When Hitler became chancellor of Germany on January 1, 1933, conditions for Jews like the Franks and other so-called undesirables in Germany immediately deteriorated. By summer, freedom of speech and assembly were suspended for everyone in Germany, the Gestapo was formed, Jewish businesses—including medical and legal practices—were boycotted, and a law excluding non-Aryans from government removed Jews from government and teaching positions.
German doctors performed a variety of experiments on prisoners at Auschwitz. SS doctors tested the efficacy of X-rays as a sterilization device by administering large doses to female prisoners. Carl Clauberg injected chemicals into women's uteruses in an effort to glue them shut. Prisoners were infected with spotted fever for vaccination research and exposed to toxic substances to study the effects. In one experiment Bayer, then part of IG Farben, paid RM 150 each for 150 female inmates from Auschwitz (the camp had asked for RM 200 per woman), who were transferred to a Bayer facility to test an anesthetic. A Bayer employee wrote to Rudolf Höss: "The transport of 150 women arrived in good condition. However, we were unable to obtain conclusive results because they died during the experiments. We would kindly request that you send us another group of women to the same number and at the same price." The Bayer research was led at Auschwitz by Helmuth Vetter of Bayer/IG Farben, who was also an Auschwitz physician and SS captain, and by Auschwitz physicians Friedrich Entress and Eduard Wirths.
When the victims arrived to the extermination camps in overcrowded trains, they were herded out onto the arrival ramp. Here, German SS-men and perhaps brutal Ukrainian guards forced them to hand over their belongings and their clothes. Most of the victims had been told that they were merely to be moved to the east for new jobs and living places, and most of them had brought their favourite belongings.
A concentration camp to house Soviet prisoners of war and Poles had been established at Majdanek, close to the Polish city of Lublin, during 1941. In the spring of 1942 gas chambers and crematoria were added, turning Majdanek into an extermination camp that would murder 78,000 people. Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most infamous of the Nazi death camps, was a massive concentration, forced labour and extermination camp at the centre of a network of more than 40 satellite camps. Upwards of 80 per cent of those Jews transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau were selected for immediate death.
Radical Antisemitism was promoted by prominent advocates of Völkisch nationalism, including Eugen Diederichs, Paul de Lagarde and Julius Langbehn. De Lagarde called the Jews a "bacillus, the carriers of decay ... who pollute every national culture ... and destroy all faiths with their materialistic liberalism" and he called for the extermination of the Jews. Langbehn called for a war of annihilation against the Jews, and his genocidal policies were later published by the Nazis and given to soldiers on the front during World War II. One antisemitic ideologue of the period, Friedrich Lange, even used the term "National Socialism" to describe his own anti-capitalist take on the Völkisch nationalist template.
In March 1933, the Enabling Act, an amendment to the Weimar Constitution, passed in the Reichstag by a vote of 444 to 94. This amendment allowed Hitler and his cabinet to pass laws—even laws that violated the constitution—without the consent of the president or the Reichstag. As the bill required a two-thirds majority to pass, the Nazis used intimidation tactics as well as the provisions of the Reichstag Fire Decree to keep several Social Democratic deputies from attending, and the Communists had already been banned. On 10 May, the government seized the assets of the Social Democrats, and they were banned on 22 June. On 21 June, the SA raided the offices of the German National People's Party – their former coalition partners – and they disbanded on 29 June. The remaining major political parties followed suit. On 14 July 1933 Germany became a one-party state with the passage of a law decreeing the NSDAP to be the sole legal party in Germany. The founding of new parties was also made illegal, and all remaining political parties which had not already been dissolved were banned. The Enabling Act would subsequently serve as the legal foundation for the dictatorship the NSDAP established. Further elections in November 1933, 1936, and 1938 were Nazi-controlled, with only members of the NSDAP and a small number of independents elected.
By January 1945 Soviet troops were advancing towards Auschwitz. In desperation to withdraw, the Nazis sent most of the 58,000 remaining prisoners on a death march to Germany, and most prisoners were killed en route. When the Soviet army liberated Auschwitz on January 27, soldiers found only 7,650 barely living prisoners throughout the entire camp complex. In all, approximately one million Jews had been murdered there.
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.
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.
