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Nazi Concentration Camp Commanders

Book Essay on: Tom Segev, The commanders of Nazi concentration camps:
( Ann Harbor, Michigan : University Microfilms International, 1980), 343pages.
UCSB: D805.G3; S45 1977a.

by Chelsea Evans
March 23, 2010

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in European History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2010

About the Author
& Abstract
Book available at

About Chelsea Evans

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.

Abstract (back to top)

Tom Segev’s dissertation aims to answer four questions about the commanders of Nazi concentration camps: what led a man to become a member of the Nazi party, why did he join the SS, how did he come to serve in a concentration camp, and what made him keep his position in the camp? He argues that men were led to join the Nazi party because it was very similar to a military career and advocated many of the same values of the military such as patriotism and respect for authority. Similarly, Segev maintains that men joined the SS because of its similarities to the military, yet in this instance, the men were attracted by its elitist self image, its physical criteria of membership, and its ideological component with which they identified. Most of these commanders did not request their jobs within the camps, but received their posts because they were older or unfit for the front. Segev argues that they kept their positions within the camp because they accepted the rationale behind the camps, had adjusted to the camps' brutality through a step-by-step hardening process, and because it was a prestigious job that came with power. I think that Tom Segev’s dissertation makes compelling arguments about the commanders of concentration camps, but his argument that commanders had no reason to leave their positions in the camps is questionable.

Essay (back to top)

Nazi Concentration Camp Commanders

The expansion of concentration camps in Nazi Germany and Nazi occupied territory grew extensively throughout World War Two. The concentration camps not only grew in number and size, but they also increased in brutality. Tom Segev’s dissertation The Commanders of Nazi Concentration Camps attempts to answer four questions about the SS men in charge of the infamous concentration camps. These questions are: what led a man to become a member of the Nazi party, why did he join the SS, how did he come to serve in a concentration camp, and what made him keep his position at the camp (Segev 9). Segev uses multiple sources to answer these questions but his main source is the Berlin Document Center (BDC) in West Berlin. The BDC, then controlled by the U.S. Army, holds millions of personal Nazi files that were not destroyed at the end of the war. He also uses interviews with three of the concentration camp commanders, as well as interviews with some commanders’ families. Another major source used in Segev’s dissertation are the unpublished records of trials against Nazi criminals, and he discusses his difficulty in obtaining these trial records because of the American, French, and West German authorities’ reluctance to make them public (Segev 12). In summary Segev concludes that men were led to join the Nazi party because it was very similar to a military career and advocated values similar to those of the military such as patriotism and respect for authority (Segev 304-305). These men joined the SS not only because of its similarities to the military, but also its elitist self image, and its physical criteria of membership. Furthermore, these men identified with the SS ideology, which Segev argues may have been more attractive to them due to their unusually difficult past experiences (Segev 307-309). Segev states that the commanders of the concentration camps (with the exception of two) did not request their jobs within the camp, but received their positions mainly because they were older and unfit for the front, or had already been gradually hardened up to the camps through being assigned as guards or administrative positions (Segev 309). As for why they kept their positions in the camps, the author argues the commanders accepted the rationale behind the camps, found commanding to be a prestigious job that came with power, and had adjusted to the camps’ brutality step by step through a gradual hardening (Segev 311-314). Tom Segev’s dissertation on commanders of Nazi concentration camps makes a compelling argument about the gradual hardening of the men who would become the SS camp commanders and their distinct biographical and psychological features, including primarily a difficult childhood and military service.

The first question that Tom Segev answers is what led a man to become a member of the Nazi Party. One of the big connections the author is able to make between the commanders of the concentration camps is their prior voluntary military experience. Segev splits the commanders up 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. For example, Hilmar Wackerle, who was the first commander of Dachau, fought in WWI (Segev 100-101). As for the younger commanders forty percent of them volunteered for the army after the First World War, because most of them were two young to volunteer during the war (Segev 305). Rudolf Hoss is an example of a commander who wanted to fight in the war so badly but was only 14 when the war started, by age 16 he was finally able to convince his father’s platoon leader to let him fight in the war (Segev 297). This is significant because these commanders volunteered; they sought out military careers long before they decided to join the Nazi party. An argument the author makes throughout his dissertation is that the army, the Nazi party (NSDAP), and the SS all advocated similar values and the reasons so many men were attracted to the NSDAP and the SS was, “for the same reasons which had earlier led them to serve the army” (Segev 31-32).

