In the wake of Hitler’s resolution to fight to the end, the Allies had their own politically controversial issues to confront – not least what to do with the detailed knowledge they now possessed about the murders the Nazis were committing at Auschwitz.
One point on which they all agreed was the magnitude of the horror. ‘There is no doubt that this is probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world,’ wrote Churchill on 11 July 1944, ‘and it has been done by scientific machinery by nominally civilized men in the name of a great State and one of the leading races of Europe … Declarations should be made in public, so that everyone connected with it will be hunted down and put to death.’1 But words of outrage and threat on their own, of course, didn’t directly help the Jews who were dying in Auschwitz.
Various Jewish groups suggested one practical response to the crime – drop bombs on the camp. The World Jewish Congress in Geneva called in June for the Americans to destroy the gas chambers, and Churchill, when he heard about the idea, wrote on 7 July to Anthony Eden: ‘Get anything out of the Air Force you can and invoke me if necessary.’2 But calls to bomb Auschwitz were ultimately rejected. In Britain the Air Ministry was unenthusiastic about the idea for practical reasons. One problem was the difficulty of bombing the gas chambers while avoiding killing many of the prisoners at Birkenau. The British suggested that the request be considered by the Americans, who specialized in daytime bombing. On behalf of the Americans, John McCloy, the Assistant Secretary of War, was dismissive. He expressed doubts about the feasibility of the plan, and said that in any case it would divert bombers from other, more important operations.3
However, even if the immense practical difficulties could have been overcome and the gas chambers of Auschwitz bombed, it is hard to see how this would have stopped the killings. The Harvest Festival massacre at Majdanek the year before had demonstrated that the Germans did not need gas chambers to murder large numbers of Jews – machine guns could kill just as many.
Nonetheless, the dismissive way in which many of those involved in the decision-making process treated the question of the bombing of Auschwitz – one of McCloy’s staff even wrote an inter-office memo admitting that McCloy wanted to ‘kill’ the idea4 – reflects a broader issue of significance. It is encapsulated by a question to the Allies posed by David Ben Gurion, chairman of the Jewish Agency executive and later one of the founders of modern Israel, in a speech on 10 July 1944: ‘If instead of Jews, thousands of English, American or Russian women, children and aged had been tortured every day, burnt to death, asphyxiated in gas chambers – would you have acted in the same way?’5
The answer to Ben Gurion’s question is, almost certainly, no. The Allies would surely not ‘have acted in the same way’ if, for example, British prisoners of war were being gassed at Auschwitz. That is a judgement that is supported by the evidence. As we have seen, the Allies didn’t want to commit themselves at the Bermuda conference in 1943 to admitting large number of Jews into their countries – even though at the end of 1942 they had condemned the Nazis’ extermination of the Jews. In Washington in March 1943, a month before the Bermuda conference, Anthony Eden, the British Foreign Secretary, had said in a meeting that it was imperative ‘to move very cautiously about offering to take all Jews out of a country’ because ‘if we do that, then the Jews of the world will be wanting us to make similar efforts in Poland and Germany. Hitler might well take us up on any such offer, and there simply are not enough ships and means of transportation in the world to handle them.’6 To paraphrase Ben Gurion’s question in the light of Eden’s words, does anyone think such an excuse for inaction would have been thought acceptable if the Germans were murdering British or American prisoners of war? Would the British and Americans seriously have let their soldiers be massacred just because ships couldn’t be diverted to take them across the English Channel to safety, especially when ships were found during the war to transport several hundred thousand captured enemy prisoners across the Atlantic to North America? No, Eden’s excuse is simply not credible.
Linda Breder, a Jewish inmate of Auschwitz, felt that ‘God forgot us and [the] people of the war forgot us, didn’t care about what’s going on and they knew what’s going on [at Auschwitz].’ She says, ‘We wanted them to put the bombs on the camp, at least we could run and hundreds and hundreds of planes were coming [to bomb other targets in Poland] and we are looking up and no bombs. So this we could not understand.’7
The Allied position regarding the Jews remained simple – the only sure way to stop their extermination was to defeat the Nazis. In the summer of 1944 that strategy seemed to enjoy some success when the Red Army captured Majdanek camp in late July. Majdanek was a revelation to the world. Much of the extermination machinery had not been destroyed by the retreating Germans, and the remaining gas chambers and crematorium were incontrovertible proof of the Nazis’ murderous activities. ‘What I am now about to relate is too enormous and too gruesome to be fully conceived,’ wrote Konstantin Simonov, a Soviet war correspondent, after examining the camp. Simonov described how the gas chambers functioned, with ‘specially trained operators wearing gas masks’ who ‘poured the “cyclone [sic]” out of the cylindrical tins into the chamber’. He was also appalled by the immense number of shoes he saw, taken from those who had been murdered. ‘They spill over out of the hut through the windows and the doors. In one spot the weight of them pushed out part of the wall, which fell outwards together with piles of shoes … it is hard to imagine anything more gruesome than this sight.’8
