On the night of the 27 February 1933 and 28 February 1933, someone set the Reichstag building on fire. This was the building where the German Parliament held their meetings. The Nazis blamed the communists. Opponents of the Nazis said that the Nazis themselves had done it to come to power. On the very same day, an emergency law called Reichstagsbrandverordnung was passed. The government claimed it was to protect the state from people trying to hurt the country. With this law, most of the civil rights of the Weimar Republic did not count any longer. The Nazis used this against the other political parties. Members of the communist and social-democratic parties were put into prison or killed.
The Allied powers organised war crimes trials, beginning with the Nuremberg trials, held from November 1945 to October 1946, of 23 top Nazi officials. They were charged with four counts—conspiracy to commit crimes, crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity—in violation of international laws governing warfare. All but three of the defendants were found guilty and twelve were sentenced to death. Twelve Subsequent Nuremberg trials of 184 defendants were held between 1946 and 1949. Between 1946 and 1949, the Allies investigated 3,887 cases, of which 489 were brought to trial. The result was convictions of 1,426 people; 297 of these were sentenced to death and 279 to life in prison, with the remainder receiving lesser sentences. About 65 percent of the death sentences were carried out. Poland was more active than other nations in investigating war crimes, for example prosecuting 673 of the total 789 Auschwitz staff brought to trial.
Ultimately, three SS guards were killed—one of whom was burned alive by the prisoners in the oven of Crematorium II—and 451 Sonderkommandos were killed. Hundreds of prisoners escaped, but all were soon captured and executed, along with an additional group who had participated in the revolt. Crematorium IV was destroyed in the fighting. A group of prisoners in the gas chamber of Crematorium V was spared in the chaos.
The Auschwitz Birkenau camp complex comprises 155 brick and wooden structures (57 in Auschwitz and 98 in Birkenau) and about 300 ruins. There are also ruins of gas chambers and crematoria in Birkenau, which were dynamited in January 1945. The overall length of fencing supported by concrete poles is more than 13 km. Individual structures of high historical significance, such as railway sidings and ramps, food stores and industrial buildings, are dispersed in the immediate setting of the property. These structures, along with traces in the landscape, remain poignant testimonies to this tragic history.
Auschwitz inmates began working at the plant, known as Buna Werke and IG Auschwitz, in April 1941, and demolishing houses in Monowitz to make way for it. By May, because of a shortage of trucks, several hundred of them were rising at 3 am to walk there twice a day from Auschwitz I. Anticipating that a long line of exhausted inmates walking through the town of Oświęcim might harm German-Polish relations, the inmates were told to shave daily, make sure they were clean, and sing as they walked. From late July they were taken there by train on freight wagons. Because of the difficulty of moving them, including during the winter, IG Farben decided to build a camp at the plant. The first inmates moved there on 30 October 1942. Known as KL Auschwitz III-Aussenlager (Auschwitz III-subcamps), and later as Monowitz concentration camp, it was the first concentration camp to be financed and built by private industry.
Nazism emphasized German nationalism, including both irredentism and expansionism. Nazism held racial theories based upon a belief in the existence of an Aryan master race that was superior to all other races. The Nazis emphasised the existence of racial conflict between the Aryan race and others—particularly Jews, whom the Nazis viewed as a mixed race that had infiltrated multiple societies and was responsible for exploitation and repression of the Aryan race. The Nazis also categorised Slavs as Untermensch (sub-human).
With Otto Frank's death in 1980, the original diary, including letters and loose sheets, was willed to the Dutch Institute for War Documentation, which commissioned a forensic study of the diary through the Netherlands Ministry of Justice in 1986. They examined the handwriting against known examples and found that they matched. They determined that the paper, glue, and ink were readily available during the time the diary was said to have been written. They concluded that the diary is authentic, and their findings were published in what has become known as the "Critical Edition" of the diary. In 1990, the Hamburg Regional Court confirmed the diary's authenticity.
Between 1942 and 1944, the SS authorities at Auschwitz established 44 subcamps. Some of them were established within the officially designated “development” zone, including Budy, Rajsko, Tschechowitz, Harmense, and Babitz. Others, such as Blechhammer, Gleiwitz, Althammer, Fürstengrube, Laurahuette, and Eintrachthuette were located in Upper Silesia north and west of the Vistula River. Some subcamps, such as Freudenthal and Bruenn (Brno), were located in Moravia.
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.
Jewish deportees arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau immediately underwent selection. The SS staff chose some of the able-bodied for forced labor and sent the rest directly to the gas chambers, which were disguised as shower installations to mislead the victims. The belongings of all deportees were confiscated and sorted in the "Kanada" (Canada) warehouse for shipment back to Germany. Canada symbolized wealth to the prisoners.
