Nazi Germany: How Much Did the Average German Know?

That’s pretty much it. During the time the concentration camps were in operation, how much did the average German person know about what was going on in them? Similarly, only a fraction of the military could have been at these places. What about the rest of the troops?

There was obviously some denial from other western civilizations about the matter, I’ve seen this documented. But I wonder about the population itself, how much they were aware of.

The concentration camps were no secret in Germany. I recall one account where a train made a stop and the conductor announced “Dachau Station.” Everyone went silent. They knew.

But note one thing: there were two type of camps (at least, in the beginning): concentration camps and extermination camps. The concentration camps (like Dachau) were a place where prisoners were concentrated. In other words, prison camps. Now the Nazis were not particularly nice to their prisoners, but they were originally just prisons for criminals (though, of course, what the Nazis considered criminals may not correspond to what most people think). People were actually released from concentration camps – with the warning that if they told anyone what happened inside, they’d be paying a return visit.

The extermination camps (like Auschwitz and Treblinka) were designed solely to exterminate undesirables. Treblinka was pretty much just one big execution chamber; Auschwitz had the prisoners work until they dropped before killing them. These were not set up in Germany, BTW, so I suppose it was possible that the average German in the home front didn’t know about them. But I think most had a rought idea of what was happening.

This probably belongs in some other forum, but I don’t get worked up about that. Anyway, if you are interested in this issue, you will be interested in this book.

It has been much criticized but it is a great place to start.

I didn’t know there were two kinds of camps like that, actually. I thought they all did everything from imprisonment to outright extermination.


Actually, Auschwitz was a work camp. The death camp within the confines of Auschwitz was called Birkenau.

I’m from Germany, and this topic is often debated. many people denied knowing anything and obviously the degree of knowledge varied greatly.

From all I learned you have to assume that they knew that horrible things were going on but many did not know the full scale. The deportation of jews and other minorities and the arrest of all members of the opposition happened openly and was even celebrated. The existance of concentration camps (the first kind mentioned above, like Dachau) was neither kept secret nor denied in any way.

Officially they were presented as a bizarre combination of boot camps for creating better German citizens, work camps and even a measure to protect those minorities from acts of revenge by the German population.

However many people (giving even estimates is difficult if not impossible) knew that being sent to a concentration camp was pretty much a death sentence.
Even if they knew no details they had to notice that hardly anyone ever returned from the camps. Whether they wanted to know as much as they could is different issue.

The record of atrocities on the Russian front is pretty clear.

Everybody in Russia knew about them.

I’ve been reading a little about the Eastern Front, & I pity the Russian civilians more than words can express.

History is a hell of a lot scarier than a nightmare. You wake up from nightmares.

Some knew very little, at least initially. My mother spent some time in Heidelburg after the War and some friends of hers thought that the local camp was a mental hospital or something until they related this to a guest and promptly received a visit from the Gestapo.

It’s an oft debated subject with no defintive answer, I think it’s fair to say that a significant portion of Germany’s population were aware of varying degrees of detail rumours that such things were going on (the Nazi’s earlier’euthenasia’ projects were already quite well-known, mainly due to the fact that the church had kicked up quite a fuss).

But at the same time you have to remebr that the Nazis went to some length to keep the mass extermination from the Germans, which is why the death camps were not situated in Germany, but to the east. Also you must take into consideration that Germany was a totaliterian state were all forms of media were controlled by the Nazis and even gossip or a comment could be enough for you to be arrested by the Gestapo and taken to a concnetrtaion camp (which were certianly known to the Geerman populace, though they were not built for extermination, the appalling conditioons whitn the camps and the genral contempt for the lifes of the inmates shown by the Nazis means that a signifcant proportion of those who died in the holocaust died in such institutions. Some concentration camps did have gas chambers nearby, but these were mainly used for Hitler’s euthenasia programme, though some say that people may of been killed at the large Dachau gas chambers, which certainly could of been used for such purpose).

My own conclusion is that most Germans would of had some inkling of what was going on, but few would of known the fall scale or horror.

Berlin-born Marlene Dietrich, who did an enormous amount of war work for the Allies, said in the documentary Marlene, “Of course we knew about the concentration camps, so it wasn’t hard to decide what side to be on. It was not a difficult decision to make.”

Ironically, in Judgment at Nuremberg, Marlene played the wife of a Nazi general and said, “Do you think we knew? My God, we’re civilized people–I tell you, we did not know.” Marlene had a hard time playing that role.

The two camps, Auschwitz and Birkenau, are some distance apart. Auschwitz was originally IIRC a POW camp, and was the site of the first (small) gas chamber. Birkenau is much larger, and featured the main chambers.

