Reviewed by: George C. Browder, Emeritus, Department of History,
Legal vs. Extra-Legal Terror in the
Nicholas Wachsmann, lecturer at Sheffield University, revises our commonly held perceptions of the conflict between the legal-judicial bureaucracy of the Third Reich and its SS-police system. With this revision comes the revelation that until well into the war, the regular penal system under the Ministry of Justice held far more prisoners than the SS concentration camps, serving to house and brutalize every category of victims of Nazi terror. Since the regular penal system of Nazi Germany has been largely ignored, especially outside Germany, Wachsmann's contribution is doubly significant. He writes:
[T]he legal apparatus fulfilled several vital functions in the Third Reich: it preserved a degree of legal stability in some areas, it could be blamed for the failure of the homogenous 'national community' to materialize, it legitimized the regime, and it helped in the brutal repression of 'community aliens'. For all the misgivings of the Nazi leaders, the legal apparatus was a fundamental pillar of the Nazi dictatorship and the prisons were very much Hitler's prisons.... If this contribution of the legal apparatus is overlooked, the view of Nazi terror inside Germany will inevitably be lopsided.
This quote constitutes the central claim of the book.
Following World War II, the legal apparatus, like the military, managed to maintain the myth of its relatively insignificant involvement in Nazi terror. Like the military, individuals involved in it even claimed some degree of victimization. Their complicity was usually dismissed as a result of the positivist legal tradition in Germany, which allegedly prevented anything like judicial "activism" to curb the growth of the Nazi police state. Until a new generation of jurists replaced the holdovers from the Weimar-Nazi eras who had written the early studies, and until historians rather than jurists attacked the issue, the relationship between the legal system, the police, and the regime remained largely unexplored. Only after the late 1980s did German scholars begin in-depth analysis of this area, and it has been largely ignored outside the field of legal history. Building on this body of scholarship, with extensive work in the vast archival and published primary sources, and exploiting most of the secondary work on the Nazi police state, Wachsmann offers the English-speaking readership its first opportunity to balance its understanding of the entire repression and control system.
Without sacrificing either sophisticated analysis or any complexity, Wachsmann has written a book that should be accessible to general reader and specialist alike. The only thing that might stand in the way of the general reader's enjoyment is the author's occasional assay into nuanced debates with other scholars. Much of Wachsmann's contribution consists either of corrections to or expansions on other works focusing on the regular legal system--no mean achievement. The major force of his new perspective, however, is directed at those of us who ignored the regular legal system's full role in the Nazi police state and relied on unexamined traditions about their conservative resistance to the emergence of the extra-legal police state.
Although this book has a chronological format, beginning with a chapter on Weimar background and ending with the wholesale terror and the extermination of prisoners at the end of the Third Reich, a topical division is also at work. The history of each sub-theme, such as sterilization, receives its own chronological narrative. In the continuity versus aberration debate, Wachsmann comes down more on the side of continuity, repeatedly tracing the origins of Nazi criminology and penology back through the Weimar era into the Wilhelmine Empire. Yet his is no Sonderweg path of inevitability, for he delineates the debates over crime and punishment as being as controversial and divisive as they were in other western societies. Nor were these divisions consistently found between regressive versus modernist or left versus right worldviews. Indeed, the right-nationalist sympathies of judges and prison administrators did prevail as often as not over Weimar-era prison reform efforts. Yet the double-edged complexities of modern reform movements included calls for the elimination from society of asocials and habitual criminals--"scientific" social-management schemes that lay at the heart of later Nazi proactive crime-fighting programs. Even the SPD had been wooed by some of the arguments for "scientific reforms and practices" that became the core of Nazi terrorist law-enforcement.
Wachsmann demonstrates these points effectively, writing that "[i]mportant aspects of the Weimar prison in the 1920s clearly run counter to the evolution of social policy as depicted by historians such as Detlav Peukert". That era's legal and penal programs exhibited tendencies toward both reform and repression. "Overall," Wachsmann claims, "despite some important changes, the structure of the German penal system was not radically transformed in the 1920s". Legislative drafts "envisaged the internment of non-criminal social outsiders such as alcoholics, prostitutes and the homeless". Sterilization was debated as the solution to the problem of "degenerates." As calls for elimination of such elements intensified, the right-wing press and politicians accused more progressive German states of turning the prisons into sanatoriums and pampering the inmates, who allegedly lived better than honest working-class citizens. Public fascination with crime and punishment and its sensationalization by newspapers and the entertainment media fueled the political polemic in which the Nazis ultimately prevailed.
The book has two main foci: the officials of the Ministry of Justice and the judiciary and their interactions with Hitler and the Nazi elite, but especially Himmler's SS and police system; and the penal system and its personnel, particularly with regard to prison conditions and the lives of the prisoners. Another theme is the wide range of categories of "offenders" prosecuted (or persecuted) by both the legal and police systems. Wachsmann analyzes each category, thoroughly describing its social composition, public perceptions, Nazi intentions, and how its fate evolved. Finally Wachsmann seeks to put the Nazi police state in perspective. Successor systems in the FRG and GDR are contrasted, especially with regard to the respective fates of the former officials. Brief attention is also paid to a comparison with western and Soviet systems.
Wachsmann consistently points to the significance of Hitler and his personal fixations, especially his disdain for lawyers and the courts, as the primary driving force behind National Socialist policy. Hitler backed the emergence of the SS-police state, enabling it to become increasingly ruthless and unrestrained, moving beyond the law as an instrument for fighting all "community aliens." Although he and other leading Nazis had little regard for the legal apparatus, it served several important purposes. The judiciary and prison officials were minimally purged, but then came under constant pressure to become an instrument of service to the "national community" rather than "abstract legal principles." Nevertheless, according to Wachsmann, "[t]he Third Reich did not become an all-out police state". The regular legal system survived to the end.
Wachsmann thus totally destroys the idea that the Ministry of Justice under Franz Gürtner resisted the expansion of Himmler's SS and police state on principle, along with their corresponding ability to stand above the law and due process. Concerns that the public's faith in the legal system would be undermined aside, the conflicts over the expanding police powers were primarily a turf war. To the extent that the police never gained control over the penal system, as in some other police states, the lawyers won that war. But they won it at the expense of converting the penal system into as effective an instrument of terror as any Nazi could ever have imagined. Furthermore, jurists thoroughly collaborated with the police, conforming to every demand Hitler made of the justice system. To prevent the protective custody seizure of an accused individual if he had been acquitted by the courts or given too lenient a sentence, the judiciary escalated its conviction rates (regardless of the evidence) and increased the severity of its sentences.
The behavior of justice officials from the ministry through the judiciary down to prison officials and warders reveals how deep the convictions of pseudo-scientific racial-biological thinking had become, even outside National Socialist circles. Even the non-Nazi jurists and prison officials reacted favorably to party pressure to get tough on the "undesirable elements of society," to the point of bending or exceeding the law. They accepted police torture of suspects, only demanding its standardization. They even saw the extralegal system of concentration camps as an appropriate measure for dealing with "true threats" to society. They collaborated with the police by turning over inmates who had completed their sentences but whom they perceived to present a continued threat. By no means were such attitudes restricted to the judges of the special courts and the People's Courts. Noting that these courts have drawn most of the historians' attention, adding to the impression that the rest of the legal system had to have been more normative, Wachsmann argues that they "should not be pictured as a 'revolutionary tribunal' that was not a 'true part of the justice system'". Legal-police relations were "characterized by compromise, cooperation and conflict, with the former two dominating the prewar period.... In many cases, the legal system actually helped to facilitate police detention" (p. 184). Ten charts graphically illustrate the wartime escalation of judicial action against the victims of Nazi "righteous justice" and hate.
Wachsmann also refutes the idea that the appointment of Otto-Georg Thierack as Minister of Justice in 1942 represented a turning point when the law "was finally perverted and unconditionally subordinated to the aims of the regime". Such arguments have provided an alibi for the rest of the legal bureaucracy--instead, Wachsmann argues, Thierack merely accelerated the process that all served, ultimately accepting an emerging reality that left to the police "the internment of 'incorrigible' Germans and the punishment of 'racial aliens'. Basically, the legal system participated in police exterminations only when the police thought that a public trial would serve a purpose. Nevertheless, Thierack had to deal with many asocial elements and "racial aliens" already inside his prisons. From the date of his appointment, he began arranging for their transfer to the camp system for extermination through labor, sealing the fate of more than 20,000 prisoners, including the disabled.
