The establishment of the concentration camp
In the autumn of 1938, the SS-owned "Deutsche Erd- und Steinwerke GmbH" acquired a long-defunct brickworks and 50 hectares of land suitable for excavating clay at the edge of the village of Neuengamme in the Vierlande region of Hamburg.
On 12 December 1938, 100 prisoners from Sachsenhausen arrived to put the brickworks back into operation. The fenced-in brickworks was also used to house the prisoners, who were provisionally quartered in the attic of the plant above the kilns. The guards—40 SS men and one work detail commander—were from Buchenwald concentration camp. For the most part, the prisoners were sufficiently fed in the satellite camp in 1938/39, a situation which changed radically when Neuengamme became an independent concentration camp.Three months after the war started, the decision was made to expand Neuengamme into a large concentration camp. Negotiations between the SS and the city of Hamburg began in January 1940 following a visit by Heinrich Himmler. In light of its plans to redevelop the banks of the Elbe with "Führer buildings", the city was "very interested in expanding the prisoner-operated brickworks" in order to significantly reduce its construction costs. The Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg and "Deutsche Erd- und Steinwerke" signed a contract in April 1940. The city of Hamburg granted a loan worth millions for the construction of a large brickworks and undertook to build a rail link, regulate the parts of the Dove Elbe which were not navigable and construct a branch canal with docks. In return, the SS agreed "to supply prisoners as labourers for this undertaking and provide the necessary guard squads free of charge".
In the spring of 1940, Neuengamme became an independent concentration camp. The camp huts, guard towers and fences were quickly erected, and abuse, exhaustion, hunger and work accidents claimed their first victims. The number of prisoners rose rapidly, reaching 2,900 by the end of 1940. The prisoners were used to expand the camp, widen the Dove Elbe, build the branch canal and the dock, construct the large new brickworks and excavate the clay pits.