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Nazi Concentration Camp Commanders: Psychological and Biographical Similarities
I am a fourth year History and Political Science major with a dual emphasis on the Cold War and World War II/Holocaust history. After spending a year studying abroad in Hungary, I became particularly interested in the Holocaust. The tragic fate of 400,000 Hungarian Jews in only six weeks motivated me to study the Holocaust in an effort to understand how such an atrocity could have occurred. I chose to study the biographies of Nazi concentration camp leaders because I wanted to understand what similarities and difference the SS men shared and how they got to their positions within the camps.
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Essay (back to top)
The expansion of concentration camps in Nazi Germany and Nazi occupied territory increased throughout World War Two. The concentration camps not only grew in number and size, but also increased in brutality. This paper will focus on the similar biographical and psychological aspects of Nazi concentration camp commanders, why these men joined the SS, and why they kept their positions within the camp. The main sources used to answer these questions are Tom Segev’s The commanders of Nazi concentration camps, Ervin Staub’s The Psychology of Perpetrators and Bystanders, Rudolf Hoss’s Death Dealer as well as Laurence Rees’s Auschwitz: A New History. These men shared many similarities: many had military careers before the Nazis gained power, most were from lower classes and often lacked extensive education. They also went through a psychological transformation of gradual hardening early in their lives. These same factors, especially their previous attraction to the military, but also their ideological identification with the SS, led these men to join the SS. Why did these men keep their positions within the concentration camp? This question leads back to the men’s ideological identification with the SS and their belief in the rationale behind the camp. As mentioned previously, these men had also been through a process of gradual hardening earlier in their lives and had already adjusted to the brutality within the camps long before they were commanders. Nazi concentration commanders shared distinct biological and psychological histories. These men were not all sadistic killers (although a select few were), but they were also not “normal” Germans. These commanders shared unusually harsh childhoods, were attracted to the military long before the Nazi party gained power, and shared similar aspects of psychological hardening through difficult family lives, career failures, or fighting in World War One or other military organizations such as the Freikorps.
In order to compare these concentration camp commanders it is beneficial to highlight a few case studies. The first commander I am going to focus on is Himlar Wackerle. Segev admits Wackerle plays no significant role in the camps themselves, but he is still important because he shares a similar biography and psychology of the Nazi concentration camp commanders as a whole. Wackerle, the first commander of Dachau in March 1933, was born in 1899 to a catholic family in Forchheim, Bavaria. In 1904 his family moved to Munich and he was sent to the Bavarian Officer’s Cadet Training School, a politically conservative strict military school (Segev 98-99). An excellent quote by a Retired Colonel helps describe the schools philosophy: “In a time when the growing economic affluence already caused obvious symptoms of permissive decay, the cadet school increased its efforts to keep up the good old sprit of the officer corps, of national duty, sacrifice and hardness, of chivalry and comradeship” (Segev 99). This quote emphasizes the difficult and strict childhood Wackerle had.
Once Wackerle finished school, he was required to spend six years serving in the Army. As soon as Wackerle graduated from the Cadet school, World War One broke out and he went to fight. He was injured during the war and found out that Germany had surrendered while he was recovering in a hospital. Like many soldiers, this news was devastating, and it also meant that Wackerle’s career in the army was over (Segev 100-101). He soon joined the Freikorps, a private army used to defend German borders from the Red Army (Spartacus Educational). While in the Freikorps he was again engaged in battle, this time against the communists in Munich. From there Wackerle joined the NSDP and participated in Hitler’s Beerhall Putsch. He then joined the SS voluntarily and only joined fully once he was assigned to Dachau. Wackerle set up strict regulations in the concentration camp, including the death penalty. This death penalty eventually got him in trouble since in 1933 camps did not fully operate under their own legal code; Wackerle was charged with the murder of an inmate and Himmler took away his position within the camp. Wackerle was never tried in court, but he also never worked within a concentration camp again (Segev 101-103).
Wackerle, someone who showed no evidence of unemployment seems to have joined the Nazi party as well as the SS for political and ideological reasons. He fought in Hitler’s attempted coup long before Hitler was a household name because he believed in the nationalistic and patriotic ideology of the NSDP. Wackerle is also significant because he shows the gradual hardening the commanders often faced long before they even joined the SS. Wackerle had gone to a very strict cadet school, fought in World War One, and joined the Freikorps where he was involved in murder. For Wackerle, the concentration camp at Dachau in 1933 did not surpass the brutality and violence he had experienced earlier in his life.
