On March 9, 1933, several weeks after Hitler assumed power, the first organized attacks on German opponents of the regime and on Jews broke out across Germany. Less than two weeks later, Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp, was opened. Situated near Munich, Dachau became a place of internment for German Jews, Communists, Socialists, and liberals – anyone whom the Reich considered its enemy. It became the model for the network of concentration camps that would be established later by the Nazis.
Nazi Germany exploited the labor of the occupied peoples from the onset of the occupation. More than 14 million people and 2.5 million prisoners of war were transported to Germany for labor.
Jews were enslaved and interned in a far-reaching network of forced-labor camps across Europe, in the Reich itself, in the west and, foremost, in the east. The SS Central Office for Administration and Economy defined the new goal: labor exploitation of concentration camp prisoners, who would be taken to hundreds of labor camps for service on behalf of the German war machine.
Employing the Jews in forced labor did not signify a change in the overall plan of extermination. Economic needs and the prolonging of the war established the need to utilize the Jews as a labor force. However, this was only a temporary setback in the extermination process – extermination by means of merciless forced labor. ‘Extermination by labor’ – as this “compromise” was called between those who called for immediate extermination and those who sought to exploit Jewish labor until their very end.
Despite the Germans’ military reversals and the imminence of the Allied victory, the network of camps continued to operate until the final downfall of the Third Reich and the end of the war. At this stage the last Jews in Europe – apart from a few who were living in hiding under false identities, in the forests and in hideouts, or in the Soviet interior – were incarcerated in concentration and labor camps.