Chapter 3: "Total war"

1943 - The defeat of the Wehrmacht in Stalingrad belies the propaganda heralding the imminent "final victory". The regime responds by proclaiming the "total war". In the fourth year of the war, however, armament production can be carried on only with the aid of millions of foreign forced labourers.

These persons are threatened with committal to concentration camps if they illicitly socialize with Germans or evade labour. The Gestapo commit thousands of Soviet and Polish forced labourers to concentration camps on these grounds.

The fact that the concentration camps are now also geared to the needs of armament production brings about a rise in the demand for inmates. The Gestapo and SS have hundreds of thousands of people deported to the concentration camps from the occupied countries - from mid 1944 onward even Jews, but also Roma from Auschwitz. These persons are to perform forced labour before their extermination. The SS rent the inmates out to the armament industry and, in cooperation with company managements, set up subcamps all over Germany. The presence of these camps is too conspicuous to be overlooked.

A camp for the war economy

The Buchenwald concentration camp becomes an armament location.The SS build a gun factory and cooperate closely with the armament industry. The company managements are interested solely in the inmates’ performance. The SS no longer rely exclusively on punishment to increase productivity, but also introduce incentives in the form of bonuses.

At the same time, inmates are forced to build a railwayline at a murderous tempo to connect the factory and camp with the station in Weimar. From 1944 onward, ever larger inmate transports also reach the Buchenwaldconcentration camp by this route. Within weeks, the SS send the arrivals on to the newly established subcamps to perform forced labour. For the majority of the inmates, the parent camp is now no more than a transit station.

Forced labour for the “final victory”

When the camps begin serving the purposes of armament production, the demand for manpower rises sharply. To fi ll the camps, the SS and Gestapo arrest countless persons in the occupied countries. These campaigns are moreover designed to wear down the resistance put up by the populations of those countries. In the autumn of 1944, 90,000 inmates from occupied Europe – now including large numbers of women for the first time – are in custody in the Buchenwald concentration camp and its subcamps.

Already the journey to the camp is torture for the prisoners. Herded together in livestock waggons, they o? en travel for days, tormented by thirst, hunger, and uncertainty. They fi nally reach the Buchenwald concentration camp in a state of shock and humiliation.

Selection and forced labour

At the end of 1943, nearly half of the Buchenwald inmates are in Buchenwald subcamps. Their manpower is exploited by business enterprises, cities, and government and military agencies. The SS and various companies set up a total of more than 130 subcamps. In Germany, inmates are now an integral part of everyday life.

An inmate’s workplace is often decisive for his or her chances of surviving. The likelihood of survival is greater in armament production than at the underground construction sites such as the one at the Dora subcamp. The majority of the inmates are regarded as replaceable unskilled workers; their mass death is factored in. Anyone no longer able to work is sent to the Majdanek or Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp – and later the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp – to die. Inmates live in constant fear of selections in which SS doctors decide whether they are “fit for work”.

Solidarity and resistance

Solidarity throughout the inmate population is impossible in the concentration camps. Fear and foreignness make it difficult to build trust. The constant shortage of food and other vital items creates a situation of constant rivalry.

Solidarity comes about in groups that form on the basis of common political convictions, religious beliefs or origins. It takes time to know who can be trusted, assess the circumstances correctly and develop secret structures. For the most part, organized resistance is therefore confined to the parent camp. Nevertheless, groups whose members help each other out also form in the subcamps.

At the Buchenwald concentration camp, inmates underminen the system: they set up national aid committees, secretly document the crimes, obtain news on the course of the war, do everything in their limited power to sabotage armament production, and hide persons doomed to death.

Communist inmate functionaries in the Buchenwald concentration camp

Throughout the concentration camp system, the SS employ inmates in the maintenance of camp operations. The inmate functionaries thus come to form a class dependent on the SS and ranking between it and the majority of the inmates. A small percentage of the inmate functionaries, for example camp seniors, block seniors, and kapos, are granted the authority to issue instructions and impose punishments. A larger proportion are responsible for the operation of the storage facilities, administrative offices, construction offices, and inmates’ infirmaries. Camp tradesmen, interpreters, and the members of the camp protection detachment are also among the inmate functionaries. They receive better provisions and hold a higher status than their fellow inmates.

The SS demand absolute obedience from the inmate functionaries. The latter have to oversee inmates and assemble transports and are involved in the organization of forced labour and the elimination of persons unfit for work. Inmate functionaries must decide whether to use their position to their own advantage or take the risk of helping their fellow inmates.

At the Buchenwald concentration camp only, under the iron rule of their illegal party organization, German Communist inmates occupy all of the key posts from 1943 onward. They direct their activities primarily towards ensuring the survival of their own group and protecting Communists from other countries: they assign them to better labour detachments, rewrite transport lists, and give them preferential medical treatment – even at the cost of other inmates. However, their efforts to protect their own group also has an impact on the overall camp situation: steps are taken to curb the danger of epidemics, food is distributed more fairly, violence contained. Limited means of protecting the weak and rescuing children and youths are developed.