Germany invaded Poland and captured the Free City of Danzig on 1 September 1939, beginning World War II in Europe. Honouring their treaty obligations, Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later. Poland fell quickly, as the Soviet Union attacked from the east on 17 September. Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Sicherheitspolizei (SiPo; Security Police) and Sicherheitsdienst (SD; Security Service), ordered on 21 September that Polish Jews should be rounded up and concentrated into cities with good rail links. Initially the intention was to deport them further east, or possibly to Madagascar. Using lists prepared in advance, some 65,000 Polish intelligentsia, noblemen, clergy, and teachers were killed by the end of 1939 in an attempt to destroy Poland's identity as a nation. Soviet forces advanced into Finland in the Winter War, and German forces saw action at sea. But little other activity occurred until May, so the period became known as the "Phoney War".
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.
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.”
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.
^ Additional evidence of Riehl's legacy can be seen in the Riehl Prize, Die Volkskunde als Wissenschaft (Folklore as Science) which was awarded in 1935 by the Nazis. See: George L. Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1964), p. 23. Applicants for the Riehl prize had stipulations that included only being of Aryan blood, and no evidence of membership in any Marxist parties or any organisation that stood against National Socialism. See: Hermann Stroback, "Folklore and Fascism before and around 1933," in The Nazification of an Academic Discipline: Folklore in the Third Reich, edited by James R Dow and Hannjost Lixfeld (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), pp. 62-63.
The Nazis removed citizenship from German Jews then, during the Second World War, sent most Jews, from Germany and elsewhere, to camps outside the borders of pre-war Germany. Yet, as the war progressed, Germany brought in huge numbers of forced labourers from all over Europe (U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ claim that German-run camps were designed to keep Jews in, rather than out, is unfounded).
That is why, since its creation in 2009, the foundation that raises money to maintain the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau has had a guiding philosophy: “To preserve authenticity.” The idea is to keep the place intact, exactly as it was when the Nazis retreated before the Soviet Army arrived in January 1945 to liberate the camp, an event that resonates on Holocaust Remembrance Day, on Thursday.
In August 1934, civil servants and members of the military were required to swear an oath of unconditional obedience to Hitler. These laws became the basis of the Führerprinzip, the concept that Hitler's word overrode all existing laws. Any acts that were sanctioned by Hitler—even murder—thus became legal. All legislation proposed by cabinet ministers had to be approved by the office of Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess, who could also veto top civil service appointments.
In 1957, Fria ord ("Free Words"), the magazine of the Swedish neofascist organization National League of Sweden published an article by Danish author and critic Harald Nielsen, who had previously written antisemitic articles about the Danish-Jewish author Georg Brandes. Among other things, the article claimed that the diary had been written by Meyer Levin.
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.
In July 1942, when transports from the Westerbork transit camp to Auschwitz began, the family went into hiding together with the van Pels family and Fritz Pfeffer. The hiding place of these eight people was an attic at 263 Prisengracht Street in Amsterdam, the building that contained Otto’s business. For two years, from June 1942, when Anne received a diary for her thirteenth birthday, until she was about fifteen, Anne wrote in her diary nearly every day. Once the hiding place was discovered on August 4, 1944, the diary entries stopped.
During the next two months, some fifty thousand people were arrested on this basis, in what turned into a “frenzy” of political purges and score-settling. In the legal murk of the early Nazi regime, it was unclear who had the power to make such arrests, and so it was claimed by everyone: national, state, and local officials, police and civilians, Party leaders. “Everybody is arresting everybody,” a Nazi official complained in the summer of 1933. “Everybody threatens everybody with Dachau.” As this suggests, it was already clear that the most notorious and frightening destination for political detainees was the concentration camp built by Himmler at Dachau, in Bavaria. The prisoners were originally housed in an old munitions factory, but soon Himmler constructed a “model camp,” the architecture and organization of which provided the pattern for most of the later K.L. The camp was guarded not by police but by members of the S.S.—a Nazi Party entity rather than a state force.
All of the extermination camps were thoroughly organised and resembled industrial plants to an alarming degree. However, only Auschwitz-Birkenau, with its advanced gassing facilities and crematoria, was marked by high technology. In crematoria I and II there were elevators from the gas chambers underground, where the Jews were murdered, to the crematoria, where the bodies were burned.
Last, and perhaps most ominously for our comparisons with the Holocaust, the camps can be the first step toward darker developments, as some have already argued. These “concentration camps” will not lead to gas chambers, but their existence may well lead to the erosion of respect for human rights, the rule of law and government accountability that characterized the Third Reich. Unless, of course, the children are all actors.
When Otto Frank returned to Amsterdam following his release from Auschwitz, Miep Gies gave him five notebooks and some 300 loose papers containing Anne’s writings. Gies had recovered the materials from the Secret Annex shortly after the Franks’ arrest by the Nazis and had hidden them in her desk. (Margot Frank also kept a diary, but it was never found.) Otto Frank knew that Anne wanted to become an author or journalist, and had hoped her wartime writings would one day be published. Anne had even been inspired to edit her diary for posterity after hearing a March 1944 radio broadcast from an exiled Dutch government official who urged the Dutch people to keep journals and letters that would help provide a record of what life was like under the Nazis.
After our liberation I went to Sweden where we were looked after marvellously. The physical recovery was not as bad as the emotional and mental one, which I’m still working on. I am still touched by the memory of a doctor who taught me how to walk again, as through the malnutrition I was incapable. Such a simple thing, but he told me: “I have a daughter like you,” and how vital that statement of his was to my sense of becoming a human being again. It was amazing to be compared to someone having felt completely dehumanised for so long.
Some of the most notorious slave labour camps included a network of subcamps. Gross-Rosen had 100 subcamps, Auschwitz had 44 subcamps, Stutthof had 40 sub-camps set up contingently. Prisoners in these subcamps were dying from starvation, untreated disease and summary executions by the tens of thousands already since the beginning of war.