about the dead.
The camps served different purposes throughout the 12-year Reich. Here is Wachsmann writing about the liberation of Dachau on April 29, 1945. Dachau - the only camp I've personally visited - was the first camp established by the Nazis in 1933 and one of the last to be liberated:
"It was more than twelve years since the SS had set up its first makeshift camp on the site. Since then, Dachau had changed its appearance many times over and gained multiple functions: bulwark of the Nazi revolution, model camp, SS training ground, slave labor reservoir, human experimentation site, mass extermination ground, and center of a satellite camp network. Dachau was nto the most deadly KL, but it was the most notorious at the time, inside Germany and abroad."
I learned many things from this book, including extensive information about the hierarchy of prisoners in the camp - as denoted by the colored triangles. At the bottom were the black (criminal), yellow (Jews) and green ("Asozial" - social outsiders). Beginning in 1937 the Nazis began rounding up these "social outsiders" - pimps, prostitutes, beggars, homeless people - often just poor people down on their luck. They were subjected to the worst abuse as "human scum" - very few survived for long in the camps and little is known about this group,
One question has always intrigued me: how much did the German population at large know about the concentration camps? The early camps were often in residential areas of German cities and the prisoners were often paraded down the street in broad daylight. Later, slave laborers - often Poles or Russian POW's would work along side German workers int he munition plants. And in the end, the emaciated inmates from the camps in the east were brought "home" to the Reich in Death Marches that passed though towns and villages throughout Germany. Wachsmann writes that a small portion of the population tried to help some of the prisoners when they could by giving food and water. Likewise a small portion believed the Nazi propaganda that these were "subhumans" who deserved their fate - they joined in with the SS in tormenting the prisoners, or hunting down and killing those who tried to escape. The vast majority looked away or reacted in silence - whether out of indifference or out of fear of reprisals from the Nazi terror apparatus.
The one individual who makes frequent appearances throughout KL - and who was responsible the management and expansion of the camp network from the early days to the end - is Heinrich Himmler. I strongly recommend reading Peter Longerich's definitive biography Heinrich Himmler (see my review) along side KL.
KL is not an easy book to read - the facts are too horrific to comprehend. Nikolaus Wachsmann makes it readable, and any student of the Third Reich or of the Holocaust will need to add this work of immense scholarship to his/her bookshelf.