NN – Deportees sentenced to vanish

The call, drawing by Rudolf Naess, a Norwegian NN deportee. Source: National Library of Norway, Oslo division-War collection
The call, drawing by Rudolf Naess, a Norwegian NN deportee. Source: National Library of Norway, Oslo division-War collection

NN - Deportees sentenced to vanish into the night and fog (1941 - 1944)

The German expression NN means ”Nacht und Nebel”, or ”Night and Fog”.

This expression reflects Hitler's decision to sentence all opponents to the Nazi regime, men and women, to die in isolation and with no defence. The special treatment reserved to these deportees also aimed to eliminate them totally, i.e. to erase any trace of their existence and their death, like shadows swallowed up by the night and fog.

Corps 1

Launched on 10 May 1940, the Third Reich's offensive in Western Europe placed Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Norway and France under occupation: resistance to the Nazi invaders and the regimes in place started to organize in the very first months.

June 1941 - Operation Barbarossa: invasion of the USSR

The intensified German repression against the opponents to Nazism in Western Europe was a repercussion of the German offensive against the Soviet Union: the Russian campaign was decisive for understanding the origins of the ”Nacht und Nebel”(”Night and Fog”) prisoner decree. The Wehrmacht's troops mobilised along the Eastern Front had somewhat abandoned the Western Front: here, the Germans became privileged targets for attacks by the Résistance, notably Communists in reaction to the breach of the Nazi-Soviet pact. Hitler, obsessed with the idea of not having to fight on two fronts, sought to maintain order in the conquered countries of the West while he attacked his enemy to the East.

Operation ”Barbarossa”, German infantrymen searching a Russian house. June 1941. Source: German Federal Archives

At first, the sanctions against these resistance actions, considered illegal, were unequivocal: those who committed them were judged and sentenced either to death or to long prison terms in Germany. These prosecutions did not have the expected results, however - those sentenced to death became martyrs, while the trials, prison terms and death sentences contributed to reinforcing national cohesion and the desire to resist. Thus, Hitler planned to adopt other measures against the Western resistance fighters.

December 1941 - Publication of the Nazi ”Nacht und Nebel” (NN) decree against Western resistance fighters

It was in France, during the autumn of 1941, that Hitler found a political pretext to justify his new measures. Soon after the German offensive against the Soviet Union, a series of attacks were aimed at the soldiers and installations of the Wehrmacht - the German army - on French soil.

The Führer's reflections led to the publication of the so-called NN decrees (Nacht und Nebel Erlaβ). The first, dated 7 December 1941, was a series of five directives written by Hitler himself, presenting the general principles behind the actions to be undertaken. ”With the start of the Russian campaign, communist elements and other Germanophobic groups stepped up their attacks against the Reich and against the occupying power. The dangerous character and scope of these acts called for the most rigorous measures against their authors for reasons of intimidation.” The other two, dated 12 December at the initiative of Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, firstly reaffirmed the Führer's political will and secondly formed an implementation order. These three texts comprise an inseparable group of orders that inaugurated a special status for all opponents to the occupying forces representing a danger for the security of the German army and comprising enemies to the Reich: saboteurs, communists, political opponents, heads of resistance networks, agents parachuted in, etc.

Excerpts from the orders dated 7 and 12 December 1941 (Nacht und Nebel decrees)
”The NN decree must be applied in cases of: attempted murder and attacks on persons; espionage; sabotage; communist acts; troublemaking; advantages granted to the enemy through assistance in crossing borders; attempt to join enemy armed forces; assistance to members of enemy armed forces […]; lastly, in case of illegal possession of arms.”
”These acts will not be judged in occupied territories unless it is probable that death penalties will be handed down against their main perpetrators and if the prosecution and the execution of the death penalties can be carried out with full diligence.”
”Hearings by courts in Germany, given the ”threats to national security”, must be carried out behind closed doors and in absolute secrecy.”

Entry and photographs forbidden: the NNs were kept separated from everyone else. Source: DR

1941 - 1944: special treatment for NN deportees

Thus, when the German police arrested a person suspected of having contacts ”with the enemy” in one of the five countries indicated, the suspect was taken to court in his/her own country so long as the legal proceedings could be carried out within one week and the sentence would be the death penalty (art. 2).