At Auschwitz, after the Hungarian transports had stopped in early July, and the majority of the Łódź ghetto Jews had been murdered a few weeks later, the peak period of killing was over. As a result, the SS decided to reduce the number of Sonderkommandos in the camp from the high point of 900 reached at the time of the Hungarian transports to a much lower figure. They planned to do this by murdering surplus Sonderkommandos. ‘We knew that our days were always numbered and we didn’t know when the end would be,’ says Dario Gabbai, one of the Sonderkommando at Birkenau. The Nazis, especially in the light of the publicity about Majdanek, did not want any Sonderkommandos to survive the war. They knew too much about the intimate details of the killing process. So at the end of September, SS Scharführer (Sergeant Major) Busch asked for 200 ‘volunteers’ from the Sonderkommandos at Crematorium IV to come forward. He claimed that they would be transported to a new camp. But the Sonderkommandos were aware that the number of transports to the camp had been tailing off, and had no doubt what that meant for their own fate. ‘Was Busch really so naïve, I thought,’ wrote Filip Müller, one of the Auschwitz Sonderkommando, ‘to believe any one of us would volunteer for his own slaughter?’9 Not surprisingly, no one came forward. So Scharführer Busch was forced to pick the 200 Sonderkommandos himself. Of course, there was no ‘new camp’ and the selected prisoners were taken away and killed. That night – in an unprecedented event – the SS themselves burnt the bodies of the Sonderkommandos in crematoria ovens away from the eyes of the other prisoners. Their excuse was that they were burning the bodies of people killed in an Allied bombing raid. The remaining Sonderkommandos were not deceived, and their suspicions about the fate of their comrades were confirmed when several of the bodies were found in the ovens the next morning, burnt but still recognizable. As a consequence, when the SS told the Kapos at the crematoria to come up with a list of 300 more Sonderkommandos who were allegedly to be transferred to ‘rubber factories’, the Sonderkommandos decided to launch an uprising.10
As we have already seen, the security levels at Auschwitz were of a higher level than other death camps like Sobibór and Treblinka. The crematoria/gas-chamber buildings were in their own fenced-off sub-camps within the giant complex of Auschwitz Birkenau, which itself sat within the security area of the Auschwitz zone of interest. There had been attempts at a mass breakout before – most notably a revolt of Poles within the penal company at Birkenau on 10 June 1942. But of the fifty or so prisoners who attempted that escape, only one is known for certain to have survived.
However, even knowing that the chances of a successful uprising were slim to non-existent, on 7 October 1944 the Sonderkommandos at Crematoria IV turned on their SS guards. They fought with axes and hammers against SS armed with guns, and managed to set the crematorium on fire. Hearing the noise coming from Crematorium IV, the Sonderkommandos at Crematorium II also attacked their SS overseers, killing two of them – even throwing one into a burning furnace. SS reinforcements arrived and started to hunt down any prisoners who had managed to escape the perimeter of the camp. When they found some Sonderkommandos hiding inside a barn they set it on fire. Not one of the Sonderkommandos who rose up against the SS that day survived the attempted escape. Around 250 Sonderkommandos had taken part in the revolt and the SS made sure every single one of them died. But the revenge of the SS did not stop there. In an attempt to terrorize the remaining Sonderkommandos they selected a further 200 and killed them as well.11 Henryk Mandelbaum, one of the Auschwitz Sonderkommando, remembers that they ‘told us to lie face down on the ground holding our hands behind our backs and every third person was shot. Some of my friends in the Sonderkommando lost their lives and the rest had to go back to work. There was never much hope for us. I’m telling it like it is.’12 Despite enduring this ordeal himself, and witnessing the death of so many of his comrades, Henryk Mandelbaum still feels that those who fought back ‘did a good thing’ because ‘we were the living dead, you have to remember. Now we’re speaking freely, peacefully and we can have assumptions, we can pose questions, we can add, we can subtract, but then it was very different. Human beings were condemned …’13
After the war, Auschwitz survivors sometimes had to endure taunts that they had lacked the courage to resist. Halina Birenbaum remembers that when she reached Israel in 1947 she was distraught when other members of the kibbutz said to her, ‘You just followed like sheep. You didn’t defend yourselves. Why didn’t you defend yourselves? What happened to you? You’re to blame. You didn’t do anything. That kind of thing wouldn’t happen to us. Don’t tell us about it. It’s a disgrace. Don’t tell the young people, you’ll crush their fighting spirit.’14
The history of the Sonderkommando revolt at Auschwitz in October 1944 demonstrates the injustice of such accusations. The Sonderkommandos did not go like ‘sheep’ to the slaughter. They fought back and died as a consequence. They lost their lives because effective resistance in Auschwitz was almost impossible. Auschwitz lasted as an institution for four and a half years and in that time out of the more than 1 million people sent there, about 800 attempted to escape. But fewer than 150 of them managed to get away from the area and an unknown number of these successful escapees were subsequently killed in the war.15 It was thus not so much lack of courage that prevented the mass of inmates from escaping as lack of opportunity.
By the time of the Sonderkommando revolt in October 1944, the Germans had lost yet more allies. On 8 September, the Red Army entered Bulgaria and hours later the Bulgarians followed the example of the Italians and Romanians – they changed sides and declared war on Germany. Less than two weeks later Finland exited the war as well.16 Hitler’s erstwhile friends had recognized the inevitable – the Germans had lost the war. Even members of the Nazi elite wanted to explore ways of escape. Not just Himmler, but Joseph Goebbels as well. When Goebbels heard via Japanese sources a rumour that Stalin might possibly consider a separate peace, he composed a letter to Hitler supporting the idea. ‘What we would attain’, he wrote on 20 September 1944, ‘would not be the victory that we dreamed of in 1941, but it would still be the greatest victory in German history. The sacrifices that the German people had made in this war would thereby be fully justified.’17 But Hitler didn’t even bother to engage with Goebbels’ suggestion and never discussed it with him. For Hitler, either Germany triumphed or Germany would be destroyed. What had been his greatest strength in the eyes of supporters like Goebbels – his refusal to compromise – was now revealed as his greatest weakness.
