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The Nazis deliberately allowed diseases to spread amongst concentration camp inmates, did this policy ever backfire and lead to large numbers of sick guards?

The Nazis deliberately allowed diseases to spread amongst concentration camp inmates, did this policy ever backfire and lead to large numbers of sick guards?

So strictly speaking, the premise here isn’t entirely correct, as it depends greatly on when, how, and where we are talking. It is important to remember that, broadly, there were two forms of camps run by the Nazis: Extermination camps, such as the Reinhard Camps, where the vast majority of new arrivals were murdered within mere hours of their arrival; and Concentration Camps, where large numbers of people were held for reasons that often amounted to nothing more than existing.

Hybrids also existed, most famously Auschwitz, but the distinction isn’t too important in this vein. In the latter case, extermination was often still the long-term goal, but not before every ounce of useful labor had been eked out of the imprisoned bodies as part of the massive system of slave labor employed by the Nazis.

We’re bringing this up for two reasons. The first is because in the extermination camps, the murder persons brought there was done as a matter of course, in mere hours, and there was no real opportunity for disease to take root and spread, although it might be worth noting that the grotesque ritual of stripping, shaving, and showering that new arrivals were told they would go through was often presented to them as delousing.

Second then, in the concentration camps, the widespread disease was not ideal. The inmates of the concentration camps were a workforce. A workforce which was planned to literally work to death, but morbid as it is to discuss, it was a planned death from complete and utter exhaustion at the end of their strength, not one from the disease that could strike down swathes of those who still had labored to steal.

So this now brings us to the main point, namely that in a concentration camp, attempts were made to prevent outbreaks. Available medical care was rudimentary, limited mostly to prisoners in the camps who had medical training, and was provided with only the barest of supplies by their captors, but it was there.

Delousing upon entry was routine, even if it was often ineffective. Rudimentary care existed, and sick persons could be put in isolation wards, but it is also important to note that killing the sick is a not uncommon method of dealing with it.

For instance, the first arrivals at Chelmno in late 1941 was a group of some 5,000 Roma who had been previously interned in a makeshift concentration camp near Łódź. After an outbreak of typhus saw some 600 or so individuals infected, it was decided the best way to deal with it would be to send all of them, infected or not, to the newly built extermination camp.

The prisoner-doctors in the camps would when able, even hide or downplay those infected, as infections could easily result in out of hand execution, and even the isolation wards of the camps were little more than a place to put people to die.

But in any case, the core point here is that epidemics within the camp were something seen as undesirable – for pragmatic reasons rather than the concern of welfare – but undesirable nevertheless.

But, as we noted at the beginning, you aren’t entirely off the mark here, and there are some key exceptions. Most infamous, and possibly what is on your mind, is the situation in some camps near the end of the war, the best known being Bergen-Belsen, where tens of thousands died (including Anne Frank) in early 1945 due to several concurrent outbreaks of disease, best remembered being typhus. But it is important to emphasize that this was early 1945.

Nazi Germany was falling apart, with the Allied powers closing in from both East and West. Bergen-Belsen was specifically being used as a collection point for the evacuation of the inmates of camps further to the east at that point, and the number contained there increased several-fold over that it had been intended for, from 15,000 in late ’44 to over 60,000 by April.

The cramped overcrowding, combined with the complete disregard for even the most basic welfare of the camp population by the guards – there was no running water or bathroom facilities of any kind in the main enclosure, allowed the quick spread of disease, and resulted in mass death.

At this point, we can absolutely point to the situation as one created by the Nazi regime, and in part driven by the total disregard for those held within the camp. Belsen was not an extermination camp, but it was by that point not one where a productive workforce was being press-ganged, and their death by untreated disease was of no real concern.

There is some irony, perhaps, in that near the end Himmler did order the epidemic to be combatted, in the vain belief he could use the camp inmates as a chip to deal with the Western Allies, but by then, of course, things had spiraled far beyond control anyways.

The prime example though, and perhaps alternatively closest to what you have in mind, is not the situation in the camps, but the situation in the closed-off ghettos to which the Nazi regime forced Jewish persons to congregate in the East prior to the establishment of the extermination camps. Similar to the situation in Belsen, the ghettos generally saw these spaces quickly filled up far beyond capacity, all Jewish families of an area now concentrated into space which before had likely housed only a fraction of them.

The cramped space, the overtaxed sanitation systems, the rudimentary support provided by outside authorities all but ensured outbreaks of disease – which of course then only confirmed the racial pseudoscience of the Nazis which believed Jews were dirty and prone to disease.

