Nacht und Nebel

Nacht und Nebel
Commemorative plaque of the French victims at Hinzert concentration camp, using the expressions "Nacht und Nebel" and "NN-Deported"

Nacht und Nebel (German for "Night and Fog", a direct hint to a "Tarnhelm" spell from Wagner's Rheingold) was a directive (German: Erlass) of Adolf Hitler on 7 December 1941 signed and implemented by Armed Forces High Command Chief Wilhelm Keitel, resulting in the kidnapping and forced disappearance of many political activists and resistance 'helpers' throughout Nazi Germany's occupied territories, principally in Western Europe. Anyone guilty of endangering the "security or state of readiness" of German forces and who was not to be summarily executed simply vanished into the "night and fog" of Germany. It was a specific punishment for opponents of the Nazis in occupied countries and intended to intimidate local populations into submission by denying families and friends of the missing all knowledge of what had happened to them. To this day, it is not known how many people were seized as a result of this order.

The International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg held that the disappearances committed as part of the Nacht und Nebel program were war crimes which violated both the Hague Conventions and customary international law.[1]



Even before the Holocaust gained momentum, the Nazis had begun rounding up political prisoners from both Germany and occupied Europe. Most of the early prisoners were of two sorts: they were either prisoners of personal conviction (belief), political prisoners whom the Nazis deemed in need of "re-education" to Nazi ideals, or resistance leaders in occupied western Europe. Up until the time of the "Night and Fog" decree, prisoners from Western Europe were handled by German soldiers in approximately the same way other countries did: according to national agreements and procedures such as the Geneva Convention. Hitler and his upper level staff, however, made a critical decision not to have to conform to what they considered unnecessary rules.

On 7 December 1941, SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler issued the following instructions to the Gestapo:

After lengthy consideration, it is the will of the Führer that the measures taken against those who are guilty of offenses against the Reich or against the occupation forces in occupied areas should be altered. The Führer is of the opinion that in such cases penal servitude or even a hard labor sentence for life will be regarded as a sign of weakness. An effective and lasting deterrent can be achieved only by the death penalty or by taking measures which will leave the family and the population uncertain as to the fate of the offender. Deportation to Germany serves this purpose.

On 12 December, Keitel issued a directive which explained Hitler's orders:

Efficient and enduring intimidation can only be achieved either by capital punishment or by measures by which the relatives of the criminals do not know the fate of the criminal.

He further expanded on this principle in a February 1942 letter stating that any prisoners not executed within eight days were

to be transported to Germany secretly, and further treatment of the offenders will take place here; these measures will have a deterrent effect because - A. The prisoners will vanish without a trace. B. No information may be given as to their whereabouts or their fate.

The Night and Fog prisoners were mostly from France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Norway.[citation needed] They were usually arrested in the middle of the night and quickly taken to prisons hundreds of miles away for questioning, eventually arriving at concentration camps such as Natzweiler or Gross-Rosen, if they survived.[2] Until 30 April 1944, at least 6,639 persons were captured under the Nacht und Nebel orders.[3] Some 340 of them may have been executed. The 1955 film Night and Fog uses the term to illustrate one aspect of the concentration camp system as it was transformed into a system of labour and death camps.


The reasons for Nacht und Nebel were many:

  • Distinct complaints by other governments or humanitarian organizations against the German government were made far more difficult because the exact cause of internment or death, indeed whether or not the event had even occurred, was obscured. It kept the Nazis from being held accountable.
  • It allowed an across-the-board, silent veto of international treaties and conventions: one cannot apply the limits and terms of humane treatment in war if one cannot locate the victim or discern his fate.
  • Additionally, it lessened the moral qualms and confrontations of the German public as well as that of servicemen, in an agreed and/or ignorant silence.

