25 November, 2011
Buggeln Marc

Auschwitz has become synonymous with crimes against humanity, in general, and the genocide of the Jews of Europe by National Socialist Germany, in particular, which is commonly referred to using the terms “Holocaust” and “Shoah”. Auschwitz was the biggest extermination camp, the biggest concentration camp, and, moreover, the camp that was responsible for the highest number of Jewish deaths. The construction and operation of the camp were motivated by the National Socialist policy of persecuting all those identified as opponents of the regime, in particular Jews, and by the course taken by the Second World War.

Lublin-Majdanek and Auschwitz were the only camps that functioned simultaneously as concentration and extermination camps. Both camps were under the authority of the SS-Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt, SS-WVHA (SS Economic and Administrative Main Office), which also oversaw the other concentration camps. The other extermination camps (Treblinka, Sobibor, Chelmno, Belzec) were operated by local SS bodies. Auschwitz and Chelmno (German name: Kulmhof) were established as extermination camps on the territory of the German Reich after the redrawing of the borders. The forced labor performed by the prisoners at Auschwitz made a far more significant contribution to the German war economy than that performed in Majdenek, however. Major German companies like IG Farben and Krupp operated sub-camps in Auschwitz. Auschwitz also played an important role as a hub for the transport of prisoners into the German Reich for the purpose of forced labor.


Oświęcim (German: Auschwitz) was occupied by the Wehrmacht just a few days after the start of the Second World War. The occupied territory was annexed to the German region of Upper Silesia. On 1 February 1940, Reichsführer-SS, Heinrich Himmler, instructed Richard Glücks, the head of the Concentration Camp Inspectorate, to look for suitable locations for new concentration camps, inter alia for the imprisonment of members of the Polish resistance and Polish intelligence. Three weeks later, Glücks informed Himmler that a camp existed in Auschwitz which could be converted for use as a concentration camp. The complex had been built by the German Reich in 1916 to accommodate Polish seasonal workers. After 1918, it was used to accommodate refugees in Poland and as a field warehouse. The Wehrmacht, which had used the camp after the occupation, handed it over to the SS on 8 April 1940. Over 1,200 inhabitants were evacuated to enable the construction of the new camp. Rudolf Höß, the former Protective Custody Camp Leader at Sachsenhausen concentration camp, became commandant of the new camp on 4 May 1940. Thirty German prisoners, for whom roles as prisoner functionaries were planned, arrived in Auschwitz on 20 May. The day, on which the first transport of Polish prisoners comprising 728 people from Tarnow arrived at the camp, i.e. 14 June 1940, is viewed as the day on which the Auschwitz concentration camp was established. The camp’s first task was to accommodate 10,000 Polish prisoners, most of whom were to be transferred on to the concentration camps in the “old Reich”. It was also planned to carry out the executions of Polish resistance fighters at Auschwitz (Steinbacher 2000; Dlugoborski/Piper 1999).

The Board of IG Farben in Eastern Silesia began its search for a possible location for its fourth plant for the production of synthetic rubber (Buna) in late 1940. The company opted for a facility in Auschwitz in January 1941 at the latest. An intervention by the company in February 1941 ensured that the Polish workers it needed were saved from Himmler’s more extreme expulsion plans. As part of its plans for the development of the plant, the company intended to use the concentration camp prisoners as its workforce from the outset. For this reason, following a visit to Auschwitz in March 1941, Himmler ordered that the camp be expanded to accommodate 30,000 inmates. In return, IG Farben was prepared to assist the SS in the expansion of the camp. Based on this, and following Peter Hayes, Florian Schmaltz comes to the conclusion that IG Farben’s decision to locate its plant in Auschwitz was a key factor in the large-scale development of the camp (Schmaltz 2006).

Following the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Auschwitz increased further in significance from the perspective of the SS leadership. As part of the “General Plan East”, the SS planned to develop enormous German settlements in the occupied areas of the Soviet Union. In contravention of the Hague Convention Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and the Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, it was intended to use Soviet prisoners of war (POWs), whom Himmler intended to train as building workers in the concentration camps, for this purpose. The order for the construction of a new camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau was issued on 26 September 1941. This camp would house 50,000 POWs in the near future and would have the capacity to be expanded to accommodate 150,00 or even 200,000 prisoners at a later stage. Work on the Auschwitz II camp complex in Birkenau started in October 1941. The 10,000 Soviet POWs who arrived in Auschwitz I from July 1941 were the first group to have their camp numbers tattooed on to their chests using a needle stamp. From 1942, the Jewish prisoners and, eventually, all inmates – with the exception of citizens of the German Reich – were tattooed with numbers on their left forearms. Auschwitz was the only concentration camp, in which the prisoners were tattooed as this facilitated the identification of the numerous bodies by the SS for their prisoner records. The Soviet POWs, who were already extremely weak, either died of malnutrition and the very poor sanitary conditions or were killed by the SS guards soon after their arrival at the camp. Hence, very few POWs were available to the SS for eventual labor allocation in early 1942. The first prisoners to be accommodated in Auschwitz-Birkenau on 1 March 1942 were the 945 surviving Soviet POWs and a few Polish prisoners (Allen 2002, Schulte 2001).

The original plans for the accommodation of up to 200,000 prisoners of war at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp proved unsustainable after just a few months. Around the time that work started on the construction of the new camp, the SS carried out innovative experiments on the murder of prisoners at Auschwitz I camp. These experiments were carried out in connection with “Action 14f13”, the objective of which was to kill all sick and weak concentration camp inmates in the German Reich. It is assumed that the SS started to use Zyklon B hydrogen cyanide gas to kill camp inmates in late August/early September 1941; the gas had previously been used as a disinfectant for clothing.