This had been part of the public justification for forced ghettoization in the first place, even, and perhaps comes closest to what you were envisioning about causing mass death by disease. A declaration in 1940 supporting the ghettoization, by the Generalgovernment’s head health official, noted:

The Jews are overwhelmingly the carriers and disseminators of infection. Spotted fever endures most persistently in the regions heavily populated by Jews with their low cultural level, their uncleanliness, and infestation of lice unavoidably connected with this. […] There are only two ways [to deal with them]. We sentence the Jews in the ghetto to death by hunger or we shoot them, even if in the end the result is the same, the latter is more intimidating, we have one and only one responsibility, that the German people are not infected and endangered by these parasites, for that any means must be right.

And while strictly speaking, “let’s put them all here so they die of disease” wasn’t in the absolute literal sense ‘the plan’, the Nazis were often quite happy with the results, Hans Michael Frank, Governor-General of Poland, happily remarking in 1943 how the terrible conditions of the ghetto were helping to deal with the Jewish population ‘naturally’.

A number of outbreaks occurred, although it should also be stressed that despite the dire circumstances they were forced to work in, the Jewish health professionals in the ghetto did their damndest to fight back, often with marked success, although often they had to fight not only the diseases themselves but also the active interference of the Germans who prevented their receipt of essential tools.

Doctors in the Warsaw ghetto, for instance, were denied anti-typhus serum deliveries and even saw the Germans quite literally steal their medical supplies in the middle of an outbreak. While both the Lodz and Warsaw ghetto suffered notable, extensive, outbreaks, the Vilna ghetto developed a particularly effective system of containment, so it wasn’t always a fight without victories, but even then, the disease was never truly defeated.

This isn’t to say German authorities had no concerns either. They might not have cared little for the humanity of the Jews in the ghetto, but generally, they didn’t desire large scale-outbreaks either.

But unlike the Jewish doctors and nurses, they often could be brutal in their methods of containment and often chose methods that for all their brutality were ineffective anyway, implementing harsh, but ineffective disinfection routines, and requiring complete, isolated quarantine of over 6 weeks for a house with an outbreak, despite 2 being quite adequate.

Furthermore, as in the camps, typhus infections would at times be dealt with through straight-up murder. In the Kovno ghetto, for instance, a supposed outbreak of typhus resulted in the burning of the hospital… with patients and medical personnel still inside.

As Baumslag aptly sums it up, “the German methods of fighting infectious diseases were well known and feared more than epidemics” and the result of course was the incentive to hide infections. Although it was well known that lice caused typhus, German solutions mostly focused on the infected persons and did little to attack the origin of the outbreaks.

Now, we have written quite a lot here to address the premise of this question, but not really what you asked, but the two are quite related. The takeaway, we hope, at this point is that even if the Nazis were not effective about it, nor doing so out of concern for the humanity of the prisoners, they did make at least some attempts to contain the disease in the camps, although at the same time it should certainly not be said that they particularly cared about their failures, especially seeing as the large-scale killing was one ‘solution’ they pursued.

And lest we consider for a moment more effective control wasn’t possible, upon the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, the British were able to report that there were no new typhus infections within two weeks of implementing their delousing program, although a number of prisoners, far to weakened and already infected, did pass away following their liberation.

Finally then, did these outbreaks in the ghettos, or in certain camps, result in large scale infection of the guards or non-prisoner personnel? In short, no. Almost all of these diseases are in fact quite treatable. Typhus, for instance, can be vaccinated against, and the vaccine was even on hand there at the time, but you can fairly safely assume who was going to receive it and who wouldn’t.

Likewise, Germans had access to effective delousing, a process which, humiliatingly, was often done by forced laborers who themselves had no such protections. It ought to have been little surprise that the Jewish workers forced to do delousing of German soldiers quickly saw typhus infections among themselves.

This isn’t to say that infections were never possible. Even the vaccine wasn’t a total guarantee, and at least one outbreak of typhus we found mention of occurred among Lithuanian staff in a German hospital who all did have the vaccine, but on the whole, even with some chance infections, there was little risk of the widespread outbreak within the German ranks.

Even without the vaccine, and even without the better delousing procedures, they were also a population of mostly well-fed, healthy young men and women, who in the case of infection, had access to decent medical care and would be kept in proper medical isolation in situations where it was called for.

So while, hopefully, I’ve provided some better insight into the nature of the disease in the camps, and the at best half-hearted attempts by the Germans to do anything about it, the end result, and the answer to this specific query are fairly muted. Not that we can say, with absolute certainty, there isn’t a source out there that mentioned an incident, on the whole, it is very safe to say that large outbreaks of disease among the Nazis who ran the camp system or enforced ghettoization, were not an issue faced, and while some isolated incidents can be pointed to, the circumstances for large-scale epidemic simply weren’t present.

1. Written by u/Georgy_K_Zhukov.
2. Baumslag, Naomi. Murderous Medicine: Nazi Doctors, Human Experimentation, and Typhus, Praeger, 2005.
3.Cesarani, David (2006) “A Brief History of Bergen-Belsen,” Holocaust Studies, 12:1-2, 13-21
4. Rees, Laurence. The Holocaust: A New History. Penguin Books Ltd, 2017
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