Andre Sellier. A History of the Dora Camp: The Untold Story of the Nazi Slave Labor Camp That Secretly Manufactured V-2 Rockets. Chicago: I.R. Dee, 2003. 547 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-56663-511-0.
Reviewed by Michael Petersen (Department of History, University of Maryland, College Park)
Published on H-German (April, 2004)
Extermination, Work, and Community in the Dora-Mittelbau Concentration Camp System
Extermination, Work, and Community in the Dora-Mittelbau Concentration Camp System
Andre Sellier first published A History of the Dora Camp in France as Histoire du Camp de Dora (1998) and again in German as Zwangsarbeit im Raketentunnel (2000). This edition is, surprisingly, the first full-length history of the Dora-Mittelbau camp system to be produced in English. Sellier's effort, despite its shortcomings, is a complex, nuanced, and balanced case study of slave labor in the final two years of the Nazi regime.
The book is notable for several reasons. First, Sellier himself was a prisoner in Dora in 1944-45, working at the relatively safe and comfortable task of electrical quality control in the tunnel factory of Mittelwerk. Nevertheless, Sellier ably maintains a critical distance from his subject, drawing on his own experiences only rarely while relying on his sources to dictate the path of his narrative and demonstrate his arguments. In this sense, his work is similar that of Eugen Kogon and Hermann Langbein, whose earlier efforts proved to be path-breaking books that combined, to excellent effect, the authority of the professional historian with the moral and historical perspective of a memoirist. However, Sellier seeks to distance himself from these historians. Their work, he correctly points out, created a somewhat stereotypical picture of the Nazi camp system which focused not only on the larger camps such as Buchenwald, but also on the German prisoners within those camps, failing to include other nationalities or ethnic groups within the camps. "It was in this way," Sellier points out, "that the specificity of the Shoah came to be inadequately emphasized" (p. 4).
Moreover, Sellier also seeks to create a picture of the camp system that accounts for the major changes that took place in the camps between 1943 and 1945. The heavy reliance of the armaments industry on slave labor, the growth in the number of exterior sub-camps and work gangs, and the great expansion of the sheer number of prisoners made this a dynamic period in the concentration camp system's history, one much different than earlier periods at places such as Dachau, Sachsenhausen, and Flossenburg. One of the great services of Sellier's effort is that he replaces the heretofore static picture of the camp phenomenon with one that integrates the chronology of the camp into the dynamic narrative of the final years of the Nazi regime. In this regard, he belongs to the growing stable of international historians such as Jan Erik-Schulte, Michael Thad Allen, and Jens-Christian Wagner.
Sellier bases his book on the oral histories collected in the Dora-Ellrich Former Prisoners' Association Archives in France. The testimonies here are generally published monographs, serial accounts, letters, questionnaires, and interviews. These sources comprise the bulk of his evidence and he skillfully uses them to retrace the history of the Dora camps from the inside out. The result is a unique narrative of the development of the Dora-Mittelbau camp system, its functional dynamics, and its eventual collapse. Nevertheless, this methodological approach is not without its problems, which will be discussed below.
It was partially the war situation itself, and partially the designs of Reichsfuehrer-SS Heinrich Himmler to subsume war production under the aegis of his organization, that led to the creation of Dora. By the middle of 1943, Germany's crumbling hegemony over Europe was forcing a reassessment of the military potential of more conventional weapons as well as armaments production in general. To make matters worse for the Nazi regime, Germany also faced a severe shortage of labor to staff factories in the armaments industry. German authorities increasingly turned to forced and slave labor to make up for the shortfall. Forced labor had been in use at Peenemuende since 1940, but after the bombing of the ultra-secret rocket research facility at Peenemuende on the Baltic coast, Himmler convinced Hitler to move rocket production underground and, in order to maintain the strictest secrecy considerations possible, use concentration camp prisoners to produce the weapon.
