70 YEARS OF ACCOUNTING FOR AUSCHWITZ | On Jan. 27, 1945 the Red Army captured Nazi Germany’s lead killing facility, Auschwitz. The reasons for judgment prepared by members of the International Military Tribunal for Germany that tried German leaders accused of war cimes is one of the earliest summaries of the causes and consequences of the horrors perpetrated in the camp. The “Persecution of the Jews” section of the reasons follows:
The persecution of the Jews at the hands of the Nazi Government has been proved in the greatest detail before the tribunal. It is a record of consistent and systematic inhumanity on the greatest scale. Ohlendorf, chief of Amt III in the RSHA from 1939 to 1943, and who was in command of one of the Einsatz groups in the campaign against the Soviet Union, testified as to the methods employed in the extermination of the Jews. He said that he employed firing squads to shoot the victims in order to lessen the sense of individual guilt on the part of his men; and the 90,000 men, women and children who were murdered in one year by his particular group were mostly Jews.
When the witness Bach Zelewski was asked how Ohlendorf could admit the murder of 90,000 people, he replied:
“I am of the opinion that when, for years, for decades, the doctrine is preached that the Slav race is an inferior race, and Jews not even human, then such an outcome is inevitable.”
But the defendant Frank spoke the final words of this chapter of Nazi history when he testified in this court:
” We have fought against Jewry, we have fought against it for years: and we have allowed ourselves to make utterances and my own diary has become a witness against me in this connection — utterances which are terrible…. A thousand years will pass and this guilt of Germany will not be erased.”
The anti-Jewish policy was formulated in Point 4 of the program [of the Nazi party] which declared ” Only a member of the race can be a citizen. A member of the race can only be one who is of German blood, without consideration of creed. Consequently, no Jew can be a member of the race.” Other points of the program declared that Jews should be treated as foreigners, that they should not be permitted to hold public office, that they should be expelled from the Reich if it were impossible to nourish the entire population of the State, that they should be denied any further immigration into Germany, and that they should be prohibited from publishing German newspapers. The Nazi party preached these doctrines throughout its history. Der Stuermer and other publications were allowed to disseminate hatred of the Jews, and in the speeches and public declarations of the Nazi leaders, the Jews were held up to public ridicule and contempt.
With the seizure of power, the persecution of the Jews was intensified. A series of discriminatory laws were passed, which limited the offices and professions permitted to Jews; and restrictions were placed on their family life and their rights of citizenship. By the autumn of 1938, the Nazi policy towards the Jews had reached the stage where it was directed towards the complete exclusion of Jews from German life. Pogroms were organized which included the burning and demolishing of synagogues, the looting of Jewish businesses, and the arrest of prominent Jewish business men. A collective fine of one billion marks was imposed on the Jews, the seizure of Jewish assets was authorized, and the movement of Jews was restricted by regulations to certain specified districts and hours. The creation of ghettoes was carried out on an extensive scale, and by an order of the Security Police, Jews were compelled to wear a yellow star . . . on the breast and back.
It was contended for the prosecution that certain aspects of this anti-Semitic policy were connected with the plans for aggressive war. The violent measures taken against the Jews in November, 1938, were nominally in retaliation for the killing of an official of the German embassy in Paris. But the decision to seize Austria and Czechoslovakia had been made a year before. The imposition of a fine of one billion marks was made, and the confiscation of the financial holdings of the Jews was decreed, at a time when German armament expenditure had put the German treasury in difficulties, and when the reduction of expenditure on armaments was being considered. These steps were taken, moreover, with the approval of the defendant Goering, who had been given responsibility for economic matters of this kind, and who was the strongest advocate of an extensive rearmament program notwithstanding the financial difficulties.
