Were Nazi concentration camp guards forced?

Inspired by a recurring point of contention on Another Forum, I would like to consult any experts on the Holocaust here. Were the guards forced to be guards? Could they transfer to another duty? Did one specifically request to work in a concentration camp instead of the regular army? What would the consequences be for someone who refused to be a guard?

Some of the guards were members of the Waffen-SS or other organizations who either volunteered or were assigned to concentration camps. A division of the SS called Totenkopf or “Death’s Head”, as well as an organization called Totenkopfverbande, were responsible for guarding and other police duties at the camps. During the later stages of the war, large numbers of these were reassigned to combat on the Russian front.

I’m not sure if the members of the Totenkopf division or the Totenkopfverbande explicitly volunteered to join those organizations. Some may have been recruited from the Waffen-SS or the SD (security police) without volunteering. At any rate, I imagine that some of the volunteers wouldn’t have known the full extent of what was going on; many probably volunteered in camps in the hope of avoiding combat or at least to have a permanent base. Some, of course, would have been sadistic or indoctrinated enough to volunteer to work in the camps so they could punish and destroy the enemies of the Fatherland…

I suspect (though I’m not sure) that the camp guards were not forced and were able to transfer to other duties. Though it seems impossible from a modern-day viewpoint, guards in concentration camps probably had the same status as any other member of the Waffen-SS – they wouldn’t have been privy to any secret information, for example, that required them to remain within the camp system.

During the war, especially after the invasion of Russia in 1941, large numbers of Totenkopf SS were transferred to the Waffen-SS on the Eastern Front. I suspect that any camp guard who volunteered to fight in Russia would have been permitted to do so (and would likely have died there). Also, these transfers imply that transferring out of the camp system was possible.

I don’t think the camp guards realized the scope of what they were doing. Only a few would have been responsible for actually performing genocide. Most would have been supervising prisoners in labor camps, not extermination camps. They would probably have known the fate of prisoners boarding trains for ‘resettlement in the East’, but would not have had knowledge of the details of genocide. Remember also that the guards would have been 18- to 25-year olds who had been subjected to Nazi propaganda for most of their lives in school, on the radio, and in the Hitler Youth. The possibility of genocide being a crime of the highest magnitude would not have entered their minds.*

However – and this is very important – not all the guards were members of the Waffen-SS (and, incidentally, not all the members of the Waffen-SS were German). Many of the guards, particularly in extermination camps, certainly were forced. Citizens of Nazi-occupied countries, especially Poland and the Ukraine, were pressed into service as camp guards during the war. They were assigned many of the most heinous duties, such as supervising gas chambers and crematoria, and their labor was not voluntary. They worked knowing they would be shot if they refused or deserted.

I’m not an expert, but I hope that answers your question, at least partly.

*: Not that this justifies what they did, or even explains it. But I disagree with the usual portrayal of the Nazis as a horde of murderous racial-supremacist beasts. They were, for the most part, essentially ordinary people who were coerced by their leaders into performing horrors beyond comprehension. What is most chilling about the Third Reich is that the atrocities for which it was responsible were not unique in the twentieth century, and have not been made impossible in the twenty-first.

I thought they served because they were threatened by servince in the Russian Front.

At least thats what Klink would always threaten Shultz with.

Being a death camp guard, according to “Denying History” earned one special rations and privelages and meant you would not be sent to the front. No one was ever executed for not wanting to do their job. All the evidence says they did it willingly.

I know that service in the Death’s Head units could be gotten out of my requesting a transfer; I have seen mounds and mounds of specific references to the voluntary nature of the duty. Service in the SS at all was more or less voluntary until 1944. Yiou could be drafted into the Wehrmacht, but the SS was taking only volunteers until at least 1942, and to a lesser extent '44.

