Following the invasion of Poland, German occupation policy especially targeted the Jews but also brutalized non-Jewish Poles. In pursuit of lebensraum, Germany sought systematically to destroy Polish society and nationhood. The Nazis killed Polish priests and politicians, decimated the Polish leadership, and kidnapped the children of the Polish elite, who were raised as “voluntary Aryans” by their new German “parents.” Many Poles were also forced to perform hard labour on survival diets, were deprived of property and uprooted, and were interned in concentration camps.
Inmates at Birkenau numbered around 100,000 at their peak. They were of many different nationalities, but the vast majority of those that entered the camp were unregistered Jews, many of whom were immediately sent to their deaths in the gas chambers. Women and children stood the least chance of survival, and many died even before arriving at Birkenau due to the appalling conditions of the railway journeys. The unloading platform, where the brisk selection process was conducted, remains. Apart from physically fit men (who often perished later from the rigours of the camp) it was often only an accident of birth that merited a possibility of survival. Large numbers of twins survived until liberation as they were objects of interest to the research of Dr. Josef Mengele - a man disliked even by his Nazi peers.
The prisoners' days began at 4:30 am for the men (an hour later in winter), and earlier for the women, when the block supervisor sounded a gong and started beating inmates with sticks to encourage them to wash and use the latrines quickly. Sanitary arrangements were atrocious, with few latrines and a lack of clean water. Each washhouse had to service thousands of prisoners. In sectors BIa and BIb in Auschwitz II-Birkenau, two buildings containing latrines and washrooms were installed in 1943. These contained troughs for washing and 90 faucets; the toilet facilities were "sewage channels" covered by concrete with 58 holes for seating. There were three barracks with washing facilities or toilets to serve 16 residential barracks in BIIa, and six washrooms/latrines for 32 barracks in BIIb, BIIc, BIId, and BIIe. Primo Levi described a 1944 Auschwitz III washroom:
By the spring of 1945, German leadership was dissolving amid internal dissent, with Goering and Himmler both seeking to distance themselves from Hitler and take power. In his last will and political testament, dictated in a German bunker that April 29, Hitler blamed the war on “International Jewry and its helpers” and urged the German leaders and people to follow “the strict observance of the racial laws and with merciless resistance against the universal poisoners of all peoples”–the Jews. The following day, he committed suicide. Germany’s formal surrender in World War II came barely a week later, on May 8, 1945.
The town of Auschwitz was a major railroad hub, with many train tracks coming into it, and a large marshaling yard near the Auschwitz station. Standing on the railroad overpass in 1941, Himmler realized that Birkenau was an ideal location for transporting people by rail from all over Europe, although the plans for exterminating the Jews were not finalized until the Nazis were confident that they would win their war against the Soviet Union.
When Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, they found these pitiful survivors as well as 836,525 items of women clothing, 348,820 items of men clothing, 43,525 pairs of shoes and vast numbers of toothbrushes, glasses and other personal effects. They found also 460 artificial limbs and seven tons of human hair shaved from Jews before they were murdered. The human hairs were used by the company "Alex Zink" (located in Bavaria) for confection of cloth. This company was paying the human hairs 50 pfennig/kilo.
Writer Herbert Steinhouse, who interviewed him in 1948, wrote that "Schindler's exceptional deeds stemmed from just that elementary sense of decency and humanity that our sophisticated age seldom sincerely believes in. A repentant opportunist saw the light and rebelled against the sadism and vile criminality all around him." In a 1983 television documentary, Schindler was quoted as saying, "I felt that the Jews were being destroyed. I had to help them; there was no choice."
^ Historian H.P. Willmott writes that, "Many examples of the experiences and losses suffered by German formations moving up to the front are well known. Panzer Lehr, for instance, on 7 June alone lost 84 half-tracks, prime movers and self propelled guns, 40 fuel bowsers, 90 soft-skinned vehicles and five tanks as it made its way from Le Mans to Caen.
Italy introduced some antisemitic measures, but there was less antisemitism there than in Germany, and Italian-occupied countries were generally safer for Jews than German-occupied territories. In some areas, the Italian authorities even tried to protect Jews, such as in the Croatian areas of the Balkans. But while Italian forces in Russia were not as vicious towards Jews as the Germans, they did not try to stop German atrocities either. There were no deportations of Italian Jews to Germany while Italy remained an ally. Several forced labor camps for Jews were established in Italian-controlled Libya. Almost 2,600 Libyan Jews were sent to camps, where 562 died.
Hitler was obsessed with the idea of the superiority of the “pure” German race, which he called “Aryan,” and with the need for “Lebensraum,” or living space, for that race to expand. In the decade after he was released from prison, Hitler took advantage of the weakness of his rivals to enhance his party’s status and rise from obscurity to power. On January 30, 1933, he was named chancellor of Germany. After President Paul von Hindenburg’s death in 1934, Hitler anointed himself as “Fuhrer,” becoming Germany’s supreme ruler.
Shortly after Hitler came to power, the Reichstag building, seat of the German parliament, burnt down. Communists were blamed for setting the fire and Hindenburg declared a state of emergency, passing the Reichstag Fire Decree that suspended basic rights like trial by jury. The German Communist Party was suspended and over 4,000 members were detained without trial. The next month, Hitler’s cabinet passed the Enabling Act which allowed him to enact laws without the consent of the parliament for four years, effectively transforming the German government into a de facto Nazi dictatorship.
The French battery now opened rapid fire on our wood and at any moment we could expect their fire to be aimed at our tank, which was in full view. I therefore decided to abandon it as fast as I could, taking the crew with me. At that moment the subaltern in command of the tanks escorting the infantry reported himself wounded, with the words: 'Herr General, my left arm has been shot off.' We clamored up through the sandy pit, shells crashing and splintering all round. Close in front of us trundled Rothenburg's tank with flames pouring out of the rear. The adjutant of the Panzer Regiment had also left his tank. I thought at first that the command tank had been set alight by a hit in petrol tank and was extremely worried for Colonel Rothenbttrg's safety. However, it turned out to be only the smoke candles that had caught light, the smoke from which now served us very well. In the meantime Lieutenant Most had driven my armored signals vehicle into the wood, where it had been hit in the engine and now stood immobilized. The crew was unhurt."
After Germany's failure to destroy the Soviets before the winter of 1941, the limits of German tactical superiority became apparent. Although the German invasion successfully conquered large areas of Soviet territory, the overall strategic effects were more limited. The Red Army was able to regroup far to the rear of the main battle line, and eventually defeat the German forces for the first time in the Battle of Moscow.