One obvious consequence of Hitler’s intransigence was that the suffering of the Jews continued. In Slovakia, for instance, German security forces deported more than 12,000 Jews between September and December 1944, after the Germans suppressed an uprising by the Slovak resistance. In Hungary, Hitler’s determination to stop Admiral Horthy from taking the country out of the war led to another crisis for the Hungarian Jews. After ending the deportations to Auschwitz in early July, Horthy had once again been plotting to make peace with the Allies. In early October, a Hungarian delegation even signed a deal with the Soviets in Moscow. On 15 October, the Germans responded. Otto Skorzeny, the SS officer who had led the team that rescued Mussolini from prison the year before, captured Horthy’s son Miklós in Budapest, rolled him up in a carpet and took him to Mauthausen camp in Austria. The Germans now blackmailed Horthy into transferring power to Ferenc Szálasi, leader of the Hungarian fascist party, the Arrow Cross. Horthy, wanting to save his son, collaborated with the Germans once again, and then spent the rest of the war as Hitler’s ‘guest’ in a castle in Bavaria.
With Horthy out of the way and Hungary in the hands of fascists, the Jews were vulnerable once again. On 18 October Eichmann began discussions with Szálasi about deporting Jews – not this time to Auschwitz, but direct to the Reich as forced labourers. Eichmann’s problem was that there was no means of transporting tens of thousands of Jews to the west. But he came up with a solution. If the Jews could not be carried by railway or truck, then they could walk – for more than a hundred miles. By the end of November, 27,000 Jews were walking to the Reich and 40,000 more were supposed to follow them. Conditions on the march were, predictably, appalling. Indeed, they were so bad that when a group of SS officers passed the marching Jews they were so concerned about what they saw that they complained to Otto Winkelmann, Higher SS and Police Chief for Hungary. Incredibly, one of those who voiced their objections was Rudolf Höss, one-time commandant of Auschwitz and now in an administrative role in the SS. It wasn’t that Höss had suddenly developed a sense of humanity, but that he didn’t see the value in sending Jews to the Reich who, when they arrived, couldn’t work.18 Another SS officer, Kurt Becher, who had been involved in the negotiations about the Hungarian Jews earlier in the year, complained to Himmler about Eichmann’s actions. This led to an extraordinary meeting in Himmler’s private train in the Black Forest in November 1944. Himmler told Eichmann to stop deporting the Budapest Jews, adding, ‘If until now you have exterminated Jews, from now on, if I order you, you must be a fosterer of Jews.’19
Himmler’s apparently bizarre remark was, like Höss’s, motivated not by a change of ideological heart, but by purely practical concerns – not just the desire to use the Jews as both potential labour and hostages in any future discussions with the Allies, but also an understanding of the military reality. As Himmler talked to Eichmann, the Red Army were advancing further into Hungary. Thus discussions about any potential deportation of Hungarian Jews were shortly to become of only theoretical interest.
By late December the Red Army had encircled Budapest. Hitler declared the city a ‘fortified place’ and called on the defenders to fight to the death. The ensuing battle lasted until 13 February 1945 and around 40,000 civilians died. In the aftermath of the Soviet victory, soldiers of the Red Army attacked the women of Budapest and thousands were raped – one estimate is as many as 50,000. Barna Andrásofszky, a medical student, witnessed the aftermath of one such attack in a village outside Budapest. He was called to help a young woman who said she had been gang-raped by ‘maybe ten or fifteen men’. Barna could not stop the woman’s massive internal bleeding and she was taken to hospital. ‘It was very difficult to come to terms that this was happening in the twentieth century,’ he says. ‘It was very difficult to see as a reality what the Nazi propaganda was spreading. But here we could see that in reality. And also we heard about many other terrible situations like this.’20
Such testimony is relevant in a history of the Holocaust because it reminds us once again that the extermination of the Jews took place in the context of a war of the most horrendous brutality, though that must not, of course, be considered any form of excuse for the Nazis’ crime. Significantly, the appalling scenes in Budapest were not replicated in Bucharest in Romania or in Sofia in Bulgaria after the Red Army arrived. Hitler had, to a large extent, brought this suffering upon the Hungarians. For a necessary precondition of the Red Army’s atrocities in Hungary had been Hitler’s decision that the Hungarians were to be prevented, unlike the Romanians and Bulgarians, from changing sides as the Soviets neared. Hitler’s stubbornness was ultimately futile anyway. At the end of December, with Budapest surrounded, the new Hungarian government, sponsored by the Soviets, declared war on Germany.
Hitler continued, in the face of the Allied advance, to voice his hatred of the Jews. In a decree of 25 September 1944 he referred to ‘the total annihilatory will of our Jewish-international enemies’,21 and in a proclamation in Munich on 12 November he talked about the Jews’ ‘satanic will to persecute and destroy’.22 In a sign of Hitler’s own reluctance to face an audience when events were going against him, the Munich address was actually delivered by Himmler, but the sentiments were undeniably Hitler’s. Yet again the German leader marvelled at the ‘incomprehensible absurdity’ of the Western democracies in forming an alliance with the forces of ‘Bolshevism’, and claimed that this apparently nonsensical position could be explained ‘at the moment you realize that the Jew is always behind the stupidity and weakness of man, his lack of character on the one hand, and his deficiencies on the other’. The reality, he said, was that ‘the Jew is the wire-puller in the democracies, as well as the creator and driving force of the Bolshevik international beast of the world.’ Hitler thus remained a consistent fantasist. For this was the same argument he had made in the beer halls of Munich in the early 1920s when he alleged that the Jews were simultaneously behind both ‘Bolshevism’ and the excesses of capitalism.
