The Early Concentration Camps

After their rise to power, the Nazis focused on eliminating their political enemies as quickly as possible.  Within a short period of time, a legal foundation was created through which they could eliminate the personal freedoms granted by the Weimar constitution.  A decree by Reich president Paul von Hindenburg on 4 February 1933 granted the Nazis the power to detain individuals 'for the protection of the people'.  Such detention was initially granted only for a limited amount of time.  Just one day after the Reichstag fire, the Verordnung zum Schutz von Volk und Staat (Decree for the Protection of People and State) was issued on 28 February 1933.  Declared as an exceptional law for exceptional times, it suspended fundamental civil liberties.  Without consultation of a court, the executive bodies of the state could indefinitely detain prisoners as part of the 'defence against the treasonous acts of violence by the communists'.  Politically legitimated terror was then unleashed in numerous raids and waves of arrests.

Detention Centres and Early Concentration Camps

Just weeks after Hitler took power, about 30 detention centres (Schutzhaftlager) were created in jails and prisons in addition to 70 early concentration camps.  Often these were euphemistically described as work camps, reserve depots, relocation camps, prison camps, collection depots, training camps, or sub-camps (Arbeitsdienst-, Ausweich-, Durchgangs-, Gefangenen-, Sammel-, Teil-, Übungs- oder Zweiglager).  Their purpose was to intimidate the public and eliminate any political resistance to the creation of a Nazi state.  The primary difference between them and the next generation of concentration camps (Sachsenhausen from 1936, Buchenwald from 1937, Flossenbürg and Mauthausen from 1938, Ravensbrücks from 1939 and Neuengamme and Auschwitz since 1940) was that they were not subordinated to a central administration.  The names of other camps are hardly recognised today: Börgermoor, Brandenburg, Breslau-Dürgoy, Esterwegen, Eutin, Fuhlbüttel, Kemna, Kislau, Lichtenburg, Moringen, Neusustrum, Oranienburg, Sachsenburg, Sonnenburg.  They were under the supervision of local, regional or state supervisory boards, Nazi party leaders or Nazi party formations.  The way the camp guards were chosen was inconsistent (from the SA, SS, and police reserves), as was the housing of prisoners in jails and prisons, former businesses, factories, castles, forts, military facilities and other empty buildings.

In general, the life of the camps was only a few months and they housed widely varying numbers of prisoners.  For the most part, they held between a few dozen to a few hundred prisoners, with only the largest housing over 1,000 at any one time.  The vast majority of the inmates can be categorised as German political prisoners.  These were members and supporters of left-wing parties and organisations, primarily Communists, but also Social Democrats and union members. While in early 1933, Communists made up 80% to 90% of all prisoners, by the summer of that year they only comprised 60% to 70%.  This drop was a result of the prohibition of the Social Democratic Party of Germany and to the related actions of the Nazis at the end of June.  By the summer of 1933 there were more than 26,000 prisoners in the camp system, primarily men (women were still the exception at that time).  In addition to the left-wing, many bourgeois, conservative politicians and representatives of the Weimar Republic were interned, as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of the clergy, democrats from across the political spectrum, pacifists, intellectuals and even some followers of the Nazi party.

Everyday life in the camp was characterised by inadequate living conditions, a strictly regimented daily routine, exhausting forced labour and excessive military discipline, all in addition to the guards’ terrorising and humiliation of the prisoners.  In contrast to later concentration camps, the prisoners of this early phase could usually hope for release after a few months.  Thus, despite outbursts of violence and isolated incidents of murder, it was only later that the camps went from being instruments of persecution to places deliberately constructed with deadly living conditions and the intention of exterminating specific groups.  Without wanting to talk of an intentional development of the camp system, this 'experimental phase' of 1933-34 can nevertheless be deemed a dress rehearsal for the increasing radicalisation of the camp system that ended in the mass murder of the death camps.

Purposes and Uses of Music in the Everyday Life of a Camp

The violent atmosphere that dominated life in the early concentration camps did not restrict itself to bodily harm alone.  It also impacted the spiritual side.  From the start, camp commandants and guards made explicit use of music not just to mentally break the prisoners and take away their dignity and cultural identity, but also to follow an ideological line.  In many places, new arrivals had to sing hated nationalist, military and Nazi songs.  Such forced singing became part of daily ritual: prisoners had to sing German folk songs, in addition to lewd, anti-Semitic and otherwise discriminatory songs while marching, exercising, appearing at roll-call and on other occasions.  By making them sing, the guards not only wanted to discipline their defenceless political opponents, but also to mock and humiliate them.  Even well-known and harmless songs became a means of oppression and violence in the extreme conditions of the concentration camp.  Because such singing combined physical exertion and psychic humiliation, it affected both body and soul.

In some places, such as Esterwegen, camp bands and choirs were formed by the prisoners themselves, who gave concerts in order to drown out the sounds of torture.  In the main, however, musical activity was designed by the guards to deceive the public or visitors about the real purpose of the camp.  Music as propaganda was not only used to influence and control public opinion.  Through the use of the most modern mass media, it was also applied on the inside to manipulate the prisoners.  It was therefore common in some early concentration camps to use the camp loudspeaker system for the intimidation and indoctrination of the inmates.

