In the Holocaust, millions of Jews, as well as Roma people (also called "Gypsies"), people with disabilities, homosexuals, political opponents, and many other people were sent to concentration camps and death camps in Poland and Germany. The Nazis killed millions of these people at the concentration camps with poison gas. The Nazis also killed millions of people in these groups by forcing them to do slave labor without giving them much food or clothing. In total, 17 million people died- 6 million of them Jews.
However, this regulation was soon waived and there is ample evidence that full Nazi Party members served in the Wehrmacht in particular after the outbreak of World War II. The Wehrmacht Reserves also saw a high number of senior Nazis enlisting, with Reinhard Heydrich and Fritz Todt joining the Luftwaffe, as well as Karl Hanke who served in the army.
In April 1940, Rudolph Höss, who become the first commandant, identified the Silesian town of Oswiecim as a possible site for a concentration camp. The function of the camp was initially to intimidate Poles and prevent resistance to German rule. It was also perceived as a cornerstone of the policy to re-colonize Upper Silesia, which had once been a German region, with 'pure Aryans'. On April 27th, Himmler ordered construction of the camp.
Le Porz’s remark was prophetic. The true extent of Nazi barbarity became known to the world in part through the documentary films made by Allied forces after the liberation of other German camps. There have been many atrocities committed before and since, yet to this day, thanks to those images, the Nazi concentration camp stands as the ultimate symbol of evil. The very names of the camps—Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Auschwitz—have the sound of a malevolent incantation. They have ceased to be ordinary place names—Buchenwald, after all, means simply “beech wood”—and become portals to a terrible other dimension.
When I was eight years old Czechoslovakia broke apart and we became part of Hungary. That was when our problems started, because the Hungarians were allied with the Nazis. It was a difficult time for Jewish families, as suddenly the law no longer protected us and overnight we lost our civil rights. My father’s lumber business was confiscated and given to a non-Jew, and we received no compensation. Jewish children were thrown out of Hungarian schools, so right away we had no choice but to concentrate on hunkering down and trying not to bring attention to ourselves. We couldn’t ride the trains and we had to wear the yellow star. It was a free for all. With no law to protect us, it was common for Jews to get beaten up or thrown off the train.
The enormous expansion of the camps resulted in an exponential increase in the misery of the prisoners. Food rations, always meagre, were cut to less than minimal: a bowl of rutabaga soup and some ersatz bread would have to sustain a prisoner doing heavy labor. The result was desperate black marketing and theft. Wachsmann writes, “In Sachsenhausen, a young French prisoner was battered to death in 1941 by an SS block leader for taking two carrots from a sheep pen.” Starvation was endemic and rendered prisoners easy prey for typhus and dysentery. At the same time, the need to keep control of so many prisoners made the S.S. even more brutal, and sadistic new punishments were invented. The “standing commando” forced prisoners to stand absolutely still for eight hours at a time; any movement or noise was punished by beatings. The murder of prisoners by guards, formerly an exceptional event in the camps, now became unremarkable.
German eagle: The Nazi Party used the traditional German eagle, standing atop of a swastika inside a wreath of oak leaves. It is also known as the "Iron Eagle". When the eagle is looking to its left shoulder, it symbolises the Nazi Party and was called the Parteiadler. In contrast, when the eagle is looking to its right shoulder, it symbolises the country (Reich) and was therefore called the Reichsadler. After the Nazi Party came to national power in Germany, they replaced the traditional version of the German eagle with the modified party symbol throughout the country and all its institutions.
Between May 15 and July 9, 1944, some 438,000 Hungarian Jews were shipped on 147 trains to Birkenau, stretching the camp’s resources for killing beyond all limits. Because the crematoria were overcrowded, bodies were burned in pyres fueled partly by the victims’ own fat. Just prior to the deportation of Hungarian Jewry, two prisoners escaped with plans of the camp. They met with resistance leaders in Slovakia and compiled a detailed report including maps. As this report made its way to Western intelligence services in the summer of 1944, there were requests to bomb Auschwitz. Although the industrial complex adjacent to Auschwitz was bombed, the death camp and its crematoria were left untouched, a subject of controversy more than 50 years later. (See Why Wasn’t Auschwitz Bombed?)
