The Ghosts of Auschwitz: Inside Hitler's Killing Machine

We vowed, never again. Yet today we are watching another state attempt to disenfranchise a people because of their religion.  How long will we stay silent?

Seventy years ago this week, Soviet soldiers liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex where they found about 7,000 desperately ill and emaciated prisoners and 600 corpses. They also found 370,000 men’s suits, 837,000 items of women’s clothing and 7.7 tonnes of human hair.

And thus the efficient killing machine of the Third Reich was exposed to the wider world.

Though the retreating Nazis had tried to destroy the evidence of their genocide, the full extent of the horrors soon became apparent. However, stories about the true nature of Auschwitz had been filtering out since 1941, with later reports being quite explicit about the purpose of the concentration and extermination camps. The concentration camps had been built by the Nazis to imprison ‘undesirable’ people, including political opponents who then provided forced labour for surrounding factories; extermination camps were built to liquidate these undesirable people, erasing all traces of them.

Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, March 22, 2013. Credit: Reuters/Jason Reed

Yet, despite the accounts of escaped prisoners and the Polish government-in-exile; despite the Nazis’ open disenfranchising, stigmatising and persecution of the Jews; despite the evidence of forced repatriation to Jewish ghettoes; and despite the pogroms and the disappearances in Eastern Europe in the wake of the advancing Wehrmacht, the world politely looked away.  Nor indeed was this the last genocide of the 20th century: we have become good at averting our gaze.

We now know that 1.3 million men, women and children were sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex. Of those, 1.1 million were killed, most gassed to the death, the rest succumbing to illness, starvation, individual executions and medical experiments. Of that number, 960,000 were Jews; the remainder comprised non-Jewish Poles, Soviet prisoners-of-war, Roma (or Gypsies) and others considered undesirable by the Third Reich.

It is estimated that 5.5-6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, the hyphen between the two numbers representing up to half a million untraceable people, itself a testament to the Nazi desire to completely erase a people from the face of this earth purely because of their religion. We also know that the killing was organised, efficient, industrial; it had the full might of the state behind it.

A general view of the former German Nazi concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland, January 19, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Pawel Ulatowski

Yet the decision to kill every last Jew in Europe – the so-called ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question’ – was arrived at incrementally. Though the policies to implement the Final Solution were finalised at the Wannsee Conference of January 1942, the carefully coded language used to disseminate the instructions to transport Jews to the extermination camps was only understandable because of the policies adopted by the Third Reich from 1933 onwards. By then, the persecution of the Jews had legal force; from persecution to ‘extermination’ (that was the Nazi term for the killing) was a small step.

The Nazis did not waste time after gaining power in January 1933 in creating an Aryan homeland. By April 1, they had implemented a boycott of Jewish businesses, which eventually also enabled certain businesses to be ‘Aryanised’, or forcibly sold to Germans. By April 7, Hitler’s party had passed the ‘Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service’ which disbarred Jews and other ‘non-Aryans’ from practising the Law, serving in the civil services or holding public positions – which included teaching and being an editor or a proprietor of newspapers. Jewish students were restricted by quotas, and Jewish doctors were either dismissed or urged to resign. Works by Jewish composers, authors and artists could not be performed.

On May 10, 1933, German students burned more than 25,000 books in the square by the Berlin State Opera, declaring them ‘un-German’ in spirit. In those ashes were books by Jewish authors as well as left-leaning or liberal Germans. It was the start of extreme censorship where the Party decided on what constituted, in the words of Joseph Goebbels who addressed the crowd, ‘decency and morality in family and state’.

The severe curtailing of the livelihood for the Jews succeeded in spurring about 50,000 Jews (out of an original 523,000 in 1933) to leave Germany by the end of 1934. Additionally, in July 1933, the Nazis legislated to strip naturalised German-Jews of their citizenship, paving the way for recent immigrants to be deported.

Taken together, these steps segregated the Jews socially and economically as interaction between Jews and non-Jews was discouraged by propaganda and enforced by party activist thuggery. However, the violence was affecting Germany’s economy and image, so by 1935, Hitler had to rein in the party activists.  They were placated, however, with the next set of laws, promulgated in September 1935 in Nuremberg.