Just as forced music-making decisively influenced daily routine, so too did prisoner-initiated music belong to daily life in the early camps from the beginning.  However, one must not confuse the great quantity of documentary evidence of such music- making with appropriate conditions for so doing.  Only when commanded by the guards did music belong to everyday life in the camp; the number of opportunities to freely make music was always limited.  It was mostly during 'free time' that one could make music, which meant in the few work-free hours after evening roll-call or on Sundays, which were for the most part work-free.  It was because the daily life of the camps was so inhumane that these musical activities acquired such importance.  Music-making was not primarily about aesthetic quality, but about the cathartic experience: it helped prisoners to activate specific emotions and to come to terms with them.  At the same time, the deeply emotional influence of music also existed at a symbolic level.  Particular musical works allowed ethical and humane or artistic and aesthetic values to unfold in a specific context.

The earliest means of musical expression was singing by individual prisoners.  Spontaneous singing did not require any preparation, and if one were in danger of being discovered by a guard, it could immediately be broken off.   In general, most of the songs were based on well-known melodies.  This had the effect of building a bridge to the time before imprisonment.  For the most part, early concentration camps songs were those that had been sung in school, in the military, by friends or in singing groups, e.g. traditional folk songs, songs of the homeland or songs of the youth movement (Jugendbewegung).  Youth movement songs were especially influential on German political prisoners; even such innocuous songs could achieve an entirely different meaning when sung in the context of a concentration camp.  Finally, one could also hear contemporary songs and popular tunes.  But singing was not just something done in one’s free time, when the camp had quietened down a bit.  There is also clear evidence of political songs and the songs of the workers’ movement.  For the most part, these songs could only be sung in secret.  They were especially important for the cultural identity of many prisoners, the majority of whom were from the political workers’ movement.  To this can be added that the prisoners created their own songs in the camps, such as the 'Moorsoldatenlied' (Song of the Peat Bog Soldiers), which express the self-determination of the prisoners.

Instrumental and vocal groups were the exception in the early camp system – there were hardly any instruments.  Prisoners received individual permission to have an instrument sent to them in the camp, or in exceptional circumstances, some were made in the camp itself.  More than any other instruments in the early camps, one would have encountered guitars (also known as Klampfe), mandolins and some violins, as these folk instruments were especially valued within the youth movements, where they were usually employed to accompany communal singing.  Music making took place individually or in small, spontaneously formed instrumental groups; in this way music contributed to the content of various events at the early camps.

Despite the limited amount of freedom and the extreme nature of the camps, the prisoners were able to carry out musical performances to a remarkable extent.  Contrary to widespread belief, these were only illegal when their contents were of a political nature or in conflict with other prohibitions.  In such cases, music-making took place under constant threat of discovery and punishment.  A large percentage of these concerts, however, were organised by the prisoners with the permission or tolerance of the guards.  Other musical activities took place in a quasi-legal grey zone, which existed because the guards did not care about the event as long as it did not disrupt normal camp operations.  Performances often took place in blocks, with large numbers of performers.  Such block performances demanded a certain amount of preparatory work.  In general, they were put together from presentations, small acts and musical interludes, sometimes with instrumental accompaniment.  They were usually held after the work day, when the SS had retired from the camp and thus, for the most part, left the prisoners unsupervised.  Private, improvised parties were set up for birthdays, prisoner releases or other days of personal importance.  By contrast, politically motivated block performances could only take place secretly and with the approval of the Blockältester.  After securing the location with lookouts, such illegal parties were held with trusted friends on commemorative days of the workers’ movement, such as 1 May, recognizing the Russian Revolution, or on the anniversaries of the deaths of movement leaders. 

Many of the early camps had Christmas celebrations, cabaret evenings or concerts, as well as performances modelled on circus shows and variety evenings.  As a rule, these consisted of mixed acts with vocal and instrumental musical interludes.  All prisoners could attend these central camp performances.  Since they necessitated organisation and required numerous performers, they could not be kept secret from the SS like so many other block performances.  As a result, they usually took place with the permission or tolerance of the camp’s commanders.  The latter had two reasons for allowing these performances: first, through such concessions they wanted to preclude unrest amongst the prisoners and, second, to create a bit of variety for the guards who were often present in the audience.  The specific acts and texts were frequently censored by the commanders. 

The illegal prisoners’ committee performed practical and indirect services for such camp performances.  These committees had been formed in many camps and were active in the underground.  The success of the camp performances was, however, especially dependent upon the benevolence of the prisoner functionaries as it was their task to oversee such events.  The prisoner functionaries were Kapos, or camp, block or room elders, all determined by the SS.  They formed the prisoner self-government (Häftlingsselbstverwaltung), which was responsible to the camp leadership for all happenings in their specific area.  They thus had a great impact on cultural life in the camps.  Without their approval and facilitation, it would have been almost impossible to present acts critical of the camp or to camouflage forbidden contents.  Unlike in later concentration camps, most of the prisoner functionaries in this early phase belonged to the category of political prisoner and were thus people the prisoners could trust and who only seldom misused their position of power.  Under such conditions, the self-organised block and camp performances served to strengthen the prisoners’ sense of community and their will to resist, and were designed primarily for social integration.  Under the entirely different circumstances of the camp, the performances reconstructed rituals and behaviours (e.g. workers' songs, workers' choirs, commemorations) that belonged to the very same workers’ movement that the Nazis and their supporters were trying to destroy.



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