Before rocket production could be transferred underground, suitable facilities had to be created. The site chosen by the SS and civilian engineers was a secret oil depot in a mine in the Harz Mountains near the town of Nordhausen in central Germany. To prepare the site for mass rocket production, the tunnels needed to be expanded and production machinery installed. This was accomplished by SS and civilian authorities at an enormous cost in human life. From September 1943 through March 1944, prisoners transferred by the SS from Buchenwald to Dora worked under the most brutal conditions. Production planners, who gave absolute priority to factory installation, had little regard for their safety or well-being. They slept in the tunnel galleries, and hygienic conditions were catastrophic. During the winter of 1943-44, inbound trains from Buchenwald delivered more and more prisoners to replace those who died in the tunnels or were too weak to work and sent to be gassed at Majdanek. Suitable barracks for the prisoners were not erected until May 1944 (pp. 58-71). Sellier calculates that 5882 prisoners, or a third of Dora's population, died between the months of October 1943 and April 1944 (p. 83).
This story of the installation of the rocket factory is relatively well-known. However, Sellier adds two important dimensions to the history of the Dora camp experience. The first is a heretofore unseen picture of the internal dynamics of the prisoner community at Dora and its sub-camps that was established during this period. According to Sellier, the camp dynamic at Buchenwald was initially responsible for relations between prisoners at Dora. Political prisoners at Buchenwald, the so-called "Reds," were in charge of most of the important prisoner functionary positions and were able to have many German criminal prisoners, the "Greens," sent to Dora, where they in turn were put in charge of many important functions. Eventually, the Reds managed to seize control of the important positions at Dora and relegated the Greens to the key positions in satellite camps such as Ellrich and Harzungen, thereby making even worse the terrible disparity between conditions at Dora and the sub-camps. Sellier shows that the greens, reduced to subordinate positions at Buchenwald and Dora, had the opportunity to vent their frustration and did not hesitate to take it. Moreover, their deep-seated xenophobia was played out on the other nationalities within the camps as they murderously beat average prisoners in the various work Kommandos. "The harder the Kommando," Sellier points out, "the stronger the national antagonisms" (p. 144). He argues that through their physical abuse and twisted supervision of the work, they were responsible for working many prisoners to death (pp. 109, 88).
This deadly arrangement of the prisoners' living and working conditions exacerbated rivalries between nationalities in the Dora camp system. For Sellier, the Soviet prisoners, usually Russians and Ukrainians, were the most rapacious of the various ethnic groups, stealing from, beating, and cheating their fellow prisoners. Poles "formed a proletariat deprived of any national political or cultural framework.... They did not have a good reputation; in fact, they were often detested by Western prisoners, particularly the French" (p. 110). Czechs, many of whom had German language ability and a certain level of organizational prowess, held many important positions, both in the camp and in the factory, and were respected by other inmates somewhat more than the Polish and Soviet prisoners. French prisoners, whose testimonies form the bedrock of the book, were often given privileged positions in the camp hierarchy. Sellier shows that some were even able to reconstitute resistance groups and engage, with varying levels of success, in sabotage in the factory. His treatment of the political and national dynamics of the camps' social life is an important addition to historians' knowledge of forced and slave labor communities in the Third Reich, even if one questions the broad generalizations that Sellier makes about each group. In any case, this oft-overlooked topic was central to the experience of the victims of Nazi oppression, and Sellier's attention to it is a welcome addition to the scholarship.
The second and no less important feature of Sellier's effort is his minutely detailed examination of life in Dora's satellite camps. After the period of factory installation, many workers were sent to these camps, which sprang up in the region in mid-1944 and afterwards, when construction on the camp intended for factory workers was finishing and the last inhabitants of the tunnels were being transferred out. Sellier illustrates that there was simply not enough room for all of the prisoners at Dora. New camps had to be built to house the excess captives. At the same time, the civilian workers needed to be housed. A great deal of construction still remained to be done outside the tunnel after the factory was completed, and labor in the satellite camps was free and plentiful. SS captors piled their victims into them with little regard for food, sanitary conditions, or the elements. These camps supplied the labor for digging out underground galleries, civil engineering projects on the surface, and generally enabling the outfitting and servicing of the vast industrial complex that was to be set up underground. With such a vast supply of prisoner labor and more pouring in almost daily, the SS did not give any regard to the needs of the prisoners who worked in these camps and on these construction projects. Their very numbers made the prisoners expendable.
