Flossenburg Concentration Camp 1942 (USHMM)

The Flossenburg Concentration Camp was established in May 1938, outside the small town of Flossenburg, near Weiden. in the Upper Palatinate, Germany. This was situated along the hilly border with the then Czechoslovakia, and the camps purpose was to confine 'asocial' and 'work-shy' elements of the German society. At the time of its liberation in April 1945, it comprised of a sprawling collection of sub-camps, overflowing with prisoners from all over Europe.

It originated with the idea of quarrying granite for civilian building projects, although in line with the German war effort it concentrated primarily on military production. Initially the camp housed only male prisoners, by the liberation it contained a population that included nearly one-third female. But throughout this protracted metamorphosis, human suffering remained the one horrifying constant at Flossenburg.

On March 24, 1938, a commission led by high-ranking SS officers examined the proposed site and found it suitable, based on its potential for producing granite. The establishment of the camp was part of a new strategy by Heinrich Himmler to exploit prisoner labour for profit by supplying building materials for the Nazi regime's construction projects. It thus coincided closely with the founding by the SS of the German Earth and Stone Works Limited (DESt), the siting of the new Mauthausen Concentration Camp, by stone quarries near Linz, in Austria, and the establishment of brickworks at Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald Concentration Camps. It also coincided with an expansion of the camp system's population through new arrests, which were calculated to provide the necessary workforce. Regulations encouraging the detention of common criminals and persons deemed 'asocial' facilitated the new policy.

The first one hundred prisoners arrived at Flossenburg from Dachau Concentration Camp on May 3, 1938. Further transports followed from other concentration camps such as Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen, bringing the camp population to approximately 1,500 by the year's end. These initial inmates were drawn primarily from the ranks of the criminals element, as well as 'asocial'  and a few homosexuals. The camp held no political prisoners at all for the first seventeen months of its existence, during which time the criminals, or the 'greens' as they were known for the colour of the badge they wore, firmly established themselves in the prisoner administration of the camp. By the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, the total prisoner population had increased only slightly to approximately 1,600.

The first political prisoners, approximately 1,000 in number, arrived at the end of September 1939, when Dachau Concentration Camp was temporarily cleared out in order to train what would become the first unit of the Waffen-SS. Although the survivors returned to Dachau in March 1940, other political prisoners replaced them almost immediately, including a number of Czechs. In the course of 1941, however, the influx of circa 1,500 Poles, established this nationality as the largest contingent of non-Germans at Flossenburg. By the end of 1941, the camp held approximately 3,150 civilian prisoners of all kinds. In addition there were approximately 1,750 Soviet Prisoners of War, remaining from a group of approximately 2,000 the Germans had crowded into a separate compound within the camp, under particularly primitive conditions, during October 1941. Thus by the end of 1941, Flossenburg had a total prisoner population of approximately 4,900.

Polish prisoners continued to arrive in quantity during 1942, joined by a significant number of Soviet civilian workers who had committed transgressions against the Third Reich whilst performing forced labour within the Reich itself. Soviet political prisoners also arrived in Flossenburg. Nevertheless, with deaths and transfers, the total number of civilian prisoners rose only moderately in 1942, ending the year a little over 3,500. This number includes a few hundred prisoners at Flossenburg's first sub-camps, but not the surviving Soviet Prisoners of War, as these numbers are not known.

Beginning in 1943, and continuing into 1944, hundreds of prisoners arrived at Flossenburg from Western Europe, primarily France, under the so-called 'Nacht und Nebel' (Night and Fog) Decree. Since the influx of new prisoners from Eastern Europe also continued unabated, it was probably during 1943, that the numbers of German prisoners entered into the minority, despite the arrival of more criminals, now transferred directly from conventional German prisons, by agreement with the Ministry of Justice. By mid-July 1943, the Flossenburg main camp held some 3,950 prisoners, including 10 women at the newly opened camp brothel, while eight sub-camps held more than 800 prisoners.

Over the next 18 months, Flossenburg underwent staggering growth, mainly in the sub-camps, whose numbers multiplied to more than 90 during 1944, and whose geographic extent was unusually wide, stretching across Bavaria, Bohemia, Saxony, Thuringia, and Brandenburg-Prussia. On September 1, 1944, Flossenburg acquired administrative control of 5 sub-camps belonging to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp and their female prisoners. A number of new sub-camps for women were established over the next months. By the beginning of 1945, the total number of prisoners in the Flossenburg complex exceeded 40,000, including more than 11,000 women. By early March 1945, as the evacuation of other camps swelled the population further, the total peaked at nearly 53,000, of whom more than 13,000 were women. During this time, the main camp was overflowing with almost 14,500 prisoners.

