kl: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps by Nikolaus Wachsmann


Title: kl

Author: Nikolaus Wachsmann

Narrator:  Paul Hodgson

Publisher/Date:  HighBridge Audio, 4/14/15

Format: Regular CD, 25 CDs, 31 hours

Genre:  Nonfiction, history

Source: Audiobook Jukebox

This was a difficult book to listen to and I imagine it is no easier to read.  To be honest, I had to take breaks from the book as the stories of the Nazi atrocities became overwhelming to listen to for long periods of time.  Still, it’s a book that I highly recommend people take the time to listen to or read.  The author has taken the time to research the history of the concentration camps from their beginnings in 1933 to their end in 1945.  By presenting the evolution of the camps, it provides the reader an opportunity to see how the Nazi’s began detaining less socially desirable persons and then created fear of anyone different.

As a nonacademic I can’t do this book justice in my review.  This is a scholarly work and I don’t have the knowledge or background to speak to its qualities as an academic work.  I will leave the scholarly review to others and instead focus on the aspects that impacted me.

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist*

Initially the concentration camps  Konzentrationslager; abbreviated as KL in German, were used for the detention of the political enemies of the Nazi regime.  These were people that the Nazi’s saw as enemies of the state, persons who were subverting the country.  They also detained asocials and the work shy.  These groups included the homeless, prostitutes and petty criminals, persons with mental illness or alcoholism.  Here we begin to see that politically the Nazi’s chose populations who were less likely to have supporters and for whom there would be little uproar.

Wachsmann outlines the lack of organization or structure of the kl initially and then overtime it becomes more structured with policies and procedures governing the running of the camps. From the beginning harsh penalties and violent treatment of the prisoners were expected.  The author makes the point that not everyone was violent however, it was difficult to see the exceptions in his narrative.Beatings and whippings were the rule rather than the exception.  None of this information is new to anyone who’s lived in the world.  The stories of the atrocities that occurred in the camps are many.

The impact of the book often comes in the words of both actual survivors of the camps as well as Nazi’s who ran the camps.  With each new category of detainee, (Gypsy, homosexual, Polish, Slovak, Russian, Jehovah witness, Protestant, Jew) there became more people with less resources.  The author shows examples of people who created their own families within the camps who helped each other survive and other stories of the fighting over scraps of food and clothing.  As the years went on there were more people that there was space to hold them.  They often had to sleep on the frozen ground while they built their own housing.  There was no sanitation which led to epidemics of typhus.

The stories were mind and soul numbing.  As a listener, I found myself trying to distance myself from the horrors. What human would not?  And yet as I listened trying to believe that we would not allow this to happen again, I couldn’t help but look at the present.  How often do we distance ourselves from people we don’t understand?  How much easier is it or us to lock away people who make us uncomfortable or scared?  How different is our Guantanamo Bay facility from that of the early concentration camp with political prisoners?  We talk of building walls at our borders and I think of the Jewish ghetto’s. It is not my desire to oversimplify in making these comparisons or to underplay the horrors of Nazi Germany.  Yet it is a mistake not to learn from the scholarly research, the first person stories, and historical documents and not ask these questions.  It is so much easier to look back with the knowledge of the outcomes and say they were wrong and not quite so easy to make those assessments in the present.

The book brings a new way of seeing the kl by seeing its beginnings and it’s evolution to the end.  It gives a fresh perspective on how things changed politically, socially and economically in the Nazi government and in the camps.  For historians, I would encourage reading the book as there is a wealth of details on political personnel as well as the camp guards and commanders. However for the person who wants a broader understanding of this period and the role of the concentration camps, the audio version was quite good.  I had some concern going in; history can sometimes be quite dry. The narrator kept my interest.  When the text was quoting other sources the narrator changed his speech and accent to denote another speaker. He spoke with a gravity that befitted the subject matter but was not monotone.

This work provides a wide breath of information.  To be honest, I never thought about how the camps were run outside of their brutality.  The changes in the political structure of the governmental offices that ran the kl and the infighting was interesting.  So much has been written abut the extermination camps but this book looks at the variety of camps, and their functions.  The discussion of the brutality of the officers made me wonder if every Nazi was a psychopath or sadist.  The inclusions of material from survivors of the camps and interviews with Nazi officials made the history come to life.  It’s not an easy book but it is an important one.  It makes one wonder, “What would I do to survive/”

*First They Came by Pastor Martin Niemöller – There are a few different versions of this poem.  It is said that when he spoke the pastor spoke extemporaneously and would change the names and the order of the different groups.


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