My mother was born in 1931, so she was rather young while the war was on. She was also from a little town in the Bavarian countryside that didn’t have a noticeable Jewish population, so she didn’t have any personal observations of bad things happening to neighbors to go by. Nevertheless, she did say that there was talk about Jews being removed to camps, and rumors about an unpleasant fate for them. The news came to her and her school friends through older siblings or parents who sometimes listened in secret to Allied radio broadcasts. Any discussion was kept very low-key, because people were afraid of running afoul of local Nazi officials.

I don’t think we should exclude the possibility that many Germans might have heard rumours which were in fact more or less accurate, but which they found difficult to believe, which they couldn’t check and which they didn’t want to believe.

I mean, if we didn’t know what we know about the Nazi Holocaust, we would find it very difficult to believe that the government of any western nation would try to eliminate an ethnic minority by murdering them all through industrial processes, wouldn’t we? And if we heard a rumour to that effect about our <i>own</i> government, we would find it very hard to credit.

What the Nazis were doing was, in fact, incredible, so I think we should allow for the possibility that, in good faith, people wouldn’t believe it without compelling corroborative evidence.

In 1996, I sat next to a an elderly gentleman on a flight from Miami to Baltimore. He had a slight accent, which could have been British, or simply boarding-school.

He was very polite and cordial, and when he mentioned having flown, I asked him if he had been in the military.

He grinned.

“Yes, but on the wrong side.”

He related a fascinating bio: he had served in the German Navy, been taken prisoner of war, and held in America. When he was released at the war’s end, he emigrated here, and ended up marrying an American girl. He had been educated in Germany as a structural engineer, and started a very successful business here, simultaneously earning his doctorate in geology at an Ivy League school. His two sons became engineers.

He volunteered that he came to America because, and I’m quoting, “I don’t like Germans”.

When I recoiled slightly, he elaborated, “The German people knew about the holocaust – it was no secret.”

I offered my honest opinion: it took a lot of courage to believe that, even more to say it.

I then offered another honest opinion: that conditions imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles were harsh enough to bring out the worst in any people, etc, etc.

He smiled warmly and thanked me effusively.

I will always remember that conversation.

There is no question whether or not the German people knew what the Nazi’s policy’s were toward jews. There are photos of average german people at Nazi rallies with signs plastered all over the walls, “The Jew is the Enemy” and such.

Could the average german know about the death camps and precisely what was occuring? How could they? Its not as if the SS were giving free tours and they were all outside of Germany, which would make it even more difficult for rumours to spread word-of-mouth.

Its worth noting, that at least one camp in Germany, Dachau, was set-up as a death-camp but was never used. I visited several years ago and its theorized that one of the reasons it wasn’t used was that they didn’t want to defile the soil of the Fatherland with the exterminations, but it was fine elsewhere.

I’m puzzled why Dietrich would be asked this, as she lived in the United States from 1930 onward.

Since most of the death camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka (and several others) were located in Poland, it seems unlikely that during the war the average German would “know” what went on there except by rumor.

How much do Americans “know” of the actions of US troops in Viet Nam, to say nothing of Central America over the last century? Rumors abound, but what do we really know? Not much. I’m not saying that atrocities were widespread, but what we know about Mi Lai should signal that other such events might have occurred. Even with a free press, we don’t know much about such things. How much could the Germans have known when their press was controlled and the Nazis had spies everywhere?

I’m inclined to believe that when average Germans of the day said they didn’t really know, they are telling the truth. What they had heard or what they suspected is still not knowledge. And given the general fear of the Gestapo, the less they knew the safer they felt.

Not a “factual” answer, I know, but most of this thread is opinion. I just added mine.

I WAS CHIEF OF THE DEPT OF OBGYN AT US ARMY HOSPITAL IN MUNICH, GERMANY (not far from Dachau concentration camp where people were gassed and placed in the ovens).

During the time I was there (1960 to mid 1963), I discussed the OP with countless employees who lived in Germany during the Hitler years…Many of them reporte to me that they were aware that trucks often carried away their Jewish neighbors who never returned.

More importantly, they saw clouds of smoke coming from Dachau. The rumors were what we all know did take place.

Almost all of the people I talked to had an idea what was going on but stated that they wouldn’t talk about it to others outside their families for fear that they would be picked up and carted away.

One University of Munich medical students showed me photographs of local people of Munich laughing with Nazi soldiers at people hanging from ropes in trees.

Nobody was ever gassed at Dachau. The facilities existed but were never used. Thousands of people were cremated in the ovens at Dachau because of the high rate of prisoner death. The camp initially only had one oven, they had to build a second, larger oven to keep up with the demand.

Do you have evidence for that? My own guess is that it was purely a transport decision. If you look at the map below, you’ll note that the vast majority of Jews were to the east of Germany. Why build in Germany and transport them all there? In addition, the majority of the the other “undesirables” were east, especially if they were planning ahead for after the conquest of Russia.

Jewish populations in Europe pre-Holocaust