The determination of the German judicial authorities to try nonagenarians who served at Auschwitz raises awkward questions about the desirability of such long-delayed justice and compounds the misleading idea that Auschwitz was characteristic of the Nazi concentration camp system, as well as central to the extermination of Europe’s Jews. In fact, as Nikolaus Wachsmann demonstrates in this magnificent work of scholarship, it was neither. One of his manifold achievements is to lay bare the improvised and frequently chaotic development of the camps at the same time as identifying continuities that lend them a superficial uniformity. The creation of Auschwitz marked but one stage in the expansion of the camp network, related specifically to war and occupation, and it went through further transformations, only some of which were shared with other camps while others were horribly singular.
It is a telling reflection on current scholarship about the Third Reich that when he introduces this catalogue of chaos, jumbled jurisdictions and cack-handed projects that coexisted with ideological rigidity, bureaucracy and centralisation, Wachsmann argues that a history of the Nazi concentration camps (Konzentrationslager, or KL) provides an ideal prism for grasping the course of National Socialism. It is also a sign of how far academic research has come that he insists on balancing the story of the perpetrators