Early one morning I met Stos, a retired architect, at his small first-floor apartment on the outskirts of Krakow. We sat in his small, dark dining room, a plate of jam-filled ginger cookies on the starched white tablecloth between us. He said he grew up in Tarnow, Poland, about 50 miles from Krakow. He remembers the day the Nazis shipped him off to Auschwitz: June 13, 1940. It had been almost a year since Germany invaded Poland and launched its campaign to destroy the nation. Following instructions issued by SS chief Reinhard Heydrich—“the leading strata of the population should be rendered harmless”—the SS killed some 20,000 Poles, mainly priests, politicians and academics, in September and October 1939. Stos was an 18-year-old Boy Scout and a member of a Catholic youth organization. Germans put him and 727 other Poles, mostly university and trade-school students, in first-class train cars and told them they were going to work on German farms.
The Nazis seized from the French thousands of locomotives and rolling stock, stockpiles of weapons, and raw materials such as copper, tin, oil, and nickel. Payments for occupation costs were levied upon France, Belgium, and Norway. Barriers to trade led to hoarding, black markets, and uncertainty about the future. Food supplies were precarious; production dropped in most of Europe. Famine was experienced in many occupied countries.
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.
On the night of 27 February 1933, the Reichstag building was set afire. Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch communist, was found guilty of starting the blaze. Hitler proclaimed that the arson marked the start of a communist uprising. The Reichstag Fire Decree, imposed on 28 February 1933, rescinded most civil liberties, including rights of assembly and freedom of the press. The decree also allowed the police to detain people indefinitely without charges. The legislation was accompanied by a propaganda campaign that led to public support for the measure. Violent suppression of communists by the SA was undertaken nationwide and 4,000 members of the Communist Party of Germany were arrested.
The Nazi Party's precursor, the Pan-German nationalist and antisemitic German Workers' Party, was founded on 5 January 1919. By the early 1920s the party was renamed the National Socialist German Workers' Party – to attract workers away from left-wing parties such as the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Communists (KPD) – and Adolf Hitler assumed control of the organization. The National Socialist Program or "25 Points" was adopted in 1920 and called for a united Greater Germany that would deny citizenship to Jews or those of Jewish descent, while also supporting land reform and the nationalization of some industries. In Mein Kampf ("My Struggle"; 1924–1925), Hitler outlined the anti-Semitism and anti-Communism at the heart of his political philosophy, as well as his disdain for representative democracy and his belief in Germany's right to territorial expansion.
The first gassings at Auschwitz took place in early September 1941, when around 850 inmates—Soviet prisoners of war and sick Polish inmates—were killed with Zyklon B in the basement of block 11 in Auschwitz I. The building proved unsuitable, so gassings were conducted instead in crematorium I, also in at Auschwitz I, which operated until December 1942. There, more than 700 victims could be killed at once. Tens of thousands were killed in crematorium I. To keep the victims calm, they were told they were to undergo disinfection and de-lousing; they were ordered to undress outside, then were locked in the building and gassed. After its decommissioning as a gas chamber, the building was converted to a storage facility and later served as an SS air raid shelter. The gas chamber and crematorium were reconstructed after the war. Dwork and van Pelt write that a chimney was recreated; four openings in the roof were installed to show where the Zyklon B had entered; and two of the three furnaces were rebuilt with the original components.
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.
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".
These sights, like the truck full of bodies, are not beyond belief—we know that they were true—but they are, in some sense, beyond imagination. It is very hard, maybe impossible, to imagine being one of those men, still less one of those infants. And such sights raise the question of why, exactly, we read about the camps. If it is merely to revel in the grotesque, then learning about this evil is itself a species of evil, a further exploitation of the dead. If it is to exercise sympathy or pay a debt to memory, then it quickly becomes clear that the exercise is hopeless, the debt overwhelming: there is no way to feel as much, remember as much, imagine as much as the dead justly demand. What remains as a justification is the future: the determination never again to allow something like the Nazi camps to exist.
Anne Frank is included as one of the topics in the Canon of Dutch History, which was prepared by a committee headed by Frits van Oostrom and presented to the Minister of Education, Culture and Science, Maria van der Hoeven, in 2006; the Canon is a list of fifty topics that aims to provide a chronological summary of Dutch history to be taught in primary schools and the first two years of secondary school in the Netherlands. A revised version, which still includes her as one of the topics, was presented to the Dutch government on 3 October 2007.
After December 1934, the SS became the only agency authorized to establish and manage facilities that were formally called concentration camps. Local civilian authorities did continue to establish and manage forced-labor camps and detention camps throughout Germany. In 1937, only four concentration camps were left: Dachau, near Munich; Sachsenhausen near Berlin; Buchenwald near Weimar; and Lichtenburg near Merseburg in Saxony for female prisoners.
