Soon after Hitler
came to power in January 1933, tens of thousands of people, mainly
communists and socialists, were taken into ‘protective custody’ as
enemies of the state by a variety of party and state organisations. By
the end of the year 200,000 had been held. This was made possible by the
emergency decree suspending civil liberties that Hitler pressed
President Hindenberg to pass the day after the Reichstag fire on 27
February. About 5 per cent of those arrested were Jews. This number was
high – Jews made up about 0.75 per cent of the population – but was
probably an accurate enough representation of their presence on the
communist and social democratic left. (It’s difficult to say for sure.
We know that 2 per cent of Reichstag deputies during the Weimar Republic
listed their religion as Jewish but all Communist Party members and
many from the social democratic parties refused on principle to give
their religion.) But Nazi anti-Semitism was already evident: Jews were
far more likely than others to fall victim to random violence.
was by no means clear that a vast system of camps would emerge from
these beginnings. Hermann Göring thought the Ministry of the Interior
could deal with enemies of the state through the already existing system
of courts and prisons. And the early camps were hard to manage. The
army had to intervene when SS members went on the rampage in a camp in
Emsland near the Dutch border, furious at the release of some prisoners.
But Himmler, head of the Munich police as well as the senior officer in
the SS, saw that the KL could be used as a permanent instrument of
terror. On 22 March 1933, the first concentration camp proper opened in
an old munitions factory 21 km north of Munich. Dachau would, Himmler
hoped, hold five thousand people. He was dreaming small.
from “Devoted to Terror,“ LRB review essay by Thomas Laqueur