Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest Nazi extermination and concentration camp, located in the Polish town of Oswiecim, 37 miles west of Cracow. One sixth of all Jews murdered by the Nazis were gassed at Auschwitz. In April 1940 SS chief Heinrich Himmler ordered the establishment of a new concentration camp in Oswiecim, a town located within the portion of Poland that was annexed to Germany at the beginning of World War II. The first Polish political prisoners arrived in Auschwitz in June 1940, and by March 1941 there were 10,900 prisoners, the majority of whom were Polish. Auschwitz soon became known as the most brutal of the Nazi concentration camps.
These guards were the core of what became, a few years later, the much feared Death’s-Head S.S. The name, along with the skull-and-crossbones insignia, was meant to reinforce the idea that the men who bore it were not mere prison guards but front-line soldiers in the Nazi war against enemies of the people. Himmler declared, “No other service is more devastating and strenuous for the troops than just that of guarding villains and criminals.” The ideology of combat had been part of the DNA of Nazism from its origin, as a movement of First World War veterans, through the years of street battles against Communists, which established the Party’s reputation for violence. Now, in the years before actual war came, the K.L. was imagined as the site of virtual combat—against Communists, criminals, dissidents, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Jews, all forces working to undermine the German nation.
Beller was one of 60,000 prisoners who were forced on what is now known as thedeath march of Auschwitz—part of the Nazis’ mad scramble to escape Allied forces in January 1945. As Russian and American forces closed in, the Nazis attempted to dismantle the camps and hide their crimes. But nothing could obliterate the dark truth of the death camp where they’dmurdered 1.1 million people.
In March 1941, Himmler ordered a second, larger complex to be built next to the original camp. It was called Auschwitz II - Birkenau. The camp at Birkenau was divided into subsections surrounded by electric fences with barbed wire. During 1943 and 1944 the BIIb section became the location of the „Terezín family camp“. At its summit, Birkenau had over 100 000 inmates. In March 1942, the Auschwitz III camp was set up at nearby Monowitz, also known as Buna Monowitz. German company I.G. Farben set up a synthetic rubber factory there, in which it used the prisoners' slave labour. Auschwitz also had a further 45 auxiliary camps, where prisoners were forced to engage in slave labour, mostly for German companies.
Gies had saved everything she could from the secret annex, including Anne’s diary, her short stories, and favorite quotes from other writers. Otto read the diary, which Anne had rewritten in hopes of publishing after the war, typed it, and began sharing it with family and friends interested in reading it. A newspaper article by historian Jan Romein called Kinderstem (A Child’s Voice) led to the first publication of Het Achterhuis. Dagboekbrieven 14 july 1942 – 1 augustus 1944 (The Annex: Diary Notes from 14 June – 1 August).
Le Porz’s remark was prophetic. The true extent of Nazi barbarity became known to the world in part through the documentary films made by Allied forces after the liberation of other German camps. There have been many atrocities committed before and since, yet to this day, thanks to those images, the Nazi concentration camp stands as the ultimate symbol of evil. The very names of the camps—Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Auschwitz—have the sound of a malevolent incantation. They have ceased to be ordinary place names—Buchenwald, after all, means simply “beech wood”—and become portals to a terrible other dimension.
Most of the judicial system and legal codes of the Weimar Republic remained in place to deal with non-political crimes. The courts issued and carried out far more death sentences than before the Nazis took power. People who were convicted of three or more offences—even petty ones—could be deemed habitual offenders and jailed indefinitely. People such as prostitutes and pickpockets were judged to be inherently criminal and a threat to the community. Thousands were arrested and confined indefinitely without trial.
On 4 September 2003, despite a protest from the museum, three Israeli Air Force F-15 Eagles performed a fly-over of Auschwitz II-Birkenau during a ceremony at the camp below. All three pilots were descendants of Holocaust survivors, including the man who led the flight, Major-General Amir Eshel. On 27 January 2015, some 300 Auschwitz survivors gathered with world leaders under a giant tent at the entrance to Auschwitz II to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the camp's liberation.[i]
This stunning historical episode is faithfully rendered in James Q. Whitman’s Hitler’s American Model, a slim but consequential report on the banality of lawful evil. Whitman is a professor of comparative and criminal law at Yale Law School. (Full disclosure: I was a student in his legal history class, although we never interacted.) In his book, he asks one of those dangerous intellectual questions that are so pressing in the current political era: How could the United States, the land of liberty and constitutional republicanism, have influenced the most racist and genocidal regime of the twentieth century? Given the neo-Nazis marching in Charleston, South Carolina, and in Chemnitz, Germany, along with the mélange of fellow-travelers on the fascist spectrum—white nationalists, the alt-right—Whitman’s investigation feels urgent. He wants to know what, if anything, the United States taught the Nazis, and what this in turn says about the United States.
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.
Last, and perhaps most ominously for our comparisons with the Holocaust, the camps can be the first step toward darker developments, as some have already argued. These “concentration camps” will not lead to gas chambers, but their existence may well lead to the erosion of respect for human rights, the rule of law and government accountability that characterized the Third Reich. Unless, of course, the children are all actors.
In Mein Kampf, Hitler effectively supported mercantilism in the belief that economic resources from their respective territories should be seized by force, as he believed that the policy of Lebensraum would provide Germany with such economically valuable territories. Hitler argued that the only means to maintain economic security was to have direct control over resources rather than being forced to rely on world trade. He claimed that war to gain such resources was the only means to surpass the failing capitalist economic system.
On 31 July 1941 Hermann Göring gave written authorization to SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, Chief of the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA), to prepare and submit a plan for a "total solution of the Jewish question" in territories under German control and to coordinate the participation of all involved government organisations. The resulting Generalplan Ost (General Plan for the East) called for deporting the population of occupied Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union to Siberia, for use as slave labour or to be murdered.