Detention Camps (Germany)

Detention Camps (Germany)
  • Version 1.0
  • Publication date 20 February 2023

In the Reich area, municipal authorities had been pushing for the establishment of detention camps for Sinti and Roma before 1933. In many cases, plans were made to dissolve the privately owned caravan sites and to concentrate them in one place. However, such plans could not be implemented in the democratically constituted Weimar Republic because they represented an encroachment on freedom of movement rights. Since 1933, detention camps for Sinti and Roma were established mostly in the context of National Socialist urban redevelopments, which were carried out in almost all larger cities in order to achieve population policy goals.

In particular, the settlements established during the Great Depression, in which impoverished sections of the population had built makeshift dwellings, were seen by the new rulers as potential trouble spots. The residents were sifted through by municipal authorities for political and racial ideological reasons and assigned to flats or hostels for the homeless. For Sinti and Roma, this racist selection was usually followed by their being sent to one of the new detention camps that were often built on the outskirts of the city. This was the case, for example, with the camp in Cologne, which was the first of its kind to be set up in 1935 by the municipal welfare office with the support of the police, but also with the camps in Düsseldorf (1937) or Essen (1938). The detention camps subsequently also served to expel Sinti and Roma living in the cities from their flats or from caravan sites and to send them there, as well as Sinti and Roma moving into the urban area. Another characteristic of the detention camps is that they were implemented and operated on the initiative of the communes without any legal authority or orders from higher-level authorities, and in some cases by circumventing building regulations.

The largest communal detention camp was located in the Reich capital in the district of Berlin-Marzahn, where the main welfare office, the police and the NSDAP Gauleitung had already planned to concentrate all Sinti and Roma in one place in the summer of 1934. But it was not until the 1936 Olympics in Berlin that these plans achieved a breakthrough, so that after a large-scale raid two weeks before the opening of the Olympic Games, over 600 Sinti and Roma were deported there. Further detention camps were established in numerous cities and towns from the mid-1930s onwards: 1936 in Frankfurt am Main, Magdeburg and Solingen; 1937 in Gelsenkirchen, Kassel, Ravensburg and Wiesbaden; 1938 in Braunschweig, Fulda, Kiel, Königsberg, Herne, Oldenburg and Osnabrück; 1939 in Hannover, Recklinghausen and Remscheid; 1941 in Hamm and Dortmund. The number of Sinti and Roma interned in the camps ranged from several dozen to maximum occupancies of about 500 (Cologne, summer 1937) or 850 persons (Berlin, autumn 1942).

The detention camps were either set up on existing sites or wasteland, where Sinti and Roma had to live in caravans, or existing barrack accommodation for the homeless was used. In Düsseldorf, the city had a barrack camp made of stone buildings specially erected, which had the character of a prison. Everywhere the living conditions were poor and cramped, sanitary facilities were only rudimentary. The living conditions deteriorated rapidly with the increasing duration of the internment: independent occupation was no longer possible, and at the same time the earnings at the forcibly assigned workplaces were low. From their meagre wages, the internees even had to pay rent for accommodation in the detention camps. Welfare benefits were only provided in a few cases and then mostly in kind. The internees were also largely cut off from medical care. The children suffered not only from hunger, but also from forced exclusion from schools. In general, the internees were only allowed out of the camps at certain times, for certain purposes and under certain conditions. Nevertheless, until the beginning of the war it was possible for those who had social networks and material resources and knew how to circumvent police restrictions to leave the detention camps. This was especially true of those camps whose sole purpose of construction – as in Gelsenkirchen – was expulsion.

In addition, there was constant surveillance, which degenerated into open terror depending on the camp management. The cities and municipalities ran the camps in close cooperation with the local police stations, so that policemen or guards working closely with the police supervised them. Survivors have reported harassment and violence, ranging from prohibitions to leave the barracks, punitive appeals, regular raids, to abuse through beatings, kicks, whippings and dog bites. From 1938 onwards, there were more and more deportations from the detention camps to concentration camps: even for minor reasons, the possibility was used to send Sinti and Roma to concentration camps on the basis of the Decree on Preventive Fight against Crime. Another violent measure to which the internees were subjected were the racial-biological examinations which Robert Ritter and Eva Justin as well as other employees of the Racial Hygiene Institute had been carrying out in the camps since 1936.

While the detention camps were also an instrument to expel Sinti and Roma from the city and to deter others from moving in until 1939, the character of the camps changed with the beginning of the war. Due to the Detention (‘Festsetzung’) ordered in October 1939, all Sinti and Roma were forbidden to change their place of residence. This drastically reduced the radius of movement and the possibilities to obtain additional provisions, which meant a further deterioration of living conditions.

While studies are available on the detention camps already mentioned, little is known about a large number of smaller camps. This is also due to the fact that because of the ‘Festsetzung’ there were fluid transitions between living spaces (for example caravan sites) and detention camps. Also, some camps only existed for a short time. In May 1940 and spring 1943, the vast majority of Sinti and Roma were deported, and most communal detention camps were subsequently dissolved.

For decades, the Federal Republic of Germany did not recognise the period of imprisonment in the detention camps in the Compensation. A marking of the former camps with commemorative plaques referring to the historical significance of these places only began in the 1980s and has not been done for many sites until today.


Karola Fings: Detention Camps (Germany), in: Enzyklopädie des NS-Völkermordes an den Sinti und Roma in Europa. Hg. von Karola Fings, Forschungsstelle Antiziganismus an der Universität Heidelberg, Heidelberg 20. Februar 2023. -