Before Auschwitz: Jew­ish Pris­on­ers in the Pre­war Con­cen­tra­tion Camps

Kim Wün­schmann
  • Review
By – August 13, 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.

Relat­ed Content:

Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

Discussion Questions