Treatment of prisoners

The Nacht und Nebel prisoners' hair was shaved and the women were given a convict costume of a thin cotton dress, wooden sandals and a triangular black headcloth. The prisoners were often moved apparently at random from prison to prison such as Fresnes Prison in Paris, Waldheim near Dresden, Leipzig, Potsdam, Lübeck and Stettin. The deportees were sometimes herded 80 at a time with standing room only into slow moving, dirty cattle trucks with little or no food or water on journeys lasting up to five days to their next unknown destination.[4]

An average day for the prisoners was to be awakened at 5:00am and made to work a twelve hour day with only a twenty minute break for a scant meal. When the Allies liberated Paris and Brussels, the SS decided on revenge while they still could and many of the Nacht und Nebel prisoners were moved to concentration camps such as Ravensbrück concentration camp for women, Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp, Buchenwald concentration camp, Schloss Hartheim, or Flossenbürg concentration camp.[5]

At the camps, the prisoners were forced to stand for hours in freezing and wet conditions at 5:00 every morning, standing strictly to attention, before being put to work all day. They were kept in cold and starving conditions many with dysentery or other illnesses and the weakest were often beaten to death, shot, guillotined, or hanged, while the others were subjected to torture by the Germans.[6] When the inmates were totally exhausted, after having worked for 12 hours a day, or if they were too ill or too weak to work, they were then transferred to the Revier ("Krankenrevier", sick barrack) or other places for extermination. If a camp did not have a gas chamber of its own, the so-called Muselmänner, or prisoners who were too sick to work, were often killed or transferred to other concentration camps for extermination.[6]


The result, even early in the war, was the facilitating of execution of political prisoners, especially Soviet military prisoners, who in early 1942 outnumbered the Jews in number of deaths even at Auschwitz[citation needed]. As the transports grew and Hitler's troops moved across Europe, that ratio changed dramatically. The Night and Fog Decree was carried out surreptitiously, but it set the background for orders that would follow. As the war continued, so did the openness of such decrees and orders. It is probably correct to surmise, from various writings, that in the beginning the German public knew only a little of the insidious plans Hitler had for a "New European Order". As the years passed, despite the best attempts of Goebbels and the Propaganda Ministry with its formidable domestic information control, there can be little doubt from diaries and periodicals of the time that information about the harshness and cruelty became progressively known to the German public.

Soldiers brought back information, families on rare occasion heard from or about loved ones, and allied news sources and the BBC were able to get through sporadically. Although captured archives from the SD contain numerous orders stamped with "NN" (for Nacht und Nebel), it has never been determined exactly how many people disappeared as a result of the decree. Keitel later testified at the Nuremberg Trials that of all the illegal orders he'd carried out, the Night and Fog Decree was "the worst of all." In part because of his role in carrying out this decree, Keitel was hanged in 1946.

Text of the decrees

Directives for the prosecution of offences committed within the occupied territories against the German State or the occupying power, of 7 December 1941.

Within the occupied territories, communistic elements and other circles hostile to Germany have increased their efforts against the German State and the occupying powers since the Russian campaign started. The amount and the danger of these machinations oblige us to take severe measures as a deterrent. First of all the following directives are to be applied:

I. Within the occupied territories, the adequate punishment for offences committed against the German State or the occupying power which endanger their security or a state of readiness is on principle the death penalty.
II. The offences listed in paragraph I as a rule are to be dealt with in the occupied countries only if it is probable that sentence of death will be passed upon the offender, at least the principal offender, and if the trial and the execution can be completed in a very short time. Otherwise the offenders, at least the principal offenders, are to be taken to Germany.
III. Prisoners taken to Germany are subject to military procedure only if particular military interests require this. In case German or foreign authorities inquire about such prisoners, they are to be told that they have been arrested but that the proceedings do not allow any further information.
IV. The Commanders in the occupied territories and the Court authorities within the framework of their jurisdiction, are personally responsible for the observance of this decree.
V. The Chief of the High Command of the Armed Forces determines in which occupied territories this decree is to be applied. He is authorized to explain and to issue executive orders and supplements. The Reich Minister of Justice will issue executive orders within his own jurisdiction.[7]

Notable prisoners

See also


A personal account of a person who survived as a "Night and Fog" prisoner four months in Gross-Rosen and a year in Natzweiler:

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

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