Stigmatized their whole lives long

Stigmatized their whole lives long

On the German Bundestag’s decision to give official recognition to concentration camp inmates who were persecuted by the Nazis for being “anti-social elements” or “career criminals”.

People who were persecuted under National Socialism as “anti-social elements” or “career criminals” and were deported to concentration camps are to be recognized as “victims of the National Socialist system of injustice” at last and are to be involved more closely in remembrance and public commemoration. The Bundestag approved a motion to this effect in February 2020. The following interview with Dr. Henning Borggräfe, Head of the Research and Education department at the Arolsen Archives, examines the treatment meted out to the members of these victim groups, who were silenced and excluded for so long.

Of all the different kinds of people who suffered persecution at the hands of the Nazi dictatorship, which of them were accepted as belonging to a “victim group” after the end of the war, and when did this happen? What kind of compensation was available to them?

As soon as the war ended, the Allies and local relief agencies tried to take care of the surviving victims of the Nazi regime. Initially, welfare plans and local assistance were put into place and continued until the Federal Compensation Act was passed in West Germany in 1953. However, this law only granted compensation to people who had been persecuted “on grounds of race, religion, or ideology.” Unfortunately, from 1945 onwards this policy of exclusion was also fostered by political organizations that represented persecutees themselves. Even in the GDR, only political opponents and victims of racial persecution were eligible to receive state benefits.

This meant that many groups were excluded from social and political recognition as persecutees, including various groups of concentration camp prisoners, such as Sinti and Roma, homosexuals, but also those who were known as “anti-social elements” and “career criminals” at the time and had been obliged to wear black and green triangles in the concentration camps. Imprisoning such people in concentration camps was not considered to be a National Socialist injustice, and they were not eligible to receive any compensation for it. The same applied to almost all foreign nationals, unless they had been registered as Displaced Persons in occupied Germany by a certain specific date. Additional measures which benefited foreign victims of Nazi persecution from Western Europe were introduced in the late 1950s and ‘60s. However, payments to victims of Nazi persecution in Central Eastern and Eastern Europe did not even begin until the 1990s, and the program of compensation for forced laborers provided through the Foundation “Remembrance, Responsibility and Future” (EVZ) was not concluded until 2007.
Back in the 1980s already, social initiatives in the Federal Republic of Germany had begun to call for the “forgotten victims,” as they were known in those days, to be properly looked after. At the time, the focus was primarily on Sinti and Roma and homosexuals in addition to forced laborers. However, as far as compensation was concerned, these efforts only led to the establishment of small hardship funds with narrowly defined criteria for issuing payments. But definite progress was made in the area of public commemoration, and remembrance of the persecution of the Sinti and Roma and homosexual gradually gained ground.

Then, quite recently, a new initiative was launched with the aim of giving those men and women who were deported to concentration camps as “anti-social elements” or “career criminals” official recognition as victims of Nazi persecution. The majority of people belonging to these prisoner categories did not draw public attention to their experiences themselves. Many of them kept the time they had spent in concentration camps secret, or at least did not disclose the color of the triangle they had been forced to wear. The reason for their reticence was a fear of stigmatization, coupled with the ongoing discrimination they often continued to face even after the end of the Nazi era.

Who was counted as belonging to the groups that were persecuted for being “anti-social elements” and “career criminals?”

The Nazis used the term “anti-social element” as a collective category to cover the persecution of social outsiders – it was used to justify mass arrests on a large-scale, such as the 1938 “Reich work-shirker” campaign, but it was also part of everyday police practice. Homeless people, beggars, vagrants, pimps, prostitutes, welfare recipients, and last but not least “gypsies and people roaming about in the manner of gypsies” were all considered to be “anti-social elements.” But Jewish men who had some kind of previous conviction could also end up being detained in a concentration camp on the grounds of being “anti-social elements.” In contrast, people who had multiple convictions for property offences, such as burglary, theft, fraud, or receiving stolen goods, were considered to be “career criminals.” They had already served their prison sentences, which in most cases dated back to the period before 1933, when they were placed into “preventive detention” without any concrete charge and detained in a concentration camp. This reflected an idea which was already firmly anchored in criminological discourse before the Nazi era and which held that some people made their living from crime. These people were to be removed from the “people’s community.” From documents in our archives, we know of cases where young men were deported to a concentration camp as “career criminals” despite the fact that they had no previous convictions, because local police officers had predicted that they would have a criminal “career.” So the vast majority of those prisoners who were made to wear a green triangle had not committed any serious acts of violence before their imprisonment – such crimes were still dealt with by the judiciary during the Nazi era, and people who were convicted of such crimes served their sentences in prisons. However, from 1942 onwards, so-called preventive detention prisoners were also transferred from prisons to concentration camps for “extermination through labor.”

