Long before the Nazis took power, concentration camps had featured in their imagination. Wachsmann finds Hitler threatening to put Jews in camps as early as 1921. But there were no detailed plans for building such camps when Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany, in January, 1933. A few weeks later, on February 27th, he seized on the burning of the Reichstag—by Communists, he alleged—to launch a full-scale crackdown on his political opponents. The next day, he implemented a decree, “For the Protection of People and State,” that authorized the government to place just about anyone in “protective custody,” a euphemism for indefinite detention. (Euphemism, too, was to be a durable feature of the K.L. universe: the killing of prisoners was referred to as Sonderbehandlung, “special treatment.”)
Auschwitz, the largest and arguably the most notorious of all the Nazi death camps, opened in the spring of 1940. Its first commandant was Rudolf Höss (1900-47), who previously had helped run the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg, Germany. Auschwitz was located on a former military base outside OÅ›wiÄ™cim, a town in southern Poland situated near Krakow, one of the country’s largest cities. During the camp’s construction, nearby factories were appropriated and all those living in the area were forcibly ejected from their homes, which were bulldozed by the Nazis.
Notable memoirists of the camp include Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, and Tadeusz Borowski. Levi's If This is a Man, first published in Italy in 1947 as Se questo è un uomo, became a classic of Holocaust literature, an "imperishable masterpiece".[h] Wiesel wrote about his imprisonment at Auschwitz in Night (1960) and other works, and became a prominent spokesman against ethnic violence; in 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Camp survivor Simone Veil was later elected President of the European Parliament, serving from 1979 to 1982. Two Auschwitz victims—Maximilian Kolbe, a priest who volunteered to die by starvation in place of a stranger, and Edith Stein, a Jewish convert to Catholicism—were later named saints of the Catholic Church.