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In a forum a holocaust survivor reckoned that most Germans did not know about the killing of Jews and others in concentration camps. Others objected and said that people at least knew that Jews were disappearing and not coming back.

My question: Were the guards or anybody who worked in a concentration camp and able to leave on a regular basis allowed to talk about the things they did or saw?

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    Not sure they would even want to – Don_Biglia Apr 4 '16 at 12:01
  • I am not sure which answer to accept. I like the change of perspective (POV of prison guard) by @TomAu and that it sounds very reasonable without having to have a rule that you can't talk. However the other two answers are a more direct response to my question. I'll think about it. – Amelse Etomer Apr 7 '16 at 7:24
  • Do you realize most soldiers do not like to talk about the grittier details of war after they return, wwii or else? – Greg Dec 28 '16 at 5:30
  • @Greg, being in a war away from home is likely different. I assumed that workers in concentration camps had a job close to their home and went home once in a while (if not daily after work). I also do not know if they were convinced that they did something good by doing their work. – Amelse Etomer Dec 30 '16 at 10:26
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    @SebastianLanger Most concentration camps were in isolated places, and soldiers etc working there were not recruited in the local newspapers – Greg Dec 30 '16 at 15:13
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Let' just say that it was highly discouraged.

First, unlike "regular" prisons, guards at concentration camps did not go home every day because it was a quasi military function. Even when "off duty," they would be either in or near the camp most days, getting a few weeks of "leave" each year.

Second, many were too shocked by the horrors of what they saw to discuss it with their families. One "exterminator" (not guard) on the eastern front reportedly wrote in his diary, "How I can tell my parents I kill babies every day?"

Third, their work gave them a first hand insight about what happened to "dissidents" or "undesirables" or just people who talked too much. No one would want to go from being a guard to being an inmate at one of these camps.

  • I can't reference this, but remember being told by my mother who lived through the the war of one German sergeant involved in one of the camps, who came home one day and said to his wife "I can't do this any more!" - and started helping prisoners escape. Purely anecdotal, but suggests not all guards were fanatical/psychopaths. – TheHonRose Apr 4 '16 at 17:31
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    You are making some bold assertions Tom; where are your references to support them? You have also fallen into the same trap as OP, in falling to distinguish between concentration and slave labour camps on the one hand, and extermination camps on the other. The latter were death machines; the former were intended to "harvest" forced labour in the service of the Reich. While brutal, the former aimed to provide a marginal existence for healthy inmates. – Pieter Geerkens Apr 5 '16 at 1:15
  • While I'd like the above answer to be true, I get the general impression that concentration camp guards who came forward willingly and apologised for what they did were the exception, not the rule. – Andrew Grimm Apr 5 '16 at 12:40
  • @AndrewGrimm: That's beside the point. For everyone that "acknowledged" what they did, 10 (or 100) stood by and "suffered in silence." But the point was that they didn't "brag" as the OP thought they might. – Tom Au Apr 5 '16 at 13:51
  • @PieterGeerkens: The difference between a death camp and a slave labour camp is meaningful in terms of life and death, but not enough to make guards want to talk more about one than the other, which was the point of the OP's question. I can't picture either you or me telling our families, "We don't really kill people in the slave labour camp where I work, only work them to death. – Tom Au Apr 5 '16 at 13:55
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As noted by Tyler Durden, you need to differentiate between concentration camps and extermination camps. So far as the former were concerned, they were not only well known but needed to be well known. Prisons can hardly serve as effective deterrents if their existence is kept a secret! According to Robert Gellately, the Gestapo never had more than about 32,000 employees. Since there were approximately 60,000,000 people in Germany alone, they were only ever going to be effective if people knew precisely what would happen were they to be arrested.

Such was not the case when it came to extermination camps, the existence of which needed to be kept secret for more than one reason. For a start, it was imperative that victims not know where they were going and what was going to happen to them when they got there. The SS went to great lengths to preserve the mystery around these places, telling people to bring luggage with them, changes of clothes, cutlery and a small amount of money - and even, in the case of Jews from Iannina in Greece, purchasing tickets.

Secondly, the Nazis also wanted to ensure that the outside world would know as little as possible about the purpose of these installations. Battling against the Russians on the Eastern Front, the last thing they wanted their enemies to know was that being captured would involve being subsequently murdered. To win this war, the Nazis needed the Russians to surrender. When word got out about the wholesale murder to Soviet POWs (some 2,000,000 - approximately), the Russians knew that it was in their best interests to die fighting.

Finally - and most germane to your question - the Nazis did not want their general population to know. With all that was going on (rationing, power shortages, allied bombing), they counted desperately on the continued support of their own population. It is one thing for people to look the other way when they see people being persecuted, even violently; it is quite another to know that entire communities of people are being murdered through an impersonal, industrial process.

That said, while guards were under strict orders not to speak about what they saw and what they did, people always speak about what they see and what they do. When given time away from work (which was every so often), people not only spoke about what they had seen, they did so in great detail. Some guards had personal photo albums that related to the times they had spent in individual facilities - and, of course, the same thing goes for shooters. (Most of the so-called "Einsatzgruppen" photos were taken by perpetrators, and many were sent home to their families by post).

I don't personally know of any instances of people being punished for revealing information to their families and friends, although that may have happened. They certainly weren't supposed to.

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No, they weren't. Even concentration camp inmates who were incarcerated temporarily were required to sign a paper that they would never tell anybody about what they saw in the camp.

This information was secret for many reasons. Not only to hide the Holocaust, but to hide other abuses as well (of non-Jewish prisoners), to hide information on who were the prisoners (there could be important figures inside), on the ethnic composition of prisoners, on the jobs the prisoners were occupied with (this was war secret), on the medical experiments performed and so on.

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You are confusing two different things: extermination camps and concentration camps. There were dozens of Nazi concentration camps, but only six extermination camps. The guards at the extermination camps were a small number of fanatical SS soldiers who were dedicated to carrying out their tasks in the most secretive way possible. Himmler, the boss of these men personally selected them and trained them to be secretive and there were express policies in place that made it a serious offense to be any way discussing extermination procedures or events with anyone, including girlfriends and wives.

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    Conditions in many concentration camps were almost as lethal as those in extermination camps. And many "ordinary" soldiers on the eastern front knew about killings of civilians behind the front lines. – o.m. Apr 4 '16 at 16:04
  • @o.m. Uh, no. The "lethality" of the extermination camps was 99.9%. At Dachau if you include all of the satellite camps, of which there were more than a 100, the death rate was approximate 10%. That's a pretty big difference, so saying that the work camps were "almost as lethal" as the extermination camps is completely wrong. Also, the ludicrous allegation that ordinary people knew what was going on the extermination camps has no basis in reality. If you have some other opinion, then write your own answer. It's cheap to go around downvoting answers that don't jive with your preconceptions. – Tyler Durden Apr 4 '16 at 16:15
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    Mittelbau Dora had 30% death rates. And I agree that most Germans didn't know any details about the extermination camps. But those who wanted to know what happened to the Jews could find out, like Hans and Sophie Scholl. Most found it easier not to ask. – o.m. Apr 4 '16 at 16:47
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Camp guards were not permitted to disclose anything that went on in the camps and were held to a secrecy code. There were rules in place also for camp guards about treatment of prisoners and misappropriation of Jewish property and of course we know all about the atrocities that occurred there. In the many interviews I read with former prison guards they mostly felt they were just doing their duty and did not deserve further punishment for what happened in the camps.

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