In July 1943 the Wehrmacht conducted Operation Zitadelle (Citadel) against a salient at Kursk that was heavily defended by Soviet troops. Soviet defensive tactics were by now hugely improved, particularly in the use of artillery and air support. By April 1943, the Stavka had learned of German intentions through intelligence supplied by front line reconnaissance and Ultra intercepts. In the following months, the Red Army constructed deep defensive belts along the paths of the planned German attack. The Soviets made a concerted effort to disguise their knowledge of German plans and the extent of their own defensive preparations, and the German commanders still hoped to achieve operational surprise when the attack commenced.
A comprehensively detailed work of definitive scholarship, "Blitzkrieg: From the Ground Up" by Niklas Zetterling (a military historian and researcher at the Swedish Defense College) is an examination of the German Blitzkrieg operations from Poland to Operation Barbarossa, as experienced by junior commanders and enlisted men, exploring why they were so successful.
Throughout the 1930s, the legal, economic, and social rights of Jews were steadily restricted. On 1 April 1933, there was a boycott of Jewish businesses. On 7 April 1933, the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service was passed, which excluded Jews and other "non-Aryans" from the civil service. Jews were disbarred from practising law, being editors or proprietors of newspapers, joining the Journalists' Association, or owning farms. In Silesia, in March 1933, a group of men entered the courthouse and beat up Jewish lawyers; Friedländer writes that, in Dresden, Jewish lawyers and judges were dragged out of courtrooms during trials. Jewish students were restricted by quotas from attending schools and universities. Jewish businesses were targeted for closure or "Aryanization", the forcible sale to Germans; of the approximately 50,000 Jewish-owned businesses in Germany in 1933, about 7,000 were still Jewish-owned in April 1939. Works by Jewish composers, authors, and artists were excluded from publications, performances, and exhibitions. Jewish doctors were dismissed or urged to resign. The Deutsches Ärzteblatt (a medical journal) reported on 6 April 1933: "Germans are to be treated by Germans only."
Historians are divided about the motivations of the members of these mobile killing units. American historian Christopher Browning described one such unit, Police Battalion 101, as ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances in which conformity, peer pressure, careerism, obedience to orders, and group solidarity gradually overcame moral inhibitions. American writer Daniel Goldhagen viewed the very same unit as “willing executioners,” sharing Hitler’s vision of genocidal anti-Semitism and finding their tasks unpleasant but necessary. The diversity of the killers has challenged Goldhagen’s view that the motivation was a distinct form of German anti-Semitism. Yet both Browning and Goldhagen concurred that none of these killers faced punishment if he asked to be excused. Individuals had a choice whether to participate or not. Almost all chose to become killers.
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 Holocaust was the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. Holocaust is a word of Greek origin meaning “sacrifice by fire.” The Nazis, who came to power in Germany in January 1933, believed that Germans were “racially superior” and that the Jews, deemed “inferior,” were an alien threat to the so-called German racial community.
During the Battle of France in 1940, the 4th Armoured Division (Major-General Charles de Gaulle) and elements of the 1st Army Tank Brigade (British Expeditionary Force) made probing attacks on the German flank, pushing into the rear of the advancing armoured columns at times. This may have been a reason for Hitler to call a halt to the German advance. Those attacks combined with Maxime Weygand's Hedgehog tactic would become the major basis for responding to blitzkrieg attacks in the future: deployment in depth, permitting enemy or "shoulders" of a penetration was essential to channelling the enemy attack, and artillery, properly employed at the shoulders, could take a heavy toll of attackers. While Allied forces in 1940 lacked the experience to successfully develop these strategies, resulting in France's capitulation with heavy losses, they characterised later Allied operations. At the Battle of Kursk the Red Army employed a combination of defence in great depth, extensive minefields, and tenacious defence of breakthrough shoulders. In this way they depleted German combat power even as German forces advanced. The reverse can be seen in the Russian summer offensive of 1944, Operation Bagration, which resulted in the destruction of Army Group Center. German attempts to weather the storm and fight out of encirclements failed due to the Russian ability to continue to feed armoured units into the attack, maintaining the mobility and strength of the offensive, arriving in force deep in the rear areas, faster than the Germans could regroup.
Eventually, the Germans ordered the councils to compile lists of names of deportees to be sent for "resettlement". Although most ghetto councils complied with these orders, many councils tried to send the least useful workers or those unable to work. Leaders who refused these orders were shot. Some individuals or even complete councils committed suicide rather than cooperate with the deportations. Others, like Chaim Rumkowski, who became the "dedicated autocrat" of Łódź, argued that their responsibility was to save the Jews who could be saved and that therefore others had to be sacrificed. The councils' actions in facilitating Germany's persecution and murder of ghetto inhabitants was important to the Germans. When cooperation crumbled, as happened in the Warsaw ghetto after the Jewish Combat Organisation displaced the council's authority, the Germans lost control.