The first major murder campaign using the poisonous gas probably took place in the cellar of Block 11 in September 1941. The victims were 600 Soviet POWs and 250 sick concentration camp inmates. Because it was very difficult to ventilate the cellar, the SS transferred the murder activities thereafter to the Auschwitz I crematorium where they continued to kill prisoners using Zyklon B from January to May 1942. It is a matter of dispute in the literature as to when the decision was taken to systematically murder people in the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp using Zyklon B. While the majority of authors assume that the development of the facilities for mass murder did not begin until after the Wannsee conference in January 1942, Michael T. Allen argues that the first proposal for a crematorium for the mass murder of people was presented in October 1941 (Allen 2002, 2003; Schulte 2002, Fröbe 2000).

The facts that the intention to include West European Jews in the murder campaigns was made known at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942 and that the SS also considered the Jews as a replacement for the Soviet POWs as slave labor for the implementation of the settlement plans are undisputed, however. Hence, mass murder and slave labor were intricately linked in the SS’s plans. From spring 1942, increasing numbers of transports with Jews from occupied Europe arrived at Auschwitz concentration camp. All of the prisoners from the initial transports were either murdered immediately or given temporary reprieve as slave labor. The first family transport of Jews from Slovakia arrived in Auschwitz on 29 April 1942. The selection process that would subsequently be adopted as a systematic procedure was carried out for the first time on this transport: men and women declared capable of work were given a prisoner number and forced to carry out slave labor while the sick, elderly, and young were killed immediately without registration (Fröbe 2000: 160).

Because the capacity of the crematorium in Auschwitz I was insufficient and the new crematoria in Birkenau were not ready, Höß had two farm houses (called the “Red House” and “White House”) at the edge of the Birkenau camp converted to extermination facilities. Deported Jews from central and western Europe were murdered using Zyklon B in both former farm houses from May 1942 to March 1943. But there were already plans to build new death factories. The eyewitness Filip Müller states: „From the start this small ‘death workshops’, into 700 people could be cramned, served to relieve the two extermination centres at Birkenau. Known as Bunker 1 and Bunker 2 (…). The people gassed here were simply buried in mass graves, which had been dug near by. When, in the summer of 1942, the hot sun began to burn, the corpses started to swell and the earth crust to burn open. A black, evil-smelling mass oozed out and polluted the ground-water in the vicinity.” (Müller 1999, p. 49)

Crematorium II had been under construction in Birkenau from spring 1942. In August 1942, the SS site management added crematoria III, IV, and V to the plans, and work started on the construction of four crematoria that would form the core of the extermination facilities in Birkenau from spring 1943. This expansion was motivated by earlier consultations between Hitler and Himmler on the status of the “resolution of the Jewish question” (Steinbacher 2004).

During this period, IG Farben helped the SS with the extension of the Birkenau plant by providing building materials. At the same time, however, the progress on the factory extension was slow. IG Farben pressed for the construction of a separate camp near the factory to accommodate a permanent labor force for its own purposes that would not have to complete a long journey on foot to the factory. The first 2,100 inmates entered the Auschwitz-Monowitz camp (Auschwitz III) in late October 1942. By 1943, 6,000 prisoners were held at the camp and their number had swelled to 11,500 by August 1944 (Wagner 2000). The Auschwitz complex included a total of 47 sub-camps at which the inmates were deployed as forced labor (Ort des Terrors 2006). The companies involved in these sub-camps included Siemens, Krupp, Degussa, Reichswerke Hermann Göring, Rheinmetall Borsig AG, and Oberschlesische Hydrierwerke AG (Ort des Terrors 2006).

Of the planned crematoria in Birkenau, number IV was the first to be completed and handed over to the SS on 22 March 1943. Crematorium II followed on 31 March, crematorium V on 4 April, and Crematorium III on 24 June 1943. According to the information provided by the company responsible for the crematoria, i.e. Topf & Söhne, including Crematorium I in Auschwitz I, the crematoria provided a total incineration capacity of 4,756 corpses per day. A “special commando”, composed mainly of Jewish prisoners, was forced to remove gold teeth and hair from the corpses and incinerate them. The German Reich derived profit from the dead by smelting the gold from their teeth into gold bars and converting human hair into felt for the war industry. The mass extermination reached its climax in summer 1944. Up to 10,000 Jews were arriving each day from Hungary and the crematoria could no longer keep pace with the genocide. Thus, the SS started to burn the bodies of the victims in trenches and on pyres in the open terrain (Steinbacher 2004).

Auschwitz was both the biggest extermination camp and the biggest concentration camp. In August 1943, the concentration camp complex held 74,000 prisoners as compared with the 26,500 prisoners held in Sachsenhausen, the next biggest concentration camp. Despite the fact that Auschwitz played a pioneering role in the exploitation of prisoners as slave labor through the cooperation with IG Farben, comparatively few Auschwitz inmates were deployed for essential war-related tasks as compared with other camps. For this reason, the mortality rate among the registered prisoners was also significantly higher in Auschwitz than in most of the other concentration camps (Kárný 1987).

In order to prevent resistance facilitate better control of the camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau was gradually subdivided into different areas which were separated from each other by barbed wire. The plans originally provided for four sections (B I – B IV) which, with the exception of B I (20,000 prisoners), were each supposed to be able to accommodate around 60,000 inmates. However, B III was only partly built and the work on B IV never started. Some of the most important sections of the camp included the men’s camp, the women’s camp, the “Theresienstadt Family Camp” (B IIb), the “Gypsy Camp” (B IIe), the camp for Hungarian Jews (B IIc and BIII (“Mexico”)), the infirmaries, and the warehouse containing the prisoners’ personal effects (“Canada”).

