The fortified walls, barbed wire, railway sidings, platforms, barracks, gallows, gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz Birkenau show clearly how the Holocaust, as well as the Nazi German policy of mass murder and forced labour took place. The collections at the site preserve the evidence of those who were premeditatedly murdered, as well as presenting the systematic mechanism by which this was done. The personal items in the collections are testimony to the lives of the victims before they were brought to the extermination camps, as well as to the cynical use of their possessions and remains. The site and its landscape have high levels of authenticity and integrity since the original evidence has been carefully conserved without any unnecessary restoration.
We lived in Bótrágy, a very small, mostly poor town in Czechoslovakia with a population of approximately 1,000 mainly farming families, including about 10 Jewish families. The town was a typical low-income community with a tailor, a shoemaker, a grocery store, where people struggled to get by, but where everyone knew each other and there was easy communication between the neighbours, though that didn’t mean we were equal.
Under the Gleichschaltung process, Hitler attempted to create a unified Protestant Reich Church from Germany's 28 existing Protestant state churches, with the ultimate goal of eradication of the churches in Germany. Pro-Nazi Ludwig Müller was installed as Reich Bishop and the pro-Nazi pressure group German Christians gained control of the new church. They objected to the Old Testament because of its Jewish origins and demanded that converted Jews be barred from their church. Pastor Martin Niemöller responded with the formation of the Confessing Church, from which some clergymen opposed the Nazi regime. When in 1935 the Confessing Church synod protested the Nazi policy on religion, 700 of their pastors were arrested. Müller resigned and Hitler appointed Hanns Kerrl as Minister for Church Affairs to continue efforts to control Protestantism. In 1936, a Confessing Church envoy protested to Hitler against the religious persecutions and human rights abuses. Hundreds more pastors were arrested. The church continued to resist and by early 1937 Hitler abandoned his hope of uniting the Protestant churches. Niemöller was arrested on 1 July 1937 and spent most of the next seven years in Sachsenhausen concentration camp and Dachau. Theological universities were closed and pastors and theologians of other Protestant denominations were also arrested.
Auschwitz inmates were employed on huge farms, including the experimental agricultural station at Rajsko. They were also forced to work in coal mines, in stone quarries, in fisheries, and especially in armaments industries such as the SS-owned German Equipment Works (established in 1941). Periodically, prisoners underwent selection. If the SS judged them too weak or sick to continue working, they were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and killed.
From 1921 to 1922, Hitler evoked rhetoric of both the achievement of Lebensraum involving the acceptance of a territorially reduced Russia as well as supporting Russian nationals in overthrowing the Bolshevik government and establishing a new Russian government. Hitler's attitudes changed by the end of 1922, in which he then supported an alliance of Germany with Britain to destroy Russia. Hitler later declared how far he intended to expand Germany into Russia:
The property is protected by Polish law under the provisions of heritage protection and spatial planning laws, together with the provisions of local law. The site, buildings and relics of the former Auschwitz Birkenau camp are situated on the premises of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, which operates under a number of legal Acts concerning the operation of museums and protection of the Former Nazi Extermination Camps, which provide that the protection of these sites is a public objective, and its fulfilment is the responsibility of the State administration. The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum is a State cultural institution supervised directly by the Minister of Culture and National Heritage, who ensures the necessary financing for its functioning and the fulfillment of its mission, including educational activities to understand the tragedy of the Holocaust and the need to prevent similar threats today and in future. The Museum has undertaken a long-term programme of conservation measures under its Global Conservation Plan. It is financed largely through funds from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, which is supported by states from around the world, as well as by businesses and private individuals. The Foundation has also obtained a State subsidy to supplement the Perpetual Fund (Act of 18 August 2011 on a Subsidy for the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation Intended to Supplement the Perpetual Fund).
During the Holocaust, concentration camp prisoners received tattoos only at one location, Auschwitz. Incoming prisoners were assigned a camp serial number which was sewn to their prison uniforms. Only those prisoners selected for work were issued serial numbers; those prisoners sent directly to the gas chambers were not registered and received no tattoos.
