General Erwin Rommel, who would later gain fame in the African desert as the "Desert Fox", led the 7th Panzer Division as it crashed through the Belgian defenses into France, skirting the Maginot Line and then smashing it from behind. This was a new kind of warfare integrating tanks, air power, artillery, and motorized infantry into a steel juggernaut emphasizing speedy movement and maximization of battlefield opportunities. Rommel kept a journal of his experiences. In this excerpt, he describes the action on May 14 as he leads a tank attack against French forces near the Muese River on the Belgian border:
While Schindler operated two other factories in Krakow, only at Emalia did he employ Jewish workers who resided in the nearby Krakow ghetto. At its peak strength in 1944, Emalia employed 1,700 workers; at least 1,000 were Jewish forced laborers, whom the Germans had relocated from the Krakow ghetto after its liquidation in March 1943 to the forced labor camp and later concentration camp Krakau-Plaszow.
In April 1940, Rudolph Höss, who become the first commandant of Auschwitz, identified the Silesian town of Oswiecim in Poland as a possible site for a concentration camp. Initially, the camp was meant to intimidate Poles to prevent them from protesting German rule and to serve as a prison for those who did resist. It was also perceived as a cornerstone of the policy to re-colonize Upper Silesia, which had once been a German region, with “pure Aryans.” When the plans for the camp were approved, the Nazi’s changed the name of the area to Auschwitz.
On January 20, 1942, Reinhard Heydrich convened the Wannsee Conference at a lakeside villa in Berlin to organize the “final solution to the Jewish question.” Around the table were 15 men representing government agencies necessary to implement so bold and sweeping a policy. The language of the meeting was clear, but the meeting notes were circumspect:
They did not greet us, nor did they smile; they seemed oppressed not only by compassion but by a confused restraint, which sealed their lips and bound their eyes to the funereal scene. It was that shame we knew so well, the shame that drowned us after the selections, and every time we had to watch, or submit to, some outrage: the shame the Germans did not know, that the just man experiences at another man's crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist, that it should have been introduced irrevocably into the world of things that exist, and that his will for good should have proved too weak or null, and should not have availed in defence.
Use of armoured forces was crucial for both sides on the Eastern Front. Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, involved a number of breakthroughs and encirclements by motorised forces. Its goal according to Führer Directive 21 (18 December 1940) was "to destroy the Russian forces deployed in the West and to prevent their escape into the wide-open spaces of Russia." The Red Army was to be destroyed west of the Dvina and Dnieper rivers, which were about 500 kilometres (310 mi) east of the Soviet border, to be followed by a mopping-up operation. The surprise attack resulted in the near annihilation of the Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily (VVS, Soviet Air Force) by simultaneous attacks on airfields, allowing the Luftwaffe to achieve total air supremacy over all the battlefields within the first week. On the ground, four German panzer groups outflanked and encircled disorganised Red Army units, while the marching infantry completed the encirclements and defeated the trapped forces. In late July, after 2nd Panzer Group (commanded by Guderian) captured the watersheds of the Dvina and Dnieper rivers near Smolensk, the panzers had to defend the encirclement, because the marching infantry divisions were still hundreds of kilometres to the west.
Nevertheless, despite the lack of access to clean water, soap and a change of clothes, many prisoners continued to go through the motions of washing each morning. This was because, even though it was not possible to carry out the activities of a normal life, it was extremely important to preserve the ‘spirit’ of life, not to give up. This can be seen so vividly in the writings of Primo Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz, who went on to become a distinguished writer,
In chambers II and III, the killings took place in underground rooms, and the corpses were carried to the five ovens by an electrically operated lift. Before cremation gold teeth and any other valuables, such as rings, were removed from the corpses. In IV and V the gas chambers and ovens were on the same level, but the ovens were so poorly built and the usage was so great that they repeatedly malfunctioned and had to be abandoned. The corpses were finally burned outside, in the open, as in 1943. Jewish Sonderkommandos worked the crematoria under SS supervision.
Before beginning Jewish exterminations, though, the Nazi’s used the Soviet POWs at the Auschwitz camp in trials of the poison gas Zyklon-B, produced by the German company “Degesch” (Deutsche Gesellschaft zur Schädlingsbekämpfung), which was marked as the best way to kill many people at once. The POWs were gassed in underground cells in Block 11, the so called “Death Block,” and following these trials, one gas chamber was setup just outside the main camp and two temporary gas chambers were opened at Birkenau.
The group raced to the English Channel, reaching the coast at Abbeville and cut off the BEF, the Belgian Army and some of the best-equipped divisions of the French Army in northern France. Armoured and motorised units under Guderian, Rommel and others, advanced far beyond the marching and horse-drawn infantry divisions and far in excess of that with which Hitler and the German high command expected or wished. When the Allies counter-attacked at Arras using the heavily armoured British Matilda I and Matilda II tanks, a brief panic was created in the German High Command. The armoured and motorised forces were halted by Hitler outside the port of Dunkirk, which was being used to evacuate the Allied forces. Hermann Göring promised that the Luftwaffe would complete the destruction of the encircled armies but aerial operations failed to prevent the evacuation of the majority of the Allied troops. In Operation Dynamo some 330,000 French and British troops escaped.
