At the bottom of the K.L. hierarchy, even below the criminals, were the Jews. Today, the words “concentration camp” immediately summon up the idea of the Holocaust, the genocide of European Jews by the Nazis; and we tend to think of the camps as the primary sites of that genocide. In fact, as Wachsmann writes, as late as 1942 “Jews made up fewer than five thousand of the eighty thousand KL inmates.” There had been a temporary spike in the Jewish inmate population in November, 1938, after Kristallnacht, when the Nazis rounded up tens of thousands of Jewish men. But, for most of the camps’ first decade, Jewish prisoners had usually been sent there not for their religion, per se, but for specific offenses, such as political dissent or illicit sexual relations with an Aryan. Once there, however, they found themselves subject to special torments, ranging from running a gantlet of truncheons to heavy labor, like rock-breaking. As the chief enemies in the Nazi imagination, Jews were also the natural targets for spontaneous S.S. violence—blows, kicks, attacks by savage dogs.
Nazi Germany is the common English name for Germany between 1933 and 1945, when Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party (NSDAP) controlled the country through a dictatorship. Under Hitler's rule, Germany was transformed into a totalitarian state that controlled nearly all aspects of life via the Gleichschaltung legal process. The official name of the state was Deutsches Reich (German Reich) until 1943 and Großdeutsches Reich (Greater German Reich) from 1943 to 1945. Nazi Germany is also known as the Third Reich (Drittes Reich), meaning "Third Realm" or "Third Empire", the first two being the Holy Roman Empire (800–1806) and the German Empire (1871–1918). The Nazi regime ended after the Allies defeated Germany in May 1945, ending World War II in Europe.
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.
The Frank family was transported to Westerbork, a transit camp in the Netherlands, and from there to Auschwitz, in German-occupied Poland, on September 3, 1944, on the last transport to leave Westerbork for Auschwitz. Anne and Margot were transferred to Bergen-Belsen the following month. Anne’s mother died in early January, just before the evacuation of Auschwitz on January 18, 1945. It was established by the Dutch government that both Anne and Margot died in a typhus epidemic in March 1945, only weeks before the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, but scholars in 2015 revealed new research, including analysis of archival data and first-person accounts, indicating that the sisters might have perished in February 1945. Otto Frank was found hospitalized at Auschwitz when it was liberated by Soviet troops on January 27, 1945.
After 1942, many small subcamps were set up near factories to provide forced labor. IG Farben established a synthetic rubber plant in 1942 at Monowitz concentration camp (Auschwitz III); other camps were set up next to airplane factories, coal mines and rocket propellant plants. Conditions were brutal and prisoners were often sent to the gas chambers or killed on site if they did not work quickly enough.
The Nazi Party was banned on 9 November 1923; however, with the support of the nationalist Völkisch-Social Bloc (Völkisch-Sozialer Block), it continued to operate under the name "German Party" (Deutsche Partei or DP) from 1924 to 1925. The Nazis failed to remain unified in the DP, as in the north, the right-wing Volkish nationalist supporters of the Nazis moved to the new German Völkisch Freedom Party, leaving the north's left-wing Nazi members, such as Joseph Goebbels retaining support for the party.
Precise numbers are still debated, but according to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the German SS systematically killed at least 960,000 of the 1.1-1.3 million Jews deported to the camp. Other victims included approximately 74,000 Poles, 21,000 Roma, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war and at least 10,000 from other nationalities. More people died at Auschwitz than at any other Nazi concentration camp and probably than at any death camp in history.
The destruction of valuable property, of irretrievable art treasures, as well as of valuable tapestries in Munich, of Rembrandt pictures in Hesse, was not enough. The decision was made to bring a great number of Jews into camps for protective custody. Rough estimate places the number of victims at about sixty thousand males. In the camp with which we are dealing there were probably about six to seven thousand men.
There have been protracted disputes over the perceived Christianization of the site. Pope John Paul II celebrated mass over the train tracks leading to Auschwitz II-Birkenau on 7 June 1979, and called the camp "the Golgotha of our age", referring to the crucifixion of Jesus. More controversy followed when Carmelite nuns founded a convent in 1984 in a former theater outside the camp's perimeter, near block 11 of Auschwitz I, after which a local priest and some survivors erected a large cross—one that had been used during the pope's mass—behind block 11 to commemorate 152 Polish inmates shot by the Germans in 1941. After a long dispute, Pope John Paul II intervened, and the nuns moved the convent elsewhere in 1993. The cross remained, triggering the "War of the Crosses", as more crosses were erected to commemorate Christian victims, despite international objections. The Polish government and Catholic Church eventually agreed to remove all but the original.
