Nazi Concentration Camps: History, Locations & Facts

Instructor: Anne Butler

Anne has a bachelor's in K-12 art education and a master's in visual art and design. She currently works at a living history museum in Colorado.

The atrocities committed by the Nazis during World War II are innumerable. Many of these atrocities occurred at the concentration camps they created to imprison, and usually kill, anyone considered an enemy of Germany.

Types of Camps

While over 40,000 camps were built from 1933-45, this lesson will focus on the major camps in Austria, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), France, the Netherlands, Poland, Germany, Ukraine, and Latvia.

Concentration camps in Europe

The term concentration camp is a general term to describe all of the camps, but there were four different categories of camps. These are labor, death, holding, and transit.

Labor camps were used to provide Nazi factories with workers. Death camps, also called extermination camps, were camps where prisoners were executed usually immediately upon arrival. Transit camps were used to hold prisoners before they were sent to labor or death camps. Holding camps were places where prisoners were held before being exchanged for German nationals imprisoned in other countries. The early camps contained political prisoners. Jews and other people the Nazis didn't like, termed undesirable, were sent later, especially after Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, in 1938.


Although World War II didn't begin until September 1, 1939, Germany had begun to construct camps soon after Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany in 1933. The first camps began in Germany and multiplied as the Nazis conquered Europe. Most of the camps were labor camps, but some became death camps as gas chambers were added near the end of the war. Most of Germany's camps were liberated by 1945.


One of the first labor camps built was Dachau in 1935. It served as a training center for the SS, or Schutzstaffel guards.

Sachsenhausen was built in 1936. It was meant to be a model for other camps.

Buchenwald was one of the largest camps, constructed in 1937. Writer and Holocaust advocate Elie Wiesel was a prisoner here.

Neuengamme had been a subcamp of Sachsenhausen, built in 1938. A subcamp was run by the same people who would run the major camp, but Neuengamme became a major camp in 1940.

Ravensbrück was a women's camp, opened in 1939. Many of the prisoners made components for the V-1 and V-2 rockets.

Flossenbürg was opened in 1938 and many of its prisoners worked in stone quarries.

Buchenwald Liberation Photo. Wiesel is the seventh man on the second row.

Holding Centers

Bergen-Belsen opened in 1940. It was first meant to be a POW camp for French and Belgian prisoners, but later was used a holding center where Jews with foreign passports were to be exchanged with German nationals, but that rarely ever happened. Many died from disease, like Anne Frank and her sister Margot.

Anne Frank


Germany annexed Austria in March of 1938. Jews were not allowed to vote for the annexation. The main concentration camp in Austria was Mauthausen, which opened in the summer of 1938. It was a labor camp that imprisoned both men and women. The prisoners worked in the camp as well as nearby rock quarries.


Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. They split the country with the Soviet Union, who took the eastern side. A majority of the Nazi's death camps were in Poland, like the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau. Most Polish camps were liberated between 1944 and 45.

Belzec was opened in November 1941. Its purpose was the plundering and extermination of the Jews. By the time it ended operations in December of 1942, 500-600,000 people, mainly Jews, had been killed at the camp.

Majdanek, or Maidanek, opened in 1941. Its gas chambers were built in 1942.

Chelmno opened in 1941 as well. It was at Chelmno that the first exterminations by gas took place.

Treblinka opened in 1942 and closed the next year. The Nazis emptied the camp and destroyed as much physical evidence as they could. The only way people knew about the camp was through the testimony of camp staff and survivors.

Sobibor was established in 1942 as the second extermination camp. Sobibor was emptied and destroyed in October 1943 following a revolt by prisoners in September. 300 Jews had escaped but many of them were killed after the attempt.

Auschwitz-Birkenau was an extermination camp as well as a labor camp. It was established in 1940. The main camp was known as Auschwitz I. The gas chambers and crematoria opened in 1943. The camp was ordered to be emptied in 1944, and those that were able to walk were ordered on a death march, meaning the guards forced them to march to another location. Many would die on these marches.

Work Makes Free gate at Auschwitz

Labor Camps

Poland had three major labor camps. Gross-Rosen opened in 1940 as a subcamp of the German camp Sachsenhausen. Many of the prisoners were women.

Stutthof opened in 1939. It was the first camp created outside of Germany.

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