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.
This disturbing idea was suggested by an incident this past spring at the Anne Frank House, the blockbuster Amsterdam museum built out of Frank’s “Secret Annex,” or in Dutch, “Het Achterhuis [The House Behind],” a series of tiny hidden rooms where the teenage Jewish diarist lived with her family and four other persecuted Jews for over two years, before being captured by Nazis and deported to Auschwitz in 1944. Here’s how much people love dead Jews: Anne Frank’s diary, first published in Dutch in 1947 via her surviving father, Otto Frank, has been translated into 70 languages and has sold over 30 million copies worldwide, and the Anne Frank House now hosts well over a million visitors each year, with reserved tickets selling out months in advance. But when a young employee at the Anne Frank House in 2017 tried to wear his yarmulke to work, his employers told him to hide it under a baseball cap. The museum’s managing director told newspapers that a live Jew in a yarmulke might “interfere” with the museum’s “independent position.” The museum finally relented after deliberating for six months, which seems like a rather long time for the Anne Frank House to ponder whether it was a good idea to force a Jew into hiding.
In 1959, Otto Frank took legal action in Lübeck against Lothar Stielau, a school teacher and former Hitler Youth member who published a school paper that described the diary as "a forgery". The complaint was extended to include Heinrich Buddegerg, who wrote a letter in support of Stielau, which was published in a Lübeck newspaper. The court examined the diary in 1960 and authenticated the handwriting as matching that in letters known to have been written by Anne Frank. They declared the diary to be genuine. Stielau recanted his earlier statement, and Otto Frank did not pursue the case any further.
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.
Hitler was not influenced by the United States alone. “Let’s learn from the English,” Hitler said repeatedly, “who, with two hundred and fifty thousand men in all, including fifty thousand soldiers, govern four hundred million Indians.” According to multiple sources, Hitler was also fascinated by Islam, which he saw as a muscular, militant religion in contrast to the meek faith of suffering that was Christianity—despite the fact that Arabs were Semites, and that non-Arab Muslims were considered racially inferior. Even closer to Hitler’s mind was Mustafa Kemal Pasha, or Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, who had resisted the Versailles Treaty and whose regime’s genocide of the Armenians was an early example of exterminationist policy.
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.
Jewish deportees arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau immediately underwent selection. The SS staff chose some of the able-bodied for forced labor and sent the rest directly to the gas chambers, which were disguised as shower installations to mislead the victims. The belongings of all deportees were confiscated and sorted in the "Kanada" (Canada) warehouse for shipment back to Germany. Canada symbolized wealth to the prisoners.
From Katowice, follow the A4 motorway towards Kraków and take the S1 expressway south towards Cieszyn. Drive southwards and take the DW934 highway at the Bieruń Nowy Imielin exit. At the intersection of DK44, turn left and follow the signs to Oświęcim. At the roundabout with DW933, take the first right and follow ul. Powstańców Śląskich, which will run past railway tracks and the town's railway station. From there, follow the signs to Muzeum Auschwitz.
Mindful that no mere visit can convey what the concentration camp was like when the Nazis ran it, I met with survivors. The week before I arrived in Krakow, I had called Jozef Stos, 89, to ask if he would discuss his years in captivity. “If I’m still alive then, sure—it’s my civic responsibility,” he said with a laugh. “But I’m pretty darn old, you know.”
Auschwitz is enshrined in history in part because, as a work camp, there were survivors. Anita Lasker-Wallfisch was a 14-year-old Jewish cello student living in the German city of Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland) when the war broke out. Two years later, she and her sister Renate were sent to work in a nearby paper factory. In 1942, after the Germans deported her parents to a death camp, the sisters doctored their identity papers and tried to escape.
The Frank sisters were excelling in their studies and had many friends, but with the introduction of a decree that Jews could attend only Jewish schools, they were enrolled at the Jewish Lyceum. Anne became a friend of Jacqueline van Maarsen in the Lyceum. In April 1941, Otto took action to prevent Pectacon from being confiscated as a Jewish-owned business. He transferred his shares in Pectacon to Johannes Kleiman and resigned as director. The company was liquidated and all assets transferred to Gies and Company, headed by Jan Gies. In December, Otto followed a similar process to save Opekta. The businesses continued with little obvious change and their survival allowed Otto to earn a minimal income, but sufficient to provide for his family.
The first prisoners at Auschwitz included German prisoners transferred from Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany, where they had been incarcerated as repeat criminal offenders, and Polish political prisoners from Lodz via Dachau concentration camp and from Tarnow in Krakow District of the Generalgouvernement (that part of German-occupied Poland not annexed to Nazi Germany, linked administratively to German East Prussia, or incorporated into the German-occupied Soviet Union).
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.
