A prisoner who was shot and killed at Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp

The Postenpflicht ("Duty of Guards") was part of a written order for SS guards in Nazi concentration camps regarding the use of firearms. It required SS guards to shoot prisoners who tried to escape or engage in resistance and to do so without verbal warning or a warning shot. This was relevant for example regarding the so-called "death strip" next to camp fences. The area next to these fences was off-limits and anyone getting too close to it was, in accordance with the Postenpflicht, killed without warning. The order stated that failure to shoot would result in the dismissal or arrest of the guard. Issued on October 1, 1933 as an order for Dachau, the order was later extended to other camps.


Fence and guard watch tower at Dachau

Dachau concentration camp opened on March 22, 1933.[1][2] Though initially using local Munich policemen as guards, within weeks, they were replaced by the SS and on April 13, 1933, Hilmar Wäckerle, an SS-Standartenführer, became the first commandant. He was instructed by Heinrich Himmler, Munich chief of police and Obergruppenführer of the SS, to draw up a set of regulations for discipline in the camp. The rules were extremely harsh and several prisoners died as a direct result of their punishment.

The Munich prosecutor's office, not yet fully in line with National Socialist policy, in May 1933, began investigating the murder of several prisoners at Dachau concentration camp, prompted by the formal complaint of Sophie Handschuh, who wanted to know the true cause of her son's death at Dachau.[3][4] Rumors were already widespread about harsh treatment of those under detention and Himmler was forced to refute those claims, even while announcing the opening of Dachau.[2] Charges of murder were filed against Wäckerle and Himmler was forced to remove Wäckerle. The murder charges were later dropped after the chief prosecutor and his assistant were each transferred to other offices.[5] Himmler continued his efforts to establish summary execution, then in practice only at Dachau, as a legitimate form of punishment.

New camp order

Theodor Eicke was commissioned to develop a new camp order and a new regulations handbook.[note 1] He wrote the postenpflicht with instructions to fire on prisoners immediately and "without warning". Refusal to obey this order would bring serious consequences for camp personnel: summary dismissal and even arrest.

Concentration Camp Inspector Theodor Eicke

The "Regulations for Prisoner Escorts and Guards" (Dienstvorschrift für die Begleitpersonen und Gefangenenbewachung) were dated and went into effect on October 1, 1933[6] The infamous Lagerordnung, the "Disciplinary and Penal Code for the Prison Camp" were issued on the same date.[2] Also known as the Strafkatalog ("Penalty Catalogue"), this list of rules, infractions and punishments went into effect immediately, as well and both sets of regulations were made effective at all the SS concentration camps a few months later, on January 1, 1934. Together, the regulations allowed guards to mete out harsh punishments for even minor infractions and gave them wide latitude to execute prisoners and over time, devolved into a general system of terror punishment.[7]

The perimeter of the detention camp grounds was marked by electrified fences and walls. Alongside the wall was a moat and next to that was an area called the "neutral zone". Dubbed the "death strip" by prisoners, it was a forbidden area. A prisoner who even went near this area risked being shot by a guard invoking the postenpflicht. Guards who shot a prisoner received a bounty and three days off. Guards, for their amusement and profit, would throw a prisoner's cap into the "death zone" and order the prisoner to get it "on the double" and then shoot the prisoner.[8][9] They sometimes did this in pairs because they received a bounty for shooting a prisoner, so they would take turns in order to both get the bounty.[7] Witnesses and former prisoners have also reported cases where prisoners intentionally walked into the forbidden zone, to escape the camp through death.[10]

Prisoner work details outside a concentration camp were called Außenkommandos ("outside commandos") by the SS. The SS guards would form a postenkette, a cordon of guards to surround the work site and maintain watch. The imaginary boundary formed by the cordon was not to be crossed by a prisoner. Stepping outside the boundary was treated as an escape attempt and the guards, adhering to the postenpflicht, were to fire without warning.[8] If a prisoner did manage to escape, the SS guard was charged with "negligent release of a prisoner".

The postenpflicht was also valid for the SS-Totenkopfverbände that came to the concentration camps to serve as guards and auxiliary police.[note 2] During the war years, female guards were also employed at concentration camps.[11] As overseers, they were also ordered to use their firearms in the case of physical attack by a prisoner or an escape attempt.

