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German concentration camps


For years, Polish diplomacy has intervened against the use of the phrase "Polish extermination camps" as all of them were established by the Germans after their occupation of Poland begun in 1939. According to a report by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in 2009 alone, the phrase "Polish concentration camps" was used by foreign media 103 times. The term appeared most frequently in Germany—as many as 20 times. The FakeHunter website fact-checked several stories published on social media that spread fake news concerning German concentration camps.


First of all, they did not operate in Poland as early as 1935. The first site of slave labour and extermination on Polish territory was established by the Germans. This was the concentration camp at Auschwitz—KL Auschwitz—which was established in 1940.
Although an author of a tweet fact-checked by FakeHunter did not name the German camps allegedly operating in Poland as early as 1935 but his tweet was in apparent contradiction to the findings of historians. According to them, the first German concentration camp on Polish territory was established after Poland was defeated by the Germans in the 1939 September campaign. By invading Poland, the Germans had a ready-made plan to annihilate not only the state, but also the entire Polish nation.
However, it is worth mentioning that Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, and by 1935 there had already been a German concentration camp in Tarnogaj (Lower Silesia) for two years. But at the time, these were not Polish territories as they belonged to Germany.

The first so-called provisional concentration camps were organised by the Germans as early as October 1939 in Poznań (Konzentrationslager Posen) and Łódź-Radogoszcz (Konzentrationslager Radogosch). Poles who organised or could organise civilian resistance against the occupying forces were incarcerated there.
The first German concentration camp in Poland in the proper sense of the word, i.e., a place where the Nazis not only imprisoned but also forced people into slave labour, was Auschwitz concentration camp, established in May 1940, initially for 30,000 prisoners.
The first prisoners were Poles who were sent from Tarnów on June 14, 1940. There were 728 people sent to the death camp at that time, including members of the independence underground and those arrested in raids and round-ups. According to the Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau website, “the direct reason for the establishment of the camp was the fact that mass arrests of Poles were increasing beyond the capacity of existing ‘local’ prisons.”
It functioned in this role throughout its existence even when, starting from 1942, Auschwitz Concentration Camp also became the largest of the extermination centres where the "Endlösung der Judenfrage" (the final solution to the Jewish question—the Nazi plan to murder European Jews) was carried out.

Created by the German Nazis on the outskirts of Auschwitz, the camp combined two functions: a concentration camp and an extermination centre. The city was renamed Auschwitz after its incorporation into the Third Reich.
All of the guards at the Nazi German concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, located in German-occupied Poland, had to have German citizenship. The author of the tweet that was submitted for fact-checking stated that, according to his father who took part in the liberation of Auschwitz, the guards included Poles. This is fake news as the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp was under the administration of the German Nazi SS.
According to the studies by Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), the number of guards at Auschwitz grew during each year of the Second World War. In 1941, it numbered around 700 people, and in 1945 over 4,000 SS men. They had German citizenship (the so-called Reichsdeutsche) or were of German origin (the so-called Volksdeutsche—citizens of satellite or occupied by the Third Reich countries such as Romania, Slovakia and Hungary), but the latter also had to have German citizenship in order to work in the camp. In 1944, the proportion of Volksdeutsche in the Nazi guard declined, as senior military officers from the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe were sent to work in the camp.

Not every citizen of a Nazi-occupied country could become a Volksdeutche. This was offered to people who had German ancestors and were on the Volkslist—the German nationality list. If someone wanted to be listed as Volksdeutche they had to prove that they had German roots. Activities in German or pro-German organisations were also seen as an advantage. The term Volksdeutsche had a special, racial meaning for the German Nazis, as it denoted blood kinship.
Another tweet submitted for fact-checking suggested that attached image shows “the first prisoners arriving at Auschwitz on 20 May 1940”. The photo shows prisoners in striped uniforms, German soldiers and people who were brought to the camp. In fact, this photo was taken four years later and shows Hungarian Jews deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944.
The construction of Auschwitz II-Birkenau started in October 1941 on the site of the village of Brzezinka, 3 kilometres from Auschwitz I. The Polish population that lived in the village was displaced and the German Nazis built most of the mass extermination facilities there. The image can be found on the official website of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum with the description "Jews deported from Hungary on the ramp at Auschwitz II-Birkenau."

