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This Holocaust info page makes two statements that seem contradictory.

The following paragraph states that death camps were designed specifically for mass murder. (I assume this means the chemical rooms used in the holocaust)

What is a death camp? A death (or mass murder) camp is a concentration camp with special apparatus specifically designed for systematic murder.

But I recently read an (non canonical) account that states the gas chambers were not intended originally for mass murder, but rather for sanitation of clothing.

Surprisingly, the following statement from the same source supports this claim:

Did the Nazis plan to murder the Jews from the beginning of their regime? This question is one of the most difficult to answer. While Hitler made several references to killing Jews, both in his early writings (Mein Kampf) and in various speeches during the 1930s, it is fairly certain that the Nazis had no operative plan for the systematic annihilation of the Jews before 1941.

And furthermore, the above statement claims there was likely no plan for mass murder until 1941, while the following paragraph claims the first death camps were created back in 1933, nearly a decade earlier.

When was the first concentration camp established? The first concentration camp, Dachau, opened on March 22, 1933.

So I have two questions derived from this:

  • Were death camps originally intended as death camps, equipped with gas chambers for the purpose of mass murder?

and if not:

  • What changed? What event lead unethical imprisonment of racially, sexually, and socially disliked peoples to transform into mass murder, before the invasion of the Soviet Union?

I've considered the possibility of Hitler being out of resources due to the war, and killing the Jews purely out of (horrible, terrible, insane) strategic measure with the impending fighting with the Soviet Union. Perhaps he was just out of resources, and did something gruesome and horrible to win the war. I'm no historian, that's why I'm asking this here.

But if this is the case, it's a very different (albeit equally horrible) story from what I was taught in school as a kid. I supposed I'm simply interested in the historical accuracy of my education.

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    The quotes you give aren't contradictory if you remember that "concentration camps" and "death camps" are different. Concentration camps are places where states "concentrate" certain populations, while death camps are where states exterminate them. It is possible for Dachau to have been built as a concentration camp in 1933 long before the Nazis decided to use it as a death camp--and then equipped it as such.
    – two sheds
    Commented Aug 6, 2015 at 2:31
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    Also, it would be good to know what your "non-canonical" source is
    – two sheds
    Commented Aug 6, 2015 at 2:31
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    Dead camps weren't created in 1933, only concentration camps. The confusion might come since many people died in concentration camps too, not because of gas chambers but because of malnutrition, forced labour and diseases, and of course, arbitrary executions.
    – Bregalad
    Commented Aug 6, 2015 at 7:30
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    That gas chambers were originally intended for sanitation of clothing is false. Their only purpose was the killing of groups of people.
    – jjack
    Commented Aug 15, 2015 at 18:43
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    @EvilSnack not so. The concentration camp idea predated the NSDAP rise to power, and was implemented across Europe as a response to the overcrowding of regular prisons in the 1920s and early 1930s. Dachau was the first in Germany, construction being started by the Bavarian government prior to Hitler taking power and then nationalised (it was intended as an overflow for the regular prisons in Munich for certain classes of inmates) and its regime made far more rigid than originally intended.
    – jwenting
    Commented Aug 2, 2018 at 10:49

7 Answers 7

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The policies against the Jews developed gradually. The Wikipedia article on Holocaust gives a rather complete history. Complete extermination was decided at the Wannsee conference in 1942. Many camps had a dual purpose, they were both labor camps and extermination camps, like the best-known of them in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

It is indeed hard to tell with certainty what they were thinking or planning in 1933 or earlier. (Plans and intentions are usually not documented). Deportation of Jews out of Europe was apparently also considered. In 1942 deportation was not an option, and they were loosing the war. So they decided to kill all Jews on the territories that they still controlled. Most of the killing was done in the last two years of the war.

I did not understand your speculation about "out of resources" and how is this related to the matter. The operation of mass extermination actually consumed many resources, including trains and troops which could otherwise be used for the war effort. So the operation was conducted despite the scarcity of resources, not "because" of it.

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Most Nazi concentration camps were not death camps. The Nazis ran dozens and dozens of camps, but only 4 of the camps (Chelmno, Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec) were intended solely for extermination purposes. All 4 existed in a state of extreme isolation and secrecy during the war. The work camp at Majdanek was converted to an extermination camp late in the war. Birkenau, the sister camp of Auschwitz, was also converted to a extermination facility during the war. The million estimated to have been exterminated at "Auschwitz" were actually killed in the Birkenau facility which adjoined Auschwitz proper.

The first inkling of this was that in November of 1942 the Polish government in exile in London published a report that announced that the Nazis were systematically exterminating Jews as part of program that had been begun early that year (1942) and was being run by Himmler. This report identified Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec as the death camps being used.

