Prisoner functionary

Prisoner functionary
The armband of an oberkapo

A prisoner functionary (German: Funktionshäftling) was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp who was assigned by the SS guards to supervise forced labor or carry out administrative tasks in the camp. Also called "prisoner self-administration", the prisoner functionary system minimized costs by allowing camps to function with fewer SS personnel. The system was also designed to turn victim against victim, as the prisoner functionaries were pitted against their fellow prisoners in order to maintain the favor of their SS guards. If they were derelict, they would be returned to the status of ordinary prisoners and be subject to other prisoner functionaries. Many prisoner functionaries were recruited from the ranks of violent criminal gangs rather than from the more numerous political, religious and racial prisoners; those were known for their brutality toward other prisoners. This brutality was tolerated by the SS and was an integral part of the camp system.

Prisoner functionaries were spared physical abuse and hard labor, provided they performed their duties to the satisfaction of the SS guards. They also had access to certain privileges such as civilian clothes and a private room, even (being convicts) the possibility of reduced sentence or parole.[citation needed] While the official government term for prisoner functionaries was Funktionshäftling, the Germans commonly called them kapos. When the camps were libertated, they were transferred to the regular prison system.[citation needed]


System of thrift and manipulation

Concentration camps were controlled by the SS, but day-to-day organization was supplemented by the system of functionary prisoners, a second hierarchy that made it easier for the Nazis to control the camps. These prisoners made it possible for the camps to function with fewer SS personnel, which saved the Third Reich money[citation needed]. The prisoner functionaries were sometimes as much as 10% of the inmates.[1][2] The Nazis were able to keep the number of SS personnel who had direct contact with the prisoners very low in comparison to normal prisons today. Without the functionary prisoners, the SS camp administrations would not have been able to keep the day-to-day operations of the camps running smoothly.[3][4]

At Buchenwald, these tasks were originally assigned to criminal prisoners, but after 1939, political prisoners began to displace the criminal prisoners,[5] though criminals were preferred by the SS. At Mauthausen, on the other hand, functionary positions remained dominated by criminal prisoners until just before liberation.[6]

In addition to saving the Nazis money[citation needed], the system and hierarchy also inhibited solidarity among the prisoners.[6] There were tensions between the various nationalities as well as between the various prisoner groups, who were distinguished by different Nazi concentration camp badges. Jews wore yellow stars, other prisoners wore colored triangles pointed downward.

Prisoner functionaries were often hated by other prisoners as Nazi henchmen and were spat upon.[7] While some barrack leaders (blockälteste) tried to assist the prisoners under their command by secretly helping them get extra food or easier jobs, others were more concerned with their own survival and to that end, did more to assist the SS.[8][9]

Identified by green triangles, the befristeten Vorbeugungshäftling or "BV" ("temporary preventive custody prisoner") kapos,[10] were called "professional criminals" by other prisoners and were known for their brutality and lack of scruples. Indeed, they were selected by the SS because of those qualities.[6][11][12] According to former prisoners, the criminal functionaries were more apt to be helpful to the SS than political functionaries, who were more apt to be helpful to other prisoners.[8]

Domination and terror

The SS used domination and terror to control the large camp populations with just a few SS guards. The system of prisoner functionaries was a "key instrument of domination"[12] in the concentration camps and was commonly called "prisoner self-government" in SS parlance.

In October 1933, Heinrich Himmler, then SS-Obergruppenführer, through his concentration camp inspector, Theodor Eicke, issued a written order detailing punishment for certain infractions. The order said that the SS guard had to shoot — without verbal or other warning — any prisoner who tried to escape or engage in resistance. Failure to do so put the guard at risk of immediate dismissal or being turned over to the Gestapo himself.[13]

The camp rules, constant threat of beatings, humiliation, punishment and the practice of punishing whole groups for the actions of one prisoner were psychological and physical torments on top of the starvation, and physical exhaustion from back-breaking labor. Prisoner functionaries were used to push the prisoners to work harder, saving the need for paid SS supervision. Many kapos felt caught in the middle, being both victim and perpetrator. Though kapos generally had a bad reputation, many suffered guilt about their actions, both at the time and after the war, as revealed in a book about Jewish kapos.[1]

Many prisoner functionaries, primarily from the ranks of the "greens" or criminal prisoners, could be quite brutal, especially when an SS guard was around, in order to justify their privileges.[10][14] They also played an active role in the beatings, even killing fellow prisoners.