Despite this stark impression, however, Wachsmann's treatment of Ministry Justice officials, judges, prison administrators and warders is appropriately nuanced. The fanatics, the sadists, the more normatively prejudiced and harsh, the dutifully diligent, the too easily pressured, the more conventionally restrained, and the occasionally humane and conscientious are all represented. The full range of motivations for getting caught up in and carried away with National Socialist excesses emerges in his analysis. The (unfortunately) rare occasions on which individuals successfully resisted escalations on principle also find their place in the story.
Wachsmann's analysis of the German penal system is a primer for anyone needing an introduction. All National Socialist normal penal institutions were carried over from the Weimar era, many even from the Wilhelmine period, and Wachsmann traces their evolution throughout. For in-depth perspective, he conducted three case studies: Untermassfeld, a former castle and one of the oldest institutions; Brandenburg-Göerden, the largest and a Weimar construction with the most modern facilities; and Aichach, an exclusively woman's facility. Going beyond institutional analysis, including the administrators and warders, he provides frequent pictures of the history, life behind bars, and the ultimate fate of a wide range of inmates based on memoirs, post-war testimonies, and inmate files.
His findings are grim. Re-education efforts were directed at inmates judged redeemable, with relatively little success. Schooling was minimal, with heavy doses of propaganda; ironically the national-conservative bent of officials led to some increased religious instruction. Nevertheless, discipline and harsh living and working conditions were seen as the real means for discouraging recidivism. Often police conducted such close monitoring of the released that they were unable to hold jobs or housing and were thus driven back to crime. Changes in the economy effected prison conditions unevenly. When police stepped up campaigns for incarcerating political and asocial "enemies," overcrowding and reduced rations led to a general decline. At first the depression retarded the use of productive prison labor, but the Five Year Plan and the increasing demands brought by the war led to maximum--and often deadly or debilitating--exploitation. Only from 1943 did internment in concentration camps (apart from death camps) exceed the population of the regular penal system. By then prison conditions had become increasingly deadly. During the war, perhaps 20,000 prisoners simply died, not counting executions. Although government policy, diminishing resources, and the breakdown of the national infrastructure were responsible, prison officials failed to mitigate the decline. At their worst, however, the regular prisons never equaled the horror and lethality of the camps. Imminent liberation of the prisons led to mass evacuations, even death marches and the murder of inmates whom their keepers could not bear to see released. Amid the chaos, however, even specific orders from above could not guarantee death. With the breakdown, individual personalities were free to emerge. Some officials acted with excessive cruelty or ideological zeal, while others, for a wide variety of reasons, spared the intended victims.
Despite all the strengths of the book, critical readers will notice that Wachsmann himself is not immune to overgeneralizations from secondary sources. For example, as part of his otherwise appropriate emphasis on Hitler's importance in setting the tone for "justice" in the Third Reich, he blames Hitler for intensifying the persecution of homosexuals. His entire basis for this judgment is Ian Kershaw's biography, which never draws such a specific conclusion.  He ignores differing conclusions in most of the literature on persecution of homosexuals, some of which he cites elsewhere. Given the scope of this book, he may be excused from such occasional reliance on one or two more general sources for conclusions where the specialized literature would be more appropriate. On one serious point, however, Wachsmann's book is likely to become the source of the very kind of unfortunate and misleading overgeneralizations he has so successfully refined. Here I am thinking of his conclusion: "The Third Reich did not become an all-out police state" (pp. 69, 372)--a statement that will inevitably lead to quotation out of context.
Wachsmann's attempt to put his study in perspective with the concept of the dual state does not help this issue. In order to make this case, he writes, "[t]o sum up, the picture of the police and legal system as two antagonistic and competing agencies of the Nazi state, subscribed to by numerous historians, is not particularly persuasive. Not only does this picture fail to encapsulate fully the complicity of the legal authorities in Nazi terror, it also rather misreads the work of Ernst Fraenkel." Tendencies to identify the legal system with Fraenkel's "Normative State" and the SS-police-camp system with his "Prerogative State" are oversimplifications of Fraenkel's work that conform "to the popular, rather charitable image of the legal system in the Third Reich". In fact, "Fraenkel did not simply equate the Normative State with the legal system. True, Fraenkel did see many courts--especially in civil law--as part of the Normative State, 'responsible for seeing that the principles of the capitalist order were maintained'.... However, Fraenkel made clear that other courts actually gave explicit backing to the actions of the Prerogative State, suspending legal rights. These courts, which based their decisions on political considerations, therefore belonged to the Prerogative State themselves.... Following Fraenkel, it is clear that the legal apparatus combined elements of the Normative and Prerogative State. It maintained some degree of social and economic order for the majority of the population, preventing the Third Reich from descending into complete anarchy. Even the Nazi leadership regarded an element of legal predictability as necessary for the functioning of the dictatorship.... Over time, the remaining normative elements within the legal apparatus became weaker, as more and more matters were defined as political." So far so good, but then Wachsmann adds, "The Dual State gradually disappeared".
This last statement seems to contradict his conclusion about the unachieved all-out police state. Instead we are left with a conclusion that not only begs the question of what an "all-out police state" is, but seems to obscure the full force of Wachsmann's study. Was Stalin's the only all-out police state? According to Wachsmann, in contrast to Nazi Germany, Russia had "no real tradition of abstract law," "[l]egal consciousness was poorly developed among the population," Soviet legal officials "were untrained and poorly educated party members," and "all prisons, camps and forced labor colonies were controlled by the NKVD". If the Nazi police state that Wachsmann describes was not "all-out," why not? Surely an all-out police state does not have to threaten every single citizen with totally unpredictable terror at all times. Our best understandings of how Hitler's system developed have made the point that Wachsmann himself fully develops--that the majority of the population accepted and even supported it because it claimed successfully to provide them the order and security they desired. Rather than threatening them, it merely reinforced their natural tendencies to conform and focus on their own affairs. "All-out, unpredictable terror" and an "all-out police state" are simply not the same thing. As Wachsmann repeatedly argues, the survival of some modicum of conventional legality was essential to the Nazi system, and in no way impeded the veritably unlimited fulfillment of the "the Führer's will."
Should this fine book gain the wide-spread public attention it deserves, one wonders just how it will be received in the heated, current debates over U.S. domestic security, capital punishment, correctional policy, interrogation, and the wars on terrorism, drugs, crime, sex offenders, and illegal immigrants.
. Detlav Peeukert, The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity (London: Allen Lane, 1993). Ian Kershaw, Hitler. 1889-1936: Hubris (London: Penguin Books, 1998).
. Ernst Fraenkel, The Dual State. A Contribution to the Theory of Dictatorship (New York: Octagon Books, 1941).
Citation: George Browder. Review of Wachsmann, Nikolaus, Hitler's Prisons: Legal Terror in Nazi Germany. H-German, H-Net Reviews. July, 2005.
Copyright © 2005 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at email@example.com
From 1933 to 1945 civil courts pronounced 16,650 death sentences, ca. 95% during the war. The military courts pronounced an additional ca. 25,000 death sentences. The number of victims of the police justice system is unknown. At the beginning of the war, the Gestapo, the criminal investigation police, and the Security Service were combined into the Reich Security Main Office. This became the central office for the war of annihilation. The so-called Senior SS and Police Officers were assigned to the occupied territories. With a minimum of bureaucracy they could draw upon all the divisions of the SS and police and hence became generals of the extermination war and organizers of the "Final Solution to the Jewish Problem".
