What Did Most Germans Know About the Nazi Concentration Camp System?
What Did the German People Really Know?
Shortly after the Allied forces overran the concentration camps and the West became fully aware of the extent of Nazi atrocities, the culpability of the German people began to be questioned. How much, if anything, did the average German know about the concentration camps?
To what degree were the German people involved? Were most Germans completely in the dark or did they have knowledge of conditions inside the camps? Scholarly works have been written to defend German ignorance and innocence and to deny it.
This essay will not argue culpability or degree of culpability of different segments of the German population. However, based on the testimony of American soldiers who served in the European theater of operations during World War II, conclusions will be drawn concerning German knowledge of concentration camps.
A distinction should be made between concentration camps and death camps. It is perhaps legitimate to argue that some German civilians knew little about the death camps as they were not located on German soil and were constructed and operated with a degree of secrecy.
Konnilyn Feig (well-respected Holocaust author) thinks a great deal was known by a great many people. “Hitler exterminated the Jews of Europe. But he did not do so alone. The task was so enormous, complex, time-consuming, and mentally and economically demanding that it took the best efforts of millions of Germans…. All spheres of life in Germany actively participated."
"Businessmen, policemen, bankers, doctors, lawyers, soldiers, railroad and factory workers, chemists, pharmacists, foremen, production managers, economists, manufacturers, jewelers, diplomats, civil servants, propagandists, film makers and film stars, professors, teachers, politicians, mayors, party members, construction experts, art dealers, architects, landlords, janitors, truck drivers, clerks, industrialists, scientists, generals, and even shopkeepers—all were essential cogs in the machinery that accomplished the final solution.”
However, the same argument cannot be made with respect to concentration camps on German soil. Their construction, often close to major population centers, began just months after Hitler’s accession to power in 1933. In fact during the early years of Hitler’s regime, most concentration camp inmates were German or Austrian citizens and many of them served limited sentences before being released.
It begs believability to think that these individuals did not discuss their experience with family and close friends. German authorities knew they would talk. One of the functions of the camp system was to terrorize the local populace and motivate them to obedience. Fairly widespread public knowledge of the camps was necessary in order to produce a fearful, quiescent, more easily subdued population.
The first-hand experiences and reports of American GIs confirm that German civilians must have known about the camps. Of course the extent of a person’s knowledge might depend upon age, experience, profession or job, and proximity to a particular camp.
American GIs believed German civilians knew a great deal and many were indignant and angry at the almost universal German claims of ignorance. Repeatedly, soldiers reported that German civilians denied any knowledge of the camps.
In his memoir, William Warde who served with the 232nd Infantry Regiment, recorded that, “All of the locals were adamant that they were ‘nicht Nazi’ and didn’t have any idea what had taken place at the concentration camp.”
Present at Buchenwald, Arthur L. Johnson recalled a bitter and shocking memory “…all these people who claimed they didn’t know anything about it…and [they were] just 10 or 15 miles from Weimar.” Staff Sergeant Whiteway of the 99th Infantry Division noted that according to them “no [German] ever saw a concentration camp or an atrocity.”
Combat Surgeon Brendan Phibbs heard German after German plead, “nie gemurtet, nie gemurtet, we never suspected.” Staff Sergeant Powell traveled across the German countryside and regularly heard civilians announce that they were, of course, anti-fascists and then disclaim any knowledge of the camps.
Official military histories confirm that the typical German response was to deny knowledge of, and disclaim any responsibility for, the concentration camps.
 Konnilyn Feig. Hitler’s Death Camps: The Sanity of Madness, (New York: Holmes and Meier Publishers, 1981), (hereafter cited as Hitler’s Death Camps), 13.
 John R. Hallowell, Gunter Plaut, oral history interviews, International Liberator’s Conference, October 1981, Washington DC, (hereafter cited as ILC); George Wehmoff, Bert Weston, oral history interview transcripts, Emory University, Robert F. Crawford Witness to the Holocaust Project, (hereafter cited as Emory); Johnson, 2, interview transcript, JCRC-ADL of Minnesota and the Dakotas, (hereafter cited as JCRC); Thomas Hale, The Cauldron, 1943-1945: Recollections and Letters of a Field Service Driver, (Hines Point, Vineyard, New Haven, 1990), (hereafter cited as The Cauldron), 97; David Malachowsky, Days of Remembrance –Victims of the Holocaust, (Department of Defense, Washington DC, 1989), (hereafter cited as Days), 32; Victor Wiegard, interview, ILC; Robert Perelman, 2, Frank Bezares, 6, Joseph B. Kushlis, 10, William Jucksh, 9, Henry Birnbrey , 6, interview transcripts, Emory; John B. MacDonald, 2, Theresa Ast - Holocaust Witness Dissertation Project Questionnaire, (hereafter cited as Ast Project).
