In the first week of 1941, Himmler decided to classify the Konzentrationslager. On 2 January, Reinhard Heydrich, as head of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA), issued a secret circular (later produced at the Nuremberg Tribunal) which divided the camps into three principal categories. The first category (known as Stufe I) included Dachau, Sachsenhausen, and Auschwitz I (Gleiwitz); its prisoners were considered rehabilitable. Stufe II included Buchenwald, Auschwitz III (Buna-Monowitz), Flossenbürg, and Neuengamme; although charged with more serious crimes, the prisoners in these camps were still considered capable of redemption. Stufe III (or Ausmerzungslager) included only Mauthausen, Gross-Rosen, and Auschwitz II (Birkenau); this category was reserved for 'hardened criminals and antisocial elements incapable of rehabilitation'. This classification was later modified, as we shall see, when the Economic Administration Office (Wirtschaftsverwaltungshauptamt, or SS-WVHA) established three new categories, but the classification Stufe III continued to denote a camp where prisoners were never to be released. 1
Mauthausen never lost this classification of Stufe III, the worst. In the offices of the RSHA it was referred to by its nickname Knochenmühle, the bone-grinder. One way to punish prisoners at Auschwitz was to send them to work in the quarry at Mauthausen. Buchenwald too had its quarry, but the prisoners there knew what Mauthausen meant, and dreaded the thought of being transferred. 2 Suzanne Busson, who was evacuated from Ravensbrück to Mauthausen, remarked that 'Ravensbrück in hindsight seemed like paradise'. 3 It should be noted here that the KL were different in kind from the extermination camps (Vernichtungslager) which is what Auschwitz II (Birkenau) became. All six of the Vernichtungslager were located outside pre-1939 Germany, in a great circle in Poland. Though the fate of the inmates could be the same, the difference lies in the essential purpose of the two systems. What distinguished Stufe III was the long-drawn-out agony of those condemned to it. The purpose was to make the inmate suffer the maximum before death came as a merciful release.
None of this implies that a camp classified Stufe I was less technologically advanced than others. Even lowly Dachau had its gas chamber and its