The call, drawing by Rudolf Naess, a Norwegian NN deportee. Source: National Library of Norway, Oslo division-War collection

If these conditions could not be met, the suspect was secretly deported to Germany to be interned while awaiting a trial or imprisoned in a concentration camp under the letters NN, which condemned them to die of exhaustion through work or abuse. The trials were carried out behind closed doors and, in case of death, the families were not informed. Isolated from everything and everyone, the NN prisoners, men and women, were at the mercy of the Nazi authorities in their jails and camps, in Breslau and Hinzert, for example, starting at the end of 1941.

Slow death, drawing by Henri Gayot. (Reproduced with the kind authorisation of his son, André Gayot)

Corps 2

The Natzweiler Camp

General view of the Natzweiler camp. Source: DMPA collection

French prisoners (the vast majority) were deported, first to Gross Rosen, but also to Flossenbürg, Buchenwald and Hinzert. It wasn't until July 1943 that the first convoys of French NN prisoners reached the Natzweiler camp. Located near the locality called ”le Struthof”, on Mont Louise in the Vosges mountains some 50 kilometres from Strasbourg, it opened in May 1941. When Natzweiler was chosen as a detention centre for NN prisoners, a letter dated 23 September 1943 was sent from Berlin to the commanders of all the German concentration camps, ordering the ”immediate transfer of all detainees of Germanic origin to Natzweiler-Struthof.” It was called the ”Hell of Alsace” by the English or the ”Camp of the End” by detainees.

Natzweiler-Struthof camp, drawings by Henri Gayot, deported resistance fighter. (Reproduced with the kind authorisation of his son, André Gayot)

There is a lively debate among historians as to the origin of the term Nacht und Nebel and how the events occurred between the autumn of 1941, when Hitler decided upon the decree's adoption, and 7 December 1941, when Field Marshal Keitel signed it. The initials can mean several things: Non Nemo (no one) or Norge und Nederland (Norway and the Netherlands), where the law was first applied before being extended to Luxembourg, Belgium and France on Keitel's order in June 1943. But we should look to Das Rheingold, an opera by Richard Wagner - whom Hitler admired - for the most commonly accepted meaning of this symbol. There is a scene with two people in which one person curses the other: ”Nacht und Nebel gleich!” (”Night and fog now!”) and the cursed person's human shape disappears in a column of smoke.

Hangings, drawing by Rudolf Naess. (Reproduced with the author's kind authorisation). Source: National Library of Norway, Oslo division-War collection

This ”mythological” justification was an allegory for the particularly horrible conditions inflicted on the NN prisoners at the Natzweiler camp and at other interment and deportation sites. This decree was based on the use of intimidation as a deterrent, a method that Hitler was already using (in Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland). The decree's foreword is very clear: in response to acts of resistance and opposition, simple imprisonment, even a life sentence, is interpreted as 'a sign of weakness'. Hitler demanded the death penalty or ”a measure that leaves the family and the population uncertain as to what happened to the guilty party.” Deportation was one of the measures used when Alsace was annexed.

Work - ”The Wheelbarrow Kommando”, drawing by Henri Gayot. (Reproduced with the kind authorisation of his son, André Gayot)

As soon as they arrived at the camp, the NN prisoners stood out from the other prisoners; the letters NN, in bright colours - red or yellow depending on the categories - were painted on their clothes, notably exposing them to ill treatment by the SS guards and the kapos, ordinary prisoners who were designated to oversee the deportees. This is what Doctor André Ragot, a survivor of the Struthof camp, called ”the first degradation”.

Accounts agree on the special fate reserved for NN prisoners - death, which could rarely be avoided, using various means: hunger, cold or scorching heat, disease or exhaustion. Generally, everything was carefully prepared and calculated to degrade, demean and eliminate people whose only fault was to love and defend their country against the Nazi occupant. They were subject to a particularly cruel prison regime: food rations were smaller than for other inmates; for a long time they were not allowed to receive nursing care; they were constantly mistreated with pointless beatings, humiliation, sadistic games, summary executions after false accusations; they were forced to stand interminably on the roll call grounds and were not allowed to communicate with their co-detainees. Furthermore, they were used for exhausting work in earthmoving, granite quarries, excavation and construction of the future Kartoffelnkeller - the ”potato cellar”, called that by the deportees who did not know what use was to be made of this impressive underground building. Their sadism went so far as to make them perform totally useless, but backbreaking, work. These resistant fighters died with neither glory nor grave, in the name of dignity denied.