 Lionel Rothbard, 3 June 1993, letter to Theresa Ast; Sherman V. Hasbrouck, Brigadier General, “Reflections on the 97th Infantry Division,” 18 June 1988, 97th Infantry Division Papers, United States Army Military History Institute, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, (hereafter cited as MHI); Bert P. Ezell, Albert Duncan, oral history interviews, Dallas Memorial Center for Holocaust Studies at Southern Methodist University, circa 1980, (hereafter cited as DMC); Robert Zimmer, Ernest James, oral history interviews, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Research Institute, Record Group 50.030, 1990-1992, (hereafter cited as USHMM); Manfred Steinfeld, interview, Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois – Oral History Documentation Project, 1982-1984, (hereafter cited as HMFI); Jack R. Blake, 6, Floyd Samuel Gibson, 2 T. J. Lewis, 6, Robert McIsaac, 3, Dee Richard Eberhart, 2, Arthur L. Samuelson, 2, 11, Ast Project; Howard Wiseburg, 2, 3, 10, Bill Allison, 10, W. W. Dunagan, 6, Joseph B. Kushlis, 10, interview transcripts, Emory; Marvin M. Josephs, interview, Oral Documentation Project of the Holocaust Center of Greater Pittsburgh, (hereafter cited as ODP); Ralph Mueller and Jerry Turk, Report After Action: The Story of the 103rd Infantry Division, (Innsbruck: Wagnerische Universitats-Buchdruckerei, 1945) 131; Robert Sharon Allen, Lucky Forward, The History of Patton’s Third U.S. Army, (New York: Vanguard Press, 1947), (hereafter cited as Lucky Forward ), 370; Eric Lieseroff, cited in Yaffa Eliach and Brana Gurewitsch, Liberators: Eyewitness Accounts of the Liberation of the Concentration Camps, (New York: Center for Holocaust Studies, Documentation and Research, 1981), (hereafter cited as Liberators), 2; Frederick Walters, interview, Holocaust Oral History Archive of Gratz College, Pennsylvania, (hereafter cited as Gratz).
 William Warde, 27 July 1993, letter to Theresa Ast, (Company A, 232nd Regiment, 42nd Infantry Division).
 Arthur L. Johnson, 2, interview transcript, JCRC.
 Curtis Whiteway, 99th Infantry Division Papers, MHI, 11.
 Brendan Phibbs, The Other Side of Time: A Combat Surgeon in World War II, (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1987), (hereafter cited as Other Side), 334.
 Theodore Powell, Winter 1993, interview by Theresa Ast, (232nd Regiment, 42nd Infantry Division).
 History, 1st Battalion, 232nd Infantry Regiment, 42nd Infantry Division, to Headquarters, 13 May 1945, 42nd Infantry Division Papers, MHI ; Prisoner of War and Displaced Persons Division, Reconnaissance Report, April 1945, Record Group 332, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, (hereafter cited as NARA).
Questions & Answers
What % of Germans knew about the death camps?
Historians do not usually speak in terms of %, but the real problem here is that the Death Camps were in Poland, far away from the German-Polish border - Nazis were evil, not necessarily stupid. The SS, some regular army, top Nazi officials and some train engineers and crew knew about the Death camps. What is true is that "most" adult Germans knew about the work, slave labor, and concentration camps because there were hundreds and hundreds of them all over Germany and the Nazis made little effort to hide them at all.Helpful 1
Probably, in my opinion, most Germans knew or suspected something was going on regarding concentration camps, but what could they have done about it in a totalaritian society?
What they could have done depends upon when they decided to take action. (1) Germany was not a totalitarian society when Hitler came to power...there was a window when people could resist. (2) Many people did resist in many ways all through the war years and many of them paid a terrible price and were murdered. However, many of them survived, lived to write books about the Nazis, the camps, the resistance movements they participated in. There is a vast literature on this subject. Books on resistance are not hard to find if you are interested.Helpful 1