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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group


A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps

Nikolaus Wachsmann

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Early Camps

"So you want to hang yourself?" SS Private Steinbrenner asked as he entered Hans Beimler's cell in Dachau on the afternoon of May 8, 1933. The tall Steinbrenner looked down on the haggard prisoner in his filthy brown jacket and short trousers, whom he had tortured for days in the camp's lockup, the so-called bunker. "Well, watch closely so that you learn how to do it!" Steinbrenner ripped a long piece of fabric from a blanket and tied a noose at the end. "Now all you have to do," he added in the tone of a helpful friend, "is to put your head through, fix the other end to the window, and everything is ready. It is all over in two minutes." Hans Beimler, his body covered in welts and wounds, had withstood earlier SS attempts to drive him to suicide. But he knew that time was running out. Only an hour or two earlier, Private Steinbrenner and the Dachau SS commandant had shown him into another cell, where he found the naked corpse of Fritz Dressel, a fellow Communist politician, stretched out on the stone floor. Over the previous days, Dressel's screams had echoed through the Dachau bunker and Beimler assumed that his old friend, unable to bear more abuse, had cut his wrists and bled to death (in fact, SS men probably murdered Dressel). Still in shock, Beimler was dragged back to his own cell, where the commandant told him: "So! Now you know how to do it." Then he issued an ultimatum: if Beimler did not kill himself, the SS would come for him the next morning. He was given little more than twelve hours to live.1

Beimler was among tens of thousands of Nazi opponents dragged to makeshift camps like Dachau in spring 1933, as the new regime, following Adolf Hitler's appointment as chancellor on January 30, rapidly turned Germany from a failed democracy into a fascist dictatorship. The early hunt for enemies of the regime focused above all on leading critics and prominent politicians, and for the authorities in Bavaria, the largest German state after Prussia, few prizes were bigger than the thirty-seven-year-old Beimler from Munich, who was regarded as an extremely dangerous Bolshevik. When he was arrested on April 11, 1933, after several weeks on the run with his wife, Centa, local officers at the Munich police headquarters were jubilant: "We've got Beimler, we've got Beimler!"2

A veteran of the imperial navy mutiny of autumn 1918, which brought down the German Empire at the end of World War I and ushered in the Weimar Republic, Germany's first experiment in democracy, Hans Beimler had fought single-mindedly against the republic and for a Communist state ever since. In spring 1919, he had served as a "Red Guard" during a doomed Soviet-style uprising in Bavaria. After the brittle German democracy had weathered the initial assaults from the far left and right, the trained mechanic became a fanatical follower of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). The rough and gruff Beimler lived for the cause, throwing himself into battles with police and opponents (like Nazi storm troopers), and rose steadily through the ranks. In July 1932, he reached the pinnacle of his party career: he was elected as a KPD deputy to the Reichstag, the German parliament.3 On February 12, 1933, during one of the final Communist mass gatherings before the national election of March 5, 1933 (the first and last multiparty elections under Hitler), Hans Beimler gave a speech in the Munich Circus Krone. To rouse his supporters, he invoked a rare victory from the 1919 civil war, when Bavarian "Red Guards," Beimler among them, had briefly crushed government forces near Dachau. He ended his speech with a prophetic rallying cry: "We'll meet again at Dachau!"4

Just ten weeks later, on April 25, 1933, Beimler did indeed find himself on the way to Dachau, though not as a revolutionary leader, as he had predicted, but as a prisoner of the SS. The brutal twist was not lost on him or his gleeful captors. A group of SS men was already waiting in giddy anticipation as the truck carrying Beimler and others pulled up in Dachau that day. The mood among the screaming guards was "electric," Private Steinbrenner later recalled. They jumped on the prisoners and quickly pulled Beimler out for his first beating, together with a few more denounced as "swine and traitors" by the commandant. Forced to wear a large sign saying "Welcome" around his neck, Beimler was marched toward the bunker, which had been set up in the former toilets of the old factory building now used as a camp. On the way, Steinbrenner hit Beimler so hard with his horsewhip that even prisoners far away could count each blow.5

Among the Dachau SS, wild rumors spread about Beimler, their new trophy prisoner. The commandant falsely claimed that Beimler had been behind the execution of ten hostages, including a Bavarian countess, by a "Red Guard" detachment in a Munich school back in spring 1919. This massacre-overshadowed by the subsequent slaughter of hundreds of leftist revolutionaries by far-right paramilitary units, the Freikorps, which crushed the ill-fated Munich Soviet-had fired the imagination of right-wing extremists ever since. Passing around graphic photographs of the murdered hostages, the Dachau commandant told his men that, fourteen years later, they would exact revenge. At first, he wanted to kill Beimler himself, but he later decided that it would be more discreet to drive his victim to suicide. On May 8, however, after Beimler had held out for several days, the commandant had had enough; either Beimler used the noose or he would be murdered.6

