Before Auschwitz: Jewish Prisoners in the Prewar Concentration Camps by Kim Wünschmann (review)
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Before Auschwitz: Jewish Prisoners in the Prewar Concentration Camps, Kim Wünschmann (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), 367 pp., hardcover $45.00, electronic version available.

Before Auschwitz is the first comprehensive monograph on the prewar fate of the roughly 40,000 Jewish men and women incarcerated in Nazi concentration camps. Clearly structured, well written, and solidly grounded in both primary sources and [End Page 120] an extensive secondary literature, Kim Wünschmann's study provides crucial insights into the ways in which the evolution of concentration camps intersected with the regime's prewar Judenpolitik and what that meant for Jewish prisoners. Six chapters, framed by succinct introductory and concluding remarks, explore wide-ranging themes: the Nazi regime's early arrest practice regarding Jews; the treatment of Jews in the early camps; the fate of female Jewish prisoners (estimated at a total of 800 to 1,000); changes brought about by the reorganization of the camp system between 1935 and 1938; the massive upsurge in anti-Jewish violence during three waves of arrests in 1938 that forced more than 30,000 German and Austrian Jews into the camps; and the decline in prisoner numbers within an expanding camp landscape immediately prior to the war. The author concludes with a "glimpse into the wartime camps."

Like the Nazi system as a whole, the camp administrations blended ideologydriven rigor and inhuman brutality with opportunistic improvisation and chaotic adaptability. Among the range of opponents the regime set out to neutralize by extra-legal means, the Jews stood out as the personified amalgam of all Nazi enemy groups, from Communists, "race defilers," and "asocials" to capitalists—despite the fact that until 1938 the proportion of Jews in the total concentration camp population hovered around five percent. Central elements of prewar persecution clearly point to the genocidal future; even in this period, the camp-SS assigned to Jews the status of "outcasts among the outcasts" (p. 8). Rampant brutality characterized SS behavior from day one of their camp rule and helped cement "the Jewish enemy stereotype" (p. 56). By the mid-1930s, a triad of spatial isolation, visual stigmatization, and special treatment ensured "the branding of 'Jews' as a distinct prisoner group" (p. 145). The murder of Rudolf Benario and three other Jews in Dachau on April 12, 1933, marked the first instance of SS-killings in a concentration camp; with a total of 22 prisoners killed, 11 of them Jews, by the end of 1933 Dachau had become "the most lethal of the early concentration camps" (p. 67). The April murders also marked the beginning of "a camaraderie of crime" (p. 58) intertwined with the development of an "extremely violent habitus" (p. 66) and an adherence to "the soldierly ideal" (p. 88) among Dachau guards, many of whom would play a leadership role in wartime killing centers. By September 1939—well before the regime crossed the threshold from anti-Jewish persecution to annihilation—SS violence had claimed the life of an estimated two to three thousand Jews either killed in the camps or dying as a result of their incarceration (pp. 49, 82, 235).

Yet, despite what the book's title might suggest, Wünschmann sees no linear progression toward organized mass murder. As Nikolaus Wachsmann recently put it: "There was no direct trail from Dachau in 1933 to Dachau in 1945."1 Like Wachsmann—her doctoral supervisor at University of London's Birkbeck College—Wünschmann rightly stresses the important role the prewar camps, together with other factors, played in the shaping of Nazi perceptions and practices vis-à-vis Jews, [End Page 121] as well as, conversely, in the Jews' comprehension of the fatal consequences of antisemitic propaganda. Wünschmann shows that most Jewish camp prisoners were released from camps within months, though increasingly after having been thoroughly robbed, and on the condition of their immediate emigration (pp. 193–94, 211). Release was thus "the rule rather than the exception" before the war (pp. 53, 122). Furthermore, it seems that none of the female Jewish inmates died in the prewar camps, though several died later, including 11 women who were gassed in 1942 as part of the...