On June 29, the Times of Israel reported on the discovery: “New tech reveals forgotten Holocaust escape tunnel in Lithuania.” News media around the world picked up the story, including the BBC and the New York Times. To Freund, finding the tunnel finally made it possible to fully comprehend the perseverance the escapees had demonstrated. “What people were so captivated by, I think, was that this was a tale of hope,” he told me. “It proved how resilient humans can be.”
Auschwitz is the most famous because there the killing machine was the most efficient. There, between the end of 1941 and 1944, as many as 12,000 Jews a day could be gassed to death and cremated. In addition to the Jews, hundreds of thousands of others deemed threats to the Nazi regime or considered racially inferior or socially deviant were also murdered.
A unique example of anti-Nazi resistance occurred in the Bialystok ghetto, where several anti-Nazi German and Austrian soldiers were sentenced to death for smuggling weapons and wireless sets to the Jewish resistance. One of these men, Otto Busse, survived and settled in the Kibbutz Nes Amin in 1969, devoting his life to Israel as a concrete example of “Christian atonement.”
After 1942, the economic functions of the camps, previously secondary to their penal and terror functions, came to the fore. Forced labor of camp prisoners became commonplace. The guards became much more brutal, and the death rate increased as the guards not only beat and starved prisoners, but killed them more frequently. Vernichtung durch Arbeit ("extermination through labor") was a policy—camp inmates would literally be worked to death, or to physical exhaustion, at which point they would be gassed or shot. The Germans estimated the average prisoner's lifespan in a concentration camp at three months, due to lack of food and clothing, constant epidemics, and frequent punishments for the most minor transgressions. The shifts were long and often involved exposure to dangerous materials.
Throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, Jews were subjected to antisemitism based on Christian theology, which blamed them for killing Jesus. Even after the Reformation, Catholicism and Lutheranism continued to persecute Jews, accusing them of blood libels and subjecting them to pogroms and expulsions. The second half of the 19th century saw the emergence in the German empire and Austria-Hungary of the völkisch movement, which was developed by such thinkers as Houston Stewart Chamberlain and Paul de Lagarde. The movement embraced a pseudo-scientific racism that viewed Jews as a race whose members were locked in mortal combat with the Aryan race for world domination. These ideas became commonplace throughout Germany, with the professional classes adopting an ideology that did not see humans as racial equals with equal hereditary value. Although the völkisch parties had support in elections at first, by 1914 they were no longer influential. This did not mean that antisemitism had disappeared; instead it was incorporated into the platforms of several mainstream political parties.
In early 1943, encouraged by von Verschuer, Mengele applied to transfer to the concentration camp service. His application was accepted and he was posted to Auschwitz, where he was appointed by SS-Standortarzt Eduard Wirths, chief medical officer at Auschwitz, to the position of chief physician of the Zigeunerfamilienlager (Romani family camp) at Birkenau, a subcamp located on the main Auschwitz complex. The SS doctors did not administer treatment to the Auschwitz inmates, but supervised the activities of inmate doctors who had been forced to work in the camp medical service. As part of his duties, Mengele made weekly visits to the hospital barracks and ordered any prisoners who had not recovered after two weeks in bed to be sent to the gas chambers.
With respect to the "functionalism versus intentionalism" debate about a master plan for the Final Solution, or the lack thereof, Hilberg posits what has been described as "a kind of structural determinism". Hilberg argues that "a destruction process has an inherent pattern" and the "sequence of steps in a destruction process is thus determined". If a bureaucracy is motivated "to inflict maximum damage upon a group of people", it is "inevitable that a bureaucracy—no matter how decentralized its apparatus or how unplanned its activities—should push its victims through these stages", culminating in their annihilation.
In the first few decades after the Holocaust, scholars argued that it was unique as a genocide in its reach and specificity. This began to change in the 1980s during the West German Historikerstreit ("historians' dispute"), an attempt to re-position the Holocaust within German historiography. Ernst Nolte triggered the dispute in June 1986 with an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: "Vergangenheit, die nicht vergehen will: Eine Rede, die geschrieben, aber nicht mehr gehalten werden konnte" ("The past that will not pass: A speech that could be written but not delivered"), in which he compared Auschwitz to the Gulag and suggested that the Holocaust was a response to Hitler's fear of the Soviet Union: "Was the Bolshevik murder of an entire class not the logical and factual prius of the 'racial murder' of National Socialism? ... Was the source of Auschwitz a past that would not go away?"[aa]
The Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. Leaders of the SS and police and leaders of the German armed forces had concluded pre-invasion agreements. In accordance with these agreements, SS and police units—including Einsatzgruppen of the German Security Police and SD and battalions of the German Order Police—followed German troops into newly occupied Soviet territory. Acting as mobile killing units, they conducted shooting operations aimed at annihilating entire Jewish communities. By autumn 1941, the SS and police introduced mobile gas vans. These paneled trucks had exhaust pipes reconfigured to pump poisonous carbon monoxide gas into sealed spaces, killing those locked within. They were designed to complement ongoing shooting operations.
Before the war, Mengele had received doctorates in anthropology and medicine, and began a career as a researcher. He joined the Nazi Party in 1937 and the SS in 1938. He was assigned as a battalion medical officer at the start of World War II, then transferred to the Nazi concentration camps service in early 1943 and assigned to Auschwitz, where he saw the opportunity to conduct genetic research on human subjects. His subsequent experiments focused primarily on twins, with little regard for the health or safety of the victims.