It is still unclear exactly how many people were imprisoned in the concentration camps and made to wear a green or a black triangle. However, it seems safe to assume that several tens of thousands of men and a few thousand women were affected; most were from Germany, but some came from the occupied territories. How many of them died as a consequence is still not known. But case studies tell us that the death rate was very high, especially among those prisoners who were assigned a black triangle.

People who were arrested by the Kripo (police criminal investigation department) as “criminals” or “anti-social elements” on account of supposed or actual socially deviant behavior were categorized as „preventive detention“ prisoners. Many imprisoned Sinti and Roma people were also categorized in this way by the Nazis. This sentence was passed on social outsiders (see the letter on the left concerning the “preventive” arrest of 124 people) as well as people who had just been released from prison, even though they had already served their time. The prisoner category AZR stands for “Arbeitszwang Reich” – “Reich compulsory work” and was often given to people who had been arrested as “antisocial”.

What records can be found in the Arolsen Archives on concentration camp prisoners who were categorized as “anti-social elements” or “career criminals?”

The documents in the Arolsen Archives are a very important resource for research and remembrance. The persecution suffered by the thousands of prisoners who were made to wear a green or a black triangle can often only be pieced together from the registration documents of individual prisoners, or from lists concerning transports, admissions and releases, medical treatment, labor details, or deaths in the concentration camps, which we keep in Arolsen. Because of the discrimination they continued to face after 1945, the men and women who belonged to these groups left behind very few personal accounts of their experiences. No large-scale contemporary witness projects focused on them later like those that were set up for other prisoner groups. And since they were not eligible for compensation, there are also very few case files for people who belong to these groups; these files are otherwise an important secondary source for biographical research.

In addition to research on individual prisoners – the surviving prisoner files of many inmates of the Flossenbürg concentration camp who were assigned a green triangle deserve special mention as a very valuable resource in this area – and research on the development of prisoner societies in individual camps, our archive also offers enormous potential for new approaches. This applies in particular to the reconstruction of paths of persecution through the concentration camp system. This is possible thanks to the name indexing provided by the Central Name Index. This kind of approach does not focus on individual places of detention, but on prisoners and on their movements between the camps. Working in this way highlights the dynamics of persecution, the heterogeneous nature of experiences of persecution, but also the overall extent of the persecution suffered by these groups. For example, it soon becomes apparent that many victims of the “Reich work-shirker” campaign that took place in the summer of 1938 were repeatedly “shifted” to other concentration camps over the following years and that many of the men died shortly after arriving in camps that they had never been in before. The very high death rates are quite shocking, as are the fates of individuals when examined in detail. For example, this group includes young people who were arrested in 1938 at the age of 16 for “gadding about.” Some of them passed through seven or eight concentration camps in the following seven years experiencing ever-new horrors in each one. By the time they were liberated in 1945, they had spent a third of their lives in concentration camps, but no help was available to them afterwards.

What role did the archive in Arolsen play when it came to the question of compensation?

In the 1950s and ‘60s, the compensation authorities sent hundreds of thousands of inquiries to the ITS (the historical name for the tracing service that later became the Arolsen Archives) asking for verification of compensation claims. These inquiries included many hundreds of cases of people who had been assigned a green or a black triangle and had now submitted a claim for compensation. In their dealings with the authorities, many of them stated that they had been persecuted for political or racial reasons – because they had criticized the Nazi regime or because they had been considered to be “gypsies,” for example. The ITS issued certificates of imprisonment in response, copying the official reasons for their imprisonment and their official prisoner categories verbatim from documents that had been created by the perpetrators – without viewing the information thus obtained with a critical eye. This rendered the descriptions given by the victims themselves completely redundant, as the authorities accepted the categorizations that had been made by the perpetrators without question. While the information from the archive in Arolsen often helped Jewish persecutees and political opponents to substantiate their claims, it had exactly the opposite effect for social outsiders: it provided the supposedly conclusive evidence that was used to justify the rejection of their compensation claims. This history lays a great burden of responsibility on our shoulders today, because it demonstrates that the documents held in Bad Arolsen that bear witness to the crimes that took place do not simply speak for themselves. They were created by a criminal system, and they must be carefully contextualized if they are to be properly understood and if improper use is to be prevented.