Practitioners And Technicians Of Totalitarian Rule
by Joachim C Fest
Two death masks were made of Heinrich Himmler after he had hastily swallowed the cyanide capsule that ended his life within a few minutes while he was undergoing a medical examination by a British military doctor on 23rd May 1945. One of them shows a face twisted into a grotesque grimace, brutal, curiously impudent, its diabolical structure emphasized by the contortions of the death struggle, particularly by the pinched mouth. The other is an inexpressive, rather calm face with nothing frightening about it. It is as though death itself were trying, yet again, to demonstrate the strange combination to which it owed one of its most terrible and diligent servants in this world. (1)
However, as soon as we peel off a few layers from the demonized image we lay bare the far simpler features of a romantically eccentric petty bourgeois who, under the specific conditions of a totalitarian system of government, attained exceptional power and hence found himself in a position to put his idiocies into bloody practice. Those who met him personally are unanimous in describing him as utterly mediocre, indistinguishable from the commonplace by any special trait of character. A British diplomat commented that he had never been able to draw from the Reichsführer of the SS 'a remark of even the most fleeting interest', and Speer's judgement, 'half schoolmaster, half crank', neatly sums up what many people have said.(3)
Walter Dornberger, who was in charge of the rocket centre at Peenemünde, graphically described Himmler's appearance:
He looked to me like an intelligent elementary schoolteacher, certainly not a man of violence. I could not for the life of me see anything outstanding or extraordinary about this middle-sized, youthfully slender man in grey SS uniform. Under a brow of average height two grey-blue eyes looked out at me, behind glittering pince-nez, with an air of peaceful interrogation. The trimmed moustache below the straight, well-shaped nose traced a dark line on his unhealthy, pale features. The lips were colourless and very thin. Only the inconspicuous, receding chin surprised me. The skin of his neck was flaccid and wrinkled. With a broadening of his constant, set smile, faintly mocking and sometimes contemptuous about the corners of the mouth, two rows of excellent white teeth appeared between the thin lips. His slender, pale and almost girlishly soft hands, covered with blue veins, lay motionless on the table throughout our conversation. (4)
In fact, anyone who tried to see behind the slightly bloated smoothness of this face the disruption of a monstrous character was deluding himself. In the light of the million-fold terrors he inspired, there was a temptation to search for 'abysses' in which at least a pale gleam of some 'human' reaction might be visible, and it was that that misled people. In reality Heinrich Himmler was exactly what his appearance suggested: an insecure, vacillating character, the colour of whose personality was grey. His lack of independence was concealed by a desperate and stupid over zealousness. What looked like malignity or brutality was merely the conscienceless efficiency of a man whose life substance was so thinly spread that he had to borrow from outside. No emotion either carried him away or inhibited him; His very coldness was a negative element, not glacial, but bloodless.' (5) A capable organizer and administrator, he possessed that inhuman mixture of diligence, subservience and fanatical will to carry things through that casts aside humane considerations as irrelevant, and whose secret idols are closed files of reports of tasks completed; a man at freezing-point. Hence it required great psychological perspicacity to discover a personal contact - before the hasty construction of imaginary psychic abysses - the true basis of his existence, to find him sinister, more sinister than Hitler himself, as an observer wrote, 'through the degree of concentrated subservience, through a certain narrow-minded conscientiousness, an inhuman methodicalness about which there was something of the automaton'. (6)
It was these qualities which, more than anything, laid the foundations for his rise and saved him from sharing the fate of the sectarians within the movement. For this character, almost abstract in its colourless impersonality, gained a certain individuality from Himmler's eccentric views, which opposed to a world heading for destruction a crude mixture of racial theories, runic beliefs and sundry doctrines of natural healing. With naive certainty Himmler considered himself the reincarnation of Heinrich I, who had done battle with the Hungarians and Slavs. He recommended a breakfast of leeks and mineral water for his SS, would have only twelve people as guests at his table, following the example of the Round Table of King Arthur, and was occasionally to be found in the company of high SS officers all staring fixedly into space in an attempt to compel a person in the next room to confess the truth by their 'exercises in concentration'. (7) His pleasant superstitions naturally, after the fashion of the time, had pseudo-scientific trimmings. He had archaeological excavations carried out in search of the original pure Aryan race and studies made of the skulls of 'Jewish-Bolshevik commissars', in order to arrive at a typological definition of the 'subhuman'. It was this same side of his personality that was reflected in the almost religious ceremonial practised in the SS.
Hitler undoubtedly watched these efforts with the greatest misgiving. In Mein Kampf he had already come out against pseudo-academic folkish occultism,(8) and finally at the cultural conference during the Reich Party Congress of 1938 he publicly repudiated all such goings-on, which 'could not be tolerated in the movement':
At the pinnacle of our programme stands not mysterious premonition, but clear knowledge and hence open avowal. But woe if, through the insinuation of obscure mystical elements, the movement or the state should give unclear orders. And it is enough if this unclarity is contained merely in words. There is already a danger if orders are given for the setting up of so-called 'cult places', because this alone will give birth to the necessity subsequently to devise so-called cult games and cult rituals. Our 'cult' is exclusively cultivation of that which is natural and hence willed by God. (9)
Possibly these declarations were also directed against Himmler. Albert Speer, in any case, said Hitler was in the habit of 'criticizing and mocking' the ideology of the SS; (10) but obviously he recognized and valued the skill in handling power that lay behind it. And if Himmler himself would have liked to give free play to his eccentric longings, the example of the SS shows more clearly than anything else how fully irrational tendencies could at any time be checked by a purposeful sense of reality. 'In calculations I have always been sober,' he stated. (11) For the liturgy of self-presentation practised by the SS was never just show, a solemn but faded accessory. It was something that held them together, and one of the most effective means for establishing a sworn brotherhood of the elect. Participation in the mystic ritual not only conferred a special distinction but also placed them under a special obligation. Without a doubt the rituals which Himmler staged on the Wevelsburg, and at other places dictated by his faith, had the additional purpose of overwhelming those present with a melancholic shudder at his innate demonism. Over and above this, they were intended to inspire those states of rapture which are so easily transformed into brutal and merciless violence. But none of this belies the initiatory character of these solemn hours, which amounted to a repeated act of consecration and total commitment to a community above all traditional ties, one that seriously demanded 'unconditional liberation from the old social world of caste, class and family' and 'proclaimed its own "law" as springing unconditionally from the mere fact of belonging to the new community'. (12) In its aims the SS went far beyond all the overt considerations of militant political groupings. Leading SS officers appeared not merely as instruments of domination within the 'internal battleground', but as the nucleus of a new state apparatus. The goal of the SS was to permeate and dissolve the old order, and it was also to be the hard core of an imperial dominion aiming at 'organizing Europe economically and politically on a basis that would destroy all pre-existing boundaries, with the Order in the background'. (13)
The setting of these tasks and the first steps towards their achievement once more reflected the dual character of unreal fantasy and rational planning which was Himmler's most personal contribution to the regime. It was his conviction that by systematically pursuing his policy, 'on the basis of Menders Law', the German people could in 120 years once more become 'authentically German in appearance'. (14) To this end he put forward and partially implemented an alteration in the marriage laws to do away with monogamy. He had various plans for establishing a privileged SS caste, eliminating traditional standards of value and working out a system of graduated educational and developmental opportunities for subjugated peoples. Within national frontiers pushed three hundred miles to the east, towns were to be pulled down and that 'paradise of the Germanic race' created, of which splendid visions were continually conjured up by the Reichsführer of the SS, and those of his followers who enjoyed his special confidence. A widespread network of defensive villages was also envisaged, not merely to make it possible for the members of the Order, the 'New Nobility', to maintain their dominant position by force and government, but also to re-establish the ancient contact with the soil. The police functions which in actual fact the SS largely assumed paled beside these romantic visions of the future. These latter were the 'Holy of Holies', and Himmler described as the 'happiest day of my life' the day on which Hitler gave his consent to the plan for the creation of soldier-peasants (Wehrbauern). (15)
IfZ Institut für Zeitgeschichte, Munich
IMT Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal, Nuremberg, 1947 1949
VJHfZ. Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte
Ausgewählte Dokumente - Ausgewählte Dokumente zur Geschichte des Nationalsozialismus by Hans-Adolf Jacobsen and Werner Jochmann
Tischgespräche - Hitlers Tischgespräche im Führerhauptquartier 1941 1942 by Henry Picker
Der Angriff - Aufsätze aus der Kampfzeit by Josef Göbbels.