With Hitler's approval, Himmler intended that the new society of the Nazi regime should destigmatise illegitimate births, particularly of children fathered by members of the SS, who were vetted for racial purity. His hope was that each SS family would have between four and six children. The Lebensborn (Fountain of Life) association, founded by Himmler in 1935, created a series of maternity homes to accommodate single mothers during their pregnancies. Both parents were examined for racial suitability before acceptance. The resulting children were often adopted into SS families. The homes were also made available to the wives of SS and NSDAP members, who quickly filled over half the available spots.
From Katowice, follow the A4 motorway towards Kraków and take the S1 expressway south towards Cieszyn. Drive southwards and take the DW934 highway at the Bieruń Nowy Imielin exit. At the intersection of DK44, turn left and follow the signs to Oświęcim. At the roundabout with DW933, take the first right and follow ul. Powstańców Śląskich, which will run past railway tracks and the town's railway station. From there, follow the signs to Muzeum Auschwitz.
Gradowski was one of the Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz’s Sonderkommando: those forced to escort new arrivals into the gas chambers, haul the newly dead bodies to the crematoriums, extract any gold teeth and then burn the corpses. Gradowski, a young married man whose entire family was murdered, reportedly maintained his religious faith, reciting the kaddish (mourner’s prayer) each evening for the victims of each transport—including Peter van Pels’ father, who was gassed a few weeks after his arrival in Auschwitz on September 6, 1944. Gradowski recorded his experiences in Yiddish in documents he buried, which were discovered after the war; he himself was killed on October 7, 1944, in a Sonderkommando revolt that lasted only one day. (The documents written by Gradowski and several other prisoners inspired the 2015 Hungarian film Son of Saul, which, unsurprisingly, was no blockbuster, despite an Academy Award and critical acclaim.)
Early in the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler, Anne’s father, Otto Frank (1889–1980), a German businessman, took his wife and two daughters to live in Amsterdam. In 1941, after German forces occupied the Netherlands, Anne was compelled to transfer from a public school to a Jewish one. On June 12, 1942, she received a red-and-white plaid diary for her 13th birthday. That day she began writing in the book: “I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.”
But the effort to preserve the site is not without its critics. One is Robert Jan van Pelt, a cultural historian in the school of architecture at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, and the leading expert on the construction of Auschwitz. He supports the preservation of the Auschwitz main camp, although he acknowledges it is a “kind of theme park, cleaned up for tourists.” In any event, it’s a fully equipped museum, complete with exhibits and conservation facilities, where most of the original buildings still stand. But van Pelt views the Birkenau site in a different light. For one thing, 80 to 90 percent of the original structures are gone or in a state of ruin. Most important, it’s where most of the killings took place, so it is a core site of the Holocaust itself. He says letting Birkenau disintegrate completely would be a more fitting memorial than constantly repairing the scant remains. Birkenau is “the ultimate nihilistic place. A million people literally disappeared. Shouldn’t we confront people with the nothingness of the place? Seal it up. Don’t give people a sense that they can imitate the experience and walk in the steps of the people who were there.”
Drancy held 5,000 prisoners. Around 70,000 mainly Jewish prisoners passed through the camp between August 1941 and August 1944. On 22 June 1942, the Nazis began systematic deportations of Jews from Drancy to the extermination camps in occupied Poland. In the first transport 1,000 Jews were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. By the last transport on 31 July 1944, 64,759 Jews had been deported from Drancy in 64 transports. Approximately 61,000 of these Jews were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. A further 3,753 Jews had been transported to Sobibor.
Sessions’s characterization falls into a nether region between truth and falsehood. Perhaps his is the best comment to begin with precisely because it is a half-truth. Yes, after 1941, concentration camps held Jews to prevent them from leaving Germany — but also to consolidate them for extermination. However, for more than eight years earlier, the camps generally were used for the opposite purpose: to force Jews to emigrate from Germany by making life intolerable, in part by separating men from their families. This is precisely the kind of important historical nuance lost in the hysteria surrounding Trump’s callous immigration policy. There are valuable comparisons to be made, but they must be historically informed.
Poles were viewed by Nazis as subhuman non-Aryans, and during the German occupation of Poland 2.7 million ethnic Poles were killed. Polish civilians were subject to forced labour in German industry, internment, wholesale expulsions to make way for German colonists, and mass executions. The German authorities engaged in a systematic effort to destroy Polish culture and national identity. During operation AB-Aktion, many university professors and members of the Polish intelligentsia were arrested, transported to concentration camps, or executed. During the war, Poland lost an estimated 39 to 45 percent of its physicians and dentists, 26 to 57 percent of its lawyers, 15 to 30 percent of its teachers, 30 to 40 percent of its scientists and university professors, and 18 to 28 percent of its clergy.