According to Polish historian Andrzej Strzelecki, the evacuation of the prisoners by the SS in January 1945 was one of the camp's "most tragic chapters". In mid-1944, about 130,000 prisoners were in Auschwitz when the SS moved around half of them to other concentration camps. In November 1944, with the Soviet Red Army approaching through Poland, Himmler ordered gassing operations to cease. The crematorium IV building was dismantled, and the Sonderkommando was ordered to remove evidence of the killings, including the mass graves. The SS destroyed written records, and in the final week before the camp's liberation, burned or demolished many of its buildings. The plundered goods from the "Canada" barracks at Birkenau, together with building supplies, were transported to the German interior. On 20 January, the overflowing warehouses were set ablaze. Crematoria II and III at Birkenau were blown up on 20 January and crematorium V six days later, just one day ahead of the Soviet attack.
The pictures only came to light 25 years ago and, despite them showing moments from around 45 years before that, they completely captured the entire experience as it had been in my mind all that time. I was dumbfounded and devastated, having had no idea they existed, and I have spent literally hundreds of hours scouring them, trying to find my father and brother. The pictures have reassured me that I was not imagining it all, as I sometimes thought I might have done.
Between 1940 and 1942, the French interned Jewish refugee families fleeing Nazi oppression elsewhere in Europe in Rivesaltes for the same reason. Lists of those incarcerated include a transport of Czech Jewish children: Brothers Salomon and Abraham Davidovic were 13 and 14 when they arrived. Conditions deteriorated. Directors complained in 1941 of no heat. Illness spread. Babies and the elderly died. The situation worsened when the Nazi-puppet Vichy regime assumed control of the camp in 1942 and began deporting its 7,000 foreign Jewish refugee prisoners to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. There, mothers and children were not separated but instead went to their deaths together.
The line most often quoted from Frank’s diary—“In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart”—is often called “inspiring,” by which we mean that it flatters us. It makes us feel forgiven for those lapses of our civilization that allow for piles of murdered girls—and if those words came from a murdered girl, well, then, we must be absolved, because they must be true. That gift of grace and absolution from a murdered Jew (exactly the gift, it is worth noting, at the heart of Christianity) is what millions of people are so eager to find in Frank’s hiding place, in her writings, in her “legacy.” It is far more gratifying to believe that an innocent dead girl has offered us grace than to recognize the obvious: Frank wrote about people being “truly good at heart” three weeks before she met people who weren’t.
A place for assembling and confining political prisoners and enemies of a nation. Concentration camps are particularly associated with the rule of the Nazis in Germany, who used them to confine millions of Jews (see also Jews) as a group to be purged from the German nation. Communists, Gypsies, homosexuals, and other persons considered undesirable according to Nazi principles, or who opposed the government, were also placed in concentration camps and eventually executed in large groups. (See Holocaust.)
Addressing her diary entries to an imaginary friend she called Kitty, Anne Frank wrote about life in hiding, including her impressions of the other inhabitants of the Secret Annex, her feelings of loneliness and her frustration over the lack of privacy. While she detailed typical teenage issues such as crushes on boys, arguments with her mother and resentments toward her sister, Frank also displayed keen insight and maturity when she wrote about the war, humanity and her own identity. She also penned short stories and essays during her time in hiding.
Action T4 was a programme of systematic murder of the physically and mentally handicapped and patients in psychiatric hospitals that took place mainly from 1939 to 1941, and continued until the end of the war. Initially the victims were shot by the Einsatzgruppen and others; gas chambers and gas vans using carbon monoxide were used by early 1940. Under the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring, enacted on 14 July 1933, over 400,000 individuals underwent compulsory sterilisation. Over half were those considered mentally deficient, which included not only people who scored poorly on intelligence tests, but those who deviated from expected standards of behaviour regarding thrift, sexual behaviour, and cleanliness. Most of the victims came from disadvantaged groups such as prostitutes, the poor, the homeless, and criminals. Other groups persecuted and killed included Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, social misfits, and members of the political and religious opposition.
Germany was known as the Weimar Republic during the years 1919 to 1933. It was a republic with a semi-presidential system. The Weimar Republic faced numerous problems, including hyperinflation, political extremism (including violence from left- and right-wing paramilitaries), contentious relationships with the Allied victors of World War I, and a series of failed attempts at coalition government by divided political parties. Severe setbacks to the German economy began after World War I ended, partly because of reparations payments required under the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. The government printed money to make the payments and to repay the country's war debt, but the resulting hyperinflation led to inflated prices for consumer goods, economic chaos, and food riots. When the government defaulted on their reparations payments in January 1923, French troops occupied German industrial areas along the Ruhr and widespread civil unrest followed.
