Share this article

print logo

‘KL’ is a masterful documentation of Nazi camps

Until recently, only scholars and historians had access to much of the information Nikolaus Wachsmann has packed into this history. Technology is creating new methods of research and of processing information nonstop, making it difficult for the general reader to keep up, but “KL” is so up-to-date that the last anecdote occurs in March 2013.

Wachsmann is the co-author of two previous histories of the camps and the sole author of “Hitler’s Prisons: Legal Terror in Nazi Germany,” but the topic is nowhere near exhausted. Documents that had sat in drawers, boxes and files in East Germany alone have come to light since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and work in other countries uncovers new facts, new connections every day.

Even so seemingly simple a fact as the number of camps opens up several avenues of response. In 1933, there were 170 such camps in Berlin alone. These were not the multithousand-inmate giant enterprises of the World War II years, but 170? And in one city. Relatively new computer programs can reprocess old information and extract new facts, especially in historical geography.

During the war, main camps gave rise to satellite camps in Poland and Germany. The maps give a striking picture of their omnipresence. Some munitions factories in Germany had their origins in existing underground buildings and, by means of thousands of slave laborers, branched out via tunnels for miles every which way, especially after the British bombed a top-secret weapons factory at Peenemunde.

When the Nazi killing machinery became so efficient that Germany began to run low on slave labor, Heinrich Himmler ordered the SS and its camp doctors to ease up on the pace of murder and mutilation and even increase the prisoners’ daily 700-calorie food allowance. Pages of statistics sketch the falling death rate variations from camp to camp and among differently classified groups of prisoners by income, age and ethnicity. Maps and charts clarify what the numbers represent.

But this is no bureaucratic report, no boring narrative. Every page contains personal stories of prisoners, perpetrators or bystanders identified by name and age, describing what happened to them at the time and afterward. Some of the same people appear in different parts of the book. A huge section of notes points the way to further information. The list of abbreviations alone takes more than three pages.

Wachsmann keeps the tone of his writings conversational. He lets the facts speak for themselves, never needing to embellish the horror of the camps or the sadistic perversions of the SS culture established in them. He also resists deleting odd events, such as when a Nazi bigwig took his wife to one of the camps for infertility treatment because the camp doctor was a renowned gynecologist in the greater society.

Wachsmann discusses and demolishes the myth of “the secret camp” unknown to neighboring residents and of mad, marginalized scientists carrying out confidential research in the hinterlands. Camps, the larger ones at least, tended to be near factories. The medical experiments did indeed make it into the mainstream of German medicine, with reports delivered at various conferences and seminars.

Wachsmann sorts out the many intertwining topics evoked by the camps. Probably a half-dozen pop up just in the above few paragraphs, with many more yet unmentioned. His knowledge of previous research gives him an edge in evaluating the material.

Not widely known outside the historian community, the postwar trials of Nazi criminals, so dear to the hearts of moviegoers, faded relatively quickly. Germany tried to rebuild itself and the Soviet Union became a more vivid threat to the West than the demolished Third Reich. Fewer trials, lighter sentences and the relatively weak success of denazification demoralized the survivors. The world had moved on.

As for survivors, they didn’t just go away after V-E Day. The Russians in particular feared being sent to gulags if they returned to their homeland, but the Western Allies had agreed to hand them over anyway. Freed prisoners were not free to come and go but were kept in displaced persons camps until armies and governments figured out what to do with them, especially the children and the maimed unable to earn a living.

At first glance, “KL” doesn’t seem to be the kind of a book to describe in a review. But so much new material appears here that it seems necessary to show how much has become available.

Wachsmann has clear ideas and expresses them in clear prose. The reader can open “KL” at any page and not stop reading until an interruption occurs. Nevertheless, the material is also troubling enough that taking it a chapter at a time seems advisable. Reading it straight through didn’t work for me. There have to be breaks from the cruelty, suffering and barbarity depicted here.

How Wachsmann and other researchers deal with the psychological burden of knowing what they know is a puzzle. Treating such events as normalized would skew their perspective but some degree of detachment still is needed for evaluating the material. Perhaps that dilemma is solved elsewhere.

What Wachsman has not included can be found in the extensive notes and the huge section on sources. Instead of “Bibliography,” the section includes electronic and print media.

The hefty price and actual weight of the 880 pages are another issue, but if a bookshelf has room for only one history of the Holocaust, this is a strong contender for that space.

Stephanie Shapiro is a former News writer and editor.

KL: A History of the Nazi

Concentration Camps

By Nikolaus Wachsmann

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

880 pages, $40