Die Geschichte eines Hochverräters - the autobiography of Ernst Röhm, published in Munich in 1928.
1 One of the two death masks appeared in Time magazine in the summer of 1945.
The reality of what the concentration camp system was all about was reform, not torture and repression. The devastation in Dachau and other camps came about at the end of the war as a result not of a mass extermination policy by the Germans but because of a lack of food and medical supplies, the spread of typhus and a breakdown in sanitation.
a fascinating look at the concentration camp system inside Germany, devoid of
the hysteria often associated with the subject in Hollywood films and in the
"mainstream" media and academia. This may be the first-ever detailed examination
of the concentration camp system, presenting a far different picture from what
we've been told.
The Facts About the Origins of the
Concentration Camps and Their Administration
Article from The Barnes Review, Jan./Feb. 2001
By Stephen A. Raper, BS (hist/pol.sc.)
In propagating a politicized view of German history many in the media and academia have attempted to portray the German system of imprisonment in concentration camps as some sort of precursor to genocide, as a living hell where it was official German policy to make life miserable and to victimize, beat, torture, rape and murder innocent civilians simply because of religious or political persuasion or sexual orientation.
Is this sensational view of history correct? No, the role of German concentration camps was much different and probably better in many ways than the American prison system today. German concentration camps had a much more positive role to play in Hitler's new and progressive National Socialist state.
The facts will bear out that the Establishment historians have purveyed a view of concentration camp life that cannot be substantiated.
The daily life in a concentration camp was much different than most historians will admit.
In 1948, Paul Rassinier, a former Socialist and
critic of National Socialist Germany who had himself been interned in the
concentration camps of
Not only did the concentration camps protect anti-social elements in Rassinier's view, but they were also designed to "rehabilitate the strayed sheep and to bring them back to a healthier concept of the German community." 1 According to Rassinier, the German government was helping those whom it committed to concentration camps by putting them in a setting so that they could be rehabilitated into more productive members of the German community.
Those who fell into the categories of persons assigned to concentration camps included any person condemned for treasonable activities, as well as Communist Party officials and anyone who incited a German citizen to refuse military service.2 Persons who were considered by the authorities of the Third Reich as being an anti-social malefactor were also sent to the camps. Anti-social malefactors consisted of professional and habitual criminals, that is, those people who had been sentenced to a minimum of six months imprisonment or hard labor on at least three separate occasions. Anti-social malefactors also specifically included beggars, prostitutes, homosexuals, drunkards, psychopaths and lunatics.3 Persons who were "work shy" were also sent to concentration camps. According to Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, work shy meant unemployed men who "could be proved to have refused without adequate reason employment offered to them on two occasions."4
The first persons arrested and sent to concentration camps were communists who had taken part in efforts to undermine the fabric of the German state. Most of these communists arrested were denounced to local authorities by fellow workers and neighbors who were concerned about their activities.
During March and April 1933, the German people
reported the activities of over 10,000 communists in
The name "concentration camp" simply means an area where dangerous elements are concentrated. Hitler once said the idea for concentration camps came from his studies of the Boer War in South Africa.5
During that war, the British built camps and concentrated women and children of Dutch ancestry. During their confinement in British concentration camps, over 26,000 died mainly of starvation, since the British made no effort to feed the unarmed and helpless women, nor did they allow them to leave and go back to their farmsteads. This action of the British against unarmed women and children mainly goes overlooked by Establishment historians, who instead accuse the German concentration camps of being death camps whose sole purpose was killing unarmed civilians. But this is not the case.
The first official concentration camp set up in
Himmler stated that it was his promise not to wait until crimes were committed before arresting criminals, and pledged that, in order to protect the populace, professional criminals who had been sentenced many times would be pursued more ruthlessly than before and isolated away from the German people by being incarcerated in concentration camps. Himmler also added that his camps were to be models of cleanliness, order and instruction. It was through this instruction that Himmler hoped to re-educate minor criminals as well as communists. Himmler had ordered strong disciplinary measures to be employed, but the treatment inmates received was just, and they learned trades through their work and training. In the concentration camps, the motto was: "There is one way to freedom. Its milestones are: obedience, zeal, honesty, order, cleanliness, temperance, truth, sense of sacrifice and love for the Fatherland."7
However, instead of being vindictive or out to do harm to the communists, the concentration camp at Dachau was designed to reform them and make them into citizens that the Germans could be proud of - citizens who could return to German society at large and live out their lives as peaceful and proper German men and women. Instead of being an institution aimed at punishment, the German system of concentration camps was designed to reform and to reeducate enemies of the new German state.
A correspondent for The New York Times was allowed to visit
They honestly and sincerely believed that their task was pedagogic rather than punitive.... They felt sincerely sorry for the misguided non-Nazis who had not yet found the true faith. 8
Not only had the inmates not yet found faith in the leadership of Adolf Hitler, but they also took part in or supported subversive activities aimed at overthrowing the state.
An internal document written in 1934 and circulated at Gestapo headquarters stated that National Socialist Germany would not be complete until its opponents learned to support it and identify with the goals of the German community at large. The writer of the document reiterated the educational value and ideological indoctrination that the camps were to instill in the inmates, and suggested imbuing the inmates with the knowledge that upon their release they would be able to become full members of German society.9 Just a short time later, another Gestapo document warned all state authorities not to harass released inmates so as not to make their complete re-integration into German society difficult.10
The Germans themselves often referred to these camps as "education camps." In the summer of 1942, three years after World War II began, Himmler was still emphasizing the re-educational aspects of the camps when he wrote a letter to Oswald Pohl.11 The language that he used in this letter was also given as part of official instructions to guards at the camps. Himmler instructed each guard to make his behavior a personal example to the prisoners, in order to imbue them with respect for the National Socialist state and to teach them how to behave properly.12 This re-education at the camps was to stress traditional Aryan virtues, such as hard work, strict discipline, a belief in law and order, support for the complete family and respect for traditional German society, as well as encouraging them to respect the National Socialist state and the Nazi movement in general.
Over the years, tens of thousands of inmates were released from the camps once they had shown that they had chosen to reform themselves. On many occasions the commandants of the camps had determined that inmates had abandoned their old ways and had chosen to become loyal members of German society. As late as October 1944, inmates were being released, and many of these were communists who had abandoned their previous beliefs.13
Of the persons sent to the concentration camps, many
were sent there by court order for fixed terms. Other persons were arrested
because of the danger they presented to German society. Some prisoners, who had
been convicted during the
Many of the camps were open to inspection by foreign diplomats and even by German civilians. Often the curious persons would travel to the camps only to be met by friendly guards and escorted through the camps on a personal tour. Of the tens of thousands of prisoners who were released, most probably told their relatives, friends and neighbors of the conditions present in the camps. Over the years, judges, lawyers, members of the clergy, social workers and repairmen were allowed into the camps for official business. Merchants often visited the camps to bring new stocks of supplies, and local civilians were often employed in the camps. If conditions in the camps had been deplorable, German society would have learned of it and would have been outraged. The Germans were and still are a decent people whose only crime in establishing the camps was showing leniency to persons who wanted to do them harm.
In a book written on the camp established at Oranienburg, Werner Schafer claimed that some citizens in the local communities asked permission to send some of their rebelling children to the camps to learn self-discipline. Schafer also said that there were some prisoners who were offered release who refused since they could not remember doing work since the beginning of the Great Depression.14 Schafer listed the types of food eaten by the prisoners and computed how much weight they had gained during their internment in the camp. Citizens of National Socialist Germany therefore had good reason to support the officials who administered the camps.
The nature of imprisonment in concentration camps can
best be guessed by a document signed by Himmler, in which the principles of
internment in a concentration camp were clarified. The document was not meant
for public distribution and was classified "secret" before being sent to senior
officers of the Gestapo on 27 May 1942.
Recently, various officials in the party and the government have begun threatening to lodge complaints with the police against citizens, or to have them imprisoned in concentration camps, in order to give greater force to various orders and decrees. In this manner, for instance, one officer threatened a citizen that he would be sent to a camp for "police interrogation" if he did not produce within five days a certain form, as he had been told to do by one of the officials. I request in all seriousness that the parties involved be instructed to cease this practice immediately, and if this is not done I will take upon myself to declare publicly that citizens are not liable in such instances to either police investigation or imprisonment in a concentration camp. The most severe punishments lose their deterrent ability when they are threatened at every opportunity, or when the impression is given that every official, in every office, is authorized to make use of it.
