That month, Himmler ordered the evacuation of all camps, charging camp commanders with "making sure that not a single prisoner from the concentration camps falls alive into the hands of the enemy".[240] Beginning on 17 January, 56,000–58,000 Auschwitz detainees—over 20,000 from Auschwitz I and II, over 30,000 from subcamps, and two-thirds of them Jews—were evacuated under guard, largely on foot, in severe winter conditions, heading west.[241][242] Around 2,200 were evacuated by rail from two subcamps; fewer than 9,000 were left behind, deemed too sick to move.[243] During the marches, camp staff shot anyone too sick or exhausted to continue, or anyone stopping to urinate or tie a shoelace. SS officers walked behind the marchers killing anyone lagging behind who had not already been shot.[235] Peter Longerich estimates that a quarter of the detainees were thus killed.[236] Those who managed to walk to Wodzisław Śląski and Gliwice were sent on open freight cars, without food, to concentration camps in Germany: Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau, Flossenburg, Gross-Rosen, Mauthausen, Dora-Mittelbau, Ravensbruck, and Sachsenhausen.[244]

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.[312][313] Under the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring, enacted on 14 July 1933, over 400,000 individuals underwent compulsory sterilisation.[314] 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.[315] Other groups persecuted and killed included Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, social misfits, and members of the political and religious opposition.[186][316]


On January 20, 1942, fourteen such functionaries assembled at a lakeside villa outside Berlin to discuss a “Final Solution” to what was called “the Jewish problem.” What we now know as the Wannsee Conference put on paper plans that Hitler and his subordinates had been talking about for months. Of Europe’s 11 million Jews, those who could work would be worked to death, following the model already created at Auschwitz and other camps. Jews who were not selected for useful labor would be eliminated.