But Hans Beimler survived Dachau, escaping certain death just hours before the SS ultimatum expired. With the help of two rogue SS men, apparently, he squeezed through the small window high up in his cell, passed the barbed wire and electric fence around the camp, and disappeared into the night.7 After Private Steinbrenner unlocked Beimler's cell early the next morning, on May 9, 1933, and found it empty, the SS went wild. Sirens sounded across the grounds as all available SS men turned the camp upside down. Steinbrenner battered two Communist inmates who had spent the night in the cells adjacent to Beimler, shouting: "Just you wait, you wretched dogs, you'll tell me [where Beimler is]." One of them was executed soon after.8 Outside, a huge manhunt got under way. Planes circled near the camp, "Wanted" posters went up at railway stations, police raids hit Munich, and the newspapers, which had earlier crowed about Beimler's arrest, announced a reward for recapturing the "famous Communist leader," who was described as clean-shaven, with short-cropped hair and unusually large jug ears.9

Despite all their efforts, Beimler evaded his hunters. After recuperating in a safe house in Munich, he was spirited away in June 1933 by the Communist underground to Berlin and then, in the following month, escaped over the border to Czechoslovakia, from where he sent a postcard to Dachau telling the SS men to "kiss my ass." Beimler moved on to the Soviet Union, where he penned a dramatic account, one of the earliest of a fast-growing number of eyewitness reports about Nazi camps like Dachau. First published in German by a Soviet press in mid-August 1933, his pamphlet was soon serialized in a Swiss newspaper, printed in English translation in London, and secretly circulated inside Germany. Beimler also wrote articles in other foreign papers and spoke on Soviet radio. Furious Nazi officials, meanwhile, denounced him as "one of the worst peddlers of horror stories." Not only had Beimler escaped his punishment, he publicly humiliated his former torturers by telling the truth about Dachau. The decision by the Nazi authorities in late autumn 1933 to strip Beimler of his German citizenship was no more than an empty gesture. After all, Beimler had no intention of ever returning to the Third Reich.10

* * *

Hans Beimler's story is extraordinary. Few prisoners in the early Nazi camps were targeted as mercilessly as he was; in 1933, attempted murder was still the exception. Even more exceptional was his escape; for many years, he would remain the only prisoner to successfully flee from Dachau, as the SS immediately strengthened its security installations.11 Still, Beimler's story touches on many key aspects of the early camps: the violence of guards driven by a hatred of Communists; the torture of selected prisoners, partly to intimidate the great mass of other inmates; the reluctance of the camp authorities, who were liable to judicial oversight, to commit open murders, preferring instead to drive selected prisoners to their deaths or to dress up murders as suicides; the high levels of improvisation, evident in the SS use of the broken-down Dachau factory; and the prominent place of the camps in the public sphere, with press reports, underground publications, and more. All these elements shaped the early camps that emerged in the nascent Third Reich in 1933.


In the early afternoon of January 30, 1937, on the anniversary of his appointment as chancellor, Adolf Hitler addressed Nazi grandees in the defunct Reichstag, taking stock of his first four years in power. In a typically rambling speech, Hitler evoked a gloriously resurgent Germany: the Nazis had saved the country from political disaster, rescued its economy from ruin, unified society, cleansed culture, and restored the nation's might by throwing off the shackles of the despised Versailles treaty. Most remarkable of all, Hitler claimed, was that all this had been achieved peacefully. The Nazis had captured power back in 1933 "almost entirely without bloodshed." To be sure, a few deluded opponents and Bolshevik criminals had been detained or struck down. But overall, Hitler boasted, he had overseen a completely new kind of uprising: "This was perhaps the first revolution during which not even one window was smashed."12

It must have been hard for Nazi bigwigs to keep a straight face as they listened to Hitler. All of them remembered well the terror of 1933, and in private they continued to revel in the memory of the violence they had unleashed against their opponents.13 However, fully entrenched as the regime now was, some self-satisfied Nazi leaders might have been keen to forget just how precarious their position had been just a few years earlier. By the early 1930s, the Weimar Republic had been in terminal decline, pulled apart by a catastrophic depression, political deadlock, and social unrest. But it was not yet clear what would replace the republic. Even though the Nazi Party (NSDAP) established itself as the most popular political alternative, most Germans did not yet support Nazi rule. Indeed, even though they were deeply hostile to each other, the two main parties of the Left-the radical Communists (KPD) and the moderate Social Democrats (SPD)-gained more combined votes in the last free elections of November 1932 than did the Nazis. It took the machinations of a small cabal of antirepublican power brokers to install Hitler as chancellor on January 30, 1933, as one of only three Nazis in a cabinet dominated by national conservatives.14