Imprisonment in a concentration camp, involving as it does separation from one's family, isolation from the outside world, and the hard labor assigned to the prisoner, is the most severe of punishments. Its use is reserved exclusively for the secret police, in accordance with precise regulations which specify the form of imprisonment and its term. In this matter I have retained for myself a large measure of authority and exclusive discretion. All in all the German people are uniquely fair-minded. Most Germans obey the instructions of the authorities of their own free will and desire. Instructions accompanied by threats will, however, be received with disrespect and will be obeyed only unwillingly, not to mention that the multiplication of threats of this type will give a completely false impression, both here and abroad.15
Not only does this document illuminate the fact that the concentration camp system was not vindictive or there to terrorize the civilian population, but it also shows that the leaders of the state had concern for the prisoners. Himmler recognized that imprisonment involved isolation and separation from loved ones and was determined to allow the German people to know that the only persons imprisoned in the camps were extreme cases. But more importantly, as the value of hindsight allows us to see, the document also allows us to understand where some of the Allied propaganda came from; minor officials were eager to add threats to their orders in an attempt to give the impression that they were more powerful than they actually were. Because of the actions of these minor officials, the Allies had the propaganda to claim that the concentration camps were there to terrorize the civilian population and to force them to become subservient to a state that only cared about itself. This was exactly what Himmler was afraid would happen: that the concentration camps would be seen to be a punitive punishment and not the center of re-education that they really were.
To meet the needs of re-education, the camp command in each camp was divided into several departments, which dealt with matters of administration, personnel, transport, communications, mail, equipment, kitchen work, supplies, health and sanitation and so forth. The camp commandants were assisted by a deputy, an adjutant, a master sergeant, a medical officer and education officer, a legal officer, a fire officer and others. The commandants were held personally responsible for the re-education of those prisoners who were not considered to be "lost cases." Because the camps were often open for public inspections, the commandants were also required to have some amount of political sensitivity. Starting in 1942, the commandants were also responsible for the work of the camp doctor and the medical staff.
The camp commandants had full responsibility for almost everything that happened in the camps, except for the work of the political departments. The political department operated in the camp as an extension of the Gestapo, and a plainclothes officer of the secret police headed it. This department dealt with the reception and registration of inmates, and was also in charge of their release. This departm
Not all members of the command had direct and daily contact with the inmates. The inmates were kept in a special compound within the camps, overseen by their own commanding officer and his staff. Some staff officers were responsible for head counts, others for work arrangements; others actually accompanied prisoners when they went out to work, while other officers were responsible for each of the living quarters, which were themselves referred to as a block. The personal deputy of the camp commandant usually oversaw the prisoner division of the camp.
The camp commandants were also required to prevent cruelty to inmates. A training manual for camp guards asked the following question: "What is completely prohibited a camp guard? Answer: Under all circumstances he is forbidden to strike prisoners at his own initiative, outside the framework of the disciplinary regulations."
In 1935 Reinhard Heydrich wrote to the camp guards stating that "it is not becoming an interrogator to insult a prisoner, demean him, or behave with rudeness and brutalize or torture him when there is no need to do so." Heydrich went on and warned the camp men that if they beat prisoners they would be court-martialed.16 Eicke himself wrote in 1937 that "the guards should be instructed to abstain from mistreating prisoners.... Even if a guard had done no more than slap a prisoner's face, the slap will be considered an act of brutality and the guard will be punished."17
The SS actually punished a number of its own men for their conduct while serving in the concentration camps. Two concentration camp commandants, Adam Grünwald and Karl Chmielewshi, were placed on trial and found guilty of the deaths of prisoners as a result of brutality in their camps. The SS tried over 700 staff members throughout the course of the Third Reich for their conduct toward inmates. This was because the SS and the National Socialist state always considered concentration camps to be re-education camps first and foremost.
It is true that persons who were considered to be hopeless cases such as habitual offenders were sent to the camps, but most prisoners always could earn their release by conforming to traditional Aryan-German standards of conduct. Unfortunately, many guards could not tell the difference between the habitual criminals and those who were there to be re-educated. This problem plagued the camp administration throughout the history of the Third Reich.
Oswald Pohl complained that "As a result of my personal attention to the matter, and the repeated irregularities recently noted, I have learned that many of the guards at the camps are aware only in the faintest way of the obligations imposed upon them."18
But historians must take into consideration the fact that tens of thousands of individuals served in the camps. If 700 committed crimes and were punished for it, it only highlights the fact that the other tens of thousands of Germans serving in the camps took their responsibilities seriously. Most camp men understood that their personal behavior was a way of encouraging inmates to aspire to be upstanding and proud citizens of Germany According to an SS booklet: "The prisoner must know that the guard represents a philosophy superior to his, an unblemished political approach and a higher moral level, and the prisoner must take these as a personal example as part of his efforts to correct himself so that he may once again be a loyal citizen in his community."19
In April 1939, Adolf Hitler celebrated his 50th birthday. To celebrate this occasion, plans were drawn up for a pardon for several thousand prisoners in the camps. The instructions that determined who was to be freed and who would remain as an inmate reveal the different kinds of prisoners in the camps as well as revealing Hitler's generosity and good will. The intention of the pardon was to free inmates who were brought to the camps in 1933, six years before.
It was determined to at least consider releasing repeat offenders who were arrested in the years 1933 to 1934 for short sentences and who had at least served a year in the camps; political and white-collar offenders who had been convicted on minor offenses and who had served at least six months; prisoners of 60 or more years of age, including Jehovah's Witnesses whose faith would not allow them to swear loyalty to the German state; first-time homosexuals who had not been convicted of sexual relations with minors; as well as prisoners who had in the past been members of the Nazi Party.20
Then in 1941 the camps were classified into four groups, in accordance with the severity of the discipline and conditions of imprisonment imposed upon the inmates. Those prisoners who had been imprisoned for minor offenses and whom the SS considered to be possible to re-educate had the conditions of their imprisonment eased.
The workdays in the camps were formalized in 1938. On weekdays, the inmates worked from 0730 to 1200 and from 1230 to 1700, for a total of nine hours a day. On Saturdays work was from 0730-1200, for a total of four and one-half hours. Not only were Saturday afternoons free, but Christian inmates had all of Sunday to attend their own services within the camp and to contemplate the reasons for their imprisonment.21
Inside the camp, the barracks were segregated by sex, but in many cases prisoners were allowed to marry, even other prisoners. Registration in such cases was carried out by SS officers.22 The heirs of any prisoner who died while being held at one of the camps were eligible to collect their life insurance. Since the life insurance policies would expire if the premiums were not paid, and the inmates were incarcerated and without any substantial income, the SS came up with a solution that Establishment historians will not give them credit for. The SS set up its own fund to pay the insurance premiums of prisoners until the day they died.23 In this way, the loved ones of incarcerated inmates would not be overly burdened if their relative died while in custody.
In 1936, the question was raised for the first time as to who would take care of the children when both parents were prisoners in concentration camps. Instead of taking the children away from their loving parents as is now done in countries such as the U.S. and Great Britain, the National Socialist authorities in Germany decided it would be better for the children if the parents were released on a rotating monthly basis so at least one parent would always be there to care for their needs. This rotating release continued until one of the parents was released for good.24
Needless to say, this program did pose a slight
security risk to
Even though Allied war-time propaganda concerning the German concentration camps paints a bleak picture with ritual murder, rape, assault and other crimes, the facts of the period do not support this view.
The efforts of the National Socialist authorities to
rehabilitate and re-educate incarcerated criminals and communists show a
dedication and a firm belief in their convictions that, in comparison, the
1 See Pierre Hofstetter, Introduction to Paul Rassinier, Debunking the Genocide Myth: A Study of the Nazi Concentration Camps and the Alleged Extermination of European Jewry (Torrance, California, 1978)..