Another fake news concerns a chimney of the crematorium at the Auschwitz concentration camp. An author of a tweet had compared two images. Both show the same part of the Auschwitz concentration camp. The first photo was captioned: "Auschwitz 1945", while the second was "Auschwitz today". The difference between the two images is that the contemporary one shows a tall chimney, that does not exist in the historical photo. The message is obvious—the author of the tweet by suggesting that the chimney was not built until after the camp was liberated in 1945, tried to deny the genocide at Auschwitz. The photos show the facts, but the author had manipulated their context.
Initially, there was only one camp established in June 1940, Auschwitz 1. The crematorium at Auschwitz 1, visible in photos, was in operation only during part of the Second World War. In March 1942, the construction of Auschwitz-Birkenau (so-called Auschwitz 2) was finished with new gas chambers that were used by the camp authorities to carry out mass killings.
Gradually, the Germans stopped using the first chamber. In July 1943, the incineration of corpses in crematorium I was discontinued and the chimney was demolished. In the following year it was converted into an air raid shelter. That is why the chimney is not visible in the photographs taken after the liberation of the camp in 1945. But evidences of its existence are in WWII German construction plans of the crematoria, dated 25 September 1941 and 3 August 1942.

From 1943, the extermination operations were taken over by the new, more efficient crematorium II and crematorium III, where up to 1440 corpses could be incinerated per day. In the two smaller facilities (crematoria IV and V) up to 768 corpses per day were incinerated.
After World War Two, the authorities decided to rebuild crematorium I in its original form. The two furnaces and the chimney were reconstructed from the original fragments.
Auschwitz was not the only German extermination camp established on German-occupied Polish territory. In August 1941, another concentration camp was opened—KL Lublin, commonly referred to as Majdanek. The camp was designed for 25,000-50,000 prisoners. Also in 1941, the concentration camp at Birkenau—KL Birkenau—began operating, to which female prisoners, previously held in the men's camp of KL Auschwitz, were transferred. At that time the concentration camp in Rogoźnica—KL Gross-Rosen—was also established.

From May 1942 to December 1943, a German extermination camp existed also in Sobibór. Like other death camps in German-occupied Poland, it was neither established nor managed by Poles. A tweet published on 3 June 2023 and submitted for fact-checking read: "In June 1943, (...) more than 1,250 children (aged 0 to 16), with one or both parents, left Vught via Camp Westerbork to the Polish extermination camp Sobibor."
The phrase "Polish extermination camp" in reference to the German Nazi camp at Sobibór was wrongly used and in a disinformative manner.
The Nazi German extermination camp at Sobibór was established as the second centre, after Bełżec, for the extermination of Jews as part of the "Operation Reinhardt" (the code name for the German action to exterminate Polish Jews in the General Government district of German-occupied Poland). The camp was founded and managed by the Germans. The Poles had no influence on its operation, and it was linked to Poland only by its location—it was located in the German-occupied Lublin region (southern Poland) during World War II.

The Nazis built the camp in the woods, close to the Lublin-Chełm-Włodawa railway, which enabled efficient transport. Jews from ghettos and labour camps were sent there, initially from occupied Poland and later also from other European countries. The first transports probably arrived as early as the end of March or the beginning of April 1942. From May 1942, the systematic extermination process began. The victims were killed in the gas chambers using combustion gases.
Approximately 180,000 Jews were murdered in the Sobibór camp. This number includes more than 70,000 Jewish residents of the Lublin region, 34,000 Jews from the Netherlands and 24,000 from Slovakia. Among the victims were also Jews from Austria, Belarus, the Czech Republic, France, Lithuania, Germany and Russia.
The camp was administered by the Germans and was directly subordinate to the Concentration Camps Inspectorate, which was administered by the SS Main Economic and Administrative Office. The camp staff consisted of SS men, and Poles were never admitted to this formation. A total of 51 Germans and Austrians and a guard company of 120-150 persons served in the camp throughout its operation. They were recruited from Soviet prisoners of war or organisations collaborating with the German Nazis in the Eastern Europe: Latvians, Lithuanians, Belarusians and Ukrainians. Poles never worked as guards at Sobibór.