Similar to the Trump administration’s apparent hope that the breakup of families would deter unwanted migration, the British sought to deter Boer fighters. British parliamentarians critical of the policy labelled these “concentration camps,” alluding to the Spanish policy of the “reconcentration” of civilians during the Spanish-American War (1898).
Racism and antisemitism were basic tenets of the NSDAP and the Nazi regime. Nazi Germany's racial policy was based on their belief in the existence of a superior master race. The Nazis postulated the existence of a racial conflict between the Aryan master race and inferior races, particularly Jews, who were viewed as a mixed race that had infiltrated society and were responsible for the exploitation and repression of the Aryan race.
The K.L. was defined from the beginning by its legal ambiguity. The camps were outside ordinary law, answerable not to judges and courts but to the S.S. and Himmler. At the same time, they were governed by an extensive set of regulations, which covered everything from their layout (including decorative flower beds) to the whipping of prisoners, which in theory had to be approved on a case-by-case basis by Himmler personally. Yet these regulations were often ignored by the camp S.S.—physical violence, for instance, was endemic, and the idea that a guard would have to ask permission before beating or even killing a prisoner was laughable. Strangely, however, it was possible, in the prewar years, at least, for a guard to be prosecuted for such a killing. In 1937, Paul Zeidler was among a group of guards who strangled a prisoner who had been a prominent churchman and judge; when the case attracted publicity, the S.S. allowed Zeidler to be charged and convicted. (He was sentenced to a year in jail.)
One of the first people I encountered was Mengele. He told us to undress and stand in line and he went through the ranks deciding who was strong and healthy and fit for work, and who was only fit for the gas chamber. After inspecting me, he put his thumb up high, so they gave me the striped uniform and sent me to get a number tattooed on to my arm. I don’t remember the number. It’s there still, but I never look at it because it brings back too many painful memories.
In the meantime the inmates of the camp had assembled for the evening roll call. We heard rhythmic beats on a big drum, and I could see a man walking through the rows of the assembled men carrying a drum in front of him and beating on it. Soon after, loud cries of pain were heard. The carrier of the drum was tied to a block and subjected to twenty-five blows from a steel rod: his punishment for attempting to escape.
The unified armed forces of Germany from 1935 to 1945 were called the Wehrmacht (defence force). This included the Heer (army), Kriegsmarine (navy), and the Luftwaffe (air force). From 2 August 1934, members of the armed forces were required to pledge an oath of unconditional obedience to Hitler personally. In contrast to the previous oath, which required allegiance to the constitution of the country and its lawful establishments, this new oath required members of the military to obey Hitler even if they were being ordered to do something illegal. Hitler decreed that the army would have to tolerate and even offer logistical support to the Einsatzgruppen—the mobile death squads responsible for millions of deaths in Eastern Europe—when it was tactically possible to do so. Wehrmacht troops also participated directly in the Holocaust by shooting civilians or committing genocide under the guise of anti-partisan operations. The party line was that the Jews were the instigators of the partisan struggle and therefore needed to be eliminated. On 8 July 1941, Heydrich announced that all Jews in the eastern conquered territories were to be regarded as partisans and gave the order for all male Jews between the ages of 15 and 45 to be shot. By August this was extended to include the entire Jewish population.
On 5 January 1919, Drexler created a new political party and proposed it should be named the "German Socialist Workers' Party", but Harrer objected to the term "socialist"; so the term was removed and the party was named the German Workers' Party (Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, DAP). To ease concerns among potential middle-class supporters, Drexler made clear that unlike Marxists the party supported the middle-class and that its socialist policy was meant to give social welfare to German citizens deemed part of the Aryan race. They became one of many völkisch movements that existed in Germany. Like other völkisch groups, the DAP advocated the belief that through profit-sharing instead of socialisation Germany should become a unified "people's community" (Volksgemeinschaft) rather than a society divided along class and party lines. This ideology was explicitly antisemitic. As early as 1920, the party was raising money by selling a tobacco called Anti-Semit.