The values the Nazi party and the SS advocated, as did the military, were mainly patriotism and respect for authority. Segev argues that a commander would use the army as a “refuge from his private difficulties…” (Segev 205). The case of Egon Zill, commander of Natzweiler and Flossenburg, shows an example of the sort of private difficulties these commanders often faced because he had lost his mother and his little brother at a very young age (Segev 274). It is these difficulties that “led many of them to leave home and join the army and later the Nazi party and the SS” (Segev 305).

Tom Segev’s answer to his second question about why these men joined the SS is often connected to the commanders’ reasoning of why they joined the Nazi party. The author 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. Instead, Segev argues that the SS was just another army for these men (Segev 307-308). “The organization operated in accordance with military principles, complete with an army’s discipline, uniforms, weapons, etc” (Segev 308). German scholar Hans Bucheim disagrees with Segev’s presentation of a relationship between the army and the SS. One argument Bucheim makes against this connection is that the SS was the will of Adolf Hitler that was based solely on ideology and was not an organization that served the state like the Army did. The problem with this argument is that the will of Hitler was state policy (Segev 32). Although the two scholars disagree on how close the connection was between the SS and the military, they both agree that the SS was an extremely ideologically based organization.

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 education and 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).

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, 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). Segev does not see the Nazi party and the SS as representatives of the average German man; rather these men shared similar experiences which increased their desires to be part of such organization (Segev 320-321).

Segev’s third argument is that the commanders of concentration camps, except in the case of two, did not specifically ask to serve in the camps despite that they accepted the ideology and often preferred work in the camps over the dangers of the front line. The commanders, by joining the Nazi party and the SS, had long since accepted the rationale behind the camps so they did not see any reasons to oppose the camps (Segev 312). They had always been told that the inmates were inferior, and the camps themselves often reaffirmed their own ideology; starving, sick, inmates looked inhuman (Segev 311-313). Another interesting argument put forth by Segev for the commanders’ strong Nazi ideological beliefs is that their commitment to this ideology increased throughout their time in the SS as they detached themselves from their previous communities, be it religious (most commanders switched from Protestant or Catholic to the Nazi religion of gottglaubig) or familial. This loss helped to increase their “dependence on the organization and intensified their commitment to it” (Segev 313). As commanders they were extremely dependent on the SS, and they believed the rationale behind the camps; therefore for Segev these commanders’ had no reason to question their positions within the concentration camps.

Segev’s claim that the commanders had no reason to protest their positions within the camps because they considered them legitimate institutions, were told the inmates were inferior beings, and had been gradually hardened to the brutality of the camps should be put into question (Segev 313). There were reasons these men could have questioned their positions within the concentration camps. To begin with, these camps did not always follow the ideological rules which these men supposedly believed in. Seeing the theft, rape of Jewish women, and sadist behavior by some guards could have made them question these institutions because they diverted from Nazi ideology. The camp commanders may have believed that Jews and other undesirables were inferior, but that does not justify committing mass murder. They could have sought out other solutions to the “Jewish problem,” such as advocating for pervious plans of mass migration. Segev’s claim that these commanders’ had no reason to question their positions in the camps seems to discount the individual thought processes of the commanders.

The last question Segev asks is why these commanders kept their positions within the camps. There are three main answers he offers to this question. First, they believed in the rationale behind the camps as a result of accepting the Nazi ideology. 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 of the camps (Segev 32). Second, the camps themselves were prestigious jobs 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). Last, they had been gradually hardened to the brutality of the camps throughout their lives and service in the SS.

