By July 1944, Germany was losing the war; the SS began closing down the easternmost concentration camps and deporting the remaining prisoners westward. Many were killed in Auschwitz and the Gross-Rosen concentration camp. Schindler convinced SS-Hauptsturmführer Amon Göth, commandant of the nearby Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp, to allow him to move his factory to Brněnec in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, thus sparing his workers from almost certain death in the gas chambers. Using names provided by Jewish Ghetto Police officer Marcel Goldberg, Göth's secretary Mietek Pemper compiled and typed the list of 1,200 Jews who travelled to Brünnlitz in October 1944. Schindler continued to bribe SS officials to prevent the execution of his workers until the end of World War II in Europe in May 1945, by which time he had spent his entire fortune on bribes and black market purchases of supplies for his workers.
Tens of thousands of Jews held in the eastern territories were marched towards the heart of Germany so they could not bear witness to the Allies. Aware that the world had been alerted to the horrors of the camps, the Nazis sought to destroy evidence. In June, Soviet forces liberated the first major camp, known as Majdanek, in Lublin, Poland. The Nazis had burned down the crematorium chimney but had failed to destroy the gas chambers and barracks. Only a few hundred inmates were still alive.
When he learned what had happened, Schindler at first managed to secure the release of the men from the Gross-Rosen camp. He then proceeded to send his personal German secretary to Auschwitz to negotiate the release of the women. The latter managed to obtain the release of the Jewish women by promising to pay 7 RM daily per worker. This is the only recorded case in the history of the extermination camp that such a large group of people were allowed to leave alive while the gas chambers were still in operation.
The first gas chamber at Birkenau was in what prisoners called the "little red house" (known as bunker 1 by the SS), a brick cottage that had been converted into a gassing facility. The windows were bricked up and its four rooms converted into two insulated rooms, the doors of which said "Zur Desinfektion" ("to disinfection"). It was operational by March 1942. A second brick cottage, the "little white house" or bunker 2, was converted and operational by June 1942. When Himmler visited the camp on 17 and 18 July 1942, he was given a demonstration of a selection of Dutch Jews, a mass killing in a gas chamber in bunker 2, and a tour of the building site of the new IG Farben plant being constructed at the nearby town of Monowitz.
"...(t)hroughout ( the Polish Campaign), the employment of the mechanized units revealed the idea that they were intended solely to ease the advance and to support the activities of the infantry....Thus, any strategic exploitation of the armored idea was still-born. The paralysis of command and the breakdown of morale were not made the ultimate aim of the ... German ground and air forces, and were only incidental by-products of the traditional maneuvers of rapid encirclement and of the supporting activities of the flying artillery of the Luftwaffe, both of which had has their purpose the physical destruction of the enemy troops. Such was the Vernichtungsgedanke of the Polish campaign."
Those who arrived in Birkenau were driven out of the cattle wagons and put in rows … to this the band played, made up of the best musicians among the prisoners; they played, depending on the origins of the transport, Polish, Czech, or Hungarian folk music. The band played, the SS pummelled, and you had no time to reflect … some were forced into the camp, the others into the crematoria.
Although the prisoners deployed at Emalia were still subject to the brutal conditions of the Plaszow concentration camp, Schindler intervened repeatedly on their behalf. He used bribes and personal diplomacy both for the well-being of Jews threatened on an individual basis and to ensure, until late 1944, that the SS did not deport his Jewish workers. In order to claim the Jewish workers to be essential to the war effort, he added an armaments manufacturing division to Emalia. During the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto in March 1943, Schindler allowed his Jewish workers to stay at the factory overnight.
The German invasion of France, with subsidiary attacks on Belgium and the Netherlands, consisted of two phases, Operation Yellow (Fall Gelb) and Operation Red (Fall Rot). Yellow opened with a feint conducted against the Netherlands and Belgium by two armoured corps and paratroopers. Most of the German armoured forces were placed in Panzer Group von Kleist, which attacked through the Ardennes, a lightly defended sector that the French planned to reinforce if need be, before the Germans could bring up heavy and siege artillery.[h] There was no time for such a reinforcement to be sent, for the Germans did not wait for siege artillery but reached the Meuse and achieved a breakthrough at the Battle of Sedan in three days.
On 27 January 1945, the 60th Army of the First Ukrainian Front, a unit of the Soviet Army, opened the gates and entered the Auschwitz camp complex. The liberators discovered around 7,000 surviving prisoners across the three main camps of Auschwitz I, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Buna Monowitz. Amongst the survivors were 180 children; 52 of them under the age of eight.