Within a few months of Hitler's appointment, the Nazi movement had been swept to almost total control, riding a wave of terror which engulfed, above all, the different parts of the organized working class. The Nazis smashed their movements, ransacked their offices, and humiliated, locked up, and tortured their activists. In recent years, some historians have downplayed the significance of this prewar Nazi terror. Caricaturing the Third Reich as a "feel-good dictatorship," they suggest that the regime's popularity made a major onslaught against its political enemies largely superfluous.15 But popular support for the regime, important as it was, only ever went so far, and terror was indispensable for silencing the millions who had so far proved resistant to the lure of Nazism. So-called racial and social outsiders were targeted, too, but early repression was directed, first and foremost, at political opponents, and here above all at those standing on the left. It was the primacy of political terror that set the Nazis on the road to absolute rule.

Terror Against the Left

The promise of national rebirth, creating a new Germany out of the ashes of the Weimar Republic, lay at the heart of the popular appeal of Nazism in the early 1930s. But the Nazi dream of a golden future was always also a dream of destruction. Long before they came to power, Nazi leaders had envisaged a ruthless policy of exclusion; by removing all that was alien and dangerous, they would create a homogenous national community ready for battle in the coming racial war.16

This dream of national unity through terror grew out of the lessons Nazi leaders had drawn from the German trauma of 1918. The importance for Nazi ideology of defeat in the First World War cannot be overstated. Unwilling to face the reality of Germany's humiliating defeat on the battlefield, Nazi leaders, like many other German nationalists, convinced themselves that the country had been brought to its knees by defeatism and deviance on the home front, culminating in the supposed "stab in the back" of the German army by the revolution. The solution, Hitler believed, was the radical repression of all internal enemies.17 In a private speech in 1926, a time when the Nazi movement was still consigned to the extreme fringes of German politics, he promised to annihilate the Left. There could be no peace and quiet until "the last Marxist is converted or exterminated."18

Extreme political violence had blighted Weimar from the start, and when the Nazi movement grew in strength in the early 1930s, bloody confrontations began to scar the country on an almost daily basis, nowhere more so than in the capital, Berlin. The paramilitary armies of the Nazis-with their huge storm division (SA) and the much smaller protection squad (SS)-were on the offensive, disrupting rival political meetings, assaulting opponents, and smashing their taverns.19 Crucially, the Nazi movement gained political capital from these clashes with Communists and Social Democrats, reinforcing its image among nationalist supporters as the most dedicated opponent of the much-hated Left.20

Following Hitler's appointment as chancellor on January 30, 1933, many Nazi activists were itching to settle accounts with their enemies. But their leaders were still treading cautiously during the first few weeks, mindful about going too far too soon. Then, on the evening of February 27, a devastating fire ravaged the Reichstag in Berlin. As Nazi chiefs started to gather at the scene, they immediately pointed the finger at the Communists (the real culprit was a Dutch loner, perhaps aided by a covert team of SA arsonists). Adolf Hitler himself arrived in his limousine at around 10:00 p.m., wearing a dark suit and a raincoat. After he had stared for some time at the blazing building, he flew into one of his hysterical rages. Blinded by deep-seated paranoia of the Left (and apparently ignorant about the possible involvement of some of his own men), he denounced the fire as the signal for a long-expected Communist revolt and ordered an immediate crackdown. According to one witness, he screamed: "There will be no mercy now. Anyone who stands in our way will be cut down."21 In Prussia, the ensuing arrests were centrally coordinated by the political police, using older lists of alleged left-wing extremists that had been revised in recent weeks, in line with Nazi ideology.22

The Berlin police immediately swung into action, the German capital still bathed in darkness. Among the victims detained over the following hours were leading Communist politicians and other prominent suspects. One of them was Erich Mühsam, a writer, anarchist, and bohemian, who had become a bête noire for the German Right because of his involvement in the Munich uprising of 1919, for which he had been jailed for several years. Mühsam was still asleep when a police car arrived at 5:00 a.m. on February 28 at his flat on the outskirts of Berlin. Earlier that same night, in other parts of Berlin, the police had arrested Carl von Ossietzky, the famous pacifist publicist, and Hans Litten, a brilliant young left-wing attorney who had tangled Hitler in knots during a court appearance in 1931. Within hours, the police prison at Alexanderplatz held much of the liberal and left elite of Berlin. The arrest sheets read like a Who's Who of writers, artists, lawyers, and politicians despised by the Nazis. "Everyone knows everyone else," one of them later recalled, "and every time someone new is dragged in by the police, there are greetings all around." Some were soon set free again. Others-including Litten, Mühsam, and Ossietzky-faced a terrible fate.23