The Germans isolated all the camps and sub-camps from the outside world and surrounded them with barbed wire fencing. All contact with the outside world was forbidden. However, the area administered by the commandant and patrolled by the SS camp garrison went beyond the grounds enclosed by barbed wire. It included an additional area of approximately 40 square kilometers (the so-called “Interessengebiet” - the interest zone), which lay around the Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau camps.
We had no daily paper, no radio or phone, so the only news we got of the second world war was from newcomers to town. The change started at the end of 1942-43, when people began expressing their anger towards us, especially the Hungarian neighbours. We’d hear: “Zsidók, menjetek ki, Gyerünk haza!” (“Jews, get out of here, Go home!”) I was in the synagogue singing when a rock shattered the stained-glass window. The rabbi tried to convince us it was just some drunk, but as a 10-year-old, I knew better.
Despite its economic and political success, Nazism maintained its power by coercion and mass manipulation. The Nazi regime disseminated a continual outpouring of propaganda through all cultural and informational media. Its rallies—especially its elaborately staged Nürnberg rallies—its insignia, and its uniformed cadres were designed to impart an aura of omnipotence. The underside of its propaganda machine was its apparatus of terror, with its ubiquitous secret police and concentration camps. It fanned and focused German anti-Semitism to make the Jews a symbol of all that was hated and feared. By means of deceptive rhetoric, the party portrayed the Jews as the enemy of all classes of society.
And if existence was a struggle, a war, then it made no sense to show mercy to the enemy. Like many Nazi institutions, the K.L. embodied conflicting impulses: to reform the criminal, to extort labor from the unproductive, to quarantine the contagious. But most fundamental was the impulse to dehumanize the enemy, which ended up confounding and overriding all the others. Once a prisoner ceased to be human, he could be brutalized, enslaved, experimented on, or gassed at will, because he was no longer a being with a soul or a self but a biological machine. The Muselmänner, the living dead of the camps, stripped of any capacity to think or feel, were the true product of the K.L., the ultimate expression of the Nazi world view.
The first experimental gassing took place in September 1941, when Lagerführer Karl Fritzsch, at the instruction of Rudolf Höss, killed a group of Soviet prisoners of war by throwing Zyklon B crystals into their basement cell in block 11 of Auschwitz I. A second group of 600 Soviet prisoners of war and around 250 sick Polish prisoners was gassed on 3–5 September. The morgue was later converted to a gas chamber able to hold at least 700–800 people. Zyklon B was dropped into the room through slits in the ceiling. In the view of Filip Müller, one of the Sonderkommando who worked in crematorium I, tens of thousands of Jews were killed there from France, Holland, Slovakia, Upper Silesia, Yugoslavia, and from the Theresienstadt, Ciechanow, and Grodno ghettos. The last inmates to be gassed in Auschwitz I, in December 1942, were 300–400 members of the Auschwitz II Sonderkommando, who had been forced to dig up that camp's mass graves, thought to hold 100,000 corpses, and burn the remains.
The SA leadership continued to apply pressure for greater political and military power. In response, Hitler used the Schutzstaffel (SS) and Gestapo to purge the entire SA leadership. Hitler targeted SA Stabschef (Chief of Staff) Ernst Röhm and other SA leaders who—along with a number of Hitler's political adversaries (such as Gregor Strasser and former chancellor Kurt von Schleicher)—were arrested and shot. Up to 200 people were killed from 30 June to 2 July 1934 in an event that became known as the Night of the Long Knives.
From the start of the war, a British blockade on shipments to Germany affected its economy. Germany was particularly dependent on foreign supplies of oil, coal, and grain. Thanks to trade embargoes and the blockade, imports into Germany declined by 80 per cent. To safeguard Swedish iron ore shipments to Germany, Hitler ordered the invasion of Denmark and Norway, which began on 9 April. Denmark fell after less than a day, while most of Norway followed by the end of the month. By early June, Germany occupied all of Norway.
A second roll call took place at seven in the evening after the long day's work. Prisoners might be hanged or flogged in the course of it. If a prisoner was missing, the others had to remain standing until he or she was found or the reason for the absence discovered, even if it took hours. On 6 July 1940, roll call lasted 19 or 20 hours because of the escape of a Polish prisoner, Tadeusz Wiejowski; following another escape in 1941, a group of prisoners was sent to block 11 to be starved to death. After roll call, prisoners were allowed to retire to their blocks for the night and receive their bread rations and water. Curfew was at nine o'clock. Inmates slept in long rows of brick or wooden bunks, lying in and on their clothes and shoes to prevent them from being stolen. The wooden bunks had blankets and paper mattresses filled with wood shavings; in the brick barracks, inmates lay on straw. According to Nyiszli:
A survey published last summer by the American Press Institute revealed that forty-two per cent of the public thinks that “most of the news reporting they see is opinion and commentary posing as news reporting.” An additional seventeen per cent said that there was too much analysis. People wanted facts, they wanted them “verified,” and, though they wanted some background and context, they mostly wanted to be allowed to come to their own conclusions. For many journalists reporting on the new right in the U.S. and Europe, it may be difficult to shake the feeling that this is somehow irresponsible. There is a strong argument to be made that anyone who professes bigotry and hatred doesn’t deserve to be considered seriously, let alone objectively. But that could preclude us from understanding the social circumstances that led to someone such as Richard Spencer, a figurehead of the alt-right, attaining a platform in the first place. If reporters do engage, what is to be done about the strong desire to condemn their subjects?