All of their clothes and any remaining personal belongings were taken from them and their hair was shorn completely off. They were given striped prison outfits and a pair of shoes, all of which were usually the wrong size. They were then registered, had their arms tattooed with a number, and transferred to one of Auschwitz's camps for forced labor.
When I returned this past autumn, the hair was a barely differentiated mass of gray, more like wool than human locks. Only the occasional braid signaled the remnants of something unprecedented and awful—the site where the Third Reich perpetrated the largest mass murder in human history. At least 1.1 million people were killed here, most within hours of their arrival.
The K.L. was defined from the beginning by its legal ambiguity. The camps were outside ordinary law, answerable not to judges and courts but to the S.S. and Himmler. At the same time, they were governed by an extensive set of regulations, which covered everything from their layout (including decorative flower beds) to the whipping of prisoners, which in theory had to be approved on a case-by-case basis by Himmler personally. Yet these regulations were often ignored by the camp S.S.—physical violence, for instance, was endemic, and the idea that a guard would have to ask permission before beating or even killing a prisoner was laughable. Strangely, however, it was possible, in the prewar years, at least, for a guard to be prosecuted for such a killing. In 1937, Paul Zeidler was among a group of guards who strangled a prisoner who had been a prominent churchman and judge; when the case attracted publicity, the S.S. allowed Zeidler to be charged and convicted. (He was sentenced to a year in jail.)
Many of the horrors associated with Auschwitz—gas chambers, medical experiments, working prisoners to death—had been pioneered in earlier concentration camps. In the late thirties, driven largely by Himmler’s ambition to make the S.S. an independent economic and military power within the state, the K.L. began a transformation from a site of punishment to a site of production. The two missions were connected: the “work-shy” and other unproductive elements were seen as “useless mouths,” and forced labor was a way of making them contribute to the community. Oswald Pohl, the S.S. bureaucrat in charge of economic affairs, had gained control of the camps by 1938, and began a series of grandiose building projects. The most ambitious was the construction of a brick factory near Sachsenhausen, which was intended to produce a hundred and fifty million bricks a year, using cutting-edge equipment and camp labor.
In early 1945, a typhus epidemic spread through the camp, killing 17,000 prisoners. Other diseases, including typhoid fever, were rampant. Due to these chaotic conditions, it is not possible to determine the specific cause of Anne's death. However, there is evidence that she died from the epidemic. Gena Turgel, a survivor of Bergen Belsen, knew Anne Frank at the camp. In 2015, Turgel told the British newspaper, the Sun: “Her bed was around the corner from me. She was delirious, terrible, burning up,” adding that she had brought Frank water to wash. Turgel, who worked in the camp hospital, said that the typhus epidemic at the camp took a terrible toll on the inmates. “The people were dying like flies — in the hundreds.” “Reports used to come in — 500 people who died. Three hundred? We said, ‘Thank God, only 300.’”
In January 1923, France occupied the Ruhr industrial region as a result of Germany's failure to meet its reparations payments. This led to economic chaos, the resignation of Wilhelm Cuno's government and an attempt by the German Communist Party (KPD) to stage a revolution. The reaction to these events was an upsurge of nationalist sentiment. Nazi Party membership grew sharply to about 20,000. By November, Hitler had decided that the time was right for an attempt to seize power in Munich, in the hope that the Reichswehr (the post-war German military) would mutiny against the Berlin government and join his revolt. In this, he was influenced by former General Erich Ludendorff, who had become a supporter—though not a member—of the Nazis.
One day the Hungarian gendarmes came to our house and ransacked it. In 1944, the Nazis ordered all Jews living outside Budapest to be rounded up and placed in ghettoes. Then it was our turn and that was the day our misery truly began. In the spring of 1944 we were part of a contingent of 7,500 Jews who were corralled into a makeshift ghetto in the Bungur forest. We had to wear the yellow stars of David. That was the day when almost one-and-a-half centuries of Jewish life in Dej came to an end.
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.
After less than a year at Auschwitz, Lasker-Wallfisch and Renate were among the tens of thousands of prisoners transported to camps in Germany. Lasker-Wallfisch had no idea where she was being sent, but it didn’t matter. “The gas chambers were still working when we left,” she says. “I was very pleased to be rolling out of Auschwitz. We figured anything was better than the gas chamber.” On April 15, 1945, British troops liberated Lasker-Wallfisch and Renate from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp near Hamburg. Lasker-Wallfisch emigrated to England after the war and became a professional cellist. Her sister Renate worked for the BBC, and is now living in France.