2 Heinz Hoehne, The Order of the Death's Head (New York, 1966)..
5 Max Domarus, Hitler Reden, v. 3 (Wiesbaden: R. Loweit, 1973)
6 Becker, Hitlers Machtergreifung
8 "Nazi Prison Camps to be Permanent," The New York
Times, July 27, 1933
9 BAKO R 58/264 fol. 1309 u. 198a
11 BAKO NS 19 320, May 29, 1942
12 BAKO NS 3 426, July 27, 1943
13 BAKO NS 3 vol. 401
14 Schafer, Konzentrationslager Oranienburg
15 BAKO R 58 1027 fol. 1-291
16 BAKO R 58 264 fol. 309 u. 198a RSHA, January 8,
17 TV Befehlsblätter 1937, no. 5, p. 12, TV file,
18 BAKO NS 3 442, November 7, 1944
19 Aufgaben und Pflichten der Wachposten, July 27, 1943,
20 BAKO R 58/1027 fold. 1-291
21 Natzweiler Routine Orders, February 25,
1943, American Historical Association,
Captured German Documents, Microfiled at the
22 BAKO NS 3 Vol. 426, May 1943
23 Weiterversicherung von Häftlingen,
24 BAKO R 58 246 fol. 1 309 u. 198a. (RSHA), April 21, 1936
Vasilis Vourkoutiotis. Prisoners of War and the German High Command: The British and American Experience. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. xi + 266 pp. $69.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4039-1169-8.
Reviewed by Alon Rachamimov (Department of History, Tel Aviv University)
Reviewed by: Paul Boytinck, Bucknell University.
Geneva Convention Vindicated
What Lord Byron called the brain-splattering, throat-cutting art of war received a modest but measurable setback with the ratification of the Geneva Convention of 1929, and its provisions for the protection of prisoners of war. Vasilis Vourkoutiotis believes that the OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, or Armed Forces High Command) and the German Army adhered to the Geneva Convention of 1929 in the case of American, British and Canadian prisoners of war during World War II, but argues that the execution of Allied escapees, the Commando Order and the use of some Allied airmen as human shields, notably in Frankfurt am Main, were clear violations engineered and implemented by Hitler, Göring and the SS.
The work is solidly based on the archival records, and it shuns works of reminiscence, autobiography and memoirs. The facts have been diligently researched in the German archives, most notably those of the Bundesarchiv-Militaerarchiv in Freiburg, to verify the German part of the author's case. Vourkoutiotis has also consulted the records of the Public Record Office (PRO) in London, the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA) in Washington, D.C. and the National Archives of Canada (NAC), Ottawa, to document the provisions of the German prisoner of war guidelines and to gain indirect access to the inspection reports of the International Committee of the Red Cross. (The International Committee files copies with the nations concerned.) The result is a specialized monograph which gives an indispensable overview of the operation of a prisoner of war camp that adheres to the Geneva Convention.
To deal with these prisoners, the Germans were obliged to house them in appropriate structures. Section 9 of the Convention stipulated that prisoners could be "interned in any town, fortress or other place with fixed limits". They were not to be exposed to the fire zones or located in areas subject to bombardment or used as hostages or human shields to prevent bombardment. However, Dr. Alfons Waltzog, in his 1942 update of German policies concerning Allied prisoners of war, wrote that "areas prone to enemy air-raids, but not actual zones of fighting by enemy armies, were legitimate sites" for the location of POW camps . What this gloss or directive meant in practical terms at the time is unclear. It would seem to indicate that Waltzog's intention was to flout the Geneva Convention, but the author does not pursue the practical or criminal repercussions of Waltzog's ruling in detail. In any case, Vourkoutiotis does make it perfectly clear that the German High Command did not intend to leave its prisoners at the mercy of the annihilating thunderbolts, or torrents of friendly fire, from the sky. In October 1942 the OKW ordered air-raid shelters to be made available to prisoners and further stipulated that these shelters were to match those offered to German civilians wherever possible.
The Germans, who moved their prisoners by rail, often put them up in castles, forts, or former schools close to a railway line. What was called a Dulag (Durchgangslager or transit camp) normally consisted of six thousand men but a Stalag (Stammlager or POW camp for soldiers excluding officers) included up to ten thousand with a ratio of one German guard or staff member for every seven/ten prisoners. As a precaution, "the permanent camps [for British and American airmen] were generally located in the eastern districts.to make escape difficult for pilots". When, later on in the war, these unfortunates had to be evacuated due to the advance of the Soviet Army, they endured daily marches of between 20 and 25 kilometers (12.42 and 15.53 miles) per day. At one point in this evacuation late in the war, Hitler directly intervened. "On February 14, 1945, in response to an inquiry concerning British and American prisoners of war who were too ill to march with others being evacuated from the camps at Sagan and Lamsdorf, Hitler personally decided, contrary to both the Geneva Convention and previous official German policy, that they were not to be left behind. They were to be brought back with the first available train returning after delivering supplies to the Front".
Food for the prisoners was always one of the major bedeviling issues, and the author makes it clear that the provision of food was a problem in both world wars. "The British Manual of Military Law and the German Kriegsbrauch [i.e., Kriegsbrauch im Landkriege (Manual for War on Land)] ... took the requirements of the  Hague Convention to mean that the prisoners of war were entitled to the same rations as the Detaining Power's peacetime troops, but neither country actually gave their prisoners of war these rations. The British came close to the required rations before cutting them, along with the civilian population's rations, in January 1916 and again in June 1918. The German rations for the prisoners of war were significantly worse, leading in some cases to near-starvation and disease among the British prisoners; almost mirroring the case a quarter of a century later, parcels arriving through the intermediary offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross made a significant difference for the British prisoners, as by 1918, because of the complete British blockade of all items, Germany no longer had the resources to meet the needs of its own armed forces, let alone the prisoners of war. For this reason, the Germans decided to supplement their own rations with donations from the International Committee of the Red Cross. In December 1941, the food rations of the POWs were reduced by one third; the shortfall was to be made good by food parcels distributed by the International Committee of the Red Cross. The author writes that on October 10, 1942, the bread ration was set at 800 grams (or 28.21 ounces) per day while sick prisoners were entitled to 225 grams (or 7.9 ounces) of sugar per week and the magnificent beer ration stood at 3 to 5 liters (or 3.17 and 5.28 quarts) per month. Furthermore, to assure the prisoners that they were receiving an adequate food supply "it was standard practice to publish a complete menu indicating the calories and rations, thus allowing the Men of Confidence [Vertrauensmänner, or Camp Representatives] and the Protecting Power delegates to compare the prisoners' menu to the official German rations. Most importantly as regards discipline, all collective disciplinary measures affecting food were prohibited by the Geneva Convention". It was a central and immensely important stipulation. It meant that the detaining power could not impose its will or compel obedience by starvation.
Although Vourkoutiotis does not raise the subject of the normal death rate in the prisoner of war camps--it was probably in the range of four deaths per thousand per year, as even relatively young men are mortal--he does cover a number of serious violations of the Geneva Convention in dispassionate fashion. They include the shackling of prisoners after capture; the Commando Order of 1942; the execution of recaptured Allied escapees by firing squad; official conniving at the lynching or killing of prisoners by enraged civilians; and the attempted use of prisoners as human shields against air attacks.
The shackling of prisoners (Germans, British and Canadian) evidently began with the discovery, after the failure of the 1942 Dieppe Raid, of German prisoners with "arms bound in such a way that they would eventually, and did, strangle themselves" (p. 187). The number of German dead is not given, and the Allied unit responsible is not, of course, identified. The Germans, however, exacted a collective punishment by shackling their Canadian and British prisoners. The reprisal apparently did not lead to Allied deaths, and to judge by reports of the International Committee of the Red Cross on the condition of the 381 manacled prisoners in the officers' camp of Oflag VII B Eichstädt, the ordered reprisal in this camp was implemented in such a way that "it was an inconvenience as it was applied, rather than a serious problem".
