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A file photo from 1943 shows Nazi officers with an inmate at the Warsaw ghetto
The Warsaw ghetto was the largest of the Jewish camps during the Nazi eraImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

New Holocaust revelations

June 12, 2009

Researchers in the US have found that there were around 20,000 Nazi prisons, ghettos and camps in World War II, even stretching beyond Europe. The project director has told DW they were crucial for the Nazi war effort.


The Encyclopaedia of Camps and Ghettos 1933-1945 aims to catalogue most of Adolf Hitler's Nazi concentration camps, POW camps, prisons, and other persecution sites used during the Second World War. Project director Geoffrey Megargee of the US Holocaust Museum in Washington DC told Deutsche Welle that the first surprise he encountered in this endeavor was realising how far the network stretched.

"When the project started we thought we were dealing with perhaps 5,000, perhaps 7,000 sites. But as we started to get into the research for the encyclopaedia we started to see the numbers go up and up and up, and within a couple of years we were up around 20,000," he said.

Not the upper limit

Megargee also said that there were even more than 20,000 detention centers that the Nazis used, citing the infamous Gestapo prisons, which were present in "every town of any size", as an example of an area that the encyclopaedia will not be able to cover extensively.

Child prisoners at Auschwitz concentration camp just after liberation.
Ausschwitz held prisoners of all agesImage: APTN

When you think of Nazi detention centers, the big names usually come to mind, concentration and extermination camps like Ausschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, and Bergen-Belsen. The first volume of the encyclopaedia deals with exactly this category. However, there was an entire network of prisons, labour camps and other places of persecution that were central to Adolf Hitler's war effort.

"We have almost 1,100 entries in volume one alone, then the remaining six volumes deal with other categories of camps, the big ones would be, for example, POW camps, forced labor camps, ghettos," but even these are just the tip of the iceberg, according to Megargee.

"Wehrmacht [German military] brothels for example, there were about 500 of those, where women were forced to serve; so-called Germanization camps, where Polish children were evaluated for their racial characteristics and - if approved - were given to German couples to raise; the so-called euthanasia centers, where the Nazis killed the handicapped from their own countries and people from the concentrations camps, too."

A part of the war

The report states that the Nazis began setting up their network in Germany as soon as Adolf Hitler became Chancellor in 1933. By the end of that first year, over 100 camps had been established across Germany, run by paramilitary groups like the Waffen SS and the police. The encyclopaedia's introduction explains how the camps were designed to "detain and abuse real and imagined enemies of the regime."

This 1938 photo is of a major Nazi public celebration in Nuremberg, the Reichsparteitag, or national celebration day. Thousands are marching in unison.
There was little or no talk of the camps in publicImage: dpa

Adolf Hitler's regime continued to expand its network as the years went by, setting up many more camps in its occupied territories in Europe and beyond.

"Every place where the Germans and their allies controlled, from North Africa to Norway, from the coast of France almost to Moscow and down into the Ukraine, there were camps and ghettos all over the place," says Megargee.

"A lot of people do ask: 'How could they have put so many resources into this camp system when they were trying to run a war?' Well, it was one and the same for them. The things that were going on in the camps were a part of their war effort, whether it was producing munitions, using forced labor or concentration camp labor or POWs for that matter, whether it was exterminating the Jews..."

All-inclusive report

The US Holocaust Memorial Museum concentrates primarily on the Nazi's systematic, industrialised mass-murder of six million Jews during the course of their reign. However, the encyclopaedia includes all manner of persecution camps, some of which targeted Gypsies, homosexuals, resistance fighters, prisoners of war, and communists - a group that, by the Nazis' definition, included practically any political opponent of the regime.

Megargee says they wanted to cover the whole Nazi system, saying that filtering out the camps which did not hold Jews would have represented the same research task, just without publishing the information.

"What we're doing is simply trying to catalogue each one of the sites for which we can find information, so we're asking questions about each site such as: When did it open and close? How many prisoners did it have, and of what kind? What kind of work did they do? Who guarded the camp? Who commanded it? How did people live there? How did people die? Were there trials for perpetrators after the war? These kinds of things."

English-language reference work is goal

Megargee says that the idea for the project is to provide a reference work in the English language with details that were scattered around the world in a number of different languages.

"Information on these camps up until now has only been available to people who had the linguistic expertise and the time to go to archives all over Europe and to look at the records themselves, or to look at published accounts of some of these places."

The research team felt that a project like this would help to elucidate the crimes of the Nazi era, especially as Holocaust denial becomes ever more prevalent in the modern world, and as those of the last generation that remember the period, or even suffered at the hands of the Nazis, are growing older and taking their knowledge with them to the grave. Megargee says that the facts on this subject are already slipping away.

"There were well over a million who passed through the concentration camps alone, and that's not including the million or so, for example, that were killed at Auschwitz pretty much on arrival. I just wouldn't have a figure for all of the people that went through all of the different kinds of camps."

Author: Mark Hallam

Editor: Chuck Penfold

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