The process of denazification, which was initiated by the Allies as a way to remove Nazi Party members was only partially successful, as the need for experts in such fields as medicine and engineering was too great. However, expression of Nazi views was frowned upon, and those who expressed such views were frequently dismissed from their jobs. From the immediate post-war period through the 1950s, people avoided talking about the Nazi regime or their own wartime experiences. While virtually every family suffered losses during the war has a story to tell, Germans kept quiet about their experiences and felt a sense of communal guilt, even if they were not directly involved in war crimes.
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. 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. 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". 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. 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. Hindenburg did so, and contrary to the expectations of Papen and the DNVP, Hitler was soon able to establish a Nazi one-party dictatorship.
In addition to eliminating Jews, the Nazis planned to reduce the population of the conquered territories by 30 million people through starvation in an action called the Hunger Plan. Food supplies would be diverted to the German army and German civilians. Cities would be razed and the land allowed to return to forest or resettled by German colonists. Together, the Hunger Plan and Generalplan Ost would have led to the starvation of 80 million people in the Soviet Union. These partially fulfilled plans resulted in the democidal deaths of an estimated 19.3 million civilians and prisoners of war (POWs). During the course of the war, the Soviet Union lost a total of 27 million people; less than nine million of these were combat deaths. One in four of the Soviet population were killed or wounded.
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.
In Mein Kampf, Hitler stated that Lebensraum would be acquired in Eastern Europe, especially Russia. In his early years as the Nazi leader, Hitler had claimed that he would be willing to accept friendly relations with Russia on the tactical condition that Russia agree to return to the borders established by the German–Russian peace agreement of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk signed by Vladimir Lenin of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic in 1918 which gave large territories held by Russia to German control in exchange for peace. In 1921, Hitler had commended the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk as opening the possibility for restoration of relations between Germany and Russia by saying:
The Auschwitz registry (Hauptbücher) shows that 20,946 Roma were registered prisoners, and another 3,000 are thought to have entered unregistered. On 22 March 1943, one transport of 1,700 Polish Sinti and Roma was gassed on arrival because of illness, as was a second group of 1,035 on 25 May 1943. The SS tried to liquidate the camp on 16 May 1944, but the Roma fought them, armed with knives and iron pipes, and the SS retreated. Shortly after this, the SS removed nearly 2,908 from the family camp to work, and on 2 August 1944 gassed the other 2,897. Ten thousand remain unaccounted for.
I had become aware of antisemitism from a young age, when my uncle had his head chopped in two when he was attacked by fascists while driving up to Novograd where he lived. While his attacker was convicted, he was hardly punished, and continued to live opposite my uncle’s wife and child. But as a child you don’t think about these things all that much. My family had a wood and coal business and, like most people in those days, my father was self-employed. As they started to restrict us, he lost his licence to operate and then he faced the enormous task of trying to find work. Meanwhile, my mother was at home trying to keep the family together, with all of us all involved in domestic life.
For the preservation staff, the burden of remembrance informs every aspect of their restoration efforts. “If there’s damage to an object as part of its history, we leave it that way,” Banas says. She points to crates of shoes stacked in a hallway, most with worn insoles and uneven heels—signs of human use that will be left as they are. The International Auschwitz Council—museum officials and survivors from around the world dedicated to the conservation of Auschwitz—has decided that the mounds of hair will be allowed to decay naturally because they are human remains.
Umbreit, Hans (2003). "Hitler's Europe: The German Sphere of Power". In Kroener, Bernhard; Müller, Rolf-Dieter; Umbreit, Hans. Germany and the Second World War, Vol. 5. Organization and Mobilization in the German Sphere of Power. Part 2: Wartime Administration, Economy, and Manpower Resources, 1942–1944/5. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-820873-0.
As the Russians closed in on Auschwitz, the Germans became desperate, destroying as much evidence of war crimes as they could, including records and property seized from prisoners, and forcing as many prisoners as they could on what became death marches. The day before the Russian Army liberated Auschwitz, Edith died there. On January 27 Otto was liberated and taken to Odessa and then France before being allowed to return to Amsterdam in June 1945.
