In September 1939, the German army occupied the western half of Poland. German police soon forced tens of thousands of Polish Jews from their homes and into ghettoes, giving their confiscated properties to ethnic Germans (non-Jews outside Germany who identified as German), Germans from the Reich or Polish gentiles. Surrounded by high walls and barbed wire, the Jewish ghettoes in Poland functioned like captive city-states, governed by Jewish Councils. In addition to widespread unemployment, poverty and hunger, overpopulation made the ghettoes breeding grounds for disease such as typhus.
^ In his testimony, according to Polish historian Aleksander Lasik, "Höss neither protected anyone nor evaded his own responsibility. His stance came as a surprise to many, especially those who viewed him as a bloodthirsty beast. Instead, he viewed his crimes in terms of the technical obstacles and challenges with which he had to cope. Höss stated that he led the killings in Auschwitz on express orders of Reichsführer Himmler."
Policies differed widely among Germany’s Balkan allies. In Romania it was primarily the Romanians themselves who slaughtered the country’s Jews. Toward the end of the war, however, when the defeat of Germany was all but certain, the Romanian government found more value in living Jews who could be held for ransom or used as leverage with the West. Bulgaria deported Jews from neighbouring Thrace and Macedonia, which it occupied, but government leaders faced stiff opposition to the deportation of native Bulgarian Jews, who were regarded as fellow citizens.
In the German parliament, the Nazi party, led by Adolf Hitler, gained popularity. The number of seats Nazis controlled in the parliament rose from 12 in 1928 to 230 in 1932, making them the largest political party. The strong showing guaranteed the Nazi party would need to be part of any political coalition. Believing he could check Hitler’s ambition, President Hindenburg reluctantly made Hitler the Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933.
Conventional wisdom traces blitzkrieg, “lightning war,” to the development in Germany between 1918 and 1939 of a body of doctrine using mobility to prevent repetition of the attritional deadlock of World War I. Soldiers such as Hans von Seeckt and Heinz Guderian allegedly perceived more clearly than their counterparts elsewhere in Europe the military potential of the internal-combustion engine combined with modern communications technology. Large formations moving on tracks and wheels, directed by radios, could rupture an enemy’s front and so disorganize its rear that countermeasures would be paralyzed. First tested in Poland, the concept reached perihelion in France and the Low Countries in 1940, when in less than six weeks the German army crushed the combined forces of four nations. Applied a year later against the Soviet Union, blitzkrieg purportedly brought the Wehrmacht to the gates of Moscow in six months. Some accounts insist that only Adolf Hitler’s incompetent interference tipped the war’s balance so far against Germany that even blitzkrieg’s most sophisticated refinements could do no more than stave off the Reich’s collapse.
Sometimes the mere presence of German troops in the vicinity was sufficient to spur a massacre. One example is what happened in the Polish village of Jedwabne, where neighbours murdered their Jewish neighbours. For years the massacre was blamed on the Germans, though many Poles likely knew that the local population had turned against its own Jews. In the Baltics, where the Germans were greeted as liberators by some segments of the population, the lure of political independence and the desire to erase any collaboration with the previous Soviet occupiers led nationalist bands to murder local Jews.
Several SS personnel oversaw the killings at each gas chamber, while the bulk of the work was done by the mostly Jewish prisoners known as Sonderkommandos (special squads). Hungarian doctor Miklós Nyiszli reported that the Sonderkommando numbered around 860 prisoners when the Hungarian Jews were being killed in May–July 1944. Their responsibilities included removing goods and corpses from the incoming trains, guiding victims to the dressing rooms and gas chambers, and working in the "Canada" barracks, where the victims' possessions were stored. Housed separately from other prisoners, in somewhat better conditions, their quality of life was further improved by access to the goods taken from murdered prisoners, which they were sometimes able to steal and trade on Auschwitz's black market. Many Sonderkommandos committed suicide in response to the horrors of their work; others were generally shot by the SS in a matter of weeks. New Sonderkommando units were formed from incoming transports. Almost none of the 2,000 prisoners placed in these units survived to the camp's liberation.
German forces had begun evacuating many of the death camps in the fall of 1944, sending inmates under guard to march further from the advancing enemy’s front line. These so-called “death marches” continued all the way up to the German surrender, resulting in the deaths of some 250,000 to 375,000 people. In his classic book “Survival in Auschwitz,” the Italian Jewish author Primo Levi described his own state of mind, as well as that of his fellow inmates in Auschwitz on the day before Soviet troops arrived at the camp in January 1945: “We lay in a world of death and phantoms. The last trace of civilization had vanished around and inside us. The work of bestial degradation, begun by the victorious Germans, had been carried to conclusion by the Germans in defeat.”
The commander of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Rudolf Höss, stated in his autobiography that in 1941 (no exact date is given) he was summoned to Berlin, where Himmler informed him that Hitler had issued an order to solve the “Jewish Question” for good, and that the order was to be implemented by the SS. “The existing extermination places in the east are unsuited to a large scale, long-term action. I have designated Auschwitz for this purpose,” Himmler said.
Momentum is built, not discovered by accident. Like Blitzkrieg, it starts with an initial success. It is important for executives to frame the landscape in a way that makes the importance of the accomplishment clear to everyone (by celebrating the event), while also making it clear to employees that this is not the end goal, but rather the first step in a long string of actions that will lead to greater success and triumph.
After examining several sites for a new plant to manufacture Buna-N, a type of synthetic rubber essential to the war effort, the German chemical cartel IG Farben chose a site near the towns of Dwory and Monowice (Monowitz in German), about 7 kilometres (4.3 mi) east of Auschwitz I. Tax exemptions were available to corporations prepared to develop industries in the frontier regions under the Eastern Fiscal Assistance Law, passed in December 1940. The site had good railway connections and access to raw materials. In February 1941, Himmler ordered that the Jewish population of Oświęcim be expelled to make way for skilled laborers; that all Poles able to work remain in the town and work on building the factory; and that Auschwitz prisoners be used in the construction work.
Living standards were not high in the late 1930s. Consumption of consumer goods had fallen from 71 percent in 1928 to 59 percent in 1938. The demands of the war economy reduced the amount of spending in non-military sectors to satisfy the demand for the armed forces. On 9 September, Göring as Head of the Reich Defence Council, called for complete "employment" of living and fighting power of the national economy for the duration of the war. Overy presents this as evidence that a "blitzkrieg economy" did not exist.
His tasks for the Abwehr included collecting information on railways, military installations, and troop movements, as well as recruiting other spies within Czechoslovakia, in advance of a planned invasion of the country by Nazi Germany. He was arrested by the Czech government for espionage on 18 July 1938 and immediately imprisoned, but was released as a political prisoner under the terms of the Munich Agreement, the instrument under which the Czech Sudetenland was annexed into Germany on 1 October. Schindler applied for membership in the Nazi Party on 1 November and was accepted the following year.