The Reichstag fire on 27 February 1933 gave Hitler a pretext for suppressing his political opponents. The following day he persuaded the Reich's President Paul von Hindenburg to issue the Reichstag Fire Decree, which suspended most civil liberties. The NSDAP won the parliamentary election on 5 March 1933 with 43.9 percent of votes, but failed to win an absolute majority. After the election, hundreds of thousands of new members joined the party for opportunistic reasons, most of them civil servants and white-collar workers. They were nicknamed the "casualties of March" (German: Märzgefallenen) or "March violets" (German: Märzveilchen). To protect the party from too many non-ideological turncoats who were viewed by the so-called "old fighters" (alte Kämpfer) with some mistrust, the party issued a freeze on admissions that remained in force from May 1933 to 1937.
Originally an Austro-Hungarian and later a Polish Army barracks before the start of the Second World War, the invading Nazis assumed authority over the military facility following the region's annexation by the Third Reich in 1939. The neighboring town's name of Oświęcim was Germanized to Auschwitz, which also became the name of the camp. Beginning in 1940, all Polish and Jewish residents of Oświęcim were expelled, replaced by German settlers, whom the Third Reich planned to make a model community. The camp began operations on 14 June 1940, originally housing Polish political prisoners, who made up a majority of the camp's population until 1942. Poles were treated with extreme brutality, with more than half of the 130-150,000 Polish inmates dying.
Victor Kugler and Johannes Kleiman were arrested and jailed at the penal camp for enemies of the regime at Amersfoort. Kleiman was released after seven weeks, but Kugler was held in various work camps until the war's end. Miep Gies and Bep Voskuijl were questioned and threatened by the Security Police but not detained. They returned to the Achterhuis the following day, and found Anne's papers strewn on the floor. They collected them, as well as several family photograph albums, and Gies resolved to return them to Anne after the war. On 7 August 1944, Gies attempted to facilitate the release of the prisoners by confronting Silberbauer and offering him money to intervene, but he refused.
In early February, the Polish Red Cross hospital opened in blocks 14, 21, and 22 at Auschwitz I, headed by Dr. Józef Bellert and staffed by 30 volunteer doctors and nurses from Kraków, along with around 90 former inmates. The critically injured patients—estimated at several thousands—were relocated from Birkenau and Monowitz to the main camp. Some orphaned children were adopted by Oświęcim residents, while others were transferred to Kraków, where several were adopted by Polish families, or placed in an orphanage at Harbutowice. The hospital cared for more than 4,500 patients (most of them Jews) from 20 countries, suffering from starvation, alimentary dystrophy, gangrene, necrosis, internal haemorrhaging, and typhoid fever. At least 500 died. Assistance was provided by volunteers from Oświęcim and Brzeszcze, who donated money and food, cleaned hospital rooms, delivered water, washed patients, cooked meals, buried the dead, and transported the sick in horse-drawn carts between locations. Securing enough food for thousands of former prisoners was a constant challenge. The hospital director personally went from village to village to collect milk.
On her thirteenth birthday, just before they went into hiding, Anne was presented with a diary. During the two years in hiding, Anne wrote about events in the Secret Annex, but also about her feelings and thoughts. In addition, she wrote short stories, started on a novel and copied passages from the books she read in her ‘Book of Beautiful Sentences’. Writing helped her pass the time.
Höss was succeeded as Auschwitz commandant in November 1943 by SS Obersturmbannführer Arthur Liebehenschel, who served until 15 May 1944. SS Sturmbannführer Richard Baer became commandant of Auschwitz I on 11 May 1944, and SS Obersturmbannführer Fritz Hartjenstein of Auschwitz II from 22 November 1943, followed by SS Obersturmbannführer Josef Kramer from 15 May 1944 until the camp's liquidation in January 1945. Heinrich Schwarz was commandant of Auschwitz III from the point at which it became an autonomous camp in November 1943 until its liquidation.
Of course, there were aspects of Nazism which were reactionary, such as their attitude toward the role of women in society, which was completely traditionalist, calling for the return of women to the home as wives, mothers and homemakers, although ironically this ideological policy was undermined in reality by the growing labor shortages and need for more workers. The number of women in the workplace climbed throughout the period of Nazi control of Germany, from 4.24 million in 1933 to 4.52 million in 1936 and 5.2 million in 1938, numbers that far exceeded those of the Weimar Republic.
The concentration camps make sense only if they are understood as products not of reason but of ideology, which is to say, of fantasy. Nazism taught the Germans to see themselves as a beleaguered nation, constantly set upon by enemies external and internal. Metaphors of infection and disease, of betrayal and stabs in the back, were central to Nazi discourse. The concentration camp became the place where those metaphorical evils could be rendered concrete and visible. Here, behind barbed wire, were the traitors, Bolsheviks, parasites, and Jews who were intent on destroying the Fatherland.
