The town of Os´wie˛cim first appears in the historical record in the twelfth century. Originally, it was a Polish settlement, established at the confluence of the Vistula and Soła rivers, some forty-five kilometres to the west of Cracow. The following century, German settlers moved to the area, bringing with them their language and their law system. Then, in the 1300s, the Duchy of Os´wie˛cim, centred on the little town, was incorporated into the Holy Roman Empire. However, by the end of the century, the duchy was under Bohemian rule, with Czech as its official language. In 1457, it was sold to the Polish monarchy, and it remained part of Poland until the state was carved up by Russia, Prussia and Austria in 1772. At that point, it came under the auspices of the Habsburg Empire, was renamed Auschwitz, and once again adopted the German language.1 Thereafter, it remained under Habsburg control until the fall of the monarchy in 1918. Three years later, it was included in the region of eastern Upper Silesia that the League of Nations allocated to the re-created independent Polish state. Auschwitz once again became Os´wie˛cim, but this time for just eighteen years, until the fall of Poland in September 1939.
Despite all of these changes of ownership and name, the population of Os´wie˛cim remained largely Slavic until the mid-fifteenth century, when the first Jews arrived. Unlike many towns in Silesia, no anti-Semitic laws were enacted against Owicim’s Jewish population, so they enjoyed a relatively stable, peaceful coexistence with their Catholic neighbours. Their numbers flourished up to 1939, by which time 50 per cent or more of the town’s population of 14,000 were Jewish. Every mayor of Os´wie˛cim was a Catholic, but his deputy was always a Jew.
The camp at Os´wie˛cim began life at the end of the nineteenth century as a barracks for seasonal workers who passed through the frontier region on their way to find work in Prussia. At the end of the First World War, it became a refugee centre for people fleeing the border conflicts precipitated by the collapse of the German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires; but by the 1930s, it was being used primarily by the Polish Army.
Os´wie˛cim fell to the German Army on 4 September 1939, and it was renamed Auschwitz a few days later. On 26 October, it became part of the new region of Upper Silesia. Thus, the town was now officially within Germany proper, rather than, as many assume, in the occupied territories of the East.
The SS first began to take an interest in the area around this time after Himmler had been appointed Reich Commissar for the Strengthening of “Germandom.” As we have seen, much of the eastern region of the newly incorporated areas of Upper Silesia were originally designated to be used for the resettlement of ethnic Germans, but these plans were put on hold as soon as the logistical difficulties of ousting the existing population became apparent. As a short-term alternative, SS-General von dem Bach-Zelewski, who was in command of SS-Region South-East, suggested that the area could accommodate a new concentration camp.
During the winter and spring of 1939–40, the old camp in Auschwitz was visited by several teams of inspectors, who itemised the site’s pros and cons. On the one hand, the buildings were dilapidated, the whole camp was in a low-lying, swampy area with poor drainage and there was a malaria problem. On the other, it had excellent communications and the main camp—once refurbished—could easily be converted into a prison compound. In the end, supporters of the site won out, and responsibility for the conversion of the barracks and establishment of the new camp was given to a long-standing National Socialist “old fighter,” SS-Captain Rudolf Höss.2
Höss was born in a farming district near Baden-Baden in the Rhineland-Palatinate in November 1900. His family was middle-class and strongly Catholic. Höss was a solitary child, preferring the company of animals, and particularly his pony, rather than humans. This extended even to his family: by his own account, while he respected his parents and his sisters, he was unable to love them as other children seemed to love their families. He also began to lose his religious faith at the age of thirteen, after his confessor reported one of Höss’s indiscretions to his father, who punished him for it. (He had accidentally hurt another child at school.) The following year, before the outbreak of the First World War, his father died.
Höss was fascinated by the conflict. He persuaded his mother to let him become a Red Cross volunteer, and he spent much of his free time helping wounded soldiers at hospitals, railway stations and barracks. In 1916, after several failed attempts, he was accepted into the cavalry regiment in which both his father and his grandfather had served. After basic training, he was sent to Turkey and from there to the Iraqi front. At the age of just seventeen he became the youngest NCO in the German Army, and the following year he was a senior sergeant commanding an independent cavalry reconnaissance troop composed entirely of men in their thirties.
He was in Damascus with his troop when the armistice came. Rather than surrender and face internment, he chose to fight his way home; his soldiers volunteered to join him. They rode across Turkey, took a tramp steamer across the Black Sea, then rode through the mountains of South-East Europe in the middle of winter before arriving in Germany after three months of travelling.
Höss’s mother had died while he had been away at war, leaving his two young sisters in the care of relations. On arriving home, he discovered that these relations had divided his parents’ belongings among themselves, put his sisters in a convent, and were now demanding that he should enter the priesthood (this had been his father’s wish, too). Höss had no intention of becoming a priest, having found his vocation in the army. However, there was no place for him in the much-reduced regular armed forces, so he joined theRossbach Free Corps.
He fought as a Free Corps soldier for the next few years in various trouble-spots within Germany and on its borders. In November 1922, he joined the NSDAP during a visit to Munich, but by then he had already committed the crime that would ensure he was not around to participate in its rebuilding process in the late 1920s. On the night of 31 May–1 June 1922, he had been one of a group of drunken Free Corps members who had abducted, brutally beaten, stabbed, shot and killed a schoolteacher whom they had wrongly believed to be an informer for the French occupation forces.* Höss was finally arrested on 28 June 1923, and on 15 March 1924 he was sentenced to ten years’ hard labour in Brandenburg Prison.
He was a model prisoner, which amply demonstrated his compulsive obedience to authority—a trait he had already displayed in the army and the Free Corps. He achieved the highest level of trusty status and gave the prison authorities no problems whatsoever prior to his sudden release after six years as part of a political prisoner amnesty.
Höss spent much of the next five years as a member of the Artamanen Society, the Nordic-racist agricultural “pioneer” group that Himmler had joined in the early 1920s. He met his wife in the society, and they quickly started a family. But in 1934, Himmler—whom Höss had known slightly since the early 1920s—asked him to join the SS. After some thought, he accepted and joined Eicke’s Oberbayern Guard Battalion. His reasons for doing so are easy to understand: he would be joining an organisation in which his favourite traits of obedience and duty were paramount; and he saw this as an opportunity to advance himself under a new regime whose goals he shared. After a brief period of training, he was promoted to corporal and posted to the concentration camp at Dachau as a block leader.
