What is the purpose of protective custody

Ravensbrück - survivors tell

Nicola Wenge

To person

Nicola Wenge, Dr. phil. Born 1968, studied Middle and Modern History, German and Political Science, research assistant at the NS Documentation Center of the City of Cologne. Publications in the field of anti-Semitism research, German-Jewish history and National Socialism, editorial work in multimedia memorial projects, award of the dissertation with the Erhardt Imelmann Prize of the University of Cologne.

Around six million people died in the National Socialist concentration and extermination camps. Nicola Wenge traces the development of the concentration camps - an instrument of rule of the Nazi regime. From the "early camps" to the process of institutionalization of the concentration camps, the radicalization of Nazi racial politics, to the planned mass killings.


The concentration camps represented the central instrument of rule of the National Socialist regime: Political opponents as well as racially and socially persecuted persons could be sent to a concentration camp for an indefinite period of time without a court judgment. An estimated 800,000 to a million people died in these sites of the most brutal arbitrariness through work, starvation, violence or targeted killings, only about 300,000 prisoners experienced the liberation at the end of the war.

There were also other types of Nazi camps that, according to formal criteria, did not constitute concentration camps. These include, for example, prisoner-of-war camps, detention camps for young people and the extermination camps set up to carry out the Holocaust, such as Treblinka and Sobibór. Around six million people died in the concentration and extermination camps. This article concentrates on the concentration camps in the narrower sense, which differed from the other detention centers in terms of their organizational form and functioning. The concentration camps did not form a systematic system from the start. Rather, its tasks and form changed several times between 1933 and 1945.

The "early camps" 1933/34

Immediately after the National Socialists came to power in January 1933, open terror against the political opposition began. The legal basis for this was the "Reichstag Fire Ordinance" of February 28, 1933, with which political opponents of the regime could be arrested "preventively" and detained without a judicial judgment in order to "protect people and state". In March and April 1933 alone, around 35,000 people were taken into "protective custody" by the police, Sturmabteilung (SA) and Schutzstaffel (SS) and were thus at the mercy of the state without any legal assistance. The first victims were mainly communists, social democrats, trade unionists and personal opponents of local Nazi officials. They were imprisoned and tortured in their hometowns in cellars or other improvised detention centers, in "protective custody units" of police and judicial institutions and in at least 70 camps. Several hundred detainees were murdered without a trial. The terror unleashed was intended to intimidate and deter the population; these early camps quickly became synonymous with state terror.

Centralization and institutionalization 1934-1935

The porters of the early concentration camps - police and judicial authorities, SA and SS - competed with one another for central management. The SS was able to prevail by the summer of 1934. Heinrich Himmler, "Reichsführer-SS" and head of the political police of the federal states, appointed Theodor Eicke on July 4, 1934 as "Inspector of the Concentration Camps", to which all camps were organizationally subordinate from then on. Eicke, who had headed the Dachau concentration camp near Munich since March 1933, began the systematic restructuring of the camps. Many of the early detention centers were closed, while the others were equipped with uniform administrative structures and penal provisions based on the Dachau model. Eicke divided the SS units subordinate to him into the camp commandant's office, the administration, and armed guards. With regard to the prisoners, he installed a standardized terror system through camp regulations and criminal provisions, which allowed excesses of violence by the SS. The prisoners lived in barracks and had to carry out heavy physical, often purely harassing, work. To the outside world, Eicke further sealed off the concentration camp system against the influence of the judiciary and administration. The reorganization of the camps was completed in the spring of 1935. There were now camps in Dachau, Esterwegen, Lichtenburg, Sachsenburg, Sulza and the Columbia House in Berlin. After various waves of releases and the transfer of prisoners to the penal system, the number of prisoners fell to around 3,000 by 1935.