In Mein Kampf, Hitler stated his desire to "make war upon the Marxist principle that all men are equal." He believed that "the notion of equality was a sin against nature." Nazism upheld the "natural inequality of men," including inequality between races and also within each race. The National Socialist state aimed to advance those individuals with special talents or intelligence, so they could rule over the masses. Nazi ideology relied on elitism and the Führerprinzip (leadership principle), arguing that elite minorities should assume leadership roles over the majority, and that the elite minority should itself be organized according to a "hierarchy of talent," with a single leader - the Führer - at the top. The Führerprinzip held that each member of the hierarchy owed absolute obedience to those above him and should hold absolute power over those below him.
After the war, the Allies occupied Germany, outlawed the Nazi Party and worked to purge its influence from every aspect of German life. The party’s swastika flag quickly became a symbol of evil in modern postwar culture. Although Hitler killed himself before he could be brought to justice, a number of Nazi officials were convicted of war crimes in the Nuremberg trials, which took place in Nuremberg, Germany, from 1945 to 1949.
Auschwitz I, a former Polish army barracks, was the main camp (Stammlager) and administrative headquarters of the camp complex. Intending to use it to house political prisoners, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, head of the Schutzstaffel (SS), approved the site in April 1940 on the recommendation of SS-Obersturmbannführer (lieutenant colonel) Rudolf Höss, then of the Concentration Camps Inspectorate. Höss oversaw the development of the camp and served as its first commandant, with SS-Obersturmführer (senior lieutenant) Josef Kramer as his deputy. Around 1,000 m long and 400 m wide, Auschwitz I consisted of 20 brick buildings, six of them two-story; a second story was added to the others in 1943 and eight new blocks were built. The camp housed the SS barracks and by 1943 held 30,000 inmates. The first 30 prisoners arrived on 20 May 1940 after being transported from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg, Germany. Convicted German criminals (Berufsverbrecher), the men were known as "greens" after the green triangles they were required to wear on their prison clothing. Brought to the camp as functionaries, this group did much to establish the sadism of early camp life, which was directed particularly at Polish inmates, until the political prisoners began to take over their roles.
In Germany the words 'protective custody' have a double meaning. Originally the term meant the incarceration of people who were threatened by others and who were guarded for their own safety so that they might be protected from their enemies. Now, however, men in protective custody are mostly those who are brought, for the 'protection of the people and the State,' into a concentration camp without hearing, without court sentence, without the possibility of redress, and for an indefinite time. Frequently people sentenced by a court are taken into protective custody by the Gestapo after serving their prison sentence, often directly from the prison gate. Such, for example, was the fate of Pastor Niemöller, who, after being released from prison, was taken into the camp Sachsenhausen near Oranienburg, the camp with which we shall be concerned here. He is in solitary confinement there, and I never saw him.
Next to physical labor, military drill played an important part, especially for the older men. Still to-day I can hear the command: 'Eyes right! Eyes front!' The drill consisted mainly of marching in large formations and in turns and practising the salute—a quick removal of the cap. Those who did not greet a passing S.S. man with this procedure laid themselves open to severe punishment. A sixty-five-year-old lawyer, who in spite of glasses could see very little, did not salute a passing 'superior officer,' and was struck so that his glasses were broken. His excuse that he was extremely nearsighted was answered with curses.
Hitler's talent as an orator and his ability to draw new members, combined with his characteristic ruthlessness, soon made him the dominant figure. However, while Hitler and Eckart were on a fundraising trip to Berlin in June 1921, a mutiny broke out within the party in Munich. Members of its executive committee wanted to merge with the rival German Socialist Party (DSP). Upon returning to Munich on 11 July, Hitler angrily tendered his resignation. The committee members realised that his resignation would mean the end of the party. Hitler announced he would rejoin on condition that he would replace Drexler as party chairman, and that the party headquarters would remain in Munich. The committee agreed, and he rejoined the party on 26 July as member 3,680. Hitler continued to face some opposition within the NSDAP, as his opponents had Hermann Esser expelled from the party and they printed 3,000 copies of a pamphlet attacking Hitler as a traitor to the party. In the following days, Hitler spoke to several packed houses and defended himself and Esser to thunderous applause.
Successive Reichsstatthalter decrees between 1933 and 1935 abolished the existing Länder (constituent states) of Germany and replaced them with new administrative divisions, the Gaue, governed by NSDAP leaders (Gauleiters). The change was never fully implemented, as the Länder were still used as administrative divisions for some government departments such as education. This led to a bureaucratic tangle of overlapping jurisdictions and responsibilities typical of the administrative style of the Nazi regime.
The victories of Operation Barbarossa in the summer and fall of 1941 against Hitler's new enemy, the Soviet Union, led to dramatic changes in Nazi anti-Jewish ideology and the profile of prisoners brought to Auschwitz. Construction on Auschwitz II-Birkenau began in October 1941 to ease congestion at the main camp. Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, head of the Schutzstaffel (SS), intended the camp to house 50,000 prisoners of war, who would be interned as forced laborers. Plans called for the expansion of the camp first to house 150,000 and eventually as many as 200,000 inmates. An initial contingent of 10,000 Soviet prisoners of war arrived at Auschwitz I in October 1941, but by March 1942 only 945 were still alive, and these were transferred to Birkenau, where most of them died from disease or starvation by May. By this time the Nazis had decided to annihilate the Jewish people, so Birkenau became a labor and extermination camp.
