Lest we forget
Sixty years on, books from Laurence Rees and Sybille Steinbacher examine Auschwitz and the depravity of the Final Solution
Sunday January 16, 2005
Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution by Laurence Rees (BBC Books, £20, pp320)
Auschwitz by Sybille Steinbacher (Penguin £6.99, pp168)
When I first went to Auschwitz, the earth was still white with calcined bone, while thousands of rusting spoons and forks lay on the site of the storehouses. Today, the earth is normal brown, the spoons have gone and the scrawny poplars planted by the SS to hide the gas chambers have become tall and beautiful. Nature wants us to forget, but human beings want to know everything that happened here and then fix it unalterably in the memory of our species.
Half the British population, apparently, have never heard of Auschwitz. Some of the other half think that there is nothing left to say about it. But Laurence Rees, author of this book and director of the TV documentary series on Auschwitz which started on BBC2 last Tuesday, shows that there is a great deal left to discover. Some of this comes from his admirable hunt for witnesses, both survivors and SS perpetrators.
Makers of documentaries have been using - or trying to use - these individuals for decades, with varying success, but Rees has spent years patiently coaxing them to talk as the end of their lives approaches.
Anyway, they no longer worry about consequences. SS staff who used to deny all responsibility and took refuge behind 'higher orders' now talk openly to Rees about what they did and often reveal that they have no regrets. In a deeper way, there will always be fresh answers to be discovered to the big questions: 'How could human beings have done these things?' and: 'Who decided that all the Jews must be killed and when?'
This is because we can only peer at history through the confusingly reflective pane of our own times. Once, it was assumed that the Germans who ran and guarded the camp were psychopathic sadists and that Hitler must have given a direct extermination order to robot-like henchmen. Today, Laurence Rees and Sybille Steinbacher both subscribe to the 'cumulative radicalisation' theory (he says historian Martin Broszat invented it, while she says it came from Hans Mommsen).
Put simply, this theory says that one thing led to another. Vast Nazi plans ran into trouble and provoked even more extreme solutions to get out of the trouble. Often, these actions were improvised by local officials. It was the SS leaders on the spot as much as Hitler and Himmler who turned deportation into shooting, shooting into gassing, gassing into a programme of total extermination. The horrible truth is that Europe's Jews were murdered as much to solve problems of living space and food in occupied Poland as to fulfil Hitler's crazed anti-semitism. In the end, the question for the Nazis was not: 'Why we must kill all the Jews', but a worse one - 'Why not?' Their presence had become a problem, so abolishing them was the obvious radical solution. After all, they were not fully human.
Rees gives much space to the French deportation of foreign Jews to the gas chambers, a digression from his subject, but no more shocking account has been written. He goes at great length into the tangled 'lorries for Jews' affair in Hungary, another digression but one which doesn't add anything new.
Both books are at their best when sorting out what actually took place at Auschwitz. The great camp, eventually covering a landscape with its extensions and outstations, began operations in 1940 and was liberated by the Red Army 60 years ago, on 27 January 1945. More than a million people were killed there, 90 per cent of them Jews. But murdering Jews was not the original intention of the camp, which was, at first, used mainly for Polish and Soviet prisoners.
The first trainload of Jews destined for the new gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau arrived in spring 1942. Most of the Final Solution victims died elsewhere, before the firing squads on conquered Soviet territory or in the three temporary death camps of Operation Reinhard which gassed 1.65 million defenceless men, women and children within little more than a year.
As these books make clear, Auschwitz was both an industrial killing factory and a place of slave-labour imprisonment where life expectancy was only a few months. The living, under a regime whose savagery and sadism remain almost unimaginable, were entitled to envy the dead. And yet - as these books show - the prisoners fought, sometimes horribly and sometimes nobly, to stay alive.
Rees fails to mention the political resistance networks within Auschwitz, which Steinbacher summarises well. The two also disagree about whether Allied bombing of railway lines or crematoriums could have saved many victims. Rees calls this 'a new myth'; by the time detailed information about the camp's layout reached the Allies in June-July 1944, the main deportations to the gas chambers had finished. Steinbacher points out that Auschwitz still held 155,000 people and that killings went on all summer and autumn. She also records that the Polish resistance was carrying out attacks on the rail spur leading to Birkenau.
In spite of his long familiarity with this period, Rees was still shaken by what he found. For example, the aftermath of Auschwitz was also hideous. Through witness interviews, he records the wave of vicious, sometimes murderous, anti-semitism which swept across eastern Europe after liberation, as the Jewish survivors returned to what had been their homes.
He describes the gold rush at Auschwitz as local Poles sieved the soil of the camp for coins or teeth, and the shame felt by those who had hidden Jews during the Nazi occupation and did not want their neighbours to know. Those neighbours would assume they had done it for Jewish gold and hate them as millionaires.
As he says, what we learn here about human beings 'is mostly not good'. His conclusion is that we underestimate the power of situations, especially extreme ones, to change not only behaviour but character. Else Baker, one of his interviewees who was sent alone to Auschwitz at the age of eight because her grandmother had been a gypsy, puts it more shortly: 'The level of human depravity is unfathomable.'
