Stefan Hördler has written an important book. Drawing on painstaking primary research in dozens of archives and collections across Europe and the US, he provides a fresh and original look at the SS concentration camp system during the Second World War. In particular, he focuses on the period between spring 1944 and the liberation of the last camps one year later – a distinct stage, he argues, in the complex development of the camps.
This was a time of extremes, with more camps, more prisoners and more deaths than ever before. There was also more disarray: prisoners were perpetually on the move as the SS evacuated camps before the advancing Allied armies. But it would be wrong, Hördler stresses, to foreground “chaos or chance” (p. 462). He argues that the camp system did not actually collapse until spring 1945, when the SS finally ran out of options and forced prisoners onto frenzied, aimless death marches. The preceding twelve months, by contrast, were characterised by a complex process of “rationalisation” (p. 279).
Focusing on SS motives and actions, Hördler stresses two key trends. First, the growing exploitation of prisoners for the war effort. This resulted in the spread of satellite camps across German-controlled territory, often near sites destined for underground war production. Hördler, who is the director of the memorial Dora-Mittelbau (one of the main underground complexes in the war), gives a clear and comprehensive account of this process, even if much of this story has been told before. Second, the SS stepped up the systematic extermination of invalids, whom it regarded as an “unnecessary burden” (as one SS man put it). The analysis of the murder of weak and ill prisoners in 1944/45 stands at the centre of Hördler’s book, and marks its most significant contribution to scholarship.
Hördler examines in forensic detail the sharp rise in deaths among registered prisoners from autumn 1944 onwards. He charts the growth of special zones inside camps, where the SS dumped the weakest prisoners, sometimes in huge makeshift tents. Making exemplary use of SS transport lists (mostly from the archives of the International Tracing Service of the Red Cross), Hördler tracks deportations of prisoners “unfit for work” from satellite camps to main camps; often, at least half of them soon perished inside zones of death. Many prisoners inside these zones wasted away from deprivation and disease. Others were murdered through gas, shootings and injections. Such murders were not driven by racial madness, Hördler argues, or by murderous preparations for possible evacuations. Rather, they were about stabilising the camps, which were overwhelmed by sick and infectious prisoners. The SS used mass murder to “maintain control over the camps” (p. 13).
Hördler argues persuasively that such murders were probably the result of central decision-making, not local initiative. Much of his argument rests on a close analysis of SS killers. Like some other recent historians of Nazi terror, he uses network analysis to connect perpetrator career paths, which were paved by “protection and patronage” (p. 88). Hördler focuses on a small group of “specialists in murder” (p. 110), who oversaw many killings in 1944/45. Some had learned their lethal trade during the Holocaust in Auschwitz, like the Birkenau crematorium chief Otto Moll, who led a special execution commando to Sachsenhausen and Ravensbrück in 1945. Others had learned to murder even earlier, during systematic killings of weak and disabled inmates (codename 14f13) and Soviet POWs (codename 14f14) in 1941/42. Arno Chemnitz, for instance, had participated in the execution of Soviet POWs in Buchenwald, and later copied the Buchenwald “neck-shooting” facility to kill weak inmates in Stutthof.
Stutthof (near Danzig), often sidelined in histories of the concentration camps, serves as a case study for Hördler. Previously a peripheral camp, it grew enormously in 1944, after the SS designated it as a reception centre for prisoners from evacuated camps elsewhere (initially from the Baltic region). Those inmates regarded as “fit for work” were moved on, leaving behind a large number of sick and weak prisoners (mostly women). The SS systematically murdered many of them, either by sending them to the Auschwitz gas chambers or by killing them in Stutthof itself.
There is much to be admired in this book, above all its extremely rich empirical detail (this is a study aimed at specialists, with few concessions to more casual readers). Hördler also assembles his material into a bigger picture, which makes the camps appear in a new light. At times, however, this picture appears a little black-and-white: for example, Hördler’s insistence that the murders in 1944 had nothing to do with preparing camps for later evacuations (by killing prisoners regarded as “unfit” for transports) seems unnecessarily categorical. And while it would be unfair to criticise him for saying less about the victims (his explicit focus is on the SS, after all), he occasionally gets too caught up in the perpetrator perspective. Should we really believe SS men who claimed to provide “mercy deaths” for gravelly ill prisoners (p. 464)? Does this not risk overlooking the base motives and ideological obsessions of killers, who often despised their victims as dangerous, depraved and dirty?
Nonetheless, this is a very fine book. Indeed, it is a book that does much more than it promises on the cover. While its emphasis is on the last year on the war, it also gives an excellent general account of the development of the Camp SS. Hördler probably knows more about Camp SS staff and structures than any other historian, and he draws on this expert knowledge to offer important insights into a wide range of aspects: the emergence of Camp SS networks before the war (especially in Dachau and Lichtenburg); the organisation of the extermination programmes 14f13 and 14f14; the uses of Camp SS photos for historical research; the operation of the (widely overlooked) Camp SS offices for ideological training; and the mass influx of “ethnic Germans” and German soldiers into the Camp SS, who soon got used to shooting prisoners “trying to escape” (as Hördler’s analysis of SS figures from Mauthausen reveals). Here, as elsewhere, Hördler proves just how much we can still learn about the Nazi camps from diligent and imaginative archival research. It is this quality that makes his book essential reading for scholars of the Nazi concentration camps.
 See, for example, Jens-Christian Wagner, Produktion des Todes. Das KZ Mittelbau-Dora, Göttingen 2004; Marc Buggeln, Arbeit & Gewalt. Das Außenlagersystem des KZ Neuengamme, Göttingen 2009.
 For network analysis, see for example Sara Berger, Experten der Vernichtung. Das T4-Reinhardt-Netzwerk in den Lagern Belzec, Sobibor und Treblinka, Hamburg 2013.