Why did NAZI concentration camps warehouse prisoners instead of just killing them right away?

I hope this isn’t an insensitive question and also I hope that it also has a factual answer that I am just missing. That is why I am putting it in GQ first. This also isn’t a hint of Holocaust denial on my part because I don’t have any personally. It is strictly about the way concentration camps work during an attempted genocide.

To the best of my understanding, the Nazi’s wanted to completely wipe out Jews, the Romani, homosexuals, the handicapped and any other group they didn’t deem fit in their vision for a ‘perfect society’. They built concentration camps in mostly out of the way places and shipped those groups there to be executed quietly. That is pure evil but it also makes sense if that is your goal. You keep the atrocities away from the masses and secret from the world as a whole.

However, my question is, why did they bother at all with warehousing, torturing and barely feeding the concentration camp prisoners if their goal was to kill them all anyway? Wouldn’t it have been more efficient to just unload them from a train and send them straight into a gas chamber rather than do it slowly over time? I don’t get the motivation for the middle step of imprisoning them under very poor conditions first and risking that they would either escape or become liberated (like many eventually were).

My WAG is simple logistics. It takes a lot of resources to kill and dispose of 6 million people. They also used Jews and other victims for slave labor and worse. There were also inmates who were forced to help the Nazis with the extermination process, usually with their families as collateral. I can’t imagine the horror.

Maybe ask IBM?

The “Final Solution”, the project of simply murdering all the Jews in Europe, didn’t get under way until January 1942, by which time the concentration camp system had been up and running for years. The Nazis first concentration camps were established in 1933 and were used for holding (and torturing) political opponents, union organisers. In due course they were used for other undesirable elements - Jews, homosexuals, incorrigible criminals, Romani, etc. Lots of people - particularly in the early years of the regime - served a fixed term in the concentration camps and were then released.

Holocaust scholars distinguish between concentration camps and extermination camps. Extermination camps came later and their object was indeed to kill the inmates. Some camps did indeed kill the great majority of inmates within a short time of arrival, temporarily sparing only so many as were needed to provide the labour to keep the camp running. Others were mixed concentration/extermination camps, which had the aim of profiting from the slave labour of able-bodied inmates before killing them. In some cases camps originally conceived as concentration camps, for punishment and/or the exploitation of labour, came to be used as extermination camps, the established function of the camps serving as a cover for their new purpose.

Remember the sign over the gates of Auschwitz: Arbeit Macht Frei (Work sets you free) The inmates were forced to work as long as they were able, then killed.

Labor camps was where people (various classifications) did force labor.
Concentration camps was where people of one classification were interned.
Extermination camps was where people were purposely killed.

Note from the legal standpoint, simply working in an extermination camp made you an accessory to murder.

That is a decent WAG but it takes a whole lot more resources to house and keep people alive for even a short time than it does to just kill them quickly. The Germans aren’t known for their lack of strategy or planning so there had to be a reason for it.

My own WAG is that they were trying to hide the fact that they were attempting a true genocide and wanted to present most deaths as somewhat isolated side-effects of being a POW. They probably had many fewer people willing to do mass executions for healthy people straight off of a train to nowhere but even that explanation has plenty of holes it.

I have read plenty of history casually but I have never heard a good explanation for this question? Maybe somebody passing through here has a better one.

The Nazis were aware that not everybody was as on board with genocide as they were, even in Germany. Himmler, for example, said that the average German was too “sentimental” to do what had to be done and therefore the SS couldn’t carry out an extermination program in the open.

The excellent documentary Shoah (1985) goes into this some. (It’s really good, but be warned it’s 9-1/2 hours long.)

I think the short answer is that once they started killing them, there were just too many to kill in a short amount of time. These things take longer than people think.

Help educate me here because I always believed the lines were blurry. Didn’t all three of those categories overlap to some degree and weren’t people purposely killed at least in the last two?

What was Auschwitz in that terminology? People usually refer to it as concentration camp but, even if it was an ‘extermination camp’, why did they keep so many sick people around for so long rather than just fulfill the stated title quickly?

