Upon first entering Dachau, a prisoner of Hitler's
Reich passed through an iron gate bearing the slogan personally chosen
by Theodor Eicke, father of the SS concentration camp system: "Arbeit
Macht Frei" – work sets you free.
Portrait of Theodor Eicke - father of the SS-run concentration camp system.
Eicke's idea was that through a combination of
severe discipline, Spartan living conditions and forced labor, he could
reform any so-called 'Enemy of the State,' then set him free to resume
a useful life in Hitler's Germany. Inside the camp, painted in large letters
along the roof of one building was the motto: "There is one way to
freedom. Its milestones are: obedience, zeal, honesty, order, cleanliness,
temperance, truth, sense of sacrifice and love for the Fatherland."
New arrivals at Dachau were never told how long
they would be imprisoned, a factor that weakened their morale and left
them more vulnerable to the remolding that would follow. Often, their journey
to Dachau marked the first time they had ever been arrested or involved
with police. Many had been sent there by the Gestapo upon vague accusations
or denunciations by persons who simply disliked them or who wanted to settle
an old score. Some were even arrested on suspicion they might commit
a crime in the future.
Upon being hauled away, the bewildered detainee
was told: "Based on Article One of the Decree of the Reich President
for the Protection of People and State of 28 February 1933, you are taken
into Protective Custody in the interest of public security and order. Reason:
suspicion of activities inimical to the State."
That February 28 decree had been used by the 50,000
brown-shirted SA storm troopers and black-coated SS men sworn in as auxiliary
police to justify mass arrests of political opponents during Hitler's seizure
of power. There were so many people in custody in the spring of 1933 that
Germany's conventional prisons were quickly swamped. As a result, 'wild'
prison camps sprang up like mushrooms.
These outdoor 'wild' camps were little more than
improvised barbed-wire stockades where prisoners were subjected to military-style
drills and random beatings. The storm troopers soon discovered that desperate
family members would gather up whatever money they could find to ransom
their loved ones out of the place. Thus began a lucrative practice of hauling
off prisoners simply to hold them until sufficient ransom was received.
These early, crude concentration camps were independently
operated by the SA and the SS, along with various Nazi agencies and local
Gauleiters (Nazi Governors). Overlapping jurisdictional and territorial
disputes were sometimes resolved by fights involving actual shooting between
In March 1933, SS leader Heinrich Himmler became
chief of the Munich police and decided to establish an SS-run concentration
camp at an unused munitions factory in the town of Dachau, 12 miles northwest
of Munich. The first commandant, Hilmar Wäckerle, ran the place so
badly that it damaged the reputation of the SS. Himmler fired him in June
and chose as his replacement the fanatical SS man, Theodor Eicke.
The 40-year-old Eicke was a veteran of World War
I who had earned the Iron Cross 2nd Class. After the war he became involved
in police work but had lost various jobs because of his strong opposition
to Germany's democratic republic. He joined the Nazi Party in December
1928 and was then taken into the SS. Himmler appointed him as a full SS
colonel in November 1931. Four months later, he fled to Italy on Himmler's
orders after being sentenced to jail for participating in Nazi political
bombings. Himmler brought him back to Germany in February 1933. But more
trouble occurred after Eicke clashed with a local Gauleiter who had him
hauled off to a psychiatric clinic as a "dangerous lunatic."
Himmler had him released from the psychiatric lock-up on June 26, then
immediately handed him the task of running Dachau.
And it turned out he had chosen the right man.
Regulations soon established by Eicke included the standing order that
any prisoner would be hanged who: "politicizes, holds inciting speeches
and meetings, forms cliques, loiters around with others – who for the purpose
of supplying the propaganda of the opposition with atrocity stories, collects
true or false information about the concentration camp, receives such information,
buries it, talks about it to others, smuggles it out of the camp into the
hands of foreign visitors, etc."