Most troops were moved by half-track vehicles so there was no real need for roads though these were repaired so that they could be used by the Germans at a later date. Once a target had been taken, the Germans did not stop to celebrate victory; they moved on to the next target. Retreating civilians hindered any work done by the army being attacked. Those civilians fleeing the fighting were also attacked to create further mayhem.
The rioting was triggered by the assassination of Ernst vom Rath, a German diplomat in Paris, by a Polish Jewish teenager, Herschel Grynszpan, on November 7th. Grynszpan did not attempt to escape and claimed that the assassination was motivated by the persecution of the Jewish people. Despite being attended to by Hitler’s personal physician, vom Rath died two days later.
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.
In his 1965 essay "Command and Compliance", which originated in his work as an expert witness for the prosecution at the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials, the German historian Hans Buchheim wrote there was no coercion to murder Jews and others, and all who committed such actions did so out of free will. Buchheim wrote that chances to avoid executing criminal orders "were both more numerous and more real than those concerned are generally prepared to admit", and that he found no evidence that SS men who refused to carry out criminal orders were sent to concentration camps or executed. Moreover, SS rules prohibited acts of gratuitous sadism, as Himmler wished for his men to remain "decent"; acts of sadism were carried out on the initiative of those who were either especially cruel or wished to prove themselves ardent National Socialists. Finally, he argued that those of a non-criminal bent who committed crimes did so because they wished to conform to the values of the group they had joined and were afraid of being branded "weak" by their colleagues if they refused.
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 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.
The generally accepted definition of blitzkrieg operations include the use of maneuver rather than attrition to defeat an opponent, and describe operations using combined arms concentration of mobile assets at a focal point, armour closely supported by mobile infantry, artillery and close air support assets. These tactics required the development of specialized support vehicles, new methods of communication, new tactics, and an effective decentralized command structure. Broadly speaking, blitzkrieg operations required the development of mechanized infantry, self-propelled artillery and engineering assets that could maintain the rate of advance of the tanks. German forces avoided direct combat in favour of interrupting an enemy's communications, decision-making, logistics and of reducing morale. In combat, blitzkrieg left little choice for the slower defending forces but to clump into defensive pockets that were encircled and then destroyed by following German infantry.
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.
At dawn on 10 May, the Germans began an invasion of Belgium and the Netherlands. Accordingly, convinced that they were facing a repeat of the German strategy of 1914, Allied commanders moved the bulk of their forces from the Franco-Belgian border into defensive positions within Belgium to await the continuation of the German attack. In so doing, they fell right into Hitler's trap.
The Holocaust, also known as the Shoah,[b] was a genocide during World War II in which Nazi Germany, aided by local collaborators, systematically murdered some six million European Jews—around two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe—between 1941 and 1945.[a][c] Jews were targeted for extermination as part of a larger event during the Holocaust era, in which Germany and its collaborators persecuted and murdered other groups, including Slavs (chiefly ethnic Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, and Soviet citizens), the Roma, the "incurably sick", political and religious dissenters such as communists and Jehovah's Witnesses, and gay men.[d] Taking into account all the victims of Nazi persecution, the death toll rises to over 17 million.
Blitzkrieg (German: "lightning war") is a method of fast-moving, air-and-land warfare first used extensively during World War II. German armies invading Poland in 1939 used tanks, armored trucks, self-propelled guns, and dive bombers to break through opposing forces and penetrate far behind their lines. During the invasion of the Low Countries and France in 1940, the German armored columns again used these tactics to shock and disorganize the defenders. On the Allied side, U.S. general George S. Patton exhibited (1944) particular skill in mobile warfare in Europe.
The origins of blitzkrieg are in some doubt: if it existed, who contributed to it, whether it was part of German war strategy from 1933–1939. There has been a great deal of debate about whether it existed as a coherent military strategy. Many historians[who?] now think that blitzkrieg was not a military theory and the campaigns conducted by the Germans from 1939 to circa 1942 (with the exception of Operation Barbarossa) were improvised, rather than being based on a particular military strategy. Blitzkrieg had been called a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) but many writers and historians have concluded that the Germans did not invent a new form of warfare but applied new technologies to traditional ideas of Bewegungskrieg (manoeuvre warfare) to achieve decisive victory.
The Auschwitz I main camp was a place of extermination, effected mainly by depriving people of elementary living conditions. It was also a centre for immediate extermination. Here were located the offices of the camp’s administration, the local garrison commander and the commandant of Auschwitz I, the seat of the central offices of the political department, and the prisoner labour department. Here too were the main supply stores, workshops and Schutzstaffel (SS) companies. Work in these administrative and economic units and companies was the main form of forced labour for the inmates in this camp.
After Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, sparking World War II, the Germans converted Auschwitz I from an army barracks to hold Polish political prisoners. The first prisoners, German criminals brought to the camp as functionaries, arrived in May 1940, and the first gassing of prisoners took place in block 11 of Auschwitz I in September 1941. Auschwitz II–Birkenau went on to become a major site of the Nazis' Final Solution to the Jewish Question. From early 1942 until late 1944, transport trains delivered Jews from all over German-occupied Europe to the camp's gas chambers. Of the estimated 1.3 million people sent to Auschwitz, at least 1.1 million died, around 90 percent of them Jews. Approximately one in six Jews killed in the Holocaust died at the camp. Others deported to Auschwitz included 150,000 non-Jewish Poles, 23,000 Roma, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, 400 Jehovah's Witnesses, tens of thousands of others of diverse nationalities, and an unknown number of gay men. Many of those not killed in the gas chambers died because of starvation, forced labor, infectious diseases, individual executions, and medical experiments.
Between May 15 and July 9, 1944, some 438,000 Hungarian Jews were shipped on 147 trains to Birkenau, stretching the camp’s resources for killing beyond all limits. Because the crematoria were overcrowded, bodies were burned in pyres fueled partly by the victims’ own fat. Just prior to the deportation of Hungarian Jewry, two prisoners escaped with plans of the camp. They met with resistance leaders in Slovakia and compiled a detailed report including maps. As this report made its way to Western intelligence services in the summer of 1944, there were requests to bomb Auschwitz. Although the industrial complex adjacent to Auschwitz was bombed, the death camp and its crematoria were left untouched, a subject of controversy more than 50 years later. (See Why Wasn’t Auschwitz Bombed?)
Almost all Jews within areas occupied by the Germans were killed. There were 3,020,000 Jews in the Soviet Union in 1939, and the losses were 1–1.1 million. Around one million Jews were killed by the Einsatzgruppen in the occupied Soviet territories. Of Poland's 3.3 million Jews, about 90 percent were killed. Many more died in the ghettos of Poland before they could be deported. The death camps accounted for half the number of Jews killed; 80–90 percent of death-camp victims are estimated to have been Jews. At Auschwitz-Birkenau the Jewish death toll was 1.1 million; Treblinka 870,000–925,000; Bełżec 434,000–600,000; Chełmno 152,000–320,000; Sobibór 170,000–250,000; and Majdanek 79,000.
In 2018 the Polish government passed an amendment to its Act on the Institute of National Remembrance, making it a criminal offence to make false suggestions of Polish complicity in the Holocaust, which would include referring to Auschwitz and other camps as "Polish death camps". After discussions with Israel's prime minister, amid international concern that the law would stifle research, the Polish government adjusted the amendment so that anyone falsely accusing Poland of complicity would be guilty only of a civil offence.
Some prisoners kept diaries, recording life inside the camp, so that the world would one day know the story of what happened to them. Others collected evidence of the killings and events within the camp, burying it in the hope that one day someone would find the evidence of the atrocities. Prisoners had to be careful to make sure these form of indirect resistance went undiscovered by the SS guards and kapos.
Some Germans, even some Nazis, dissented from the murder of the Jews and came to their aid. The most famous was Oskar Schindler, a Nazi businessman, who had set up operations using involuntary labour in German-occupied Poland in order to profit from the war. Eventually, he moved to protect his Jewish workers from deportation to extermination camps. In all occupied countries, there were individuals who came to the rescue of Jews, offering a place to hide, some food, or shelter for days or weeks or even for the duration of the war. Most of the rescuers did not see their actions as heroic but felt bound to the Jews by a common sense of humanity. Israel later recognized rescuers with honorary citizenship and commemoration at Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the Holocaust.
Himmler visited Auschwitz in March 1941 and commanded its enlargement to hold 30,000 prisoners. Himmler also ordered the construction of a second camp for 100,000 inmates on the site of the village of Brzezinka (Birkenau), roughly 4 km from the main camp. This massive camp was intended to be filled with captured Russian POWs who would provide the slave labor to build the SS 'utopia' in Upper Silesia. The chemical giant I G Farben expressed an interest in utilizing this labor force, too. Extensive construction work began in October 1941, under terrible conditions and with massive loss of life. About 10,000 Russian POWs died in the process.
Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. German propaganda portrayed the war against the Soviet Union as both an ideological war between German National Socialism and Jewish Bolshevism and a racial war between the Germans and the Jewish, Romani and Slavic Untermenschen ("sub-humans"). Local populations in some occupied Soviet territories actively participated in the killing of Jews and others, and helped identify and round up Jews. German involvement ranged from active instigation and involvement to general guidance. In Lithuania, Latvia, and western Ukraine, locals were deeply involved in the murder of Jews from the beginning of the German occupation. Some of these Latvian and Lithuanian units also participated in the murder of Jews in Belarus. In the south, Ukrainians killed about 24,000 Jews and some went to Poland to serve as concentration and death-camp guards. Military units from some countries allied to Germany also killed Jews. Romanian units were given orders to exterminate and wipe out Jews in areas they controlled. Ustaše militia in Croatia persecuted and murdered Jews, among others. Many of the killings were carried out in public, a change from previous practice.
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 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.
Shipments of Jews to the camps had priority over anything but the army's needs on the German railways, and continued even in the face of the increasingly dire military situation at the end of 1942. Army leaders and economic managers complained about this diversion of resources and the killing of skilled Jewish workers, but Nazi leaders rated ideological imperatives above economic considerations.
The Germans isolated all the camps and sub-camps from the outside world and surrounded them with barbed wire fencing. All contact with the outside world was forbidden. However, the area administered by the commandant and patrolled by the SS camp garrison went beyond the grounds enclosed by barbed wire. It included an additional area of approximately 40 square kilometers (the so-called “Interessengebiet” - the interest zone), which lay around the Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau camps.
On 15 September 1935, the Reichstag passed the Reich Citizenship Law and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor, known as the Nuremberg Laws. The former said that only those of "German or kindred blood" could be citizens. Anyone with three or more Jewish grandparents was classified as a Jew. The second law said: "Marriages between Jews and subjects of the state of German or related blood are forbidden." Sexual relationships between them were also criminalized; Jews were not allowed to employ German women under the age of 45 in their homes. The laws referred to Jews but applied equally to the Roma and black Germans.
The Germans did not achieve surprise and were not able to outflank or break through into enemy rear areas during the operation. Several historians assert that Operation Citadel was planned and intended to be a blitzkrieg operation.[i] Many of the German participants who wrote about the operation after the war, including Manstein, make no mention of blitzkrieg in their accounts.[j] In 2000, Niklas Zetterling and Anders Frankson characterised only the southern pincer of the German offensive as a "classical blitzkrieg attack". Pier Battistelli wrote that the operational planning marked a change in German offensive thinking away from blitzkrieg and that more priority was given to brute force and fire power than to speed and manoeuvre.
In the Lviv pogroms in occupied Poland in July 1941, some 6,000 Polish Jews were murdered in the streets, on top of 3,000 arrests and mass shootings by Einsatzgruppe C.[m] During the Jedwabne pogrom, on 10 July 1941, a group of 40 Polish men killed several hundred Jews; around 300 were burned alive in a barn. The attack is thought to have been organized by the German Security Police (Sicherheitsdienst). A long debate about who was responsible for the Jedwabne murders was triggered in 2001 by the publication of Jan T. Gross's book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. The response to the book was described as "the most prolonged and far-reaching of any discussion of the Jewish issue in Poland since the Second World War".
Methods of mass murder evolved at local levels as well as being decreed from Nazi high command. Killing squads rounded up and shot entire Jewish communities. Over two days in Kiev, 33,771 Jews were shot. The murder of Jews rapidly escalated, in part because local Nazi leaders didn’t have enough room to place them in the ghettos. By the end of the year, plans to implement the systematic slaughter of Jews by using gas in mobile trucks and gas chambers were well underway.
Tens of thousands of prisoners, mostly Jews, were forced to march either northwest for 55 kilometers (approximately 30 miles) to Gliwice (Gleiwitz) or due west for 63 kilometers (approximately 35 miles) to Wodzislaw (Loslau) in the western part of Upper Silesia. Those forced to march northwest were joined by prisoners from subcamps in East Upper Silesia, such as Bismarckhuette, Althammer, and Hindenburg. Those forced to march due west were joined by inmates from the subcamps to the south of Auschwitz, such as Jawischowitz, Tschechowitz, and Golleschau.
Though classified as an armaments factory, the Brünnlitz plant produced just one wagonload of live ammunition in just under eight months of operation. By presenting bogus production figures, Schindler justified the existence of the subcamp as an armaments factory. This facilitated the survival of over 1,000 Jews, sparing them the horrors and brutality of conventional camp life. Schindler left Brünnlitz only on May 9, 1945, the day that Soviet troops liberated the camp.