We were first placed in deep rows, ordered to take off our hats and gloves, arid told not to stir. Then some of us had to step out and carry through our rows signs mounted on poles with the following inscriptions: 'We are the chosen people' (with the David star over the inscription); 'We are the murderers of the diplomat vom Rath'; 'We are the destroyers of German culture.' The camp lead evidently coming from Saxony, a slender and somewhat coquettish man with the rank of an officer of the S.S., ordered me to pick up a large paper bag, which an S.S. man put on my head as a cap, and I had to stand like that for some time. This was a harmless attempt at humiliation. Less harmless was the attempt to frighten us through the announcement that we should have to stay in the camp for twenty years. For some these threats were a cause of serious depression even of attempted suicide.
In 1942, after the death of Armaments Minister Fritz Todt, Hitler appointed Albert Speer as his replacement. Wartime rationing of consumer goods led to an increase in personal savings, funds which were in turn lent to the government to support the war effort. By 1944, the war was consuming 75 percent of Germany's gross domestic product, compared to 60 percent in the Soviet Union and 55 percent in Britain. Speer improved production by centralising planning and control, reducing production of consumer goods, and using forced labour and slavery. The wartime economy eventually relied heavily upon the large-scale employment of slave labour. Germany imported and enslaved some 12 million people from 20 European countries to work in factories and on farms. Approximately 75 percent were Eastern European. Many were casualties of Allied bombing, as they received poor air raid protection. Poor living conditions led to high rates of sickness, injury, and death, as well as sabotage and criminal activity. The wartime economy also relied upon large-scale robbery, initially through the state seizing the property of Jewish citizens and later by plundering the resources of occupied territories.
From 1942, members of the Bureau of Information and Propaganda of the Warsaw-area Home Army published reports based on the accounts of escapees. The first was a fictional memoir, "Oświęcim. Pamiętnik więźnia" ("Auschwitz: Diary of a prisoner") by Halina Krahelska, published in April 1942 in Warsaw. Also published in 1942 was the pamphlet Obóz śmierci (Camp of Death) by Natalia Zarembina, and W piekle (In Hell) by Zofia Kossak-Szczucka, founder of Żegota. In March 1944, the Polish Labor Group in New York published a report in English, "Oswiecim, Camp of Death (Underground Report)", with a foreword by Florence Jaffray Harriman, which described the gassing of prisoners from 1942.
Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany by the President of the Weimar Republic, Paul von Hindenburg, on 30 January 1933. The NSDAP then began to eliminate all political opposition and consolidate its power. Hindenburg died on 2 August 1934 and Hitler became dictator of Germany by merging the offices and powers of the Chancellery and Presidency. A national referendum held 19 August 1934 confirmed Hitler as sole Führer (leader) of Germany. All power was centralised in Hitler's person and his word became the highest law. The government was not a coordinated, co-operating body, but a collection of factions struggling for power and Hitler's favour. In the midst of the Great Depression, the Nazis restored economic stability and ended mass unemployment using heavy military spending and a mixed economy. Extensive public works were undertaken, including the construction of Autobahnen (motorways). The return to economic stability boosted the regime's popularity.
The metaphor of war encouraged the inhumanity of the S.S. officers, which they called toughness; licensed physical violence against prisoners; and accounted for the military discipline that made everyday life in the K.L. unbearable. Particularly hated was the roll call, or Appell, which forced inmates to wake before dawn and stand outside, in all weather, to be counted and recounted. The process could go on for hours, Wachsmann writes, during which the S.S. guards were constantly on the move, punishing “infractions such as poor posture and dirty shoes.”
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.
Antisemitic legislation passed in 1933 led to the removal of all Jewish teachers, professors, and officials from the education system. Most teachers were required to belong to the Nationalsozialistischer Lehrerbund (NSLB; National Socialist Teachers League) and university professors were required to join the National Socialist German Lecturers. Teachers had to take an oath of loyalty and obedience to Hitler, and those who failed to show sufficient conformity to party ideals were often reported by students or fellow teachers and dismissed. Lack of funding for salaries led to many teachers leaving the profession. The average class size increased from 37 in 1927 to 43 in 1938 due to the resulting teacher shortage.