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). Richard Baer, who headed Auschwitz from May 1944 to January 1945, was quoted saying, “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 Hamburg Street. That was before I got to Auschwitz. If you want, I simply got used to it” (Segev 261). Rudolf Hoss is another example of someone who underwent a gradual process of hardening. Hoss had experienced extreme brutality, “as a boy, a soldier, a volkisch fighter, a killer, a prisoner and a recruit in the SS,” years before he served in Dachau and then commanded Auschwitz (Segev 301). Hoss claims that when he first saw a man killed he was “horrified”, but that through the war and other life experiences he was “less irritated” by such events (Segev 301). Segev clearly shows this step by step adjustment the commanders went through in dealing with the brutality of the camps.

Ultimately Segev argues that SS commanders had a common biographical and psychological history. Unlike Henry V. Dick and George Stein who argue that SS, or the Totenkopfvebade in particular, were organizations which attracted sadists (Segev 318), there is no proof that the majority of the camp commanders were sadists. For clarification the SS-Totenkopfvebade was an elitist body within the SS headed by Theodor Eicke. Those in the TV were younger than most SS men, and had even stronger ideological and political identification to the Nazis (Segev 49-53). I think Segev’s argument that unusually difficult childhood experiences, the attraction to the military, and a gradual hardening to the brutality of the camps are much more likely explanations that led these men to join the Nazi party and the SS, and consequently become concentration camps leaders and stay there for extended periods of time. Backed by not documents, but also by personal testimonies of the commanders or those they loved, Tom Segev’s dissertation The Commanders of Nazi Concentration Camps was both compelling and thoroughly convincing.


Annotated Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/23/10)

Book Reviews

  • Cassidy Welch, Review of Tom Segev’s Soldiers of Evil: The Commandants of the Nazi Concentration Camps (February 10, 2001)

    Although this is a non-scholarly review, it offers a brief explanation of Segev’s book. The critic enjoyed the book because it offered biographies on the commanders of Nazi concentration camps, which in their view was understudied. They found the book was a useful read and enjoyed the detailed biographies of the commanders. This review was not well written, nor did it offer any criticism of the book itself.

Books and Articles

  • Ervin Staub, The Psychology of Perpetrators and Bystanders Political Psychology, vol. 6 No.1 (Mar., 1985), pp. 61-85. Published by: International Society of Political Psychology

    Staub attempts to answer the question of why governments or powerful groups in society foster genocide, mass murder and other organized acts of violence against a subgroup. He explores psychological sources, social life conditions and cultural preconditions that may contribute to such actions of genocide. Ultimately one of the conclusions of this article is that difficult life conditions are often dealt with by the use of scapegoats and Ideology seems to play a big role because it helps to produce a clear enemy. This article is excellent for attempting to understand the Nazi concentration camp leaders.

  • Rudolf Hoss, Death Dealer: The Memories of the SS Kommandant at Auschwitz (Buffalo, N.Y: Prometheus Books, 1992). 390 pages. D805. P7 H6713 1992.

    Hoss’s memoir was written while he was on trial for the crimes he committed during World War Two. Although he seems to occasionally have a faulty memory, the memoir shows the thoughts and observations of one of the most infamous killers. Hoss claims that he was just following orders from above, but this defense was proven false during his trial. This memoir is a significant primary source in studying these concentration camp commanders.

  • Gerald Reitlinger, The SS, Alibi of a Nation, 1922-1945 (New York: Viking Press, 1968), 502 pages. DD256.5 R42 1968.

    This book offers in-depth backgrounds of major Nazi figures including Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich. It also tries to connect different places, names and events to a bigger picture of how the Nazi government functioned. One of the main arguments in this book is that by condemning the Nazi SS as a criminal organization it gave other organizations and people a scapegoat. This book is very informative on the Nazis involved in the concentration camps, as well as on those who held power in the Nazi government.