The great majority of camps were either camps for political prisoners (like Dachau) or were work camps, intended to contain and enslave the enemies of the Reich. At the end of the war most of the occupants of these camps died either from starvation, as the Nazis lost the ability to provide food to the camps, or from cholera due to lack of fresh water. Water is carried by pipes that go over bridges. When a bridge is destroyed, the water supply to an entire area is turned off. So, in a sense, all the camps turned into death camps in the spring of 1945, even though most of them had not been designed for that purpose.

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Most fixed installations to which persecuted peoples were taken and in which they were murdered were built originally as work or concentration camps. Auschwitz, which gained notoriety for its having had the largest number of gas chamber victims throughout the war, was built on the site of a military barracks and originally for purposes of concentration only. Most of the people murdered at Auschwitz were murdered there in the final stages of the war.

While this is the case for most fixed installations, there were three that were purpose-built for murder, and all three were in the General Government of occupied Poland: Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka. These three camps were part of what is known as Operation Reinhard, and were constructed with the intention of their being the place in which the entire Jewish population of the General Government would be eradicated.

Belzec started operating in March of 1942. Until its eradication in the summer of 1943, it may have been responsible for as many as 600,000 murders. Only two people are known to have survived Belzec, one of whom was murdered in Poland in 1946.

Modeled on Belzec, Sobibor began operating in April of 1942. Until its eradication at the end of 1943, Sobibor is thought to have been the site of some 160,000 murders. There were several escapees, most of whom broke out after the uprising of 1943.

The largest and most efficient of these three purpose-built camps was Treblinka. From its commencement as a death camp in April of 1942 until the end of 1943, Treblinka was the site of approximately 900,000 murders. There were several survivors and escapees, partly as a result of the uprising in 1943 and partly as a result of the chaos that ensued in the earlier period when the camp was understaffed and overpacked with arrivals from Warsaw and its environs.

All told, these three camps were responsible for the murder of most of the Jews living within occupied Poland, and were constructed for that express reason. As a result of these forays into fixed killing installations, gas chambers were added at other camps as well, like Majdanek and Birkenau, and even at the site of labour camps (like Mautthausen, for example).

Note that gas had been used even prior to the construction of these sites - particularly in terms of mobile gas vans, such as operated in Chelmno and in Minsk, but also as fixed installations. Gas chambers had been employed, for example, as part of the T4 program, by which large numbers of people with disabilities were also murdered. By the end of the war, it is estimated that some 300,000 people had been murdered as part of the T4 program exclusively.

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  • Excellent detailed answer. Maybe add the detail of distinguishing the use of "gas": IIRC, Op.Reinhardt camps used diesel fumes (as static installations evolved from the former mobile death trucks). The T4 program used bottled CO. Zyklon-B was almost exclusively used at Birkenau, from a quick search.
    – Marakai
    Commented Dec 26, 2016 at 6:13
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Dachau concentration camp was set up in 1933 to imprison political opponents of the Nazi regime, mainly communists. Non-communist Jews began to be sent there in 1938. Unlike Auschwitz, it was never a “death camp” in the strict sense of the word, but of course lots of prisoners died there.

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    That might be a correct factoid, but it alone is not an answer to the question.
    – Philipp
    Commented Aug 6, 2015 at 14:16
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    It's not a factoid, it's a true statement.
    – jjack
    Commented Aug 15, 2015 at 18:45
  • @Philipp given that many now call Dachau a "death camp", and it was notorious for the high death rate among inmates during the war years, it's a highly relevant answer. Even if it were the only example where it's not originally deisnged as a "death camp", it does show clearly that not all camps at least were designed with that purpose in mind.
    – jwenting
    Commented Aug 16, 2015 at 4:40
  • and there are many others. The Germans took over camps in occupied countries that had been set up there as refugee camps for people fleeing Germany and repurposed them as prison camps, where a lot of people died. Camp Amersfoort is one example.
    – jwenting
    Commented Aug 16, 2015 at 4:42
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Both may well be true. It also depends on your definition of "death camp".
While some camps were designed and built from the outset as extermination camps, and these had very little in the way of other facilities except some barracks for the workers, most were designed and built as prison facilities, work camps, and temporary holding facilities for prisoners intended for transfer elsewhere.

As to gas chambers being originally intended for fumigating lice infested clothing, this is possible but somewhat unlikely given the scale of the operations. For that purpose a smaller facility will suffice.

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The "Final solution", i.e., systematic effort to exterminate Jews indeed came about only in 1941 (although the mass executions by Ersatzgruppen in eastern Europe were ongoing from the beginning of the war.) Thus, the already existing concentration camps might have had the already existing facilities refitted as gas chambers, but the new camps had them specially constructed for this purpose.

