From 1933 until 1938 the National Socialists (Nazis) had a total of 15 camps built in the remote wasteland area near the border to the Netherlands. The changing functions of the camps allow to gain a subtly diversified insight into the Nazi system of rule.
The first Emsland camps were built as concentration camps for the opponents of the regime, a large number of people who were taken in “preventive detention” (“Schutzhaft”) in the period when the dictatorship was set up. On February 28th 1933, one day after the burning of the Reichstag, the German president’s decree “for the protection of the people and state and the defence of communist acts of terror and those threatening the security of the state” came into force. From that day onward every real and supposed opponent of the Nazi regime could be arrested without any reason and indefinitely, without a trial, without a verdict and without any possibility to defend him-/herself and kept in custody. The central Nazi administration and the regional authorities led negotiations to lay down the special aims of the Emsland camps: the employment of the camp detainees as forced labourers to cultivate the moors. The head of the federal state Prussia, Göring, had originally planned to detain all the state’s political prisoners - about 10,000 - in eight to ten camps in the Emsland. The authorities accelerated the building of the first three camps Börgermoor, Esterwegen as a twin camp, and Neusustrum. After the completion in autumn 1933, 4,000 prisoners were put there.
Members of the SS and SA who were under the control of the command in Papenburg guarded the concentration camps. Killings and ill-treatments became part of the daily camp life. The eyewitness account by Wolfgang Langhoff - the book ‘Die Moorsoldaten’ that was published in Switzerland in several languages after Langhoff’s emigration in 1935- describes the reign of terror in the concentration camp Börgermoor. Among others the former president of the police in Hamburg-Altona, Otto Eggerstedt, and Alexander, the leader of the Silesian Reichsbanner, a social democrat organization, were shot in Esterwegen. The guards of the camp Neusustrum treated human beings “worse than cattle”, as it is said in a verdict against the former camp commander Emil Faust in 1950. As the squads on guard also intimidated the people in the surrounding Emsland villages, Göring ordered the replacement of the SS-guards in November 1933. He installed a state-run squad of guard for the Emsland camps that again consisted of members of the SA and SS, but was directly under the control of the Prussian state. In December 1933 when there was the so-called “Christmas amnesty” 1,200 to 1,500 prisoners from the Emsland camps were released, but when they arrived at their home stations, the Gestapo picked many of them up and arrested them again.
In the beginning of 1934, when the leader (“Reichsführer”) of the SS, Himmler, took the command over the political police of the federal states, the plan for an independent, state-run concentration camp for Prussia in the Emsland was not translated into action any further. Only the camp Esterwegen remained part of the official concentration camp system under the administration of the SS until September 1936. Together with Dachau it was the largest and most important concentration camp in the German Reich until it was closed. The inmates were then moved to Sachsenhausen to build a new concentration camp there. Numerous important politicians and intellectuals were imprisoned in Esterwegen, many of them didn’t survive the Nazi period. Especially young SS-candidates terrorized them. Among other commanders there were Koch who later took over Buchenwald, and Loritz who commanded Sachsenhausen and Neuengamme.
The inspector of the concentration camp, Eicke, issued camp rules that drilled and trained each member of the squads of guard in the ill-treatment of the prisoners as an organized, anonymous system. (see Kosthorst/Walter, TB S.51)
After the reorganization of the concentration camp system, the camps I Börgermoor, II Brual-Rhede, V Neusustrum and VI Oberlangen were put under the control of the judicial authorities in 1934. The commander of the concentration camp Oranienburg, Werner Schäfer, organized and ran the penal camps. Being an SA-leader and judicial officer he achieved general independence from the Ministry of Justice. Corporal punishment, detention in the dark and degrading harassment at work were part of the penal system, methods that were otherwise only used in the concentration camps commanded by the SS. The so-called “productive penal system” that had been introduced in the Weimar Republic as a measure to rehabilitate criminals, was abused by the Nazis as a very hard punishment which often resulted in the death of a prisoner. The work of the detainees was degrading as they had to dig drainage ditches, build paths and streets and cultivate the moors intentionally without any mechanical tools. The Emsland camps became a matter of prestige for the Nazi policy to settle farmers there. It was planned to cultivate 50,000 hectares of wasteland only with the help of pickaxes and spades within 10 years and create 2,300 new settlements. Only a small part of the goal was reached until the end of World War II.
After the Nazi war of conquest had begun the Supreme Court of the Wehrmacht and the Ministry of Justice agreed to send a large number of German soldiers who had been tried by court-martial and found not reliable for the military service into the six northern Emsland camps. They were supposed to serve their sentences for desertion, conscientious objection, mutiny, disobedience or cowardliness after the war. Until then they should be treated severely as a means of deterrent.