Sixty years on, we are still trying to understand the Holocaust. Studies of Auschwitz from Laurence Rees and Sybille Steinbacher provide a valuable record, says Ian Thomson
Saturday January 29, 2005
Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution
by Laurence Rees
320pp, BBC, £20
Auschwitz: A History
by Sybille Steinbacher, translated by Shaun Whiteside
168pp, Penguin, £6.99
In the summer of 1947, by Polish government decree, Auschwitz was turned into a national museum. Wreath-laying ceremonies transformed the camp into a visitors' shrine. There was even the macabre indecency - in this place - of a cafeteria. Today notices admonish the tourist: "You are entering a place of exceptional horror and tragedy." More than 90% of those who lost their lives at Auschwitz - whether by toxic gas, starvation or forced labour - were Jews. (The current estimate is over 1m.) Auschwitz remains the largest graveyard in human history.
Auschwitz was not a single camp; 39 satellite camps formed a malignant universe. The main camp at Auschwitz I was the administrative centre; Auschwitz II was the extermination centre; Auschwitz III was a hybrid death-and-work camp. Numerous German companies exploited the presence of Jews at Auschwitz. Among them were Bayer, Agfa, BASF and Pelikan (which provided the ink to tattoo prisoners). So the camp operated as an industrial, as well as an extermination centre, whose factories used unpaid slave labour. Incredibly, the synthetic-rubber factory which Jewish prisoners built at Auschwitz III is still in operation. A railway carrying 7,000 Polish workers to the factory runs directly from Oswiecim (Auschwitz) civilian station, just as it had during the war. Travelling to the factory with these workers today is an experience that leaves the visitor feeling disturbed and contaminated.
Never before had a European nation planned the annihilation of an entire people. When Hitler said "exterminate all Jews", he meant all deported, all exterminated, even newborns (for they, too, were potential enemies of the Third Reich). The 20th century was fraught with atrocity. The atomic holocaust of Hiroshima and Stalin's technocratic Russia showed man's wilful and destructive misuse of science and industry. Yet there is a unique moral horror to what the Nazis did in occupied Poland. The industrial exploitation of Jewish slaves and Jewish corpses - their ashes and their teeth - was a uniquely Hitlerian atrocity. At Auschwitz the murder of Jews was made a civic virtue; and in this way, Germany departed from the community of civilised human beings.
Most historians agree that Auschwitz was the outcome of the most murderous legislative document known to European history: the 1935 Nuremberg laws. Overnight, the laws turned German Jews into biological heretics and "vermin" to be removed from the Aryan state. Hitler's war against the Jews should never be forgotten. Yet half of Britain's teenagers have reportedly never heard of Auschwitz or do not understand its significance (Harry Windsor and his swastika may be proof of this). These two excellent histories of Auschwitz are published to coincide with the anniversary of the camp's liberation by the Red Army 60 years ago this week. They provide a valuable record of Nazi atrocity as well as a key to understanding man's inhumanity to man.
Laurence Rees's book accompanies the current BBC2 series on the Nazis and the final solution. By his patient accumulation of evidence, Rees seeks to refute Himmler's cynical pledge that the destruction of Jews was to be an "unwritten page of glory". Rees disproves the common notion that Auschwitz staff were uniformly sadists. Most of the 6,000 Reich Germans stationed at the camp were unremarkable Schreibtischtäter - "desk murderers" - who eliminated the innocent at the stroke of a pen. Apprenticeship in Nazi obedience required a stunted moral imagination; lack of imagination (willed or otherwise) - not sadism - was what made the Auschwitz SS cruel.
As Rees makes clear, Stalinist Russia had no equivalent of the wretchedly servile Auschwitz functionary Rudolf Höss. In his self-justifying memoir, Kommandant in Auschwitz , Höss recounts with disturbing indifference the immense pride he took in the smooth running of the Auschwitz gas chambers. The Nazi practice of extermination - Vernichtungswissenschaft - had in fact become so refined under Höss that the condemned remained deceived until the door shut on them in the false shower rooms. Zyklon B crystals (a pesticide used to kill rats) suffocated them.
Once people have been deprived of their humanity it is much easier to kill them. (All modern dictatorships have known this.) The Jews who were shunted to Auschwitz in cattle trucks were so degraded by their journey that they were no longer considered Menschen - human beings - but animals to slaughter. Typically, Auschwitz personnel ensured that their awareness of this horror was confined to their own special competence (the punctual departure of trains, the registration of arrivals). It was this willed ignorance that enabled them to ignore the moral consequences of their work.
Sybille Steinbacher's brief but powerful study, Auschwitz: A History, chronicles the depredations of the camp in the dispassionate tones of a courtroom testimonial. A German historian, Steinbacher reflects that ours is an age of diminished responsibility. The division of labour at the camp - the "fragmentation of responsibility" - made the contribution of any single person seem unimportant. The SS doctors felt no more responsible, personally, for killing Gypsies with phenol injections (to the heart) than the Jewish Special Squads who were forced by the SS to shepherd fellow Jews to the gas chambers.
Interviews with Special Squad survivors shed disturbing light on the corruption and moral ambiguity in Auschwitz. In most cases squad conscripts were ordinary Jews degraded into collaboration: they worked for the Nazis in order to survive. ("You become indifferent," one of them tells Rees. "A human being can get used to anything.") At the terrible heart of these books is a warning to those who deliver facile judgments of condemnation: only those who survived Auschwitz have the right to forgive or condemn. And even they are not properly fit to do so, for those who fathomed the depths of human degradation did not come back to tell the tale. (The same point is made by Primo Levi in his writings on the Nazi camps.)
