Millions of people, Jews and those designated as ‘enemies’ of the Nazi state, were incarcerated in concentration camps between 1933 and 1945. Four million perished, with three million Jews being murdered in the camps — a testament to the ideological goal of extermination. In spite of the labour shortages that plagued Germany once the war started, this goal remained paramount to the end.
The concentration camp system had two objectives after 1942 — forced labour and genocide. Prisoners in concentration camps had to perform forced labour for the armaments industry. Some were exploited in order to meet targets, while others were murdered for ideological reasons, despite the need for labour.
The emergence of forced labour in the camps went through three phases.
In the early years of Nazi rule most of those imprisoned in concentration camps were actual or perceived political opponents of the regime, rather than members of minority ethnic communities. Hard labour was a form of punishment and the SS had prisoners perform mostly meaningless and strenuous tasks under brutal conditions. The main aim was to terrorise, demoralise and ‘re-educate’ prisoners.
The transition to war led to changes in an increasingly militarised labour market and the introduction of labour conscription in 1938. With this came the modification of prison work which became more economically productive. Yet brutalisation and terror continued to characterise life in the camps.
It was during the third phase, from 1942 onwards, that working conditions significantly altered and became ‘annihilation through labour’. The roots of this phase were already visible in pre-war camps. In Mauthausen or in the quarry of Flossenbürg, for example, the economic exploitation of the inmates was two sides of the same coin — the work was a means of extermination, ‘a method for the systematic killing of prisoners’.
While political prisoners were deemed ‘capable of improvement’, after 1937 this status was not granted to prisoners who had been incarcerated for racial or ‘preventative’ reasons. From 1938, these comprised the majority of prisoners in the camps, so that in keeping with National Socialist ideology, criminals, asocials (persons accused of ‘asocial’ or socially deviant behaviour) or homosexuals, as well as Jews and Romas/ Gypsies were the prime candidates for deployment to ‘extermination workplaces’. At the beginning of the war the high death rate in these camps was the result not only of the murderous conditions, but also of murder itself. Soviet prisoners-of-war (POWs) were routinely executed by shooting in 1941–1942. The random shooting of Jewish prisoners became commonplace.
The Führerbefehl (an order by the Führer) of September 1942 cleared the way for the systematic and comprehensive deployment of concentration camp prisoners in the armaments industry. Despite this, during the same period and until 1943, almost all Jewish prisoners in concentration camps within the Reich were transferred to extermination camps and murdered, even though their labour was urgently needed.
It was only after Propaganda Minister Goebbels announced the onset of Total War in 1943 in the aftermath of the defeat at Stalingrad that pragmatic economic considerations were given greater weight, although the ideological imperative of extermination continued to determine the ultimate fate of Jewish prisoners. From 1943, the principle of lending prisoners to the armaments industry came into full effect it reflected in a dense network of satellite camps to which inmates were sent as forced labour. From the perspective of the SS, the life of a prisoner had no value. Ultimately, after 1942, the only quality that counted was the ability to work, and this was all the more brutally exploited as the war dragged on. The use of Jewish prisoners for labour was only an interim measure while they were strong enough to work. Once they succumbed to starvation or disease as a result of the brutal conditions, the death camp remained their ultimate destination.
Jewish slave labourers were among those compelled to manufacture munitions and other items including German army uniforms. They were treated as expendable, their lives less important than their work. They were beaten repeatedly, given smaller portions of food than other prisoners, and little, if any, medical attention.
In some ghettos, primarily Łodz and Kovno, the forced labour system enabled tens of thousands of Jews to remain alive for more than two years after the first deportations or ‘resettlements’. Work appeared to be the way to survive. In Bialystok, Vilna and Warsaw, work permits and the rations that accompanied them were regarded as ‘the road to life’ for thousands of people. However, in the eyes of the Nazis, forced labour never meant salvation — only a deferral of the process of extermination.
Death was the fate not only of the forced labourers who, for ideological reasons, were regarded by the Nazis as the main target for extermination — predominantly Jews and Romas/Gypsies — but also of those whose deaths were not necessarily intended. Thousands of French and Belgians met agonising deaths in work battalions in concentration camps.