In his autobiography—with nauseating self-pity—Höss describes his “reluctance” to act as a concentration camp gaoler. But he was evidently very good at his job, fitted in well with Eicke’s severe and brutal regime, and rose steadily through the ranks. By July 1935, he was a sergeant and the following year he had become a sergeant major and the Rapportführer (in effect, executive officer) for Dachau’s protective custody camp. In September 1936, he became an officer and was put in charge of administering the prisoners’ property. In August 1938, he was transferred to Sachsenhausen concentration camp as its adjutant.
This was a key appointment. Sachsenhausen adjoined the Concentration Camp Inspectorate, which meant that Höss “got more closely acquainted with Eicke and with the effects of his influence upon the camp and the troops…[and also] learned to understand the relationships within the higher reaches of the SS. In short acquired a broader view.”3 Höss’s familiarity with the system, as well as his zeal, efficiency and absolute obedience, made him the ideal choice as commandant of Auschwitz when the decision was made to establish it. He received his posting order to the new camp on 2 May 1940.
Work had begun on the renovation of the camp and construction of new facilities the previous month. Among the first workers were some three hundred Jews, provided by the local Jewish Council, but in all more than five hundred companies from throughout Germany were eventually involved in building work and the supply of equipment to Auschwitz. On 20 May, a group of specially selected German prisoners from Sachsenhausen was brought to Auschwitz and installed in the barracks to act as the nucleus of the trusties who would liaise between the SS and the rest of the prisoner population. Nine days later, forty more prisoners arrived with a truckload of barbed wire and started to enclose the compound by winding the wire around wooden poles.
The first political prisoners arrived at the camp on 14 June 1940. This was a group of 728 Poles—mostly soldiers, students and schoolchildren, including a few Jews—who had been transferred from the prison at Tarnów, near Cracow. At this time, it was intended that Auschwitz would be a similar institution to the concentration camps in Germany: a place where potential opponents of the National Socialists could be isolated, brutalised and “reeducated.” The only difference was its capacity: the new camp was designed to hold some 11,000 prisoners whereas, at the start of the war, the six German concentration camps held around 25,000 in total.4 More prisoners soon followed those from Tarnów, travelling from other prisons throughout Germany and the incorporated territories. They were all set to work as forced labour, building the camp.
Organisationally, Auschwitz followed the model for concentration camps established by Eicke at Dachau. Department 1 was the commandant’s staff, run by the adjutant,* with the role of managing the camp’s SS personnel; Department 2 was the “political department,” staffed by members of the Gestapo, Kripo and SD, subordinated to the RSHA, and responsible for surveillance and interrogation of prisoners; Department 3 was responsible for the protective custody camp and was, in effect, the camp operations staff; Department 4 dealt with operations and logistics; Department 5 was the medical staff; Department 6 was responsible for the training and welfare of the Waffen-SS guards. The latter were originally supplied by a Waffen-SS mounted unit based in Cracow, but these were soon replaced by specialists seconded from other concentration camps, supplemented by reservists called up for duty within the SS-Death’s Head Auschwitz Battalion.5 As in the other concentration camps, much responsibility was also given to the prisoner trusties who were employed as supervisors and clerks on labour details and within the camp. They were distinguished by being allowed to wear civilian clothes, grow their hair and carry whips and clubs to beat their fellow prisoners. At first, as we have seen, these were exclusively German, but as time went by and the camp expanded, the net was spread more widely, with prisoners from elsewhere being employed in these roles. By late 1943, even Jews served as block seniors and Kapos.
Conditions for the prisoners during the early period at Auschwitz were probably worse than in the rest of the concentration camp system. On arrival, they were registered, stripped of their clothing, shorn of their hair and issued with a number that was also tattooed on their forearm. Thereafter, their names were meaningless within the camp system. They were given prison clothing, consisting of a shirt, a jacket, trousers and a cap, all made from a distinctive striped, coarse canvas, together with a pair of wooden clogs. Then they were issued with triangular patches to indicate their status: green for criminals; red for political prisoners; black for “asocials,” including Gypsies; purple for Jehovah’s Witnesses; blue for emigrants. At this stage, Jews were not being sent to Auschwitz simply for being Jewish, so any Jewish prisoner wore an additional yellow triangle underneath their primary patch, to form a crude “Star of David.” This arrival and registration process was deliberately designed to terrorise and subdue the prisoners: it was accompanied throughout by shouting and blows from the Kapos and the SS guards, as well as the barking of aggressive guard dogs. Any prisoner showing signs of resistance or poor attitude could expect to be beaten to a pulp or even shot.
There was little improvement once the prisoners had been received into the camp. After a few days of quarantine and physical assessment by SS personnel and trusties, they were allocated to work details either within the camp or, as the Auschwitz “complex” grew in size and scope, in one of the many industrial concerns that were established to exploit this pool of slave labour. The working day for the prisoners began around 4:30 a.m. in the summer and 5:30 in the winter. After being ordered from their bunks, they were hustled to a communal washroom and lavatory where they were given a few minutes to evacuate their bowels and wash themselves in water that could be icy cold or scalding hot. Thereafter, they were given breakfast, which normally consisted of a mug of unsweetened artificial coffee, a slice of bread, a thin slice of salami and a small knob of margarine.6 They were not fed again until their return to the camp in the evening. Following breakfast, roll-call was taken: the prisoners would be forced to stand outside in all weathers as they were counted and re-counted. Any prisoners who had died during the night were laid out next to the living to make the figures tally. With the roll-call complete—and it could take several hours—the prisoners were marched to their work details.
The best jobs were skilled tasks in the factories and on building sites, which could be performed with relatively little harassment from the guards and overseers. Also highly prized were those tasks that allowed access to newly arrived prisoners’ belongings and therefore extra food, valuables and money that could be used to bribe Kapos and corrupt SS guards, of whom there were many. The worst jobs involved hard physical work: labouring on construction sites, in stone quarries and the timber yard. The prisoner diet was inadequate for all, but those who were forced into hard labour without any means to acquire extra food were effectively given an extended death sentence. As they became increasingly malnourished, these prisoners were labelled Musselmänner (Muslims) in the camp vernacular. They effectively lost the battle for survival: unable to get anywhere near the front of the queue for food, they sank into lassitude. Ultimately, if they didn’t die from illness or starvation, they were killed for being unable to work. The SS and the long-term inmates were skilled at spotting potential Musselmänner—for instance, their buttocks became soft and flabby. When Auschwitz became a death camp, this was enough to have a prisoner sent to the gas chambers.7
The end of the prisoners’ day came in the early evening. They returned from their work details to face another extended roll-call; once again, any prisoners who had died during the day were counted alongside the living. Then the surviving prisoners received their evening meal, which usually consisted of a bowl of watery vegetable soup, thickened with potato peel and sometimes barley. Sometimes lumps of animal skin and fat would be included to give the soup slightly more nutritional value, but this happened so rarely that it had almost no impact on the prisoners’ health. Food distribution was handled by the trusties, which gave them enormous scope for corruption. Routinely, when a trusty was given a loaf of bread intended for four prisoners, he would cut it into five pieces, give the four prisoners short rations, and exchange the remainder for more food, alcohol, tobacco, jewellery or some other prized commodity. These items were then used in barter with the SS guards. Moreover, a favoured prisoner would receive a ladle of soup taken from the bottom of the cauldron, where the more nourishing material could be found, while another would be given watery, nutritionally worthless slop from the top.