For most of its history, Flossenburg had few or no Jewish prisoners, although a small number of Jews were incarcerated there from at least mid-1940, and these prisoners were brutally treated by the guards. The surviving 12 Jews were deported to Auschwitz Concentration Camp on October 19, 1942. Beginning in August 1944, however, overwhelming numbers of Polish and Hungarian Jews began to arrive. Ultimately out of a total of 89,964 prisoners recorded entering the Flossenburg complex during its history, some 22,930 were Jewish.

The limitations of the site chosen by the Nazis in 1938, greatly aggravated several of Flossenburg's perennial problems, one of which was severe overcrowding. Wedged between steep hillsides at the upper end of a valley, Flossenburg had little room for expansion. Construction of the main camp, intended for 1,500 prisoners, had begun immediately upon the arrival of the first prisoners, with the erection of a barbed-wire perimeter fence. The prisoners then had to terrace the sharply rising valley floor to accommodate the camp headquarters, construct their own barracks and housing for the SS guards. With the completion of these initial structures in early 1939, construction continued on guard towers and an internal camp prison, as well as infrastructure projects such as washing facilities, an electrical transformer station, and a sewer system. During 1940, excavations into the hillside began, creating new terraces for the construction of additional prisoner barracks in 1941. None of this work would prove even remotely adequate to house the influx of prisoners. Forcing the prisoners to work and sleep in shifts, an innovation eventually undertaken to increase productivity, only partially alleviated the lack of bunk space.  

The camps unfortunate location posed other difficulties. The high elevation impeded the water supply, while the terrace design complicated the functioning of the sewage system. Both problems were greatly exacerbated by overcrowding. Perhaps the most terrible consequence of the site, however, was the weather, which is unusually cold and wet in that corner of Germany. The prisoners, ill-clad and underfed suffered greatly. Indeed, the effects of the foul weather were considerable even upon the camp buildings, and in winter the roofs needed to be cleaned almost daily to prevent them from collapsing under the weight of the accumulated snow.

During Flossenburg's first months, prisoner labour was inevitably applied almost entirely to the construction of the camp, but work for DESt began in the stone quarry soon thereafter. By June 1939, the ratio of prisoners employed in the quarry to those in construction was recorded at 646: 863. By November, however, this ratio had shifted to 1,297 : 945. During 1940, with the initial construction largely completed, labour deployment became somewhat more diversified. The quarry consumed about half of all prisoner man-hours, construction and, in particular terracing, about a quarter. The remainder was divided among various workshops and a multiplicity of routine tasks, from keeping the camp clean to peeling potatoes. The total value of the prisoner labour for the year was calculated at nearly 367,000 Reichsmark (RM).

By-mid 1943, the quarry was still the main centre of attention for the workers in the main camp, with half the camp's population working there. Approximately 1 prisoner in 6 worked for the camp administration in one capacity or another, and 1 in 13 at the behest of the camp construction office. The next largest employer was a weaving shop owned by the SS- Business Administration Main Office (WVHA). 1 prisoner in 14 worked in a new Messerschmitt detail, code-named 'Detachment 2004, begun that February to produce parts for the ME 109 fighter planes. Aircraft manufacture, however, soon came to dominate labour deployment at Flossenburg. In August 1943, Allied bombing seriously damaged Messerschmitt's main factory at Regensburg, prompting the company to move production more heavily into the concentration camps system. The number of prisoners working for Messerschmitt at the Flossenburg main camp thus increased steadily from approximately 230 in July to about 800 in August, 1,900 in January 1944, and 2,200 in March. By late October, armaments production throughout the system occupied over 5,700 prisoners. At the same time, the quarry work for DESt declined both in relative and absolute terms.

The prisoner functionaries profoundly affected life at Flossenburg, and this was rarely for the better. Although ultimately only about 1 prisoner out of 20 at Flossenburg wore the green triangle, the original preponderance of criminals resulted in an especially corrupt and abusive prisoner hierarchy that endured long after the 'greens' became a minority within the total camp population. Willi Rettenmeier, a criminal from Stuttgart, held the position of camp elder from the beginning of the camp's existence until June 1941, when it passed to another criminal named Kliefoth, who remained in that role until the end of 1942. The camp command then tried out two German political prisoners in succession. Karl Mayer and Karl Mathoi, both of whom struggled to contain the power of the criminal functionaries beneath them, apparently with little success. In March 1944, the commandant returned the position of camp elder to criminal hands in the person of Anton Uhl, who remained in place until the camp was liberated. The surviving prisoners lynched him, once freedom was realised.

A distinguishing feature of the 'green' hierarchy in the camp was its sexual exploitation of lower ranking prisoners. Coerced homosexual relationships and outright rape were thus common. Indeed, the camp command eventually felt compelled to segregate the camp's underage boys in a barracks of their own, in an attempt to protect them from sexual predation. This aim was not totally successful.

