New research on Nazi slave labor camps shocks even Holocaust scholars

This is certainly shocking to me as well. From the New York Times article:

[R]esearchers have cataloged some 42,500 Nazi ghettos and camps throughout Europe, spanning German-controlled areas from France to Russia and Germany itself, during Hitler’s reign of brutality from 1933 to 1945.

The figure is so staggering that even fellow Holocaust scholars had to make sure they had heard it correctly when the lead researchers previewed their findings at an academic forum in late January at the German Historical Institute in Washington.

Interestingly, the researchers at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. have uncovered a number of camps and slave labor sites in which sexuality and reproduction were central to the torture inflicted on women.  (We know this happens in every war and human conflict; I am not surprised, but I’m interested to see that it’s only being described in these terms now for public consumption.)

“We knew before how horrible life in the camps and ghettos was,” he said, “but the numbers are unbelievable.”

The documented camps include not only “killing centers” but also thousands of forced labor camps, where prisoners manufactured war supplies; prisoner-of-war camps; sites euphemistically named “care” centers, where pregnant women were forced to have abortions or their babies were killed after birth; and brothels, where women were coerced into having sex with German military personnel.

Auschwitz and a handful of other concentration camps have come to symbolize the Nazi killing machine in the public consciousness. Likewise, the Nazi system for imprisoning Jewish families in hometown ghettos has become associated with a single site — the Warsaw Ghetto, famous for the 1943 uprising. But these sites, infamous though they are, represent only a minuscule fraction of the entire German network, the new research makes painfully clear.

The maps the researchers have created to identify the camps and ghettos turn wide sections of wartime Europe into black clusters of death, torture and slavery — centered in Germany and Poland, but reaching in all directions.

As a scholar of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, I’m surprised that modern history holds any surprises whatsoever–but there I go again, getting all Whiggy and empiricist again, and forgetting about the the overwhelming will to forget, especially when dealing with the festering wound on the twentieth century known as World War II.  I think it’s especially interesting that even the Allies and victims of the Nazis prefer to remember ghettos like Warsaw, whose uprising offers the opportunity to portray its victims as something other than mere victims.  As Bonnie Smith writes in The Gender of History, historians prefer to write “the better story,” no matter how unrepresentative that story might be.  Of course, it’s always a better story when you can write about resistance to exploitation, enslavement, and pure evil.

The Times story makes it clear that the results of this massive study may have a real-world effect on modern business:

The research could have legal implications as well by helping a small number of survivors document their continuing claims over unpaid insurance policies, looted property, seized land and other financial matters.

“How many claims have been rejected because the victims were in a camp that we didn’t even know about?” asked Sam Dubbin, a Florida lawyer who represents a group of survivors who are seeking to bring claims against European insurance companies.

Fascinating.  This is what’s cool about modern history:  the power potentially to change the present and the future.


10 thoughts on “New research on Nazi slave labor camps shocks even Holocaust scholars

  1. I would love to say something wise, but at times I am deprived of words.

    The challenge in teaching is to both give students a full sense of the horror, but also give them a sense of where possibilities of agency were/are. That doesn’t lessen the evil, but it does complicate the story…


  2. I’m with you, Historiann: I always am surprised when others are surprised by the extent of human brutality. Are we cynics? Or realists? None of this depresses me because none of it surprises me.

    I must also admit that I have a bit of a beef with the impulse to “tell the better story.” Sometimes I think it’s an anti-whig impulse, as you suggest, but the desire to recover the agency of oppressed or marginalized groups, which has been the focus of so much scholarship of the past 25 years, often (not always) strikes me as too essentialist. I tend to skew more towards the cultural determinist end of the spectrum, though I try to avoid being at the outer extreme.


  3. I think these stories were de-emphasized because the narrative wasn’t a straight heroic line the way the dominant civilized culture prefers, where surviving rape or humiliation through compromises is a fate worse than death. Despite the enormity of the war crimes committed upon them, the survivors still believed they would be judged for how they came through; it is rape culture made plain as a system of government.

    People did what they did to survive, and that meant surviving after a forced abortion, an infanticide, ongoing sexual abuse. Those survivors’ stories weren’t as neat and heroic as being liberated from a death camp — and the culpability of those in the Nazi regime who benefited from those embedded centers of atrocity was chosen, by post-war Europeans and the Allies, to be set aside.

    Also, I’m suspicious whenever a truth and possible reconciliation come so far in the future that most of the participants are dead, but we’ve seen this before, and will again. I’d love to know who benefited from these narratives’ burial, and who spent the money, to keep them hidden.


  4. “I’d love to know who benefited from these narratives’ burial, and who spent the money, to keep them hidden.”

    I think you’ve already answered that question, cgeye–everyone has an interest in burying these stories. Certainly the perpetrators of the violence have a strong incentive not to tell these stories. Bystanders absolutely don’t want to admit their complicity or hear about the details in the camps and ghettos they knew about but did nothing to oppose or resist. And as you say, victims who merely survive rather than sacrifice their lives in some heroic fashion are themselves ashamed of their own survival. Ours is a world that is very hard on victims, and apparently, we like it that way.

    Francois Furstenberg wrote an article about this in the Journal of American History about a decade ago, in which he tried to explain the persistence of slavery in a free republic after the American Revolution as explicable by white Americans’ insistence that “freedom isn’t free,” namely, that it had to be fought for. Therefore, anyone submitting to slavery rather than dying in the fight against it clearly deserved their own enslavement. He recounts the many uprisings against slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries, but then shows how whites rationalized their refusal to see blacks as freedom fighters instead of bloodthirsty, apolitical terrorists, and shows how the only virtuous slave in the minds of most whites was in fact a dead slave–one who had fought valliantly but was doomed.)