Homosexual relationships were commonplace, with many trusties using their control of food distribution to obtain sexual favours from younger male prisoners. If these bribes were refused, the prisoner might simply be raped.
Punishments for infractions of the numerous rules were invariably harsh and brutal. Block 11 in the main camp was designated as the punishment area. Once there, prisoners might be flogged or beaten; placed overnight in “standing cells,” where they could not lie down or rest, and then forced to do their designated work the next day; placed in “starvation cells,” where they were given neither food nor water; or hung up by their hands so that their shoulders dislocated. Those who were executed for violating the rules were either shot or hanged in a yard next to Block 11.
In February 1941, Himmler ordered that all Jews were to be expelled from the town of Auschwitz and its immediate environs, and that all indigenous Poles and all available camp inmates were to begin work on a new project. This was the construction, under the auspices of the giant IG Farben chemical company, of a huge plant to manufacture Buna—synthetic rubber and oil made out of coal—for the German war effort. The project had been presented to Himmler as a way of bringing German settlers to Auschwitz. It would also fully exploit the economic potential of the prisoners by employing them in a viable commercial operation, as opposed to one of the SS’s own embarrassingly incompetent business enterprises. Himmler made his first visit to Auschwitz the following month and issued orders for how the project should proceed. First, the capacity of the Auschwitz main camp was to be expanded to thirty thousand prisoners; then, in April, these prisoners would begin construction of the IG Farben site, which was approximately six kilometres from the main camp, at the village of Dwory. Höss claimed that it was also during this visit that Himmler ordered the construction of a second camp, with a capacity of a hundred thousand prisoners, at nearby Birkenau (Auschwitz II).*
According to Höss’s autobiography, during the summer of 1941, he was summoned to Berlin by Himmler, who gave the camp commandant “the order to prepare installations at Auschwitz where mass exterminations could take place, and personally to carry out these exterminations.”8 Höss then says that he discussed the details of the extermination programme with Eichmann, who told him that the operation should start with the Jews of Upper Silesia, then those who remained in Germany and the Protectorate, and finally those of Western Europe. The two men did not agree on the method of extermination, but Eichmann told Höss that he was investigating various poison gases that might prove suitable.*
SS-Captain Karl Bischoff, an engineer who had been put in charge of the Auschwitz Central Building Administration, arrived to oversee the start of work on Birkenau in October 1941. By then, the first experiments in mass killing with gas had already taken place. It had been policy since the beginning of Operation Barbarossa that Soviet political commissars captured by the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS combat units were to be isolated from other prisoners of war, taken to the nearest concentration camp and killed. Generally, they had been shot. But in September 1941, SS-Captain Karl Fritzsch, who commanded the protective custody camp at Auschwitz, decided to try to kill a group of Russian POWs by a different method—gassing them with the Zyklon B delousing agent. The experiment was successful, and Fritzsch arranged another so that Höss could see the results for himself. However, the two men now decided that their location—the cellar of Building 11—was unsuitable for this operation; so, for the next experiment, they moved to the mortuary of the old camp crematorium. This was easily adapted for its new role: holes simply had to be pierced in the ceiling so that the gas could be introduced. The next experiment was conducted on a transport of nine hundred Russian POWS. According to Höss:
The Russians were ordered to undress in an ante-room; they then quietly entered the mortuary, for they had been told they were going to be deloused. The whole transport exactly filled the mortuary to capacity. The doors were then sealed and the gas shaken down through the holes in the roof. I do not know how long this killing took. For a little while a humming sound could be heard. When the powder was thrown in, there were cries of “Gas!,” then a great bellowing, and the trapped prisoners hurled themselves against both the doors. But the doors held. They were opened several hours later, so that the place might be aired. It was then that I saw, for the first time, gassed bodies in the mass.9
Soon, a second gas chamber was constructed by converting a peasant cottage within the Birkenau perimeter. This was modified by having its interior walls removed, its windows filled in and special airtight doors fitted. With the conversion done, it had five gassing rooms and a capacity of approximately eight hundred victims. It became known as the “Bunker” and later as “Bunker I” or the “Red House” because of its unpainted brickwork. It was here that the first transports of Jews from Upper Silesia were brought when mass extermination began in earnest at Auschwitz–Birkenau in the early spring of 1942.
The process of killing at Birkenau was similar in some ways to the genocide at the Operation Reinhard camps. Transports of Jewish prisoners would arrive and disembark at the railhead and were then marched past the medical staff, who made cursory, superficial visual inspections. Those who appeared to be fit to work—on average 20–35 per cent of each transport—were registered in the main camp, with their prisoner numbers being crudely tattooed on their forearms. Those deemed unfit to work might be genuinely sick or disabled, but equally they might simply be elderly, small children, pregnant women, or mothers with their children. These prisoners were not registered. Instead, they were taken to the Bunker, where they were stripped of their clothing and led into the gas chambers on the pretext of delousing. When they were dead, the chambers were ventilated for a while and the bodies were removed by “special units” of prisoners for burial.
Within a few months of the first extermination transports arriving, it became clear that more capacity was required, so a second cottage—known as “Bunker II” or the “White House”—was converted for gassing. Undressing huts were also erected near the two gas chambers. At this stage, all of the gassed victims, as well as prisoners who died for other reasons in Auschwitz and Birkenau, were buried in mass graves within the camps. But in the late summer of 1942, the corpses began to pollute the water table, and the decision was made to disinter and incinerate them.
Around this time, Höss was visited by SS-Colonel Paul Blobel, the former special task group officer who had commanded Special Unit 4a. Heinrich Müller had ordered Blobel to locate and eliminate all evidence of genocide in the East, primarily by digging up the mass graves that had been created by the special task groups and then burning the bodies.* The same process had already begun at the static killing centres, although this was against the wishes of Globocnik: in August 1942, he commented that, rather than concealing the killings, the SS should bury bronze plaques in the mass graves so that the world would know who to thank!