Steinbacher devotes an angry chapter to demolishing pseudo-scholars who deny the mass murders at Auschwitz. In 1979, infamously, the Lyons University professor Robert Faurisson claimed that the Nazi gassings were a pack of "Jewish lies". Other falsifiers of history have been no less shoddy. In a recent trial the British historian David Irving was proved to have wilfully misinterpreted the evidence for the exterminations and was judged an anti-semite. (Irving had gone so far as to dismiss Levi's great Auschwitz memorial, If This Is a Man, as a "novel" by a "mentally unstable" Jew.) Others still have tried to argue for a supposed moral equivalence between Hitler's extermination of the Jews and the earlier Stalinist extermination of the kulaks. According to this revisionist polemic, the final solution merely imitated Stalin's slaughter: there would have been no Auschwitz without the gulag.
Rees and Steinbacher refute these sly propositions. At Auschwitz the Nazis had embarked on something that had never been attempted before - the assembly-line gassing of human beings. And this remains an isolated instance of human infamy. Sixty years on, we are still trying to understand the catastrophe that engulfed the Jews in the Hitlerite storm. If there is a lesson to be learnt from these books, perhaps it is this: Auschwitz has happened once and Auschwitz can happen again.
Ian Thomson's biography of Primo Levi is published by Vintage.
Auschwitz: The Nazis & the 'Final Solution'
BBC, £20, 320 pp
An economy of death
Michael Burleigh reviews Auschwitz: The Nazis & the 'Final Solution' by Laurence Rees
According to various polls, a surprising percentage of British people have never, despite the strenuous efforts of professional Holocaust educators, heard of Auschwitz at all. Laurence Rees's book is not the "definitive" history of Auschwitz based on primary sources, but the book accompanying the current BBC2 television series designed to remedy our ignorance.
Rees skilfully summarises what previous historians of the Holocaust have discovered – although Polish historians seem to get short-changed – interspersing his well-written narrative with striking testimonies from bystanders, perpetrators and victims interviewed by the BBC.
The interviews with SS men, and sundry European Fascists, are genuinely revealing, and must have been exceptionally difficult to negotiate. Courageously, Rees explores even intimate relations between the SS and prisoners, though the prurient details of the camp brothel are reminiscent of Nazi pornography.
The camp at Auschwitz was developed on the site of a Polish artillery base which the SS sequestered. They installed Rudolf Hoess as the first commandant. Hoess, the German army's youngest sergeant in the First World War, had served a prison sentence for a brutal political murder during the Weimar Republic. After abandoning farming, he became a guard at Dachau. Following a further period at Sachsenhausen, he assumed his first independent command at Auschwitz.
The camp's initial purpose, for which Hoess came well prepared, was to terrorise Polish political prisoners. Auschwitz would continue as a concentration camp even as it developed economically - a model agricultural colony was built and a huge rubber factory soon dirtied the skies – and after it had become an extermination centre. These were eventually combined in an economy of death.
The camp expanded in line with the megalomaniac vistas which the Nazi leadership en-tertained as they embarked on a colossal process of ethnic cleansing in the "German East".
After mid-1941 the licensed barbarism of the Eastern Front altered the purpose of Auschwitz once again. Ten thousand Russian prisoners were used to construct a complex even more vast at Birkenau, the neighbouring village which was to be merged with Auschwitz. All but 1,000 of these men died, a fate that would have been shared by the majority of the 100,000 of their comrades whom the Birkenau barracks were intended for.
Wartime labour shortages, however, meant that the surviving Soviet prisoners were directed instead to mines and factories. Some of the Russians who built this complex were gassed with hydrogen cyanide, as the SS at Auschwitz, like the SS elsewhere, experimented with methods of mass murder that were not as psychologically debilitating as shooting people at close range.
Instead of being used to kill Russian prisoners, the camps' huge capacity was used to murder Europe's Jews. The first transports were from Slovakia, whose puppet government had struck a deal with the Nazis whom it paid to make these Jews disappear for good. They were killed in two cottages, the "Little Red" and "Little White" houses, which had been converted for the delivery of a crystallised hydrogen cyanide fumigant called "Zyklon-B".
Various disgusting rationalisations were used to extend the range of victims. While the Slovak authorities insisted it would be "un-Christian" not to include children in transports; the Vichy French authorities who surrendered their immigrant Jews next, spoke of their "humane" desire not to separate families.
During 1942 the main centres of what had in the interim developed into the "Final Solution" were at Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, where nearly two million, mainly Polish, Jews were murdered in small extermination camps. Belzec, where 600,000 people were killed, was no larger than 300x300 meters.
For reasons that Rees does not make entirely clear, in the course of mid-1942 the gassing capacity at Auschwitz-Birkenau was again massively enhanced so as to kill 150,000 people a month.
If this implies clinical industrial efficiency, the quotidian reality of Auschwitz rarely lived up to it. By the autumn of 1943, Auschwitz had become such a by-word for corruption and moral squalor within the SS, that investigators transferred the man ultimately responsible – Rudolf Hoess – to a desk job in Berlin. However, his mis-demeanours were forgiven when, six months later, his SS masters thought he would be the right man to kill 400,000 Hungarian Jews, whom he duly dispatched in an eight-week frenzy of mass murder.