Richard Baer was one of the youngest commanders of the Nazi concentration camps. He was born in 1911 in Bavaria and was only three when World War One broke out. Baer became a baker and traveled around working before settling in Weiden, Bavaria. Unlike Wackerle, Baer has no record of any political activity or political interest prior to joining the Nazi party in 1930. He also has no record of unemployment (Segev 258-259). Why, then, did he join the Nazi party? Where did he gain this new political awareness? One possibility is that he may have been swayed by the Nazi propaganda. He may also have been affected by the political and social unrest of the country. Baer joined the SS voluntarily in 1931, again before Hitler had gained power over the government. Once the Nazis came to power he left his job as a baker and joined the auxiliary policy. Before continuing with Baer’s biography it is important to note that when he joined the Nazi party as well as the SS there was no financial gain for himself, because there was no payroll for the SS – it was voluntary. He could not have known that the SS would have led him to financial gain and higher social positions. This being said, it appears that Baer joined the SS for ideological reasons; whether it was its military comradeship or its youthful ideal, he did not join for economic and social benefits (Segev 259).
Relatively soon after Baer became an auxiliary police offer he was transferred to Dachau with a guard unit. He then worked in a Berlin Gestapo jail and was later sent back to work in camps Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald. Baer mainly patrolled the camps from the outside, which is significant because he was not just placed in camps immediately and expected to murder inmates. Instead, he was able to slowly adjust to the brutality of the camps (Segev 259). He mainly worked as a guard outside the camps where he did not have direct contact with the inmates, and slowly came in closer and closer contact with them.
Richard Baer was then sent to the front line in 1940. As noted earlier he was one of the youngest commanders and healthy enough to be useful on the front lines. He was injured before a year passed and had to be hospitalized. His hospital belonged to camp Nueengamme, and he subsequently became deputy commander of the camp. He then worked within a few other camps before heading Auschwitz between May 1944 and January 1945, when the camp was evacuated. Baer then headed camp Dora-mittelbau, where he broke his leg. While in the hospital he was not recognized by U.S. forces and able to escape. He lived on false papers until caught in 1960. While on trial he finally answered the question as to how he could stand to work at Auschwitz and his response was, “by the time I got to Auschwitz I had seen much brutality, first in other camps, then at the front and also during the allied air raids on Hamburg. I once saw a little girl all in flames on a Hamburg street. That was before I got to Auschwitz. If you want I simply got used to it,” (Segev 260-261).
There are a few key things to address in Baer’s biography, one is his clear process of gradual hardening. The other is his ideological rather than economic commitment to the SS. The process of adjustment to the brutality of the camps is clearly seen through Richard Baer; he was first a police officer, then he worked outside the camps, then he witnessed the horrors of war, all before he headed Auschwitz. He himself recognizes that he had already adjusted to the brutality long before he headed any camp. His ideological commitment to the SS and the camps is also important to note. He had a stable job long before he decided to join the Nazi party and the SS; he could not foresee a rise in social status by joining the SS; ultimately, he identified with Nazi ideology, which is why he did not object to being a commander within the camps.
Rudolf Hoss is an infamous character of the Holocaust because of his role in the development of Auschwitz, the deadliest Nazi concentration camp. Although it is important to elaborate on his personal biography and psychology, he will not be the main focus of this paper, but rather he will serve as another example of the similarities concentration commanders shared as a whole. Hoss was born in Baden Baden in 1900 (Segev 296). He describes himself as a kind of outcast saying, “I was and would always be a loner,” (Hoss 88). During his childhood he says his only friend was a black pony named Hans; his connection to animals, especially horses, would continue throughout his life. He describes his father as a “fanatic catholic” who kept a strict household. Hoss says he was “raised in a strong military fashion because of [his] father,” (Hoss 49-50). One traumatic experience that proved significant to Hoss in his memoir is the betrayal of his priest. During school he pushed a kid down the stairs, and the kid broke his ankle. Hoss confessed to the priest who then told Hoss’s father. Hoss says that because of this experience his “faith in the holy profession of the priesthood was smashed and doubts began to stir,” (Hoss 52). Since Hoss was supposed to be a priest, this traumatic event which broke the holy rules of confession had a profound impact on him and helped to steer his career path in a new direction.
Hoss was only fourteen when World War One broke out, he had just experienced the loss of his father (his mother would die soon after), and to his dismay he was not old enough to join the Army. Hoss tried for two years to sneak into a platoon, but continually got caught and kicked out. Finally at age sixteen, two years into the war, he was able to convince a cavalry officer to take him along illegally (Segev 298-299). Hoss’s experiences while fighting in the war are significant on two accounts; one he loved the fraternity, and two he experienced killing for the first time which is part of the process of gradual hardening many commanders experienced.