By this stage, plans were already in place to step up Birkenau’s killing capacity through purpose-built gas chambers and crematoria. A conference at the end of February 1942 had settled on a basic design for underground gas chambers, from which the murdered victims could be hauled up in electric hoists to a crematorium equipped with five furnaces, each with three retorts and theoretically capable of handling up to two thousand corpses every twenty-four hours. However, it took more than a year to construct these substantial installations and bring them into operation, so, as a short-term measure, a pair of smaller extermination units were built on the surface, each with only two furnaces.
In the early days of the mass killings at Auschwitz–Birkenau, transports stopped at a railway platform between the two compounds and the prisoners were then led either to the old crematorium in Auschwitz or across a meadow to the bunkers in Birkenau. Once the purpose-built gas chambers had been constructed, a rail spur was laid to transport the victims much closer to them. On Birkenau’s rail platform, members of the medical staff, including Josef Mengele and Fritz Klein, would make their casual inspections of the prisoners, directing them right, to the camp, or left, to the gas chambers.10 Then, as in the Operation Reinhard camps, efforts were made to conceal what was about to happen, primarily in order to maintain control over the victims and forestall any resistance. SS officers and NCOs told the prisoners that they were to be showered and deloused, and urged them to hurry so that the soup that was waiting for them did not become cold. Next, they were told to undress and hang their clothes on numbered pegs; they were even instructed to remember the numbers so that they could quickly retrieve their clothes after their shower. In most cases, this subterfuge was effective. Describing a transport from Salonika, Hilberg notes: “The unsuspecting Greek Jews, clutching soap and towels, rushed into the gas chambers.”11 However, when Jews from nearby Katowice, Sosnowiece and Bedzin were taken to Birkenau in the late summer of 1943, they were under no illusions about their fate. Local rumours had told them all they needed to know, and they had to be forced into the gas chambers at gunpoint by reinforced squads of tense Waffen-SS guards.12
The victims were usually led into the chambers by members of a special squad, Jewish inmates who were temporarily spared death to carry out the physical work within the killing areas. By and large, these prisoners cooperated in the fiction that the victims were not about to die, probably in the hope of prolonging their own lives. Of course, this was a forlorn hope: they were kept alive for a few months at most. During this time, their existence was probably marginally better than that endured within the main camp because they could obtain extra food from the possessions of the dead. However, sooner or later, they were killed too and a new group was selected to take their place. Very few members of the special units survived until the end of the war.
The gas chambers were lit by electric lights and were fitted out with fake showerheads. Once all the prisoners were inside, the members of the special unit withdrew and the gas-tight doors were sealed. At this point, the lights were switched off, which always induced panic, and SS NCOs from the sanitation department, wearing gas masks, would start to dispense the Zyklon B. It was delivered in tins, about the size of paint cans, and consisted of pea-sized blue ceramic pellets impregnated with hydrocyanic acid. The SS men would remove the lids with a hammer and chisel and then immediately throw the contents into the gas chambers. In the subterranean chambers, this was done through openings in the roof; the surface chambers were equipped with hatches in the side walls. The pellets began to sublimate as soon as they were exposed to the air, at which point the prisoners would start screaming. This did not last long: depending on the weather conditions and the temperature, everyone within the chamber was normally dead within five to fifteen minutes.
After half an hour or so, ventilators were switched on to extract the gas and the doors were opened. The prisoners were generally found close to the door, having attempted to force their way out, or heaped in piles where the stronger prisoners had scrambled on top of the dead to try to reach clean air. There were usually empty areas near the hatches where the Zyklon B was introduced. According to Höss: “There was no noticeable change in the bodies and no sign of convulsions or discoloration. Only after the bodies had been left lying for some time…did the usual death stains appear in the places were they had lain. Soiling through the opening of the bowels was also rare. There were no signs of wounding of any kind. The faces showed no distortion.”13 The special squads, now wearing gas masks, would drag out the bodies and hose down the chamber, which also helped to neutralise any lingering gas. The corpses were then given a cavity search for valuable items and any gold teeth were removed. These were cleaned with hydrochloric acid before being melted down and formed into ingots in the main camp. Unlike in the Reinhard camps, it was only now that the women’s hair was shorn. This was used to make felt, which provided winter insulation for the German armed forces.
The four Birkenau crematoria were equipped with coke-fired furnaces, but these also used the victims’ own body fat to speed the combustion process, which meant, in theory, they could consume in excess of 4,500 bodies every day. However, this figure was never reached due to persistent malfunction. The victims tended to be so malnourished that as many as five bodies could be crammed into each retort, rather than the two or three they were designed to take. This overuse, combined with poor maintenance (which, for example, left the chimneys caked with human fat), led to numerous breakdowns. Thus, during the summer of 1944, when Birkenau murdered 400,000 Hungarian Jews, open-air pits had to be dug and the victims’ bodies were cremated on grids formed out of railway tracks and logs.
The minority who were spared death on arrival were registered in the camp in the normal way: stripped, shorn, showered and tattooed. Then the male prisoners were taken to Birkenau’s quarantine compound. For much of its existence, this was presided over by SS-Corporal Karl Kurpanik, a brutal ethnic German from Silesia who used the ten to fourteen days during which new prisoners were under his supervision to terrorise them, partly by selecting several for the gas chambers each day.14 Any who survived the quarantine period were allocated to work groups within Birkenau itself or were transferred to one of the sub-camps.
As in the main camp, the best places to work within Birkenau were on details that sorted through prisoners’ possessions. Members of the “ramp commando” went through the baggage of newly arrived prisoners, which was dumped on the railway siding while the selection procedure took place. They also had the task of cleaning out the freight wagons, so were probably best placed to find any food, drink and valuables that the prisoners had brought with them. The SS guards and trusties generally turned a blind eye to them eating any food they found, as long as they maintained their work-rate and handed over all the cash and valuables that turned up. The worst assignments, as ever, were on the heavy labour details, particularly the punishment company, which dug drainage ditches and laid sewerage pipes within the compound.15
The small minority of women who survived the selection process were accommodated in a separate camp and were kept almost entirely segregated from the men. Like the male prisoners, they were sent on various work details in the surrounding industrial complexes in addition to doing manual labour in and around the camp itself.
If anything, accommodation in Birkenau was even worse than in Auschwitz. The first buildings to be constructed were single-storey brick huts with no heating or sanitation, built on bare earth, crammed with wooden triple bunks. However, the majority of prisoners in Birkenau were housed in prefabricated wooden stable blocks built to a standard military pattern. Each was designed to shelter fifty-two horses, but in Birkenau they accommodated over four hundred prisoners, crammed together on wooden bunks.
