It was set up in the summer of 1940 as a satellite camp to Sachsenhausen, and became an independent camp on May 1, 1941. Initially, work was carried out in the camp's huge stone quarry, owned by the SS-Deutsche Erd- und Steinwerke GmbH. As the complex grew, many inmates were put to work in the construction of the subcamps' facilities.
In October 1941 the SS transferred about 3,000 Soviet POWs to Gross-Rosen for execution by shooting.
Gross-Rosen was known for its brutal treatment of NN (Nacht und Nebel) prisoners, especially in the stone quarry. The brutal treatment of the political and Jewish prisoners was not only due to the SS and criminal prisoners, but to a lesser extent also due to German civilians working in the stone quarry. In 1942 for political prisoners the mean survival time was less than two months.