The Nuremberg Laws defined citizenship and race: the two main laws and 13 supplementary laws added in the years that followed defined Jews, marginalised them and eventually stripped them of all their rights.  The first law, ‘The Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour’ forbade marriages between Jews and those of ‘German blood’ (Article 1), as also extramarital relations between the two (Article 2).  Jewish households could not employ German women below the age of 45 (Article 3) and were forbidden from displaying the Reich colours; however, they were encouraged to display ‘Jewish colours’ (Article 4).

The Reich Citizenship Law defined German citizens as a ‘a person who enjoys the protection of the German Reich’ (Article 1), defined further as one ‘who is of German or related blood, and who proves by his conduct that he is willing and fit to faithfully serve the German people and the Reich.’  These privileges were acquired through ‘the granting of a Reich citizenship certificate’ (Article 2).

With this, the disenfranchisement and persecution of the Jews had legal sanction. However, the Nazis were emboldened by the fact that their treatment of the Jews appeared to be given free rein by the rest of the world. The persecution of the Jews in this phase reached its apotheosis in the Kristallnacht of November 1938, when Nazi storm-troopers attacked Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues in revenge for the killing of a German diplomat in France by a young, perhaps unstable Jewish man whose parents had been deported to Poland by the Gestapo.

An archival photo from November 10, 1938, showing broken shop windows in Berlin a day after the Nazi pogrom known as Kristallnacht concluded. Credit: notionscapital/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

An archival photo from November 10, 1938, showing broken shop windows in Berlin a day after the Nazi pogrom known as Kristallnacht concluded. Photo: notionscapital/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Thirty thousand Jewish men were also rounded up that night and sent to concentration camps.  The world’s press reacted with great indignation to the events of that night, but that was it. Hitler was not challenged, and it encouraged the next step, which was the execution of Jews in Eastern Europe by Nazi death squads, or Einsatzgruppen, starting in 1939.

These executions – conducted at close range, with the victims shot in the head or the neck – claimed 1.3 million Jewish lives. Still, the world said nothing. In the meantime, physically shooting each Jew (man, woman and child, young and old) was taking its toll on German soldiers, especially as the number of Jews in territories under German control escalated with the invasion of Russia in 1941. The Nazis then moved to a more efficient method, which was industrial-scale gassing.

Auschwitz, with its five gas chambers and attached crematoria, today stands in silent testimony to that industrialisation of murder.

And yet, for every victim of those industrialised killing, there were those who made that death possible.  Murder on this scale could happen only because these individuals had the might of the state behind them.  They were shielded by the orders they followed, orders that were buttressed by laws that had been passed by the government.  The case of Adolf Eichmann’s trial illustrates this starkly.

Adolf Eichmann. Photo: Wikipedia

Eichmann’s notoriety is perhaps greater in death than in life.  A mid-level Nazi functionary who rose to Lieutenant-Colonel, Eichmann headed the SS department that dealt with Jewish affairs.  He took his orders for Reinhard Heydrich (the architect of the Final Solution) and ultimately, Heinrich  Himmler, and was eventually tasked with the logistics of the Final Solution: the identifying, collecting and transporting of Jews to the extermination camps in Poland.

In other words, he was a bureaucrat, and, judging by the millions he rounded up to send on to Auschwitz and other extermination camps, an efficient one. Eichhmann is famous, though, for the manner of his death – he was kidnapped by the Israeli state from Argentina in 1960, where he was hiding after the war, put on trial in Israel and found guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes against the Jewish people, for which he was hanged to death in 1962.

Yet his trial was important for it allowed survivors to face a person rather than a faceless state as they relived the terrors of their survival: the horrors of the ghettoes; the selection by their own people (the Council of Elders, for the Nazis in a cruel twist, put Jews in charge of selecting other Jews for their death: the Elders did so in the vain hope that their close family would be saved as they were allowed to offer a list of people to be protected, but of course that list, the author and the names on them eventually came under the crushing wheels of the killing machine); the endless paperwork before transport where those selected documented their properties and wealth; the crammed cattle transports; the selection at the camps into those who would die immediately and those who would be used by the Nazis for work or other purposes; and finally, the dehumanising indignity of survival in the concentration camps.