A further regulation stated that a prisoner would
be shot or hanged for refusing to obey any order from an SS man. Those
who were gunned-down had their deaths listed as "shot while attempting
to escape." The only notification the victim's family ever got was
an urn filled with ashes delivered to their front door. The ashes were
usually not even from the dead man himself, but had been scooped up from
whatever was lying around in the crematorium room.
punishments at Dachau included: forcing prisoners to stand completely still
for many hours; severe beatings on the back and rear with a cane; twenty-five
lashes of the whip; and solitary confinement in tiny, stand-up prison cells,
too narrow to sit down in.
To house his prisoners, Eicke constructed 34 long
wooden huts (later called blocks) with each hut housing 270 inmates, giving
the camp a capacity of just over 9,000. The interior of each hut was divided
into five rooms, each containing two rows of bunks, stacked three-high,
sleeping a total of 54 persons.
The 54 men of each room constituted a prisoner
platoon with one prisoner designated as platoon leader. The hut's five
rooms, or platoons of men, formed a company of prisoners, with an SS-appointed
'sergeant' prisoner responsible for all discipline inside the hut.
Every morning started with the dreaded command,
"Appelle!" (roll-call!). Regardless of the weather, the prisoners
were required to march outside at dawn and stand at attention in formation
to be counted. Upon the command, "Hats Off!" the entire assembly
of 9,000 men was required to remove all hats precisely at the same moment
to the satisfaction of the SS man in charge. Prisoners sometimes practiced
this and other drills for hours with some actually dropping dead from the
length and rigor of roll-call. When the tally of prisoners was complete
and the SS officer in command was satisfied, the prisoners were marched
off to begin their 12-hour workday in a camp workshop or along the camp
In training his young SS men, Eicke demanded they
put aside any sentimental notions or sympathy for prisoners. The SS training
routine included three weeks of exhausting military drills, relieved only
by a week of camp guard duty during which they were expected to witness
and participate in deliberate acts of cruelty against the prisoners.
Eicke urged his SS men to treat all inmates as
dangerous "Enemies of the State." He repeatedly lectured them:
"There behind the barbed-wire lurks the enemy and he watches everything
you do. He will try to help himself by using all your weaknesses. Don't
leave yourself open in any way. Show these 'Enemies of the State' your
teeth. Anyone who shows even the smallest sign of compassion for the 'Enemies
of the State' must disappear from our ranks. I can only use hard men who
are determined to do anything. We have no use for weaklings."
Rudolf Höss, future commandant of Auschwitz
was trained by Eicke at Dachau. Höss later commented that Eicke had
"no human understanding for the prisoners as a whole" and that
Eicke's SS guards developed "a hate, an antipathy against prisoners
which is inconceivable to those outside."
The shaven-headed prisoners in blue-striped clothes
were numbers, not persons, stripped of their humanity and individual personalities.
They were referred to as "pigs" and "filth" and other
obscenity-laced names. Jews especially were referred to as "filth-Jews"
or "trash-Jews." Upon first entering Dachau and being registered,
a Jew would be asked: "The name of the whore that shitted you out?"
– to which they had to give their mother's name or be beaten.
Eicke was also quite strict with his SS guards,
berating and punishing them for even the smallest infraction. But along
with the harsh discipline, he made a habit of fraternizing with his men
down to the lowest ranking SS recruit and thus was well liked, earning
the SS nickname, "Papa Eicke."
Based on the initial success of Dachau, Himmler
appointed Eicke to be the very first Inspector of Concentration Camps in
July 1934. Most of the old 'wild' camps were then shut down and replaced
by large new SS camps built exactly on the Dachau model and staffed by
Eicke's trainees including; Buchenwald in central Germany near Weimar,
Sachsenhausen in the north near Berlin, and Ravensbrück for women.
The never-ending rumors surrounding these early
concentration camps instilled a nagging sense of fear among all Germans
that helped to extinguish all potential opposition and criticism of Hitler's
regime. However, the greatest challenge to Hitler would not come from his
political opponents but from within his own ranks. By early 1934, a storm
trooper rebellion was brewing that threatened to ruin everything he had
worked so hard to achieve.