Will this occasionally idiosyncratic but always thoughtful book, and a BBC series heavily reliant on computer graphics and earnest-looking German thespians in glamorous SS uniforms, repair the general ignorance and misconceptions about Auschwitz? One can never be entirely sure.
Michael Burleigh is on the Academic Advisory Board of the Institut für Zeitgeschichte in Munich and author of 'The Third Reich: A New History'.
Auschwitz beyond the symbolism
By MICHAEL R. MARRUS
Saturday, February 19, 2005 Updated at 3:47 AM EST
A New History
By Laurence Rees
Public Affairs, 336 pages, $42.50
N Z Z Online
Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 3. August 2005, Ressort Feuilleton
Auschwitz – das Schweigen der Täter
Der Auschwitz-Prozess. Tonbandmitschnitte, Protokolle und Dokumente, hg. vom Fritz-Bauer-Institut und vom Staatlichen Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau. 1 DVD (ca. 6000 Min., 49 000 S.), Directmedia Berlin 2004 (Digitale Bibliothek Band 101).
Jochanan Shelliem: «Weinen Sie nicht, die gehen nur baden». Zeugen des Auschwitz-Prozesses berichten. Feature, 1 CD (56 Min.). SWR/DAV 2005.
Read those articles, here
Auschwitz im Harz
Als die Rote Armee Auschwitz erreicht, sind die meisten Häftlinge schon »evakuiert« – weiterverschleppt in andere Lager. Vor allem Mittelbau-Dora bei Nordhausen wird für viele zur zweiten Hölle
Von Jens-Christian Wagner
Read this article, here
Leben neben dem KZ
Eine deutsche Stadt
Im Jahr 1943 galt Auschwitz als gute Adresse: Hier gab es Arbeit bei der IG Farben, keine Luftangriffe - nur ein paar Gerüchte.
Von Sybille Steinbacher
Read this article, here
The Nazi concentration camp was an industrial killing machine. As we recall its liberation 60 years ago, a Jewish historian argues that we have still not fully come to terms with its significance, including its roots in the Christian culture of Europe
SIXTY years after the liberating troops of the Russian Red Army entered the complex of camps around the Polish town of Oswieçim, better known as Auschwitz, the place has attained an almost unique, global significance. Some of the reasons for this ubiquity are quite banal. At another level, however, Auschwitz resonates so deeply and persistently because the fact of its creation challenges fundamental beliefs about human nature, civilisation and progress, and our ideals as embodied in secular ideologies as well as religion.
Auschwitz jars our sensibilities primarily because it is the place where at
least 1.1 million people were murdered in cold blood. That alone would be enough
to confer notoriety on a location for all time. But the evolution of the camp
and its purpose, which until recently have not been fully analysed or
understood, render the statistics of death into something still more insidious.
The original main camp, Auschwitz I, was not built in order to carry out genocide. It only acquired that function by happenstance. Initially it was founded as an instrument of terror directed against the population of German-conquered Poland. It later attracted the attention of German industrialists who saw its potential to supply slave labour. From early on, Auschwitz exemplified the capacity of modern industrial capitalism to coexist happily with, and profit from, a barbaric system of slavery.
In March 1941, Himmler decreed the establishment of a new camp, Auschwitz II (also called Birkenau) to house 100,000 prisoners of war whose capture was anticipated in the forthcoming war on the Soviet Union. When the Russian POWs failed to materialise (they mostly starved to death at the hands of the German army in Russia), Slovakian and French Jews were sent there instead. The first Jews deported to Auschwitz in early 1942 were used for labour. The camp was not intended to be part of any apparatus for the systematic annihilation of European Jews.
When Auschwitz-Birkenau was integrated into the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question" it was by means of improvisation. However, the SS in the camp made a number of important discoveries and decisions about killing methods. First, they realised that Zyklon-B gas, a pesticide, could be used for homicide. Second, they worked out a means to deliver hundreds of Jews on a daily basis to gas chambers, kill them and dispose of their bodies as if operating a production line.
While building plans for underground mortuaries and adjacent crematoria were still at the drafting stage, the SS administration ordered that they be converted into huge killing and disposal facilities. Draughtsmen, designers, architects, and technicians laboured over the project for months. "Decent" men, not psychopaths, planned industrial-scale mass murder.
At the same time, factories arose close to Auschwitz. The biggest, at Monowitz, had its own camp. The Auschwitz complex now supplied slave labour for coal mines, market gardens and munitions plants. It did not only provide cheap labour: it supplied the means to dispose of workers who could no longer function. Genocide and murder were built into the system of production run by companies with boards of directors, executives and middle managers.
Auschwitz was so important for German plans to settle the conquered eastern territories and to generate resources and wealth for the Third Reich that it absorbed huge investment. Great efforts were made to keep the enterprises running. Auschwitz was unlike the other death camps: Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. They were flimsy, temporary structures erected with just one aim: mass murder.
In many ways, Treblinka was more ghastly than Auschwitz-Birkenau. With singleness of purpose it was responsible for the annihilation of 800,000 people in 1942-43. By comparison over this period Auschwitz-Birkenau was in a minor league. But thanks to its varied functions it continued to operate long after the other camps had been dismantled.
Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka feature less in our awareness because they literally disappeared and almost no one lived to tell what happened in them. It is relatively easy to make a documentary about Auschwitz because there are hundreds of survivors from the tide of humanity, mostly Jews, sluiced through its portals in 1943-44. Few films have documented the others because they are so hard to recall.