In a piece of the most twisted logic imaginable, Hitler even argued in his 1945 New Year proclamation to German soldiers that the fact that Germany was now engaged in ‘a merciless struggle for existence or non-existence’ was because ‘the goal of the Jewish-international world conspiracy opposing us is the extermination of our Volk.’ The correct explanation, of course, was that Germans were now in danger because Hitler had pursued a racist war of expansionism that had backfired, not that ‘the Jewish-eastern Bolshevism reflects in its exterminationist tendencies the goals of Jewish-western capitalism.’23
As Hitler offered this New Year message to German soldiers, their ‘Bolshevik’ enemies were not far from Auschwitz, where around 67,000 inmates still remained. In a new offensive, beginning on 12 January, Soviet soldiers from the First and Fourth Ukrainian Fronts closed in on Kraków, little more than 30 miles east of the camp. At Auschwitz, the Germans now followed orders not to allow their prisoners to fall into enemy hands. The SS marched most of the remaining Auschwitz prisoners – around 58,000 of them – out into the icy wind and snow of the Polish winter. The prisoners left behind, just under 9,000, were judged too sick to embark on the march. They were supposed to be shot by SS Sturmbannführer (Major) Franz Xaver Kraus and his men before the Red Army liberated Auschwitz. SS units did go on to murder about 300 prisoners at Birkenau, together with several hundred more in four sub-camps, but most of the sick at Auschwitz survived. Once again, this wasn’t because the SS had suddenly become ashamed of their murderous work, but because the discipline of the SS had started to crack as the Red Army approached. Rather than spend time killing the inmates, the SS preferred to increase their chances of saving themselves by escaping the area. Prisoners recalled that during the ‘evacuation’ there was ‘chaos’ and ‘panic’ among ‘the drunken SS’.24
Amid this confusion, even some of the Sonderkommando managed to survive. Morris Kesselman, an eighteen-year-old member of the Sonderkommando, remembers that as thousands of prisoners were milling about, waiting to join the march out of the camp, the ‘guy in charge’ of his block – ‘a French Jew’ – came and said that the SS appeared to have left the immediate area because the camp was being ‘liquidated’. ‘So we all went out,’ says Morris, ‘we mixed in [with the other prisoners] and marched out.’
During his time in the Auschwitz Sonderkommando, Morris Kesselman had tried to ‘strengthen himself’ with ‘whatever [food] was available’. He had also learnt to give himself an edge during selections in Birkenau by standing next to someone who looked weak. ‘If it wouldn’t be him it would be me,’ he says. ‘Did I feel sorry? Sure I felt sorry, but I couldn’t help him. But at that point I only watched out for myself. I was not in a position to help anybody.’25 Once assigned to the Sonderkommando, though horrified by the work he had to do, he believes his chances of survival were increased by the fact that he was young and ‘didn’t know much about anything’. He remembers that it was predominantly the ‘elderly people, the intelligent people’ who committed suicide by flinging themselves on the electric fences. He believes the young and less well educated found it easier to cope. As a member of the Sonderkommando he had access to the clothes of the murdered Jews and so in January 1945, ‘when I marched out of the camp … I was very well dressed. I had a Russian hat, a fur hat, with a heavy coat, and good shoes. And the only thing is, I don’t know what made me do it, but I had my pockets full of lumps of sugar. Why I did it, I don’t know – other people took meat. The sugar and the snow [mixed together], I survived because of that.’26
Conditions on the march out of Auschwitz were life-threatening. Dario Gabbai, another Sonderkommando who had managed to join the exodus, remembers that ‘The German Army was killing anyone who couldn’t walk.’27 Silvia Veselá, a Slovakian Jew who had spent more than two years in Auschwitz, confirms that ‘Those who couldn’t go further were shot dead. We were all mixed up, men and women. The road was covered in dead …’28
The guards shot prisoners not only because they could not keep up with the pace of the march, but for stopping to urinate or to bend down and tie their laces. At night, there wasn’t space in the barns or other shelters for all the prisoners, so many slept in the open.29 After several days on the road, Ibi Mann, a Czech Jew, remembers, ‘it seemed to me to be the end of the world already, it was very hard … There were less and less and less people marching … we weren’t hungry but we were thirsty. We were terribly thirsty and people simply dropped. They dropped or they were shot.’30
The majority of prisoners were marched to one of two destinations – either Gliwice, 30 miles to the north-west, or Wodzisław, a similar distance due west. There they were shoved on to open railway trucks for the next stage of their ordeal. Morris Venezia, a Greek Jew, remembers that it was ‘terrible’ in the trucks because ‘the snow was coming down on top of us’ and ‘the wagon was packed.’ As a result ‘many people died’ on the journey to camps further away from the front line.31
Just days after the march out of Auschwitz, at Stutthof concentration camp in West Prussia, thousands of other prisoners were also forced out into the snow. Around 11,000 inmates, mostly Jews, were marched out of Stutthof and nearby satellite camps. Some headed towards Königsberg in East Prussia while others headed due west.32 On the journey the accompanying guards shot around 2,000 of the prisoners. ‘On both sides of the road,’ recalled Schoschana Rabinovici, one of those forced to march through the freezing cold, ‘we saw corpses of the prisoners from the columns marching in front of us. You could tell that some of the dead had collapsed and died of hunger, others had been shot, and the blood flowing from their wounds turned the snow red.’33 On 31 January several thousand prisoners were machine-gunned on the seashore at Palmnicken on the Sambian peninsula in the far east of Prussia, after an attempt to trap them in an amber mine and blow them up had been thwarted.34 Only 200 are thought to have survived the massacre.