It was further said that the connection of the anti-Semitic policy with aggressive war was not limited to economic matters. The German Foreign Office circular, in an article of Jan. 25, 1939, entitled “Jewish question as a factor in German Foreign Policy in the year 1938”, described the new phase in the Nazi anti-Semitic policy in these words:
” It is certainly no coincidence that the fateful year 1938 has brought nearer the solution of the Jewish question simultaneously with the realization of the idea of Greater Germany, since the Jewish policy was both the basis and consequence of the events of the year 1938. The advance made by Jewish influence and the destructive Jewish spirit in politics, economy, and culture paralyzed the power and the will of the German people to rise again, more perhaps even than the power policy opposition of the former enemy Allied powers of the First World War. The healing of this sickness among the people was therefore certainly one of the most important requirements for exerting the force which, in the year 1938, resulted in the joining together of Greater Germany in defiance of the world.”
The Nazi persecution of Jews in Germany before the war, severe and repressive as it was, cannot compare, however, with the policy pursued during the war in the occupied territories. Originally the policy was similar to that which had been in force inside Germany. Jews were required to register, were forced to live in ghettoes, to wear the yellow star, and were used as slave labourers. In the summer of 1941, however, plans were made for the “final solution” of the Jewish question in all of Europe. This “final solution ” meant the extermination of the Jews, which early in 1939 Hitler had threatened would be one of the consequences of an outbreak of war, and a special section in the Gestapo under Adolf Eichmann, as head of Section B4 of the Gestapo, was formed to carry out the policy.
The plan for exterminating the Jews was developed shortly after the attack on the Soviet Union. Einsatzgruppen . . . , formed for the purpose of breaking the resistance of the population of the areas lying behind the German armies in the East, were given the duty of exterminating the Jews in those areas. The effectiveness of the work of the Einsatzgruppen is shown by the fact that in February, 1942, Heydrich was able to report that Estonia had already been cleared of Jews and that in Riga the number of Jews had been reduced from 29,500 to 2,500. Altogether the Einsatzgruppen operating in the occupied Baltic States killed over 135,000 Jews in three months.
Nor did these special units operate completely independently of the German Armed Forces. There is clear evidence that leaders of the Einsatzgruppen obtained the co-operation of army commanders. In one case the relations between an Einsatzgruppe and the military authorities was described at the time as being “very close, almost cordial;” in another case the smoothness of an Einsatzgruppen’s operation was attributed to the “understanding for this procedure ” shown by the army authorities.
Units of the Security Police and SD in the occupied territories of the East, which were under civil administration, were given a similar task. The planned and systematic character of the Jewish persecutions is best illustrated by the original report of the SS Brigadier-General Stroop, who was in charge of the destruction of the ghetto in Warsaw, which took place in 1943. The tribunal received in evidence that report, illustrated with photographs, bearing on its title page: “The Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw no longer exists.” The volume records a series of reports sent by Stroop to the Higher SS and Police Fuehrer East. In April and May, 1943, in one report, Stroop wrote:
” The resistance put up by the Jews and bandits could only be suppressed by energetic actions of our troops day and night. The Reichsfuehrer SS ordered therefore on the 23rd April, 1943 the cleaning out of the ghetto with utter ruthlessness and merciless tenacity. I therefore decided to destroy and burn down the entire ghetto, without regard to the armament factories. These factories were systematically dismantled and then burnt. Jews usually left their hideouts, but frequently remained in the burning buildings, and jumped out of the windows only when the heat became unbearable. They then tried to crawl with broken bones across the street into buildings which were not afire…. Life in the sewers was not pleasant after the first week. Many times we could hear loud voices in the sewers…. Tear gas bombs were thrown into the manholes, and the Jews driven out of the sewers and captured. Countless numbers of Jews were liquidated in sewers and bunkers through blasting. The longer the resistance continued, the tougher became the members of the Waffen SS, Police and Wehrmacht, who always discharged their duties in an exemplary manner.”
Stroop recorded that his action at Warsaw eliminated “a proved total of 56,065 people. To that we have to add the number of those killed through blasting, fire, etc., which cannot be counted.” Grim evidence of mass murders of Jews was also presented to the tribunal in cinematograph films depicting the communal graves of hundreds of victims which were subsequently discovered by the Allies.