Auschwitz became the most lethal of extermination centres because it turned into the focal point of genocide. By 1944 it was equipped with massive murderous capacity and when the Germans occupied Hungary in March 1944 it found its mission. Within two months 437,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. All but a small proportion, deemed "fit for labour", were murdered at once.
This was not just genocide for its own sake. Auschwitz was a clearing house for slave labour. Thousands passed through, witnessing the murder of their loved ones and spending a few weeks in the "quarantine camp", before being sent to labour camps all over Germany. And because this occurred at a late stage in the war, Jews and others would survive in substantial numbers to bear witness and ask awkward questions about why, even then, nothing was done to stop the slaughter.
The British and United States air forces flew reconnaissance missions over the camp during 1943. By March 1944, the Allies knew what was going on there and could have intervened. They chose not to. The intersection of Allied war policy with Nazi mass murder is another reason for the salience of Auschwitz.
The inmates were also used for medical experiments. Auschwitz was not unique among the concentration camps in this respect, but the role of doctors - personified by Josef Mengele - and the perversion of medical science was bigger in scale than anywhere else. Experiments with a dubious rationale, often designed to underpin pseudo-scientific racial theories, were inflicted on non-consenting persons - often infants - under the most crude circumstances.
Thus Auschwitz hovers like a black cloud over the history of many countries and casts a shadow on the highest ideals and achievements of humanity as a whole. The aspiration for order and progress that produced bureaucracy and regulation there governed the snuffing out of life. The desire for betterment that found its expression in industrial mass production was turned to barbaric ends. Medical science that was intended to improve the human condition, and was itself regulated by ethical codes, was perverted.
To some post-war thinkers, like Theodore Adorno, Auschwitz therefore impugned the Enlightenment. He maintained that the desire for universal values and a rational uniformity led to the annihilation of those who were deemed "different". More recently, Zygmunt Bauman has maintained that the urge for order that informs modernity produced genocide against a people that did not fit into standard categories.
Yet Auschwitz was not a product, let alone an embodiment, of modernity. It was barbarism at the service of a modern state, industrial capitalism, and racial war. Mass murder by asphyxiation and gas poisoning may use modern science, but is no different qualitatively from Rome crucifying thousands of rebel slaves on the Via Appia.
The desire to offload responsibility for Auschwitz on to "modernity" is strikingly evident among some Christian Churches. The 1998 declaration by the Vatican "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah" maintained that Catholics who participated in the genocide or who stood by while it unfolded had somehow fallen away from the precepts of the Church. The declaration blamed secular ideologies for both undermining the sanctity of life and providing reasons that legitimated mass murder.
As if to demonstrate the unholy nature of the place, the Polish Catholic Church has created shrines to Fr Maximilian Kolbe and Edith Stein who were killed there. Crosses have been erected by the gas chambers and over the ash pits. Thus a place to which Jews were consigned to death partly as a result of centuries of anti-Judaic polemic and a culture of contempt is turned into an affirmation of the very Christianity that for the most part colluded in their exclusion and acquiesced in their destruction.
This paradox is a mark both of the cosmic significance of Auschwitz and the failure, still, to grasp what the place means. Humanity has still not come to terms with Auschwitz. We prefer not to "own" it, to use modern jargon, but instead thrust it far away and ladle responsibility on to people or ideologies that are distant from us.
The truth is that Auschwitz grew out of European history and culture, including Christianity. The fascination with the camp and the revulsion it inspires are two sides of the struggle with this inheritance.
David Cesarani is research professor in history at Royal Holloway, University of London, and was a consultant to the current BBC2 series Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution. His most recent book, Eichmann: his life and crimes, is published by Heinemann.
A Week in Books: a short guide to Auschwitz
By Boyd Tonkin
Published : 21 January 2005
As parades of gross hypocrisy go, it made an especially grim start to the year. Newspapers whose pages routinely crackle with incendiary claptrap about gypsies, asylum seekers and many other groups of outsiders decided that a foolish young man deserved to be pilloried for wearing a stupid outfit at a party. Independent readers will not normally trawl these fetid waters, so let me quote a few of the scores of headlines that have topped hate-mongering stories in just one paper (the Daily Express) over recent months: "The gypsy tricksters"; "Gypsy invasion"; "One law for the gypsies, another law for us"; Victory of Middle Britain as gypsies are kicked out". If he does that remedial course in Holocaust studies, let's hope that Harry Windsor learns about the Roma-Sinti genocide that claimed up to half a million lives. In Auschwitz-Birkenau alone, 21,000 gypsies were murdered. One peculiarity of their fate was that many were killed not in the gas chambers but by phenol injections to the heart.
That catch-up course need not last too long. To coincide with the 60th anniversary of its liberation, Penguin has published a truly outstanding short guide to the deepest circle of hell. Auschwitz: a history by Sybille Steinbacher (translated by Shaun Whiteside; £7.99) comes from a German historian based in Bochum. Over 170 laconic but fact-crammed pages, it tells its desolating story with a punctilious caution that might be called, in the best sense, "Germanic".
The respectful flatness of Steinbacher's tone as she explains how, when and where the 1.1-1.5m. victims of Auschwitz (90 per cent of them Jewish) died makes her brief flares of attitude all the more memorable. Thus one senses a tiny flicker of satisfaction when she records that, since the Deborah Lipstadt libel trial, "it has been permissible to speak in public of Auschwitz-denier [David] Irving as a falsifier of history, an anti-Semite and a racist". And when the vast IG Farben plant had to be cleared before the Red Army arrived, she drily names it "the greatest ruined investment of the German Reich".