From summer 1944, in response to the advance of the Red Army, the SS began to move some of the prisoners to more westerly camps. All construction work in Auschwitz ceased in October 1944 and all of the gas chambers ceased operation in November. The special commando was forced to dismantle the extermination facilities. A revolt of the special commando took place on 7 October as the prisoners feared that they themselves would be murdered. The rebels succeeded in killing some of the guards. However, the majority were killed by the SS during the quelling of the revolt. The final evacuation of the camp began on 17 January 1945. Fifty-eight thousand prisoners, of whom it is presumed that some 15,000 died, were forced to leave the camp on a death march. The SS remained at the camp with a small commando and blew up the remainder of the extermination facilities by 26 January. The Red Army reached the camp on 27 January. They liberated 5,800 prisoners in Birkenau and a further 1,200 in Monowitz and other sub-camps (Dlugoborski/Piper 1999, Strzelecki 1995).

Instigators and Perpetrators

Both the extermination of the Jews of Europe and the persecution, mistreatment, and, in some cases, murder of political and social opponents of the National Socialist regime were measures sanctioned and approved by the entire German leadership. Hitler and Himmler were the central actors in both processes. They were responsible for the main decisions and were informed of all key developments. Even if doubts prevail in the research as to Hitler’s “strengths” and “weaknesses” as a dictator, there is little doubt that he exerted a key influence on the dynamic of the process of extermination of the Jews of Europe. However, many local perpetrators “worked toward the Führer”, i.e. they acted in the awareness that their activities reflected the “will of the Führer” (Kershaw).

The key individual, who had everything under his control for the longest period of the camp’s existence, was its first commandant, SS-Obersturmbannführer Rudolf Höß. Born in 1900, he gained his formative socialization experiences at the front in the final months of the First World War. After the end of the war, he was active in the Freikorps (paramilitary organizations in Weimar Germany) and participated in their political assassinations and lynchings (Fememorden). He joined the SS in September 1933 and embarked on his SS career at Dachau concentration camp in 1934. Unlike Theodore Eicke, the first Director of the Concentration Camp Inspectorate, who mainly understood his work at the concentration camp as part of the fight against the regime’s political opponents, Höß saw his main area of activity as the fight against its “biological” opponents. He regarded Jews, “criminals”, “anti-socials”, and the main enemies of National Socialism, and applied himself energetically to the development of the camp in Auschwitz and optimization of the extermination process. Höß remained a supporter of National Socialism even after 1945 (Orth 2000).

Höß was supported in the management of the camp by commissioned and non-commissioned SS officers, who, like himself, had gained extensive experience in concentration camps throughout the territory of the German Reich. As opposed to this, the rank and file, and, hence, the bulk of the perpetrators, had very different background experiences and was far more heterogeneous in its composition. Troop numbers at Auschwitz reached their peak in January 1945 with 4,480 men and 71 female SS guards. Up to 1942, transfers of SS troops engaged in active combat to Auschwitz concentration camp were not unusual. These were reduced to a minimum in 1943, however, and ceased entirely in 1944. Of 282 men transferred to Auschwitz in 1944, 128 came from the Wehrmacht and 119 from other concentration camps. The rest of the men came from other work camps or had newly joined the SS. From 1942, the proportion of Reich Germans and Austrians in the SS guard detachment was between 50 and 60 percent.

Many “Volksdeutsche” (i.e. ethnic Germans) were also deployed there. A separate company of Ukrainian guards was established in March 1943, for example. From June 1944, there was a Wehrmacht coordination office in Auschwitz which was responsible for the integration of soldiers who were unfit for combat at the front into the guard troops. At least 500 former soldiers were incorporated into the SS in Auschwitz. The main religious affiliations stated by the guards were: Catholic (42.6%), Protestant (36.5%), and gottgläubig (“believer in God”) (20.1%). The educational level of the rank and file guards in Auschwitz was comparatively low. The female SS guards worked in the female sections of the camp (Dlugoborski/Piper 1999, Band 1: 321-384).

A lot of these guards were used to act with extreme violence every day. One example from the killing operations at the gas chambers: “The only one who stayed alive a few hours longer was the woman who had wanted to warn the others. She was taken to a room next to the gas chamber where she was interrogated under torture. Making her talk was not difficult for the SS who had plenty of experience in such matters. Every prisoner working in the crematorium was lined up for an identity parade. (…) While the woman was being shot, SS men bound the prisoner. Then Voss and Kurschuss led him to one of the ovens. He was pushed inside and buried alive. The rest of us were made to watch his hideous end.” (Müller 1999, p. 79).

In addition to these “foot soldiers of the Final Solution”, various professionals with specialist knowledge and advanced qualifications also participated in the crimes perpetrated at Auschwitz. The SS doctors constitute the main group involved here. Department V (SS stationed physicians) had just under 20 SS members. A total of 30 qualified doctors worked in Auschwitz at various stages. The medics had the following tasks to perform in connection with the crimes perpetrated at the camp: selection of arriving “Jewish transports”, monitoring of the filling of Zyklon B in the gas chambers, selection of prisoners who were unfit to work, perpetration of veiled executions by lethal injection, overseeing of executions, and performance of forced sterilizations and abortions. Some of the doctors also carried out experiments on the prisoners (Dirks 2006). The leading SS stationed physician was SS-Sturmbannführer Dr. Eduard Wirths. However, it was SS-Hauptsturmführer Dr. Josef Mengele who would later became synonymous with the participation of the doctors in the genocide at Auschwitz. Mengele was the doctor most feared by the inmates for the usually fatal experiments he carried out on them.