Overall 268,657 male and 131,560 female prisoners were registered in Auschwitz, 400,207 in total. Many prisoners were never registered and much evidence was destroyed by the SS in the final days of the war, making the number of victims hard to ascertain. Himmler visited the camp on 17 July 1942 and watched a gassing; a few days later, according to Höss's post-war memoir, Höss received an order from Himmler, via Adolf Eichmann's office and SS commander Paul Blobel, that "[a]ll mass graves were to be opened and the corpses burned. In addition the ashes were to be disposed of in such a way that it would be impossible at some future time to calculate the number of corpses burned."
Victor Kugler and Johannes Kleiman were arrested and jailed at the penal camp for enemies of the regime at Amersfoort. Kleiman was released after seven weeks, but Kugler was held in various work camps until the war's end. Miep Gies and Bep Voskuijl were questioned and threatened by the Security Police but not detained. They returned to the Achterhuis the following day, and found Anne's papers strewn on the floor. They collected them, as well as several family photograph albums, and Gies resolved to return them to Anne after the war. On 7 August 1944, Gies attempted to facilitate the release of the prisoners by confronting Silberbauer and offering him money to intervene, but he refused.
On 3 September 1944,[a] the group was deported on what would be the last transport from Westerbork to the Auschwitz concentration camp and arrived after a three-day journey. On the same train was Bloeme Evers-Emden, an Amsterdam native who had befriended Margot and Anne in the Jewish Lyceum in 1941. Bloeme saw Anne, Margot, and their mother regularly in Auschwitz, and was interviewed for her remembrances of the Frank women in Auschwitz in the television documentary The Last Seven Months of Anne Frank (1988) by Dutch filmmaker Willy Lindwer and the BBC documentary Anne Frank Remembered (1995).
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.
Gradowski was one of the Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz’s Sonderkommando: those forced to escort new arrivals into the gas chambers, haul the newly dead bodies to the crematoriums, extract any gold teeth and then burn the corpses. Gradowski, a young married man whose entire family was murdered, reportedly maintained his religious faith, reciting the kaddish (mourner’s prayer) each evening for the victims of each transport—including Peter van Pels’ father, who was gassed a few weeks after his arrival in Auschwitz on September 6, 1944. Gradowski recorded his experiences in Yiddish in documents he buried, which were discovered after the war; he himself was killed on October 7, 1944, in a Sonderkommando revolt that lasted only one day. (The documents written by Gradowski and several other prisoners inspired the 2015 Hungarian film Son of Saul, which, unsurprisingly, was no blockbuster, despite an Academy Award and critical acclaim.)
There is a serious anachronism at work: the coverage that speaks to Schneidermann on an emotional level now was largely ineffective at the time it was printed. He muses that the journalists in the thirties needed to invent a new language, but he doesn’t quite define what that language should have looked like—dry facts didn’t allow an audience truly to comprehend the incomprehensible, but irony didn’t work, either, and neither did outcry. He faults the news outlets, above all, for not publishing vivid portraits of the victims. “Facts. Raw facts,” Schneidermann writes of press descriptions of Jewish refugees in 1939. “We can’t accuse the New York Times of having avoided the raw facts. Except that the raw facts don’t suffice. They never suffice. In order for a piece of news to touch consciences and hearts, there must be emotion running through it.”
This complex incorporated 45 forced labor sub-camps. The name Buna was based on the Buna synthetic rubber factory on site, owned by I.G. Farben, Germany’s largest chemical company. Most workers at this and other German-owned factories were Jewish inmates. The labor would push inmates to the point of total exhaustion, at which time new laborers replaced them.
Although Nazism is often seen as a reactionary movement, it did not seek a return of Germany to the pre-Weimar monarchy, but instead looked much further back to a mythic halcyon Germany which never existed. It has also been seen – as it was by the German-American scholar Franz Leopold Neumann – as the result of a crisis of capitalism which manifested as a "totalitarian monopoly capitalism". In this view Nazism is a mass movement of the middle class which was in opposition to a mass movement of workers in socialism and its extreme form, Communism. Historian Karl Dietrich Bracher, however, argues that,
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 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.)
Though most Nazi concentration and extermination camps were destroyed after the war, some of them were turned into permanent memorials, and museums. In Communist Poland, some camps such as Majdanek, Jaworzno, Potulice and Zgoda were used by the Soviet NKVD to hold German prisoners of war, suspected or confirmed Nazis and Nazi collaborators, anti-Communists and other political prisoners, as well as civilian members of the German-speaking, Silesian and Ukrainian ethnic minorities. Currently, there are memorials to the victims of both Nazi and communist camps at Potulice; they have helped to enable a German-Polish discussion on historical perceptions of World War II. In East Germany, the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen were used for similar purposes. Dachau concentration camp was used as a detention centre for the arrested Nazis.