Located in Nazi-occupied Poland, Auschwitz was the largest of all of the German Nazi concentration, forced labor, and extermination camps. More than 1.1 million people were murdered behind the barbed-wire fences of Auschwitz between May 1940 and January 1945. Around 1 million of those murdered were Jews, along with nearly 75,000 Poles, 21,000 Sinti and Roma, 14,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and nearly 15,000 others whom the Nazis deemed “inferior” or “undesirable” (including those who were allegedly homosexual, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and people the Nazis called criminals). Those kept as prisoners were stripped of their names, assigned numbers, and subjected to forced labor and brutal—frequently deadly—conditions.
At the Birkenau camp, a five-minute shuttle-bus ride from the Auschwitz visitor center, the scene was so peaceful it was almost impossible to imagine the sea of stinking mud that survivors describe. The vast expanse was covered in neatly mowed grass. Flocks of Israeli teenagers in matching white-and-blue hoodies wandered from ruin to ruin. As I stood at the stairs leading down into the ruined gas chambers, a dozen Brits posed for a group picture on the steps of a memorial just a few yards away.
It is surprising to me that inmates make any attempt to escape. Already in the first hours of our stay we could convince ourselves of the hopelessness of such an undertaking, being lined up as we were along the inner wall. The watchtowers were occupied by S.S. men with machine guns, and during the darkness rays of searchlights played from them. The guards in the watchtowers, provided with field glasses, were able to see each inmate who might move outside the barracks during the night hours, and they had strict orders to fire at an offender at once. Aside from these guards, mechanical contraptions made escape almost impossible. On the inner sides of the two encircling walls there were tall wire fences charged with a high-voltage current. Inside the wire fence there was a small strip of gravel, in front of which were signs bearing skull and crossbones and this inscription: 'Caution neutral zone.' The guards were instructed to shoot without warning at anybody entering this zone.
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.
Despite these strengths, the Nazi Party might never have come to power had it not been for the Great Depression and its effects on Germany. By 1930, the German economy was beset with mass unemployment and widespread business failures. The Social Democrats and Communists were bitterly divided and unable to formulate an effective solution: this gave the Nazis their opportunity and Hitler's message, blaming the crisis on the Jewish financiers and the Bolsheviks, resonated with wide sections of the electorate. At the September 1930 Reichstag elections, the Nazis won 18.3% of the votes and became the second-largest party in the Reichstag after the Social Democrats. Hitler proved to be a highly effective campaigner, pioneering the use of radio and aircraft for this purpose. His dismissal of Strasser and his appointment of Goebbels as the party's propaganda chief were major factors. While Strasser had used his position to promote his own leftish version of national socialism, Goebbels was totally loyal to Hitler and worked only to improve Hitler's image.
^ The escapees included 396 Polish men and 10 Polish women; 164 men from the Soviet Union (including 50 prisoners of war), and 15 women; 112 Jewish men and three Jewish women; 36 Romani/Sinti men and two women; 22 German men and nine women; 19 Czech men and four women; two Austrians; one Yugoslav woman and one man; and 15 other men and one woman.
^ A film with scenes from the liberation of Dachau, Buchenwald, Belsen and other Nazi concentration camps, supervised by the British Ministry of Information and the American Office of War Information, was begun but never finished or shown. It lay in archives until first aired on PBS's Frontline on May 7, 1985. The film, partly edited by Alfred Hitchcock, can be seen online at Memory of the Camps.
In May 1943 the SS (Schutzstaffel, "Protective Echelon") announced the removal of all remaining Jews in the Netherlands. In a voluntary call-up on May 25, five hundred Jews voluntarily reported for deportation to Westerbork transit camp. The next day, raids were carried out and 3,000 people were rounded up. Most of these people were sent to the Sobibor extermination camp. About 107,000 Dutch Jews were deported during the war—only about 5,000 returned.
Hitler found this common denominator in the Jews, whom he identified with both Bolshevism and a kind of cosmic evil. The Jews were to be discriminated against not according to their religion but according to their “race.” Nazism declared the Jews—whatever their educational and social development—to be forever fundamentally different from and inimical to Germans.