Another important group of experts involved in the genocide was the Zentralbauleitung (Central Construction Authority) of the Waffen-SS and police. It was managed initially by SS-Hauptsturmführer Karl Bischoff and from late 1943 by SS-Obersturmführer Werner Jothann. The Zentralbauleitung was responsible, inter alia, for the development of the gas chambers and crematoria. It tried to develop the most efficient architecture possible for the “Final Solution” and collaborated closely on this project with other experts. An important role was played here by Kurt Prüfer, an engineer from the company Topf & Söhne, who worked intensively on finding ways to increase the performance of the crematoria (Fröbe 2000).

The managers of IG Farben were also involved in the crimes committed at Auschwitz. If nothing else, large sections of the company’s board visited the plant building site and sub-camp. Moreover, they were informed of the activities at the camp through the cooperation of their local managers with the SS. The official manager of the company’s operation at Auschwitz was board member Otto Ambros. However, as Ambros rarely visited Auschwitz; his role was initially carried out de facto, and later also, officially, by Walther Dürrfeld. The managers supported the SS in the development of the camp and worked closely with the SS in other respects. The prisoners in the sub-camp were worked to death in the inhuman working conditions. IG Farben allowed prisoners who were unfit for work to be “selected” and transported to their certain deaths in Auschwitz-Birkenau (Wagner 2000).


A total of approximately 1.3 million people from all over Europe were deported to Auschwitz. The majority of them were murdered by the SS short after their arrival. The camp administration registered approximately 400,000 people as prisoners. By Franciszek Piper’s estimate, the best substantiated presented hitherto, around 1.1 million people died in Auschwitz. Of these, the largest group of victims by far was that of the Jewish prisoners. Piper works on the assumption of 960,000 Jewish victims at Auschwitz. It is estimated that around 865,000 Jews were murdered using poisonous gas in the gas chambers immediately on their arrival in the camp and without registration. A further 95,000 registered Jewish prisoners died of hunger, violence, and, above all, murder in the gas chambers due to illness. Over half of these, i.e. approximately 500,000, were murdered in 1944 (Piper 1993).

According to Piper, a total of around 1.1 million Jews were transported to Auschwitz. Of these, approximately 140,000 left the Auschwitz camp alive, either in a transport as prisoners who had been selected as fit for work and transferred to other camps or during the death marches that took place as part of the evacuation of the camp. The two largest national groups by far were the 438,000 Hungarian Jews and 300,000 Polish Jews. Other larger groups of Jewish prisoners originated from France (69,000), the Netherlands (60,000), Greece (55, 000), the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (46,000), Slovakia (27,000), Belgium (25,000), the German Reich (23,000).

The good fortune of not being dispatched to an immediate death in the gas chambers depended on the assessment of the Jewish prisoners’ fitness for work by the SS doctors. The main selection criteria were the prisoner’s age and physical condition. In addition, women with small children were generally classified as “unfit for work”. Children under 14 years of age also tended to be deemed incapable of work; between the ages of 14 and 16 the decision was based on the physical state of the child; and from 17, they were fit for work in the eyes of the SS. Women of up to 40 years of age with no children and men up to 45 were generally selected for work allocation. The more the prisoners exceeded this age boundary, the more likely they were to face immediate death. However, selection for slave labor only represented a temporary reprieve. The conditions in Auschwitz and its sub-camps were so horrific that many of the prisoners who worked there also died.

The next biggest group of victims in Auschwitz was the non-Jewish Polish prisoners. A total of approximately 140,000 to 150,000 Polish prisoners were transported to Auschwitz. Around half of them (70,000-75,000) died there. Indeed, the Polish prisoners formed the largest group of prisoners at the camp from 1940 to mid-1942. They also recorded the highest number of victims in this period. At the same time, the Polish inmates had the best opportunities to establish contact with the civil population. They also held many of the minor functions at the camp and posts in the prisoners’ administration and, as a result, had access to information. Thus, for example, it was easier for Polish prisoners to plan an escape than other prisoner groups. For this reason, the SS were at pains to transport the maximum possible number of Polish prisoners to concentration camps in the German Reich. Nonetheless, the Poles remained a comparatively large group at the camp up to its dissolution.

Like the Jews, two other groups, i.e. the Sinti and Roma and the Soviet POWs, had little or no chance of surviving Auschwitz. Approximately 23,000 Sinti and Roma were transported to Auschwitz, of whom 21,000 died. On 16 December 1942, Himmler issued an order for all Sinti and Roma living under German jurisdiction to be deported to a concentration camp. Based on this order, over 20,000 Sinti and Roma were transported to Auschwitz Birkenau in March 1943 alone. They were strictly segregated in Section B II e of the camp. The mortality rate there was particularly high due to the extremely bad treatment of the prisoners. On 16 May 1944, the prisoners of the “Gypsy Camp” managed to prevent their murder by barricading their barracks with stones and tools. However, in the night of 2 to 3 August 1944 the SS succeeded in transporting the remaining 3000 Sinti and Roma to the gas chambers where they were killed (Zimmermann 1996).

