Historian geoffrey megargee has been studying the atrocities of the nazi regime since he was a student. In 2000, the 53-year-old took over the management of an unprecedented project. The goal was to record all sites of nazi violence between 1933 and 1945, commissioned by the washington holocaust memorial museum. Completely new figures come to light.
"At the beginning of our work we assumed 5000 to 7000 camps. But as time went on, we found that the reality was much worse," says megargee in an interview with the dpa news agency. His team found that there were at least 42,500 sites where nazis imprisoned, tortured or killed people – including some 30,000 labor camps, 1150 jewish ghettos, 1,000 prisoner-of-war camps, 980 concentration camps and 500 brothels where women were forced into prostitution.
"There could have been even more," says megargee. For statistical reasons, they had only recorded camps in which at least 20 people had been held captive. Moreover, the camps had to exist for more than one month to appear in the statistics. 15 to 20 million people are estimated by megargee to have been victims of nazi terror – many of whom did not survive it. Until now, science had assumed that there were around 7000 forced labor and prison camps, concentration camps and ghettos.
From the point of view of historian michael wildt of the humboldt university berlin, the new figures are plausible. The study does not surprise him, he says. "The number gives an impression of the omnipresence of the nazi persecution apparatus."Historian david silberklang of the holocaust memorial yad vashem in jerusalem, on the other hand, is astonished at the rough numbers. He had expected several thousand warehouses, he says.
Yad vashem has so far catalogued only the ghettos, not the camps. He is also against paying ghettos together with camps, because both served a different purpose, criticizes silberklang. Megargee, on the other hand, says the study was in no way intended to equate ghettos and camps. Rather, it is intended to illustrate the enormous scope and diversity of nazi terror.
For its study, which will be published in seven volumes by 2025, megargee’s team worked with more than 400 eyewitnesses and scholars from around the world and translated documents from several languages. "We were the first to put this extremely complicated puzzle together," says megargee. It proves that the nazi machinery has penetrated into many more areas of daily life than previously thought.
"The prisoners were omnipresent. In local factories, schools, on farms – people everywhere worked under duress. It is hard to believe that there were germans who did not want to know about the camps. You must have known about it," says megargee.
For the few holocaust survivors, the washington study could offer a new way to prove their claims for compensation. Until now, the camp in which they were held was sometimes not documented as such. Megargee remembers a particularly moving encounter with a contemporary witness: "suddenly this frail man stood up, put his hand on our first book and said, ‘at last people are seeing this. This is a holy book for me.""