The most pressing economic matter the Nazis initially faced was the 30 percent national unemployment rate. Economist Dr. Hjalmar Schacht, President of the Reichsbank and Minister of Economics, created a scheme for deficit financing in May 1933. Capital projects were paid for with the issuance of promissory notes called Mefo bills. When the notes were presented for payment, the Reichsbank printed money. Hitler and his economic team expected that the upcoming territorial expansion would provide the means of repaying the soaring national debt. Schacht's administration achieved a rapid decline in the unemployment rate, the largest of any country during the Great Depression. Economic recovery was uneven, with reduced hours of work and erratic availability of necessities, leading to disenchantment with the regime as early as 1934.
While Fox News personality Laura Ingraham called the detention centers “essentially summer camps” and conservative commentator Ann Coulter simply decided that these minor prisoners are “child actors weeping and crying,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) declared that the United States “isn’t Nazi Germany,” implying that the border separations suggest otherwise. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions addressed comparisons by saying they were “a real exaggeration” and that “in Nazi Germany, they were keeping the Jews from leaving the country.” He nonchalantly added, “but this is a serious matter,” as if the Holocaust were not.
After the liquidation of the Polish state and its institutions, the fundamental goal of German policy in occupied Poland was the exploitation of material and labor resources, and the removal of the local Polish population and ethnic minorities. This was done through expulsion and systematic extermination. The Polish lands were to be completely germanized, through German settlement in the depopulated area.
Authors of books left the country in droves and some wrote material critical of the regime while in exile. Goebbels recommended that the remaining authors concentrate on books themed on Germanic myths and the concept of blood and soil. By the end of 1933, over a thousand books—most of them by Jewish authors or featuring Jewish characters—had been banned by the Nazi regime. Nazi book burnings took place; nineteen such events were held on the night of 10 May 1933. Tens of thousands of books from dozens of figures, including Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Helen Keller, Alfred Kerr, Marcel Proust, Erich Maria Remarque, Upton Sinclair, Jakob Wassermann, H. G. Wells, and Émile Zola were publicly burned. Pacifist works, and literature espousing liberal, democratic values were targeted for destruction, as well as any writings supporting the Weimar Republic or those written by Jewish authors.
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.
On 24 December 1941 the resistance groups representing the various prisoner factions met in block 45 and agreed to cooperate. Fleming writes that it has not been possible to track Pilecki's early intelligence from the camp. Pilecki compiled two reports after he escaped in April 1943; the second, Raport W, detailed his life in Auschwitz I and estimated that 1.5 million people, mostly Jews, had been killed. On 1 July 1942, the Polish Fortnightly Review published a report describing Birkenau, writing that "prisoners call this supplementary camp 'Paradisal', presumably because there is only one road, leading to Paradise". Reporting that inmates were being killed "through excessive work, torture and medical means", it noted the gassing of the Soviet prisoners of war and Polish inmates in Auschwitz I in September 1941, the first gassing in the camp. It said: "It is estimated that the Oswiecim camp can accommodate fifteen thousand prisoners, but as they die on a mass scale there is always room for new arrivals."
One evening at inspection, the camp commander gave us an address in which he said that we were responsible for the murder of Herr vom Rath and that therefore we had committed a crime against the nation and the state; that we were in a camp for protective custody, which was not a prison or a penitentiary at all, nor a sanitarium either, but solely an educational institution; that we should learn here how to behave in dealing with a 'guest nation' (he really said 'guest' nation instead of 'host' nation); that the main thing was unconditional obedience and that all S.S. men were our superior officers; that each attempt at disobedience would be punished, in some cases by corporal punishment, and that all S. S. men were entitled to use their arms in any attempt at resistance or escape.
According to Schneidermann, Trump designating American media as the “opposition” is the biggest threat to its credibility today, but not merely because the President’s broadsides inflict damage on their own. The trap, Schneidermann says, is for the media to enter into a war with Trump, and forget its job. “There is one professional obligation,” he told me. “To say things that are true.” (For news readers, he recommends the articles on page 7.) The real subject of his book, he added, is that “it’s very easy to be in a collective blindness.” And the past can obscure the future. “Why didn’t the correspondents in the thirties see Hitler? Because they thought he was a German Mussolini,” Schneidermann said. “They said, O.K., we know Mussolini. They weren’t actually looking at Hitler.” In the book, he writes, “Every revolutionary process automatically produces denial. How can we accept the fact that, from now on, the order of things will be fundamentally different from what it always was?”