My father surveyed the scene from the train and could see prisoners, uniforms and barracks so we immediately thought it was a work camp, and that was reassuring – if we can work, it can’t be such a dreadful place. We had heard about the stories in Poland of lots of mass shootings of Jews or people being taken into the forest and shot, so it was a relief to see out the window that there was actually a system. Even though we were victims of discrimination at that stage that’s all it was, as we had no clue then that this was a very carefully orchestrated plan of genocide. We could not have imagined that they would kill little children, until we realised that killing children was their primary goal to prevent any new generations. Because desperate people will always look to find some sign of hope, we thought to ourselves even if we have to work, at least we’ll see each other occasionally.
Today our left-wing politicians in particular are constantly insisting that their craven-hearted and obsequious foreign policy necessarily results from the disarmament of Germany, whereas the truth is that this is the policy of traitors ... But the politicians of the Right deserve exactly the same reproach. It was through their miserable cowardice that those ruffians of Jews who came into power in 1918 were able to rob the nation of its arms.
For the man in charge of Auschwitz, the gas chamber was a welcome innovation. “I had always shuddered at the prospect of carrying out executions by shooting,” commandant Rudolf Höss wrote in a lengthy confession while awaiting execution after the war. “Many members of the Einsatzkommandos, unable to endure wading through blood any longer, had committed suicide. Some had even gone mad.”
These people had a blue stamp in their registration cards, meaning that they were exempt from deportation. They were Jews who had British or American citizenship. The Nazis saw these Jews as ‘exchange Jews’, and they would attempt to exchange each one of them for five to 10 Germans; especially military prisoners of war. In fact, few exchanges ever occurred.
[Hitler] compiled a most extensive set of revolutionary goals (calling for radical social and political change); he mobilized a revolutionary following so extensive and powerful that many of his aims were achieved; he established and ran a dictatorial revolutionary state; and he disseminated his ideas abroad through a revolutionary foreign policy and war. In short, he defined and controlled the National Socialist revolution in all its phases.
Some Auschwitz prisoners were subjected to inhumane medical experimentation. The chief perpetrator of this barbaric research was Josef Mengele (1911-79), a German physician who began working at Auschwitz in 1943. Mengele, who came to be known as the “Angel of Death,” performed a range of experiments on detainees. For example, in an effort to study eye color, he injected serum into the eyeballs of dozens of children, causing them excruciating pain. He also injected chloroform into the hearts of twins, to determine if both siblings would die at the same time and in the same manner.
After the outbreak of war, people from across Europe were deported to Mauthausen, which gradually developed into a system of several interconnected camps. During this phase, Mauthausen and Gusen were the concentration camps with the harshest imprisonment conditions and the highest mortality. Prisoners at the bottom of the camp hierarchy had barely any chance of surviving for long. Those who were ill or ‘useless’ to the SS were in constant danger of their lives. In 1941 the SS started to construct a gas chamber and other installations at Mauthausen for the systematic murder of large groups of people.
In May 1940, Germany invaded the Netherlands, and the occupation government began to persecute Jews by the implementation of restrictive and discriminatory laws; mandatory registration and segregation soon followed. Otto Frank tried to arrange for the family to emigrate to the United States – the only destination that seemed to him to be viable – but Frank's application for a visa was never processed, due to circumstances such as the closing of the U.S. consulate in Rotterdam and the loss of all the paperwork there, including the visa application. Even if it had been processed, the U.S. government at the time was concerned that people with close relatives still in Germany could be blackmailed into becoming Nazi spies.
After Otto returned, he received Anne’s diary from his former employee Hermine Santrouschitz (Miep Gies, b. 1909) who, together with her husband Jan, supplied the occupants of the attic with food, news from the outside and friendship from the day they went into hiding until they were discovered. After the Germans’ raid on the attic Santrouschitz found the diary there and kept it, intending to give it back to Anne when she returned. However, when Otto Frank told her Anne had died she gave it to him and he secluded himself with it for several days. After deep soul-searching and the urging of close friends, and after making some changes of his own, a modest first edition of 1,500 copies was published in Amsterdam in the summer of 1947, on a date close to Anne’s birthday, under the name Het Achterhuis (The Secret Annexe or, literally, The Back House), the name Anne herself had given to all her writings in the attic in which they had hidden. At first the book was unsuccessful; everyone wanted to forget the war and its troubles. But in 1952, after more hesitation on Otto’s part, the diary was published in the United States with a foreword by Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1955 The Diary of Anne Frank, starring Susan Strasberg, opened on Broadway to great acclaim.