While unmarried until the very end of the regime, Hitler often made excuses about his busy life hindering any chance for marriage. Among National Socialist ideologues, marriage was valued not for moral considerations but because it provided an optimal breeding environment. Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler reportedly told a confidant that when he established the Lebensborn program, an organisation that would dramatically increase the birth rate of "Aryan" children through extramarital relations between women classified as racially pure and their male equals, he had only the purest male "conception assistants" in mind.
Born in Frankfurt, Germany, she lived most of her life in or near Amsterdam, Netherlands, having moved there with her family at the age of four and a half when the Nazis gained control over Germany. Born a German national, she lost her citizenship in 1941 and thus became stateless. By May 1940, the Franks were trapped in Amsterdam by the German occupation of the Netherlands. As persecutions of the Jewish population increased in July 1942, the Franks went into hiding in some concealed rooms behind a bookcase in the building where Anne's father, Otto Frank, worked. From then until the family's arrest by the Gestapo in August 1944, she kept a diary she had received as a birthday present, and wrote in it regularly. Following their arrest, the Franks were transported to concentration camps. In October or November 1944, Anne and her sister, Margot, were transferred from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where they died (probably of typhus) a few months later. They were originally estimated by the Red Cross to have died in March, with Dutch authorities setting 31 March as their official date of death, but research by the Anne Frank House in 2015 suggests they more likely died in February.
Dunin-Wasowicz, Krzysztof (1980). "Forced Labor and Sabotage in the Nazi Concentration Camps". In Gutman, Yisrael; Saf, Avital. The Nazi concentration Camps: Structure and Aims, the Image of the Prisoner, the Jews in the Camps: Proceedings of the Fourth Yad Vashem International Historical Conference, Jerusalem, January 1980. Jerusalem: Yad Vashem. pp. 133–142.
Generally speaking, Nazi theorists and politicians blamed Germany's previous economic failures on political causes like the influence of Marxism on the workforce, the sinister and exploitative machinations of what they called international Jewry and the vindictiveness of the western political leaders' war reparation demands. Instead of traditional economic incentives, the Nazis offered solutions of a political nature, such as the elimination of organised trade unions, rearmament (in contravention of the Versailles Treaty) and biological politics. Various work programs designed to establish full-employment for the German population were instituted once the Nazis seized full national power. Hitler encouraged nationally supported projects like the construction of the Autobahn highway system, the introduction of an affordable people's car (Volkswagen) and later the Nazis bolstered the economy through the business and employment generated by military rearmament. The Nazis benefited early in the regime's existence from the first post–Depression economic upswing, and this combined with their public works projects, job-procurement program and subsidised home repair program reduced unemployment by as much as 40 percent in one year. This development tempered the unfavourable psychological climate caused by the earlier economic crisis and encouraged Germans to march in step with the regime.
What is troubling about Hitler’s American Model—though Whitman never mentions it—is how closely the events of the 1930s mirror our own. Such statements are bound to seem exaggerated. But even by the early 1930s, Germany was not destined to arrive at catastrophe. The ideas in the air at the time, including anti-Semitism specifically, are still the object of white nationalist fantasy today. What is most alarming is an unstated implication of Whitman’s thesis: if U.S. racism, anti-immigrant hostility, and third-class citizenship influenced the Nazi regime, then remnants of such influence must still exist today. Indeed, they appear to be resurgent.
Between 1939 and 1945, the Nazi Party led regime, assisted by collaborationist governments and recruits from occupied countries, was responsible for the deaths of at least eleven million people, including 5.5 to 6 million Jews (representing two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe), and between 200,000 and 1,500,000 Romani people. The estimated total number includes the killing of nearly two million non-Jewish Poles, over three million Soviet prisoners of war, communists, and other political opponents, homosexuals, the physically and mentally disabled.
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.
Our trip, full of suspense, took us past the baroque palace of Oranienburg, built at the time of Frederick the Great, through the sand of Brandenburg and through deserted pine forests, thence to a large settlement. Suddenly we saw in front of us high walls (about fourteen feet) which, at intervals of two hundred yards, were crowned by watchtowers, so that the whole camp gave the impression of a Chinese city as we knew it from pictures. We drove through an iron gate, and soon after through a second gate in a second inner wall about a hundred feet from the first one. In the space between the two walls there were barracks with administration and treasury buildings, and vegetable and other gardens. The inner gate, which led through the main watchtower, bore the inscription 'Work Makes Free'—an inscription which many inmates of the camp, after years of work and vain hope for release, will probably take as sarcasm.
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.