Vasily Grossman was a Russian-Jewish journalist and fiction writer. His 1959 epic-novel "Life and Fate" opens with a description of a German concentration camp. He tells of the following features, calling them "Nazi inventions":

  1. Many would end up in a camp for criticising the Nazi regime in a private conversation or even for telling a political joke;
  2. POWs would end up in a camp for political prisoners, including Western allies' and Soviet POWs in the same camp;
  3. Workers would end up in a camp for leaving job or even for poor performance;
  4. Some prisoners were German emigrants who fled Nazi Germany; "whoever left Germany became a political enemy";
  5. Along with political prisoners, there were criminal convicts (e. g., professional thieves), who were privileged and used by the administration to control the political prisoners;

The novel was not published in the Soviet Union, moreover, Grossman's apartment was raided and the manuscript was confiscated by KGB (though, a copy made its way to the West), with Mikhail Suslov allegedly commenting that it would not be published in the next 200 or 300 years. And indeed, the above features were in fact characteristic of GULAG, which would be recognised by many readers familiar with writings of Solzhenitsin and others. In view of this, nowadays it is hard to read this as anything but a satire of Stalin's regime.

On the other hand, Grossman was a military journalist who advanced with the Red Army and, in particular, interviewed some Treblinka survivors. He definitely knew something about Nazi camps. He seems to talk about a forced labor camp, not an extermination camp, although the camp does have gas chambers and crematoria, and some inmates are selected to be executed. He also gives some details, like colour tags, characteristic for Nazi camps and uncharacteristic for GULAG.

Question: do any of the above points accurately describe Nazi policy and what happened in Nazi concentration camps? Or, at least, were the Nazi concentration camps commonly portrayed that way?

  • 4
    I get that strange feeling of holocaust denial. I wonder why.
    – Jos
    Aug 1, 2018 at 0:11
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    @Jos, denial by whom - me or Grossman? If you are talking about Grossman, then, indeed, he does not mention jews in these pages, but he does discuss mass killing of jews later in the book. If you are talking about me, I just wanted to know how historically accurate are some particular details in Grossman's book; holocaust denial was never intended. How should I improve the post to make that clear?
    – Kostya_I
    Aug 1, 2018 at 9:19
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    @Kostya_I Correct me, if I'm wrong, but I recall Jews mentioned several times in the book. I think, in the beginning there is description of a Jewish family before the war (members of that family eventually get into a concentration camp). There is a scene where the transportation of Jews in a cargo railway cars is described (comparison between Jews from Poland and those from Ukraine). Most importantly -- the protagonist -- a scientist, who, along with his family appears throughout the book, is a Jew. Also it's unlikely that a Jew (Grosman is a Jew) would deny Holocaust.
    – user23839
    Aug 1, 2018 at 10:25
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    @Jos there is at least a scene explicitly describing the gassing of Jews by the Germans in a concentration camp (not necessarily the same where the POWs were, as the first part is a series of separated stories) and IIRC several other alluding to Jews being rounded up, etc.), so not much of a denialist book.
    – SJuan76
    Aug 1, 2018 at 10:52
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    Can we assume that you have at least read Wikipedia? Aug 1, 2018 at 21:03

1 Answer 1


Nazi's weren't particularly picky about who they locked up.

Before I go into more detail, I would like to make one important distinction. Nazis used both concentration camps and death camps. People died in both, but most of the deaths in the concentration camps were from disease, malnutrition, being over-worked, torture, etc... while people sent to the death camps were usually systematically murdered in gas chambers within a few days, at most.

Now, most everyone knows the Jews were sent to concentration camps, but they were far from the only group there. Political opponents (typically Communists and Socialists) were sent to concentration camps, as well as anyone Hitler deemed "undesirable." This large group consisted of anyone who did not fit into the "aryan master race" and included Homosexuals, criminals, Gypsies (Sinti and Roma peoples) and many people of Slavic descent.

Now, I haven't read Grossman's work, but I know a decent amount of history on the subject and have visited concentration camps in Germany. And even though the "concentration" camps weren't designed to kill you instantly, plenty of people died there.

In Sachsenhausen, a smaller, relatively older concentration camp north of Berlin, inmates were subjected to drug trials (mixes of nasty narcotics to see if physical abilities could be enhanced) and then had to run 40-60km in new boots and shoes (per DAY) to test their durability for the German shoe industry. Guards would force prisoners into situations where they would have to break the rules, and could basically kill anyone they wanted at will. And though not a death camp, Sachsenhausen did have a gas chamber and crematorium.

Moral of the story, I think it's relatively safe to believe a lot of the horror stories you hear about what went on in any concentration/death camp. It was awful, awful stuff. As with any historical source, it is important to think about the bias/perspective of the author, but in the realm of Nazi camps, I don't think even the most gruesome ones come close to giving an accurate portrayal of the unimaginable horrors of what those camps must have been like.

EDIT: because I was asked about sources, I visited Sachsenhausen literally a few days ago, and draw from the exhibitions on display, there. However, here are some sources about this concentration camp in specific.

From the US holocaust memorial museum: general information about Sachsenhausen

Daily conditions in Sachsenhausen

from the holocaust research project:

It is also worth noting that Sachsenhausen was a relatively small camp. Horrors at death camps such as the infamous Auschwitz (or others) could be expected to be much worse.

  • 2
    My main source of info, about Sachsenhausen at least, were because I literally toured there and looked through the exhibitions put on display at the camp itself. I will make an edit, though, if desired, to some links about the camp itself. Aug 3, 2018 at 12:06
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    I agree with this answer, but to make it complete you should specifically adress the 5 claims listed in the question and provide sources whether they are correct or not. For instance, where POW interned in Sachsenhausen or not ?
    – Evargalo
    Aug 3, 2018 at 12:18
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    You could add details of the U.S. 70th division, a few hundred of whose personnel were sent to Buchenwald as POW's after being captured in December 1944 - for looking Jewish. There were other such incidences from time to time, but this is the best known. Aug 3, 2018 at 16:30
  • Nazi? Did you mean Germans? Aug 16, 2018 at 19:48

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