One non-criminal functionary was Josef Heiden, a notorious Austrian political prisoner. Feared and hated, he was known as a sadist and was responsible for several deaths. He was released from Dachau in 1942 and became a member of the Waffen SS.[15] Some functionaries were personally involved in the mass murder of other prisoners.[16] Beginning in October 1944, reichdeutsch criminal functionaries were sought out for transfer to the Dirlewanger Brigade.[12]

Ranks of functionary

The important functionary positions inside the camp were Lagerälteste (camp leader), Blockälteste (block or barracks leader) and Stubenälteste (room leader).[note 1] The highest position that a prisoner could reach was Lagerälteste.[8][17][18] He was placed directly under the camp commandant, had to implement his orders, ensure that the camp's normal daily routines ran smoothly and satisfy the superior regulations. The Lagerälteste had a key role in the selection of other prisoners as functionaries, making recommendations to the SS. Though dependent on the goodwill of the SS, through them, he had access to special privileges, such as access to civilian clothes or a private room.

The Blockälteste (block or barracks leader) had to ensure that rules were followed in the individual barracks. He or she was also responsible for the prisoners in the barracks.[6][8] The Stubenälteste (room leader) was responsible for the hygiene, such as delousing, and order of each room in a barracks. The Blockschreiber (registrar or barrack clerk) was a record-keeping job, such as keeping track at roll calls.

Work crews outside the camp were supervised by a Vorarbeiter (foreman), a Kapo, or Oberkapo (chief kapo). These functionaries pushed their fellow prisoners, hitting and beating them, even killing them.[14]

Prisoner functionaries could often help other prisoners by getting them into better barracks, getting them assigned to lighter work.[8] On occasion, to get them removed from transport lists or even get them new identities in order to protect them from persecution.[5] This assistance was generally limited to the prisoners in the functionary's own group (fellow citizen or political comrade). The prisoner functionaries were in a precarious hierarchy between their fellow inmates and the SS. This situation was intentionally created, as revealed in a speech by Himmler.

"The moment he becomes a Kapo, he no longer sleeps with them. He is held accountable for the performance of the work, that they are clean, that the beds are well-built. [...] So, he must drive his men. The moment we become dissatisfied with him, he is no longer Kapo, he's back to sleeping with his men. And he knows that he will be beaten to death by them the first night."
—Heinrich Himmler, June 21, 1944[12]

In National Socialist racial ideology, some races were "superior" and others "inferior". Similarly, the SS had racial criteria for the prisoner functionaries, one had to be racially "superior" to be a functionary. The group category was also a factor. A knowledge of foreign languages was also advantageous, particularly as the international population of the camps increased and they preferred a certain level of education.[6]

An eager prisoner functionary could have a camp "career" as an SS favorite and be promoted from Kapo to Oberkapo and eventually to Lagerältester, but he could also just as easily run afoul of the SS and be sent to the gas chambers.[19]


Historian Karin Orth writes, "There was hardly a measure of the SS so perfidious as its attempt to delegate the implementation of terror and violence to the victims."[12]

"The concentration camp system owed its stability in no small way to a cadre of kapos, who took over the daily operations of the camp, relieving the SS personnel. Thus, absolute power was ubiquitous. Without the delegation of power, the system of discipline and supervision would have promptly disintegrated. The rivalry over supervisory, administrative and warehouse functionary jobs was, for the SS, just a welcome opportunity to pit groups of prisoners against each other and keep them dependent. The normal prisoner, however, was at the mercy of a dual authority, the SS, who often hardly seemed to be at the camp, and the prisoner functionaries, who were always there."
—Eugen Kogon, concentration camp survivor[9]

See also

  • Belsen Trial, the Trial of Joseph Kramer and 44 others (former kapos, convicted in late 1945 for war crimes)
  • Orli Wald, Lagerälteste at Auschwitz, called the "Angel of Auschwitz"
  • Robert Siewert, kapo at Buchenwald

Further reading

  • Revital Ludewig-Kedmi, Opfer und Täter zugleich? Moraldilemmata jüdischer Funktionshäftlinge in der Shoah. Psyche und Gesellschaft. Book expanded from a doctoral dissertation about the moral dilemma faced by Jewish kapos in the Holocaust. Psychosozial Verlag, Gießen (2001) ISBN 3-89806-104-3 (German)


  1. ^ Ältester is variously translated as "leader", "elder", "supervisor", "commander" or "senior".


