Commandant Max Pauly handing out medals to several guards in the SS compound. Photograph by the SS, around 1944. (ANg, 1981-737)

SS Guards

The SS commandant was in charge of the main camp and the satellite camps. During its existence, Neuengamme concentration camp had three commandants: Walter Eisfeld (1940), Martin Weiß (1940–1942) and Max Pauly (1942–1945). Over the years, a total of 4,500 SS men served in Neuengamme concentration camp and its satellite camps, with as many as 500 SS men serving at any given time. Most of the SS men had direct contact with the prisoners, and their harassment and mistreatment of their wards was part of the daily routine in the camp.

The commanders of the guard forces (Wachmannschaften) reported to the leader of the SS Death’s Head units (Totenkopfverbände) in Oranienburg. In Neuengamme concentration camp, there were three, sometimes four guard forces that formed a battalion (Sturmbann). These guarded the camp and the work details outside of the camp. The prisoners’ barracks were additionally surrounded by a barbed wire fence that was electrically charged at night. In 1944 and 1945, Wehrmacht and navy personnel, customs officers, police officers and railway employees – all not members of the SS – were enlisted to serve as guards for the satellite camps.

The guard forces were instructed to protect the Reich from “the enemies within”. They were told that the prisoners were ordinary criminals and should be treated with ruthlessness. The SS guards (who were also women in the women’s satellite camps) were instructed to systematically use inhumane methods in their treatment of concentration camp prisoners. Particularly brutal SS guards were rewarded with promotions. After the war, very few guards were brought to justice for their deeds.