Though we tend to think of Hitler’s Germany as a highly regimented dictatorship, in practice Nazi rule was chaotic and improvisatory. Rival power bases in the Party and the German state competed to carry out what they believed to be Hitler’s wishes. This system of “working towards the Fuhrer,” as it was called by Hitler’s biographer Ian Kershaw, was clearly in evidence when it came to the concentration camps. The K.L. system, during its twelve years of existence, included twenty-seven main camps and more than a thousand subcamps. At its peak, in early 1945, it housed more than seven hundred thousand inmates. In addition to being a major penal and economic institution, it was a central symbol of Hitler’s rule. Yet Hitler plays almost no role in Wachsmann’s book, and Wachsmann writes that Hitler was never seen to visit a camp. It was Heinrich Himmler, the head of the S.S., who was in charge of the camp system, and its growth was due in part to his ambition to make the S.S. the most powerful force in Germany.
Women were a cornerstone of Nazi social policy. The Nazis opposed the feminist movement, claiming that it was the creation of Jewish intellectuals, instead advocating a patriarchal society in which the German woman would recognise that her "world is her husband, her family, her children, and her home".[264] Feminist groups were shut down or incorporated into the National Socialist Women's League, which coordinated groups throughout the country to promote motherhood and household activities. Courses were offered on childrearing, sewing, and cooking. Prominent feminists, including Anita Augspurg, Lida Gustava Heymann, and Helene Stöcker, felt forced to live in exile.[367] The League published the NS-Frauen-Warte, the only NSDAP-approved women's magazine in Nazi Germany;[368] despite some propaganda aspects, it was predominantly an ordinary woman's magazine.[369]
The Nazis, the far-right monarchists, the reactionary German National People's Party (DNVP) and others, such as monarchist officers in the German Army and several prominent industrialists, formed an alliance in opposition to the Weimar Republic on 11 October 1931 in Bad Harzburg, officially known as the "National Front", but commonly referred to as the Harzburg Front.[30] The Nazis stated that the alliance was purely tactical and they continued to have differences with the DNVP. The Nazis described the DNVP as a bourgeois party and they called themselves an anti-bourgeois party.[30] After the elections of July 1932, the alliance broke down when the DNVP lost many of its seats in the Reichstag. The Nazis denounced them as "an insignificant heap of reactionaries".[31] The DNVP responded by denouncing the Nazis for their socialism, their street violence and the "economic experiments" that would take place if the Nazis ever rose to power.[32] But amidst an inconclusive political situation in which conservative politicians Franz von Papen and Kurt von Schleicher were unable to form stable governments without the Nazis, Papen proposed to President Hindenburg to appoint Hitler as Chancellor at the head of a government formed primarily of conservatives, with only three Nazi ministers.[33][34] Hindenburg did so, and contrary to the expectations of Papen and the DNVP, Hitler was soon able to establish a Nazi one-party dictatorship.[35]
Fewer than 200 Jews escaped from the camps. Herman Shine, one of the last survivors to have escaped Auschwitz, died in July 2018. He was born in Berlin to a Polish father and they were arrested in that city in 1939. Along with 1,700 other Polish Jews, they were deported to Sachsenhausen. To survive, Shine claimed to be a roofer and learned how to build roofs before being transferred to Auschwitz in 1942.
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.[115] 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.[116]
After Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, sparking World War II, the Germans converted Auschwitz I from an army barracks to hold Polish political prisoners.[3] The first prisoners, German criminals brought to the camp as functionaries, arrived in May 1940,[4] and the first gassing of prisoners took place in block 11 of Auschwitz I in September 1941. Auschwitz II–Birkenau went on to become a major site of the Nazis' Final Solution to the Jewish Question. From early 1942 until late 1944, transport trains delivered Jews from all over German-occupied Europe to the camp's gas chambers. Of the estimated 1.3 million people sent to Auschwitz, at least 1.1 million died,[5] around 90 percent of them Jews.[6] Approximately one in six Jews killed in the Holocaust died at the camp.[7] Others deported to Auschwitz included 150,000 non-Jewish Poles, 23,000 Roma, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, 400 Jehovah's Witnesses, tens of thousands of others of diverse nationalities, and an unknown number of gay men. Many of those not killed in the gas chambers died because of starvation, forced labor, infectious diseases, individual executions, and medical experiments.
The Nazis, the far-right monarchists, the reactionary German National People's Party (DNVP) and others, such as monarchist officers in the German Army and several prominent industrialists, formed an alliance in opposition to the Weimar Republic on 11 October 1931 in Bad Harzburg, officially known as the "National Front", but commonly referred to as the Harzburg Front.[30] The Nazis stated that the alliance was purely tactical and they continued to have differences with the DNVP. The Nazis described the DNVP as a bourgeois party and they called themselves an anti-bourgeois party.[30] After the elections of July 1932, the alliance broke down when the DNVP lost many of its seats in the Reichstag. The Nazis denounced them as "an insignificant heap of reactionaries".[31] The DNVP responded by denouncing the Nazis for their socialism, their street violence and the "economic experiments" that would take place if the Nazis ever rose to power.[32] But amidst an inconclusive political situation in which conservative politicians Franz von Papen and Kurt von Schleicher were unable to form stable governments without the Nazis, Papen proposed to President Hindenburg to appoint Hitler as Chancellor at the head of a government formed primarily of conservatives, with only three Nazi ministers.[33][34] Hindenburg did so, and contrary to the expectations of Papen and the DNVP, Hitler was soon able to establish a Nazi one-party dictatorship.[35]
In the spring of 1941, German conglomerate I.G. Farben established a factory in which its executives intended to exploit concentration camp labor to manufacture synthetic rubber and fuels. I.G. Farben invested more than 700 million Reichsmarks (about 2.8 million US dollars in 1941 terms) in Auschwitz III. From May 1941 until July 1942, the SS had transported prisoners from Auschwitz I to the “Buna Detachment,” at first on foot and later by rail. (Between July and October 1942 there was a pause in transports, due to a typhus epidemic and quarantine.) With the construction of Auschwitz III in the autumn of 1942, prisoners deployed at Buna lived in Auschwitz III.
Until the German invasion, Anne’s childhood in Amsterdam was filled with school and friends—she had attended the Sixth Montessori school in Amsterdam until September 1941, when Jewish children are no longer allowed to go to school with non-Jews. The following spring, in May 1942, all Dutch Jews were required to wear a yellow star of David on their clothing with the word Jood (Jew) written on it. They also had to observe curfews and were barred from public transportation and from using the telephone. In June, Anne turned 13 and received a diary for her birthday—the first volume of three she would keep during the war.
Until 1990, the museum’s directors were all former prisoners. Cywinski is just 37. His office is on the first floor of a former SS administration building directly across from a former gas chamber and crematorium. He tells me that Auschwitz is about to slip into history. The last survivors will soon die, and with them the living links to what happened here. Preserving the site becomes increasingly important, Cywinski believes: younger generations raised on TV and movie special effects need to see and touch the real thing.
In early 1942, mass exterminations were moved to two provisional gas chambers (the "red house" and "white house", known as bunkers 1 and 2) in Auschwitz II, while the larger crematoria (II, III, IV, and V) were under construction. Bunker 2 was temporarily reactivated from May to November 1944, when large numbers of Hungarian Jews were gassed.[162] In summer 1944 the combined capacity of the crematoria and outdoor incineration pits was 20,000 bodies per day.[163] A planned sixth facility—crematorium VI—was never built.[164] Prisoners were transported from all over German-occupied Europe by rail, arriving in daily convoys.[165] By July 1942, the SS were conducting "selections". Incoming Jews were segregated; those deemed able to work were sent to the selection officer's right and admitted into the camp, and those deemed unfit for labor were sent to the left and immediately gassed.[166] The group selected to die, about three-quarters of the total,[c] included almost all children, women with small children, the elderly, and all those who appeared on brief and superficial inspection by an SS doctor not to be fit for work.[168]
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.
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.”
The Soviet occupation of eastern Poland in 1939 and the absorption of the Baltic states in 1940 led to the incarceration of large numbers of non-Soviet citizens. Following the outbreak of war with Germany in 1941, the camps received Axis prisoners of war and Soviet nationals accused of collaboration with the enemy. After the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, many prisoners were released and the number of camps was drastically reduced. See also Gulag.
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.[456] 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.[457]

Peterson, who is researching the long history of the Rivesaltes camp, also told me that the camp remained more or less in operation from 1939 through 1967 and then after 1985. Prisoners and refugees after the war included POWs, collaborators, Algerians and, in the 1980s, migrants waiting to be expelled from the country. The French government did little in the meantime to improve facilities from their wartime conditions.
After September 1939, with the beginning of the Second World War, concentration camps became places where millions of ordinary people were enslaved as part of the war effort, often starved, tortured and killed.[21] During the war, new Nazi concentration camps for "undesirables" spread throughout the continent. According to statistics by the German Ministry of Justice, about 1,200 camps and subcamps were run in countries occupied by Nazi Germany,[22] while the Jewish Virtual Library estimates that the number of Nazi camps was closer to 15,000 in all of occupied Europe[23][24] and that many of these camps were run for a limited amount of time before they were closed.[23] Camps were being created near the centers of dense populations, often focusing on areas with large communities of Jews, Polish intelligentsia, Communists or Romani. Since millions of Jews lived in pre-war Poland, most camps were located in the area of the General Government in occupied Poland, for logistical reasons. The location also allowed the Nazis to quickly remove the German Jews from within Germany proper.
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