Drawing by Rudolf Naess. (Reproduced with the author's kind authorisation). Source: National Library of Norway, Oslo division-War collection

July 1944 - Abrogation of the ”Nacht und Nebel” decree

On 30 July 1944, in the wake of the German debacle, and so as not to leave any traces of the extermination process, the Night and Fog procedure disappeared. Orders were given to eliminate the NN deportees. The Natzweiler camp was evacuated shortly before the Allied troops arrived. Most of the deportees were sent to Dachau. At the annex camps, some prisoners suffered the torture of ”death marches”, endless wanderings that usually led to the death of the exhausted, starving deportees.

In all, the German historians who studied the question after the war estimated that, out of the 22,000 victims of the Natzweiler camp and its annexes, nearly 7,000 were NN prisoners deported from France (5,000 to 6,000), the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Norway. Those who came home were marked forever, victims of a system in which everything was organised to dehumanise freedom fighters.

The European Centre of Deported Resistance Members next to the former Natzweiler-Struthof camp. Source: Photo DMPA.

Key dates:

30 January 1933: Hitler becomes Chancellor of the Reich.
28 February 1933: Decree ”For the defence of the people and the State”: creation of the Schutzhaft (security detention) procedure for Häftlinge (detainees); opening of the first concentration camps.
21 March 1933: Opening of the Dachau Konzentrationslager (KL) for the internment of ”political” deportees, opponents to the regime.
June 1936: Structure of the concentration camp system is defined under the supreme authority of SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, head of the Reich's unified police forces.
January 1937: Himmler's declaration announcing to Wehrmacht leaders that there are 8,000 detainees in the camps.
March 1938: Massive internment of ”asocial” elements in the KLs.
12 March 1938: Austria becomes part of Germany in the ”Anschluss”.
November 1938: The numbers in the KL temporarily reach 60,000 including 16,000 Novemberjuden, Jews arrested and deported after ”Kristallnacht”, the first Nazi pogrom against the Jews in Germany.
23 August 1939: Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact.
1 September 1939: Germany attacks Poland.
3 September 1939: War is declared against Germany by Great Britain and France.
Spring 1940: German offensive against Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and France.
15 May 1940: Capitulation of the Dutch army.
28 May 1940: Capitulation of Belgium.
22 June 1940: Signature of the Frenco-German armistice at Rethondes.
August 1940: Heydrich's decree officially classifying the KLs in three groups according to the categories of detainees and the severity of their detention conditions: educable detainees, detainees for serious offences, irremediable detainees.
30 November 1940: Alsace and Moselle officially become part of the Reich.
May 1941: Official opening of the category III concentration camp at Natzweiler.
22 June 1941: Germany attacks the USSR.
7 December 1941: Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; the United States enters into the war.
12 December 1941: Promulgation of the Keitel-Erlaβ or Nacht-und-Nebel - Erlaβ, the Night and Fog decree, instituting a special judiciary procedure ”aimed at elements hostile to the occupying forces” in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Norway.
April 1942: Decree issued by General SS Pohl, director of the economic section of the SS (WVHA), on detainee extermination through work.
2 February 1943: German capitulation at Stalingrad.
15 June 1943: Arrival of a first convoy of Norwegian NN prisoners at KL-Natzweiler.
9, 12 and 15 July 1943: Arrival of the first convoys of French NN prisoners at KL-Natzweiler.
6 June 1944: Allied landing in Normandy.
30 July 1944: Germany's ”Terror and Sabotage” decree abrogated the ”Nacht und Nebel” decree.
15 August 1944: Allied landing in Provence.
August-November 1944: Liberation of France and Western Europe.
2 September 1944: Evacuation of the Natzweiler camp.
Late March 1945: Allied offensive in Germany.
7 May 1945: German capitulation in Reims.
9 May 1945: German capitulation in Berlin.

Source: ”Mémoire et citoyenneté” Collection, N° 36, Publication by the Ministry of Defence/SGA/DMPA