When the 322nd Rifle Division of the Red Army liberated Auschwitz on 27 January 1945, the soldiers found 7,500 prisoners alive and over 600 corpses. Auschwitz II-Birkenau was liberated at around 3:30 p.m., and the main camp (Auschwitz I) two hours later. Items found by the Soviet soldiers included 370,000 men's suits, 837,000 women's garments, and 7.7 tonnes (8.5 short tons) of human hair. Primo Levi described seeing the first four Russian soldiers on horseback approach the camp at Monowitz, where he had been in the sick bay. The soldiers threw "strangely embarrassed glances at the sprawling bodies, at the battered huts and at us few still alive ...":
Notions of white supremacy and Aryan racial superiority were combined in the 19th century, with white supremacists maintaining the belief that certain groups of white people were members of an Aryan "master race" that is superior to other races and particularly superior to the Semitic race, which they associated with "cultural sterility". Arthur de Gobineau, a French racial theorist and aristocrat, blamed the fall of the ancien régime in France on racial degeneracy caused by racial intermixing, which he argued had destroyed the purity of the Aryan race, a term which he only reserved for Germanic people. Gobineau's theories, which attracted a strong following in Germany, emphasized the existence of an irreconcilable polarity between Aryan (Germanic) and Jewish cultures.
Hitler's first DAP speech was held in the Hofbräukeller on 16 October 1919. He was the second speaker of the evening, and spoke to 111 people. Hitler later declared that this was when he realised he could really "make a good speech". At first, Hitler spoke only to relatively small groups, but his considerable oratory and propaganda skills were appreciated by the party leadership. With the support of Anton Drexler, Hitler became chief of propaganda for the party in early 1920. Hitler began to make the party more public, and organised its biggest meeting yet of 2,000 people on 24 February 1920 in the Staatliches Hofbräuhaus in München. Such was the significance of this particular move in publicity that Karl Harrer resigned from the party in disagreement. It was in this speech that Hitler enunciated the twenty-five points of the German Workers' Party manifesto that had been drawn up by Drexler, Feder and himself. Through these points he gave the organisation a much bolder stratagem with a clear foreign policy (abrogation of the Treaty of Versailles, a Greater Germany, Eastern expansion and exclusion of Jews from citizenship) and among his specific points were: confiscation of war profits, abolition of unearned incomes, the State to share profits of land and land for national needs to be taken away without compensation. In general, the manifesto was antisemitic, anti-capitalist, anti-democratic, anti-Marxist and anti-liberal. To increase its appeal to larger segments of the population, on the same day as Hitler's Hofbräuhaus speech on 24 February 1920, the DAP changed its name to the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei ("National Socialist German Workers' Party", or Nazi Party). The word "Socialist" was added by the party's executive committee, over Hitler's objections, in order to help appeal to left-wing workers.
After their arrest, the Franks, Van Pels and Fritz Pfeffer were sent by the Gestapo to Westerbork, a holding camp in the northern Netherlands. From there, in September 1944, the group was transported by freight train to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination and concentration camp complex in German-occupied Poland. Anne and Margot Frank were spared immediate death in the Auschwitz gas chambers and instead were sent to Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp in northern Germany. In March 1945, the Frank sisters died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen; their bodies were thrown into a mass grave. Several weeks later, on April 15, 1945, British forces liberated the camp.
After conquering Poland, Hitler focused on defeating Britain and France. As the war expanded, the Nazi Party formed alliances with Japan and Italy in the Tripartite Pact of 1940, and honored its 1939 Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact with the Soviet Union until 1941, when Germany launched a massive blitzkrieg invasion of the Soviet Union. In the brutal fighting that followed, Nazi troops tried to realize the long-held goal of crushing the world’s major communist power. After the United States entered the war in 1941, Germany found itself fighting in North Africa, Italy, France, the Balkans and in a counterattacking Soviet Union. At the beginning of the war, Hitler and his Nazi Party were fighting to dominate Europe; five years later they were fighting to exist.
Up to this point, Auschwitz accounted for only 11 percent of the victims of the 'Final Solution'. However, in August 1942, planning began for the construction of four large-scale gassing facilities. It appears from the plans that the first two gas chambers were adapted from mortuaries which, with the huge crematoria attached to them, were initially intended to cope with mortalities amongst the slave labor force in the camp, now approaching 100,000 and subject to a horrifying death rate. But from the autumn of 1942, it seems clear that the SS planners and civilian contractors were intending to build a mass-murder plant.
