Even before the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, they had made no secret of their anti-Semitism. As early as 1919 Adolf Hitler had written, “Rational anti-Semitism, however, must lead to systematic legal opposition.…Its final objective must unswervingly be the removal of the Jews altogether.” In Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”; 1925–27), Hitler further developed the idea of the Jews as an evil race struggling for world domination. Nazi anti-Semitism was rooted in religious anti-Semitism and enhanced by political anti-Semitism. To this the Nazis added a further dimension: racial anti-Semitism. Nazi racial ideology characterized the Jews as Untermenschen (German: “subhumans”). The Nazis portrayed the Jews as a race and not as a religious group. Religious anti-Semitism could be resolved by conversion, political anti-Semitism by expulsion. Ultimately, the logic of Nazi racial anti-Semitism led to annihilation.
Jerzy Tabeau (prisoner no. 27273, registered as Jerzy Wesołowski) and Roman Cieliczko (no. 27089), both Polish prisoners, escaped on 19 November 1943; Tabeau made contact with the Polish underground and, between December 1943 and early 1944, wrote what became known as the Polish Major's report about the situation in the camp. On 27 April 1944, Rudolf Vrba (no. 44070) and Alfréd Wetzler (no. 29162) escaped to Slovakia, carrying detailed information to the Slovak Jewish Council about the gas chambers. The distribution of the Vrba-Wetzler report, and publication of parts of it in June 1944, helped to halt the deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. On 27 May 1944, Arnost Rosin (no. 29858) and Czesław Mordowicz (no. 84216) also escaped to Slovakia; the Rosin-Mordowicz report was added to the Vrba-Wetzler and Tabeau reports to become what is known as the Auschwitz Protocols. The reports were first published in their entirety in November 1944 by the United States War Refugee Board, in a document entitled The Extermination Camps of Auschwitz (Oświęcim) and Birkenau in Upper Silesia.
Schindler’s story remained largely the province of Holocaust scholars until the publication in 1982 of Schindler’s Ark, a Booker Prize-winning novelization by Thomas Keneally. The novel, which became a canonical text of Holocaust literature, was later used as the basis for Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List (1993), which starred Liam Neeson as Schindler and Ralph Fiennes as Göth.
The Nuremberg Laws, issued on Sept. 15, 1935, was designed to exclude Jews from public life. The Nuremberg Laws stripped German Jews of their citizenship and prohibited marriages and extramarital sex between Jews and Gentiles. These measures set the legal precedent for anti-Jewish legislation that followed. Nazis issued numerous anti-Jewish laws over the next several years. Jews were banned from public parks, fired from civil service jobs, and forced to register their property. Other laws barred Jewish doctors from treating anyone other than Jewish patients, expelled Jewish children from public schools, and placed severe travel restrictions on Jews.
Once a strategic target had been selected, Stuka dive bombers were sent in to ‘soften’ up the enemy, destroy all rail lines, communication centres and major rail links. This was done as the German tanks were approaching and the planes withdrew only at the last minute so that the enemy did not have time to recover their senses when the tanks attacked supported by infantry.
After becoming Chancellor of Germany (head of government) in 1933, Adolf Hitler ignored the Versailles Treaty provisions. Within the Wehrmacht (established in 1935) the command for motorised armored forces was named the Panzerwaffe in 1936. The Luftwaffe (the German air force) was officially established in February 1935, and development began on ground-attack aircraft and doctrines. Hitler strongly supported this new strategy. He read Guderian's 1937 book Achtung – Panzer! and upon observing armoured field exercises at Kummersdorf he remarked, "That is what I want – and that is what I will have."
The first experimental gassing took place in September 1941, when Lagerführer Karl Fritzsch, at the instruction of Rudolf Höss, killed a group of Soviet prisoners of war by throwing Zyklon B crystals into their basement cell in block 11 of Auschwitz I. A second group of 600 Soviet prisoners of war and around 250 sick Polish prisoners was gassed on 3–5 September. The morgue was later converted to a gas chamber able to hold at least 700–800 people. Zyklon B was dropped into the room through slits in the ceiling. In the view of Filip Müller, one of the Sonderkommando who worked in crematorium I, tens of thousands of Jews were killed there from France, Holland, Slovakia, Upper Silesia, Yugoslavia, and from the Theresienstadt, Ciechanow, and Grodno ghettos. The last inmates to be gassed in Auschwitz I, in December 1942, were 300–400 members of the Auschwitz II Sonderkommando, who had been forced to dig up that camp's mass graves, thought to hold 100,000 corpses, and burn the remains.
The government defined a Jewish person as someone with three or four Jewish grandparents, not someone who had religious convictions. This meant that people who had never practiced, or hadn’t practiced Judaism in many years, or even converted to Christianity were subjected to persecution. Although anti-semitism was pervasive in 1930s Germany, these restrictions frequently extended to any person the Nazis considered to be “non-Aryan”.
Directive control was a fast and flexible method of command. Rather than receiving an explicit order, a commander would be told of his superior's intent and the role which his unit was to fill in this concept. The exact method of execution was then a matter for the low-level commander to determine as best fit the situation. Staff burden was reduced at the top and spread among commands more knowledgeable about their own situation. In addition, the encouragement of initiative at all levels aided implementation. As a result, significant decisions could be effected quickly and either verbally or with written orders a few pages in length.
The most infamous doctor at Auschwitz was Josef Mengele, the "Angel of Death", who worked in Auschwitz II from 30 May 1943, at first in the gypsy family camp. Particularly interested in performing research on identical twins, dwarfs, and those with hereditary disease, Mengele set up a kindergarten in barracks 29 and 31 for children he was experimenting on, and for all Romani children under six, where they were given better food rations. From May 1944, he would select twins and dwarfs during selection on the Judenrampe, reportedly calling for twins with "Zwillinge heraus!" ("twins step forward!"). He and other doctors (the latter prisoners) would measure the twins' body parts, photograph them, and subject them to dental, sight and hearing tests, x-rays, blood tests, surgery, and blood transfusions between them. Then he would have them killed and dissected. Kurt Heissmeyer, another German doctor and SS officer, took 20 Jewish children from Auschwitz to use in pseudoscientific medical experiments at the Neuengamme concentration camp. In April 1945, the children were killed by hanging to conceal the project.
Schindler grew up in Svitavy, Moravia, and worked in several trades until he joined the Abwehr, the military intelligence service of Nazi Germany, in 1936. He joined the Nazi Party in 1939. Prior to the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938, he collected information on railways and troop movements for the German government. He was arrested for espionage by the Czechoslovak government but was released under the terms of the Munich Agreement in 1938. Schindler continued to collect information for the Nazis, working in Poland in 1939 before the invasion of Poland at the start of World War II. In 1939, Schindler acquired an enamelware factory in Kraków, Poland, which employed at the factory's peak in 1944 about 1,750 workers, of whom 1,000 were Jews. His Abwehr connections helped Schindler protect his Jewish workers from deportation and death in the Nazi concentration camps. As time went on, Schindler had to give Nazi officials ever larger bribes and gifts of luxury items obtainable only on the black market to keep his workers safe.