The site was first suggested as a concentration camp for Polish prisoners by SS-Oberführer Arpad Wigand, an aide to Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, Higher SS and Police Leader for Silesia. After this part of Poland was annexed by Nazi Germany, Oświęcim (Auschwitz) was located administratively in Germany, in the Province of Upper Silesia, Regierungsbezirk Kattowitz, Landkreis Bielitz. Bach-Zelewski had been searching for a site to hold prisoners in the Silesia region, as the local prisons were filled to capacity. Richard Glücks, head of the Concentration Camps Inspectorate, sent former Sachsenhausen concentration camp commandant Walter Eisfeld to inspect the site, which housed 16 dilapidated one-story buildings that had served as an Austrian and later Polish Army barracks and a camp for transient workers. German citizens were offered tax concessions and other benefits if they would relocate to the area. By October 1943, more than 6,000 Reich Germans had arrived. The Nazis planned to build a model modern residential area for incoming Germans, including schools, playing fields, and other amenities. Some of the plans went forward, including the construction of several hundred apartments, but many were never fully implemented. Basic amenities such as water and sewage disposal were inadequate, and water-borne illnesses were commonplace.
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]
As the war progressed, Allied armies began using combined arms formations and deep penetration strategies that Germany had attempted to use in the opening years of the war. Many Allied operations in the Western Desert and on the Eastern Front relied on massive concentrations of firepower to establish breakthroughs by fast-moving armoured units. These artillery-based tactics were also decisive in Western Front operations after Operation Overlord and both the British Commonwealth and American armies developed flexible and powerful systems for utilizing artillery support. What the Soviets lacked in flexibility, they made up for in number of multiple rocket launchers, cannon and mortar tubes. The Germans never achieved the kind of response times or fire concentrations their enemies were capable of by 1944.
In 1939, shortly after the war began, the Germans initiated the T4 Program—framed euphemistically as a “euthanasia” program—for the murder of intellectually or physically disabled and emotionally disturbed Germans who by their very existence violated the Nazi ideal of Aryan supremacy. They were termed “life unworthy of life.” An economic justification was also employed as these Germans were considered “useless eaters.” The Nazis pioneered the use of gas chambers and mass crematoria under this program. The murder of the disabled was the training ground for key personnel who were to later staff the death camps of Aktion Reinhard. The German public protested these murders. The Roman Catholic bishop of Münster, Clemens August, Graf von Galen, preached against them, and the T4 program was formally halted. Nonetheless, the murder and sterilization of these German “Aryans” continued secretly throughout the war.
In 1983, French scholar George Wellers was one of the first to use German data on deportations; he arrived at a figure of 1,471,595 deaths, including 1.35 million Jews and 86,675 Poles. A larger study in the late 1980s by Franciszek Piper, published by Yad Vashem in 1991, used timetables of train arrivals combined with deportation records to calculate that, of the 1.3 million deported to the camp, 1,082,000 died there between 1940 and 1945, a figure (rounded up to 1.1 million) that he regarded as a minimum and that came to be widely accepted.[e]
In Autumn 1943, the camp administration was reorganized following a corruption scandal. By the end of 1943, the prisoner population of Auschwitz main camp, Birkenau, Monowitz and other subcamps was over 80,000: 18,437 in the main camp, 49,114 in Birkenau, and 13,288 at Monowitz where I G Farben had its synthetic rubber plant. Up to 50,000 prisoners were scattered around 51 subcamps such as Rajsko, an experimental agricultural station, and Gleiwitz, a coal mine (see The List of the Camps for a complete list of those subcamps).
The Maginot Line: the Allies expected a protracted, defensive war © Across the English Channel, a stunned British military establishment struggled to determine how it was that events had so quickly gone so horribly wrong. The BEF had sailed for France believing that they and their French ally were well equipped and well trained to fight a modern war. In truth, as events proved, they were completely unprepared to face Hitler's Wehrmacht.
The resistance sent out the first oral message about Auschwitz with Dr. Aleksander Wielkopolski, a Polish engineer who was released in October 1940. The following month the Polish underground in Warsaw prepared a report on the basis of that information, The camp in Auschwitz, part of which was published in London in May 1941 in a booklet, The German Occupation of Poland, by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The report said of the Jews in the camp that "scarcely any of them came out alive". According to Fleming, the booklet was "widely circulated amongst British officials". The Polish Fortnightly Review based a story on it, writing that "three crematorium furnaces were insufficient to cope with the bodies being cremated", as did The Scotsman on 8 January 1942, the only British news organization to do so.