During the era of the Holocaust, German authorities also targeted other groups because of their perceived racial and biological inferiority: Roma (Gypsies), people with disabilities, and some of the Slavic peoples (Poles, Russians, and others). Other groups were persecuted on political, ideological, and behavioral grounds, among them Communists, Socialists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and homosexuals.
Despite the term blitzkrieg being coined by journalists during the Invasion of Poland of 1939, historians Matthew Cooper and J. P. Harris have written that German operations during it were consistent with traditional methods. The Wehrmacht strategy was more in line with Vernichtungsgedanken a focus on envelopment to create pockets in broad-front annihilation. Panzer forces were dispersed among the three German concentrations with little emphasis on independent use, being used to create or destroy close pockets of Polish forces and seize operational-depth terrain in support of the largely un-motorized infantry which followed.
Oskar Schindler, (born April 28, 1908, Svitavy [Zwittau], Moravia, Austria-Hungary [now in the Czech Republic]—died October 9, 1974, Hildesheim, West Germany), German industrialist who, aided by his wife and staff, sheltered approximately 1,100 Jews from the Nazis by employing them in his factories, which supplied the German army during World War II.
The courtyard between blocks 10 and 11, known as the "death wall" served as an execution area for Poles not in Auschwitz who had been sentenced to death by a criminal court—presided over by German judges—including for petty crimes such as stealing food. Several rooms in block 11 were deemed the Polizei-Ersatz-Gefängnis Myslowitz in Auschwitz ("Alternative jail of the police station at Mysłowice"). There were also Sonderbehandlung cases ("special treatment") for Poles and others regarded as dangerous to the Third Reich. Members of the camp resistance were shot there, as were 200 of the Sonderkommandos who took part in the Sonderkommando revolt in October 1944. Thousands of Poles were executed at the death wall; Höss wrote that "execution orders arrived in an unbroken stream".
When in August 1944 his factory was decommissioned, Schindler successfully petitioned to have it moved to Brnĕnec (Brünnlitz) in the Sudetenland, close to his hometown. Schindler and his associates composed a list of Jewish workers that he deemed essential for the new factory and submitted it for approval to the Jewish labour office. (With several versions of the list known, it is difficult to determine how many people were ultimately selected.) Though those chosen were diverted for a time to other concentration camps, Schindler intervened, ensuring that 700 men and 300 women eventually arrived at Brnĕnec. They were later joined by 100 more Jews who had been transported from another concentration camp by the Nazis and abandoned in train cars in Brnĕnec. Those who reached the camp spent the remaining months of the war manufacturing munitions that were rigged to fail. A final head count compiled at this time listed 1,098 Jews at the camp.
However, Schindler's financial woes continued, and he went bankrupt in 1958. He left his wife Emilie in Argentina to find fortune back in Germany, but despite his efforts, his various businesses repeatedly failed. Again, he had to depend on the charity of the Schindler Jews, many of whom he was still in contact with, to support his well being. In 1963, the same year he declared bankruptcy, he was honored by the State of Israel as Righteous Among the Nations, an award for non Jews who helped save Jews during the Holocaust. A year later, he had a heart attack and spent time recuperating in a hospital.
Up to this point, though, Auschwitz-Birkenau accounted for “only” 11 percent of the victims of the “Final Solution.” In August 1942, however, construction began on four large-scale gassing facilities. It appears from the plans that the first two gas chambers were adapted from mortuaries which, with the huge crematoria attached to them, were initially intended to cope with mortalities amongst the slave labor force in the camp, now approaching 100,000 and subject to a horrifying death rate. But from the autumn of 1942, it seems clear that the SS planners and civilian contractors were intending to build a mass-murder plant.
^ Goebbels noted: "Regarding the Jewish question, the Fuhrer is determined to clear the table. He warned the Jews that if they were to cause another world war, it would lead to their own destruction. Those were not empty words. Now the world war has come. The destruction of the Jews must be its necessary consequence. We cannot be sentimental about it. It is not for us to feel sympathy for the Jews. We should have sympathy rather with our own German people. If the German people have to sacrifice 160,000 victims in yet another campaign in the east, then those responsible for this bloody conflict will have to pay for it with their lives."
In the first few decades after the Holocaust, scholars argued that it was unique as a genocide in its reach and specificity. This began to change in the 1980s during the West German Historikerstreit ("historians' dispute"), an attempt to re-position the Holocaust within German historiography. Ernst Nolte triggered the dispute in June 1986 with an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: "Vergangenheit, die nicht vergehen will: Eine Rede, die geschrieben, aber nicht mehr gehalten werden konnte" ("The past that will not pass: A speech that could be written but not delivered"), in which he compared Auschwitz to the Gulag and suggested that the Holocaust was a response to Hitler's fear of the Soviet Union: "Was the Bolshevik murder of an entire class not the logical and factual prius of the 'racial murder' of National Socialism? ... Was the source of Auschwitz a past that would not go away?"[aa]