The conservators have an easy camaraderie, but sometimes their task can become too much to bear. “Working with shoes probably is one of the most difficult parts of working here,” Ms. Banas-Maciaszczyk said. Everyone here has emotional moments. For her, it was a day when she was cleaning a little girl’s wooden sandal. She could see the small footprint inside. “This is something hard to describe,” she said. From 1940 to 1945, between 150,000 and 200,000 children died here.
From the mid- to late 1930s, Hitler undermined the postwar international order step by step. He withdrew Germany from the League of Nations in 1933, rebuilt German armed forces beyond what was permitted by the Treaty of Versailles, reoccupied the German Rhineland in 1936, annexed Austria in 1938 and invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939. When Nazi Germany moved toward Poland, Great Britain and France countered further aggression by guaranteeing Polish security. Nevertheless, Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. Six years of Nazi Party foreign policy had ignited World War II.
Auschwitz originally was conceived as a concentration camp, to be used as a detention center for the many Polish citizens arrested after Germany annexed the country in 1939. These detainees included anti-Nazi activists, politicians, resistance members and luminaries from the cultural and scientific communities. Once Hitler’s Final Solution became official Nazi policy, however, Auschwitz was deemed an ideal death camp locale. For one thing, it was situated near the center of all German-occupied countries on the European continent. For another, it was in close proximity to the string of rail lines used to transport detainees to the network of Nazi camps.
The fortified walls, barbed wire, platforms, barracks, gallows, gas chambers and cremation ovens show the conditions within which the Nazi genocide took place in the former concentration and extermination camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest in the Third Reich. According to historical investigations, 1.5 million people, among them a great number of Jews, were systematically starved, tortured and murdered in this camp, the symbol of humanity's cruelty to its fellow human beings in the 20th century.
The last days of Auschwitz, which was opened by the Nazis in Oswiecim, Poland, in 1940, were marked by chaos, cowardice and an attempt to destroy what was once one of Nazi Germany’s most efficient tools in the quest to eradicate European Jews. By late 1944, as the Allied forces of World War II wrested much of occupied Europe out of Nazi hands, it had become clear that the Nazi military—once a mighty force that had invaded and occupied most of Europe after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933—was headed toward a spectacular defeat.
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.
When the Nazis came to power in Germany, they quickly moved to suppress all real and potential opposition. The general public was intimidated by the arbitrary psychological terror that was used by the special courts (Sondergerichte). Especially during the first years of their existence when these courts "had a strong deterrent effect" against any form of political protest.