The Zyklon B was delivered by ambulance to the crematoria by a special SS bureau known as the Hygienic Institute. The actual delivery of the gas to the victims was always handled by the SS, on the order of the supervising SS doctor. After the doors were shut, SS men dumped in the Zyklon B pellets through vents in the roof or holes in the side of the chamber. The victims were dead within 20 minutes. Despite the thick concrete walls, screaming and moaning from within could be heard outside. In one failed attempt to muffle the noise, two motorcycle engines were revved up to full throttle nearby, but the sound of yelling could still be heard over the engines.
Since the beginning of the war, special SS units called Einsatzgruppen had carried out mass executions of Jews and others in conquered territories; these commandos rounded up entire villages, forced them to dig their own graves and shot them. The massacres took a toll even on the German firing squads, says Debórah Dwork, a Holocaust historian at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and co-author (with van Pelt) of Holocaust: A History. “It’s totally clear from Nazi documents,” she says, “that Germans were looking for a way to murder masses of people without having such a traumatic impact on the murderers.”
Radio became popular in Germany during the 1930s; over 70 percent of households owned a receiver by 1939, more than any other country. By July 1933, radio station staffs were purged of leftists and others deemed undesirable. Propaganda and speeches were typical radio fare immediately after the seizure of power, but as time went on Goebbels insisted that more music be played so that listeners would not turn to foreign broadcasters for entertainment.
They did not greet us, nor did they smile; they seemed oppressed not only by compassion but by a confused restraint, which sealed their lips and bound their eyes to the funereal scene. It was that shame we knew so well, the shame that drowned us after the selections, and every time we had to watch, or submit to, some outrage: the shame the Germans did not know, that the just man experiences at another man's crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist, that it should have been introduced irrevocably into the world of things that exist, and that his will for good should have proved too weak or null, and should not have availed in defence.
Initially a small bodyguard unit under the auspices of the SA, the Schutzstaffel (SS; Protection Squadron) grew to become one of the largest and most powerful groups in Nazi Germany. Led by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler from 1929, the SS had over a quarter million members by 1938. Himmler initially envisioned the SS as being an elite group of guards, Hitler's last line of defence. The Waffen-SS, the military branch of the SS, evolved into a second army. It was dependent on the regular army for heavy weaponry and equipment, and most units were under tactical control of the High Command of the Armed Forces (OKW). By the end of 1942, the stringent selection and racial requirements that had initially been in place were no longer followed. With recruitment and conscription based only on expansion, by 1943 the Waffen-SS could not longer claim to be an elite fighting force.
While no unified resistance movement opposing the Nazi regime existed, acts of defiance such as sabotage and labour slowdowns took place, as well as attempts to overthrow the regime or assassinate Hitler. The banned Communist and Social Democratic parties set up resistance networks in the mid-1930s. These networks achieved little beyond fomenting unrest and initiating short-lived strikes. Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, who initially supported Hitler, changed his mind in 1936 and was later a participant in the July 20 plot. The Red Orchestra spy ring provided information to the Allies about Nazi war crimes, helped orchestrate escapes from Germany, and distributed leaflets. The group was detected by the Gestapo and more than 50 members were tried and executed in 1942. Communist and Social Democratic resistance groups resumed activity in late 1942, but were unable to achieve much beyond distributing leaflets. The two groups saw themselves as potential rival parties in post-war Germany, and for the most part did not co-ordinate their activities. The White Rose resistance group was primarily active in 1942–43, and many of its members were arrested or executed, with the final arrests taking place in 1944. Another civilian resistance group, the Kreisau Circle, had some connections with the military conspirators, and many of its members were arrested after the failed 20 July plot.
Political concentration camps instituted primarily to reinforce the state’s control have been established in various forms under many totalitarian regimes—most extensively in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. To a considerable extent, the camps served as the special prisons of the secret police. Nazi concentration camps were under the administration of the SS; forced-labour camps of the Soviet Union were operated by a succession of organizations beginning in 1917 with the Cheka and ending in the early 1990s with the KGB.