The Nazis were not the first to create large compunds or camps for prisoners. The British, for instance, had used concentration camps in South Africa for Boer families during the Anglo-Boer War at the turn of the twentieth century. The colonial German empire locked up the Herero people in southwest Africa (today Namibia) in concentration camps beginning in 1905. By the time the Nazis began to establish the concentration camp system, there was already a large system of labor camps (the Gulag camps) in the Soviet Union. The Nazis changed many aspects of the concentration camp and took the use of them to an entirely different level. The idea of the “concentration camp” would be forever altered by the Nazis’ camp infrastructure during the Third Reich.
There were several stages in the evolution of the camp system during the Third Reich, and there were many different types of camps that served a variety of purposes throughout the years of Nazi rule. For example, in the early years of the regime, the Nazis created many prisons and camps to stifle voices of opposition. In the mid-1930s, a series of measures were passed to consolidate the camp system and to remove it from the traditional justice system. Concentration camps, such as Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, and Mauthausen, were used to reinforce Nazi racial hierarchy and became holding centers for those who were deemed racially “unfit” or dangerous to the Nazi regime. Even more camps were opened in the first half of the war. In less than three years, the number of prisoners jumped from 21,000 in August 1939 to about 80,000 in spring 1942, including many of those who lived in the territories the Germans occupied.
In 1941, the purpose of some of the camps changed. This year marked a break in the function of the concentration camp system, when the first planned and systematic mass killing of Jewish prisoners took place in many camps with the launch of the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” – the murder of all European Jews. 1941 also marked the year that a solid foundation was laid for concentration camp prisoners to be used as labor in various growing and important industries, especially with the unforeseen extension of the war in the Soviet Union.
Construction on the Majdanek camp, located three miles southeast of Lublin in the Generalgouvernment (the occupied territory of Poland not incorporated into the Reich), began in October 1941. Soviet prisoners-of-war were forced to begin building the camp, which was intended to hold some 50,000 prisoners to be exploited for forced labor on various SS projects throughout eastern Europe and German-occupied areas of the Soviet Union.
Initially designated as a prisoner-of-war camp of the Waffen SS of Lublin, Majdanek was reclassified as a concentration camp on February 16, 1943, by the SS to better reflect the reality of its actual administration. Yet, at the same time, Majdanek was unlike other concentration camps in that the SS and Police Leader for the Generalgouvernment, Odilo Globocnik, retained control over the camp’s operations within the framework of “Operation Reinhard,” which was the name given to the operation to murder all of the Jews of the Generalgouvernment. Majdanek served a variety of purposes: as a site where Jews who were not killed at other killing centers, such as Belzec and Sobibor, were murdered; as a storage depot for items stolen from Jewish victims before they were murdered at the killing centers; and as a concentration camp for Jews who were to be temporarily spared for forced labor.
In addition, the camp served as a site where other targeted groups were murdered: members of the Polish resistance, hostages taken from the Security Police prison in Lublin, and prisoners who were deemed unfit for work. The first Jewish prisoners in Majdanek were rounded up in Lublin in December 1941. In spring 1942, when the Germans began to implement the “Final Solution” in the Generalgouvernment, some Jews who were being deported to the killing centers were diverted to Majdanek to be used for labor. Conditions in the camp were terrible, and SS routinely executed those who were too weak to work. The SS murdered tens of thousands of Jews and other prisoners in Majdanek. Although the camp never held 50,000 prisoners at one time, during its existence from October 1941 to July 1944, when the camp was evacuated ahead of the advancement of Soviet troops, between 80,000 and 110,000 prisoners were killed in Majdanek. At least 75 percent of them were Jews.
In discussing this topic with students, it is important to understand that the Nazi camp system was very complex and changed over time. Analyzing the evolution of particular camps, such as Majdanek, provides a window into how the Nazi regime functioned and gives a glimpse of some of the ad hoc nature of the progression of at least certain aspects of Nazi policy. The existence of the camps and the activities inside them also marks them as a unique historical event: the Germans were the first to fuse together concentration camps with stationary gassing to create the killing centers.