I'm interested in knowing how the Nazi regime went about hiring the guards and other camp personnel who did the dirty work.

Were they screened for sadism, callousness, obedience, or some other trait that was conducive to the job, or did they not do much about it until someone turned out to be too gentle, compassionate, or principled to dish out the abuse?

Related, was it ever a practice to parole criminals in exchange for their obedience (sort of a, "Do as you're told and we'll let you abuse all of the victims you want")?

  • 44
    The Stanford Prison Experiment proven that given absolute control over prisoners humans tend to abuse power... to the extreme, while the Milgram Experiment has shown that we are happy to hurt other people as long as it is for "the greater good". In summary - you don't need to be a special kind of a bastard to work in the concentration camp, most Joes Average will do.
    – Yasskier
    May 31, 2019 at 3:47
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    @Yasskier I agree. A relevant book is “Banality of Evil” about Eichmann by Hannah Arendt. Remember that Nazis considered themselves good guys.
    – user28850
    May 31, 2019 at 13:00
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    @Yasskier The Stanford Prison Experiment itself is weak evidence for that thesis. The Wikipedia article itself details numerous problems with that study. Whatever it is, it isn't evidence that guards spontaneously become sadistic in a prison setting. May 31, 2019 at 14:44
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    @johnColeman thank you for including that. I'll also add that the Milgram experiment did not show people "happy" to deliver the shocks, but that they continued to deliver them with minimal pressure, although the participants were greatly and visibly distressed May 31, 2019 at 17:54
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    @Yasskier I would not be so quick to cite the stanford prison experiment. It was pretty badly done, and many people have come out saying that the professor basically wanted them to "act out."
    – Arya
    Jun 2, 2019 at 0:52

3 Answers 3


Short answer – it was less "hiring" and more "drafting". No pre-screening happened that I could find evidence of (well, except for the general "has to be a good Nazi" principle, which might count towards that), but being soft on incarcerated was strongly discouraged, which led to a predictable result of "refining" the most harsh guard possible.

The camps were primarily guarded by the SS-Totenkopfverbände – a special division of the SS. One didn't join the camp guards – one joined the SS. At that point, it didn't really matter what one wanted – members of the SS were expected to follow orders as much as soldiers were. If you were assigned to SS-Totenkopfverbände, you went to guard the camp.

While technically there were no "screening for sadism", SS were comprised of people who either truly accepted Nazi ideology or successfully faked it. Thus, they indeed were "pre-screened" for being 1) obedient (because of patriotism), 2) dismissive towards certain groups of people. As concentration camps held people who a Nazi would consider subhuman, the treatment of inmates would be... not good. In fact, Theodor Eicke, commandant of Dachau (the first concentration camp and the model for subsequent camps), encouraged his people to treat inmates with "inflexible harshness": they were the enemies of the state, after all! And that attitude was replicated in other camps – the Dachau camp was a training facility for the SS guards. As such, anyone who completed that training would appropriate the behavior of his SS teachers.

In the last days of WW2, SS formed so-called "SS-Mannschaft" (Auxiliary SS) – a ragtag bunch of personnel drafted from Volkssturm, Army and basically any other source SS could get people from to try and keep camps running to the last moment while personnel of the SS proper could escape. These troops did not go through the usual SS selection process and did not get the same training as SS-TV personnel, so their behaviour could be very varied. But due to the chaos caused by quickly progressing Allied offensives, almost no documentation exist on what happened in camps in those days.

P.S. While searching for sources for this answer, I kept finding stories about dismissal of guards deemed "too kind" to prisoners. I couldn't track down any of these to a reliable source, but there might be some truth to them. If true, it would serve to further reinforce the Eicke principles.

P.P.S. Regarding your "parole to criminals" question – they weren't drafted to be camp guards, but you might want to read up on Strafbatallions (Army version, pretty tame and generally drafted from minor offenders) and Dirlewanger Brigade (SS version. It was initially supposed to be drafted from poachers. That idea was quickly lost, and the unit was drafted from murderers, burglars, criminally insane and so on. It had its debut during the occupation of Poland, and quickly earned itself the reputation of being a congregation of slaughterers, looters and rapists. Believe or not, but things went downhill from there.).