The one besetting problem with the Geneva Convention is that there is no effective means to protect captured troops on the battlefield as opposed to the rear areas, and that brings us directly to the Commando Order. The author's discussion of Hitler's Commando Order is very brief, and his failure to give a copy of the order in the original German along with a translation is an inexplicable omission. He writes, "the Commando Order of October 18, 1942, was issued by Hitler in conjunction with the shackling order for Canadian and other British prisoners of war. After the raid at Dieppe, by mostly Canadian soldiers and British commandos, had been repulsed, members of both the German armed forces and the Todt organization had been found with their arms bound in such a way that they would eventually, and did, strangle themselves. Further, a British close-quarters combat manual was purportedly found which instructed commandos to keep prisoners alive only insofar as it was expedient.... Henceforth, regardless of whether they fought in uniform or as spies or franc-tireurs, Allied commandos caught fighting outside major military beach-heads or war zones were to be killed rather than taken prisoner [and the order's implementation] ... represented an obvious breach of international law committed by the OKW (not just the Nazi military structures), and was easily proven to be a war crime at Nuremberg. It is, of course, possible to argue with the judgment that this breach was one committed by the OKW and the German Army; the order, after all, originated with Hitler and not the officer corps, and it is my belief that high and low-ranking officers of the OKW who disagreed with the policy in private were bullied and coerced into giving their assent against their will and better judgment.
Many books and even more demotic films concentrate on the sensational theme of escape to the exclusion of all other issues. Vourkoutiotis does not. He remarks that the German use of dogs to guard prisoners was modified in 1940, when "the previous practice of allowing guard dogs to run freely between perimeter fences was prohibited; from then on, all guard dogs had to be kept on a leash". Later, he gives some really startling statistics on the overall number of escapes from German custody. From January to September 1942, it appears that "1,175 Officers (of whom 678 were Russians) and 77,628 noncommissioned officers and men (of whom 35,208 were Russians) had escaped their captivity. Dealing with this problem cost 620,000 lost work hours for the German economy, in addition to the increased threat to the internal security of Germany". The reasons for this very high total of escapes by prisoners of war are not explored in more detail. Whether Hitler knew the details of what he would undoubtedly have considered a scandalous state of affairs is unclear. In any case, he decided to act in 1944 and personally gave the order to execute the recaptured escapees from Stalag Luft III Sagan. (The copy of this order is also not part of this book.)
“The shooting of the 47 recaptured prisoners of the 'Great Escape' from Stalag Luft III Sagan constituted perhaps the single greatest crime against British or American prisoners of war during the war.... As was made clear at the Nuremberg Trials, the actual murders of the prisoners were not carried out by Wehrmacht troops, but by the SS, and were conducted further at the personal behest of Hitler. It might be added that if the execution of these escapees was intended to serve as a deterrent, it seems to have failed in accomplishing its purpose, and it was therefore both criminal and pointless. The fact is that the problem of escaping prisoners continued to plague the Germans even after this mass execution in 1944. As late as March 1945, General Alfred Jodl sent a jovial memo to military district XIII (most probably Wehrkreis XIII in Nuremberg), to let camp commandants know that even a single escape would cost them their heads. It is, all in all, a strange and baffling state of affairs, and the underlying reasons why so many Allied prisoners were at large in Germany during the war years are never made totally clear in the narrative.
In the same vein, the author explores the violation of the Geneva Convention by German civilians who, enraged or made mad by grief and despair, either killed or connived in the killing of some of the unfortunate downed members of the Allied air crew who were shot down over Germany. The total number of these victims, whose fate could not materially alter the course of the air war in the slightest degree, was thirty-nine men; and, while Vourkoutiotis tried to get more accurate figures, he failed to come up with a more definitive total. One of his more interesting explorations concerns what he calls Göring's attempt to use the prisoners as human shields, and he suggests that Frankfurt was the site selected for this experiment, but the presentation of the sketchy facts of the case does not make for a convincing argument. While Frankfurt was blasted and bombed as we know full well, we are not told how many of the airmen located in the Frankfurt transit camp were killed in the raid or raids. 
Vourkoutiotis does not mention it, but it is highly probable that the greatest cause of excess mortality among Allied POWs was the villainy called friendly fire. It consisted of high explosives, incendiaries and machine-gun belts of ammunition delivered by Lancaster bombers, B-17 Flying Fortresses, and Mustang fighter bombers, against little or negligible opposition. The Germans, as previously noted, were not at liberty to expose their prisoners to this bombardment, and they issued rules and regulations about it. The aim was to provide air raid shelters equivalent to those provided to German civilians. Given that an estimated 600,000 civilians died in these attacks, the proviso is apt to pall.
The Allied bombing offensive affected the prisoners indirectly as well as directly. Red Cross inspectors who visited Stalag X B Sandbostel in March and April 1945 noted catastrophic conditions when many of the 2,143 prisoners were transferred west from camps in the east, and found that "the recent bombings of Bremen (from where the camp used to receive its bread supplies) meant that there was no more bread available, and the prisoners were given more potatoes instead". This report does not sound like the depths of deprivation, but we have to imagine a group of 2,000 weary and ravenous young men much emaciated by their trek, perhaps by forced marches of between 20 and 25 kilometers (12.42 and 15.53 miles) per day. One other proof of the danger posed by the bombing campaign is that the Red Cross inspections, which had averaged around one hundred visits per quarter during the war, were reduced to nine camp visits during the spring of 1945, when the bomber offensive was arguably at its most bitterly destructive phase. The 1945 inspections revealed, as we would expect, a decline in overall conditions: some three of the camps were satisfactory, three were poor and another three dangerously inadequate. What is clear is that by 1945, the visits were few and far between. It had plainly become too dangerous for the Red Cross inspectors to check for dangerous camp conditions.
The book includes minor errors and omissions. The Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv is said to be located in Freiburg im Bresgau, not Breisgau (p. 256). The OKH on one occasion appears as the "Oberkommando der Heer" rather than "Oberkommando des Heeres", a minor error that nevertheless makes a German reader flinch. These are exceptions, not the rule. Hundreds of OKW memo titles are meticulously and correctly transcribed in the notes. Gottlob Berger's title of Chef des Kriegsgefangenenwesen is never translated into English as Director of Prisoner of War Department in the text as opposed to the notes. The German Vertrauensmann (a man who merits or deserves one's trust) is here translated literally as "Man of Confidence." This translation is too literal and is not good idiomatic English; it connotes the villainous "confidence man," the total opposite of the trustworthy "Man of Confidence." For these reasons, it would probably be better if Vourkoutiotis and others translated Vertrauensmann as "Camp Representative" and have done with it. The men who filled the position were responsible men with difficult assignments. Furthermore, some of the officials on the German side are not properly identified. They include Dr. Waltzog, evidently a German lawyer who provided legal glosses and interpretations of selected sections of the Geneva Convention, as well as Berger, the Chief of the Prisoner of War Department for a number of years. Brief biographical sketches of both men would have been helpful. Then again, is it really true that the Allied prisoners received 28 ounces of bread as part of their diet when the staple of the German diet, from east to west and north to south, was undoubtedly that nutritious carbohydrate, the common potato? And finally, a thick and impenetrable tangle of text appears on pages 31-34. It turns out to be a long list of German POW camps, the sort of thing only an author or archive rat could love. It should have been unceremoniously stuffed into an appendix.
The book also raises some curious questions of substance and procedure. Why should we assume that all these OKW rules and regulations were actually followed by harried German camp commandants on the ground? The fundamental and most convincing answer to this question is surely that Switzerland was the Protecting Power during most of the war, and Swiss roving inspectors made sure that the provisions of the Geneva Convention were followed. But it is never quite made clear by what means the OKW conferred with the Swiss legal representatives when it issued some of its more controversial rulings or regulations. Specifically, when Waltzog ruled in 1942 that "areas prone to enemy air-raids, but not actual zones of fighting by enemy armies, were legitimate sites" for the location of POW camps, did he discuss this ruling with his Swiss counterparts? And did they concur with his interpretation? And if so, on what grounds? These are not academic questions, but matters of life and death. We have it on the authority of R. H. S. Crossman, the cabinet minister in Harold Wilson's government and Member of Parliament for Coventry (Coventry and Dresden are "twinned" cities and Crossman had many occasions to visit the German city), that some 25,000 Allied prisoners of war were quartered in and around Dresden in February 1945. This fact was known in London and Washington before the raid, but the order to attack was given nevertheless.  Another source tells us that the Dresden attack killed at least seventy-one Allied prisoners of war. 