Now, to clear up some confusion, the SS was not just concentration and death camp guards. The Waffen SS (literally “armed SS”) included some 40 combat divisions - that’s a honkin’ big army, like half a million men - which actually fought at the front, essentially the same as the main body of the Wehrmacht. By 1942-1943 the Waffen SS was fully committed to battle and a lot of volunteers for the navy and air force - who by that time had more men than they needed - were redirected into SS service. If I am not mistaken, the Hitler Youth Division, which was engaged in almost constant battle with 1 Canadian Army throughout Europe in 1944, was almost wholly made up of remustered volunteers.

If you are wondering why on earth Germany would have two armies and all the organizational overhead that would go with that, well, that’s a good question. The SS was originally the armed guard of the National Socialist party, and carried a certain amount of its own political clout. Ol’ Heinrich didn’t want to give up his little empire, and Hitler, like all paranoid tyrants, was fond of having an elite army he could put between himself and the general army. Of course, this WAS a hideously wasteful system, a theme you can find repeated again and again in the way the Nazis carried out the war; this is an armed forces that at one point was using more than 50 different kinds of motorcycles. Imagine being the guy who has to order the spare parts.

The Waffen SS is invariably claimed to have ben an elite army. This is true in some cases and not true in others. Some SS divisions were certainly of extremely high quality, such as the aforementioned Hitler Youth (12 SS Panzer) 5th SS Panzer, and others. On the other hand, some SS divisions were kind of slapped together with a mixture of foreign troops and worked about as well as you would expect of that.

Back to the OP’s question, the guards were officially part of the Waffen SS as of 1940, but obviously there is a pretty significant difference between guarding some starving Jewish women and going up against a crack Soviet guards division. Certainly anyone requesting a transfer to other SS units, for most of the war, would have gotten it; having a supply of available combat troops was a problem that got worse every day, and the Germans combed the ranks looking for able men to remuster to combat roles. They certainly would not have turned down a volunteer.

Of course, as the war drew nearer to its conclusion and the Wehrmacht and SS were losing men by the thousands every day, it’s reasonable to assume that in the war’s waning hours, a lot of kids were assigned to guard duty without any realistic chance of transferring anywhere.

Nonetheless, the majority of SS, who served in duties related to murdering civilians, throughout most of the war, had the option of remustering to other roles, especially combat roles. As smiling bandit has pointed out, nobody was shot for refusing to help kill Jews. A great, great majority of camp guards were for all practical intents and purposes choosing to do that job in lieu of real military jobs.

The SA led by Ernest Rohm were orginally the paramilitary wing of the Nazi party and the led by Henrich Himmler were part of the SA and Hitler’s personal bodyguard (SS stands for ‘Schutz-Staffel’ or ‘proection squad’). During the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ when Hitler purged the SA and had Rohm murdered (due to party in-fighting, the thuggery of the SA and the growing power of the SA who at that time vastly out-numbered Germany’s standing army) the SS played a key role and afterwards were seperated.

The Waffen-SS were formed orginally as the SS’s combat units, but also were involved in the concentration camps, which were actually a key part to the SS’s power as they generated money through slave labour for the SS buinesses which number 150 by 1945.

There was little coercion and little need for coercion in forcing the SS to do perform their duties in the concentration and death camps as they were generally made up of fanatics and psychopaths, who either swallowed the program of heavy indoctrination hook line and sinker or relished the absolute power they had over their fellow man. That said there were a few careerists and people ‘forced’ into the SS by taking the line of least resistance who did not suscribe to the Nazi ideology nor have severe personailty disorders.

Actually, my grandfather was in the Waffen SS. He joined the Nazi party sometime in the mid 1930s and volunteered for the Waffen SS even before the war started in 1939, so he seems to have been heavily indoctrinated into the Nazi propaganda, considering most of his friends called him a kind of silly man who was a real dreamer and procrastinator during his years at university. They also say he was really bad with money.