Against the advice of many of his senior military officers, Hitler ordered an attack on France and the Low Countries, which began in May 1940. They quickly conquered Luxembourg and the Netherlands. After outmanoeuvring the Allies in Belgium and forcing the evacuation of many British and French troops at Dunkirk, France fell as well, surrendering to Germany on 22 June. The victory in France resulted in an upswing in Hitler's popularity and an upsurge in war fever in Germany.
This disturbing idea was suggested by an incident this past spring at the Anne Frank House, the blockbuster Amsterdam museum built out of Frank’s “Secret Annex,” or in Dutch, “Het Achterhuis [The House Behind],” a series of tiny hidden rooms where the teenage Jewish diarist lived with her family and four other persecuted Jews for over two years, before being captured by Nazis and deported to Auschwitz in 1944. Here’s how much people love dead Jews: Anne Frank’s diary, first published in Dutch in 1947 via her surviving father, Otto Frank, has been translated into 70 languages and has sold over 30 million copies worldwide, and the Anne Frank House now hosts well over a million visitors each year, with reserved tickets selling out months in advance. But when a young employee at the Anne Frank House in 2017 tried to wear his yarmulke to work, his employers told him to hide it under a baseball cap. The museum’s managing director told newspapers that a live Jew in a yarmulke might “interfere” with the museum’s “independent position.” The museum finally relented after deliberating for six months, which seems like a rather long time for the Anne Frank House to ponder whether it was a good idea to force a Jew into hiding.
Then, the marches began. The remaining prisoners deemed healthy enough to march were told to assemble into columns and leave Auschwitz. About 7,000 were left behind as 60,000 marched. Nazi guards led them through the forests and fields of southern Poland on their way to Germany. The Germans called the march an “evacuation”; prisoners immediately dubbed it the “death march.”
Medical experiments, many of them pseudoscientific, were performed on concentration camp inmates beginning in 1941. The most notorious doctor to perform medical experiments was SS-Hauptsturmführer Dr. Josef Mengele, camp doctor at Auschwitz. Many of his victims died or were intentionally killed. Concentration camp inmates were made available for purchase by pharmaceutical companies for drug testing and other experiments.
We tried to get out – we’d seen the signs of what was to come, not that we could really have known the full extent of what would happen. My uncle had worked in Palestine in 1917 but had been forced to return to Poland when he got sick. We tried to use the contacts he still had there to escape, but the British (who were in control of it) wouldn’t give us permission to go there. In my mind they carry a lot of the blame for the deaths of many of the Jews – especially the Polish Jews – who perished.
I have already said I that our barracks were overcrowded. It should be added that, although these barracks contained toilets and washrooms, neither came up to the most modest demands of modern hygiene. The cleansing of our bodies took place in a special room and was limited to a short washing of the upper extremities with cold water. A weekly warm shower was supposed to be provided, but with the overcrowding of the camp it was several weeks before a bath was available for each one. There was, of course, no toilet paper.
The chief of construction of Auschwitz II-Birkenau was Karl Bischoff, a competent and dynamic bureaucrat who, in spite of the ongoing war, carried out the construction deemed necessary. The Birkenau camp, the four crematoria, a new reception building, and hundreds of other buildings were planned and constructed. Bischoff's plans, based on an initial budget of RM 8.9 million, called for each barracks to hold 550 prisoners. He later changed this to 744 per barracks, which meant the camp could hold 125,000, rather than 97,000. The SS designed the barracks not so much to house people as to destroy them. There were 174 barracks, each measuring 116 by 36 ft, divided into 62 bays of 43 sq. ft. The bays were divided into "roosts", initially for three inmates and later for four. With personal space of 11 sq. ft to sleep and place whatever belongings they had, inmates were deprived, Robert-Jan van Pelt wrote, "of the minimum space needed to exist".
Other Nazis—especially those at the time associated with the party's more radical wing such as Gregor Strasser, Joseph Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler—rejected Italian Fascism, accusing it of being too conservative or capitalist. Alfred Rosenberg condemned Italian Fascism for being racially confused and having influences from philosemitism. Strasser criticised the policy of Führerprinzip as being created by Mussolini and considered its presence in Nazism as a foreign imported idea. Throughout the relationship between Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, a number of lower-ranking Nazis scornfully viewed fascism as a conservative movement that lacked a full revolutionary potential.
