Birkenau was the largest of the more than 40 camps and sub-camps that made up the Auschwitz complex. During its three years of operation, it had a range of functions. When construction began in October 1941, it was supposed to be a camp for 125 thousand prisoners of war. It opened as a branch of Auschwitz in March 1942, and served at the same time as a center for the extermination of the Jews. In its final phase, from 1944, it also became a place where prisoners were concentrated before being transferred to labor in German industry in the depths of the Third Reich.
Dan Stone, a specialist in the historiography of the Holocaust, lists ethnic Poles, Ukrainians, Soviet prisoners of war, Jehovah's Witnesses, black Germans, and homosexuals as among the groups persecuted by the Nazis; he writes that the occupation of eastern Europe can also be viewed as genocidal. But the German attitude toward the Jews was different in kind, he argues. The Nazis regarded the Jews not as racially inferior, deviant, or enemy nationals, as they did other groups, but as a "Gegenrasse: a 'counter-race', that is to say, not really human at all". The Holocaust, for Stone, is therefore defined as the genocide of the Jews, although he argues that it cannot be "properly historically situated without understanding the 'Nazi empire' with its grandiose demographic plans".[d] Donald Niewyk and Francis Nicosia, in The Columbia Guide to the Holocaust (2000), favour a definition that focuses on the Jews, Roma, and Aktion T4 victims: "The Holocaust—that is, Nazi genocide—was the systematic, state-sponsored murder of entire groups determined by heredity. This applied to Jews, Gypsies, and the handicapped."
Between April and June of 1940, Germany invaded Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg consolidating power across neutral Western Europe. On June 22, 1940, France signed an armistice with Germany, which divided France between the German-occupied territory in the north and the Vichy regime in the south. Although officially neutral, the French state during this time was generally pro-Nazi and cooperated with Germany’s racial policies.
The logistics of the mass murder turned Germany into what Michael Berenbaum called a "genocidal state". Eberhard Jäckel wrote in 1986 that it was the first time a state had thrown its power behind the idea that an entire people should be wiped out.[h] Anyone with three or four Jewish grandparents was to be exterminated, and complex rules were devised to deal with Mischlinge ("mixed breeds": half and quarter Jews). Bureaucrats identified who was a Jew, confiscated property, and scheduled trains to deport them. Companies fired Jews and later used them as slave labor. Universities dismissed Jewish faculty and students. German pharmaceutical companies tested drugs on camp prisoners; other companies built the crematoria. As prisoners entered the death camps, they were ordered to surrender all personal property, which was catalogued and tagged before being sent to Germany for reuse or recycling. Through a concealed account, the German National Bank helped launder valuables stolen from the victims.
Responding to domestic pressures to act on behalf of Jewish refugees, U.S. Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt convened, but did not attend, the Évian Conference on resettlement, in Évian-les-Bains, France, in July 1938. In his invitation to government leaders, Roosevelt specified that they would not have to change laws or spend government funds; only philanthropic funds would be used for resettlement. Britain was assured that Palestine would not be on the agenda. The result was that little was attempted and less accomplished.
"Blitzkrieg" is a German compound meaning "lightning war". The word did not enter official terminology of the Wehrmacht either before or during the war, even though it was already used in the military Journal "Deutsche Wehr" in 1935, in the context of an article on how states with insufficient food and raw materials supply can win a war. Another appearance is in 1938 in the "Militär-Wochenblatt", where Blitzkrieg is defined as a "strategic attack", carried out by operational use of tanks, air force, and airborne troops. Karl-Heinz Frieser in his book 'Blitzkrieg Legende', who researched the origin of the term and found the above examples, points out that the pre-war use of the term is rare, and that it practically never entered official terminology throughout the war.
By mid-1942, the majority of those being sent by the Nazis to Auschwitz were Jews. Upon arriving at the camp, detainees were examined by Nazi doctors. Those detainees considered unfit for work, including young children, the elderly, pregnant women and the infirm, were immediately ordered to take showers. However, the bathhouses to which they marched were disguised gas chambers. Once inside, the prisoners were exposed to Zyklon-B poison gas. Individuals marked as unfit for work were never officially registered as Auschwitz inmates. For this reason, it is impossible to calculate the number of lives lost in the camp.
David M. Crowe’s book Oskar Schindler: The Untold Account of His Life, Wartime Activities and the True Story Behind The List should be considered a classic in investigative and historical research. Based on interviews with dozens of Holocaust survivors saved by Oskar Schindler and with access to documents unavailable to Schindler’s List author Thomas Keneally, Crowe sheds light on one of the most dramatic and important stories to come out of World War II.