From 1933 until 1938, most of the people held in concentration camps were political prisoners and people the Nazis labeled as "asocial." These included the disabled, the homeless, and the mentally ill. After Kristallnacht in 1938, the persecution of Jews became more organized. This led to the exponential increase in the number of Jews sent to concentration camps.
During the Battle of France in 1940, De Gaulle's 4th Armour Division and elements of the British 1st Army Tank Brigade in the British Expeditionary Force both made probing attacks on the German flank, actually pushing into the rear of the advancing armored columns at times (See Battle of Arras (1940) ). This may have been a reason for Hitler to call a halt to the German advance. Those attacks combined with Maxime Weygand's Hedgehog tactic would become the major basis for responding to blitzkrieg attacks in the future: deployment in depth, permitting enemy forces to bypass defensive concentrations, reliance on anti-tank guns, strong force employment on the flanks of the enemy attack, followed by counter-attacks at the base to destroy the enemy advance in detail. Holding the flanks or 'shoulders' of a penetration was essential to channeling the enemy attack, and artillery, properly employed at the shoulders, could take a heavy toll of attackers. While Allied forces in 1940 lacked the experience to successfully develop these strategies, resulting in France's capitulation with heavy losses, they characterized later Allied operations. For example, at the Battle of Kursk the Red Army employed a combination of defense in great depth, extensive minefields, and tenacious defense of breakthrough shoulders. In this way they depleted German combat power even as German forces advanced. In August 1944 at Mortain, stout defense and counterattacks by the US and Canadian armies closed the Falaise Gap. In the Ardennes, a combination of hedgehog defense at Bastogne, St Vith and other locations, and a counterattack by the US 3rd Army were employed.
It should be noted that early forms of Blitzkrieg were used in the First World War - most notably by General Alexei Brusilov in Russia's Brusilov Offensive of 1916 and Britain's General Allenby in the Battle of Megiddo in September 1918, making heavy use of armored vehicles, quick-strike cavalry attacks, and aerial bombardment to facilitate a swift and decisive victory. The Germans themselves used a variation of such tactics in their 1918 Spring Offensive.
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 October 1944, the 'Sonderkommando' crew crematoria IV revolted and destroyed the crematories. In November Himmler ordered gassings to stop, and a 'cleanup' operation was inaugurated to conceal traces of the mass murder. In January 1945, the Germans evacuated 58,000 prisoners who could walk. They left behind in the main camp, Birkenau and in Monowitz about 7,000 sick or incapacitated who they did not expect would live for long.
Near the end of the movie Schindler’s List, a famous scene depicts Oskar Schindler departing his factory at the end of the war and crying without consolation over his inability to save even more lives. (The scene was even parodied in an episode of Seinfeld.) “The idea that Oskar collapsed sobbing into Itzhak Stern’s arms and bemoaned his failure to save more Jews is preposterous,” writes Crowe. “Oskar was proud of all he had done to save Brunnlitz’s Jews and said so in his speech earlier that evening.”
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.
Please remember that you are essentially visiting a mass grave site, as well as a site that has an almost incalculable meaning to a significant portion of the world's population. There are still many men and women alive who survived their time here, and many more who had loved ones who were murdered or worked to death there, Jews and non-Jews alike. Please treat the site with all of the dignity, solemnity and respect it deserves. Do not make jokes about the Holocaust or Nazis. Do not deface the site by marking or scratching graffiti into structures. Do not take anything from the camp area with you "as a souvenir", and do not make Nazi salutes, even jokingly — these are considered offences under Polish law, and if you commit them, you will be placed before the court and could be subjected to a prison sentence of up to two years for propagating fascism. Pictures are permitted in outdoor areas, but remember this is a memorial rather than a tourist attraction, and there will undoubtedly be visitors who have a personal connection with the camps, so be discreet with cameras.