Steinbacher's Auschwitz will illuminate the way the complex operated as an industrial centre even to readers who already know the litany of transports, selections and executions. As pure killing machines, other camps did worse, faster. Laurence Rees's excellent book to accompany his current BBC2 series (Auschwitz: the Nazis and the "final solution"; BBC Books, £20) mentions a newly-discovered decrypt. It reveals that 713,555 murders took place in Treblinka alone in 1942.
Auschwitz meant, above all, big business and big profits in the service of extermination. Not only IG Farben but Siemens, Krupp and a dozen other major combines rushed in to make a quick mark out of unpaid, unfed slave workers who conveniently died after a few weeks or months.
What happened to the managers of companies which profited from Auschwitz? A few copped short prison terms. Many others, their skills in demand, rebuilt German industries after the war.
Rees calculates that only 750 out of the 6500 SS personnel who served in Auschwitz ever came before a court. And Steinbacher shows the lottery of location, fortune and politics that resulted in justice for some high-level perpetrators, but utter impunity for many more. Military tribunals in the British zone seem to have acted decisively. Bruno Tesch and his manager, who sent Zyklon B gas to the camp from their Hamburg firm, were hanged in March 1946. For a host of other culprits, the luck of the devil held. Ernst Wolfgang Topf, the co-owner of the Auschwitz oven-builders, gave himself up to the Americans while his brother committed suicide. Nothing happened to Ernst. He went back into business in Wiesbaden in 1947. His new company made ovens for crematoria.
by David Von Drehle
Sunday, January 23, 2005; Page BW05
AUSCHWITZ: A New History
By Laurence Rees
PublicAffairs. 327 pp. $30
Most of us would rather not think about Auschwitz, but that is how the next Auschwitz will happen. Laurence Rees's compact, devastating new history of the infamous death factory distills a crucial lesson -- perhaps the crucial lesson -- of the 20th century: that the human capacity for mass murder is grotesquely widespread and must be faced squarely if we hope to resist it.
The systematized, industrialized, conveyor-belt murder of six million Jews and other despised minorities is hard to fathom. I recently visited a community center in Florida where two enormous jars, each as tall as a basketball player and as fat as a sumo wrestler, were being filled with pennies in hopes of collecting six million.
But as Rees unfolds the singular atrocity of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where one million died, the recurring theme is just how easily it happened. From the monstrous planners to the demoralized bystanders, Europe was full of people willing to countenance the genocide. The ideals of Western civilization were like tissue paper across the tracks of human hatred.
Auschwitz devolved smoothly from a slave-labor camp to a death camp as Hitler's war in the East bogged down. In village after village, city after city, people watched wordlessly, even jeered triumphantly, as their neighbors were herded toward the transports -- not just the Germans of Berlin and Munich and Leipzig, but Poles in Warsaw, Frenchmen in Paris, Hungarians in Budapest, Slovakians in Bratislava, even, in a few cases, British authorities in the Channel Islands.
Some of the perpetrators were monsters, like the camp's commandant, Rudolph Höss, and the master of the human roundups, Adolf Eichmann. Some were ordinary people who could have saved a life or two but just . . . didn't. Most fell in between: They did not plan the genocide, but it did not seem to bother them much. Take the stupidly cruel French police who, without much prodding from the Nazis, organized a large shipment of Jewish women and children: Far from being moved by the suffering they supervised, they heedlessly compounded it, herding the mothers onto transports many days before the children were to be shipped. As Rees recounts in spare, heartbreaking prose, the French authorities made no provision for the orphaned children, leaving them to wander -- terrified and barely fed -- around the French holding camp until trains finally came for them.
But the killers were not without tender feelings. Rees notes that it upset them very much when the people they were preparing for slaughter began screaming or struggling or fainting. It wore them out when they tried shooting their victims one by one beside mass graves. That is why they built efficient gas chambers, with soundproof walls and nearby crematoria. And it is why they took elaborate steps to mask what they were doing.
So we find workers at Auschwitz, on Oct. 7, 1944, coaxing the shivering, hungry children from Barrack 8 in the Birkenau annex with a promise of warm winter clothes. Alice Lok Cahana, 15, hoped to scrounge a few garments for her sickly sister, Edith. The children were led to a brick building in a corner of the compound and told to strip off their rags.
Alice did not panic, and the reason is quite horrible. She noticed "flowers in a window" of the building she was about to enter -- which was, of course, a gas chamber. Flowers made her think of her mother, who loved violets, and so she felt calm.
Her murder was interrupted by a revolt of the crematoria workers, quickly quelled. Cahana survived to add this arresting and revolting detail to Rees's picture of the camp.
Rees, a distinguished journalist and historian at the BBC, layers these details with little fanfare but great craftsmanship. His book, and a companion TV documentary, mark the 60th anniversary this month of the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops.
Ultimately he does at the gut level what Hannah Arendt achieved some 40 years ago at the level of philosophy: He forces the reader to shift the Holocaust out of the realm of nightmare or Gothic horror and acknowledge it as something all too human. He reminds us that building Auschwitz required the services not just of sadists but of architects and engineers, that staffing it required the efforts of physicians and bookkeepers.