These atrocities were all part and parcel of the policy inaugurated in 1941, and it is not surprising that there should be evidence that one or two German officials entered vain protests against the brutal manner in which the killings were carried out. But the methods employed never conformed to a single pattern. The massacres of Rowno and Dubno, of which the German engineer Graebe spoke, were examples of one method, the systematic extermination of Jews in concentration camps, was another. Part of the “final solution” was the gathering of Jews from all German occupied Europe in concentration camps. Their physical condition was the test of life or death. All who were fit to work were used as slave labourers in the concentration camps; all who were not fit to work were destroyed in gas chambers and their bodies burnt. Certain concentration camps such as Treblinka and Auschwitz were set aside for this main purpose. With regard to Auschwitz, the tribunal heard the evidence of Hoess, the commandant of the camp from May 1, 1940, to Dec. 1, 1943. He estimated that in the camp of Auschwitz alone in that time 2,500,000 persons were exterminated, and that a further 500,000 died from disease and starvation. Hoess described the screening for extermination by stating in evidence:
“We had two SS doctors on duty at Auschwitz to examine the incoming transports of prisoners. The prisoners would be marched by one of the doctors who would make spot decisions as they walked by. Those who were fit for work were sent into the camp. Others were sent immediately to the extermination plants. Children of tender years were invariably exterminated since by reason of their youth they were unable to work. Still another improvement we made over Treblinka was that at Treblinka the victims almost always knew that they were to be exterminated and at Auschwitz we endeavoured to fool the victims into thinking that they were to go through a delousing process. Of course, frequently they realized our true intentions and we sometimes had riots and difficulties due to that fact. Very frequently women would hide their children under their clothes, but of course when we found them we would send the children in to be exterminated.”
He described the actual killing by stating:
“It took from three to 15 minutes to kill the people in the death chamber, depending upon climatic conditions. We knew when the people were dead because their screaming stopped. We usually waited about one half-hour before we opened the doors and removed the bodies. After the bodies were removed our special commandos took off the rings and extracted the gold from the teeth of the corpses.”
Beating, starvation, torture, and killing were general. The inmates were subjected to cruel experiments. At Dachau in August, 1942, victims were immersed in cold water until their body temperature was reduced to 28º C, when they died immediately. Other experiments included high-altitude experiments in pressure chambers, experiments to determine how long human beings could survive in freezing water, experiments with poison bullets, experiments with contagious diseases, and experiments dealing with sterilization of men and women by X-rays and other methods.
Evidence was given of the treatment of the inmates before and after their extermination. There was testimony that the hair of women victims was cut off before they were killed, and shipped to Germany, there to be used in the manufacture of mattresses. The clothes, money and valuables of the inmates were also salvaged and sent to the appropriate agencies for disposition. After the extermination the gold teeth and fillings were taken from the heads of the corpses and sent to the Reichsbank.
After cremation the ashes were used for fertilizer, and in some instances attempts were made to utilize the fat from the bodies of the victims in the commercial manufacture of soap. Special groups travelled through Europe to find Jews and subject them to the “final solution.” German missions were sent to such satellite countries as Hungary and Bulgaria, to arrange for the shipment of Jews to extermination camps and it is known that, by the end of 1944, 400,000 Jews from Hungary had been murdered at Auschwitz. Evidence has also been given of the evacuation of 110,000 Jews from part of Romania for “liquidation.” Adolf Eichmann, who had been put in charge of this program by Hitler, has estimated that the policy pursued resulted in the killing of six million Jews, of which four million were killed in the extermination institutions.
To know more:
auschwitz.org/en/ is the address of the home page of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.
A native of Prague and the son of German-speaking Jews gassed at Auschwitz Saul Friedländer is the greatest living historian of the Holocaust. (His 2008 Pulitzer winner, The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews 1939 – 1945, was preceded by at least eight other titles, over 40 years, before its publication.) A lecture he gave in London in 2001 is here:
Daniel Goldhagen (Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, 1996) attributes the Holocaust “eliminationist antisemitism” that was peculiarly German. For a chronicle of the German response to his analysis go to yadvashem.org.
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