Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933, and in March of that year the first Nazi concentration camp opened in the town of Dachau, just outside Munich, a major city in southern Germany. The camp initially housed political prisoners, and its first group of detainees consisted primarily of socialists and communists. Hilmar Wäckerle (1899-1941), an official in the “Schutzstaffel” (a Nazi paramilitary organization commonly known as the SS), served as the first commandant of Dachau.
Himmler ordered the closure of ghettos in Poland in mid-July 1942; most inhabitants were sent to extermination camps. Those Jews needed for war production would be confined in concentration camps. The deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto began on 22 July; over the almost two months of the Aktion, until 12 September, the population was reduced from 350,000 to 65,000. Those deported were transported in freight trains to the Treblinka extermination camp. Similar deportations happened in other ghettos, with many ghettos totally emptied. The first ghetto uprisings occurred in mid-1942 in small community ghettos. Although there were armed resistance attempts in both the larger and smaller ghettos in 1943, in every case they failed against the overwhelming German military force, and the remaining Jews were either killed or deported to the death camps.
In nearly every country overrun by the Nazis, the Jews were forced to wear badges marking them as Jews, they were rounded up into ghettos or concentration camps and then gradually transported to the killing centers. The death camps were essentially factories for murdering Jews. The Germans shipped thousands of Jews to them each day. Within a few hours of their arrival, the Jews had been stripped of their possessions and valuables, gassed to death, and their bodies burned in specially designed crematoriums. Approximately 3.5 million Jews were murdered in these death camps.
Schloss, a business man from Nuremberg, was killed in less than three days by blows on the testicles. The torturing was supervised by Commander Erpsmüller. The Jews were forced to scrub especially befouled toilets with their bare hands. A lawyer, Rosenfelder, was made to dab his face with the excrement. Two other prisoners were forced to clean some barbed-wire entanglements placed in the bed of a brook. They were forced to work without shoes or gloves, so that both came back to camp benumbed with cold and with their hands and feet severely lacerated.
After Germany’s loss in WWI, the Treaty of Versailles punished Germany by placing tough restrictions on the country. The treaty made Germany take full responsibility for the war, reduced the extent of German territory, severely limited the size and placement of their armed forces, and forced Germany to pay the allied powers reparations. These restrictions not only increased social unrest but, combined with the start of the Great Depression, collapsed the German economy as inflation rose alongside unemployment.
The Polish government-in-exile in London learned about the extermination camps from the Polish leadership in Warsaw, who from 1940 "received a continual flow of information about Auschwitz", according to historian Michael Fleming. This was in large measure thanks to Captain Witold Pilecki of the Polish Home Army, who allowed himself to be arrested in Warsaw and spent 945 days in Auschwitz from September 1940 until April 1943, organizing the resistance movement inside the camp.
^ French Jews were active in the French Resistance. Zionist Jews formed the Armee Juive (Jewish Army), which participated in armed resistance under a Zionist flag, smuggled Jews out of the country, and participated in the liberation of Paris and other cities. As many as 1.5 million Jewish soldiers fought in the Allied armies, including 500,000 in the Red Army, 550,000 in the U.S. Army, 100,000 in the Polish army, and 30,000 in the British army. About 200,000 Jewish soldiers serving in the Red Army died in the war, either in combat or after capture. The Jewish Brigade, a unit of 5,000 Jewish volunteers from the British Mandate of Palestine, fought in the British Army.
In early 1937, the SS, using prisoner labor, initiated construction of a large complex of buildings on the grounds of the original camp. Prisoners were forced to do this work, starting with the destruction of the old munitions factory, under terrible conditions. The construction was officially completed in mid-August 1938 and the camp remained essentially unchanged until 1945. Dachau thus remained in operation for the entire period of the Third Reich. The area in Dachau included other SS facilities beside the concentration camp—a leader school of the economic and civil service, the medical school of the SS, etc. The KZ (Konzentrationslager) at that time was called a “protective custody camp,” and occupied less than half of the area of the entire complex.
Another 350 suffered the same fate in early 1944, this left 350 detainees in the camp, of whom 266 were in possession of immigration permits to Palestine, 34 were United States citizens and 50 had South American papers. These prisoners were not assigned to work teams and no contact was permitted between them and other groups of Bergen- Belsen prisoners.
50,000 prisoners died in Bergen-Belsen. 60,000 prisoners were liberated by the Allies in April, 1945. The Bergen-Belsen staff, largely intact at the time of liberation, were tried in 1945 by a British military tribunal in Luneburg, Germany. Among those tried were the camp Kommandant, Josef Kramer, and a 22-year old female S.S. guard, Irma Grese, who was accused by camp inmates of shooting prisoners and beating them with a homemade whip. Forty-five staff were tried; fourteen were acquitted.
Only one trial was ever held by a German court for crimes committed at Belsen, at Jena in 1949; the defendant was acquitted. More than 200 other SS members who were at Belsen have been known by name but never had to stand trial. No Wehrmacht soldier was ever put on trial for crimes committed against the inmates of the POW camps at Bergen-Belsen and in the region around it, despite the fact that the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg had found in 1946 that the treatment of Soviet POWs by the Wehrmacht constituted a war crime.:39
To concentrate and monitor the Jewish population as well as to facilitate later deportation of the Jews, the Germans and their collaborators created ghettos, transit camps, and forced-labor camps for Jews during the war years. The German authorities also established numerous forced-labor camps, both in the so-called Greater German Reich and in German-occupied territory, for non-Jews whose labor the Germans sought to exploit.
