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The Nazi’s Concentration Camp System Was, Somehow, Even Worse Than We Knew

There were tens of thousands more Nazi prisons and concentration camps than anyone previously realized.

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Barbed wire at the Auschwitz concentration camp Photo: European Citizen

In the years leading into and during World War II, Adolf Hitler and the German Nazi party carried out a terrifying project to imprison, force into slavery or murder millions of Europeans, largely Jews, “homosexuals, Gypsies, Poles, Russians and many other ethnic groups in Eastern Europe.” The Holocaust was an atrocious act of inhumanity and violence, but, says The New York Times, our long-standing understanding of the scale and extent of the Nazi’s system of concentration camps and imprisonment ghettos has been, disturbingly, a drastic underestimate.

New research by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, says the Times, found there were tens of thousands more components of the Nazi’s network than anyone previously realized.

When the research began in 2000, Dr. Megargee said he expected to find perhaps 7,000 Nazi camps and ghettos, based on postwar estimates. But the numbers kept climbing — first to 11,500, then 20,000, then 30,000, and now 42,500.

The finding, says the Times, “shocked even scholars steeped in the history of the Holocaust.”

The documented camps include not only “killing centers” but also thousands of forced labor camps, where prisoners manufactured war supplies; prisoner-of-war camps; sites euphemistically named “care” centers, where pregnant women were forced to have abortions or their babies were killed after birth; and brothels, where women were coerced into having sex with German military personnel.

The growing tally of sites devoted to carrying out Hitler’s machinations, the Holocaust Museum’s Martin Dean told the Times, “left no doubt in his mind that many German citizens, despite the frequent claims of ignorance after the war, must have known about the widespread existence of the Nazi camps at the time.”

You literally could not go anywhere in Germany without running into forced labor camps, P.O.W. camps, concentration camps,” he said. “They were everywhere.



More from Smithsonian.com:

Resistance to Nazis in a Land Riddled with Caves
Fifty years ago, the trial of Nazi War criminals ended: the world had witnessed the rule of law invoked to punish unspeakable atrocities

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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