Police raids across Germany continued for days after the Reichstag fire. "Mass arrests everywhere," the daily Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter announced on its front page on March 2, 1933, adding: "The fist hits hard!" By the time Germany went to the polls three days later, up to five thousand men and women had been arrested.24Dramatic as these events were, however, it soon became clear that they had just been the opening salvo in the Nazi war on political opponents.

The full capture of power began after the March 5, 1933 elections. In a few short months, Germany became an all-out dictatorship. The Nazis took control of all German states, every other political party disappeared, the elected Reichstag effectively dissolved itself, and society was coordinated. Many Germans eagerly supported these changes. But terror was indispensable for the swift establishment of the regime, stunning the opposition into silence and submission. The police stepped up its raids and although the spotlight remained on Communists, it widened to other sections of the organized working class, especially after the destruction of trade unions in May and the SPD in June 1933. In the last week of June alone, more than three thousand Social Democrats were arrested, among them many senior functionaries. Some conservative and nationalist leaders found themselves in custody, too.

Important as police persecution was, terror in spring and summer 1933 rested above all in the brawny hands of Nazi paramilitaries, chiefly the hundreds of thousands of SA brownshirts. Some of these men had already committed murderous attacks in the first weeks of Hitler's rule, not least during the night of the Reichstag fire, when brownshirts had conducted their own search for political opponents (using SA arrest lists). But most had been held back by their superiors, who wanted to make a show of taking power legally. Only after the March 1933 elections had given Nazi leaders a flimsy mandate, returning a small majority for the NSDAP and its national-conservative partners, did they finally release the paramilitaries. Determined to create the new Germany by force, SA and SS men now left a trail of destruction. Heavily armed, they occupied and trashed town halls, publishing houses, and party and union offices, and hunted down political and personal enemies. The grim climax on the streets of Germany came in late June 1933, when Berlin brownshirts raided the left-wing bastion of Köpenick. During five bloody days, they murdered dozens of Nazi opponents and badly injured hundreds more; the youngest victim, a fifteen-year-old Communist, was left permanently brain damaged.25

Although much of the early terror was driven from below, local Nazi militants acted in tune with their leaders, who openly incited violence against the opposition. Just before the March 1933 elections, Hermann Göring, one of Hitler's top lieutenants, announced that he did not care about legal niceties, only about "destroying and exterminating" Communists. During a mass rally in mid-March, the new Württemberg state president Wilhelm Murr, an old Nazi veteran, went even further: "We don't say: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. No, if someone knocks out one of our eyes, we will chop off his head, and if someone knocks out one of our teeth, we will smash in his jaw."26 The violence that followed offers an early sign of the dangerous dynamic that would come to define the Third Reich: Nazi leaders set the direction of policy, and their followers bettered one another with ever more radical attempts to realize it.27

Another legacy of early Nazi terror was the rapid blurring between state and party. With Nazi activists pouring into the police force at all levels, it was impossible, as early as spring 1933, to draw a clear line between police repression and paramilitary violence. On January 30, 1933, for example, Hermann Göring had become acting head of the Prussian Ministry of the Interior (from April 1933 he also served as minister president), which brought the Prussian police force under his control. Not only did Göring instigate the subsequent police assault on Nazi opponents, on February 22 he opened the door for SA and SS men to "relieve the regular police" in its fight against the Left. Nazi thugs were delighted. As auxiliary policemen, they could now settle scores with their political enemies without worrying about interference from the police; they had become the police.28

As for established police officers, most were broadly sympathetic to the political aims of Nazism and needed no persuading of the dangers of Communism. The German police embraced the regime with little hesitation; no large-scale purge was necessary to turn it into a repressive machine for the Third Reich.29 In mid-March 1933, on the occasion of his appointment as acting Munich police chief, SS leader Heinrich Himmler, another senior Nazi official who seized a post in law enforcement, used a newspaper article to praise the excellent collaboration between police and party. Many enemies had already been arrested, he added, after SA and SS men had led the police to the "hideouts of Marxist organizations."30

Copyright © 2015 by Nikolaus Wachsmann

Maps copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey L. Ward