There were some 42,500 camps set up during the Nazi era - seven times more than had been thought, according to a recent study. Such numbers, researchers say, make it absurd to claim that 'nobody knew what was going on.'
"I find it quite astonishing that, 70 years after the end of the war, one still finds new kinds of camps and new stories about individuals during the Holocaust," says US historian Martin Dean. For 13 years, he's been bringing together facts that historians throughout Europe, Israel and the United States have collected individually - facts that may have been known about locally, but which were never put into the context of the whole picture.
Dean is interested in the whole picture - and that's what makes the research findings in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum study so interesting. His team has found out that the network of camps was much denser than had been assumed. According to his figures, there were about 42,500 camps in Europe - until now, it had been thought that there were about 7,000.
30,000 forced labor camps
Dean's studies have been received with great interest since they were first reported in The New York Times. It suddenly became clear that people were imprisoned all over Europe by the Nazis, often in inhumane conditions, with torture and hunger standard in many camps.
Some 20 million prisoners were affected altogether, and the camps had a wide variety of functions: there were 30,000 for forced laborers, 1,150 Jewish ghettos, 980 concentration camps, 1,000 prisoner-of-war camps, 500 brothels for forced prostitution. Then there were camps intended to "Germanize" prisoners, camps where women were forced to have abortions, camps where those suffering from psychiatric illness were murdered in the "euthanasia" program, and camps where prisoners were gathered for transport to the death camps.
Camps were used flexibly
Dean and his team are currently concentrating on research into prisoner-of-war and forced labor camps. It's hard going, since the research materials are still difficult to track down 70 years after the end of the war. Some camps were only set up for a few months for a specific purpose, and then they were used for something else.
That applies to the Gestapo's "work education camps," for example, which were originally set up to "discipline" workers. But they were also used for other purposes - as a punishment camp for Polish civilians, for example, or as a transit camp for Italian Jews on the way to concentration camps.
"As an academic, if you only describe one function, you haven't got it right," Dean said. Each camp has its own history and it is impossible to make generalizations, he said. Such a large number of camps means an enormous field of research.
But it's not just the historians who have questions to answer. Many Germans will be wondering about their own grandparents: is it really possible that they didn't know about the 42,500 camps in Europe? Could they really have failed to notice the 30,000 labor camps?
Dean doesn't think that's likely.
Camps as part of wartime daily life
"German experts aren't really surprised at Dean's results," said Christoph Dieckmann of the Fritz Bauer Institute in Frankfurt, which supported the research project. Dieckmann recently won the Yad Vashem International Book Prize for his publications on the Holocaust.
"The US research confirms that the camps were part of wartime daily life," he said. "If we ask our grandparents, they all knew about forced laborers." In 1943-44, 20 to 30 percent of all workers in Germany were forced laborers, and most of them lived in camps.
But Dieckmann is not surprised that people don't speak about this openly. The researchers also found more than 500 army brothels in which young women were forced into prostitution. "The army - that was our grandfathers," Dieckmann said, "and did our grandfathers tell us about brothels? No!"
The development of the Holocaust
Dieckmann's own special field of research is Lithuania under the Nazis. He's found out that there were over 100 Jewish ghettos there, many more than had been thought. The Germans crowded 100,000 people in a small space, but they didn't have a plan as to how to deal with them. How were they to be supplied? How were they to be guarded? Dieckmann said the German and Lithuanian authorities were overwhelmed by the task.
That had fatal consequences: the German occupiers decided that the Jews were "enemies of the German Reich" and they therefore had no right to live. The rural Jews were murdered right there and then in the period before October 1941, months before the start of the planned deportation of Jews from throughout Europe to the extermination camps.