The chances of Soviet POWs surviving the camp were even lower. As far as it is known, the Wehrmacht transported around 15,000 of these prisoners to Auschwitz with the agreement of the SS. It may be assumed that very few, if any, survived. The first of these POWs arrived in Auschwitz in 1941. In November 1941, a Special Commission from the Gestapo Headquarters in Katowice came to the camp to divide the POWs into groups. Group A was labeled as “politically intolerable”, Group B as “politically unsuspicious”, Group C as “suitable for rehabilitation”, and another special group comprised “fanatical Communists”. Around 700 prisoners were assigned to Group A, 8,000 to Group B, 30 to Group C, and 300 were classified as “fanatical Communists”. Assignment to the latter group and Group A was tantamount to a death sentence. However, the chances of survival for the majority of the POWs were slim. Fewer than ten percent of the POWs admitted to the camp in 1941 survived the winter of 1941/42 (Sterbebücher, Band 1, 1995).

A further 25,000 prisoners from groups other than those listed above were registered at the Auschwitz complex. Of these, between 10,000 and 15,000 died (Piper 1993). Overall, the mortality rate in Auschwitz, including among those who were assigned a camp number, was significantly higher than in most of the other concentration camps (Buggeln 2009). This was due, inter alia, to the extreme brutality of the guards and the hopelessly inadequate provision of vital resources for the prisoners. The situation was further exacerbated by the effects of the hard debilitating labor the prisoners were forced to carry out. The prisoners were shaven, maltreated, and degraded to mere numbers on their admission to the camp. Many became starving and ill within a very short time. Primo Levi described life in Auschwitz as follows: “A fortnight after my arrival I already had the prescribed hunger, that chronic hunger unknown to free men. (…) On the back of my feet I already have those numb sores that will not heal. I push wagons, I work with a shovel, I turn rotten in the rain, I shiver in the wind; already my own body is no longer mine: my belly is swollen, my limbs emaciated, my face is thick in the morning, hollow in the evening; some of us have yellow skin, others gray. When we do not meet for a few days we hardly recognize each other.” (Levi 1996, 36 et seq.)

Besides hunger, the lack of appropriate, warm clothing contributed substantially to the prisoners’ increasingly debilitated condition: “By the month of April, when the cold, though less severe, had not gone yet, the thick clothing and pullovers would be withdrawn and trousers and jackets replaced by similar articles in cotton, also with broad stripes; and only towards the end of October would the winter garments be distributed again. However, this no longer happened in the autumn 1944 because the woolen suits and coats had reached the end of any possibility of reuse, so the prisoners had to face the winter of 1944-45 dressed in the same thin clothes as during the summer months.” (Levi/De Benedetti 2006, p. 38)


The surviving documentation – not witness statements – constitutes the most important source for much of the research on the Holocaust and Auschwitz. The question concerning the number of victims, in particular, can be answered with the help of the death registers, transport lists, and other documents. The prisoners themselves had very limited opportunities for estimating the number of victims (Hilberg 2002).

However, witness statements constitute indispensable sources when it comes to many other questions that arise in the historiography of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Some of them even play a role in the course of the historical events surrounding the camp. This is particularly true of the prisoners’ reports that reached the public before the liberation of Auschwitz. The most important of these is, perhaps, the account provided by two Slovakian Jews, Alfred Wetzler and Walter Rosenberg (later: Rudolf Vrba), who managed to escape from Auschwitz in spring 1944. They compiled a comprehensive report for the Slovakian Jewish Council and hoped to be able to prevent the deportation of the Hungarian Jews, which was just beginning, through its dissemination. Although this aim remained unfulfilled, the report was quickly disseminated in the western world and it was published in Washington in November 1944. At the Nuremberg Trials, the report featured as document O-22L of the prosecution’s evidence. The Allies also had detailed aerial photographs of all of the camps from 31 May 1944. However, no targeted attack was ever carried out on the gas chambers or transport links.

The collection of witness reports on the Holocaust mainly took place in the immediate post-war period (1944-1948) and since the 1980s. In the immediate aftermath of 1945, however, many reports were merely recorded and collected but not published. The few published reports only attracted limited attention. Two of the best known publications from this early period are Ella Lingens-Reiner’s book Prisoner of Fear, which was published in London in 1948, and Hermann Langbein’s report Die Stärkeren (The Stronger Ones, 1949).

The statements by the survivors of the special commando are particularly important when it comes to explaining the course of the extermination process. The prisoners in this Commando were divided into different groups which had specific tasks to fulfill: i.e. accompanying the victims to the door of the gas chamber, removing clothing and valuables, transporting the bodies from the gas chamber to the crematoria, collecting tooth gold and cutting off hair, incinerating the bodies in the crematoria, and, finally, disposing of the ashes in the nearby river Vistula (Greif 1995, Friedler/Siebert/Kilian 2002).

While the reports by the victims are generally characterized by a desire to bear witness and an often breath-taking openness, the majority of the perpetrators’ statements involve cover-up strategies, the shifting of the blame to others, and a frequent inability or absence of the will to remember. This denial and exculpation can also be explained by the fact that the perpetrators were in fear of criminal prosecution and a possible death sentence. Despite this, their statements can also be relevant to the reconstruction of the processes at Auschwitz.

The most important source on the Auschwitz camp originating from the perpetrators’ perspective is probably the memoir written by former camp commandant Höß when he was on remand in Krakow prison in 1946. It was published in Polish in 1956 and in German in 1958. In this work, Höß presents himself as a conscientious camp organizer whose efforts were sabotaged by an excess of tasks assigned to him by his superior Himmler and by the actions of his stupid and incompetent underlings. Apart from this distorted self-presentation, however, the report has emerged as close to the truth on many details and thus remains an important source of information (Zimmermann 2004).