A read worth your while is Adam Tooze’s The Wages of Destruction - The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy.

In essence, as the Germans had to send more and more of their manpower to the fronts, they needed workers to dig the coal and do the crap jobs in factories. From 1943 on they increasingly turned to slave labour for this purpose. The labour camps were run as money-making enterprises, and actually increased the prisoners’ food rations so they’d be able to work longer.

This was not just with people later schedules for extermination, ordinary Poles (mostly) were press-ganged into this kind of work too. Factories that used otherwise-doomed people as workers, as in Schindler’s List, were a reality.

Thank you UDS. I missed your response earlier because of weird timing/browser error but that seems like a good and reasonable answer. I would love some more detail on it. People don’t really like to talk about the logistics side of attempted genocides but I am genuinely curious about how the plans evolved over time.

Are you saying that the real intent or at least the practical plan wasn’t true genocide until 1942? I have no idea if that is true or not. However, if it is true, what did Hitler and others plan on doing with the undesirables in the long-term in labor/concentration camps plan on doing with them once they won the war (in their way of thinking) before that?

For the pure extermination camps–Bełżec, Sobibór, Treblinka–that’s exactly what the Nazis did. Other camps–like Auschwitz, which was a huge complex with various different parts doing different things–did evolve over time, and did include concentration camp, labor camp, and extermination camp aspects in the same complex.

As others have previously noted, the Holocaust didn’t spring up right away; it was an escalating process from discriminatory laws and pogroms before the war, to open-air shootings by Einsatzgruppen death squads, to the dedicated extermination camps. And there were competing needs from different parts of the Nazi regime; forced labor programs were very important economically, militarily, and (for some people) financially, which meant there were some powerful people in Nazi Germany who had vested interests in not just killing off all of the “undesirables” in the quickest and most efficient manner possible.

Auschwitz was an extermination camp.

Dachau was a concentration camp. One difference was that people would be released from Dachau – with the warning that if they spoke about anything there, they’d be back permanently.

It’s likely that the categories overlapped, especially toward the end of the war, but their original purpose was somewhat different.

BTW, the original “concentration camps” were in South Africa after the Boer War. The British used the to “concentrate” Boers in one place. The conditions were poor, but that was a mixture of poor supply and incompetence.

I would phrase it as, ‘Auschwitz contained an extermination sub-camp’. As MEBuckner stated, different parts or sub-camps of Auschwitz had different functions.

The extermination part of Auschwitz (also called Birkenau) was used to 1) murder some new arrivals as soon as they arrived (e.g. the Hungarian Jews in the spring and summer of 1944), 2) murder those who were too sick/exhausted to continue as slave labourers elsewhere in the Auschwitz complex, and 3) murder those who had been sent to Auschwitz from other camps when they were no longer fit to work at the latter or were sick with a contagious disease at the latter (i.e. to prevent an epidemic)

The use of Jews and other “Unerwuenschte” as slave labor varied in importance over time, but was a factor until the very end. To wit, Eichmann was yelled at when his marching by foot of Budapest Jews to Austria killed too many of them, because of the resulting reduction in available labor, and this was in the last months of the war iirc.

In Auschwitz, the people immediately gassed were those unlikely to be productive labor - children, elderly, mothers, and the ill and weak.

But there is no question the Nazis wanted all Jews to die in the end - even the slave labor ones. They were however also very interested in extracting maximum value from the Jews - from their possessions all the way to the last ounce of work.

The extermination camps like Sobibor were in my opinion a direct response to the desire to reduce the ghetto populations in Poland -“solving” this issue was more important than the resulting loss of potential labor.

And the nazis weren’t particularly consistent anyway - the early einzatzgruppen in Ukraine in late 41 only shot adult males, the exact opposite of later selection procedures in camps. Policy became clearer at the Wannsee conference, possibly the most bone-chilling 90-minute meeting in history. In their own (translated) words from that meeting:

“In large work columns, separated by gender, those Jews able to work will be led into these areas (the East) while building roads, where without doubt the largest part will drop out by way of natural reduction. As it will undoubtedly represent the most resistance-capable portion, the eventual final remainder will have to be handled appropriately, as it would constitute a group of naturally-selected individuals, and would likely form the seed of a new Jewish rebuilding.”