The wounds of the Holocaust–known in Hebrew as Shoah, or catastrophe–were slow to heal. Survivors of the camps found it nearly impossible to return home, as in many cases they had lost their families and been denounced by their non-Jewish neighbors. As a result, the late 1940s saw an unprecedented number of refugees, POWs and other displaced populations moving across Europe.
An inmate's first encounter with the camp, if they were being registered and not sent straight to the gas chamber, would be at the prisoner reception centre, where they were tattooed, shaved, disinfected, and given their striped prison uniform. Built between 1942 and 1944, the center contained a bathhouse, laundry, and 19 gas chambers for delousing clothes. Debórah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt write that inmates would then leave this area via a porch that faced the gate with the Arbeit macht frei sign. The prisoner reception center of Auschwitz I became the visitor reception center of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.
In the fall of that year the Płaszów work camp opened nearby, and by February 1943 it was under the command of the notoriously sadistic SS officer Amon Göth, who would be executed after the war. Capitalizing on the officer’s appetite for drink and other luxury items available mainly on the black market, Schindler cultivated his friendship by ensuring a constant stream of them to the villa from which he oversaw the camp. Schindler thus managed to prevail upon Göth to create a separate camp for his Jewish workers, where they were free of the abuses suffered at Płaszów. Though Schindler’s motivations prior to this point are unclear, many scholars interpret his efforts to extricate his workers from Płaszów as indication that his concern for them was not purely financial.
After its defeat in World War I, Germany was humiliated by the Versailles Treaty, which reduced its prewar territory, drastically reduced its armed forces, demanded the recognition of its guilt for the war, and stipulated it pay reparations to the allied powers. With the German Empire destroyed, a new parliamentary government called the Weimar Republic was formed. The republic suffered from economic instability, which grew worse during the worldwide depression after the New York stock market crash in 1929. Massive inflation followed by very high unemployment heightened existing class and political differences and began to undermine the government.
On 15 October 1944 a train carrying 700 men on Schindler's list was initially sent to the concentration camp at Gross-Rosen, where the men spent about a week before being re-routed to the factory in Brünnlitz. Three hundred female Schindlerjuden were similarly sent to Auschwitz, where they were in imminent danger of being sent to the gas chambers. Schindler's usual connections and bribes failed to obtain their release. Finally after he sent his secretary, Hilde Albrecht, with bribes of black market goods, food and diamonds, the women were sent to Brünnlitz after several harrowing weeks in Auschwitz.
When a train carrying Jewish prisoners arrived “selections” would be conducted on the railroad platform, or ramp. Newly arrived persons classified by the SS physicians as unfit for labor were sent to the gas chambers: these included the ill, the elderly, pregnant women and children. In most cases, 70-75% of each transport was sent to immediate death. These people were not entered in the camp records; that is, they received no serial numbers and were not registered, and this is why it is possible only to estimate the total number of victims.
John Ellis wrote that "...there is considerable justice in Matthew Cooper's assertion that the panzer divisions were not given the kind of strategic mission that was to characterize authentic armoured blitzkrieg, and were almost always closely subordinated to the various mass infantry armies." Steven Zaloga wrote, "Whilst Western accounts of the September campaign have stressed the shock value of the panzer and Stuka attacks, they have tended to underestimate the punishing effect of German artillery on Polish units. Mobile and available in significant quantity, artillery shattered as many units as any other branch of the Wehrmacht."
Up to this point, Auschwitz accounted for only 11 percent of the victims of the 'Final Solution'. However, in August 1942, planning began for the construction of 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.
On 1 August 1940, Governor-General Hans Frank issued a decree requiring all Kraków Jews to leave the city within two weeks. Only those who had jobs directly related to the German war effort would be allowed to stay. Of the 60,000 to 80,000 Jews then living in the city, only 15,000 remained by March 1941. These Jews were then forced to leave their traditional neighbourhood of Kazimierz and relocate to the walled Kraków Ghetto, established in the industrial Podgórze district. Schindler's workers travelled on foot to and from the ghetto each day to their jobs at the factory. Enlargements to the facility in the four years Schindler was in charge included the addition of an outpatient clinic, co-op, kitchen, and dining room for the workers, in addition to expansion of the factory and its related office space.