But individual deaths, by sickness or violence, were not enough to keep the number of prisoners within manageable limits. Accordingly, in early 1941 Himmler decided to begin the mass murder of prisoners in gas chambers, building on a program that the Nazis had developed earlier for euthanizing the disabled. Here, again, the camps’ sinister combination of bureaucratic rationalism and anarchic violence was on display. During the following months, teams of S.S. doctors visited the major camps in turn, inspecting prisoners in order to select the “infirm” for gassing. Everything was done with an appearance of medical rigor. The doctors filled out a form for each inmate, with headings for “Diagnosis” and “Incurable Physical Ailments.” But it was all mere theatre. Helm’s description of the visit of Dr. Friedrich Mennecke to Ravensbrück, in November, 1941, shows that inspections of prisoners—whom he referred to in letters home as “forms” or “portions”—were cursory at best, with the victims parading naked in front of the doctors at a distance of twenty feet. (Jewish prisoners were automatically “selected,” without an examination.) In one letter, Mennecke brags of having disposed of fifty-six “forms” before noon. Those selected were taken to an undisclosed location for gassing; their fate became clear to the remaining Ravensbrück prisoners when the dead women’s clothes and personal effects arrived back at the camp by truck.
The prisoners put up various forms of resistance to the tyranny of the camp. Resistance organisations helped inmates to obtain medicine and food, documented Nazi crimes, supported attempts to escape and sabotage, tried to put political prisoners into positions of responsibility, and prepared for an uprising. A total of 667 prisoners escaped from Auschwitz, but 270 of them were caught in the vicinity of the camp and immediately executed. The best-known escape was that of two Slovak Jews, Alfred Wetzler and Walter Rosenberg (Rudolf Vrba) (link in Czech). They managed to cross into Slovakia and to tell Jewish leaders - and through them the world - about the terrible reality of Auschwitz, about which they wrote an extensive report. On the 7th of October 1944, there was an uprising by the Sonderkommando working in the gas chambers. The prisoners managed to destroy one of the gas chambers, and thus to hinder the extermination process. All the rebels died. A group of young female prisoners was also executed for having smuggled gunpowder to the rebels from the factory in Monowitz.
As Soviet troops approached Auschwitz in January 1945, most of its population was sent west on a death march. The remaining prisoners were liberated on 27 January 1945, a day commemorated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In the following decades, survivors such as Primo Levi, Viktor Frankl, and Elie Wiesel wrote memoirs of their experiences in Auschwitz, and the camp became a dominant symbol of the Holocaust. In 1947 Poland founded the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum on the site of Auschwitz I and II, and in 1979 it was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Although there have been persistent claims of betrayal by an informant, the source of the information that led the authorities to raid the Achterhuis has never been identified. Night watchman Martin Sleegers and an unidentified police officer investigated a burglary at the premises in April 1944 and came across the bookcase concealing the secret door. Tonny Ahlers, a member of the National Socialist Movement in the Netherlands (NSB), was suspected of being the informant by Carol Ann Lee, biographer of Otto Frank. Another suspect is stockroom manager Willem van Maaren. The Annex occupants did not trust him, as he seemed inquisitive regarding people entering the stockroom after hours. He once unexpectedly asked the employees whether there had previously been a Mr. Frank at the office. Lena Hartog was suspected of being the informant by Anne Frank's biographer Melissa Müller. Several of these suspects knew one another and might have worked in collaboration. While virtually everyone connected with the betrayal was interrogated after the war, no one was definitively identified as being the informant.
The Nazis contested elections to the national parliament (the Reichstag) and to the state legislature (the Landtage) from 1924, although at first with little success. The "National-Socialist Freedom Movement" polled 3% of the vote in the December 1924 Reichstag elections and this fell to 2.6% in 1928. State elections produced similar results. Despite these poor results and despite Germany's relative political stability and prosperity during the later 1920s, the Nazi Party continued to grow. This was partly because Hitler, who had no administrative ability, left the party organisation to the head of the secretariat, Philipp Bouhler, the party treasurer Franz Xaver Schwarz and business manager Max Amann. The party had a capable propaganda head in Gregor Strasser, who was promoted to national organizational leader in January 1928. These men gave the party efficient recruitment and organizational structures. The party also owed its growth to the gradual fading away of competitor nationalist groups, such as the German National People's Party (DNVP). As Hitler became the recognised head of the German nationalists, other groups declined or were absorbed.
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.
To write the history of such an institution, as Nikolaus Wachsmann sets out to do in another new book, “KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), might seem impossible, like writing the history of Hell. And, certainly, both his book and Helm’s are full of the kind of details that ordinarily appear only in Dantesque visions. Helm devotes a chapter to Ravensbrück’s Kinderzimmer, or “children’s room,” where inmates who came to the camp pregnant were forced to abandon their babies; the newborns were left to die of starvation or be eaten alive by rats. Wachsmann quotes a prisoner at Dachau who saw a transport of men afflicted by dysentery arrive at the camp: “We saw dozens . . . with excrement running out of their trousers. Their hands, too, were full of excrement and they screamed and rubbed their dirty hands across their faces.”
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.