As a result of the overcrowding, poor sanitation and lack of clean water, Birkenau was infested with lice and other vermin, while typhus and similar diseases were rampant. Furthermore, the camp’s medical staff inspired fear rather than hope among the prisoners, because they were free to conduct research in any way they saw fit. This involved infecting, mutilating, murdering and dissecting any prisoners who were unfortunate enough to be selected for their experiments.
The most notorious of these scientists was SS-Captain Josef Mengele. He came from a wealthy Bavarian family who had made their money manufacturing agricultural machinery. But instead of joining the family business, Mengele studied anthropology, earning a Ph.D. in 1935 from Munich University and a doctorate in medicine three years later from Frankfurt University. He served as a medical officer with the Waffen-SS on the Eastern Front in 1941–42 before being wounded and deemed unfit for frontline service. In 1943, he was transferred to the staff of Auschwitz, initially as medical officer for the “Gypsy camp” within Birkenau and subsequently as chief medical officer within the Birkenau infirmary.16
Medical provision within Auschwitz was basic, and Mengele’s role was hardly taxing from a professional point of view. He simply had to make snap diagnoses to determine which patients merited hospitalisation and which did not. The former would be given rudimentary treatment (no drugs were ever provided) and a few days to recover; the latter would be liquidated, either in the gas chambers or through an injection of phenol into the heart. However, Mengele had other interests outside his official tasks.
His Ph.D. dissertation had been on racial differences in the structure of the human lower jaw. Now he had the opportunity to continue his research on living human subjects. While making selections for the gas chambers on the rail platform, he would also pick out any prisoners he found interesting from a “scientific” point of view—particularly twins and dwarfs. Once selected, they were installed in a special barracks, where conditions were marginally better than in the rest of the camp. However, thereafter, they suffered a terrible fate. Mengele injected chemicals into their eyes to try to change their colour, conducted chemical sterilisation experiments on the women, and eventually had all of his human guinea pigs killed for dissection.17
The selections were terrifying aspects of daily life for all prisoners in Auschwitz, Birkenau and the sub-camps. They could take place at any time and none of the prisoners could be certain what their outcome would be. Some were for the gas chambers and death; others were to find new prisoners for work details. Anyone displaying weakness or illness was liable to be killed on the spot or removed from his fellow prisoners for gassing. Sometimes, selections were ordered simply to create space for new arrivals within the barracks.
The industrial complex around Auschwitz grew at a rapid rate. Oswald Pohl’s WVHA leased out prisoners to German industry at the rate of four marks a day for unskilled and six marks a day for skilled labourers. By mid-1942, 6,000 Auschwitz prisoners were working for industrial concerns; by mid-1944, the number was around 42,000.18 In addition to IG Farben’s Buna plant, prisoners worked in coal mines, steel works, oil refineries, military equipment factories, textile mills, shoe factories and on the railways. The SS employed other prisoners in their own commercial enterprises as agricultural labourers and quarrymen, and to assemble weapons and make uniforms for the Waffen-SS.
Conditions in the sub-camps were generally no better than in Auschwitz or Birkenau. The guards were provided by the SS-Death’s Head Auschwitz Battalion, and many of the commandants became particularly notorious. For example, the commandant of the sub-camp attached to the Fürstengrübe mine at Myslowitz-Wesoła was SS-Sergeant Major Otto Moll, who had been in charge of the original extermination bunkers at Birkenau.
The only prisoners to benefit from being in the sub-camps were skilled labourers, who were generally better treated than their unskilled colleagues. For instance, those who worked hard might occasionally be granted a Premiumschein, a coupon that allowed them to purchase extra rations from the canteen.19 Even so, discipline remained brutal and ruthless, and conditions were appalling.
WHILE THE OPERATION Reinhard camps, Chelmno and Majdanek primarily killed Jews from the General Government, the incorporated territories and parts of the Soviet Union, the geographical reach of Auschwitz-Birkenau was much greater. As the principal extermination centre from 1943 onwards, Jews from all over Europe were brought there to be killed. This meant that Eichmann’s Jewish section within the RSHA had to be reorganised and expanded, and Eichmann himself once again moved towards centre stage in the Holocaust.
As we have seen, Eichmann’s section started within the SD as a clearinghouse for information and intelligence on the “Jewish question.” It then metamorphosed into the central administration for forced Jewish emigration from Germany, Austria and the Protectorate. When this project came to a halt in 1940, Eichmann’s principal task became organisation of the transports for the deportation of Jews, first to the ghettoes and then to the extermination centres in Poland. However, the extension of the extermination policy across Europe saw his role widen significantly, to include high-level negotiation—at the direction of Himmler via Müller—with other government agencies, including the Foreign Office and the armed forces. Thus, Eichmann had a hand in implementing all aspects of Jewish policy. The modalities of National Socialist genocide were complex and required a great deal of detailed staff work, which is where Eichmann came in. His role was not to create Jewish policy but to see that it was carried out at the operational level. He and his team used their institutional background knowledge and experience to translate the directions he received—primarily from Müller—into an efficient system for the deportation and murder of millions of Jews.
To this end, he placed representatives of Section IV B4 in many Sipo headquarters throughout occupied Europe: for example, Theo Dannecker went to Paris, while Dieter Wisliceny acted as an adviser on Jewish affairs to the Slovak regime before being dispatched to Salonika, where he organised the deportation and murder of the entire Jewish population. These men ensured that the directives emerging from Eichmann’s office were implemented on the ground, which might mean negotiating with the local Sipo commander, with the military occupation authorities, or, as in occupied France, with the local civil regime. With the victims secured by these local representatives, Eichmann’s office could then arrange transport to Auschwitz via the railway system.*
The French Vichy regime implemented anti-Jewish measures, in line with the Nuremberg Laws, soon after the armistice in 1940.20 However, it was only in the summer of 1942 that substantial deportations of Jews from Western Europe to Auschwitz–Birkenau began. In June, the German occupation authorities started to demand the surrender of French Jews for “evacuation” to Auschwitz. The Vichy regime refused to allow the deportation of any Jews with French citizenship, but it did offer up the stateless Jews and refugees who were resident in France.21 Himmler reluctantly accepted this compromise for diplomatic reasons. Nevertheless, the French government and police soon proved to be willing and effective collaborators with Dannecker: by September, some 27,000 Jews had already been deported and, usually, killed.
Roundups and deportations of non-French Jews continued right up to the liberation of France in 1944, but the Vichy government never relaxed its position that French Jews should not be deported, and relatively few were. One additional group of French-ruled Jews who were briefly threatened were the eighty thousand or so in Tunisia, which was occupied by the German Army following the Allied Operation Torch landings in Morocco and Algeria on 8 November 1942. The German occupation force was quickly followed by the Special Task Unit Tunis,* commanded by SS-Lieutenant Colonel Walter Rauff, a pioneer in the use of gassing vans. However, the precarious supply situation of the Afrika Panzer Army ruled out any deportations. Consequently, many Tunisian Jews were expropriated and forced to work as slave labourers, but there were few killings.