On the morning of 4 August 1944, the Achterhuis was stormed by a group of German uniformed police (Grüne Polizei) led by SS-Oberscharführer Karl Silberbauer of the Sicherheitsdienst. The Franks, van Pelses, and Pfeffer were taken to RSHA headquarters, where they were interrogated and held overnight. On 5 August they were transferred to the Huis van Bewaring (House of Detention), an overcrowded prison on the Weteringschans. Two days later they were transported to the Westerbork transit camp, through which by that time more than 100,000 Jews, mostly Dutch and German, had passed. Having been arrested in hiding, they were considered criminals and sent to the Punishment Barracks for hard labour.
A typical concentration camp consisted of barracks that were secured from escape by barbed wire, watchtowers and guards. The inmates usually lived in overcrowded barracks and slept in bunk ”beds”. In the forced labour camps, for instance, the inmates usually worked 12 hours a day with hard physical work, clothed in rags, eating too little and always living under the risk of corporal punishment.
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.”
Both in public and in private, Hitler expressed disdain for capitalism, arguing that it holds nations ransom in the interests of a parasitic cosmopolitan rentier class. He opposed free market capitalism because it "could not be trusted to put national interests first," and he desired an economy that would direct resources "in ways that matched the many national goals of the regime," such as the buildup of the military, building programs for cities and roads, and economic self-sufficiency. Hitler also distrusted capitalism for being unreliable due to its egotism and he preferred a state-directed economy that maintains private property and competition but subordinates them to the interests of the Volk.
Over the weeks that ensued, most of the remaining inmates of Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazis’ more than 400,000 camps and incarceration facilities, were marched to other camps near and far, walking tens and sometimes even hundreds of miles. Along the way, Beller saw Nazi guards murder prisoners who tried to escape and shoot those who lagged—including women and children so exhausted from starvation and the brutal conditions they could no longer go on. As he marched on, his feet protected by the shoes he’d grabbed before leaving Auschwitz, he saw ordinary Germans standing along the road, watching the prisoners go by.
The death camp and slave-labour camp were interrelated. Newly arrived prisoners at the death camp were divided in a process known as Selektion. The young and the able-bodied were sent to work. Young children and their mothers and the old and infirm were sent directly to the gas chambers. Thousands of prisoners were also selected by the camp doctor, Josef Mengele, for medical experiments. Auschwitz doctors tested methods of sterilization on the prisoners, using massive doses of radiation, uterine injections, and other barbaric procedures. Experiments involving the killing of twins, upon whom autopsies were performed, were meant to provide information that would supposedly lead to the rapid expansion of the “Aryan race.”
“Responsibility is extremely direct in face-to-face shootings,” Dwork says. “In gassing and cremation, each person is given only a small part.” Eventually, Germans took part only by tossing the cyanide pellets into the gas chambers. Everything else—herding prisoners into the chambers, ripping out gold fillings and loading corpses into the crematoria—was handled by groups of prisoners, known as Sonderkommandos.
…party, Hitler joined a German nationalist group that took the name of National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei), nicknamed “Nazi,” a truncation of Nationalsozialistische. Its policies included anti-Semitism and fierce opposition to the Treaty of Versailles. After his abortive Munich coup in 1923, Hitler was sentenced to five…
Auschwitz was probably chosen to play a central role in the “final solution” because it was located at a railway junction with 44 parallel tracks—rail lines that were used to transport Jews from throughout Europe to their death. Heinrich Himmler, chief of the SS, the Nazi paramilitary corps, ordered the establishment of the first camp, the prison camp, on April 27, 1940, and the first transport of Polish political prisoners arrived on June 14. This small camp, Auschwitz I, was reserved throughout its history for political prisoners, mainly Poles and Germans.
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.