When the wagons were forced open, a terrible sight was revealed. The Schindlers took charge of the 107 survivors, with terrible frostbite and frightfully emaciated, arranged for medical treatment and gradually nourished them back to life. Schindler also stood up to the Nazi Commandant who wanted to incinerate the corpses that were found frozen in the boxcars, and arranged for their burial with full Jewish religious rites in a plot of land near the Catholic cemetery, which he had especially bought for that purpose.
The site is open to the public and includes monuments to the dead, including a successor to the wooden cross of 1945, some individual memorial stones and a "House of Silence" for reflection. In addition to the Jewish, Polish and Dutch national memorials, a memorial to eight Turkish citizens who were killed at Belsen was dedicated in December 2012.
——— (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
Those who could prove their intention to leave Germany were released, and indeed most of them were released within a few months of their arrest. Non-Jews were also arrested for helping Jews, in Berlin on 23 October 1941 a German Catholic priest, Bernhard Lichtenberg, who had been a military chaplain in the First World War, was arrested for his protests against the deportations to the East.
^ "War nicht der 'Archipel Gulag' ursprünglicher als 'Auschwitz'? War nicht der 'Klassenmord' der Bolschewiki das logische und faktische Prius des 'Rassenmords' der Nationalsozialisten? Sind Hitlers geheimste Handlungen nicht gerade auch dadurch zu erklären, daß er den 'Rattenkäfig' nicht vergessen hatte? Rührte Auschwitz vielleicht in seinen Ursprüngen aus einer Vergangenheit her, die nicht vergehen wollte?"
State of Health. The incidence of disease is very high here in proportion to the number of detainees. When you interviewed me on Dec. 1, 1944, at Oranienburg, you told me that Bergen-Belsen was to serve as a sick camp for all concentration camps in north Germany. The number of sick has greatly increased, particularly on account of the transports of detainees that have arrived from the East in recent times -- these transports have sometimes spent eight or fourteen days in open trucks ...
A favorite stunt of the Nazis is to order newly arrived prisoners into a dark room and make them stand with their faces against the wall while volleys are fired into the air. Whenever a new transport comes, some prisoners are picked out and horribly beaten with wired oxtails. On April 12 a transport from Nuremberg arrived with three Jewish prisoners. These, and another Jew who had been imprisoned for some time, were led out of the camp on evening. A few minutes later a volley of shots was heard. All were killed by shots fired through their temples at close range. These men were Arthur Kahn, Dr. Benario, a man named Goldman from Nuremberg, and Edwin Kahn from Munich. The last did not die immediately, and was able to make a statement to the effect that no attempt to escape had been made. Nevertheless, the next morning the prisoners were addressed by an overseer. He began by insulting the Jews: “They successfully tried to mislead and to stir up hatred and strife among the German people. But when they have to share your lot and wield pick and shovel as you do, they try to escape.” Three of the four prisoners were shot by the Second-in-Command, Erpsmüller, who boasted about the deed before the prisoners and remarked, “I am opposed to torture for the Jews. Bugs are not exterminated by tearing out their legs, but are trampled upon.”
In most ghettos, Nazis ordered the Jews to establish a Judenrat (Jewish council) to administer Nazi demands and to regulate the internal life of the ghetto. The Nazis routinely ordered deportations from the ghettos. In some of the large ghettos, 1,000 people per day were sent by rail to concentration and extermination camps. To get them to cooperate, the Nazis told the Jews they were being transported elsewhere for labor.
On April 18, 1945, the burial of the dead began. The staff members, who were now prisoners of the British, were ordered to do the work of burying the bodies. The British deliberately forced the SS staff to use only their bare hands to handle the corpses of prisoners who had died of contagious diseases. In the documentary film which was shown in the newsreels in theaters around the world, a British officer said that the Germans were being punished by not allowing them to use gloves to handle the bodies. According to Eberhard Kolb, 20 out of the 80 guards, who were forced to handle diseased bodies without wearing protective gear, died later and the majority of the deaths were from typhus.
Here, seven decades after the April 1945 liberation of Bergen-Belsen by British troops, LIFE.com presents a series of photographs made at the camp by the great George Rodger (later a founding Magnum member). In an issue of LIFE published a few weeks later, in which several of the pictures in this gallery first appeared, the magazine told its readers of a "barbarism that reaches the low point of human degradation."
No matter the ethical background of a student, the lesson that true good and true evil exist in the world is invaluable. This can be a difficult concept to convey without controversy. The concept of what is good and what is evil is not constant. This changes from person to person based on belief. There is, however, an area of absolutes that ought to be discussed so that students can know where and when to take a stand and for what cause. There are a few examples from history that can be used to have this discussion productively. One such example is the Nazi Holocaust. This terrifying case has absolutes that do not change. Thus persons and events from World War II can be used as examples of good and evil, and therefore can lead to productive discussions of ethics. A very good text to use in order to encourage this discussion is Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally.
“ ...Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which... The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them ... Babies had been born here, tiny wizened things that could not live ... A mother, driven mad, screamed at a British sentry to give her milk for her child, and thrust the tiny mite into his arms, then ran off, crying terribly. He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days.