Divided Memories

The role played by the remembrance and commemoration of Auschwitz and the Holocaust in different national cultures varies significantly. There is no doubt that the global significance of the commemoration of the Holocaust has increased significantly since the 1980s and certain tendencies for its standardization can be observed in recent times as a result of international media events, such as the film “Schindler’s List”. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, which was opened in 1993 and has become one of the most important research centers on the history of the Holocaust, also plays an important role in this process of the internationalization of its commemoration. Although Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider confirm the emergence of a global memory of the Holocaust, in which Auschwitz assumes a central role (Levy/Sznaider 2001), specific national perspectives on the event probably also continue to exert a formative influence.

Following the liberation of the camp, the complex was used as both a hospital for former prisoners and a camp for German POWs. The Soviet authorities handed most of the camp complex over to the Polish administration in early 1946. From March 1946, organizations representing former inmates went increasingly public with a plan to create a museum on the site of the camp. This proposal was approved by the Polish state and the State Memorial at Auschwitz Birkenau was established by law on 2 July 1947. An exhibition building and an archive and library were developed and established in the ensuing period. Up to 1989, the exhibition narrative was mainly characterized by the desire to present Auschwitz as a place of suffering of the Polish nation. The main emphasis was on the history of the Polish resistance against Germany, the suffering of the resistance fighters in Auschwitz, and, finally, the Communist victory over Germany. A sub-exhibition entitled “The Suffering and Struggle of the Jews” was not opened until the 1970s, however it succeeded in focusing attention on Auschwitz as the central location of the extermination of the Jews of Europe. The former camp complex was inscribed in the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites in 1979 and to prevent the identification of the camp with its location in Poland, in 2007 the World Heritage Committee decided to change the official designation of the camp to Auschwitz-Birkenau – German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp (1940–1945). The end of Communist rule in Poland led to an opening of the discourse in Poland and considerable struggles for the prerogative of interpretation ensued. The post-Communist Polish authorities altered or removed the memorials commemorating the Red Army from the site relatively quickly. Virulent conflicts took place between Polish Christians and Jewish organizations throughout the 1990s. The climax of the conflict was finally reached when a Carmelite monastery and eight-meter-high cross were erected on the site of the former camp; the latter was perceived as unacceptable to many Jews as a symbol erected on the world’s biggest Jewish cemetery. These conflicts have calmed down somewhat in recent years. The main focus at present is on the efforts to prevent the progressive deterioration of the former camp complex at a few central locations (Szurek 1992, Reichel 2005).

From the outset, the remembrance of Auschwitz and the Holocaust in Israel was closely linked with Zionism as the central basis for the legitimation of the state’s foundation. The Yad Vashem memorial was established in 1953 to centralize the remembrance of the Holocaust based on the “Law on the Commemoration of the Martyrs and Heroes”. Little space was allocated to the Jewish Diaspora or the Jewish victims, who were perceived as passive, in either the Israeli national memory or the design of the exhibition at Yad Vashem. Armed resistance was viewed as the only legitimate response to National Socialism. The victims of Auschwitz were often implicitly and, in part, explicitly reproached for having “gone like lambs to the slaughter”. This attitude was particularly prominent during the Kastner Trial in 1954, in the course of which Jewish councils in occupied Europe were blamed for having collaborated with the Nazis and ultimately aiding and abetting their murderous campaign. Rudolf Kastner, a former member of the Jewish Rescue Committee in Hungary was murdered in Tel Aviv in 1957.

The Israeli commemoration policy underwent a clear shift as a result of the Eichmann trial in 1961, however. The reality of the policy of extermination was confronted here in public for the first time. This prompted greater sympathy with the victims which also increased in the following years as a result of the country’s experience with the war in the Middle East. The Holocaust often became a “didactic play” for the politics of the day. Public communiqués frequently linked the remembrance of the Holocaust with Zionism. In recent years, however, the policy of commemorating the Holocaust in Israel has become more plural in nature. (Segev 1995; Friedländer 1987, Hass 2002).

Whereas, as an “anti-fascist state”, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) rejected all responsibility for the crimes of the Nazis, the Federal Republic of Germany embarked on an initially hesitant but ultimately intensive process of confrontation and Aufarbeitung, i.e. dealing with the past. Auschwitz and the Holocaust proved a constant challenge, however, that was difficult to meet. They remained a “negative memory” that repeatedly raised the question of the Germans as perpetrators. Conservative forces, in particular, tried to interpret National Socialism as totalitarianism and presented the establishment of a democracy as the only meaningful lesson to be drawn from the events. However, an attitude that favored an exclusive focus on the future could also be found on the left of the political spectrum. The acknowledgement of historical guilt generally remained an outsider position and this was a repeated source of discord when the focus shifted to Auschwitz, for example in the course of the reparation negotiations with Israel in the early 1950s and during the Auschwitz Trial (1963-1965). The television series “Holocaust”, which was broadcast on German television in 1979, made an important contribution to the shift in the public understanding of Auschwitz in West Germany. It was one of the factors that contributed to the emergence of historical workshops in many locations within the Federal Republic, which explored questions about National Socialism in the locality and often focused on the deportation of the local Jewish population. This emerging critical public ensured that the 1980s became the decade of a more intensive examination of the Holocaust, the focus of which was the history policy of the country’s Christian Democratic government. Thus, CDU General Secretary Heiner Geißler stated on the record in 1983 that it was the pacifism of the 1930s that had “made Auschwitz possible in the first place”. Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl invented the concept of the “Gnade der späten Geburt” (“the blessing of being born late”) and laid wreaths with US President Ronald Reagan at Bitburg military cemetery where members of the Waffen-SS are also buried. Finally, Philipp Jenninger, the President of the German Bundestag, gave a speech at the Bundestag on 9 November 1988, which was misleading in its rhetoric, at the very least, in suggesting an apparent empathy with the perpetrators and prompted his resignation. At the same time, the question of the comparability of the Holocaust was being negotiated in the context of the “Historikerstreit”, i.e. “historians’ dispute”. Finally, a speech presented by Christian Democrat President Richard Weiszäcker on 8 May 1985 constituted an acknowledgement for the first time by a high-ranking West German politician of the responsibility of the Germans for the crimes of the Nazis. As a result this speech is viewed both nationally and internationally as marking a breakthrough in the Federal Republic’s acknowledgement of its guilt.

