Before Auschwitz: Jewish Prisoners in the Prewar Concentration Camps

Harvard University Press  2015


Kim Wünschmann presents an impressive, skillfully written and solidly researched examination of the origins and operation of the prewar concentration camp system, its role in the development of Nazi policies toward Jews, and its direct impact on the fate of German Jewry. Much of what she presents is new and groundbreaking, as there are few studies of the imprisonment of Jews in these extra-legal detention sites. The history of Jews in concentration camps has usually been told from a post-Holocaust, post-Auschwitz perspective with mass murder and gas chambers as the focus. Wünschmann’s study, by contrast, reevaluates the imprisonment of 40,000 Jewish camp inmates before the war and demonstrates that this period is more than a prelude to the Holocaust. The camps played an important role in the process of exclusion of Jews from German state and society in the years 1933 to 1939. This period marked an important transition that took place in the midst of German society and affected the coexistence of Jews and non-Jews, turning German citizens with Jewish roots into a racially defined “other,” diminishing their rights and legal standing, and subjecting them to the “social death” that Marion Kaplan and others have so cogently analyzed.

Examining more than a dozen camps—from the more well-known Dachau, Buchenwald, Neuengamme, Sachsenhausen, and Oranienburg to less familiar sites—Wünschmann’s objective is to investigate the role of these camps in the process of identifying, isolating, and terrorizing Jews as the prime enemies of German society in the Nazi era. Nowhere was their exclusion, degradation, and racially motivated dehumanization enacted more brutally and radically than in the camps, which had a profound impact on both German-Jewish and “Aryan” society. The symbolic power of the concentration camp in threatening Jews and in intimidating potential allies cannot be overstated. As visible sites of terror, as they were meant to be, they permeated German consciousness.

By using the concentration camps as instruments of punishment, humiliation, and deterrence, the Gestapo and SS helped to transform the German Jews, a heterogeneous minority within German society, into the hated racial enemy of the German volk. This also served to strengthen the developing unity of the German people and over time, accustomed them to violence and intimidation, and implicated them as bystanders, informers, and expropriators of Jewish property. Concentration camp terror thus paved the way for the racial genocide that was to follow during World War II.

Wünschmann persuasively argues that actions against Jews were crucial for a regime testing the limits of its power while seeking maximum control over the German public. Through the institutionalization of violence, the regime gained valuable experience and momentum for the unprecedented crimes to come. Before Auschwitz is an important book that covers new ground and is prodigiously researched, unearthing troves of new material including survivor accounts in the tradition of Saul Friedländer’s integrated history approach. It deserves a wide readership.

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