Established: 8 March 1934
Location: in the marshes near Papenburg, north-east of the German-Dutch border
Located in the “Emsland” region, Esterwegen, together with Börgermoor, Aschendorfermoor and others was a system of 15 linked concentration camps, commonly known as the “moorlager”, which translates as the “camps in the marshes”. Orginally this complex, which had started life as a prison facility, was under the direct control of the German Ministry of Justice, with daily management entrusted to the SA and the Gestapo. But in the autumn of 1936, these camps passed under the jurisidiction of the SS, like all the other concentraton camps, and were run out of Neuengamme.
Initially, therefore, criminal prisoners outnumbered German military and political prisoners, people opposed to Nazi ideology and oppression. Political prisoners were often sent to the “moorlager” and then sentenced to death by special Nazi courts, a sentence that was usually carried out at the camp. Other inmates, who had been given prison sentences, were sent to other camps once they have served their sentence, where they underwent a thorough and often fatal “political re-education”. Prisoners in the “moorlager” were forced to extract peat from the boggy marshes, or to drain the mashes of Papenburg, as outlined in the original Esterwegen work programme that was later abandoned as it proved to be too expensive and complex. Esterwegen and its sister camps then served to sort prisoners from different locations, who were set to forced labour along the Norwegian, French and Dutch coasts. It is estimated that 180,000 prisoners were transported to Esterwegen between 1933 and 1945. The precise number of victims is unknown, as the camp register notes only 8,900 deaths.
The Moorlager were also used to house prominent political opponents of the regime, including Carl von Ossietsky (who was awarded the Nobel peace prize for 1935, by which time he was already in the hands of the Nazi guards, who did not hesitate to murder him along with so many others). In one of these camps, musician Rudi Goguel composed the melody for a song, using words written by Johann Esser and Wolfgang Langhoff sung in various languages that became a sort of official anthem for the deportations. The original German title for the song is “the soldiers of the marshes”.
From these camps came the first documentary evidence of the barbarity of the concentration camp world of the Hitler regime, which using various channels, spread across the free world. Unfortunately, its revelations were not given credence, as the facts it described appeared so incredible as to seem absurd. By the time foreign governments and public opinion had become aware of the reality of the situation, it was already too late.