Nazi Political Prisoners | Facing History & Ourselves

Political Prisoners

A member of the German Communist Party describes her experience in a Nazi concentration camp for political prisoners.


  • History


English — US


Throughout the 1930s, the German people witnessed the arrest of Communists, Social Democrats, Jews, and others considered “politically unreliable.” They were herded from their homes and workplaces onto trucks and taken to makeshift prisons and concentration camps, often without a trial or even a hearing. Some were imprisoned for a few months and then released without explanation; others were murdered. By 1935, the makeshift prisons were being replaced or remodeled according to new rules and regulations: the Nazis hoped this would “prove” to foreign critics that detainees were being treated “humanely.” 

Lina Haag and her husband, Alfred, belonged to the German Communist Party; the couple was among those arrested in the large roundups after the Reichstag fire on February 27, 1933 (see reading, Outlawing the Opposition in Chapter 5). Alfred spent the next seven years in a concentration camp. Lina was released in December 1933 but then rearrested in 1935 after refusing to give the names of other Communists to the Gestapo. She spent the next four years in various prisons, including Lichtenburg, a camp for women. When she was finally released, she wrote about her experiences in a series of unmailed letters to her husband. One letter contains a description of her incarceration in Lichtenburg, a name that literally means “bright castle”:

The Lichtenburg is . . . a massive medieval castle with many towers, wide courtyards, dark dungeons, and endless halls, a daunting gigantic structure with mighty walls. Not a bright castle, it is the ideal concentration camp.

We are lined up in one of the courtyards. About thirty women: political prisoners, Jews, criminals, prostitutes, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Female guards from the SS circle us like gray wolves. I see this new ideal type of German woman for the first time. Some have blank faces and some have brutal looks, but they all have the same mean expression around their mouths. They pace back and forth with long strides and fluttering gray capes, their commanding voices ring shrilly across the court, and the large wolfhounds with them strain threateningly at their leashes. They are preposterous and terrifying, reminiscent of old sagas, merciless and probably even more dangerous than the brutal SS henchmen because they are women. Are they women? I doubt it. They could only be unhuman creatures, creatures with gray dogs and with all the instincts, viciousness, and savagery of their dogs. Monsters. . . .

The inspections are the worst, or rather the days preceding them. Washing, brushing, scrubbing goes on for hours. Punishment rains down at the slightest infraction. We are bellowed at if there is a wrinkle in the bed sheet, or if a tablespoon is not lying straight in the locker. It’s always the same show, no matter who comes. The door is shoved open; we jump up from our seats; the visitor comes in and shouts a cheerful greeting; enthusiasm glows in the eyes of the female warders; the visitor looks benevolently over at us; then he turns to Commandant Kögel with a silly remark, such as “A very nice room” or “They seem to be in good health.” Of course Kögel happily agrees and repeatedly gives assurance that no one is subjected to hardships, which the visitor has never doubted. Then with ebullient “Heil Hitler” he turns to go. The entourage respectfully makes way, eager hands throw open the door, and the visitor leaves.

Once even [Heinrich] Himmler [the chief of the German police] appears, in order to see his German reeducation project. He looks insignificant; we had visualized this Satan personified differently, but he is in good spirits and friendly, he laughs a lot and grants several early releases. Acts of mercy by a despot in a good mood. Even the so-called Women’s Leader [Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, the head of the main Nazi association for women] manages an inspection visit. She too is cheerful, friendly, enthusiastic, and happy that we are doing so well. She says she has a very special, a womanly understanding for us and for our situation, and to hear her talk, she almost envies us. She most likely will not visit the dark isolation cells nor will she observe a flogging. That probably would not interest her so much, although both are essential educational methods in this New German institution. The camp commandant assures her, too, that there are no hardships—we stand there and listen with fixed expressions. No one steps forward and says: No, that’s not true; the truth is that we are beaten on the slightest pretext. For the beating we are tied naked to a wooden post, and Warder Mandel flogs us with a dog whip as long as she can keep it up. No one steps forward to say this. Because everyone wants to live. . . . 1

Connection Questions

  1. According to Lina Haag, a stated purpose of Lichtenburg was “reeducation.” What did prisoners like Haag learn in that camp? How did they learn it? 
  2. Why did Nazi officials visit the camp? What did they see there? Why might the visiting Nazi officials want to seem benevolent during their visits? What effect did their visits have on Lina Haag and other prisoners? 
  3. What picture do Haag’s words paint of her time in Lichtenburg? How is this different from what the visiting Nazi officials likely witnessed? Why do you think she wrote these letters even though she never mailed them?
  4. How does Haag describe the female guards at the prison? Why does she “doubt” that they are women? Why might she think that they are more dangerous than male guards?
  • 1Lina Haag, “A Handful of Dust,” in The Nazi Germany Sourcebook: An Anthology of Texts, ed. Roderick Stackelberg and Sally A. Winkle (London: Routledge, 2002), 146–47.

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, “Political Prisoners”, last updated August 2, 2016.

You might also be interested in…

The resources I’m getting from my colleagues through Facing History have been just invaluable.
— Claudia Bautista, Santa Monica, Calif