We see again that an impetus for the first gassings came not from Berlin but from Slovakia, whose pro-Nazi government was happy to round up able-bodied Jews to be pressed into slavery in the IG Farben synthetic-rubber works at Auschwitz. Then the Slovaks realized they would be stuck with a Jewish remnant unable to provide for itself, so they paid the Nazis to take the elderly, the frail, the children to Auschwitz as well. Killing them seemed the expedient thing to do.
Reading this book is an ordeal -- not through any failure of the author's but because of his success. Rees's research is impeccable and intrepid; among other feats, he has tracked down and interviewed former SS members who actually worked at Auschwitz, most of whom express no remorse. Rees also makes good use of the records that became available only after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites.
These details add up to a precise picture of the death camp -- not only the sadistic kapos, the merciless selections, the industrial-scale killing, but also the perverse love stories, doomed uprisings, weird strokes of luck. Rees tells the bizarre story of the Auschwitz brothel, and details the one successful escape from the camp. He explains why the only hope of survival was a job indoors, and reports that the best jobs were in the warehouses where Jews were compelled to sort and catalogue the stolen possessions of their murdered brethren.
Scrupulous and honest, this book is utterly without illusions. The nearest thing it has to an uplifting story is the successful effort by Danes to save their country's Jews. Even this ends on a sad note in Rees's hands. Why, he wonders, could similar feats not have been accomplished all across Europe?
The answer emerges in the final pages, as Rees recounts stories of Auschwitz survivors returning to their homes months and years and even decades later, only to be greeted with fresh bigotry and new violence. More lives were not saved because human beings found it more convenient to hate. The potted bigotry and ludicrous rantings of tyrants spoke more deeply to them than the exhortations of saints.
It is folly to believe that hatred could be so widespread and so easily activated in 1945 yet be toothless today. Neighbors hacked neighbors to death in Rwanda; mountains of skulls rose in Cambodia; entire classes of people were worked and starved to death in China; even Hitler's brand of bigotry is common currency in much of the world.
Indeed, hate seems to be thriving. As long as it does, Auschwitz is with us. •
David Von Drehle is a Washington Post staff writer and the author, most recently, of "Triangle: The Fire That Changed America."
Artikel erschienen am Sa, 22. Januar 2005
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leaders travel to Auschwitz to mark anniversary of its liberation
Ian Traynor in Warsaw
Wednesday January 26, 2005
World leaders will gather at Auschwitz in southern Poland tomorrow for the biggest ever commemoration of the darkest episode of Europe's 20th century, the industrial murder at the camp of up to 1.5 million people, mainly Jews, by Nazi Germany.
Princes and presidents, surviving victims and the relatives of the dead, Red Army veterans who freed the camp in January 1945, schoolchildren and religious leaders will all travel to the bleak, sprawling concentration camp, which has come to symbolise the much broader Holocaust, to mark the 60th anniversary of the camp's liberation.
Tomorrow's ceremonies at Auschwitz and in the nearby city of Krakow kick off a year of events commemorating the 60th anniversary of the end of the second world war. These 12 months will in many respects also be a year of closure since the various events will be the last to be attended by direct witnesses of the war years.
"We are on the brink of that moment when this terrible event will change - from memory to history," Silvan Shalom, the Israeli foreign minister, said in New York on Monday at the UN's first special general assembly session dedicated to recalling the liberation of the Nazi death camps.
"The number of survivors shrinks all the time," Mr Shalom added.
The presidents of Israel, Germany, Poland, Russia, and France will be among 30 heads of state converging on the town of Oswiecim (the Polish town better known by its German name of Auschwitz). Europe's royal houses will also be well represented.
Washington is sending vice-president Dick Cheney, while all three living former US presidents, Bill Clinton, George Bush senior, and Jimmy Carter, are also expected to attend.
Britain is sending Prince Edward and the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, to the event, a level of representation that has raised eyebrows among some organisers and diplomats.
The Holocaust, the unique attempt to destroy Euro pean Jewry through the organised mass murder of six million people, was largely accomplished in eastern Europe in the space between Germany and Russia, although it also claimed countless thousands of west-European victims.
The deliberate choice of eastern Europe as the killing field and the west's indifference to the slaughter has been a theme this week of the speeches and ceremonies recalling the wickedness of the 1940s.
"The crime was meant to remain a secret," said Bronislaw Geremek, the Polish MEP and former foreign minister. "Nazi Germany chose Poland as the place of the massacre of European Jews ... to conceal their crime from the world by committing it far from western Europe."
Elie Wiesel, an Auschwitz survivor and Nobel prizewinner who is to speak at tomorrow's events, said the 60th anniversary should remember "this shameful indifference". "Our tragedy might have been avoided, its scope surely diminished" had Britain and the US been more emphatic in initially resisting Hitler and more generous in their treatment of Jewish refugees, she said.
Some of the leaders attending tomorrow have painful personal connections with the camp. Pope John Paul, a former archbishop of the nearby city of Krakow, is being represented by Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, a Jewish convert to Catholicism whose mother was murdered at Auschwitz.
Also present will be Ukraine's new president Viktor Yushchenko, whose father, a Red Army soldier, was also interned at the camp.
Recent events, notably the distasteful japes of Prince Harry pictured wearing a Nazi uniform at a party earlier this month, and the outrage provoked by German neo-Nazi members walking out of the state parliament of Saxony during a minute's silence for the Holocaust victims last week, have drawn attention to the problem of increasing amnesia about the genocide.