Six months earlier the commandant of Stutthof had been ordered by the SS economic and administrative department to ensure that no Jewish prisoner at the camp was left alive by the end of 1944. As a consequence gas chambers had been improvised in the camp. Starting in the early autumn of 1944, the gassing took place in a converted delousing room, but after a short time a new gassing installation was created in a railway wagon in a siding near the crematorium. The idea was that the prisoners to be gassed were first tricked into believing that they were boarding a train, rather than entering a gas chamber. To assist in that deception an SS man put on a railway uniform ‘complete with signal whistle’ and told the prisoners to hurry up and get on board as the train was about to leave for Danzig.35 But the capacity of these makeshift gas chambers was limited, and there were still many thousands of Jews left alive at Stutthof by the end of the year.
What the Stutthof massacre confirmed was that for all Himmler’s talk of ‘fostering’ the Jews, a desire to murder them still existed within the Nazi state, even as the Red Army moved ever closer. Although the situation was certainly confused – almost chaotic – on the ground, the ideological imperative to destroy the Jews still remained. While Himmler understood that for tactical reasons it might be worth bargaining with the Allies over the lives of some Jewish ‘hostages’, the central objective had not altered.
The level of suffering on what became known as the ‘death marches’ was immense. One estimate – almost certainly on the low side – is that out of 113,000 concentration camp prisoners who were forced on to the winter roads in January and February 1945, more than one in three died.36 In Poland there were examples of locals trying to offer help to the desperate prisoners as they trudged by,37 but within Germany, while there may well have been individual displays of kindness, the general attitude was less forgiving – summed up by the comment of one German bystander at the sight of prisoners on a death march: ‘What crimes they must have committed to be treated so cruelly.’38
Once the surviving prisoners reached their destinations their torment continued. Most were sent to camps within the Reich, including Buchenwald, Dora-Mittelbau and Mauthausen. About 20,000 former Auschwitz prisoners ended up at Bergen-Belsen, north-west of Hanover. The camp had been the holding destination for the so-called ‘exchange Jews’ in 1943, but conditions had deteriorated badly by the time the prisoners from the death marches arrived. In part that was the result of gross overcrowding. The camp expanded from 15,000 inmates at the end of 1944 to 60,000 in April 1945. ‘Bergen-Belsen cannot be described in human language,’ says Alice Lok Cahana, who was sent there from Auschwitz. Prisoners cried out ‘for “Mother! Water! Water! Mother!” You heard chanting, day and night.’ The Kapo in charge of Alice’s group of prisoners ‘went berserk’ and started whipping them ‘because she wanted to silence the dying’. During the night the Kapo kicked out at the prisoners. Once she stamped on Alice’s head, and Alice knew that ‘if I move she [the Kapo] will beat me to death.’39
A Polish Catholic woman imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen remembered the arrival of Hungarian Jews. ‘During December 1944 and January and February 1945 multitudes of women stood for hours in this freezing weather,’ she said, in testimony she gave immediately after the end of the war. ‘This horrible picture was not enough to describe the conditions of those miserable Hungarian Jewish women, particularly the elderly ones who dropped like flies from starvation and cold. [A] special detail of Ukrainian prisoners picked up the corpses lying by the blocks and carted them off to be cremated. Each night women died in [their] blocks and each day they died during the roll calls. They came from transports that lasted for days, sometimes even weeks, were totally exhausted, became crowded into blocks one thousand or twelve hundred in each, having to use one bed by four people.’40 Another prisoner recalled that there was no water and that ‘intestinal illnesses were rampant; diarrhea and typhoid fever decimated people.’41
As the Third Reich neared collapse, conditions at other camps were equally horrific. Mauthausen and the network of sub-camps close by became vast zones of death – 11,000 died in April 1945 alone. At Ravensbrück, north of Berlin, conditions had been worsening during 1944, and early in 1945 a gas chamber was improvised to murder several thousand prisoners.42 Estera Frenkiel, who had previously been in the Łódź ghetto, was sent to Ravensbrück in the summer of 1944. She remembers the camp as ‘pure hell’. ‘The ghetto was a story in its own right,’ she says. ‘That was a tale of hunger. That was a battle for food, avoiding deportation. But there [in Ravensbrück] it was hell: neither day, nor night.’43
Yet, at the same time as the death marches left the camps, Himmler personally negotiated the ransom of Jews. In January 1945 he met in the Black Forest with Jean-Marie Musy, a Swiss politician, and discussed releasing a number of Jews for money. In early February a transport containing around 1,200 Jews left Theresienstadt camp, north-east of Prague, for Switzerland. Rita Reh, one of the Jews on board, remembers, ‘When we were on the train the SS came and told us to put on some make-up, comb our hair and dress up, so we’d look all right when we arrived. They wanted us to make a good impression on the Swiss. They didn’t want us to look like camp inmates, overworked. They wanted us to look good.’44 When Himmler’s ‘humanitarian’ gesture was publicized in the Swiss papers, Hitler was furious.45 Even though he had agreed in December 1942 that Himmler could pursue the ransoming of Jews, this was too much. Almost certainly, he was concerned about the sense of despair that might emanate from sending Jews to safety at a time when the German people were suffering as the bombing attacks intensified. Hitler ordered Himmler to stop ransoming Jews at once. It was clear once again that Hitler would fight to the very end. Bernd Freiherr Freytag von Loringhoven, an adjutant to the army Chief of Staff, who observed Hitler during this period, maintains that ‘Officially there was no political solution. Foreign policy did not exist any more. For Hitler there was only a military solution. A political solution was beyond discussion, and if it had been mentioned, Hitler would have labelled it as defeatism.’46
