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.[29] The morgue was later converted to a gas chamber able to hold at least 700–800 people.[30] Zyklon B was dropped into the room through slits in the ceiling.[28] 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.[31] 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.[32]
Modern Germany fundamentally rejects, and assumes complete responsibility for, the heinous crimes committed under the Third Reich. The Nazis occupy a uniquely menacing place in the Western imagination, the embodiment of humanity’s darkest instincts for racial hatred and barbarism—what Hannah Arendt called “radical evil” in The Origins of Totalitarianism. Whitman uses the word Nefandum, “an abyss of unexampled modern horror against which we can define ourselves.” It is appropriate to be wary of invoking the Nazis, especially in an online environment that has turned the words “Hitler” and “Nazi” into clichés, devaluing their meaning and cheapening the historical lessons to be learned.
While top officials reported to Hitler and followed his policies, they had considerable autonomy.[194] He expected officials to "work towards the Führer" – to take the initiative in promoting policies and actions in line with party goals and Hitler's wishes, without his involvement in day-to-day decision-making.[195] The government was a disorganised collection of factions led by the party elite, who struggled to amass power and gain the Führer's favour.[196] Hitler's leadership style was to give contradictory orders to his subordinates and to place them in positions where their duties and responsibilities overlapped.[197] In this way he fostered distrust, competition, and infighting among his subordinates to consolidate and maximise his own power.[198]
At the end of 1944 and early in 1945, a complete deterioration of living conditions set in as thousands of survivors of death marches began to arrive at the camp. The large numbers arriving at the camp soon overwhelmed the meagre resources available. The camp administration did not attempt to house them. Serious overcrowding and a lack of sanitary facilities resulted in the break-out of a typhus epidemic. From January to mid-April 1945, some 35,000 prisoners died due to typhus, starvation and the terrible conditions within the camp.
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).[11] Especially during the first years of their existence when these courts "had a strong deterrent effect" against any form of political protest.[12]