The Germans occupied Amsterdam in May 1940. In July 1942, German authorities and their Dutch collaborators began to concentrate Jews from throughout the Netherlands at Westerbork, a transit camp near the Dutch town of Assen, not far from the German border. From Westerbork, German officials deported the Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau and Sobibor killing centers in German-occupied Poland.
Via the offices of the Sicherheitsdienst, the German security police, prison in Amsterdam, and the Westerbork transit camp, the people from the Secret Annex were put on transport to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp. The train journey took three days, during which Anne and over a thousand others were packed closely together in cattle wagons. There was little food and water and only a barrel for a toilet.
It is badly lighted, full of draughts, with the brick floor covered by a layer of mud. The water is not drinkable; it has a revolting smell and often fails for many hours. The walls are covered by curious didactic frescoes: for example, there is the good Häftling [prisoner], portrayed stripped to the waist, about to diligently soap his sheared and rosy cranium, and the bad Häftling, with a strong Semitic nose and a greenish colour, bundled up in his ostentatiously stained clothes with a beret on his head, who cautiously dips a finger into the water of the washbasin. Under the first is written: "So bist du rein" (like this you are clean), and under the second, "So gehst du ein" (like this you come to a bad end); and lower down, in doubtful French but in Gothic script: "La propreté, c'est la santé" [cleanliness is health].
On 28 October, selections began for women to be relocated to Bergen-Belsen. More than 8,000 women, including Anne and Margot Frank, and Auguste van Pels, were transported. Edith Frank was left behind and died from starvation. Tents were erected at Bergen-Belsen to accommodate the influx of prisoners, and as the population rose, the death toll due to disease increased rapidly. Frank was briefly reunited with two friends, Hanneli Goslar and Nanette Blitz, who were confined in another section of the camp. Goslar and Blitz survived the war, and discussed the brief conversations they had conducted with Frank through a fence. Blitz described Anne as bald, emaciated, and shivering. Goslar noted Auguste van Pels was with Anne and Margot Frank, and was caring for Margot, who was severely ill. Neither of them saw Margot, as she was too weak to leave her bunk. Anne told Blitz and Goslar she believed her parents were dead, and for that reason she did not wish to live any longer. Goslar later estimated their meetings had taken place in late January or early February 1945.
“The problem is,” Schneidermann told me, “there weren’t any journalists with enough credibility to tell what was really happening in Germany without being suspected of being biased or taking sides.” It was in part the Times’ quest for credibility with its public—meaning, Schneidermann says, not seeming like “a ‘Jewish newspaper’ or a ‘Communist newspaper’ ”—that prevented it from attaining the decibel level that we would now consider appropriate. “Activist journalism,” Schneidermann writes, “journalism that subordinates the quest for truth to the quest for a truth that is useful to its cause, is the only journalism that, today, doesn’t have to feel ashamed about what it produced. . . . Everything reasonable, scrupulous, balanced, in my opinion, contributed to lulling the crowd to sleep.” But, he continues, “If I’d been a reader at the time, I probably would have quickly stopped reading after a few days, dissuaded by the bludgeoning.”
The soldiers also found warehouses containing 836,525 items of women clothing, 348,820 items of men clothing, 43,525 pairs of shoes and vast numbers of toothbrushes, glasses and other personal effects. They found also 460 artificial limbs and seven tons of human hair shaved from Jews before they were murdered. The human hairs were used by the company “Alex Zink” (located in Bavaria) for confection of cloth. This company was paying the Nazi’s 50 pfennig per kilo of human hair.
Early camps, usually without proper infrastructure, sprang up everywhere in Germany after Hitler became Chancellor in January 1933: rising "like mushrooms after the rain", Himmler recollected. These early camps, also called "Wild camps" because some were set up with little supervision from higher authorities, were overseen by Nazi paramilitaries, by political-police forces, and sometimes by local police authorities. They utilized any lockable larger space, for example: engine rooms, brewery floors, storage facilities, cellars, etc.