Himmler’s relationship with Hitler was now under great strain. Hitler was already furious with Himmler for his perceived failure as a military leader. Dissatisfied with the performance of his traditionally trained military experts, Hitler had recently appointed him to a series of leadership posts, including Commander of Army Group Vistula. But having an amateur commander – albeit one with the necessary ideological fervour – had not benefited the soldiers concerned, and Himmler had been no more successful at holding back the Red Army than his predecessors had been. On 15 March 1945, according to Goebbels, Hitler remarked that Himmler bore ‘the historic guilt’ for the fact that ‘Pomerania and a large part of its population had fallen into the hands of the Soviets’.47 The following day Hitler told Goebbels that he had given Himmler ‘an exceptionally vigorous telling off’.48 Goebbels’ consequent judgement on Himmler was cutting: ‘Unfortunately, he was tempted to pursue military laurels, but he has failed completely. He’ll do nothing but ruin his good political reputation by this.’49
However, by this point Himmler seems to have been less concerned with his ‘political reputation’ among the Nazi elite, and a great deal more interested in how he might be perceived by the victorious powers. He ignored Hitler’s instructions and instead decided to intensify his contacts with the West. During February and March 1945 he met with Count Folke Bernadotte of the Swedish Red Cross and discussed sending Scandinavian prisoners held in concentration camps to Sweden. Himmler’s personal masseur and physical therapist, Felix Kersten, played a part in lobbying Himmler to release not just the Scandinavian prisoners – both Jews and non-Jews – but also large numbers of Jews of other nationalities. It was in this context that Himmler wrote a bizarre letter to Kersten in the middle of March, in which he revealed how he would try and explain his previous actions to any representative of the Jews. He said that he had always wanted to allow Jews to move safely to the West ‘until the war and the irrationality unleashed by it’ made this policy impossible. He now wanted ‘all differences’ to be put to one side so that ‘wisdom and rationality’ and ‘the desire to help’ would appear in their place.50
We see Himmler’s words today, understandably, as wholly mendacious. But it is possible that he genuinely believed what he was writing. The words reflect the warped, paranoid world in which the Nazi leadership existed. Himmler almost certainly thought that, had the war not intervened, the policy Eichmann had operated in Vienna in 1938 – of robbing the Jews and deporting them – might have removed all the Jews from the Reich. This policy had been thwarted, the Nazis argued at the time, only by the unwillingness of the rest of the world to take the Jews. From the Nazi perspective, the problem had been not that the German government wanted to expel the Jews, but that none of the nations of the world gathered at the Evian conference in 1938 had wanted to receive them. In this context, Himmler would have argued that the Nazis were the true victims. Not just that, but – according to the Nazis – the war was not their fault either. It had happened because Germany had been denied the return of territory stolen after the end of the First World War. As for the extermination camps, they had been constructed only because the British had irrationally acted against their best interests and refused to make peace in the summer of 1940. Likewise, Germany had been forced to fight a preventative war against the Bolsheviks who, had Germany not intervened, would have invaded and conquered Europe. The fact that the Bolsheviks were even now fighting their way towards the Atlantic was proof that this analysis had been correct all along.
It was all a fantasy, of course – not least because Hitler had for years intended to launch a war of territorial conquest in the east. But within the confines of the Nazi universe Himmler’s arguments made sense. Outrageous and full of falsehoods as his letter of explanation to Kersten was, it remains valuable as an insight into how he seriously thought he could argue that the Holocaust was not his fault.
Given that Himmler had no problem deluding himself about the fate of the Jews, what about the mass of ordinary Germans? What did they know about the Final Solution and how many of them were prepared to help the Jews? That there was some German opposition to the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews is undeniable. Most famously the White Rose group in Munich, including brother and sister Hans and Sophie Scholl, distributed a series of leaflets in 1942 and 1943 protesting about many aspects of Hitler’s rule. But while the White Rose group condemned the Nazi treatment of the Jews, the wording of their protest leaflet is enlightening. They focused on the murder of ‘three hundred thousand Jews’ in Poland ‘in the most bestial manner imaginable’, which they saw as ‘a terrible crime against the dignity of mankind, a crime that cannot be compared with any other in the history of mankind’. However, they immediately felt the need to add these words: ‘Jews are human beings too – it makes no difference what your opinion is regarding the Jewish question – and these crimes are being committed against human beings. Perhaps someone will say, the Jews deserve this fate. Saying this is in itself a colossal effrontery.’51 That the White Rose protesters felt the need to argue against those who thought the Jews ‘deserve their fate’ is significant. They obviously believed that, because the victims were Jews, they could not count on all their fellow non-Jewish Germans to condemn the crime automatically.
It must not be forgotten, however, that there were a number of brave Germans who protected Jews during the war. In Berlin, for example, Otto Jogmin, a caretaker living in a house in Charlottenburg, concealed Jews in the basement of his building and managed to supply them with food and medicine. He was one of around 550 Germans who were honoured in Israel after the war as ‘Righteous among the Nations’.52
Altogether around 1,700 Jews managed to survive the war in hiding in Berlin, and an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 non-Jewish Germans assisted them in one way or another.53 That is a much smaller number of Jews than were helped in Warsaw during the same period. As we have seen, around 28,000 Jews were hidden in Warsaw, of whom about 11,500 survived the war. Up to 90,000 non-Jewish Poles risked their lives to help them.
The stark fact is that nearly seven times as many Jews survived the war in Warsaw, helped by non-Jews, as in Berlin. Yet Berlin was more than three times the size of the Polish capital, albeit with fewer Jewish inhabitants at the start of the war (about 80,000) than Warsaw (350,000). While there are a number of possible explanations for this disparity, the most persuasive is that there was simply less desire among the broad German population to take risks for the Jews. As one leading scholar concludes: ‘Many, probably the great majority of the population, were convinced by 1939 if not before that the Jews had been a harmful influence in German society, and that it would be better if those still remaining left (or were forced to leave) as soon as possible.’54 That is not to say, of course, that large numbers of Germans were content that the Jews should be killed.