Комендант Освенцима. Автобиографические записки Рудольфа Гесса. (unofficial translation of "Commandant of Auschwitz : The Autobiography of Rudolf Hoess", Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, Gmbh., Stuttgart, 1958)

Koehl, Robert, "The SS: A History 1919–45", Stroud: Tempus, 2000

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    Note that very early camps were also staffed by SA members who had fought in the street battles. Abusing democrats and communists in a camp was a logical extension of doing so when they could still fight back.
    – o.m.
    May 31, 2019 at 5:10
  • With regards to the comment about sadism, one commandant was even fired for being too eager to kill Jews.
    – pipe
    May 31, 2019 at 14:29
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    @Pipe according to this wiki page, "Eberl was dismissed on the spot.[170] Among the reasons for dismissal were: incompetently disposing of the tens of thousands of dead bodies, using inefficient methods of killing, and not properly concealing the mass killing."
    – Evargalo
    May 31, 2019 at 17:09
  • @Evargalo Yep. He was ordering too many, at a rate that the camp couldn't handle. No time to bury them etc.
    – pipe
    May 31, 2019 at 22:06
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    @o.m. and even before that the earliest of camps were just part of the regular prison system and staffed by people taking from the existing prison system roster. That's in fact how the camps got started in the first place, before the nazis took power as an overflow for the overcrowded German prison system. And not just in Germany, the Netherlands for example had several concentration camps prior to WW2 (including one for refugees from nazi Germany) which were later used by the Germans.
    – jwenting
    Jun 3, 2019 at 4:35

This question is almost a mirror of the more usual one about the defense that supposedly "decent" people were committing atrocities only under duress. The answer to that question is that

  • usually people could avoid participation in atrocities,
  • doing so might limit their promotion chances, or put them to the frontlines where armed enemies would shoot at them,
  • they may or may not have been aware that it was relatively easy to avoid participation.

Regarding your question, after the chaotic early years the Nazis were trying to organize the genocide in a way that would slow the mental deterioration of their troops, which was a concern and prompted the switch from mass shootings to the gas chambers. Read Himmler's speech in Posen and perhaps Goldhagen's book about the police battalion 101 (also read the criticism of Goldhagen's views). The Nazis were looking for people to operate an "industrial" killing operation, not undisciplined people who slow the lines with personal atrocities.


Actually, the horrific tasks of herding gassing victims into shower rooms, gassing them, and moving bodies into cremation ovens, was performed by "Kapos" in the camps, who were themselves inmates, Jewish inmates too. The SS organized prisoners into a hierarchical structure of tyranny in which they played inmates against each other, and had inmates perform the detailed tasks of the gassings. Kapos who were reliable evidently lived longer, but they too could be murdered at any time... delaying inmates' executions was an extortion tactic that the SS used to recruit those Kapos.

This is a link to one of many excerpts from the book Liebe Mutti: One Man's Struggle to Survive in KZ Sachsenhausen, 1939-1945, describing the kapo system: https://books.google.com/books?id=8EsND0dtSOcC&pg=PA113&dq=%22administering+the+camp%22+Sachsenhausen&cd=1#v=onepage&q&f=false

Most primary sources are in German, as they are the recounting of events and memoirs of concentration camp inmates. The Wollheim Memorial web site is a reasonably trustworthy secondary source. This page includes a translated quote from a primary source:

"When a commission of the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA) from Berlin toured the Buna works, the senior SS leaders complained to Schöttl, the camp leader, that they saw many Jews who were working as foremen. Schöttl pointed out that he had too few Aryans in the camp and thus had to use Jews as foremen."


(Fritz Kleinmann: “Überleben im KZ.” In: Reinhold Gärtner / Fritz Kleinmann, eds.: Doch der Hund will nicht krepieren… Tagebuchnotizen aus Auschwitz (Thaur: Kulturverlag, 1995), pp. 34–114, here pp. 71–72. (Transl. KL))

Of course Wikipedia has a list of primary and secondary sources at the bottom of its page on kapos.

Information about the Sonderkommandos, Jews forced to work in and around the gas chambers and crematoria, is detailed here: https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/sonderkommandos

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    This looks like a useful answer. Providing sources would improve it. Jun 20, 2019 at 1:55
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    In my 'umble opinion there should be no requests for sources, or downvoting, for posts which state knowledge well-known to anyone who has read a book or two or a dozen on the subject. Feb 19, 2020 at 18:40
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    Claiming that gassing the victims or herding them into the gas chambers was done by camp inmates is a quite serious allegation and IMHO such claims should not be done without proper sources. For those camps that I have looked up (Treblinka, Sobibor, Auschwitz), the gassing and driving people into gas chambers was done by SS members or Trawniki men. Though inmates were involved in the unloading of trains and did take part in preparations such as cutting the hair of the victims.
    – Jan
    Feb 23, 2020 at 0:47
  • I've suggested edits to decent sources regarding the kapo system, and I did not find a source that asserted that kapos herded or gassed concentration camp victims. The closest I could find was sonderkommandos, who were Jews forced to process victims immediately before they were gassed (e.g., order them to undress and sort their clothes) and also to burn the bodies afterwards. I have not upvoted or downvoted this answer. Despite some of the details of this answer not being verified, the aspect of inmates being forced to participate in atrocities does speak to the original question, IMHO. Oct 23, 2022 at 1:13

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