Hitler primarily viewed the German economy as an instrument of power and believed the economy was not about creating wealth and technical progress so as to improve the quality of life for a nation's citizenry, but rather that economic success was paramount for providing the means and material foundations necessary for military conquest. While economic progress generated by National Socialist programs had its role in appeasing the German people, the Nazis and Hitler in particular did not believe that economic solutions alone were sufficient to thrust Germany onto the stage as a world power. The Nazis thus sought to secure a general economic revival accompanied by massive military spending for rearmament, especially later through the implementation of the Four Year Plan, which consolidated their rule and firmly secured a command relationship between the German arms industry and the National Socialist government. Between 1933 and 1939, military expenditures were upwards of 82 billion Reichsmarks and represented 23 percent of Germany's gross national product as the Nazis mobilised their people and economy for war.
^ According to Raeder, "Our Air Force could not be counted on to guard our transports from the British Fleets, because their operations would depend on the weather, if for no other reason. It could not be expected that even for a brief period our Air Force could make up for our lack of naval supremacy." Raeder 2001, pp. 324–325. Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz believed air superiority was not enough and admitted, "We possessed neither control of the air or the sea; nor were we in any position to gain it." Dönitz 2012, p. 114.
And for that purpose it is necessary not to think of the camps simply as a hellscape. Reading Wachsmann’s deeply researched, groundbreaking history of the entire camp system makes clear that Dachau and Buchenwald were the products of institutional and ideological forces that we can understand, perhaps all too well. Indeed, it’s possible to think of the camps as what happens when you cross three disciplinary institutions that all societies possess—the prison, the army, and the factory. Over the several phases of their existence, the Nazi camps took on the aspects of all of these, so that prisoners were treated simultaneously as inmates to be corrected, enemies to be combatted, and workers to be exploited. When these forms of dehumanization were combined, and amplified to the maximum by ideology and war, the result was the Konzentrationlager, or K.L.
Radical Antisemitism was promoted by prominent advocates of Völkisch nationalism, including Eugen Diederichs, Paul de Lagarde and Julius Langbehn. De Lagarde called the Jews a "bacillus, the carriers of decay ... who pollute every national culture ... and destroy all faiths with their materialistic liberalism" and he called for the extermination of the Jews. Langbehn called for a war of annihilation against the Jews, and his genocidal policies were later published by the Nazis and given to soldiers on the front during World War II. One antisemitic ideologue of the period, Friedrich Lange, even used the term "National Socialism" to describe his own anti-capitalist take on the Völkisch nationalist template.
By early 1934, the focus shifted towards rearmament. By 1935, military expenditures accounted for 73 percent of the government's purchases of goods and services. On 18 October 1936, Hitler named Göring as Plenipotentiary of the Four Year Plan, intended to speed up rearmament. In addition to calling for the rapid construction of steel mills, synthetic rubber plants, and other factories, Göring instituted wage and price controls and restricted the issuance of stock dividends. Large expenditures were made on rearmament in spite of growing deficits. Plans unveiled in late 1938 for massive increases to the navy and air force were impossible to fulfil, as Germany lacked the finances and material resources to build the planned units, as well as the necessary fuel required to keep them running. With the introduction of compulsory military service in 1935, the Reichswehr, which had been limited to 100,000 by the terms of the Versailles Treaty, expanded to 750,000 on active service at the start of World War II, with a million more in the reserve. By January 1939, unemployment was down to 301,800 and it dropped to only 77,500 by September.
Between 1940 and 1942, the French interned Jewish refugee families fleeing Nazi oppression elsewhere in Europe in Rivesaltes for the same reason. Lists of those incarcerated include a transport of Czech Jewish children: Brothers Salomon and Abraham Davidovic were 13 and 14 when they arrived. Conditions deteriorated. Directors complained in 1941 of no heat. Illness spread. Babies and the elderly died. The situation worsened when the Nazi-puppet Vichy regime assumed control of the camp in 1942 and began deporting its 7,000 foreign Jewish refugee prisoners to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. There, mothers and children were not separated but instead went to their deaths together.
“I don’t want to have lived for nothing like most people,” Frank wrote in her diary. “I want to be useful or give pleasure to the people around me who don’t yet know me, I want to go on living even after my death!” Gradowski, too, wrote with a purpose. But Gradowski’s goal wasn’t personal or public fulfillment. His was truth: searing, blinding prophecy, Jeremiah lamenting a world aflame.
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.