An obvious example is Auschwitz: the camp known as Auschwitz I was established in 1940, and the first gassings were conducted in an improvised facility:

The first experimental gassing took place around August 1941, when Lagerführer Karl Fritzsch, at the instruction of Rudolf Höss, murdered a group of Soviet prisoners of war by throwing Zyklon B crystals into their basement cell in block 11 of Auschwitz I. A second group of 600 Soviet prisoners of war and around 250 sick Polish prisoners were gassed on 3–5 September. The morgue was later converted to a gas chamber able to hold at least 700–800 people. Zyklon B was dropped into the room through slits in the ceiling.

Likewise the Initial gassings in Auschwitz II were conducted in a redesigned remodeled facility:

The first gas chamber at Auschwitz II was operational by March 1942. On or around 20 March, a transport of Polish Jews sent by the Gestapo from Silesia and Zagłębie Dąbrowskie was taken straight from the Oświęcim freight station to the Auschwitz II gas chamber, then buried in a nearby meadow.[47] The gas chamber was located in what prisoners called the "little red house" (known as bunker 1 by the SS), a brick cottage that had been turned into a gassing facility; the windows had been bricked up and its four rooms converted into two insulated rooms, the doors of which said "Zur Desinfektion" ("to disinfection"). A second brick cottage, the "little white house" or bunker 2, was converted and operational by June 1942.

However crematoria II and II were specifically designed for extermination:

Plans for crematoria II and III show that both had an oven room 30 by 11.24 m (98.4 by 36.9 ft) on the ground floor, and an underground dressing room 49.43 by 7.93 m (162.2 by 26.0 ft) and gas chamber 30 by 7 m (98 by 23 ft). The dressing rooms had wooden benches along the walls and numbered pegs for clothing. Victims would be led from these rooms to a five-yard-long narrow corridor, which in turn led to a space from which the gas chamber door opened. The chambers were white inside, and nozzles were fixed to the ceiling to resemble showerheads.

Several other extermination camps were built specifically for this purpose:

Construction work on the first killing centre at Bełżec in occupied Poland began in October 1941, three months before the Wannsee Conference. The new facility was operational by March the following year.[78] By mid-1942, two more death camps had been built on Polish lands: Sobibór operational by May 1942, and Treblinka operational in July.[79] From July 1942, the mass murder of Polish and foreign Jews took place at Treblinka as part of Operation Reinhard, the deadliest phase of the Final Solution. More Jews were murdered at Treblinka than at any other Nazi extermination camp apart from Auschwitz.[80] By the time the mass killings of Operation Reinhard ended in 1943, roughly two million Jews in German-occupied Poland had been murdered.

In addition, Nazis used mobile gassing vans and improvised facilities outside the major camps:

Beginning in 1939, gas chambers were used as part of Aktion T4, an "involuntary euthanasia" program under which the Nazis murdered people with physical and intellectual disabilities, whom the Nazis considered "unworthy of life". Experiments in the gassing of patients were conducted in October 1939 in occupied Posen in Poland. Hundreds of prisoners were murdered by carbon monoxide poisoning in an improvised gas chamber.[14] In 1940 gas chambers using bottled pure carbon monoxide were established at six killing centres in Germany.[15] In addition to persons with disabilities, these centres were also used during Action 14f13 to murder prisoners transferred from concentration camps in Germany, Austria, and Poland. Concentration camp inmates continued to be murdered even after the euthanasia program was officially shut down in 1941.[16]

During the invasion of the Soviet Union, mass executions by exhaust gas were performed by Einsatzgruppen using gas vans, trucks modified to divert engine exhaust into a sealed interior gas chamber.[15]

Remark
I don't know, if it is relevant here, but some theories of Holocaust denial apparently claim that gas chambers were not for killing, but really served as disinfection facilities or something of the kind.

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There were three categories of Nazi concentration camp, labour camps, transit camp and extermination camp.

Labor camps, such as Dachau, were by and large for the temporary enslavement of the inmates, in much the same way as Soviet gulags, except the Nazis "leased out" camp inmates to Germany's largest companies. Most POW camps in the Third Reich were also labor camps.

Transit camps, like Westerbork for example, were temporary stopover holding facilities.

Extermination camps were the third type, these were exclusively (or nearly so) for unaliving deportees within a few hours of their arrival. It is only this category of concentration camp that had gas chambers.

Many of the bigger Nazi camps were actually hybrids, in that they were both extermination and labour camps at the same time, the one that comes to mind immediately is Auschwitz, which was the largest Nazi concentration camp (spanning over 40 square kilometres and divided into 44 sub-camps).

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