During World War I, German sociologist Johann Plenge spoke of the rise of a "National Socialism" in Germany within what he termed the "ideas of 1914" that were a declaration of war against the "ideas of 1789" (the French Revolution). According to Plenge, the "ideas of 1789" which included the rights of man, democracy, individualism and liberalism were being rejected in favour of "the ideas of 1914" which included the "German values" of duty, discipline, law and order. Plenge believed that ethnic solidarity (Volksgemeinschaft) would replace class division and that "racial comrades" would unite to create a socialist society in the struggle of "proletarian" Germany against "capitalist" Britain. He believed that the "Spirit of 1914" manifested itself in the concept of the "People's League of National Socialism". This National Socialism was a form of state socialism that rejected the "idea of boundless freedom" and promoted an economy that would serve the whole of Germany under the leadership of the state. This National Socialism was opposed to capitalism due to the components that were against "the national interest" of Germany, but insisted that National Socialism would strive for greater efficiency in the economy. Plenge advocated an authoritarian, rational ruling elite to develop National Socialism through a hierarchical technocratic state, and his ideas were part of the basis of Nazism.
One night in the autumn of 1944, two Frenchwomen—Loulou Le Porz, a doctor, and Violette Lecoq, a nurse—watched as a truck drove in through the main gates of Ravensbrück, the Nazi concentration camp for women. “There was a lorry,” Le Porz recalled, “that suddenly arrives and it turns around and reverses towards us. And it lifts up and it tips out a whole pile of corpses.” These were the bodies of Ravensbrück inmates who had died doing slave labor in the many satellite camps, and they were now being returned for cremation. Talking, decades later, to the historian and journalist Sarah Helm, whose new book, “Ravensbrück: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women” (Doubleday), recounts the stories of dozens of the camp’s inmates, Le Porz says that her reaction was simple disbelief. The sight of a truck full of dead bodies was so outrageous, so out of scale with ordinary experience, that “if we recount that one day, we said to each other, nobody would believe us.” The only way to make the scene credible would be to record it: “If one day someone makes a film they must film this scene. This night. This moment.”
When we arrived it was, as I later found out, the usual story, though not to us at the time. Our family was torn apart on the platform on arriving. My sister, Serena, was chosen for slave labour. My mother and the younger children were sent off to one side and my father and 16-year-old brother to the other side. I held tightly on to the hand of my 12-year-old sister and for an instant I was mistaken for being older than I was, probably because I was wearing a headscarf that my mother had given me.
Returning to Auschwitz is going to be a cold, painful and tearful experience. It is a shadow that has always been with me and I’m hoping that by facing it for one last time at the age of 84 I will be able to live my life more peacefully, but I am extremely anxious. I lost my husband just days ago and I’m hoping I’ll finally be able to release my emotions when I’m there, as I’ve never really been able to cry much about anything. I’m comforted by the thought that there will be strength in numbers and that I’ll be there with perhaps 100 or so other survivors, which makes it easier. I would not go on my own. I appear to be a strong person, but inside I’m really quite fragile.
The Nazi Terror Begins After Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany in January 1933, he moved quickly to turn Germany into a one-party dictatorship and to organize the police power necessary to enforce Nazi policies. He persuaded his Cabinet to declare a state of emergency and end individual freedoms, including freedom of press, speech, and assembly. Individuals lost the right to privacy, which meant that officials could read people's mail, listen in on telephone conversations, and search private homes without a warrant.