  • Ernst Klee, Willi Dressen, Volker Riess (eds.), The Good Old Days: The Holocaust as seen by its perpetrators and Bystanders; foreword by Hugh Trevor-Roper; translated by Deborah Burnstone (New York: Free Press, 1991), 341 pages. D804.3 S3613 1991

    This book offers a chilling description of the soldiers responsible for killing Jews and other undesirables within Nazi-occupied territory. The argument is that these soldiers were not only “normal guys” but also they killed impassively, without really questioning themselves. This book breaks the stereotype of Nazi killers as sadist men and offers a frightening perspective that they were all too normal.

  • Tom Segev, Soldiers of Evil: The Commanders of Nazi Concentration Camps (McGraw-Hill, September 1988), 240 pages. ISBN0070560587

    Segevs book uses his dissertation research on Nazi concentration camp commanders to write this mainstream book about the commanders. The book reads more like a story, but still coverers the same biographical information of Nazi concentration camp commanders. Segev’s book, although less academic then his dissertation, is a good resource for those who want to gather more information on Nazi concentration camp commanders.

Relevant Websites

  • United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Holocaust Encyclopedia: Nazi camps (archieve.org: April 18, 2003, last revised May 27, 2008).

    This web page offers a brief explanation of the Nazi concentration camps. It helps to establish a general knowledge of the camps, including who the victims were, where the camps were located and the methods of killing used. This page is very helpful for gaining a general understanding of the camps which can prove to be useful when attempting to understand the camp commanders.

  • • Florida Center for Instructional Technology, College of Education, University of South Florida, A Teachers Guide to the Holocaust: Perpetrators (archive.org: August 30, 2002, last revised March 21, 2007)

    This web page offers specific information regarding Nazi perpetrations including their motivations, legal policies they implemented, propaganda which was used, and accounts of violence. This web page offers textual descriptions of many of the main perpetrators including Adolf Eichmann, Hermann Goring, and Heinrich Himmler. It also has links to documental, photographic, and video evidence from the Nazi period. This is a great source of information and is very helpful to because it supports statements with primary evidence.

  • Holocaust Education and Archive Research Team, , SS and other Nazi Leaders (archive.org: May 04, 2007, last revised April 29, 2008)

    The H.E.A.R.T. is a resource to quickly check facts about SS members and other Nazi leaders such as Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich, Adolf Eichmann, Heinrich Muller and many more. The website displays the date of birth, death, ethnicity, occupation, nationality, parents’ name, military service, and a brief summary of the lives of multiple Nazi perpetrators. This can prove to be very helpful in doing a brief comparison of Nazi leaders (not just camp commanders), and is a good resource to fact check while researching.

  • Brown University, History 135-Modern Genocide: Nazi Perpetrator Testimony (archive.org: May 04, 2007, last revised April 29, 2009)

    Taken from a class at Brown University this web page offers the personal testimony of SS perpetrators who were witnesses or were involved in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka and Belzec. The personal accounts of SS private Boeck, commandant Stangl, Professor Wilhelm Pfannenstiel (a Waffen-SS hygienist) and Adolf Eichmann all claim that they were disturbed by the atrocities committed at the camps, yet they do not see themselves as personally responsible for the crimes. This personal testimony is important because it allows us to see how the perpetrators understood the crimes they committed and who was responsible. Adolf Eichmann for example felt no personal responsibility for those killed under his watch, but rather believed that the political leaders were to blame and that he was just being obedient to those leaders.

  • Laurence Rees, Rudolf Hoss-Commandant of Auschwitz (Last updated 2009-11-05)

    Laurence Rees, a historian of World War Two as well as a writer and producer for the BBC, discusses Rudolf Hoss as a Nazi perpetrator as well as commander of Auschwitz. Rees discuses Hoss’s character, beliefs, how he became integrated into the concentration camp system, his involvement in the extermination of Jews, how he justified the atrocities and his lack of remorse for the crimes he committed. Rees's article does a great job summarizing the life of one of the most infamous concentration camp leaders and helps to explain how he became a camp leader with his deadly commitment to Nazi ideology.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Chelsea Evans on 3/23/10; last updated: 11/21/10
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