  1. ^ a b Yizhak Ahren, "Überlebt weil schuldig – schuldig weil überlebt" Review of book about Jewish kapos. Leo Baeck Bookshop, official website. Retrieved May 8, 2010 (German)
  2. ^ Marc Schemmel, Funktionshäftlinge im KZ Neuengamme. Zwischen Kooperation und Widerstand. Saarbrücken (2007) p. 4. ISBN 978-3-8364-1718-1 (German)
  3. ^ Stanislav Zámečník, Das war Dachau. (Published by Comité International de Dachau) Luxemburg (2002) pp. 151–159 (German)
  4. ^ Jerzy Pindera, edited by Lynn Taylor, Liebe Mutti: one man's struggle to survive in KZ Sachsenhausen, 1939–1945 University Press of America (2004) pp. 113 ISBN 0-7618-2834-6 Retrieved May 5, 2010
  5. ^ a b Bill Niven, The Buchenwald child: truth, fiction, and propaganda Camden House (2007) ISBN 978-1-57113-339-7. Retrieved April 15, 2010
  6. ^ a b c d e "Audio guide 05: Prisoner functionaries" Mauthausen Memorial official website. May 6, 2010
  7. ^ Jens-Christian Wagner, Häftlingseinsatz im KZ Dora-Mittelbau… article from Ausbeutung, Vernichtung, Öffentlichkeit. Norbert Frei (Ed.), pp. 26–27. Munich (2000) ISBN 3-598-24033-3 (German)
  8. ^ a b c d e Shirli Gilbert, Music in the Holocaust: confronting life in the Nazi ghettos and camps Oxford University Press (2005) page 101. ISBN 0-19-927797-4 Retrieved May 5, 2010
  9. ^ a b Guido Knopp, Die SS. Eine Warnung der Geschichte, Bertelsmann Verlag, Munich (2002) p. 209 (German)
  10. ^ a b "Neuengamme / Bremen-Farge" United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, official website. Retrieved May 6, 2010
  11. ^ "Organized Resistance" Against the odds, official website. Documentary about prisoner resistance in Nazi concentration camps. Retrieved May 6, 2010
  12. ^ a b c d e Karin Orth, Gab es eine Lagergesellschaft? „Kriminelle“ und politische Häftlinge im Konzentrationslager, article from Ausbeutung, Vernichtung, Öffentlichkeit. Norbert Frei (Ed.), pp. 110, 111, 127, 131. Munich (2000) ISBN 3-598-24033-3 (German)
  13. ^ "Disciplinary and Punishment Regulation" (PDF) With photos of written order and illustration by former prisoner. Retrieved May 7, 2010
  14. ^ a b "Prisoner administration" Wollheim Memorial, official website. Retrieved May 7, 2010
  15. ^ Ludwig Eiber and Robert Sigel (Editors), Dachauer Prozesse: NS-Verbrechen vor amerikanischen Militärgerichten in Dachau 1945-1948, page 18. Wallstein Verlag, Göttingen (2007) ISBN 978-3-8353-0167-2 Retrieved May 7, 2010 (German)
  16. ^ "The prisoner functionaries system" Gusen Memorial, official website. Retrieved May 7, 2010
  17. ^ Danuta Czech, Auschwitz Chronicle, 1939–1945, (1990) ISBN 0805052380, Glossary
  18. ^ Stanislav Zámečník, Das war Dachau Comité International de Dachau, Luxemburg (2002) p. 154 (German)
  19. ^ "7. Juli - 19. Oktober 1940" Auschwitz survivor Heinrich Dronia's official website. Retrieved May 7, 2010 (German)

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