Vourkoutiotis, in the one instance where he directly confronts the question of OKW credibility, observes in passing that the secondary literature of biography, reminiscences and memoirs supports his conclusions. This observation is largely true, but it would have made for a better book if he had included some of the major statements from the reputable secondary sources. David Wild, British Army chaplain, who spent five years as a prisoner of war in Germany, many of them in and around Torun, Poland, attests to the truth of the matter in his admirable memoir: "An impression may be given in these pages that life was not all that hard in German captivity. It is true that we were fortunate to be prisoners of the German army. With that strange attachment to what is "korrekt," they frequently protected us from being subjected to the brutality and ruthlessness of the Gestapo and the SS, and made a show of conforming most of the time to the requirements of the Geneva Convention."  They made, as Wild's book and this book show all too well, more than a show of conforming to the Convention.
. Max Hastings, Overlord; D-Day and the Battle for Normandy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984)
. When he visited the city in 1945, John Dos Passos wrote "Frankfurt resembles a city as much as a pile of bones and a smashed skull on the prairies resembles a prize Hereford steer." Tour of Duty (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1946)
. R. H. S. Crossman, "Apocalypse at Dresden," Esquire, 60, no. 5 (November 1963)
. Dick Sheehy, "Dresden Plus 93 Days," History Today, 45, no. 5 (May 1995)
. David Wild, Prisoner of Hope (Lewes, Sussex: Book Guild, 1992)
The Geneva Convention and the Wehrmacht High Command
Reviewed by Alon Rachamimov (Department of History, Tel Aviv University)
During the Second World War, Germany captured an estimated quarter of a million British and American prisoners of war. British prisoners (i.e., soldiers captured while fighting for Britain regardless of their land of origin) accounted for about two-thirds of this number, many being captured during the initial phase of the war. Although substantial in itself, the number of British and American POWs was dwarfed in comparison to the number of prisoners on the Eastern Front. Prevalent estimates place the number of soviet POWs caught by the Wehrmacht at 5.7 million and the number of Axis soldiers in Soviet hands at 5 million. Like the First World War, the main story of war captivity during the Second World War lay in Eastern Europe.
Still, as Vasilis Vourkoutiotis argues in this very structured study, the case of British and American POWs was unlike that of other POWs held by Nazi Germany and deserves to be examined in its own terms. The combination of three basic facts made it unique: Great Britain and the United States were never occupied by the Wehrmacht, the claim of British and American POWs to be protected by the 1929 Geneva Convention was never disputed by Germany (in contrast to the claim of captured Polish and Soviet soldiers), and there were numerous German POWs held by British and American forces (about three hundred thousand by the end of the war). Thus, whereas Soviet POWs captured by Germany were either murdered outright or held in atrocious conditions (resulting in mortality rates of around 60 percent), British and American POWs experienced treatment, "at a 'satisfactory' level or above," through most of the war (p. 195). Yet, as Vourkoutiotis correctly points out, this "did not necessarily mean that the requirements of the Geneva Convention were being met" (p. 195).
Therefore, the aim of Prisoners of War and the German High Command is straightforward: to examine to what degree the policies of the German High Command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht or OKW) vis-=-vis British and American POWs consistently conformed to the stipulations of the Geneva Convention, and to investigate whether the de facto treatment followed OKW policies. Differently put, was it OKW policy that facilitated "satisfactory" material conditions in most of the camps, and was it the very same policy that resulted in a number of flagrant violations of the Geneva Convention. Thus, although the issue of OKW culpability in war crimes never receives more than a passing mention, it is implicitly present throughout the book.
The structure of Prisoners of War and the German High Command is rigid by design: Vourkoutiotis begins by describing in chapter 2 the various provisions of the Geneva Convention; proceeds in chapters 3 through 5 to catalogue the orders and guidelines issued by the OKW, in what he acknowledges is a "lengthy if occasionally tedious" procedure (p. 122); and concludes by presenting the findings of neutral inspectors regarding both material conditions in POW camps and violations of the Geneva Convention. Thus, by moving from accepted international definitions of "proper treatment," to the manner in which these definitions were perceived and interpreted by the OKW, and finally to actual living conditions of British and American POWs in Germany, Vourkoutiotis is able to reduce and simplify the moral equation of OKW culpability.
This methodology allows Vourkoutiotis to show, for example, that the OKW ordered the reduction of food rations to British and American POWs as early as December 1941, relying on Red Cross parcels to supplement the diet of POWs. Consequently, the High Command consciously decided not to abide by article 11 of the Geneva Convention which mandated that food rations be equivalent "to what the Detaining Power would provide for its own depot soldiers." The "satisfactory" calorie intake of British and American prisoners of war was mainly the outcome of assistance sent by their home countries via Switzerland. During the last six months of the war, when the amount of parcels dwindled, American and British POWs suffered from malnutrition and at times even hunger.
>From 1941 onwards the OKW issued increasingly stringent orders regarding the productivity of POW labor. Arguing that prisoners did not work hard enough, the German High Command instructed guards in June 1942 to discipline "slackers" and "strongly punish any prisoners of war who continued not to give their full effort" (p. 115). This was followed two months later by allowing Nazi Party functionaries and Gestapo agents to oversee the implementation of orders regarding POW productivity. Thus, concludes Vourkoutiotis, the OKW may have been responsible for the increase of physical abuse of POWs reported by neutral inspectors.
Although stressing that the German High Command did not initiate the three most appalling cases of war crimes committed against British and American POWs, Vourkoutiotis nonetheless points to OKW responsibility. These involved the shooting of allied commandos captured by the Wehrmacht (as ordered by Hitler in October 1942); the lynching of downed airmen by German civilians, orchestrated and encouraged by leaders of the Nazi party; and the execution of forty-seven recaptured prisoners of the "Great Escape" from Stalag Luft III in Sagan on April 17, 1944. Vourkoutiotis suggests that the latter action was "perhaps the single greatest crime against British and American prisoners of war during the war" (p. 181), although in all likelihood the number of commandos and downed airmen executed was many times higher.
The rigid conceptualization of this study results in a few fundamental weaknesses. More than half of the book is devoted to presenting the various orders issued by the German High Command. The focus is clearly on description rather than on analysis, and the reader is left often perplexed as to why certain measures were adopted and in what historical context. Thus, for example, we learn that the OKW issued numerous orders aimed at preventing sexual relations between POWs and German women. The penalties for these offenses stiffened during the war to the point that in November 1944 the OKW ordered "that all prisoners of war be informed of the case of the Serbian prisoner, named Pantalija Kabanica, who was charged with having relations with a German woman, and sentenced to death and executed" (p. 93). One can assume that racist considerations played an important role in drafting policy, since the OKW prohibited all POWs from donating blood to Germans "to prevent contamination by Jewish hybrid blood" (p. 62), and that "'colored' POWs were to be considered for more lenient sentences than white POWs because of their inherent racial weakness and inferiority" (p. 89). Yet, the issue is not developed, and Vourkoutiotis does not link this study to wider questions regarding the role of the OKW in pursuing the racist aims of the National Socialist regime.
Finally, the OKW was not the only initiator of policy decisions vis-=-vis British and American prisoners of war. During the second half of the war major policy decisions were being taken by Hitler, Martin Bormann, and Heinrich Himmler. In fact the appointment of Himmler in September 1944 as head of the Reserve Army meant that he was in direct control of all POW camps. It is not entirely clear whether the German High Command called the shots anymore, or whether decisions were taken at the Reich Security Main Office. The failure of Vourkoutiotis to integrate this present study into the vast historiography about National Socialist Germany is probably its greatest shortcoming.
Prisoners of War and the German High Command is not a page turner. However, scholars of the history of captivity would certainly find its factual richness instructive. Other students of military history would probably benefit from reading the first two chapters and the concluding section.
Citation: Alon Rachamimov. Review of Vourkoutiotis, Vasilis, Prisoners of War and the German High Command: The British and American Experience. H-War, H-Net Reviews. March, 2004.
Copyright © 2004 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online.