Nazi concentration camps—eventually thousands of them sprang up—were known for their cruelty and human degradation. Historians have noted that the first of these camps to open was Dachau on March 22, 1933, accompanied by fanfare and international press releases. Actually, local Stormtroopers in Prussia had opened a camp on disused factory grounds at Oranienburg the day before Dachau’s inaugural media event. Oranienburg later became one of the Reich’s most pivotal camps by virtue of hosting Section D-2, which in its “T Building” supervised all camps throughout Nazi Europe via a complex array of IBM Hollerith machines.
The hellholes of Nazi Germany have been written about in many scholarly works. Since the war, these monstrous camps have been characterized by the sheer scope of the tens of thousands incarcerated within their evil perimeters. Now comes Kim Wunschmann in Before Auschwitz—Jewish Prisoners in the Prewar Concentration Camps to deliver an important, needed insight into the personal human suffering experienced at these inhuman sites.
Whereas many prior analysts and chroniclers, including myself, have taken the 50,000 foot view, recording the misery where high math intersects prodigious war crime, Wunschmann peers into the individual experiences of ordinary Jewish prisoners. She describes the torture and humiliation that accompanied their unjust incarceration. In other words, she describes these camps from the inside looking out. Wunschmann names victims’ names, and connects the dots of the specific agony experienced by these unfortunate prisoners. More importantly, Wunshmann’s cohesive narrative maps specific events in the day-to-day vicissitudes of the German Reich and then depicts how camp guards and administrators retaliated against their hapless prisoners as a matter of national sport, Nazi movement policy, and pure individualized cruelty. Thus the camps become more than monuments of inhumanity; they become burning infernos of hate and degradation.
For example, the story of prominent Jewish jurist Ernst Heilmann in Oranienburg is recounted. We read how Heilmann was not just taken into protective custody, he was repeatedly humiliated. Humiliation was a trademark of Nazi anti-Jewish agitation, such as the famous toothbrush cleanings on the pavement. In Heilmann’s case, he was shoved into a kennel, forced to bark like a dog, and continuously abused until his 1940 murder in Buchenwald, one year into the war.
When we read the studies of most Reich historians, we recoil, appalled. When we read Wunschmann’s pages, we wince with pain as we begin to understand how Nazi cruelty translated down to the individual victim.
When Wunschmann relates the horrors of the Jews as a prisoner group distinct from other categories, such as Jehovah’s Witness adherents or the so-called “habitual criminal,” we read about the tormenting nature of labor assignments meted out by guards, supervisors, trustees, and barracks leaders. For example, a carpenter, such as Jewish prisoner Max Furst, would have been willing to spend his incarceration engaged in woodworking. Instead, he was compelled to engage in “punishment work,” slaving away 9 to 14 hours in the elements at such tasks as “road work.” Even the weakest men were compelled to turn the great, heavy road rollers that helped create rudimentary traffic ways. When these men faltered, the guards and kapos beat them viciously. Utter debilitation from the physical punishments did not provide an excuse from further work. A constant lesson was push and exert harder to avoid the lash or the blow.
More than knowing how to use a microscope in bringing the camps to vivid despicability, Wunschmann knows how to use a pen. She writes with fluid descriptiveness while maintaining control of the facts and assiduously documenting the text. As she does so, Wunschmann displays a massive understanding and openly cites the prodigious pre-existing literature on the topic. Therefore, this pivotal book should be included on any shelf of Nazi camp studies.
As such, one wonders why it has been given so little exposure.
In my opinion, the answer may lie with the seemingly inept publisher, Harvard University Press, and what it considers proper promotion of important Holocaust studies. For example, we were unable to obtain a review copy for a syndicated review, even though the book was in the first weeks of publication. HUP publicist Phoebe Kosman, emailed a message, “Because we have limited review copies available, we are not able to offer copies to all outlets that request them.”
Generally, academic publishers ship the book within 48 hours. Undeterred, we purchased our review copy from Amazon, something very few reviewers will do to facilitate a review. Ironically, juxtaposing Kosman’s email with the result, we were able to find on the Internet just two reviews in leading publications. Kosman failed to respond on three occasions to a request to survey other reviews that have been published on this title so we could see the critical impact of the book. Interestingly enough, when attempting to routinely communicate with the publicity department of Harvard University Press, the company explained that they do not accept phone calls from media.
We also see bungling in the general production of the book, which further undermined Wunschmann’s accomplishment. The cover photograph is so faded that it hardly conveys the graphic content and impact of the Dachau work scene depicted. Plus, it is still unclear why this publishing house titled the book Before Auschwitz with the subtitle Jewish Prisoners in The Prewar Concentration Camps. The subtitle has everything to do with the content of the book and should have been the top line name of the volume, or some iconic representation of it. That is what this book is about—the personal nightmares of individual prisoners in the many Nazi concentration camps that blotted the German landscape prior to September 1, 1939, before war broke out in Europe.
Instead, we have a totally misleading title, Before Auschwitz, to describe a book that has nothing to do with Auschwitz and attempting, I can only speculate, to frame the Auschwitz death camp as the iconic emblem of the outbreak of World War II. The Blitzkrieg of 1939 and the subsequent takeover of Western Europe in the months to follow is the demarcation for the further descent into hell that marked the later inauguration of Auschwitz.
Indeed, in the idiom of Holocaust memory, the word “Auschwitz” does not represent the commencement of World War II. What’s more, the title “Before Auschwitz” was taken by another book, Paul R. Hinlicky’s volume on Christian theology during the Hitler era published two years earlier by Cascade Press. The least Harvard could have done was provide a title that was both appropriate and did not mirror someone else’s prior Holocaust work. Hence, the title itself is a further disservice and sales impediment to this important book.
It is well known that authors have been battling their publishers forever on title vs. subtitle. Too often, the finalized title is a compromise between the marketing department, the editors and, lastly, the often-helpless author.
Harvard University Press owes Kim Wunschmann an apology for bungling the graphics, packaging, titling, and marketing of an otherwise excellent volume that delivers a long-needed, penetrating look at one of history’s darkest incarceration systems, Germany’s prewar concentration camps.
New York Times bestselling author and historian Edwin Black is the author of eleven award-winning books including, IBM and the Holocaust, War Against the Weak, Nazi Nexus, The Farhud, and The Transfer Agreement.