Reich Minister of Justice Franz Gurtner was in contact with Reichsführer-SS Himmler to mitigate the postenpflicht a bit, but he was unable to accomplish anything.[12]

Camp commandants were also held accountable to the postenpflicht. Karl Otto Koch was commandant at Majdanek concentration camp and on July 14, 1942, during his tenure, 200 Soviet prisoners of war escaped. Only half were later recaptured.[13] In August 1942, Koch was charged with "negligent release of a prisoner" and was reprimanded with a disciplinary transfer to the lesser job of Postschutz in Eger.[14][15]

The "Postenpflicht" order

Monument for the Mühlviertler Hasenjagd

Dachau concentration camp

Headquarters, Oct. 1, 1933

Regulations for Prisoner Escorts and Guards

6. Postenpflicht

Whoever allows a prisoner to escape will be arrested and charged with Negligent Prisoner Release and handed over to the Bavarian Political Police.

If a prisoner attempts to escape, he is to be shot, without warning. A guard who shoots an escaping prisoner in the course of carrying out his duty, will not be reprimanded.

Where a guard is physically attacked by a prisoner, the attack is to be repelled with use of a firearm, not return physical violence. A guard who does not comply with this order should expect his immediate dismissal. Besides, he who "keeps his back free" [note 3] will rarely be attacked.

In the event of a revolt or organized prisoner resistance, every guard supervising is to fire upon them. Warning shots are strictly prohibited.[6]

See also



  1. Disciplinary procedures were added later to the regulations called the "Inspection of the concentration camps".
  2. Not just the SS-Death's Head Units, but also other SS men were employed as concentration camp guards, especially around the end of the war.
  3. The original German is an idiom. To "keep one's back free" (den Rücken freihalten) means to get the grunt work out of the way so one is freed up for more important things.


  1. Harry W. Mazal OBE, "The Dachau Gas Chambers" Retrieved May 11, 2010
  2. 1 2 3 "Ein Konzentrationslager für politische Gefangene" ("A concentration camp for political prisoners") Photo of newspaper article about Munich chief of police Heinrich Himmler's announcement of the opening of Dachau. Münchner Neueste Nachrichten (March 21, 1933) Retrieved May 11, 2010 (German)
  3. Ernst Klee, Das Personenlexikon zum Dritten Reich, Frankfurt am Main (2007) p. 648 (German)
  4. Letter of June 2, 1933, Munich District Court Prosecutor II to the State Ministry of Justice: Subject: "Death of protective custody prisoners at Dachau concentration camp." (German)
  5. "The Dachau murder camp" Retrieved May 11, 2010
  6. 1 2 Stanislav Zámečník, Das war Dachau "Internationaler Militärgerichtshof IMG XXVI, Dok. 778-PS", pp. 40, 296 and 412. Comité International de Dachau, Luxemburg (2002) (German)
  7. 1 2 Wolfgang Sofsky, The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp Translated by William Templar. (Original title: Die Ordnung des Terrors. Das Konzentrationslager) Princeton University Press (1997) ISBN 0-691-04354-X Retrieved May 11, 2010
  8. 1 2 "Guard Details" Wollheim Memorial official website. Retrieved May 12, 2010
  9. Art Spiegelman, Maus II, p. 35. Pantheon Books, New York (1991) ISBN 0-394-55655-0
  10. "Karl Dohmeier" Radio interview about a concentration camp survivor. (January 26, 2007) (German)
  11. Fiona Barton, "The She Devils; Recorded for history: The women of Hitler's death camps who tortured, maimed and murdered with glee" From The Daily Mail, London, England (November 22, 2005) Retrieved May 13, 2010
  12. Charles W. Sydnor, Jr., Soldiers of destruction: the SS Death's Head Division, 1933-1945" See footnote, p. 20. Princeton University Press (1977) ISBN 0-691-05255-7
  13. "Majdanek" Retrieved May 13, 2010
  14. Ernst Klee, Das Personenlexikon zum Dritten Reich: Wer war was vor und nach 1945., Frankfurt am Main (2007) p. 323 (German)
  15. Tom Segev Die Soldaten des Bösen. Zur Geschichte der KZ-Kommandanten, pp. 177-183 Reinbek bei Hamburg (1992) (German)
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