A Geography of Evil

It happened on March 3, 1933, about a month after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany and about a week after the burning of the Reichstag in Berlin. One hundred prisoners were taken to a school in the small town of Nohra near the city of Weimar. They were interrogated and sent into three large rooms, where they slept on bales of straw.

Policemen and students from the school guarded the rooms, where the captives were kept in crowded conditions. The next day they were joined by 70 more. The story of Nohra - the Nazis' first concentration camp, even before the large and more famous camps like Oranienburg near Berlin and Dachau near Munich - is told in "The Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945" edited by Geoffrey Megargee, the first volume of which was published last summer in English.

The entry on Nohra indicates this camp was different in several ways from those that opened after it: It was not surrounded by a fence or a wall and the prisoners there were not made to work but rather were locked up in the sleeping chambers 24 hours a day.

The isolation and monotony were interrupted only when the prisoners were called in for interrogation, when new prisoners arrived or when the guards decided to harass the prisoners.

Nohra was one of more than 1,000 camps surveyed in the first volume of the encyclopedia - a pioneering, extensive and long-term initiative of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Its aim is to map out all the sites where the Nazis and their collaborators operated prison, work and death camps inside Germany and elsewhere during the 12 years of the Third Reich.

The presentation of all the places where "the Europe of the iron heel" stomped (in the formulation of German Jewish philosopher Max Horkheimer), will be seven volumes, to be published gradually until 2018.

At the beginning of Volume 1 there is a description of each of the 100 early camps the Nazis established long before the camps they operated during World War II.

"The early camps were ad-hoc affairs that local Nazi Party and police authorities set up, in order to house the tens of thousands of prisoners that the Nazis arrested in their first months in power, as they cracked down on their political enemies," Megargee said in an e-mail interview.

Megargee, a historian at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, heads a team of hundreds of researchers from the United States, Europe and Israel who are working on the encyclopedia.

The first volume, which begins with a preface by Elie Wiesel, spreads over more than 1,700 full pages and includes maps, photographs and illustrations.

The major innovation of the encyclopedia is not so much in its contents as in its breadth: The full encyclopedia will include information about more than 20,000 sites that were part of the "Nazi universe," as the researchers call it.

"The numbers were a surprise to everyone," says Megargee. "When we started the project, the initial estimate was that we were dealing with around 5,000 sites. As we investigated, however, this turned out to be a situation in which many people had been working on their own narrow subjects, and no one had ever put the numbers together. And so the total grew, and there was a point at which we questioned the practicality of the project. In the end, though, we agreed to be as comprehensive as possible, because, after all, no one is likely to do this again."

He enumerates the three main aims of the encyclopedia: "First, it aims to provide basic information about as many individual sites as possible ... The second purpose is to help readers to understand the structure of the camp and ghetto universe, inasmuch as there was one. We have organized our seven volumes according to the types of sites and their subordination. The first volume deals with the early camps and SS concentration camps; the second with ghettos in German-occupied eastern Europe, the third with camps run by the German military, the fourth with camps and ghettos under European states allied or affiliated with Germany, and so on. In this way the reader can see how the different sites related to one another. The third purpose is to provide a starting point for further research, and so each entry includes citations to primary sources as well as information on relevant published works and archival collections."

The researchers say they see educational and political importance in publishing the encyclopedia while Holocaust deniers seem to be rearing their ugly heads.

Three top people at the Holocaust Museum write in the introduction that "The evil, misery, and grief that existed in those places [covered in the encyclopedia] is impossible to quantify - perhaps impossible to grasp - but also impossible to deny."

Volume 1 of the encyclopedia, the bulk of which examines the camps operated by the SS, reveals not only the overall management of the annihilation system but also its most minute details. However, Megargee says the project's broad scope distinguishes it from previous studies.

"The encyclopedia will not only deal with concentration camps, killing centers and ghettos, but also with forced labor camps, prisoner of war (POW) camps, so-called euthanasia centers, and a score or more of other categories, most of them known only to specialists," he says.

What are the main common elements in the network of sites that the encyclopedia tries to expose? And could you mention some aspects that are different radically from one site to other?

"The most important common elements were control, violence, racism, and work. Obviously the camps gave the authorities the means to control the prisoners. That control was a central element of Nazi ideology, one that the party could expand to cover society as a whole. Violence was a means of control, and also had a punitive function. Racism was a prism through which the Nazis viewed the world, and it governed their behavior toward prisoners. And work was a nearly universal element of camp life; it had a punitive goal from the start, and also soon began to be of economic importance to the organizations running the camps and to the state as a whole.

"Conditions in the camps varied according to type of camp, type of prisoner, and the whims of governing organization and even the individual camp administration. Viewed collectively, some kinds of camps were less harsh than others; this was true, for example, of internment camps for enemy aliens, in comparison with concentration camps. But even within a category of camps, different kinds of prisoners received different treatment. In the POW camps, for example, American and British prisoners, who were not considered subhuman, received relatively good treatment (I emphasize that word 'relatively'; these men did not live comfortable lives). At the other end of the spectrum, Soviet POWs died by the millions from starvation, abuse, exposure, disease, and outright murder (the fate of Jews, many so-called Asiatics, and Communists)."

What was the most surprising thing you uncovered, apart from the sheer number of sites?

"There have also been surprises in the content. For example, no one here was aware that the German army, Wehrmacht, and SS maintained a series of brothels for their troops, in which women were forced to work (much as the Japanese did with Korean women).

"I have also been surprised at the lack of consistency in Nazi policy and enforcement. There is evidence, for example, that Jewish women were forced to serve in the Wehrmacht brothels just mentioned, despite Nazi laws to the contrary. Likewise, although Jewish POWs from the Soviet Union were shot, Jewish POWs from France were not. In general, our research on the camps has driven home the fact that almost anything was possible within the Nazi universe."