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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 reference to a "Tarnhelm" spell, from Wagner's Rheingold) was a directive (German language: Erlass) of Adolf Hitler on 7 December 1941 that was originally intended to winnow out all political activists and resistance 'helpers', "anyone endangering German security" (die deutsche Sicherheit gefährden) throughout Nazi Germany's occupied territories. Two months later Armed Forces High Command Feldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel expanded it to include all persons in occupied countries who had been taken into custody and were still alive eight days later. The decree was meant to intimidate local populations into submission by denying friends and families of the missing any knowledge of their whereabouts or their fate. The prisoners were secretly transported to Germany, vanishing without a trace. In 1945, the seized Sicherheitsdienst (SD) records were found to include merely names and the initials NN (Nacht und Nebel); even the sites of graves were unchronicled. To this day, it is not known how many thousands of people disappeared as a result of this order.[1]

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.[2]


Bundesarchiv Bild 183-S72707, Heinrich Himmler

Heinrich Himmler

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, Reichsführer-SS 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.

Wilhelm Keitel

Wilhelm Keitel

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, Esterwegen or Gross-Rosen, if they survived.[3] Up to 30 April 1944, at least 6,639 persons were captured under the Nacht und Nebel orders.[4] Some 340 of them may have been executed. The 1955 film Night and Fog, directed by Alain Resnais, 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: The Gestapo decree, Nacht und Nebel, means "Night and Fog". This policy, enforced in the occupied countries, meant that whenever someone was arrested, the family would learn nothing about their fate. The persons arrested, sometimes only suspected resistors, were secretly sent to Germany and perhaps to a concentration camp. Whether they lived or died, the Germans would give out no information to the families of the suspects. This was done to enhance the avoidance of arrest and to keep the populations quiet out of an atmosphere of mysterious terror and fear.[5]

The program made it far more difficult for other governments or humanitarian organizations to accuse the German government of specific misconduct because it obscured whether or not internment or death had even occurred, let alone the cause of that internment or death. It thereby kept the Nazis from being held accountable.

It allowed across-the-board, silent defiance of international treaties and conventions: one cannot apply the limits and terms of humane treatment in war if one cannot locate a victim or discern that victim's fate.

Additionally, it lessened German subjects' moral qualms about the Nazi regime, as well as their desire to speak out against it, by keeping the general public ignorant of the regime's malfeasance and by creating extreme pressure for service members to remain silent.

Treatment of prisonersEdit

Original artifact. Brown boxcar with light creating shadows from upper right corner.

Replica of a Holocaust train boxcar used by Nazi Germany to transport Jews and other victims during the Holocaust.

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.[6]

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.[7]

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.[8] 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.[8]


Biskupia Gorka executions - 14 - Barkmann, Paradies, Becker, Klaff, Steinhoff (left to right)

The execution of guards of the Stutthof concentration camp on July 4, 1946. (left to right) Barkmann, Paradies, Becker, Klaff, Steinhoff.

Dead wilhelmkeitel

The body of Wilhelm Keitel after being hanged

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" (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 decreesEdit

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.[9]

Notable prisonersEdit

Noor Inayat Khan

Noor Inayat Khan

See alsoEdit


  • William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Reprint Society, 1962, 957-58, drawing upon Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression, part of the Nuremberg Documents, Vol. VII, pages 871-874, Nuremberg Document L-90.
Further reading

External linksEdit

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