However, Sellier ignores this connection between the skill level of laborers and the construction activities in the sub-camps, thus missing a valuable opportunity to make an important point about the relationship between extermination and work under the Nazis in the closing years of the war. He indicates that the death rate at Dora and in the underground factory, where a degree of skill and training was necessary to carry out the work, steadied and even declined from May 1944 through January 1945. Conversely, at the sub-camps, where earth-moving and materials transport required little skill, the death rate remained murderously high. The end result, it seems, was a system that did not kill on the basis of Nazi racial values, but rather used the functional criteria of professional skill as a determinant of human worth. Sellier, however, distinguishes between skilled and unskilled laborers at the different camps, but fails to make the point that functional criteria appears to be the most important factor in an individual's chances for survival.
Another important issue that Sellier addresses is the complicity of various groups in the atrocities perpetrated against prisoners. Here, he generally restricts his analysis to the main camp of Dora. Sellier examines the roles played by civilian personnel, prisoner functionaries, and the SS in the structure of oppression within the camp and the factory. Relations between the prisoners and civilian employees, most often skilled technical supervisors or engineers, were "usually acceptable and sometimes cordial" (p. 137). Most of the civilians involved in setting up the factory came from Peenemuende or were sub-contracted employees of subsidiary firms. For the most part, they left the disciplining of prisoners to the Kapos and SS, and were, in fact, expressly forbidden by the SS to punish prisoners (p. 87). Nevertheless, Sellier notes that in the factory transport Kommando, where, incidentally, skilled labor was not required, civilians hit and abused prisoners (p. 136). In general, however, Sellier notes that "the majority [of civilians who worked with prisoners] were indifferent" (p. 87).
Sellier's analysis of the role of civilian workers at Dora is, in the end, problematic and unsatisfactory. His engagement with this central question of civilian complicity is minimal. To describe the civilian technicians and engineers as indifferent rejects the notion that they could have had any engagement with the moral dimensions of their work and endorses Hannah Arendt's long overturned thesis on the banality of evil. Scholarly literature on the Holocaust over the last decade has conclusively shown that individual perpetrators actually did engage the moral dimensions of their actions in a variety of ways. Engineers at Dora-Mittelbau presumably did the same. How did these engineers and technicians justify using concentration camp labor to mass produce rockets? For those civilians who did intervene in the day to day life of the prisoners either in a positive or negative sense, did they do so out of humane considerations or economic and military necessity? If they were in fact "indifferent," what social, cultural, and political factors were at play to make them so? Sellier's refusal to engage these questions is unfortunate, and one suspects that it is a problem of method, to be discussed below.
In contrast, Sellier's treatment of the complicity of prisoner functionaries and the SS is first-rate. The political and national antagonisms between prisoners have been noted above, and Sellier attributes a great deal of the blame for criminal excesses to the dynamic between prisoners. He carefully notes, however, that "to pass on to some Haeftlingsfuehrung or other ... is to forget rather hastily the role of the SS and especially of those in charge of the manufacturing operation of the V2s, to which the camp was intrinsically linked" (p. 89). The SS wardens, he maintains, were the central feature in the structure of abuse at Dora-Mittelbau. This was particularly true during the factory installation phase, when SS guards "hunted down all those they considered layabouts from every nook, of which, at the time, there was no lack, in particular young Ukrainians. It was reign of terror" (p. 89). Even after mass production began and the role of the SS in the factory itself partially gave way to civilian authority, Sellier shows that the prisoners' dread of the ever-present SS did not abate.
