During the early days of Neuengamme concentration camp, German prisoners (including Austrians, who were considered inhabitants of the Reich) formed the largest group. Initially, the main purpose of the concentration camps had been to imprison the Nazis’ political adversaries. From 1937, more and more members of other persecuted groups – Jewish people, Sinti and Roma, homosexuals, so-called antisocial elements and criminals – were taken to the camps. The reasons for imprisonment were indicated by triangles in different colours on the prisoners’ uniforms. All in all, around 9,500 German prisoners from the Reich were imprisoned at Neuengamme concentration camp, among them around 400 women in the satellite camps.
From 1941, the majority of prisoners in Neuengamme concentration camp came from countries occupied by the Germans. In 1941/42, Polish prisoners formed the largest group in the camp, and from 1942/43 the majority of prisoners came from the Soviet Union. In total, more than 90 percent of the prisoners in Neuengamme were non-Germans. More than half of them came from Eastern and Central Europe, but there were also large groups of prisoners from France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark. They had been imprisoned because they had committed acts of resistance against the German occupation, they were slave labourers who were being punished for some offence, or they had been taken hostage as part of “retaliation measures” carried out by the Wehrmacht. From 1941, Neuengamme concentration camp also held Soviet POWs, but it was not until 1944/45 that a larger number of Jewish prisoners from outside Germany were taken to Neuengamme.