Hoss never had a good relationship with his strict father or his sisters; Hans the pony was the only friend he could talk to. Being a soldier in the war, he experienced a type of fraternity he would never forget, and this same fraternity attracted him to the SS. Hoss describes how close he was to his captain saying that, “we felt closer to each other then I had ever been to my own father,” (Hoss 56). Hoss’s experience in the war was another step in his process of gradual hardening to brutality. It was during World War One when he first killed a man. He said he was horrified and full of fear, but once he had his “first kill! The spell was broken” (Hoss 56). He would then go on to kill without mercy, as he was trained to do.
Once the war ended, Hoss like many Germans was upset by Germany’s defeat. Like Wackerle he joined the Freikorps and became a soldier again. For Hoss, and many of the other concentration camp commanders, including Wackerle, commander of Gorss Rosen Arthur Roder, and commander of Daucho Heinrich Deubel, the Freikorps was another step in the process of gradual hardening to brutality (Segev 100-155). The Freikorps is where Hoss witnesses his first slaughter of civilians, and he himself murdered a communist that he later admitted he was “still firmly convinced that this traitor deserved to die” (Hoss 62).
Hoss was arrested and sentenced to serve ten years in prison, but only ended up in jail for five years. There is another important moment that happens in jail which further demonstrates Hoss’s step-by-step process of adjustment to brutality. He writes that he once overheard a prisoner discussing with another prisoner about how he robbed a forester when he was out drinking, killed the maid with an axe, murdered the wife, and smashed all the children’s heads into the wall until they stopped crying. Hoss claims that, “he could not get to sleep that night,” but later on when he, “heard about many more depraved things” they did not upset him nearly as much as they did the first time (Hoss 65). This clearly shows that although he was deeply affected when he first heard of such brutality, it failed to upset him throughout his time in jail, and he became used to such stories of horror.
Hoss was let out of prison in 1929, and by 1934 he was serving in Dachau with the SS. In 1938 he became second in command at camp Sachsenhausen and by 1940 he was building Auschwitz (Segev 301). Rees goes into great detail about how Auschwitz, with the help of Hoss, was able to evolve over time from an agricultural dream, to a prisoner of war camp, and become one of the most effective killing centers in history (Rees 2-286). This brings to the surface the fact that these men were not just innocent victims who were obeying the orders of Himmler and Hitler, but that they were able to use an ideology they believed in to make these camps even more effective killing centers.
The biographies of Himlar Wackerle, Richard Baer, and Rudolf Hoss lead directly into the questions which this paper will attempt to answer: what similar biographical and psychological aspects did Nazi concentration commanders share; what drove them towards SS membership; why once they were assigned to camps did these men choose to keep their positions within the camps?
Similarities: Biographically and Psychologically
One of the most important similarities the commanders have is their prior voluntary military experience. Segev splits the commanders into two main groups, the older commanders and the younger commanders. Among the older commanders (11 out of 18), approximately two-thirds of the men had volunteered for army service before the first World War broke out (Segev 100-101). This eagerness to voluntarily join the military was previously discussed in the cases of both Wackerle and Hoss. As for the younger commanders, forty percent of them volunteered for the army after the First World War because most were too young to volunteer during the war (Segev 305). Friedrich Hartjensten, who headed the mass extermination center at Auschwitz II- Birkenau and also became commander of camp Natzweiler, is an example of someone who was too young to join the army and fight in World War One, but joined voluntarily in 1926 (Segev 212). This is significant because these commanders volunteered; they sought out military careers long before they decided to join the Nazi party. Segev argues that the army, the Nazi party, and the SS all advocated similar values, and the reasons so many men were attracted to the NSDAP and the SS were, “ for the same reasons which had earlier led them to serve the army,” (Segev 31-32).
There was also a common theme of old age among the commanders. Over two-thirds of the commanders were over thirty by the time they joined the SS. Also, most belonged to the urban and lower classes. Wackerle was exceptionally well off compared to most of the commanders who on average went to school for less then nine years (Segev 304-318).
One of the biggest psychological factors which almost every commander went through was the process of gradual hardening early in their lives. The first type is outside hardening, which led these men to act aggressively. Psychologist Ervin Staub discusses how these certain social life conditions, present in Germany, led to sources of aggression. For example people are more likely to become aggressive if they feel there is an attack or threat to their physical safety, survival, property, psychological well being, or conception of oneself (Staub 8). Stuab argues that Germany after World War One was filled with, “inflation, revolution, depression, unemployment, moral and political chaos,” (Staub 9). These factors threatened both the Germans’ physical survival and conception of themselves, and therefore they sought out aggressive measures, one being the use of scapegoats. This is to say that these commanders were gradually hardened by the hard times in Germany including their participation in World War One, loss of family members, and economic hardships, leading them to be aggressive.
