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Perhaps more than any other aspect of Nazi rule, the “concentration camp” has symbolized Nazi terror in the popular imagination. The existence of the camps was widely known both inside and outside of Germany during the years of Nazi rule, and their already considerable notoriety was heightened on their liberation by Allied forces. As gruesome images of mass graves and piles of emaciated corpses appeared in newspapers, and as German citizens were forced by occupation authorities to visit the camps and witness the horrific evidence in person, the camps came to epitomize Nazi barbarism. Until today they have remained among the most important sites of memory for surviving victims of Nazism and have served as loci for education and official commemoration.
The two-volume collection under review represents an attempt to bring together the findings of this recent wave of scholarship about the camps. It contains forty contributions, most of which were originally presented at a conference held in Weimar in 1995 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald. Like the organizers of the conference, the editors of the published volumes employed a restrictive, although historically well-founded, definition of the “concentration camp.” Thus, camps associated with the so-called Operation Reinhard, which were erected exclusively for the purpose of murdering Jews, are not included. Neither are the major ghettos, prisoner-of-war camps, or camps used to house foreign forced laborers on German territory. Even with these omissions, however, the scope of the anthology is vast.
The contributions to this anthology vindicate the study of the camps as a legitimate academic enterprise. At their best, they shed considerable light on several important questions: the ideological motives, structural characteristics, and economic priorities of the Nazi regime; the psychological and situational factors that lead ordinary men and women to become involved in inhumane enterprises; the mechanisms on which people depend when fighting for survival under extreme duress; and the relationship between the Jewish Holocaust and other aspects of Nazi persecution and terror.