The Nazis claimed that Bismarck was unable to complete German national unification because Jews had infiltrated the German parliament and they claimed that their abolition of parliament had ended this obstacle to unification. Using the stab-in-the-back myth, the Nazis accused Jews—and other populations who it considered non-German—of possessing extra-national loyalties, thereby exacerbating German antisemitism about the Judenfrage (the Jewish Question), the far-right political canard which was popular when the ethnic Völkisch movement and its politics of Romantic nationalism for establishing a Großdeutschland was strong.
Jews, especially German, Western European and Russian, also worked as slave labour in work camps in Germany. The Kraft durch Freude Volkswagen works in Wolfsburg, for example, used the “cheap” Jewish slave labourers. A tile work in Sachsenhausen, owned and operated by the SS, used Jews and other slave labourers. In the Harz, near the concentration camp Dora-Mittelbau, Jews worked in an underground weapons factory.
Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the concentration and extermination camps established on Polish soil, served concurrently as a labor camp and as a center for the rapid extermination of Jews. Chosen as the central location for the annihilation of the Jewish people, it was equipped with several extermination facilities and crematoria. Extermination was carried out by means of Zyklon B gas, a substance that had previously been tested on Russian prisoners of war.
In spite of efforts to prepare the country militarily, the economy could not sustain a lengthy war of attrition. A strategy was developed based on the tactic of Blitzkrieg ("lightning war"), which involved using quick coordinated assaults that avoided enemy strong points. Attacks began with artillery bombardment, followed by bombing and strafing runs. Next the tanks would attack and finally the infantry would move in to secure the captured area. Victories continued through mid-1940, but the failure to defeat Britain was the first major turning point in the war. The decision to attack the Soviet Union and the decisive defeat at Stalingrad led to the retreat of the German armies and the eventual loss of the war. The total number of soldiers who served in the Wehrmacht from 1935 to 1945 was around 18.2 million, of whom 5.3 million died.
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 SS gained its independence from the SA in July 1934, in the wake of the Röhm purge. Hitler then authorized SS leader Heinrich Himmler to centralize the administration of the concentration camps and formalize them into a system. Himmler chose SS Lieutenant General Theodor Eicke for this task. Eicke had been the commandant of the SS concentration camp at Dachau since June 1933. Himmler appointed him Inspector of Concentration Camps, a new section of the SS subordinate to the SS Main Office.