Anyway, from what we are able to gather from his letters and from writings of his commanders, he was shot while in combat on the Eastern Front; not by the enemy, but by his own comrades. It seems his unit was given the order to perform some kind of ethnic cleansing or a similiar action, and he refused the order. The Waffen SS was well known to perform acts of revenge when partisans ended up killing Germans. There are many horrifying stories of Waffen SS divisions massacring whole towns as revenge for the killing of one Waffen SS officer. Anyway, it seems one of these orders was just too much for my grandfather, and he was shot in the back of the head by his own comrades in arms. Of course, the official death warrant says that he was hit by a grenade splinter, and he is still buried somewhere in what is now the Ukraine.

So, I can attest to the fact that even members of the Waffen SS were shot for not following orders. Of course, this does not lessen in any way the atrocities commited by these people. A moral person, not to mention a moral society, should never even have been faced with these kinds of situations. In the words of Pastor Niemoeller:

“First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.”

Let’s not forget those famous words.

The words of someone who was himself imprisoned in Dachau (Pastor Martin Niemoller, who was eventually senetenced to death, but liberated before the sentence could be carried out).

I don’t know the exact punishments for SS officers for refusing to take part in massacres, but punishments varied wildly in Nazi Germany: An ordianary soldier in the regular army may of been sent to the concentration camp whereas a general refusing to serve on the Eastern front may of just been transfered.

[So, I can attest to the fact that even members of the Waffen SS were shot for not following orders. Of course, this does not lessen in any way the atrocities commited by these people. **

Being fragged is different from being court-martialed.

Of course, my comments should have been taken as being a general truth. I am quite sure that there were individual cases were soldiers were subject to on-the-spot reprisals. We are, after all, talking about an organization of hundreds of thousand of people, and some of those people were more psychotic than others. I would expect this would be quite likely to take place in a situation where revenge was being taken for civilians killing German soldiers; all soldiers tend to become fiercely protective of their buddies at such times, so I could see why a soldier saying “No, I won’t kill civilians because someone shot Franz” might be the target of a violent reprisal by his comrades.

The 3rd SS Totenkopf Division of the Waffen SS had a very unusual relationship with the SS-Totenkopfverbande, which I don’t yet fully understand. I have seen many sources which attempt to separate the Waffen SS from the SS-Totenkopfverbande, but the existence of the 3rd SS Division seems to hint that the relationship between the combat and prison wings of the SS were much closer than some would care to admit.

At first, the SS-Totenkopfverbande appears to have been a sort of military police subdivision of the SS which was independent of the combat (Waffen) wing of the SS. But I find that in 1941 the SS-Totenkopfverbande was administratively transferred to the Waffen SS.

Moreover, the 3rd SS was formed by combining three SS-Totenkopfverbande standarten which participated in the Polish campaign of 1939. Thereafter, the 3rd SS remained almost perpetually in combat, occupation duty, or reserve after that date, and to the best of my knowledge the division confined its considerable bastardliness to the battlefield after Poland. The division was decimated in the Demyansk Pocket in 1941-42 and later reconstituted as an SS Panzergrenadier division. (Oddly enough, one of the requirements for membership in the 3rd SS after 1940 was a clean police record.)

The Totenkopfverbande was subdivided into standarten, or regimental-sized units which did indeed guard prison and concentration camps, and which were responsible for some of the most reprehensible of the long list of Nazi war crimes. However, it appears as if individual 3rd SS division troops were rotated in and out of the non-combat standarten when they were recovering from wounds or given rest duty. Other Waffen SS troops may have rotated through the camp system as well.

This raises the possibility that some significant number of the Waffen SS troops who survived combat for a time may have also participated in the camp system. I can’t help wondering if this is one reason why members of the SS divisions which faced the Allies in the West were so suicidally resistant to capture, despite the fact that it was well known that the Allies treated its prisoners with a fair amount of respect. Some of those SS troops may have assumed that their dual role in both combat and extermination was known to the Allies.