These debates prompted a change in the Federal Republic’s policy of remembrance. The acknowledgement of German guilt became a matter of party consensus and the denial of the Holocaust and Auschwitz became initially unacceptable and, eventually, a crime. In addition, 27 January, the day on which Auschwitz was liberated, was declared an official day of remembrance in 1996 and a “Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe” was erected at a central location in Berlin in 2005. The responsibility that derives from the past has now become part of the German “reason of state”. The fact that this acknowledgement of German guilt could also be used to justify a war was demonstrated during the NATO attack on Yugoslavia in 1999 when German foreign minister Joscha Fisher justified the attack with the words “Nie wieder Auschwitz” (“Never again Auschwitz”). (Reichel 2005, Dubiel 1999, Berg 2003).

Since the 1990s, at the latest, it has been possible to observe that the memory of the Holocaust and Auschwitz is beginning to play a role in the remembrance policies of many countries. For example, the day of commemoration of the victims of National Socialism on 27 January introduced in the Federal Republic of Germany in 1996 was officially designated International Holocaust Remembrance Day by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 1 November 2005. The day is now also officially commemorated in Israel, Italy and Great Britain.

Legal Actions

The central role played by Auschwitz in the extermination of the Jews of Europe was already known shortly after the end of the war. Despite this, the extermination process and Auschwitz played a comparatively subordinate role in the Nuremberg Trial of the Major War Criminals, partly because the defendants at that trial had little or no direct involvement in the establishment and operation of Auschwitz.

Auschwitz assumed a more central role in the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials IV (WVHA Trial) and VI (IG Farben Trial). The SS-Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt or SS-WVHA (SS Economic and Administrative Main Office) was responsible for the operation of the concentration camps and, along with the Reichssicherheitshauptamt or SS-RSHA (Reich Main Security Office), played a central role in the extermination process. The punishments handed down by the court of first instance were severe. The four WVHA members were sentenced to death, nine others received prison sentences of ten years or more, and there were three acquittals. The death sentence against the head of the SS-WVHA, Oswald Pohl, was the only one to be carried out, however. Most of the sentences were significantly reduced as part of the amnesty campaigns of the 1950s. In the IG Farben trial, the judgments, which were made against the backdrop of the emerging Cold War and the increasing integration of the old economic elites into the reconstruction of west German industry, were significantly more lenient even in the court of first instance. The most severe punishments were given to the two Auschwitz plant directors, Otto Ambros und Walther Dürrfeld, who both received prison sentences of eight years. In this case too, most of the sentences were significantly reduced in the following years, thus the top IG Farben personnel were at liberty again in 1951 and went on to hold leading positions in the west German economy. Otto Ambros, for example, acted as Chairman of the Board of Directors at Knoll AG from 1960 to 1975 and was also an advisor to Federal Chancellor Adenauer.

The Western Allies did not hold any specific trials on the Auschwitz concentration camp. However, many of those responsible for Auschwitz were sentenced at trials concerning other concentration camps that were held in Allied courts. Thus, for example, Josef Kramer, who was camp commandant at Auschwitz-Birkenau for a time, was sentenced to death by a British military court for the crimes he committed at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. At the Dachau trial, an American military court passed the death sentence on three SS members who also played key roles in Auschwitz. In 1946, a British military court condemned Bruno Tesch, the director of the company Tesch & Stabenow, and his main advisor Karl Weinbacher to death for their role in supplying Zyklon B to Auschwitz. The main employees of Topf & Söhne, who were responsible for the construction of the crematoria, ended up in American custody. The co-owner of the company Ludwig Topf committed suicide on 30 May 1945 while his brother Ernst Wolfgang remained unchallenged and opened a crematorium furnace business in Wiesbaden in 1947. The engineer Kurt Prüfer was released by the Americans but arrested by the Soviets in Erfurt in 1946. He was sentenced to 25 years in a forced labor camp and died in 1952.

The most important and comprehensive trials dealing with the Auschwitz complex took place in Poland after the war. A total of several hundred SS members who had served in Auschwitz had to answer for their actions in court there and to a greater extent than in any other country. The two most sensational trials were staged by the highest legal instance in Poland, the Supreme National Tribunal in Warsaw. The case against Rudolf Höß, which was heard in March/April 1947, attracted considerable international attention. The trial ended with the death penalty and Höß was executed at Auschwitz I on 16 April 1947. Proceedings were held against 40 other, in part, senior SS Members at a second trial in November/December 1947. This trial ended with 23 death sentences, of which 21 were carried out. Action was brought against a total of 673 persons in Poland, including 21 women, for offenses perpetrated at Auschwitz. The majority of the trials were held at district, województwo, and special courts in Krakow and Wadowice.

Adolf Eichmann stood trial from 11 April to 15 December 1961 in Israel on various charges, including his role as organizer of the deportation of Jews to the extermination camps. Eichmann admitted in court to having visited Auschwitz around five times and to having witnessed the extermination process in the gas chambers. Eichmann was sentenced to death and executed. As a result of its intensive media – including television – coverage, the Eichmann trial was responsible, not least, for focusing international attention on the extermination of the Jews of Europe. Hannah Arendt’s dictum of the “banality of evil” also exerted a formative influence on the perpetrator research for many years.