In 2015, Flemish journalist Jeroen de Bruyn and Joop van Wijk, Bep Voskuijl's youngest son, wrote a biography, Bep Voskuijl, het zwijgen voorbij: een biografie van de jongste helper van het Achterhuis (Bep Voskuijl, the Silence is Over: A Biography of the Youngest Helper of the Secret Annex), in which they alleged that Bep's younger sister Nelly (1923–2001) could have betrayed the Frank family. According to the book, Bep's sister Diny and her fiancé Bertus Hulsman recollected Nelly telephoning the Gestapo on the morning of 4 August 1944. Nelly had been critical of Bep and their father, Johannes Voskuijl, helping the Jews. (Johannes was the one who constructed the bookcase covering the entrance to the hiding place.) Nelly was a Nazi collaborator between the ages of 19 and 23. Karl Silberbauer, the SS officer who received the phone call and made the arrest, was documented to say that the informer had "the voice of a young woman".
Nazi plunder included private and public art collections, artefacts, precious metals, books, and personal possessions. Hitler and Göring in particular were interested in acquiring looted art treasures from occupied Europe, the former planning to use the stolen art to fill the galleries of the planned Führermuseum (Leader's Museum), and the latter for his personal collection. Göring, having stripped almost all of occupied Poland of its artworks within six months of Germany's invasion, ultimately grew a collection valued at over 50 million Reichsmarks. In 1940, the Reichsleiter Rosenberg Taskforce was established to loot artwork and cultural material from public and private collections, libraries, and museums throughout Europe. France saw the greatest extent of Nazi plunder. Some 26,000 railroad cars of art treasures, furniture, and other looted items were sent to Germany from France. By January 1941, Rosenberg estimated the looted treasures from France to be valued at over one billion Reichsmarks. In addition, soldiers looted or purchased goods such as produce and clothing—items, which were becoming harder to obtain in Germany—for shipment home.
Over the weeks that ensued, most of the remaining inmates of Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazis’ more than 400,000 camps and incarceration facilities, were marched to other camps near and far, walking tens and sometimes even hundreds of miles. Along the way, Beller saw Nazi guards murder prisoners who tried to escape and shoot those who lagged—including women and children so exhausted from starvation and the brutal conditions they could no longer go on. As he marched on, his feet protected by the shoes he’d grabbed before leaving Auschwitz, he saw ordinary Germans standing along the road, watching the prisoners go by.
On 22 June 1941, contravening the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, 5.5 million Axis troops attacked the Soviet Union. In addition to Hitler's stated purpose of acquiring Lebensraum, this large-scale offensive—codenamed Operation Barbarossa—was intended to destroy the Soviet Union and seize its natural resources for subsequent aggression against the Western powers. The reaction among Germans was one of surprise and trepidation as many were concerned about how much longer the war would continue or suspected that Germany could not win a war fought on two fronts.
In the spring of 1941, German conglomerate I.G. Farben established a factory in which its executives intended to exploit concentration camp labor to manufacture synthetic rubber and fuels. I.G. Farben invested more than 700 million Reichsmarks (about 2.8 million US dollars in 1941 terms) in Auschwitz III. From May 1941 until July 1942, the SS had transported prisoners from Auschwitz I to the “Buna Detachment,” at first on foot and later by rail. (Between July and October 1942 there was a pause in transports, due to a typhus epidemic and quarantine.) With the construction of Auschwitz III in the autumn of 1942, prisoners deployed at Buna lived in Auschwitz III.
However, it was the effects of the Great Depression in Germany that brought the Nazi Party to its first real nationwide importance. The rapid rise in unemployment in 1929–30 provided millions of jobless and dissatisfied voters whom the Nazi Party exploited to its advantage. From 1929 to 1932 the party vastly increased its membership and voting strength; its vote in elections to the Reichstag (the German Parliament) increased from 800,000 votes in 1928 to about 14,000,000 votes in July 1932, and it thus emerged as the largest voting bloc in the Reichstag, with 230 members (38 percent of the total vote). By then big-business circles had begun to finance the Nazi electoral campaigns, and swelling bands of SA toughs increasingly dominated the street fighting with the communists that accompanied such campaigns.
In the Soviet Union by 1922 there were 23 concentration camps for the incarceration of persons accused of political offenses as well as criminal offenses. Many corrective labour camps were established in northern Russia and Siberia, especially during the First Five-Year Plan, 1928–32, when millions of rich peasants were driven from their farms under the collectivization program. The Stalinist purges of 1936–38 brought additional millions into the camps—said to be essentially institutions of slavery.