Political dissidents, trade unionists, and Social Democrats were among the first to be arrested and incarcerated in concentration camps. Under the Weimar government, centuries-old prohibitions against homosexuality had been overlooked, but this tolerance ended violently when the SA (Storm Troopers) began raiding gay bars in 1933. Homosexual intent became just cause for prosecution. The Nazis arrested German and Austrian male homosexuals—there was no systematic persecution of lesbians—and interned them in concentration camps, where they were forced to wear special yellow armbands and later pink triangles. The goal of persecuting male homosexuals was either for reeducation—what might now be called conversion therapy—or punishment. Jehovah’s Witnesses were a problem for the Nazis because they refused to swear allegiance to the state, register for the draft, or utter the words “Heil Hitler.” As a result, the Nazis imprisoned many of the roughly 20,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany. They could be released from concentration camps if they signed a document renouncing their faith and promising not to proselytize. Few availed themselves of that option, preferring martyrdom to apostasy. Germans of African descent—many of whom, called “Rhineland bastards” by the Nazis, were the offspring of German mothers and French colonial African troops who had occupied the Rhineland after World War I—were also persecuted by the Nazis. Although their victimization was less systematic, it included forced sterilization and, often, internment in concentration camps. The fear was that they would “further pollute” and thereby diminish the race. The Nazis also singled out the Roma and Sinti, pejoratively known as Gypsies. They were the only other group that the Nazis systematically killed in gas chambers alongside the Jews. For the Roma and Sinti, too, racial pollution and their depiction as asocials was the justification for their persecution and murder.
In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, starting World War II. Schindler left his wife and traveled to Krakow, hoping to profit from the impending war. Looking for business opportunities, he quickly became involved in the black market. By October, Schindler used his charm and doled out “gifts of gratitude” (contraband goods) to bribe high-ranking German officers. Wanting to expand his business interests, Schindler obtained a former Jewish enamelware factory to produce goods for the German military.
Thus although the Nazi 'Final Solution' was one genocide among many, it had features that made it stand out from all the rest as well. Unlike all the others it was bounded neither by space nor by time. It was launched not against a local or regional obstacle, but at a world-enemy seen as operating on a global scale. It was bound to an even larger plan of racial reordering and reconstruction involving further genocidal killing on an almost unimaginable scale, aimed, however, at clearing the way in a particular region – Eastern Europe – for a further struggle against the Jews and those the Nazis regarded as their puppets. It was set in motion by ideologues who saw world history in racial terms. It was, in part, carried out by industrial methods. These things all make it unique.
As was the case in other camps, the primary form of voluntary music-making in Birkenau was singing. Due to its size and international composition, there were inmates from all over Europe whose voices survivors remembered. Prisoners sang to comfort one another, to build solidarity and to express resistance. The former inmate Kitty Hart remembered that
Prior to the German offensive in May, Winston Churchill had said "Thank God for the French Army". That same French army collapsed after barely two months of fighting. This was in shocking contrast to the four years of trench warfare they had engaged in during the First World War. The French president of the Ministerial Council, Reynaud, attributed the collapse in a speech on 21 May 1940:
Overy wrote that blitzkrieg as a "coherent military and economic concept has proven a difficult strategy to defend in light of the evidence". Milward's theory was contrary to Hitler's and German planners' intentions. The Germans, aware of the errors of the First World War, rejected the concept of organising its economy to fight only a short war. Therefore, focus was given to the development of armament in depth for a long war, instead of armament in breadth for a short war. Hitler claimed that relying on surprise alone was "criminal" and that "we have to prepare for a long war along with surprise attack". During the winter of 1939–40, Hitler demobilised many troops from the army to return as skilled workers to factories because the war would be decided by production, not a quick "Panzer operation".
At the end of the war, between 50,000 and 100,000 Jewish survivors were living in three zones of occupation: American, British and Soviet. Within a year, that figure grew to about 200,000. The American zone of occupation contained more than 90 percent of the Jewish displaced persons (DPs). The Jewish DPs would not and could not return to their homes, which brought back such horrible memories and still held the threat of danger from anti-Semitic neighbors. Thus, they languished in DP camps until emigration could be arranged to Palestine, and later Israel, the United States, South America and other countries. The last DP camp closed in 1957 (David S. Wyman, "The United States," in David S. Wyman, ed., The World Reacts to the Holocaust, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996, pp. 70710).
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.
Starting out with 45 employees, the company grew to more than 1,700 at its peak in 1944. Initially, Schindler hired Jewish workers because they were a less expensive Polish workforce. But as Nazi atrocities against the Jewish community increased, Schindler’s attitude changed. With the help of Stern, he found reasons to hire more Jewish workers, regardless of their abilities. By 1942, nearly half of his employees were Jewish and were known as Schindlerjuden (Schindler Jews). When the Nazis began to relocate Krakow’s Jews to labor camps, Itzhak Stern and several hundred other employees were among them. Schindler raced to the train station and confronted an SS officer, arguing that his workers were essential to the war effort. After several tense minutes of dropping names and making veiled threats, Schindler was able to free his workers and escort them back to the factory.