On January 20, 1942, several top officials of the German government met to officially coordinate the military and civilian administrative branches of the Nazi system to organize a system of mass murder of the Jews. This meeting, called the Wannsee Conference, "marked the beinning of the full-scale, comprehensive extermination operation [of the Jews] and laid the foundations for its organization, which started immediately after the conference ended" (Yahil, The Holocaust, p. 318).
Half of the German divisions available in 1940 were combat ready but less well-equipped than the British and French or the Imperial German Army of 1914. In the spring of 1940, the German army was semi-modern, in which a small number of well-equipped and "elite" divisions were offset by many second and third rate divisions". In 2003, John Mosier wrote that while the French soldiers in 1940 were better trained than German soldiers, as were the Americans later and that the German army was the least mechanised of the major armies, its leadership cadres were larger and better and that the high standard of leadership was the main reason for the successes of the German army in World War II, as it had been in World War I.
The next blow came a month later. In the early morning darkness of May 10, the Germans unleashed their Blitzkrieg against the Netherlands and Belgium. The attack sent the defending troops reeling. The roads overflowed with refugees fleeing the front. French and British troops rushing to the rescue were caught in the headlong retreat and pushed back. German dive-bombers - the Stukas - filled the sky, strafing the retreating mix of civilians and soldiers with machine gun and bomb. The Allies fought valiantly but in vain - the German war machine advanced unperturbed. In England, the invasion forced Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to resign, to be replaced by Winston Churchill.
From the end of March 1942, Jewish transports from Nazi-ruled countries flowed into Auschwitz. Jews from Slovakia and France were deported there first, followed by Dutch Jews from July 1942, and from August, Jews from Belgium and Yugoslavia. Between October 1942 and October 1944, over 46 000 prisoners were deported from Terezín to Auschwitz. Some of them were put in the „Terezín family camp“ for a temporary period. Throughout 1943, transports were sent to Auschwitz from Germany and other countries in the Nazi sphere of power. The victims of the last great wave of deportations to Auschwitz were the Jews of Hungary, who were deported between May and July 1944.
This is not a pleasant site, not one that will distract from the pressures of everyday existence. But Birkenau, the largest and most lethal of the Auschwitz camps, is as much a part of the world as any aspiration for freedom and peace. In this sense, the authors and publishers of this exhibition feel we need to constantly explore this place and the ideas that created it, in the hope that eventually we will understand why people do such terrible things to other human beings, and why some were able, despite the tremendous role luck played, to find the strength to survive it. The search for this kind of meaning has, as paradoxical as it may sound, enriched our lives.
^ Many of the German participants of Operation Citadel made no mention of blitzkrieg in their characterisation of the operation. Several German officers and commanders involved in the operation wrote their account of the battle after the war, and some of these postwar accounts were collected by the US Army. Some of these officers are: Theodor Busse (Newton 2002, pp. 3–27), Erhard Raus (Newton 2002, pp. 29–64), Friedrich Fangohr (Newton 2002, pp. 65–96), Peter von der Groeben (Newton 2002, pp. 97–144), Friedrich Wilhelm von Mellenthin (Mellenthin 1956, pp. 212–234), Erich von Manstein (Manstein 1983, pp. 443–449), and others.
A Jewish skeleton collection was obtained from among a pool of 115 Jewish Auschwitz inmates, chosen for their perceived stereotypical racial characteristics.[b] Rudolf Brandt and Wolfram Sievers, general manager of the Ahnenerbe (a Nazi research institute), delivered the skeletons to the collection of the Anatomy Institute at the Reichsuniversität Straßburg in Occupied France. The collection was sanctioned by Himmler and under the direction of August Hirt. Ultimately 87 of the inmates were shipped to Natzweiler-Struthof and killed in August 1943. Brandt and Sievers were executed in 1948 after being convicted during the Doctors' trial, part of the Subsequent Nuremberg trials.
Auschwitz-Birkenau is the generic name given to the cluster of concentration, labour and extermination camps established by the Nazis during the Second World War and located near the towns of Oświęcim and Brzezinka in southern Poland, some 60 km from Kraków. The camps have become a place of pilgrimage for survivors, their families and all who wish to travel to remember the Holocaust.
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.
Allied air superiority became a significant hindrance to German operations during the later years of the war. By June 1944 the Western Allies had complete control of the air over the battlefield and their fighter-bomber aircraft were very effective at attacking ground forces. On D-Day the Allies flew 14,500 sorties over the battlefield area alone, not including sorties flown over north-western Europe. Against this on 6 June the Luftwaffe flew some 300 sorties. Though German fighter presence over Normandy increased over the next days and weeks, it never approached the numbers the Allies commanded. Fighter-bomber attacks on German formations made movement during daylight almost impossible. Subsequently, shortages soon developed in food, fuel and ammunition, severely hampering the German defenders. German vehicle crews and even flak units experienced great difficulty moving during daylight.[g] Indeed, the final German offensive operation in the west, Operation Wacht am Rhein, was planned to take place during poor weather to minimize interference by Allied aircraft. Under these conditions it was difficult for German commanders to employ the "armoured idea", if at all.
