The admitting authority assigned each concentration camp prisoner to a category that revealed why he or she had been arrested. The numerous prisoner categories were the same in all concentration camps. A detailed list of abbreviations can be found here.

Like the prisoners’ nationalities, their assignment to a prisoner category resulted in a hierarchy in the camps. This is because different groups were subject to different rules regarding the amount of food they received, for example, or the strenuousness of the work they were assigned to. Prisoner categories and nationalities therefore affected a prisoner’s chance of survival.

Prisoner categories also played a decisive role in how the prisoners perceived themselves and others. For example, prisoners often supported others within their category and defined themselves on the basis of the group to which they belonged.

It is important to remember, however, that the categories did not always correspond to how the prisoners would have described themselves or to the actual reasons they had been sent to a concentration camp. For example, all Hungarian Jews who were sent from Auschwitz to Buchenwald were registered as political prisoners. The same applied to the vast majority of foreign forced laborers. Sometimes prisoner categories were also meant as an insult – such as when Communist or Social Democratic opponents of the Nazis were registered as “anti-social elements” or “career criminals.”