The preparation of major criminal proceedings against SS members of the Auschwitz camp commenced in the Federal Republic of Germany around the same time. The extensive involvement of Fritz Bauer, Attorney General of the German federal state of Hesse, played a crucial role in the expediting of the trial. The proceedings against 22 defendants opened on 20 December in Frankfurt and lasted for over one and a half years. Three hundred and fifty former Auschwitz prisoners gave evidence in court. The political climax of the trial was a visit made to Auschwitz by the judges in December 1964. In addition to the court participants, between 200 and 300 journalists also attended the tour of the camp. Prison sentences were handed down to 17 of the defendants in 1965, three of them were acquitted, and two had previously been released from the trial. Six defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment. The sentences were often viewed as excessively lenient, particularly abroad, however this trial was very important for the public in the Federal Republic of Germany. It triggered both a public and historical debate on the crimes of the National Socialists.

Three additional but significantly less comprehensive trials for crimes perpetrated in Auschwitz took place in Frankfurt up to 1976 and received comparatively little attention. The GDR’s most sensational trial for crimes perpetrated in Auschwitz took place in East Berlin in March 1966. The defendant was Dr. Horst Fischer who had worked as an SS doctor in Auschwitz from November 1942. The judge passed the death sentence after just ten days of proceedings and Fischer was executed by guillotine in Leipzig prison on 8 July 1966. Czech courts had previously passed two death sentences against one male and one female SS paramedic. Several trials of SS members from Auschwitz were held in Austria in the early post-war period. Two members of the Auschwitz SS Central Construction Directorate were indicted in Vienna in March 1972. Their trial ended in acquittals. (For more detail on the trials, see: Werle/Wandres 1995, Wojak 2001 and 2004, Weinke 2002, Dirks 2006, Pendas 2003, Steinbacher 2004).

Denial (“The Auschwitz Lie”)

Attempts have been made to contest or relativize the National Socialist policy of exterminating the Jews of Europe since the end of the Second World War. Most Holocaust deniers focused and continue to focus on the events in Auschwitz extermination camp, which is why they often refer to the “Auschwitz Lie”. The basis of the arguments of most of the Holocaust deniers or relativizers is formed by four explanatory models. First, it is disputed that the National Socialist leadership, in particular Hitler, knew about the events at Auschwitz. Reference to the lack of an order from Hitler for the extermination of the Jews of Europe always plays a central role in this line of argument. Second, the technical feasibility of the extermination process at the Auschwitz camp is disputed. This mainly involves technical information about the capacities of the gas chambers and crematoria which, in the view of the deniers, should prompt a drastic reduction in the victim numbers. Another variant of this argument, which contests the use of Zyklon B at Auschwitz, is based on the claim that traces of the chemical cannot be found in the gas chambers. Third, many documents and statements are described as forgeries and lies. Fourth, the victim numbers referred to in the historical research are relativized as far too high; the argument of the lack of capacity in the gas chambers is often used to support this claim.

In the early post-war years, the documents of the Holocaust deniers were dominated by the argument that the Holocaust is an “invention of the Jews” and did not take place. The writings of the French fascist Maurice Bardèche are an example of this. The majority of the publications of the Holocaust deniers appeared in the 1970s. Examples of these include the publications of Emil Aretz, Arthur Butz, Richard Harwood, Robert Faurisson, and Wilhelm Stäglich. “The Auschwitz Lie” (1973), a brochure compiled by Thiers Christophersen, who was a member of the SS and stationed at a sub-camp near Auschwitz, became particularly prominent in this context and its title was adopted as a slogan by the Holocaust deniers.

The contestation and trivialization of the Holocaust has become increasingly difficult since the 1980s. First, historical research has focused increasingly on the topic and stood up to the deniers and, second, Holocaust denial has become a matter of criminal prosecution. In the Federal Republic of Germany, Holocaust denial was initially considered as covered by the law governing the freedom of expression, however it became prosecutable as libel from 1985. From 1994, the crime of the “Auschwitz Lie” was classified as incitement (to hatred) of the people (Volksverhetzung). The Holocaust deniers reacted to this by resorting to mainly technical lines of argument. The Leuchter Report (1988), which states that no hydrogen cyanide was detectable in samples of stone collected from the crematorium rubble in Auschwitz and murder involving the use of Zyklon B gas could not, therefore, have taken place there, has assumed a particular significance in this context (Enzyklopädie 1995, Band 1: 121-127; Gutman 1985, Bastian 1997).

With the development and spread of the internet, the Holocaust deniers have increasingly shifted their focus to this communication channel. Nonetheless, a trial that took place in London in 2000/2001 attracted considerable public attention. British journalist and Auschwitz denier David Irving had filed a libel suit against the American academic Deborah Lipstadt who had referred to him as a falsifier of history, an anti-Semite, and racist. Several historical experts demonstrated at the trial that Irving had deliberately misinterpreted or suppressed evidence of mass extermination. The trial ended with the rejection of the defamation suit and, hence, the confirmation that Lipstadt’s descriptions were justified on the basis of Irving’s writings (Pelt 2002; Evans 2001).

As part of the internationalization of the remembrance of the Holocaust, the UN General Assembly also adopted a resolution on 26 January 2007, which was approved unanimously and without abstention by all 192 Member States, and calls all UN Members to oppose Holocaust denial.


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Cite this item

Buggeln Marc, Auschwitz, Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, [online], published on: 25 November, 2011, accessed 27/04/2020,, ISSN 1961-9898
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