3 October 2018
Concentration Camps Before 1940: Understanding the ‘Work Shy Decree'
The Work Shy Decree was neither unprecedented nor surprising. When aligned within the context of the Nazi Party's earlier decrees and calculated activities it, in fact, fit comfortably into a chain of events and organizational procedures. Understanding who Reinhard Heydrich was, as well as the legislation which set the precedent for his June 1938 order, are integral in discerning how ‘asocials' composed the largest prisoner groups in concentration camps before World War II.
Born March 7, 1904 in Halle, Germany to a successful opera singer and ‘Wagnerian' musician father and an affluent mother, within thirty years this rich, gangly “Blonde Beast” would grow to become one of the most infamous, influential high ranks of the Nazi Party. Before Hitler would call him “the man with the iron heart” or his assassination, in 1919, Reinhard Heydrich was just a 16 year old boy in post-World War I Germany getting involved with the paramilitary, anti-semitic, nationalist Freikorps to violently oppose Communists. Economic and social pressure swayed Heydrich to enlist in the German Navy at 18. He quickly worked his way up the ranks until 1931, when he was discharged for “conduct unbecoming to an officer and a gentleman” - having sex with an shipyard director's daughter, while engaged to another woman. So how did this shamed man become “Himmler's Evil Genius”?
Within the year of Heydrich's discharge his (apparently very forgiving) fiance, a member of the Nazi Party, urged him to join the SS: Hitler's bodyguards at the time. After signing up, Heydrich was introduced to the SS Reichsführer, Heinrich Himmler. Himmler was planning to set up an SS intelligence service, and during their interview Heydrich was asked to set a trajectory for the formulation and future of this organization. Impressed by his answer, Himmler hired him on the spot to set up the counterintelligence unit. Heydrich rose quickly through the ranks once again, this time of the Nazi SS, and by July 1932 was appointed to head the newly established Sicherheitsdienst (SD). He soon began taking on larger projects investigating any person deemed a threat to Hitler, regardless of rank or name. In June 1934, he helped organize the evidence to justify the murders of top SA officials, under the auspices of Adolf Hitler during the “Night of the Long Knives”.
“A highly gifted but also very dangerous man, whose gifts the movement had to retain… extremely useful; for he would eternally be grateful to us that we had kept him and not expelled him and would obey blindly.”
This defense by Adolf Hitler in reference to false accusations of Heydrich having Jewish ancestry gravely illustrates the rise to influence of “The Butcher of Prague”. Heydrich was barely thirty years old.
Heydrich's 1938 order for a nationwide raid against ‘asocials' can not be explained properly outside of the context of earlier decrees: “Law Against Dangerous Habitual Criminals” and “Preventive Struggle Against Crime”. The former, created in 1933, allowed courts to indefinitely imprison anyone they deemed dangerous to society; the latter, from December 14, 1937, expanded on previous decrees to allow for unreasonable arrests and internments. The implications of these laws were vast and nefarious. ‘Dangerous habitual criminals' conflated physical and mental disabilities with criminality, and constructed a new label of ‘asozialen' or asocials/anti-socials as an umbrella term for any person who falls outside of the societal expectations of ‘normalcy'. Consequently, ‘asocials' were committed to asylums and interned under the terms of ‘schutzhaft', sexual offenders were castrated, and mandatory sterilizations for “prevention of genetically diseased offspring” rose (estimated at 200 to 300 thousand sterilizations by 1939).
These lines further blurred after December 14, 1937. Any person deemed a threat to society, due to ‘asocial behavior', was allowed to be arrested as a preventive measure without any regard to criminal record. The list of targets expanded: Romas, migrants, unemployed, ‘habitual criminals', beggars, and any Jew who had been in jail for more than 30 days. In a nation which had already fired ‘non-aryans' from their civil service positions, the Nazi Party successfully created a legal framework to send anyone they deemed unfit to concentration camps.
Reinhard Heydrich would ensure this opportunity did not go to waste. Six months later, on June 1, 1938, he released “Arbeitsschuhe Riech” (Operation Work Shy) ordering for the arrest of 200 male, work capable ‘asocials' in each district within one week. This summons rested on the propaganda of ‘asocials' characterized as leaving a legacy of crime, poverty, prostitution, and behavior which, in return, will cost Germany a large sum of money. This marketing of the ‘other' fell precariously into direct opposition with the Nazi “Four Year Plan”; the Nazi Party plan for rearmament, self sufficiency, and economic independence. Anyone who was a threat to the economy “sabotages” the “Four Year Plan” and, consequently, the German people.
Within a couple of weeks, categorized “vagabonds”, “beggars”, “gypsies”, “pimps”, and “criminals” -with no regard to evidence- were rounded up to be brought to Buchenwald, along with Jews who had served at least a month, “without confirmation or instruction”. The quota and the rhetoric which could be misconstrued as carelessness was, in fact, a calculated and aggressive act aligned well within the actions of the Nazi Regime. The legalise became so arbitrary, the culmination of earlier decrees, that any person could be justifiably detained and interned under law.
More than 10,000 ‘asocials' were deported to Buchenwald, Dachau, and Sachsenhausen as a direct result of this decree. Leading up to World War II, ‘asocials' composed the largest prisoner group in concentration camps. Between January 1938 and August 1939, over 1,200 ‘asocial men' died in these concentration camps. These numbers are important, but they are not a complete story. Missing are the unquantifiable implications of being forced to the shadows of society, or disappearance altogether; all stemming from the creation of a term - ‘asocial'. To create an essential class of people unfit for society can be easily overlooked, but the long term impact is the chilling ability to erase, and justify this erasure within a society that confirms this “otherness”.
...(download the rest of the essay above)