By the end of the war, approximately 75,000 Jews had been evacuated from metropolitan France, of whom 69,000 were sent to Auschwitz. Only a few thousand survived.22
In contrast to France, the Netherlands was under direct German rule, so there was no need for diplomatic niceties. The first sweep—from June to September 1942—netted about twenty thousand Dutch Jews, and at least another eighty thousand were deported over the next two and a half years. They travelled east via transit camps set up in Westerbork and Vucht that were guarded, for a time, by members of the Dutch–Flemish Nordwest Waffen-SS Regiment. About seventy thousand of them ended up in Auschwitz–Birkenau; but, as we have seen, a substantial number were also dispatched to Sobibor between March and July 1943.23
Deportations from Belgium began around the same time and totalled at least 25,000 by the end of the war. The majority of them died in Auschwitz.24
Attempts to round up and deport the Jews of Norway began in October 1942. The Norwegian Jewish population was relatively small—about two thousand—and rumours of the impending operation caused many of them to flee to neutral Sweden or go into hiding. Nevertheless, some 532 men, women and children were caught by the Norwegian Police and members of the Germanske SS Norge (the Norwegian imitation of the General-SS) in Oslo. They were deported by sea across the Baltic to Stettin, from where they were taken to Auschwitz. A further group of 158 from Trondheim and northern Norway were deported in February 1943; but fewer than a thousand Norwegian Jews were rounded up during the course of the war.
Denmark had about 6,500 native Jews and some refugees, but here the situation was initially similar to that in France, because the Danish government had retained control after the occupation, subject to German supervision. The German representatives in the country did not usually interfere in internal Danish political affairs, and even when they did suggest that the Danes might wish to address the “Jewish problem,” their overtures were always firmly rebuffed. However, this changed in the summer of 1943 as a consequence of a rise in Danish resistance activities. By that point, the senior German representative in Denmark was SS-General Werner Best, Heydrich’s former deputy in the RSHA,* who had continued the reasonably conciliatory approach to the Danish government but had no compunction about deporting Jews. In August 1943, with the situation in Denmark deteriorating, Best was summoned to meet Hitler at his headquarters, where he was given orders to declare a state of emergency and intern the remnant of the army that the Danes had been permitted to keep. In response, the Danish government resigned en masse and Denmark came under the control of the German military commander.
Best saw this as an opportunity and sent a message to his superiors in the German Foreign Office, suggesting that this was the ideal moment to start deporting Jews. This suggestion led to Best being reinstated as the German plenipotentiary in Denmark; and, as planning continued, the pre-deportation arrests were scheduled for the night of 1–2 October. However, the operation was compromised by leaks from within the German administration, and particularly from Best’s own transport attaché, so when the raids began most of Denmark’s Jewish population were in hiding or had fled to Sweden. In total, 477 Jews were eventually deported to the so-called “old people’s” concentration camp at Theresienstadt, where 52 of them died. In the weeks following the attempted roundup, almost all of the Danish Jews still left in the country were able to reach Sweden by boat.25
Although subject to some anti-Semitic measures enacted by Mussolini’s government, the Jewish population of Italy was protected from deportation while the country remained an ally and co-belligerent of Germany up to the summer of 1943. However, after the fall of Mussolini and the German occupation of northern Italy in September 1943, this protection largely evaporated as SS-General Karl Wolff, as military governor and Senior SS and Police Leader, took control. First, a large quantity of gold was expropriated from Rome’s Jewish community. Then, in mid-October, the first roundup took place, with the list of names compiled from Jewish community groups’ own subscription lists. More than a thousand Jews were arrested and transported to their deaths in Auschwitz.26 Many other Italian Jews now went into hiding, helped by the Catholic Church or even, on occasion, by Italian Fascist officials.27 However, many were caught in the dragnet laid by Theo Dannecker. The Jews of Trieste faced a particularly notorious enemy with the arrival of Odilo Globocnik as Senior SS and Police Leader for the Adriatic Coastal Zone. Moreover, he was accompanied by a team of hardened Operation Reinhard veterans. Globocnik and his men established a transit camp at San Sabba, from where several hundred Jews were dispatched to Auschwitz. In total, around 7,500 Jews were deported from Italy between 1943 and 1945; fewer than 800 returned home.28
The other parts of Europe that deported large numbers of Jews to Auschwitz were the South-East and the Balkans. In Serbia between 1941 and 1942, much of the task of liquidating Jews and Gypsies was undertaken in the field by the German Army, which acted in much the same manner as the special task groups further east. Around eight thousand Jewish and Gypsy men were detained in the autumn and winter of 1941, after the German occupation of Yugoslavia, and shot by the army in reprisal for partisan attacks (even though the attacks had been conducted by ethnic Serbs and Croats, rather than Jews).29 Their fifteen thousand wives and children, who were interned in the Semlin camp, near Belgrade, were then liquidated in a gassing van supplied by the RSHA.30
Between March and August 1943, 46,000 Greek Jews were deported from Salonika to their deaths in Auschwitz.31 Just a few hundred were saved through the efforts of the Fascist Italian Consul General and the Spanish Chargé d’Affaires in Athens, who were able to classify them as either Italian or Spanish citizens. In 1944, several thousand Athenian Jews, as well as the Jewish populations of many of the larger Greek islands, were also sent to Auschwitz. In total, approximately sixty thousand Greek Jews were murdered.32
The first large group of Jews to be murdered in Auschwitz—in the spring and summer of 1942—were Slovakian. They numbered more than fifty thousand. This was followed by a lull of more than two years, but then the deportations resumed in October 1944, when twelve thousand to fifteen thousand Jews were rounded up, with the majority going to Auschwitz.
In marked contrast to what happened in the rest of Europe, the great majority of the estimated 270,000 Romanian Jews killed during the Holocaust fell victim to their own countrymen, with encouragement but little assistance from Germany and the SS.
The last major European Jewish community to be murdered at Auschwitz came from Hungary. In 1941, there were just under 800,000 Jews in the country—about 5 per cent of the total population—but they were disproportionately well represented in the professional and commercial middle classes. Nevertheless, from 1938 onwards, the government of Admiral Miklós Horthy had been passing anti-Semitic legislation to limit Jewish economic activity,33 largely in the hope of gaining Germany’s support for territorial claims against Czechoslovakia and other neighbouring states. Hungary had also entered the war on the German side on 26 June 1941, but by the end of 1943 Horthy’s government had realised its error and was seeking a way out. Sensing they were about to be abandoned by their ally, the Germans bloodlessly occupied Hungary on 19 March 1944, seizing control of key facilities and installing a more compliant government (although Horthy remained as leader). A wave of German agencies arrived in the country that same day, including Senior SS and Police Leader Otto Winkelmann and a special task group that had formed in Mauthausen concentration camp and was commanded by Adolf Eichmann.