On 14 October 1943, an uprising started in the camp. After killing several members of SS and guards, a large group of prisoners managed to escape. By the end of the war, 60 of the escapees had survived. After the uprising, the Germans decided to liquidate the camp. Jewish prisoners brought from the Treblinka extermination camp dismantled the barracks and gas chambers. After dismantling the camp facilities, they were executed.
Another concentration camp KL Warschau, commonly referred to as Gęsiówka, existed on the area of the former Warsaw Ghetto from July 1943 to August 1944.

The statement submitted for fact-checking, according to which the Konzentrationslager Warschau did not exist, came from a story on alleged forgeries in the Chinese-language version of Wikipedia concerning Russian history published on Habr.com (a Russian user-generated content site). The story was titled „«Китайская Борхес»: домохозяйка превратила российскую историю в китайской Вики в фейк” (“’China's Borges’: housewife turns Russian story in Chinese Wiki into fake”)
The author of the story introduced himself as Alexei Kostenkov and used the nickname @Erwinmal. The passage that raised the doubts read „доселе самым известным вики-фейком считалась существовавшая 15 лет на англоязычной Википедии статья про концлагерь Konzentrationslager Warschau в оккупированной нацистами Варшаве… которого никогда не существовало в реальности” ("until now, the most famous wiki-fake was a 15-year-old article on the English-language Wikipedia about the Konzentrationslager Warschau, a concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Warsaw... which never actually existed").

Of course, this is not true. The existence of the concentration camp KL Warschau on the territory of the former Warsaw Ghetto in the area between Gęsia Street (from which the camp's common name derives), Zamenhofa, Okopowa, Gliniana, Ostrowska and Wolynska streets is very well documented and does not raise a shadow of a doubt among historians.
A description of the Gęsiówka liberation on 5 August 1944 by Warsaw insurgents from the ‘Zośka’ Home Army battalion can be found in numerous stories told by participants of these events in the form of memoirs written by themselves. Numerous stories concerning the history of the camp are also available as part of the Oral History Archive project developed by the Warsaw Uprising Museum. KL Warschau or Gęsiówka is mentioned in more than 100 stories published there. The earlier history of the camp, which existed from July 1943, has also been of interest to historians. KL Warschau has an abundant bibliography. A monograph published in 2007 by Bogusław Kopka entitled ‘Konzentrationslager Warschau. History and Aftermath’ most thoroughly discussed the history of this camp. The camp also has rich photographic documentation. In the sources for this article, we included a link to sample photographs from the National Digital Archive and the Warsaw Rising Museum.
The "Polish concentration camps" phrase is being used by the German press, including “Der Spiegel", "Die Welt", "Die Zeit", "Sueddeutsche Zeitung". It was also used by, among others, other media, such as American "The New York Times" or British "The Guardian".

The most famous use of the phrase was by US President Barack Obama, during a ceremony honouring Jan Karski, a courier of the Polish underground state, a holder of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Authors of publications using the phrase "Polish extermination camps" usually claim that the term is intended as a shorthand regarding the geographical location of the camps on the territory of German-occupied Poland. This is how Barack Obama explained himself in 2012. However, such an explanation may give the wrong impression that Poles were co-creators of the camps and the crimes committed there.
Lawsuits for infringement of personal rights have been filed by private individuals outraged by the Western media's description of German Nazi death camps as "Polish". According to a verdict of the Court of Appeal in Krakow, the German television channel, ZDF, had to apologise to a Pole, former Auschwitz prisoner, Karol Tendera, for wrongly referring to Auschwitz as a Polish extermination camp. Despite losing the trial, the German public broadcaster has so far evaded execution of the judgment.