Even within the state Hierarchy, people had different opinions; “yes deportations and internment are all well and dandy, but extermination is anti-German”

It depends on your definition of “true genocide”, I guess. From early on, Hitler wanted completely rid of Jews. He wanted no Jews in Germany, or in German-controlled territories. The simplest way to achieve this was by encouraging/forcing Jewish emigration (plus, you got to seize their property). I believe they also considered a project of forcible deportation to a colony they would establish for the purpose on Madagascar, but that never got beyond the idea stage.

Simply driving Jews out became more difficult once the war broke out, because wartime conditions made travel/emigration difficult and, in time, impossible. At the same time, the need to get rid of the Jews became (in Nazi eyes) more pressing. The Jews were a subversive element, and until they were dealt with victory would be difficult or impossible, so dealing with the Jewish Problem because a war aim. Plus, as Germany occupied territory further and further east, the number of Jews in German-controlled territory was going up and up. Something Had To Be Done.

Most observers identify the Wannsee conference in January 1942 as the occasion on which a project to murder all Jews was ratified at the highest level. Jews had of course been murdered in large numbers before that, and in an organised way. But this was an aspect of terrorising subject populations, of bringing them under control, and only secondarily of partly alleviating the Reich’s Jewish problem. It wasn’t until January 1942 that outright mass murder became the primary mechanism by which the “Jewish Problem” was to be solved, once and for all.

Before that, how did they expect to deal with concentration camp inhabitants when the war ended? They wouldn’t have seen the two issues as being connected. They had concentration camps before the war; they would have them after the war. The Thousand-Year Reich might be free of Jews but there would always be a steady stream of dissidents, Communists, homosexuals, radical Christians, recidivist criminals, racial degenerates, rebellious Slavs and Latins, social misfits and other undesirables. They probably expected the concentration camp system to contract somewhat once the Final Solution was, well, finalised, and once the pressures of war were alleviated. But I doubt that they ever foresaw a Reich with no concentration camps, any more than most Americans foresee a United States with no prisons.

This is why we should never, ever allow anyone to get away with comparing someone to Hitler. “Saddam is Hitler; Assad is Hitler; Ahmadinejad is Hitler; Iran is the new Nazi Germany, etc”

We have had millennia of cruel dictators, yet the people survived. There has only been one Hitler and one Nazi Germany. Even Mussolini was not Hitler.

There is an excellent HBO movie titled Conspiracy set at the Wannsee conference with Kenneth Branagh as Rienhard Heydrich and Stanley Tucci as Adolf Eichmann, two of the main architects of the “Final Solution”. The film is obviously speculative as to the exact discussions at Wannsee, but it is based on the minutes (“Wannsee Protocol”) recovered and research on the personalities involved. It provides a succinct summary of the various efforts to deal with “The Jewish Problem” up to that point, including forced labor, deportation, sterilization, the Nuremburg laws defining racial purity, and the early efforts at extermination including mobile elimination vans, as well as discussion on how to rationalize, or at least sanitize, the action of extermination, especially when many of the supposed “Jews” had intermarried, were the progeny of intermarriage, or were not practicing or ethnically distinct as Jews.

The basic problem, as others have said, was logistics, and specifically, the logistics of disposing of so many bodies so quickly. In the east, prisoners (not just Jews) were executed and just dumped in mass graves, but there were too many to do that in Germany without it becoming apparent. It was also the case that Germany was strapped for labor and so Jews were often forced into working in war industries; the infamous Mittelwerk (factory that built the V-1 and V-2 terror weapons), for instance, was largely staffed by Jewish labor. This was actually probably counterproductive as the workers would look for opportunities to sabotage equipment and certainly weren’t motivated to do quality work, but it was the appearance of progress.