Eichmann installed his unit in the Hotel Majestic in Budapest and immediately summoned Jewish community leaders to meet him the following morning. At the meeting, he adopted a brisk but reassuring tone: the community would need to form a Jewish council and provide a list of all Jewish property. Similar meetings between the SS and the Jewish community over the next few days clarified and extended these orders, but did so without creating any alarm.34 Meanwhile, Germany’s political representatives were pushing their Hungarian puppets into adopting new legal measures to isolate the Jewish community, including wearing the yellow Star of David, restricting travel and imposing curfews.
Eichmann’s unit next began to direct the concentration of the Jews. Working through the Hungarian Police, from mid-April, Jews in outlying towns were moved into ghettoes and makeshift concentration camps. Later, they were loaded onto trains and deported to Auschwitz at an average rate of twelve thousand people per day.
The Jewish community leaders were under no illusions about the fate of the deportees, and they started to make frantic efforts to save what was left of their people. Appeals to neutral governments and the Church were accompanied by attempts to ransom at least some of Hungary’s Jews. Back in January 1943, a group of Hungarian Zionists had formed a “rescue committee” that provided assistance to Jews who had managed to flee to the relative safety (at that time) of Hungary from elsewhere in Europe. Now, two members of the committee, Rudolf Kastner and Joel Brand, approached Eichmann’s team in a bid to broker some kind of deal. Kastner subsequently claimed that Dieter Wisliceny offered to release six hundred Jews in exchange for approximately $1.6 million. The money was raised and handed over, whereupon the SS agreed to raise the number of released Jews to sixteen hundred. These were selected by the committee and then transported to the concentration camp at Bergen–Belsen, near the north German town of Celle, which at the time was being used as a holding camp for prominent Jews.35
This deal came to the attention of Himmler, and Eichmann was now instructed to make a new offer to the rescue committee: more Jews would be spared in return for goods that were needed by Germany—200 tons each of tea and coffee; 10,000 trucks; 2 million cases of soap. The Hungarian Jews would continue to be sent to their deaths until these items were presented to the Germans. Brand was sent to Istanbul to negotiate this deal with the supposed leaders of “World Jewry,” but he was unable to convince the people he met of its viability. After the meeting, travelling overland to Palestine, he was arrested by the British in Syria, taken to Cairo and held in solitary confinement. Meanwhile, the deportations and murders continued.36
Of course, it is impossible to say whether Himmler would have kept his side of the bargain if the goods had been procured, but now the remaining Hungarian Jews’ survival rested solely on how the battle between the Red Army and the Wehrmacht played out. On 23 June, the Soviets launched a major offensive against the German Army Group Centre. They overran Majdanek the following month and started to head towards Auschwitz. By then, Horthy had already ordered a halt to the deportations, largely because he feared that the rest of the world knew the extent of his government’s collaboration. However, with the exception of those living in Budapest, who had not yet been rounded up, this came too late to save Hungary’s Jews.
On 20 August, the Soviets began a series of operations designed to liberate South-East Europe. Three days later, the Romanian government requested an armistice and gave the German forces stationed in their country three days to leave. Horthy, now certain which way the wind was blowing, replaced the pro-German administration that had been forced on him in March with a government that was clearly designed to reach an armistice with the Allies. Then he requested the removal of Eichmann’s task force. The Germans had no option but to agree.37
Nevertheless, the Jews of Budapest remained extremely vulnerable throughout the autumn. On 15 October, SS-Lieutenant Colonel Otto Skorzeny and members of the SS-Jagdverband Mitte (a Waffen-SS special forces unit assigned to the RSHA) kidnapped Horthy’s son while tanks of the 24th Panzer Division occupied the capital. Horthy was deposed and replaced with the leader of the local National Socialist “Arrow Cross” Party, Ferenc Szalasi. Deportations to Auschwitz were no longer possible—Himmler had already ordered a halt to the gassing operations—but the SS attempted one last throw of the dice: the evacuation on foot of able-bodied forced labourers. In the first weeks of November, some thirty thousand Jews were rounded up and sent marching west, with little or no food and no provision of shelter along the way. Many died from hunger, exhaustion or sickness; many others were shot. A few survivors were found starving in the Mauthausen and Wels concentration camps by the Allies in May 1945.
Estimates for the total number of Hungarian Jews murdered range from 180,000 to 550,000. The true figure is probably around 400,000. And it should be remembered that all of these murders were committed at a time when the perpetrators knew that the war was as good as lost. This, perhaps more than any other SS atrocity, illustrates the murderous ferocity of the ideology that Himmler instilled in his “order,” because his men stuck to their task even as Germany spiralled towards inevitable military collapse. Meanwhile, Himmler himself was prepared to barter the lives of National Socialism’s supposed mortal enemies for tea, coffee, trucks and soap.
ON 22 NOVEMBER 1943, Höss had left Auschwitz to take up the post of Deputy Inspector of Concentration Camps at WVHA headquarters.38 Thereafter, Auschwitz was split into three administratively distinct camps. The main camp, Auschwitz I, was placed under the command of SS-Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Liebehenschel; Birkenau, which comprised the extermination camp and an agricultural sub-camp, was commanded by SS-Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Hartjenstein; while the industrial sub-camps, which included the IG Farben Buna plant and a growing number of other concerns, became Auschwitz III under SS-Captain Heinrich Schwarz. Liebehenschel subsequently took command of the Majdanek concentration camp in May 1944; SS-Major Richard Baer took his place at Auschwitz. At the same time, Hartjenstein handed command of Birkenau to SS-Captain Josef Kramer.39
Two months later, the advancing Soviet armies were within 150 miles of the Auschwitz complex and the process of evacuating prisoner workers began. At this time, there were some 155,000 prisoners within Auschwitz, Birkenau and the industrial sub-camps; about half of them had been evacuated by the beginning of October. Nevertheless, in some respects, business carried on as usual within the camps. New buildings were erected and there were plans almost to double the size of the already vast Birkenau compound.
