September 18, 2019

An extensive history of the Holocaust

On Holocaust Remembrance Day, we are confronted by a bitter irony. The vast and ever-expanded scholarship of the Shoah has never been greater, and yet, at the same time, we still hear insistent voices that minimize or even deny that it happened. That’s why the most crucial form of remembrance is not a eulogy but a history.

“KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps” by Nikolaus Wachsmann, newly published by Farrar Straus and Giroux, is an especially distinguished and important example. Wachsmann’s fellow historians have lauded the book precisely because it can be regarded as a benchmark immediately upon publication. “It is hard to imagine that Nikolaus Wachsmann’s superb book, surely to become the standard work on Nazi concentration camps, will ever be surpassed,” Ian Kershaw declared, himself a distinguished historian of Nazi Germany.

Wachsmann, a professor of modern European history at Birkbeck College at the University of London, starts with the first Nazi concentration camp, Dachau, and proceeds to document how the camp system was conceived, constructed and operated over the 12-year history of Nazi Germany. “The concentration camps embodied the spirt of Nazism like no other institution within the Third Reich,” he writes. “They form a distinct system of domination, with its own organization, rules, and staff, and even its own acronym: in official documents and common parlance, they were often referred as KL (from the German Konzentrationslager).”

Approximately 1.7 million men, women and children died in the concentration camps, 1 million of them in Auschwitz alone. But Auschwitz was only one of 27 main camps and more than 1,100 “satellite” camps that were operated by the SS at sites across Europe. Who remembers the camps at Ellrich, Kaufering, Klooga or Redl-Zipf? It is the author’s mission to look beyond the black hole of Auschwitz and chronicle the vast constellation of camps that have been eclipsed in so many other works of Holocaust literature. 

Indeed, the number of deaths that took place behind the walls and fences of the concentration camps points to another often-overlooked fact of history, the concentration camps were not the only places where victims of the Nazis were put to death. Wachsmann makes a careful distinction between the concentration camps, where some were murdered and some were put to slave labor, and the death camps (Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka), which were “built for one purpose only: the rapid mass extermination of deported Jews.” Millions of other Jews died in the ghettos, the mobile killing vans, and — above all — by the simple if brutal expedience of a bullet to the back of the neck fired by one of Hitler’s willing executioners.

“The significant majority of up to six-million Jews murdered under the Nazi regime perished in other places, shot in ditches and fields across eastern Europe or gassed in distinct death camps like Treblinka, which operated separately from the KL,” Wachsmann explains.

While Wachsmann holds himself to highest standards of scholarship, he is also a gifted author whose eye frequently falls on the telling or surprising detail, which makes “KL” not only an important work of history, but also, even at 865 pages in length, a rich and highly readable book, full of incident and irony.

He shows us, for example, the wedding of the commandant of Sachsenhausen and his wife, “a ghostly nighttime ceremony surrounded by uniformed Camp SS men holding torches.” He reminds us that “the largest group of religious prisoners in the mid-1930s were Jehovah’s Witnesses,” a cohort so large “that the Camp SS gave them a special insignia: the purple triangle.” And some victims were chosen for purely cosmetic reasons, as in 1936, when Dachau received a shipment of some 300 “beggars and vagabonds” in an effort to “smarten up the streets before the Olympics.”

At first, the camps were used to confine and punish the various enemies of the Third Reich, but not for the principal purpose of murdering them. In fact, camp inmates in Heinrich Himmler’s SS-operated camps were identified as a convenient source of free labor for the grandiose building projects that Hitler’s master architect, Albert Speer, was overseeing: “Hitler, Himmler and Speer agreed that KL prisoners would supply vast amounts of building materials,” Wachsmann writes. By 1938, however, when Kristallnacht resulted in the mass arrest of Jews, the KL system began to serve as a “motor of radicalization,” in the words of historian Jürgen Matthäus, in the war against the Jews.

The camp system grew relentlessly and expansively throughout the Nazi era, as Wachsmann shows us, but the escalation into industrialized mass murder began in earnest after the outbreak of World War II. Barely six months later, work on the new camp at Auschwitz was already underway, and experiments in more efficient methods of killing were in progress at several other concentration camps. “While the immediate extermination of European Jews had not yet been decided by early summer 1941, the death of Jews in concentration camps was an almost foregone conclusion by then,” the author writes. “Although Auschwitz played an increasingly important part in the Holocaust from the summer of 1942, it was a junior partner early on, far surpassed by other sites of terror.”

Significantly, Wachsmann begins with a haunting quotation from a letter that was sealed in a flask and buried on the grounds of the crematorium at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944: “May the world at least behold a drop, a fraction of this tragic world in which we lived,” wrote Salmen Gradowski, one of the doomed victims of the camp. “KL” is much more that a fraction of that world; it allows us to behold the world of the concentration camp in its heartbreaking entirety. 

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris.” (Norton/Liveright).