The Hollywood version and those similar to it which were written for various purposes had a softening influence noted mostly in Germany and Japan. In Germany, a translation was published which, with Otto Frank’s agreement, omitted all anti-German sentiment. As a result, the diary’s German edition did not accuse the Germans as a people or as a nation; reading it, anyone who felt guilt could relate to it on an individual basis. In Japan, where the diary was required reading in high school and countless plays and events about it are produced to this day, it had a similar calming effect: the diary allowed people, especially adolescents, to identify with disaster that befell others and not only to dwell on their own catastrophes, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Polish government-in-exile in London first reported the gassing of prisoners in Auschwitz on 21 July 1942, and reported the gassing of Soviet POWs and Jews on 4 September 1942. In 1943, the Kampfgruppe Auschwitz (Combat Group Auschwitz) was organized within the camp with the aim of sending out information about what was happening. Sonderkommandos buried notes in the ground, hoping they would be found by the camp's liberators. The group also smuggled out photographs; the Sonderkommando photographs, of events around the gas chambers in Auschwitz II, were smuggled out of the camp in September 1944 in a toothpaste tube. According to Fleming, the British press responded, in 1943 and the first half of 1944, either by not publishing reports about Auschwitz or by burying them on the inside pages. The exception was the Polish Jewish Observer, published as a supplement to the City and East London Observer and edited by Joel Cang, a former Warsaw correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. The British reticence stemmed from a Foreign Office concern that the public might pressure the government to respond or provide refuge for the Jews, and that British actions on behalf of the Jews might affect its relationships in the Middle East. There was similar reticence in the United States, and indeed within the Polish government-in-exile and the Polish resistance. According to Fleming, the scholarship suggests that the Polish resistance distributed information about the Holocaust in Auschwitz without challenging the Allies' reluctance to highlight it.
While the ideologues of Nazism, much like those of Stalinism, abhorred democratic or parliamentary governance as practiced in the United States or Britain, their differences are substantial. An epistemic crisis occurs when one tries to synthesize and contrast Nazism and Stalinism as two-sides of the same coin with their similarly tyrannical leaders, state-controlled economies and repressive police structures. Namely, while they share a common thematic political construction, they are entirely inimical to one another in their worldviews and when more carefully analysed against one another on a one-to-one level, an "irreconcilable asymmetry" results.
After three days at Auschwitz, I was left with the feeling that for some visitors, the former concentration camp is a box to check off on a tourist “to-do” list. But many people appeared genuinely moved. I saw Israeli teenagers crying and hugging each other and groups of people transfixed by the mug shots of prisoners that line the walls of one of the Auschwitz barracks. Walking through the room full of hair still makes my stomach churn. But what I hadn’t remembered from my first visit was the room next door filled with battered cooking pots and pans, brought by people who believed until the last moment that there was a future wherever they were being taken. And when Banas told me about the carefully folded math test that conservationists found hidden in a child’s shoe, I choked up. Even if only a fraction of the people who come here each year are profoundly affected, a fraction of a million is still a lot of people.
Auschwitz Birkenau was the largest of the concentration camp complexes created by the Nazi German regime and was the one which combined extermination with forced labour. At the centre of a huge landscape of human exploitation and suffering, the remains of the two camps of Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau were inscribed on the World Heritage List as evidence of this inhumane, cruel and methodical effort to deny human dignity to groups considered inferior, leading to their systematic murder. The camps are a vivid testimony to the murderous nature of the anti-Semitic and racist Nazi policy that brought about the annihilation of over one million people in the crematoria, 90% of whom were Jews.
The orders for the final evacuation and liquidation of the camp were issued in mid-January 1945. The Germans left behind in the main Auschwitz camp, Birkenau and in Monowitz about 7,000 sick or incapacitated who they did not expect would live for long; the rest, approximately 58,000 people, were evacuated by foot into the depths of the Third Reich.
Auschwitz originally was conceived as a concentration camp, to be used as a detention center for the many Polish citizens arrested after Germany annexed the country in 1939. These detainees included anti-Nazi activists, politicians, resistance members and luminaries from the cultural and scientific communities. Once Hitler’s Final Solution became official Nazi policy, however, Auschwitz was deemed an ideal death camp locale. For one thing, it was situated near the center of all German-occupied countries on the European continent. For another, it was in close proximity to the string of rail lines used to transport detainees to the network of Nazi camps.
The camps were liberated by the Allied forces between 1944 and 1945. The first major camp, Majdanek, was discovered by the advancing Soviets on July 23, 1944. Auschwitz was liberated, also by the Soviets, on January 27, 1945; Buchenwald by the Americans on April 11; Bergen-Belsen by the British on April 15; Dachau by the Americans on April 29; Ravensbrück by the Soviets on the same day; Mauthausen by the Americans on May 5; and Theresienstadt by the Soviets on May 8. Treblinka, Sobibór, and Bełżec were never liberated, but were destroyed by the Nazis in 1943. Colonel William W. Quinn of the U.S. 7th Army said of Dachau: "There our troops found sights, sounds, and stenches horrible beyond belief, cruelties so enormous as to be incomprehensible to the normal mind."