Why the Holocaust was even worse than we thought

As if we needed any more reminders as to the extent of Nazi brutality during the Second World War, a new study is showing that there's still lots to learn about the Holocaust. In a project that took nearly 13 years to complete, historians Geoffrey Megargee and Martin Dean have catalogued some 42,500 Nazi ghettos and camps that were dispersed across Europe during Hitler's reign from 1933 to 1945. It's a figure that has shocked even Holocaust scholars.

The camps, which spanned an area extending from France to Russia, included not only "killing centers," but also thousands of forced labor camps, POW camps, brothels, and so-called "care" centers where pregnant women were forced to have abortions or have their babies killed after birth.

Initially, the researchers were expecting to uncover about 7,000 Nazi camps and ghettos. They found six times that number.

Broken down, they consisted of 30,000 slave labor camps, 1,150 Jewish ghettos, 980 concentration camps, 1,000 prisoner-of-war camps, 500 brothels filled with sex slaves (the ultimate in Nazi hypocrisy, given that it was a capital offense for a German to have sex with a Jew), and thousands of other camps used for killing the elderly and infirm, conducting abortions, "Germanizing" prisoners, or transporting victims to the gas chambers.

Writing in the New York Times, Eric Lichtblau reports:

Auschwitz and a handful of other concentration camps have come to symbolize the Nazi killing machine in the public consciousness. Likewise, the Nazi system for imprisoning Jewish families in hometown ghettos has become associated with a single site - the Warsaw Ghetto, famous for the 1943 uprising. But these sites, infamous though they are, represent only a minuscule fraction of the entire German network, the new research makes painfully clear.

The maps the researchers have created to identify the camps and ghettos turn wide sections of wartime Europe into black clusters of death, torture and slavery - centered in Germany and Poland, but reaching in all directions.

The lead editors on the project, Geoffrey Megargee and Martin Dean, estimate that 15 million to 20 million people died or were imprisoned in the sites that they have identified as part of a multivolume encyclopedia. (The Holocaust museum has published the first two, with five more planned by 2025.)

The existence of many individual camps and ghettos was previously known only on a fragmented, region-by-region basis. But the researchers, using data from some 400 contributors, have been documenting the entire scale for the first time, studying where they were located, how they were run, and what their purpose was.

The first Nazi camps were established as early as 1933, and they were set up to imprison political dissenters. Eventually, however, these camps were expanded both in terms of scope and scale. By the end of the war, Nazi camps were being used to imprison or exterminate Jews, homosexuals, Romanis, Slavs, and other ethnic groups.

The extent of these camps shows just how important it was to the overall Nazi war effort. For the Germans, exterminating Jews and other "undesirables" was as much a part of the war as their battles on the Eastern Front.

Much more at the NYT.

Top image of Auschwitz-Birkenau via auschwitz.org.