For the most part, Sellier's book is well-crafted and convincing. However, there are some nagging methodological problems. The first is Sellier's over-reliance on oral histories. To be sure, his ability to organize such a large and disparate collection of sources is par excellence, but an examination of the documentary record would dramatically strengthen many of his conclusions. For example, in his discussion about the complicity of civilians in the structure of oppression at Dora, Sellier notes that "to go further in placing liability, it would be necessary to have all the messages, instructions, minutes of meetings, and reports exchanged in all directions between those concerned.... There is nothing of this kind. There are not even any bits and pieces of dossiers" (p. 91). This is simply untrue. The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. as well as the Bundesarchiv-Militaerarchiv in Freiburg hold substantial records of documents produced both at Peenemuende and Dora-Mittelbau, many of which help elucidate the reasons for the use of slave labor at these facilities. Moreover, the oral histories that Sellier employs are all given by French prisoners. The story Sellier relates is relentlessly told from the French point of view, and the voices of other nationalities, including Russians, who were the majority in the camp complex, are largely disregarded. Finally, Sellier relies far too heavily on a small number of secondary sources to fill in the macro-narrative of his story. Admittedly, the secondary sources that he does use, such as Michael Neufeld's The Rocket and the Reich, are excellent, but the bibliography is far too thin for such an ambitious study. Sellier would have been well-served by a greater examination of literature pertaining to Nazi weapons development and slave labor in the Third Reich.
Nevertheless, Andre Sellier's book is an important addition to the scholarship on the Holocaust as well as forced and slave labor in Nazi Germany. Its narrative strength lies in Sellier's ability to form a coherent, minutely detailed whole out a large number of often conflicting oral histories and memoirs, and his style of allowing the victims to "speak for themselves" adds a deep moral resonance to the arguments of the book. Especially welcome is Sellier's discussion of the slave labor community at the Dora-Mittelbau complex. Historians have largely ignored this important element in the historiography on forced and slave labor across Nazi dominated Europe. Sellier's effort is an important step toward redressing this problem. Finally, Sellier's important emphasis on the satellite camps shows conclusively that the Dora-Mittelbau complex was not merely a site dedicated to building Germany's "wonder weapons." Rather, Sellier makes clear that it was a massive construction project in which the murderous dynamic of slave labor under the Nazis was fully realized. The cumulative radicalization of Hitler's Germany in the closing years of the war reached its crescendo in these projects at Dora-Mittelbau. Sellier's work brings historians closer to a greater understanding of how this phenomenon developed and its effects on the unfortunate victims of the Nazi regime.
. Eugen Kogon, Der SS-Staat: Das System der deutscher Konzentrationslagers (Muenchen: Kinder Verlag, 1971); and Hermann Langbein, Menschen in Auschwitz (Wien: Europapaverl, 1972).
. Jan-Erik Schulte, Zwangsarbeit und Vernichtung: das Wirtschaftsimperium der SS: Oswald Pohl und das SS-Wirtschaftsverwaltungshauptamt, 1933-1945 (Paderborn: Schoeningh, 2001); Michael Thad Allen, The Business of Genocide: The SS, Slave Labor, and the Concentration Camps (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); and Jens-Christian Wagner, Produktion des Todes: das KZ Dora-Mittelbau (Goettingen: Wallstein, 2001). Wagner contributes an excellent afterword to Sellier's English volume.
. See, for example, Wagner, Produktion des Todes.; Manfred Bornemann, Geheimprojekt Mittelbau: vom zentralen Oellager des Deutschen Reiches zur groessten Raketenfabrik im Zweiten Weltkrieg (Muenchen: Bernard und Graefe, 1994); and Michael J. Neufeld, The Rocket and the Reich: Peenemuende and the Coming of the Ballistic Missile Era (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995).
. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963; reprint, New York: Penguin Books, 1977).
. See, for example, Allen, The Business of Genocide; and Hans Safrian, Die Eichmann Maenner (Vienna: Europa Verlag, 1993). In Arendt's defense, these historians had access to far more evidence than Arendt did when she wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem.
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Michael Petersen. Review of Sellier, Andre, A History of the Dora Camp: The Untold Story of the Nazi Slave Labor Camp That Secretly Manufactured V-2 Rockets.
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Copyright © 2004 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.