The invasion of France consisted of two phases, Operation Yellow (Fall Gelb) and Operation Red. Yellow opened with a feint conducted against the Netherlands and Belgium by two armoured corps and paratroopers. Three days later, the main effort of Panzer Group von Kleist attacked through the Ardennes and achieved a breakthrough with air support. The group raced to the coast of the English Channel, dislodging the British Expeditionary Force, Belgian Army, and some divisions of the French Army. The motorized units initially advanced far beyond the following divisions. When the German motorized forces were met with a counterattack at the Battle of Arras (1940), British tanks with heavy armour (Matilda I & IIs) created a brief panic in the German High Command. The motorized forces were halted outside the port city of Dunkirk which was being used to evacuate the Allied forces. Hermann Göring had promised his Luftwaffe would complete the job but aerial operations did not prevent the evacuation of the majority of Allied troops (which the British named Operation Dynamo); some 330,000 French and British. Operation Red then began with XV Panzer Corps attacking towards Brest and XIV Panzer Corps attacking south, east of Paris, towards Lyon, and XIX Panzer Corps completing the encirclement of the Maginot Line. The defending forces were hard pressed to organize any sort of counter-attack. The French forces were continually ordered to form new lines along rivers, often arriving to find the German forces had already passed them.
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.
At the end of the war, in an effort to remove the traces of the crimes they had committed, the SS began dismantling and razing the gas chambers, crematoria, and other buildings, as well as burning documents. Prisoners capable of marching were evacuated into the depths of the German Reich, and thousands of marchers died of hunger, exhaustion and exposure. Those who remained behind in the camp and survived long enough were liberated by Red Army soldiers on 27 January 1945.
Reading the comments below, it is interesting to see how little people know about history and what actually happened during WW2. Is the education system so bad in America that one person doesn't know that Poland was invaded in 1939 by the Nazi - pick up a book! The lesson of Auschwitz should be learnt, but once should also realise that it wasn't just the Jews who were murdered. There were gypsies, native poles, political opponents, homosexuals to name but a few who were exterminated in the gas chambers or worked to death. By studying and learning from the past can we help avoid these situations again. However in this climate I sometimes wonder if anything has been learnt.
Measuring 270 by 490 metres (890 ft × 1,610 ft), the camp was larger than Auschwitz I. By the end of 1944, it housed 60 barracks measuring 17.5 by 8 metres (57 ft × 26 ft), each with a day room and a sleeping room containing 56 three-tiered wooden bunks. IG Farben paid the SS three or four Reichsmark for nine- to eleven-hour shifts from each worker. In 1943–1944, about 35,000 inmates worked at the plant; 23,000 (32 a day on average) died as a result of malnutrition, disease, and the workload. Deaths and transfers to Birkenau reduced the population by nearly a fifth each month; site managers constantly threatened inmates with the gas chambers. In addition to the Auschwitz inmates, who comprised a third of the work force, IG Auschwitz employed slave laborers from all over Europe. When the camp was liquidated in January 1945, 9,054 out of the 9,792 inmates were Jews.
——— (2015). "Is the "Final Solution" Unique?". The Third Reich in History and Memory. London: Abacus. ISBN 978-0-349-14075-9. Revised and extended from Richard Evans (2011). "Wie einzigartig war die Ermordung der Juden durch die Nationalsocialisten?" in Günter Morsch and Bertrand Perz (eds). Neue Studien zu nationalsozialistischen Massentötungen durch Giftgas: Historische Bedeutung, technische Entwicklung, revisionistische Leugnung. Berlin: Metropol Verlag, pp. 1–10. ISBN 9783940938992
Remarkably, there were instances of individual resistance and collective efforts at fighting back inside Auschwitz. Poles, Communists and other national groups established networks in the main camp. A few Jews escaped from Birkenau, and there were recorded assaults on Nazi guards even at the entrance to the gas chambers. The 'Sonderkommando' revolt in October 1944 was the extraordinary example of physical resistance.
Use of bunkers I and 2 stopped in spring 1943 when the new crematoria were built, although bunker 2 became operational again in May 1944 for the murder of the Hungarian Jews. Crematorium II, which had been designed as a mortuary with morgues in the basement and ground-level incinerators, was converted by installing gas-tight doors, vents for the Zyklon B to be dropped into the chamber, and ventilation equipment to remove the gas thereafter. It went into operation in March 1943. Crematorium III was built using the same design. Crematoria IV and V, designed from the start as gassing centers, were also constructed that spring. By June 1943, all four crematoria were operational. Most of the victims were killed using these four structures.