However, with the war clearly lost, both the SS and the remaining prisoners in the camp were becoming increasingly anxious about the future. In particular, the Jewish special units who worked within the gas chambers and crematoria knew that their days were numbered. Consequently, on 7 October, the special unit in Birkenau’s Crematorium IV staged a revolt during which they attempted to destroy the crematorium and the gas chamber with explosives smuggled in from one of Auschwitz III’s factories. The rebellion spread to several other crematoria, three SS men were killed and twelve wounded, and a number of special unit prisoners managed to break out of the camp and hide in the surrounding woodland. But any hopes that a general uprising would follow were soon dashed. Once the rebellion had been quelled, 425 members of the special units were killed, along with the women who had smuggled in the explosives. Crematorium IV was damaged beyond repair, but the remaining extermination facilities remained fully operational. Throughout October, some forty thousand people were murdered at Auschwitz–Birkenau.40
Himmler finally ordered the cessation of the extermination project the following month. The surviving members of the special units were now put to work eliminating all traces of the crimes that had been committed at Auschwitz. The ovens and the ventilation equipment from the gas chambers were dismantled and taken to other concentration camps; the corpse-burning pits were filled in and covered with turf; the chimneys and ducts in the gas chambers through which the Zyklon B had been introduced were blocked.41
On 12 January 1945, a sudden Soviet advance threatened the Auschwitz complex directly. Within a few days, the Red Army was so close that the prisoners could hear their artillery; and, on the 17th, the decision was taken to evacuate the camp rather than leave the remaining prisoners to be found by the Soviets. By this stage, there were 68,000 prisoners within the whole complex. The intention was to march the prisoners to railheads at Rybnik and Gleiwitz, from where they would be transported on trains to concentration camps in the “old” Reich.42
The weather conditions were horrific and, of course, the prisoners were severely malnourished, weak and dressed only in their thin camp uniforms. Each was issued with just a small lump of bread for the march. Inevitably, many of the weaker prisoners could not keep up with the marching columns and were shot by the SS guards; many others died from exhaustion or exposure. Those who reached Gleiwitz were temporarily abandoned by the SS when a rumour circulated that the Soviets were in the area, and a few prisoners escaped into the countryside. However, most were too apathetic, scared or exhausted to make the break, and when the SS returned they were loaded into open wagons for the move westwards.43
Meanwhile, back within the Auschwitz complex, the remaining SS personnel attempted to cover their tracks. Much of the camp’s archive was destroyed on bonfires, and the remaining gas chamber buildings were blown up with explosives. The last of the extermination facilities, Crematorium V, was destroyed on 25–26 January, and the storage area for the possessions of Birkenau’s victims, known as “Canada” in the camp vernacular, was torched by the SS. The resultant inferno also destroyed many of the camp’s wooden huts.44
The Red Army arrived at Auschwitz on 27 January 1945. They found some six hundred corpses and around seven thousand living prisoners—those who had been too weak to take part in the evacuation. A significant number of them would die over the next few weeks.
The 43,000 surviving evacuees were now being distributed around other concentration camps. The regime in these camps was little different to that in Auschwitz: the prisoners continued to be worked to death, brutalised, starved and murdered by their new SS gaolers. A typical example was the Bergen–Belsen camp.* Originally used as a holding camp for special Jewish prisoners, it was now a dumping ground for those evacuated from the East. The huge influx of prisoners completely overwhelmed existing supplies and medical provision, and the camp descended into chaos, with thousands dying from rampaging epidemics and starvation. Desperate prisoners both here and elsewhere were forced to resort to cannibalism in order to survive. In the last weeks of the war, Himmler finally allowed the Red Cross to distribute food and medicine within the camps; but this pathetic gesture, designed entirely to save his own skin, was far too little, far too late.
As the German military collapse continued in the spring of 1945, further evacuations from the camps took place, with marching columns of prisoners in their striped clothes becoming a common sight on Germany’s roads. At the end of April, approximately ten thousand prisoners from Neuengamme, Stutthof and Dora-Mittelbau—many of them former Auschwitz inmates—were loaded aboard the former cruise liners Cap Arcona and Deutschland and the smaller vessels Thielbek and Athen off the port of Lübeck on the Baltic coast. The Regional Leader of Hamburg at the time later claimed that the ships were going to take the prisoners to neutral Sweden; the former Gestapo chief of Lübeck said that they were going to be scuttled in the sea to kill all the prisoners. We shall never know the truth, because the German authorities did not get the chance to display either their compassion or their brutality. On 3 May, three days after Hitler’s suicide in Berlin, the ships were attacked by rocket-firing fighter-bombers of the RAF. The Cap Arcona and the Thielbek were severely damaged, set on fire and sunk. Between them, they had held approximately 6,500 prisoners; no more than 500 survived.45
SINCE THE LIBERATION of Auschwitz, many estimates have been made regarding the total number of murders committed there. As early as May 1945, the Soviet Army released a press statement which suggested that four million prisoners had perished in the camp. This figure was reached by estimating the crematoria’s full capacity and then assuming that the camp had operated flat out for more than two and a half years; but it was picked up and quoted in the world’s media, as well as at the post-war Nuremberg trials. For many years, it was also the “official” number quoted by the Auschwitz memorial.
Rudolf Höss, the former commandant, came up with an estimate of three million, with 500,000 prisoners dying from disease or malnutrition, rather than gassing. The latest scholarship suggests that around 1.1 million people were murdered at Auschwitz, with 960,000 of them Jewish, approximately 75,000 non-Jewish Poles, 21,000 Gypsies, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and between 10,000 and 15,000 from other nations. Up to 200,000 others died of disease or malnutrition.46
The Auschwitz extermination complex was a place of industrial savagery unparalleled in human history. It was also the inevitable consequence of SS ideology.
* Martin Bormann was also implicated in this crime, and served a year in prison for his part in it.
* The first adjutant at Auschwitz was Josef Kramer, who subsequently commanded the Natzweiler concentration camp in Alsace, the Birkenau camp at Auschwitz and finally Bergen–Belsen, where he was captured by the British Army.
* However, the latest evidence (cited in Steinbacher, Auschwitz, p. 90) is that Höss misremembered this at his post-war trial: it seems the order was actually given on 26 September 1941.
* Höss might have got this wrong, too. Eichmann denied this version of events at his trial in Israel, and Höss seems to have conflated a series of meetings or conversations that actually took place over several years.
* Blobel was possibly given this onerous task as punishment for his alcoholism.
* It has often been suggested that transporting Jews to the death camps seriously undermined the German war effort. In reality, even at the height of the transports, no more than a handful of trains were assigned to this task each day.
* This seems to have been the only SS detachment which operated outside continental Europe.
* The two men had fallen out in the first half of 1939 over the roles of the Sipo and SD within the state.
* Others were Buchenwald, Dachau, Mauthausen, Gross-Rosen and Sachsenhausen.