As for the ordinary German’s knowledge of the fate of the deported Jews, that varied considerably. But while detailed information about the murder factories was not commonplace, the idea that something bad was happening to the Jews in the east was widespread. After all, as we have seen, in a number of speeches during the war Hitler referred openly to the fulfilment of his ‘prophecy’ about the extermination of the Jews in the event of a ‘world war’. In that context, the concern of many non-Jewish Germans seems to have been less for the Jews and more for their own fate if the war did not go to plan. One SD report for Franconia in southern Germany from December 1942 reads: ‘One of the strongest causes of unease among those attached to the church and in the rural population is at the present time formed by news from Russia in which shooting and extermination of the Jews is spoken about. The news frequently leaves great anxiety, care and worry in those sections of the population. According to widely held opinion in the rural population, it is not at all certain that we will win the war, and if the Jews come again to Germany, they will exact dreadful revenge upon us.’55
Charles Bleeker Kohlsaat, an ethnic German living in the Warthegau in Poland, heard this fear expressed first hand. His uncle had learnt what was happening in Auschwitz and warned: ‘Should the world ever find out what is going on there, we have had it.’ Bleeker Kohlsaat asked his mother: ‘Mummy, what does Uncle Willy mean?’ And she replied: ‘Well, it is very difficult to explain, and there is no need for you to know.’ He remembers that ‘We [had] assumed it [Auschwitz] to be a severe prison or something of the kind, where people received extremely meagre food and might even be treated badly, meaning that they were shouted at – not beaten – but received meagre food and had to work very hard. That’s what we believed. We thought they were being punished in a severe prison, that’s what we imagined. Our imagination did not stretch far enough to guess what was concealed behind the scenes.’56
When Manfred von Schröder, a German officer, discovered the reality of Auschwitz before the end of the war, he was ‘terrified’ and thought, ‘Oh goodness, what will happen to the Germans when we lose that war?’ Previously, fighting against the Red Army, he had felt that ‘Human life is cheap in a war. If you hear that somewhere near by some Russian prisoners or partisans or even Jews have been shot, then the feeling was – when the same day five of your comrades were shot – you think, And, so what? There were thousands dying every day … so you thought, “How do you try to be alive yourself?” And everything else doesn’t interest you very much, you know.’57
Himmler was certainly concerned about his own fate once Germany lost the war. As part of his strategy to show himself in the best possible light, he allowed Bergen-Belsen to be captured intact on 15 April 1945. But the plan – from his perspective – was a disaster. When the British entered the camp they saw the surviving prisoners living in the most horrendous conditions. ‘I think they [the British soldiers] were the bravest people I ever saw in my life,’ says Jacob Zylberstein, previously of the Łódź ghetto but who was now in Bergen-Belsen, ‘because there was typhus, dysentery, cholera, everything there.’58 Shortly afterwards ‘the English bulldozers started to dig graves’ for the thousands of dead.
Himmler’s reaction was to protest, on 21 April, to Norbert Masur, a Swedish official of the World Jewish Congress – and a Jew – that he had not received the thanks he deserved for handing over the camps to the Allies.59 During the discussion he also repeated many of the self-serving lies and excuses he had made in his letter to Kersten in mid-March: the Jews were a foreign element in Germany and had needed to be removed; the Jews were dangerous because they were linked to Bolshevism; he had wanted peaceful emigration for the Jews, but other countries had not cooperated; Jews from the east carried typhus and the Germans had built crematoria to dispose of the sick who had died; the German people had suffered along with the Jews in this war; concentration camps were really re-education camps, and so on.
After the Masur meeting, Himmler still persevered in a doomed attempt to refashion his reputation. Two days later, on 23 April, he told the Swedish diplomat Count Bernadotte he could approach the Allies and tell them that Germany would surrender unconditionally to Britain and America on the western front – but not to the Soviet Union. At the time, Himmler thought that Hitler might already have committed suicide. But Hitler was still very much alive in his fortified bunker beneath the garden of the Reich Chancellery, and he was outraged when he learnt of Himmler’s offer of surrender, broadcast on radio on 27 April. ‘The news hit the bunker like a bombshell,’ remembers Bernd Freiherr Freytag von Loringhoven. ‘It had the greatest impact on Hitler.’60 Himmler’s attempt to surrender to the Western powers was, said Hitler, ‘the most shameful betrayal in human history’.61 He now prepared to commit suicide, believing that his ‘loyal Heinrich’ had turned against him at the last.
In the middle of the afternoon on 30 April 1945, Hitler killed himself. He left behind his ‘political testament’ in which he stated that he had never wanted war in 1939, but that the conflict had been caused by ‘those international statesmen who are either of Jewish origin or work for Jewish interests’. He also hinted that he was responsible for – indeed proud of – the extermination of the Jews. He said that he had ‘never left any doubt’ that the ‘actual guilty party’ for starting the war would be ‘held responsible’. This was, according to him, ‘the Jews’. ‘Further,’ he said, ‘I have not left anybody in the dark about the fact that this time, millions of adult men would not die, and hundreds of thousands of women and children would not be burnt or bombed to death in the cities, without the actual culprit, albeit by more humane means, having to pay for his guilt.’ The very last words he dictated in the second and final part of his political testament, read: ‘Above all, I oblige the leadership of the nation and its followers to keep the racial laws scrupulously and to resist mercilessly the world poisoner of all peoples, international Jewry.’62
Hitler was not sorry for the destruction he had brought into the world. Far from it. But he was angry that the West – the British in particular – had not understood the dangers of ‘Jewish Bolshevism’ and joined together with the Nazis in the fight. His hatred of the Jews, as captured in his political testament, remained at the core of his being. He was pleased, even as Germany came crashing down about him, that he had brought about the death of 6 million Jews.