The other aspect of gradual hardening which is highlighted extensively by Segev, as well as by Staub, is the idea that these commanders had already participated in other roles of devaluations, mainly as soldiers but also as prison guards or police men. This previous devaluing of others made it easier to transition to a new enemy – the Jews and other undesirables (Staub 16-17). All three commanders highlighted in the beginning of this essay, Wackerle, Baer, and Hoss, show how they were gradually hardened to the brutality of the camps. Wackerle states clearly while on trial that the violence in the camps was basically nothing compared to what he had experienced with the war and the Friekoprs (Segev 101-103).
Why did these men join the SS?
Segev argues that these men did not join out of financial need since most joined only part time for the first few years and were not on the payroll until much later. They also did not join for higher social positions because they would not have been able to foresee the success of the organization. These men joined the SS because it was “just another army for them,” (Segev 307-308). The SS was an “organization operated in accordance with military principles, complete with an army’s discipline, uniforms, weapons, etc” (Segev 308). These commanders also identified with the spirit and ideology of the SS.
The SS had an elitist self image, and unlike the military it was based on an ideology of physical criteria. In order to be accepted into the SS there was a strong emphasis on superior athletic abilities and race, compared to the military where the SS commanders, mostly from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, would not have had the ability to excel far in their careers due to their lack of education and low class background (Segev 308). Nonetheless, the ideology of the SS was very similar to that of the army in the sense that they both advocated “Loyalty, honor and comradeship” (Segev 208). The ideological and social advantages were part of the reason these men joined the SS, but Segev also connects their desire to be part of an organization like the SS to their difficult past experiences, which “made the kind of interpersonal support the SS had to offer particularly attractive to them” (Segev 309). Rudolf Hoss is a great example of this need for fraternity. He enjoyed it in the military, and the SS offered this same type of brotherhood to him. Herr VonOven, a closer associate of Goebbel, described the Third Reich as “paradise” (Reese X). Nazism and especially the SS offered these men fraternity.
The constant misfortune which can be seen throughout the biographies of the commanders of the concentration camps very well could have led them to seek out the comradeship and encouragement of the SS. These commanders lost their parents and siblings, and dealt with the loss of the First World War and its humiliation; they had economic failures and broken marriages among many other things. Although many German citizens had similar experiences, the commanders of concentration camps stand out because of the “repeated and continuous nature of their misfortune” (Segev 309).
Why did these men keep their positions within the camp?
One reason they kept their positions within the camps is because it was a prestigious job that came with substantial power. This life of servants and personal gardens was much preferred to life on the front lines of battle (Segev 311). Another factor which played a much larger role was the fact that they believed in the rationale behind the camps. They joined the Nazi party and the SS long before they could foresee any economic or social benefits to the organizations they joined because they truly believed in the ideology (Segev 32).
Psychologist Ervin Staub elaborates on why these perpetrators may have believed in the ideology, and one main factor is their socialization. The belief that Jews were inferior was part of their culture long before the Nazis came to power, and Germany as well as Europe is notorious for their antisemitic history. These beliefs eventually became part of the culture, and eventually, in the Nazis’ case, self-evident truths. To the Nazis, it became true that all Jews were thieves, and that they all had certain physical characteristics (Staub 7-8). These ideas were able to become so believable in part because of Germany’s past history of antisemitism.
Another major factor to why these men did not leave their positions at the camps is because they had been exposed to this process of gradual hardening. The camp commanders on average spent five years in the SS until they served in a concentration camp. Once they came to serve in the concentration camps, most of the commanders were not placed immediately with the inmates, but had some job outside the camp which dealt with technical or administrative duties. They gradually were adjusted to the increased brutality of the camps, and therefore were not shocked at the atrocities committed at the camps once they were commanders (Segev 315). Hoss recalls his first time witnessing corporal punishment inside a concentration camp saying he was, “forced to watch,” and that “cold chills ran through” him, but that “later, during the first execution at the beginning of the war, I was not as upset as during this corporal punishment” (Hoss 82).
Commanders of Nazi concentration camps have distinct biographical and psychological similarities that made them more attracted to an organization like the SS and also contributed to the reasons these men decided to keep their positions within the camps. One of the most important things to understand is that these men were not all sadist killers; rather, they had gradually adjusted to brutality throughout their lives that made their stay at concentration camps less difficult, if difficult at all. It is important to study and understand these commanders because it not only helps to comprehend how such terrible atrocities occurred during the Holocaust, but also helps to open our eyes to the fact that mentally sane people had the ability to commit the worst crimes of humanity.
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