    It’s really a brilliant and convincing argument–and I think it holds lessons for us these 200 years later.

    Squadrato–it’s great to hear from you again! I agree with you that the hunt for agency has led to distortions in the historiography in most fields. I’ve been glad to see the return of structure as an emphasis in many of the books written by people of my generation. I think of my own book as an argument for the power and persistence of deep-seated social structures and cultural scripts.


  5. I don’t think it’s as much the “will to forget” as it is the declination to attend, both in broader cultural process and in specific historical practice. Over the course of time–even in or with respect to major acknowledged phenomena–what happens locally has a tendency to stay locally; at least after a modest number of “specimen” exemplars are called forth to serve as meta-data? How many Andersonvilles were there in Civil War America? How many My Lai’s in Vietnam? After the tenth or eleventh mastodon or sabertooth is excavated on any given continent or country, it pretty much becomes a page 42 story. There’s not very much encouragement or reward to do replication studies in most of the humanities disciplines, or to piece together the findings that do inevitably appear in local fora into the useful mosaics that help to generate perspective. This is one area in which the recent turn toward crowd sourcing projects may have a really beneficial effect. There are a lot of good reasons for peer review, but the reflexive response that “we already know about this” is quite arguably not one of them.


  6. I, too, thought about the complicity issue when I read this, which I think a lot of European nations still struggle with. It is easy to deny any knowledge of the major camps in Eastern Europe, but with so many places spread across the map, it would have been very difficult for local populations to remain completely ignorant of what was happening.

    It would be useful to have a word that is somewhere between “victim” and “perpetrator” to help process these issues. Especially when teaching them to often incredulous undergrads who seem to have made it through much of their lives without having encountered the enormity of WWII-or maybe this just describes my students.


  7. The Holocaust was not German, it was European. It wasn’t only on Jews, it also included gays, gypsies, communists and Russians. (Not an exhaustive list) Only the Germans took full responsibility. The Austrian deny any connection. Other European countries play Turks for the Armenians. Antisemitism rises sharply in Europe with no end in sight.

    The recent revelation may include new details. We have known about the sex, abortion, experiments forever. Those of us who grow up in and surrounded by holocaust surviving families heard these story way back. We knew the women that were subject of the experiments and other horrors. These women were friends of our mothers; we called them by their first name, Lonka, Gina, Bella.

    History is buried by the criminals. Is this news?


  8. This article (and the NYT source) is consistent with conversations I’ve had with German friends.

    Every city and large village in 1935 Germany had a camp at the outskirts of town. Fear, fear of being sent there, fear of having your loved ones sent there, fear of reprisals against loved ones already there, these were powerful motivators for compliance to the National Socialist order.

    It’s not that Germans didn’t know they were there – they did. Rather, the fear and pain associated with them were so great that almost no one could bear thinking about them, even briefly.

    Fear of being perpetrated upon by communist totalitarianism, fear of loss of Deutsche identity from Russian conquerors, fear that the Reich might not really be special and that Germans were ordinary folk dealing with ordinary fears (and not any better at it than anyone else on the planet) – awareness of these fears and current fears, this is what I hope will come of reporting all these facts.

    And btw, are the Germans in 2013 trying to ‘do it’ better than the rest of Europe? Und so geht es.


  9. I think we’ve known about all the different elements of this in the past; it’s just that now somebody has decided to count them all up that we get a sense of the full scale of the horror. But, I also think it’s also a marker of how banal that horror often was in practice. I think that because we think ‘concentration camp’ when we think of Nazi brutality that we imagine all these 42,500 camps to have had big gates and a large pointing arrow flashing going ‘genocide, genocide’.

    But if we look at the ‘care’ facilities- all doctors and nurses were expected to report, for example, ‘deformities’ or other problematic markers to those up the hierarchy (the extent to which they did is a matter of debate). ‘Problematic’ people were then sometimes put into homes, where they were killed or worse; or women were forced to have abortions. But, putting disabled people into institutions was a European wide practice that continued long past WW2 (many of whom lived in torturous or demeaning conditions as we now recognise), as was the phenomenon of God-like doctors who felt happy to experiment on their patients because ‘they knew best’. Across the world, there are numerous 20thC examples of women who were sterilised, forced to have abortions, refused medical treatments, or given unneccessary ones. Many of these people died as a result. A lot of this wasn’t questioned until well after the 1960s, even the 1990s.

    So, on the surface at least, this part of the picture looked very normal and continued to look quite normal even after the event. So, in the past, we pointed to the deaths and torture as the ‘horror’ part, but not to the assumptions around doctor/patient relationships, or the uses and abuses of institutions in that horror. It was that they killed disabled children that was the problem; not that they locked them away (or even treated them badly!) It’s only when we start to count those facilities (which probably existed in every town because they were often just part of NORMAL medical facilities) that the scale of the problem becomes clear.


  10. I may be dead once this history is written, but there is much to detail concerning the modern mutations of the “freedom isn’t free” trope, from the rote “thank you for your service” that’s the inverse of the surface interpretation of dismissing a servant, to the “if you can read this / thank a teacher / if you can read this in English / thank a soldier” trope that reinforces the idea of soldiers being better citizens in a representative democracy than someone who votes, or someone who believes in pacifism.

    It doesn’t take concentration camp bars and gates to remind us of places we fear so deeply that we tolerate the most oppressive of technological developments, to avoid the fear of being disappeared (Colorado Droneport, anyone?). And ain’t a caution that the basic oppressor belief that A Fate Worse Than Death works as well in our rape culture as it does in American slave culture?


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