Henning Borggräfe

The fact that a family member had been imprisoned in a concentration camp was often taboo because the stigma of being an “anti-social element” or a “career criminal” continues to have a consternating effect on many people today and gives rise to a great deal of uncertainty, this is due in part to the choice of words itself.

Henning Borggräfe, Head of Research and Education, Arolsen Archives

How did the Bundestag come to make the belated decision to recognize people categorized as “anti-social elements” or “career criminals” as victims of Nazi persecution?

As I mentioned before, the National Socialist persecution of social outsiders and the fact that they were barred from receiving compensation and were not recognized as victims have been the subject of recent public debate on the Nazi past since the 1980s. But those categorized as “anti-social elements” or “career criminals” tended to be marginalized in these debates on “forgotten victims” too. Not until recently has there been more research on the subject, much of it conducted by our colleagues at concentration camp memorial sites. What triggered the initiative in the Bundestag was a petition posted on Change.org in April 2018 by social scientist Frank Nonnemacher, whose uncle was himself one of these marginalized survivors. He found over 20,000 supporters, many of them from the world of academia and from remembrance initiatives. Bündnis 90/Die Grünen and the FDP were the first to respond to the petition by proposing their own parliamentary motions, followed by the Linkspartei and the governing parties, the SPD and the CDU/CSU. An expert hearing was held in the Bundestag in the autumn of 2019, and in February 2020, the government majority passed the motion proposed by the SPD and CDU/CSU. Those prisoners described by the National Socialists as “career criminals” and “anti-social elements” are to be recognized as victims of National Socialist tyranny, and public remembrance of the injustice done to them is to be promoted, primarily through an exhibition project and the funding of appropriate research. The resolution also explicitly includes both groups in the guidelines that govern a hardship fund for “coping with the consequences of war,” which was created in the 1980s already. But no new compensation program has been launched, so what we are seeing here is more on a symbolic level. Perhaps the most important sentence in all these motions and discussions is this one: “No one was rightly imprisoned, tortured, or murdered in a concentration camp.” This may seem self-evident to us today, but it is actually the result of decades of social debate which have brought about a gradual broadening of society’s understanding of National Socialist injustice – and incidentally, it is unfortunately not the consensus view either, as various reactions from the ranks of the AfD party showed.

Why is official recognition as a victim of Nazi persecution still so important today?

In a sense, acknowledging their persecution implies the belated social rehabilitation of these former prisoners. This is very important for the few persecutees who are still alive, but it is also especially important for the families of those affected. Years and years of social exclusion have meant that many families still have difficulty in coming to terms with their history, which has often been treated as a dark secret. The fact that a family member had been imprisoned in a concentration camp was often taboo because the stigma of being an “anti-social element” or a “career criminal” continues to have a consternating effect on many people today and gives rise to a great deal of uncertainty, this is due in part to the choice of words itself. We see this, for example, when we try to return the personal belongings of former concentration camp prisoners to their families; these so-called effects are still kept in our archives. Sometimes the families do not even want to have the personal belongings of a former prisoner who was assigned a green or a black triangle returned to them because they don’t want to be reminded of this chapter in their family history.
A second important aspect is that the image that the public has of Nazi persecution and its victims needs to become more inclusive; it is to be hoped that the Bundestag initiative will have a positive effect here. In order to understand the history of National Socialism, it is important to see the entire breadth of the persecution and to open up our eyes to the plight of social outsiders too. As a center on Nazi persecution that preserves documents from the concentration camps and makes them accessible to the public, we also see this as an important objective for our own work in the areas of education and communication. Last but not least, the discrimination of social outsiders is still a very important and highly topical issue for European societies today. What we are talking about here are groups of people who have been discriminated against and terribly persecuted because they are alleged to have engaged in behavior that deviates from the social norm or because they actually engaged in such behavior, people whose rights are unfortunately still not always upheld, even today.

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