The SS hierarchy at Flossenburg was thoroughly corrupt and brutal. After the first camp commandant Jakob Weiseborn, protégé of the notoriously venal Karl Koch at Buchenwald Concentration Camp, was found dead in January 1939, camp rumour lead to the unfounded conclusion that he had committed suicide to avoid some scandal. His successor Karl Kunstler was frequently drunk and delegated responsibility heavily to ruthless subordinates until his removal in August 1942. After a two month period, Kunstler was replaced by Egon Zill, who commanded the camp only until April 1943. For the last two years of the Second World War, Flossenburg was run by Max Koegel, who had seen service at Dachau and was commandant at Ravensbruck and Lublin Concentration Camps among others. Koegel was a vicious commandant who lacked the managerial skill to handle the rapid expansion of the camp. All these men had long if somewhat unspectacular careers in concentration camp service, but Flossenburg uniformly terminated their ascent through the SS. Weiseborn died, both Kunstler and Zill became supply officers with SS combat units, and Koegel committed suicide in his prison cell in Schwabach, Germany on June 27, 1946.  

The SS guards assigned to Flossenburg were similar to those serving elsewhere in the concentration camp system. The original Reich Germans were strongly reinforced during 1942 and 1943, by ethnic German recruits from Eastern Europe, and the guard force aged dramatically as the young and fit were increasingly transferred away to combat units and replaced with older, less healthy men. The total number of guards grew as Flossenburg expanded. At the end of 1943, the camp's headquarters staff and the SS -Death's Head Battalion together numbered some 450 men, including 140 foreign auxiliaries, mostly Ukrainian, who had arrived from the SS- Training Camp in Trawniki, Poland in early October 1943. This number increased more than six-fold in the course of 1944, in part as hundreds of members of the Wehrmacht were assigned SS ranks and given guard duties. At the beginning of 1945, the number of guards in the Flossenburg complex had increased to over 3,000, including more than 500 female guards. By March 1945, the total reached approximately 4,500.

The ways in which prisoners at Flossenburg were tormented and killed were also virtually indistinguishable from the means routinely employed elsewhere within the concentration camps system. Prisoners were beaten, kicked and stomped upon, particularly by the Kapo's, who were issued with rubber truncheons, ridiculed and humiliated, forced to perform exhausting exercises, hung up by their wrists, with their arms behind their backs, and doused with cold water during freezing weather, to mention only a few of the most common abuses. Some were shot 'whilst attempting to escape,' shot by firing squads, hanged, beaten to death, drowned, strangled, given lethal injections. Beginning in 1941, large numbers of executions took place at Flossenburg, usually by shooting, with Poles and Soviet Prisoners of War constituting the chief victims. On March 29, 1945, thirteen Allied Prisoners of War were hanged, including one  American, and on April 9, 1945,  seven prominent German resistance figures, met the same fate, including former Abwehr (Military Counter Intelligence) chief Wilhelm Canaris and pastor Dietrich Bonnhoffer.

Given the appalling conditions and inadequate food at Flossenburg, a large number of prisoners succumbed to disease and malnutrition. A dysentery epidemic brought the whole camp to a standstill for the entire month of January 1940 and a typhus epidemic swept through the overcrowded barracks during September 1944, and again in January 1945. Mortality was especially high during the last chaotic months before the liberation, as the entire camp system began to break down. In the month ending on March 30, 1945, 1,367 prisoners died at the main camp, excluding executions.

The evacuation of Flossenburg started on April 15, 1945, and proceeded sporadically until April 20, 1945, both by train and on foot, in the direction of Dachau. Of the approximately 9,300 registered prisoners still alive in the main camp, only about 1,500, mostly the very sick, were left behind to be liberated by the U.S. Army on April 23, 1945. Fewer than 3,000 of the prisoners evacuated arrived at Dachau, where they joined another 3,800 prisoners evacuated from the Flossenburg sub-camps. Many prisoners died on the brutal march or were killed by the guards escorting them. Others escaped in the confusion, found themselves free when their guards deserted them, or were liberated by advancing troops.

After the war the Americans estimated over 21,000 deaths among prisoners registered in the Flossenburg complex: the full total including those who had been brought to the camp and executed without being registered was probably around 30,000. The majority of these deaths occurred in the last nine months before the camp was liberated. The American estimates indicated that 3,515 of the dead were Jews.  


Encyclopaedia of Camps and Ghettos 1933- 1945, USHMM, Indiana University Press Bloomington and Indianapolis 2012

French L. Maclean, The Camp Men, Schiffer Publishing Ltd 1991

Photograph - USHMM

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