By Travis Gulbrandson
When Dr. Geoffrey P. Megargee first arrived to work at the United States Holocaust Museum in January 2000, experts estimated there were approximately 5,000-7,000 concentration camps in Europe during World War II.
“I thought those were astounding numbers,” he said. “But the more we looked, the more we found. There were some categories that had not been researched properly that are still to be researched. There are some categories that had been researched, but nobody had ever put all the numbers together.
“All told, at this point, we have a working figure for our seven-volume encyclopedia of 42,500 sites that we’re trying to document and describe,” he said.
Megargee visited the University of South Dakota Tuesday night to discuss the various types of camps and their purposes as part of the Herbert S. Schell Annual Lecture in History.
Megargee has spent more than a decade at the Holocaust museum, where he serves as a senior applied research scholar with the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies.
His primary role is to serve as the general editor for the museum’s seven-volume “Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945.”
“Concentration camp” has become a catch-all term for what was a variety of different camps, from ghettos and “Germanization” camps to forced labor camps and, ultimately, killing centers.
With the sheer number of camps throughout Europe, Megargee said the argument that the Germans didn’t know about them doesn’t hold water.
“The concentration camps were public knowledge from the start because the regime publicized them,” he said. “They were in the papers, they were on the radio, reporters went into them and reported on conditions. They were shown a sanitized version of what was going on – and we’re not talking about genocide, because that hadn’t even started yet – but just the very rough treatment that went on in the camps.”
The Nazis wanted people to know about the concentration camps as a deterrent measure, he said.
“If you were bad, you were going to get sent to a concentration camp, so there was no sense in keeping them a secret,” he said.
Additionally, virtually all types of businesses were using inmates of forced labor camps as slaves by the end of the war.
“There’s absolutely no way that any German could say they didn’t know about the presence of these people. Every butcher, baker, candlestick-maker, small factory, large factory, mine, railroad station, hospital, farm, they were all using forced laborers,” said Megargee. “You could not go anywhere in Germany without running into people who were being held against their will and forced to work, so the idea that someone would be unaware of that is nonsense.”
When people say the Germans didn’t know, Megargee suspects they are referring to the killing centers, because unlike the concentration camps, the Nazis wanted them to be kept secret.
“The Nazi regime did not want people knowing about them because this was such a radical measure,” he said. “But, there were so many people involved in this process – railroad managers, bureaucrats throughout the Nazi government. Lots of people knew exactly what was going on, so word got out.”
An example of this can be found in the diaries of Victor Klemperer, a Jewish man who avoided deportation through most of the war because his wife was not Jewish.
By March 1942, Klemperer’s diary already contains a reference to Auschwitz.
“He knew that this was a place where Jews were sent and killed in large numbers,” Megargee said. “He didn’t know how, he didn’t know what was involved, but he knew that this was a death sentence. This is only a few months after the place started operating.
“If you didn’t want to close your ears to it, if you didn’t dismiss it as Allied propaganda, the information was there. So people knew. They knew something. They knew that terrible things were happening inside of the camps.”
Senior figures in the US government also knew “fairly early,” Megargee said.
“There was a hesitation about making too much of this because the Nazis were accusing the Western Allies and the Soviets of fighting on behalf of the Jews, and this was a part of the overall Jewish conspiracy,” he said. “They didn’t want to encourage that. You pair that with a lot of strong anti-Semitism in American society … and it all ended up sort of muddling the picture.”
That picture is still being cleared up today, thanks to the work of researchers who have pored over millions of camp-related documents that were seized after the war.
“We’re able to put together a fairly complete picture, at least with the broad numbers of camps, with their purposes, their locations,” Megargee said. “We don’t always have a detailed picture of what life was like in each individual camp or every event that occurred in each place, but in general terms we have a pretty good idea from these millions of pages of documentation.”
The sheer volume of documentation of the Nazis’ crimes flies in the face of claims made by Holocaust-deniers, Megargee said.
“I don’t have a lot of time to spend on the serious deniers,” he said. “We get questions from people who honestly don’t know and want to find out, and of course we’ll help them. I don’t spend time arguing with deniers because they’re not interested in reason.”