In 1941 Hitler commanded to stop the cultivation project that had already begun to flag before. From this point onward the war determined the deployment of the prisoners. Their capacity for work was needed on farms, in factories that were important for the war economy and in special units. From August 1942 about 2,000 prisoners from the Emsland camps were moved to the Penal Camp North in North Norway (“Wikingeinsatz”) to support the “Organisation Todt” to build fortresses and roads. As a result of the inadequate accommodation and the hard work in coldest weather at least 168 prisoners died in the first year, many others had to be moved back to the Emsland early. In October 1943 the Penal Camp West (“Spezialeinheit X”) in North France was put up with the same tasks.
The historians Kosthorst and Walter estimate that a total of 65,000 prisoners were committed to the northern Emsland camps Börgermoor, Aschendorfermoor (from April 1935), Brual-Rhede, Walchum (from April 1935); Neusustrum, Oberlangen (until 1939) and Esterwegen (from April 1937).
“The extradition of defenceless prisoners to the SA whose task according to Hitler ‘only was the elimination of the communist danger’ and ‘the protection of the Nazi state’ is a drastic expression for the occupation of the judiciary for the Nazi system of rule. It can only be explained against the background of a judicial system that as an instrument of violence also pronounced national pest and prosecuted people who politically opposed the system, racial and religious minorities, homosexuals and other outsiders of the Nazi ‘Volksgemeinschaft’ apart from criminals.” (Suhr/Boldt, Lager im Emsland 1933-1945. Geschichte und Gedenken. Oldenburg 1985, p. 25)
At the beginning of 1938 the departments of the “Reichsarbeitsdienst” (i.e. the national labour service) that were employed in the middle and the south of the Emsland to cultivate the moors were withdrawn, because the regional authorities were disappointed about the results of their work. Until the end of 1938 eight further camps for the accommodation of judicial prisoners were supposed to be created in the area that had been allocated to the Reichsarbeitsdienst. The final completion of the individual camps was delayed until mid 1939 as the “Fuehrer” had commanded to move a total of 103 huts and 2,000 prisoners to the Siegfried Line for a short term. The new camps were only partly occupied. In September 1939 the Supreme Court of the Wehrmacht took the camps VI Oberlangen and VIII to XV (Wesuwe, Versen, Fullen, Groß Hesepe, Dalum, Wietmarschen, Bathorn and Alexisdorf) to detain prisoners of war (P.O.W) there. Until May 1940 these camps were presumably transit camps for 110,000 P.O.W., before at least 70,000 soldiers mainly from France, the Soviet Union and Poland as well as military internees from Italy were locked up for a long time.
While the Nazis generally treated the non-Soviet P.O.W. according to the rules of the international laws, the Soviet soldiers were actually killed. They reduced their food supplies far under the subsistence level, let them starve, freeze or die of illnesses. The so-called Russian camps were often blocked from the outside world because of epidemics. You can gather from the lists of graves and documents that 14,250 to 26,250 Soviet soldiers are supposed to be buried on the six war graveyards in the Emsland.
From May 1943 at least 1,700 members of the resistance from Belgium and northern France were committed to one part of the camp Esterwegen (“Lager Süd”) before 500 to 600 were moved to the camp Börgermoor in February 1944 because Esterwegen was overcrowded. The members of the resistance had been arrested at dead of night and taken to prisons in the German Reich without their relatives having been informed. As a result of the poor hygienic situation and the bad medical supply 76 of those prisoners - called “Nacht- und Nebelgefangene” - died in custody. At least 165 of them were sentenced to death and moved to other prisons to be executed after they had been convicted by the People’s Court (“Volksgerichtshof”) and the Special Court Essen in the camp Esterwegen, in Papenburg and in Leer. In spring 1944 the “Nacht- und Nebelgefangene” were moved to the district of Kattowitz and from there to the concentration and extermination camps run by the SS.
In mid November 1944 respectively the beginning of January 1945 Versen and Dalum became concentration camps, subdivisions of the concentration camp Neuengamme. While building military installations over 600 out of up to 4,000 prisoners lost their lives, nearly 400 died during the transportation of sick people and on the march after the evacuation of the camps in March 1945.
At the beginning of April 1945 most of the detainees of the northern camps were moved to the camp Aschendorfermoor. A Polish army unit under the control of the British army, Canadian and British units freed the still occupied camps during the course of April.