When asked if I would review Nikolaus Wachmann’s KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, I was pleased to accede.
I cannot say how many books I’ve read over the years about the concentration camps (Konzentrationlager, or KL) established and run so ruthlessly by the Nazis; it must be a number greater than 30. Some were fictionalised accounts, the majority biographical or autobiographical. All were of people incarcerated within and, sometimes, surviving the most bestial, savage places yet devised by ‘civilised’ man.
These terrible works – terrible, that is, in the reading; most whose stories they tell had an amazingly inspirational will to live – were written by and about many different groups and individuals: The people so forcefully imprisoned within them presented a real or perceived threat to Nazi policy or Aryan purity. Their numbers included all types of “undesirables”, including homosexuals, petty criminals, mentally ill, physically disabled, gypsies, Communists and Jews.
This is a book that will not – and was never intended to – make its way into top-seller lists. Its purpose is to provide a complete, chronological record of concentration camp development. Well researched and written, it covers the twelve years from 1933, when the when Hitler was made President of the German Reichstag, until their ultimate demise in 1945.
I read KL not as one does a novel but as a reference work, scanning my way through, reading more complete passages as necessary. The history contained is meticulous and essential. One shocking aspect that recurs – one truth the author highlights on several occasions – is how many people knew what was happening in the camps, both within Germany and without.
Wachsmann’s fastidiously detailed record is essential for many reasons, not least his careful documentation of National Socialist Germany’s descent from madness to even greater madness. Something akin to mass paranoia existed within the Nazi hierarchy, quickly descending into deeply delusional behaviour. Just one example: SS officers, who maintained meticulous records of those they executed, unable to use the term ermordet (murdered), were scrupulously careful to apply what would appear a “reasonable” cause of death to their victims. In consequence, “…Gerhard Pohl (a three year old) …was recorded as dying of ‘old age.’ ”
I have not attempted to prolong my review. KL is neither a pleasure to read nor to discuss; it is not a book to sit out with the Coalport and petits four for genteel discussion over afternoon tea. It is a tour through genocide at its most foul, perpetrated by people separated from us more by geography and language than, perhaps, racial background. We cannot ignore its lessons lest we, in turn, inflict its tragedy on others. Its reading is frequently painful. I must admit, even knowing so much of the dreadful happenings from other books over the years, I had to put it down at times and go away to do something else.
Even as I say that, I believe KL to be essential reading. As is inevitable with the passage of years – for we have advanced seven decades from the camps’ closure – actual survivors of these places of torture and death are very few indeed. It will not be long before we lose the last of them and then, in the hope that man will learn from past mistakes, books such as this will be all that link us to that dreadful time.
KL will act as a reminder… and as a conscience.