Book Review // Before Auschwitz: Jewish Prisoners in the Prewar Concentration Camps

November, 13 2015
Book Review


Before Auschwitz:
Jewish Prisoners in the Prewar Concentration Camps
Kim Wünschmann
Harvard University Press
2015, pp. 376, $45.00

by Richard Bernstein

In 1921, Adolf Hitler, writing in the right-wing Völkischer Beobachter three years after Germany’s defeat in World War I, was already publicly and furiously labeling the Jews traitors to the German nation and recommending that they be “strung up once and for all…. Let us stop the Jews from undermining our nation if necessary by keeping their germs safely in concentration camps.”

I'd like to subscribe to Moment's weekly e-newsletter.

Concentration camps—that ugly invention of 20th-century utopian totalitarianism, the instrument for purifying the nation of its poisons. Hitler was thinking of them 12 years before he became German chancellor, which makes it not very surprising that soon after he did assume that office in January 1933, the Hitlerian regime resorted to them. It is perhaps even less surprising, once the Konzentrationslager became central features of Nazi oppression, that Jews made up a disproportionate share of their inhabitants and were subject to unusually cruel, degrading and gruesome treatment, even by Nazi standards. It would be hard to think that this would not have been the case.

But the concentration camps were more than mere prisons where those deemed undesirables in the Third Reich could be salted away. In her compelling, important and painful-to-read study of the role of the camps in the early years of the Nazi regime, the period that preceded Auschwitz and the final solution, Kim Wünschmann shows that they were, as the flap-jacket copy puts it, “instrumental” in the development of the Nazi plan to transform German Jewry into a special category of enemy, deserving not just of brutal treatment but of eradication altogether. Wünschmann turns the clock back to those early years and in so doing demonstrates the ways that the early persecution of the Jews was part of a continuous process, that it developed the techniques and the mentalities that led inexorably to Auschwitz and the genocide itself.

“This period is much more than a prelude to the Holocaust,” she writes in her concluding chapter. “It is a crucial phase of transition, when discrimination still took place right in the midst of German society.” The concentration camps legitimated cruelty toward the Jews, and because, as the scholar Paul Moore has shown, everybody knew about them, they helped greatly to fix in the German mind the image of the Jew as racially criminal. Even in a country with a history of anti-Semitism, a population needs to be inoculated against moral qualms. It needs to be prepared over time for extreme, radical solutions, and this what the pre-Auschwitz methods accomplished.   

An act of imagination might help to fully grasp just how extraordinary and radical Nazi policy toward the Jews was, both for the tiny Jewish minority in Germany and for the rest of the population. The Jews were less than 1 percent of the total German population of 67 million in 1933, and they were entirely assimilated, acculturated.  They were disproportionately represented in the German army in World War I. They spoke German as their native language; they were doctors, lawyers, jurists, merchants, university professors. They were visually and culturally indistinguishable from the non-Jewish majority among which they transacted their lives.

How, then, in the space of a mere eight or so years, could a regime entirely demonize this group that that was by every objective measure entirely benign and loyal? How did the Nazis persuade the country of Beethoven and Goethe that the Jews were a venomous, foreign, non-German infection deserving of annihilation? How did they construct the internal attitudes and practices that would facilitate murder on an industrial scale? Wünschmann’s exhaustive, painstakingly detailed study provides answers to these questions.   

Her account, organized more or less chronologically, covers the various stages of this terrible process, beginning with the practice of “protective custody” imposed on a large scale barely a month after Hitler became the German chancellor. Jews were not especially numerous among those put into protective custody, but once they were there, they were treated with special cruelty. Some were murdered. They were beaten and tortured,  given the most horrific work assignments, confined to separate barracks known as “Jew companies,” so that the isolation inside the camps reflecting the regime’s goal of isolating the Jews outside them as well. The unbelievable brutality directed against the Jews, the amazing sadistic cruelty of the camps, had a purpose, Wünschmann writes. It was “to present an example of Nazi power and to initiate guards into a practice of brutal antisemitic conduct.” The Jews were not arrested because they were Jews, but their treatment established the category of “the Jew” as the fateful enemy of the nation.

Again, none of this is surprising. What Wünschmann does is penetrate to the sometimes hidden meanings of the persecution of the Jews in these pre-war years of the Reich, to link them to the more famous and even more notorious persecutions that culminated in the death camps. Her book is valuable also because she illustrates her more abstract points with dozens of concrete illustrations of real victims of anti-Semitic persecution as it went through its various, ever-intensifying stages. Wünschmann has found scores of individual cases, like—to take just one example—that of Delwin Katz, a 45 year-old physician from Nuremberg arrested as a Communist sympathizer on April 13, 1933. Katz was able, often secretly, to treat victims of ill and injured inmates, and this made him a danger, because he was in a position to reveal the atrocities that were being committed at a time when the Nazis were still trying officially to observe legal procedure—and torture and murder inside prisons was still illegal in Germany. Katz was accordingly sent to the overcrowded “Jew company,” where he slept on a concrete floor and was forced to the harshest work details, until, finally, he was simply done away with on October 17. How amazing this is: The Nazis engaged in unspeakable atrocities, which required more atrocities so that the original atrocities would remain unknown.

Things, of course, became progressively worse in these pre-Auschwitz years. A key event was the Anschluss, Germany’s annexation of Austria in March 1938, when thousands of Jews, suddenly in the hands of the German Reich, were deposited into the ever larger and ever more savage world of the Nazi camps. The larger context was Hitler’s efforts to prepare Germany for war, which entailed ever more vigorous presentations of the Jew as the enemy. The isolation of the Jews was already well advanced by measures such as the criminalization of  sexual relations between “Aryans” and Jews—for which many women were imprisoned for the crime of “race defilement.” In the mid-1930s, a crime meriting incarceration in the camps was to return to Germany after having left it, though this was a crime only Jews could commit. Now further measures were imposed. Jewish property was confiscated so that by early 1938, “around 60-70 percent of Jewish businesses existing in 1933 were no longer in the hands of their former owners.” After what Wünschmann calls “the November pogrom,” Kristallnacht, in November, 1938, 30,000 more Jewish men were locked up in Dachau, Sachsenhausen, and Buchenwald. Equally important, the pretense that they were being imprisoned because they had violated the law was dropped. Now their crime was their membership in the Jewish “race.”

As Wünschmann puts this culminating point of Nazi anti-Jewish persecution before Auschwitz, “’Jewishness’ was understood to be the root of [the Jews’] essential hostility toward the German racial state.” It had taken five years for the Nazis to reach this point, a process whose articulation in Ms. Wünschmann’s remarkable work of scholarship starkly illuminates the even greater horrors that were to come in the second half of Hitler’s time in power—Auschwitz and the murder of 6 million human beings for no other reason than that they were Jews.

Richard Bernstein is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He is the author of China 1945.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.