This moment in the history is also an appropriate time to review the role of the Nazi leader in creating and orchestrating the Holocaust. As we have seen, Hitler did not simply devise a blueprint for the scheme and then order his underlings to complete the task. His involvement in the crime was much more complex than that, and reflects the nature of his leadership of the Nazi state. Though he was undoubtedly a charismatic leader, he did not ‘hypnotize’ Germans to do his bidding. Instead, he tried to convince them that he was right. ‘My whole life’, he said, ‘can be summed up as this ceaseless effort of mine to persuade other people.’63
In the context of the Holocaust, Hitler’s primary role was to set a vision. That vision was relatively consistent from the moment he entered politics at the end of the First World War. He hated the Jews with a passion that was almost overwhelming. They were to blame for Germany’s misfortune. They needed – somehow or other – to be neutralized and rendered harmless. As we have seen, how that goal should be accomplished varied from time to time, determined largely by what Hitler thought was politically acceptable at any given moment. There were thus many different milestones on the journey to the Holocaust. Some of the most crucial along the way were: the invasion of the Soviet Union; Hitler’s decision to send the Jews from the Old Reich and Protectorate to the east in the autumn of 1941; his response to the entry of the United States into the war a few months later; and the order to kill the Jews of the General Government in the summer of 1942. The most appalling atrocity in history was thus caused not by one single, monumental moment of decision, but by a series of moments of escalation, which cumulatively built into the catastrophe we call the Holocaust.
The structure of the Nazi state also played a part in the way the Holocaust developed. The fact that different death camps used different means of gassing Jews – Zyklon B at Auschwitz, carbon monoxide from engines at Treblinka and gas vans at Chełmno – demonstrates the extent to which the Nazi system encouraged subordinates to devise their own way of best fulfilling the overall vision.
All this needs to be set against another fact that is often overlooked, which is that during the war most of Hitler’s time was spent trying to think of ways to defeat his enemies on the battlefield. While the racist and anti-Semitic views held by him and many others in Nazi Germany made a confrontation with the Jews an inevitable consequence of this war, Hitler’s day-to-day attention was predominantly on military matters. That partly explains why the implementation of the Holocaust was often under-resourced and haphazard.
This is not to say that Hitler was not the individual most responsible for the crime. Unquestionably he was. As the world’s leading expert on Adolf Hitler says: ‘No Hitler, no Holocaust’.64 Without Hitler this crime could not have happened in the way it did. At key moments he demonstrably intervened to make the process still more extreme.65 No one who studies this history can conclude anything other than that Hitler was primarily responsible for the Holocaust. But – partly because of the way the Nazi regime functioned – many, many others have to take part of the blame as well.
The Third Reich did not last long after the removal of its architect, and in the early hours of 7 May, at Reims in France, Alfred Jodl, Chief of the Wehrmacht Operations Staff, signed the unconditional surrender of German armed forces in the presence of the British and Americans. The next day, in Berlin, Field Marshal Keitel surrendered on behalf of Germany to the Soviets. As for Himmler, he had ordered that no prisoners at Dachau and Flossenbürg concentration camps should be taken alive when the Allies arrived. As a result, even in the last hours of the Third Reich, new death marches were formed and thousands more lost their lives. One estimate is that out of 714,000 inmates alive in concentration camps at the start of 1945, between 240,000 and 360,000 died before Germany capitulated.66 As for Himmler, he survived the end of Nazism by only a matter of days. On 23 May he committed suicide by biting into a poison capsule, after his British captors had discovered that he was not Sergeant Heinrich Hitzinger as he pretended to be, but Heinrich Himmler, former Reichsführer of the SS and one of the world’s most notorious war criminals.
For those Jews in the labour camps that were now liberated, the mood was not one of simple joy. Giselle Cycowicz remembers how she, and the other Jewish women imprisoned with her, learnt that the war was over: ‘We hear whistling – you know they have whistles like these police whistles to mean roll call. We run out. It’s a beautiful sunny day. It’s a big field; the girls are on one side of the field, lining up, feverishly because we cannot dilly-dally. And suddenly we hear through a loudspeaker, somebody [one of the SS] says, “Today the war was declared over. And you are free, you can go wherever you want to and you can do whatever you want to. But we were asked to stay here with you and watch you until the Russian army arrives …” Let me tell you why this is traumatic … Because the minute he said we are free – especially, he used these magic words of “you can go wherever you want” – [I thought] where would I want to go? What place is there for me to go to? Should I go back to where they sent me away from … the Jewish houses that we left … Everything my parents possessed was left open [i.e. unprotected] in the house … people were already taking out the possessions of the Jews. So I want to go back there? Who wants to live in a place where everybody stood by when the Jews were meted out terrible evil, who wants to go there? And where is there another place in the world [for me]?
‘You know I keep reading about the world’s rejection of any approach to let them [the Jews] come in before the killing took place. Nobody wanted the Jews to come in, nobody. There was no Israel open for us. There was no England, no America, no Canada with its open spaces, Australia with its open spaces – nobody wanted the Jews. So should I be happy that I’m liberated? I’m eighteen years old, what am I? I am nothing … It was very traumatic. And why was it so traumatic? Because a minute before I realized that I am free and can do whatever I want, there was nothing else in the world that interested me but how do I get something to put into my mouth. Seventy years, I cannot get over it. I cannot get over the evil.’67