Also read: Deported to Auschwitz: Sheindi Ehrenwald’s Diary Recounts the Story of a Holocaust Survivor

The philosopher Hannah Arendt described the trial in a book that caused almost as much controversy as Eichmann’s trial itself, for she subtitled it A Report on the Banality of Evil.  And yet, to truly understand that subtitle is to grasp the horrors of the state-sponsored killing machine that the Nazis put in place.  Eichmann’s defence was that he was merely following orders.

Yes, he rounded up people in order to send them to their death, but that was his job, and he did it well.  He did not personally shoot them, or shepherd them into the gas chambers: his job was to identify, collect and transport Jewish people because they were Jewish people and the state had declared Jews non-citizens, who by their very presence were a problem for the Fatherland.

He went on to explain that he personally had nothing against Jews; to the contrary, he was proud that he knew more about Zionism than about Hitler’s writings. Moreover, what he did was, in his eyes, legal, for the state had already sanctioned the segregation and persecution of the Jews through the laws of 1933 and 1935. He was proud that he did his job well and had advanced up the bureaucratic machinery.

It is important to note that Eichmann was not stupid. Most senior Nazi officials were highly educated. But as Roger Berkowitz explained, Eichmann was a ‘joiner’. He found meaning and purpose in the Nazi movement; joining allowed him to commit to the higher purpose stated in the movement’s propaganda.  Surrounded by like-minded people, his faith was untroubled by doubts or questioning, for his comrades were equally unswerving in their fidelity to the movement.

This then is the banality of evil. That the state-sponsored killing machine was evil is beyond a doubt.  Nor is their any doubt about the evilness that sent Jews, Roma, disabled people, criminals, homosexuals and prisoners of war to their death.

Roma or Sinti girl imprisoned in Auschwitz. Pictures taken by the SS for their files. Photo: Wiener Holocaust Library Collections

Rather it is the fact that the State enabled these murders with legislation – turning the killing into a bureaucratic exercise. Language too is important. The Jews were a ‘problem’ that required a ‘final solution’. The code did not just allow the Nazis to dissemble about the main purpose of the transports. It also cloaked the whole enterprise in officialese.

As Eichmann was to declare at one point during his trial, ‘Officialese [Amtssprache] is my only language.’  As for conscience, well, Arendt explains that Hitler came up with a neat solution to ‘solving the problem of conscience’: this was a time of war, and the security argument made these killings justifiable.

Also read: Nazis Murdered a Quarter of Europe’s Roma, but History Still Overlooks This Genocide

The horrors of the Holocaust haunt us, as they should.  The efficiency of the Nazi killing machine required that the bodies be incinerated to remove all traces of their existence, but not before they were harvested for valuables. To return to Auschwitz, those sent to the gas chambers were first ordered to undress and leave their valuables in a pile (they were told they were going into a shower room to be de-loused).

Once they were stuffed into the overcrowded chamber, the doors were sealed and the cyanide introduced.  Death followed soon after. Then, Sonderkommando – other Jewish prisoners made to work for the Nazi regime – were sent in to harvest the bodies: remove any remaining jewellery, shave off the women’s hair to be used by industry (for example, in stuffing mattresses), and removing any gold fillings from teeth. As the Nazis proudly documented, in 1944, they harvested 10-12 kg of gold a month from Auschwitz.

This was death dehumanised. We vowed, never again. And watched as genocide unfolded in Cambodia in the 1970s, Rwanda in the 1994, Bosnia in 1995 and Darfur in the 2000s. We protested that these were spontaneous, could not have been foreseen, were of a different type than the state-sponsored killings of the European Jews.

And yet today we are watching another state attempt to disenfranchise a people because of their religion.  How long will we stay silent?