Around 7,000 SS personnel were posted to Auschwitz during the war. Of these, 4 percent of SS personnel were officers and 26 percent were non-commissioned officers, while the remainder were rank-and-file members. Camp guards were members of the SS-Totenkopfverbände (Death's Head Units). Approximately three in four SS personnel worked in security. Others worked in the medical or political departments, in the camp headquarters, or in the economic administration, which was responsible for the property of dead prisoners. SS personnel at the camp included 200 women, who worked as guards, nurses, or messengers. About 120 SS personnel were assigned to the gas chambers and lived on site at the crematoria.
Auschwitz I, a former Polish army barracks, was the main camp (Stammlager) and administrative headquarters of the camp complex. Intending to use it to house political prisoners, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, head of the Schutzstaffel (SS), approved the site in April 1940 on the recommendation of SS-Obersturmbannführer (lieutenant colonel) Rudolf Höss, then of the Concentration Camps Inspectorate. Höss oversaw the development of the camp and served as its first commandant, with SS-Obersturmführer (senior lieutenant) Josef Kramer as his deputy. Around 1,000 m long and 400 m wide, Auschwitz I consisted of 20 brick buildings, six of them two-story; a second story was added to the others in 1943 and eight new blocks were built. The camp housed the SS barracks and by 1943 held 30,000 inmates. The first 30 prisoners arrived on 20 May 1940 after being transported from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg, Germany. Convicted German criminals (Berufsverbrecher), the men were known as "greens" after the green triangles they were required to wear on their prison clothing. Brought to the camp as functionaries, this group did much to establish the sadism of early camp life, which was directed particularly at Polish inmates, until the political prisoners began to take over their roles.
Camp commandant Rudolf Höss was arrested by the British at a farm near Flensburg, Germany, on 11 March 1946, where he had been working under the pseudonym Franz Lang. He was imprisoned in Heide, then transferred to Minden for interrogation, part of the British occupation zone. From there he was taken to Nuremberg to testify for the defense in the trial of SS-Obergruppenführer Ernst Kaltenbrunner. Höss was straightforward about his own role in the mass murder and said he had followed the orders of Heinrich Himmler.[g] Extradited to Poland on 25 May 1946, he wrote his memoirs in custody, first published in Polish in 1951 then in German in 1958 as Kommandant in Auschwitz. His trial before the Supreme National Tribunal in Warsaw opened on 11 March 1947; he was sentenced to death on 2 April and hanged in Auschwitz I, near crematorium I, on 16 April.
The crematoria consisted of a dressing room, gas chamber, and furnace room. In crematoria II and III, the dressing room and gas chamber were underground; in IV and V, they were on the ground floor. The dressing room had numbered hooks on the wall to hang clothes. In crematorium II, there was also a dissection room (Sezierraum). SS officers told the victims they were to take a shower and undergo delousing. The victims undressed in the dressing room and walked into the gas chamber, which was disguised as a shower facility; signs in German said "To the baths" and "To disinfection". Some inmates were even given soap and a towel.
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 gate house was built in 1943, long after the Birkenau camp was first opened. The first inmates, who were Soviet Prisoners of War, arrived at Birkenau on October 7, 1941. At first, the gate shown in the photo above was for trucks and pedestrians. Railroad tracks were not laid through the gate until the Spring of 1944, just before transports of Hungarian Jews began to arrive. According to the Auschwitz Museum, 434,351 of these Hungarian Jews were not registered at Birkenau; instead, they were gassed immediately upon arrival. At the height of the deportation of the Hungarian Jews, during a 10 week period, up to 12,000 Jews were gassed and burned each day.
In October 1980, Australian novelist Thomas Keneally had stopped into a leather goods shop off of Rodeo Drive after a book tour stopover from a film festival in Sorrento, Italy, where one of his books was adapted into a movie. When the owner of the shop, Leopold Page, learned that Keneally was a writer, he began telling him “the greatest story of humanity man to man.” That story was how Page, his wife, and thousands of other Jews were saved by a Nazi factory owner named Oskar Schindler during World War II.
Schindler joined the separatist Sudeten German Party in 1935. Although he was a citizen of Czechoslovakia, Schindler became a spy for the Abwehr, the military intelligence service of Nazi Germany, in 1936. He was assigned to Abwehrstelle II Commando VIII, based in Breslau. He later told Czech police that he did it because he needed the money; by this time Schindler had a drinking problem and was chronically in debt.