Before Auschwitz: Jewish Prisoners in the Prewar Concentration Camps, by Kim Wünschmann

Neil Gregor praises an assiduously researched, humane book that examines the incarceration of German-Jews prior to 1939

April 30, 2015

This book is the latest in a series of studies to emerge from an uncommonly fruitful Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project on the pre-war Nazi concentration camps, undertaken at Birkbeck, University of London a few years back. Non-experts on the Third Reich will probably take some convincing of this, but comparatively little work has been done on the camps prior to 1939: overwhelmingly, scholarship has focused on the events of the Holocaust itself. Where the pre-war camps have been discussed, they have tended to be treated simply as the pre-history of the Holocaust - Timothy Ryback’s recent journalistic treatment of early murders in Dachau is the latest example of this - rather than examined in their own right.

Kim Wünschmann’s fine study argues persuasively that the main purpose of incarcerating German Jews prior to 1939 was to intimidate them into emigration. Even as the population of the camps expanded substantially in 1938 – the result of the “Action Workshy Reich”, the annexation of Austria and the pogroms of November 1938 – and even as conditions in the camps deteriorated rapidly as a result, emigration remained the goal. Most Jews were detained for a matter of weeks or months before their release – often on condition that they then left the country. On the eve of war, the camp population was falling.

This is not to suggest that Wünschmann downplays the horror of what German Jews experienced in Dachau or Buchenwald before 1939. To the contrary, and although we recognise that aspects of the camp regime drew on the inheritance of the pre-existing penal and workhouse system, she stresses both the element of rupture and the massive shock that this administered to the German-Jewish community in 1933. The initial terror was directed mainly at communists and socialists, but Jews were disproportionately represented in the early arrests and, from the outset, singled out for particularly vicious treatment. She leaves no doubt that the destruction of the Left was infused with a visceral anti-Semitism that manifested itself directly in acts of violence and murder targeted specifically at Jews.

Even as she underlines the centrality of anti-Semitism to the mindsets of the persecutors, however, she captures other dynamics in the violence, too. The perpetrators were generally younger than their victims, and saw themselves as enacting revenge for an older generation’s political sins; they were mostly from a lower social background and took the opportunity to play out various social resentments; both the perpetrators’ and the (generally male) victims’ normative understandings of proper masculine behaviour also provided a script for each to enact. Merely wearing glasses could mark one out as an “intellectual” and thus as representative of the liberal, democratic, enlightened politics that Nazism despised.

This is an assiduously researched, rigorously considered and carefully argued book. It combines this rigour with a thoroughly humane perspective on the experiences of the victims, whose sense of horror at early murders and outrage at the denial of their own often deeply felt German identity is captured in Wünschmann’s sensitive treatment of sometimes quite difficult material. The Jewish victims, as she underlines, were a highly diverse group of Germans, ranging from communist activists to liberal lawyers to rabbis. It was only the incessant anti-Semitic propaganda, discrimination and violence that moulded them into the collective category of inmates that conformed to the Nazi imagination of what a Jew was.

Indeed, her vivid discussion of the experiences of a wide variety of individuals serves as an uncomfortable reminder of just how prone historians still are to reproducing the homogenising, dehumanising category of “the Jews” when discussing the Holocaust. Not least for this reason, Wünschmann’s book is to be highly commended.

Before Auschwitz: Jewish Prisoners in the Prewar Concentration Camps

By Kim Wünschmann
Harvard University Press, 376pp, £33.95
ISBN 9780674967595
Published 26 March 2015

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