Stutthof was one of the deadliest of the Nazi concentration camps and played a significant role in the Holocaust in the later stages of the Second World War.

Stutthof was originally created as a prison camp for Poles in September 1939, the first camp to be established by the Nazis beyond Germany’s pre-war borders. It was initially under the control of the local SS and police authorities. It gradually expanded during the course of the Second World War and officially became a concentration camp in January 1942. This meant that it was incorporated into the national system of concentration camps overseen by SS headquarters and that it expanded.

The first prisoners of Stutthof were Poles and Jews from the Danzig (now Gdańsk) region and until the summer of 1944 most prisoners were Poles, although there were increasingly also inmates from other countries, especially the Soviet Union, Denmark and Norway. It was only in mid-1944 that the camp took on a significant role in the Holocaust: between the summer and autumn of that year, around 50,000 Jews were sent to Stutthof. They came from two main groups: Lithuanian, Latvian and German Jews who were evacuated there from camps in the Baltic States as the Red Army advanced; Jews of various nationalities who were sent there from Auschwitz-Birkenau as slave labourers. The arrival of tens of thousands of Jewish prisoners dramatically increased the population of the camp and dozens of satellite camps around the region.

Although Stutthof was not an extermination camp like Auschwitz-Birkenau or Treblinka (i.e. it was not a place where people were sent to be murdered on arrival), conditions for prisoners were atrocious, and are generally regarded as having been amongst the worst in the Nazi concentration camps, causing the deaths of tens of thousands. The principal causes of death were physical exhaustion as the result of slave labour, disease, malnutrition, exposure to the harsh climate, and abuse from the guards. Jewish prisoners were particularly vulnerable as they were already weakened by years of starvation and abuse in ghettos and other camps prior to their arrival in Stutthof. In 1944, the camp also had a small gas chamber, which was used to murder prisoners who were considered too sick to continue working.

As the Red Army advanced in early 1945, prisoners began to be evacuated from Stutthof and its satellite camps towards sites which were still in German hands. Some were forcibly marched, others sent on barges. In all cases, conditions were appalling and around 25,000 prisoners died in this period from cold, hunger, disease and shooting by the SS guards – those who could not keep up with the marches were shot on the spot.

Including these death marches, it is estimated that approximately 65,000 of the 110,000 inmates of Stutthof and its satellite camps died; around 28,000 of them were Jewish.