Germany invaded Poland and captured the Free City of Danzig on 1 September 1939, beginning World War II in Europe.[85] Honouring their treaty obligations, Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later.[86] Poland fell quickly, as the Soviet Union attacked from the east on 17 September.[87] Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Sicherheitspolizei (SiPo; Security Police) and Sicherheitsdienst (SD; Security Service), ordered on 21 September that Polish Jews should be rounded up and concentrated into cities with good rail links. Initially the intention was to deport them further east, or possibly to Madagascar.[88] Using lists prepared in advance, some 65,000 Polish intelligentsia, noblemen, clergy, and teachers were killed by the end of 1939 in an attempt to destroy Poland's identity as a nation.[89][90] Soviet forces advanced into Finland in the Winter War, and German forces saw action at sea. But little other activity occurred until May, so the period became known as the "Phoney War".[91]
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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.[125] 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.[126]
Today, the word Auschwitz has become synonymous with terror, genocide, and The Holocaust. The site, though partially destroyed by the retreating Nazi’s in 1945, has been established as a museum to help future generations understand the atrocities committed within its fences. By 2011, more than 30 million people had visited the camp, and during 2014 a record number of 1.5 million people visited the Auschwitz complex and museum. Spokespeople for the museum said that from January to April 2015, over 250,000 people visited Auschwitz, marking a 40% increase over the already large numbers from the previous year. Authorities in charge of the site began to urge people to book their visit to Auschwitz online ahead of time to prevent them from having to turn people away.

In addition to the Nazi Party proper, several paramilitary groups existed which "supported" Nazi aims. All members of these paramilitary organisations were required to become regular Nazi Party members first and could then enlist in the group of their choice. An exception was the Waffen-SS, considered the military arm of the SS and Nazi Party, which during the Second World War allowed members to enlist without joining the Nazi Party. Foreign volunteers of the Waffen-SS were also not required to be members of the Nazi Party, although many joined local nationalist groups from their own countries with the same aims. Police officers, including members of the Gestapo, frequently held SS rank for administrative reasons (known as "rank parity") and were likewise not required to be members of the Nazi Party.
In most of the camps discovered by the Soviets, almost all the prisoners had already been removed, leaving only a few thousand alive—7,000 inmates were found in Auschwitz, including 180 children who had been experimented on by doctors.[45] Some 60,000 prisoners were discovered at Bergen-Belsen by the British 11th Armoured Division,[46] 13,000 corpses lay unburied, and another 10,000 died from typhus or malnutrition over the following weeks.[47] The British forced the remaining SS guards to gather up the corpses and place them in mass graves.[48]

In 1923, Hitler and his followers staged the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, a failed takeover of the government in Bavaria, a state in southern Germany. Hitler had hoped that the “putsch,” or coup d’etat, would spark a larger revolution against the national government. In the aftermath of the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler was convicted of treason and sentenced to five years in prison, but spent less than a year behind bars (during which time he dictated the first volume of “Mein Kampf,” or “My Struggle,” his political autobiography). The publicity surrounding the Beer Hall Putsch and Hitler’s subsequent trial turned him into a national figure. After his release from prison, he set about rebuilding the Nazi Party and attempting to gain power through the election process.

Already as commandant of Dachau in 1933, Eicke developed an organization and procedures to administer and guard a concentration camp. He issued regulations for the duties of the perimeter guards and for treatment of the prisoners. The organization, structure, and practice developed at Dachau in 1933–34 became the model for the Nazi concentration camp system as it expanded. Among Eicke's early trainees at Dachau was Rudolf Höss, who later commanded the Auschwitz concentration camp.
After the death of President Hindenburg on 2 August 1934, Hitler merged the offices of party leader, head of state and chief of government in one, taking the title of Führer und Reichskanzler. The Chancellery of the Führer, officially an organisation of the Nazi Party, took over the functions of the Office of the President (a government agency), blurring the distinction between structures of party and state even further. The SS increasingly exerted police functions, a development which was formally documented by the merger of the offices of Reichsführer-SS and Chief of the German Police on 17 June 1936, as the position was held by Heinrich Himmler who derived his authority directly from Hitler.[86] The Sicherheitsdienst (SD, formally the "Security Service of the Reichsführer-SS") that had been created in 1931 as an intraparty intelligence became the de facto intelligence agency of Nazi Germany. It was put under the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA) in 1939, which then coordinated SD, Gestapo and criminal police, therefore functioning as a hybrid organisation of state and party structures.[87]

From 1942, the SS reorganised the concentration camp administration to mobilise the millions of prisoners within the camps. The Nazis established hundreds of sub-camps across Europe. The Auschwitz camp complex contained over 40 sub-camps that housed thousands of Jewish prisoners to work as forced labour in the coalmines, various munitions factories and the I.G. Farben synthetic rubber plant at Buna Monovitz.
On August 4, 1944, the police discovered the secret annex after receiving an anonymous tip. The group in the annex were taken completely by surprise—the SS officer and the four Dutch Nazis who conducted the raid proceeded quickly, drawing guns to keep the employees from warning those in hiding and forcing Kugler to reveal the entrance to the annex, which was concealed by a movable bookcase. Everyone in the annex was taken into custody along with Kleiman and Kugler, who were imprisoned for helping to conceal the group. The Franks, the van Pels, and Pfeffer were taken to a police station in Amsterdam and four days later, taken to the Westerbork transit camp. On September 3 they were transported in a sealed cattle car to Auschwitz in Poland—the last transport to ever leave Westerbork. Three days later, Hermann van Pels was gassed at Auschwitz.
Many of the prisoners died in the concentration camps due to deliberate maltreatment, disease, starvation, and overwork, or they were executed as unfit for labor. Prisoners were transported in inhumane conditions by rail freight cars, in which many died before reaching their final destination. The prisoners were confined in the boxcars for days or even weeks, with little or no food or water. Many died of dehydration in the intense heat of summer or froze to death in winter. Concentration camps also existed in Germany itself, and while they were not specifically designed for systematic extermination, many of their inmates perished because of harsh conditions or they were executed.
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