Following his attendance at the D-Day commemorations in France last year, the German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, is to go to Moscow in May for the staging of the events marking Russia's victory over Nazi Germany, while President Horst Köhler will be at Auschwitz tomorrow.
Vast labour and death camp killed up to 6,000 a day
· German forces occupying Poland set up Auschwitz in 1940 as a labour camp for Polish prisoners, gradually expanding it into a vast labour and death camp
· The complex contained three camps and at least 36 sub-camps, built outside the town of Oswiecim between 1940 and 1942:
· Auschwitz I was built for Polish political prisoners in June 1940
· Auschwitz II was built in October 1941. It held more than 100,000 prisoners and housed gas chambers capable of disposing of 2,000 people a day. By 1944 some 6,000 people a day were being killed
· Auschwitz III supplied forced labour for the nearby IG Farben plant, the company which made the Zyklon-B gas used in Nazi death camps
· Between 1.2 million and 1.5 million people died at the camps, of whom about a million were Jewish
· Other groups who died included Polish political prisoners, Soviet prisoners of war, Gypsies, people with disabilities, homosexuals and prisoners of conscience or religious faith
· The camp was liberated by Soviet soldiers on January 27 1945
· About 200,000 inmates of the camp between 1940 and 1945 survived
· Out of a total of about 7,000 guards at Auschwitz, including 170 female staff, 750 were prosecuted and punished after Nazi Germany was defeated
The Future of the Past
Auschwitz was liberated 60 years ago. Does the next generation of Europeans even care?
By Tara Pepper
Feb. 7 issue - A sharp train whistle on the tracks leading to Auschwitz began last Thursday's ceremony commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp where more than 1 million Jews were killed. As evening closed in on the world leaders and Holocaust survivors gathered there, the kaddish—the Jewish prayer for the dead—as well as Christian prayers echoed among the bare trees in the snow-covered Polish countryside. Such gestures movingly conjured up the past. But they also underscored a pressing issue now facing Europe: how should the legacy of World War II be passed on to the next generation—and can they be forced to embrace it?
Across Europe, the 60th-anniversary commemorations are made especially poignant by the knowledge that over the next few years World War II will cease to be a living memory, as even its youngest soldiers—now in their 80s—die off. Many of their grandchildren already regard the war as ancient history or a costume drama. A recent BBC poll found that among Brits younger than 35, 60 percent had never heard of Auschwitz. The recent furor sparked by Prince Harry, who wore a swastika-emblazoned outfit to a costume party, heightened support for an EU proposal to ban all fascist insignia (which is already illegal in Germany, Austria and Hungary).
No one seems certain how—or even whether—this painful history should be passed on. Eva Hoffman, author of "Lost in Translation," a memoir of her life as the daughter of Holocaust survivors, warns that ritualized gestures are not enough. "Important though it is to have moments of formal remembrance, we should not mislead ourselves into thinking that we have an automatic link [to] or memory of those events," she says. "We have to learn about these events and reflect on them." Within Germany, recent soul-searching connected with this year's anniversaries has reinforced the sense that coming to terms with history is a vital part of national identity. Because the last months of World War II were Germany's bloodiest, anticipation of this May's VE Day celebrations has triggered debate over whether the country can think of itself as a victim of a war it unleashed.
Greater distance from the past also opens up the possibility of understanding events more clearly. "There was a period of absolute horror when people didn't want to think about the war," says Hoffman. "That was followed by a period of philosophical and moral consideration that was much needed. But we now need to think about processes and mechanism, how such events happen." Historians are piecing together more exact pictures of events, transforming the way we perceive the period. The passage of time has made it easier for the perpetrators of such crimes to take responsibility for their actions; while those who participated in Stalin's atrocities still say they were following orders, senior SS officers now admit that they acted as they thought was right.
New research also means making a difficult move away from simplistic portrayals of Hitler as a buffoon or as the embodiment of evil. Last fall, "Der Untergang"—a $33 million German film dramatizing the fuhrer's last days—sparked equal amounts of rage and admiration for its unflinchingly realistic depiction. "There's a natural desire to believe that someone like Hitler was mad, that he hypnotized a nation," says Laurence Rees, author of the new book "Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution." But he emphasizes that the Holocaust was the culmination of many decisions. "There were thousands of people having a series of detailed, perfectly sane meetings over many months. There's something about that that's much more uncomfortable than thinking you've got a carpet-chewing madman at the door."
Some worry that this new approach will provoke a backlash of sympathy for the war's dictators. In Moscow there was a public outcry over a recent proposal to unveil a new statue of Joseph Stalin—flanked by Churchill and Roosevelt. Historian Robert Service toed a tricky line in his recent book "Stalin: A Biography," portraying the leader as dangerous and damaged—as well as thoughtful, cultured and comical. He argues that it's vital to appreciate that such demonized men could be charismatic, too, "not just to establish historical truth but also to avoid disarming ourselves. Too often in the past we've managed to depict Soviet communism as if it were run by a clan of robots. That makes it difficult for us to understand why they acquired millions of followers." At this juncture, when memory becomes history, only those who survived the war are allowed to say goodbye to it. "We must keep the memory of the worst crime in human history alive for those born later," German President Horst Kohler proclaimed last week. What they do with it is then in their hands.