Auschwitz. A History

Translated by Shaun Whiteside.
London: Penguin Books 2005. 168 pp.
In German-occupied Eastern and Central Europe, the attempt by the National Socialists totally to annihilate the Jewish and Roma populations resulted during the Second World War in a virtually endless sequence of violence, massacres and mass-murders. Even in this context, the Nazi camp Auschwitz is exceptional. The name Auschwitz has become the virtual epitome and icon of the planned, industrialized National Socialist genocide of the Jews in Europe. In her account, the historian Sybille Steinbacher, currently at University of Jena, links this aspect of the camp with Nazi racialist population policy and German imperialistic industrial goals in the annexed Polish territories. In Steinbacher’s words: ‘Auschwitz was the focus of the two main ideological goals of the Nazi regime: it was the biggest stage for the mass murder of European Jewry, and at the same time a crystallization point of the policy of settlement and “Germanization”. It was here that extermination and the conquest of Lebensraum merged in conceptual, temporal and spatial terms’ (p. 3).

The author starts with an account of the complex history of the city of Auschwitz/Oswiecim, located between Silesia and Malopolska, a town shaped over centuries by the presence of Poles, Jews and Germans1. In 1939, the Nazi occupiers began to ‘Germanize’ an Eastern Zone connected with eastern Upper Silesia, in which the area around Oswiecim was also included. The camp was established in 1940 as an internment facility for (potential) Polish resistance activists. Right from the beginning, conscript labor, which was never profitable in an economic sense, was an integral part of the brutal camp regime and constituted ‘a bridge to mass murder’ (p. 61). Initially the prisoners, as well as the employees of Polish firms, were deployed in constructing the camp complex, but the company IG Farben soon utilized the labour of thousands for building a factory for synthetic rubber in the nearby locality of Monowitz.

As a result of the influx of guards and their families from the west, duly cared for by the National Socialist state, the proportion of Germans in the town grew steadily. As Steinbacher emphasizes with reference to statements by Himmler, in the development of the camp, ‘[m]ass murder and respectability were closely interwoven’ (p. 43). In 1941, the occupiers deported the remaining Jewish population of Oswiecim to the Generalgouvernment, whilst the ‘policies of linking industrialization, urban improvement and population restructuring were brutally driven forward’ (p. 62). Poles from the vicinity of the camp complex attempted to help their imprisoned fellow Poles or inmates who escaped. The German civilian population, which followed events from a close vantage, was indifferent; a number sought to extract material benefit from the Judeocide, and asked the camp administration whether they could get anything free from the confiscated possessions of those murdered. Among the profiteers, along with German firms that employed forced laborers, were the producer and supplier of the poison gas ‘Zyklon B,’ as well as the Reichsbahn, which was paid by the SS to handle the transport of the Jewish passengers, from 1942 on largely destined for immediate murder. Several SS doctors, including Josef Mengele and Carl Clauberg, conducted appalling experiments on human subjects.

The Judeocide was carried out in the camp area Birkenau (Brzezinka), which was set up in October 1941. The ashes of those murdered, mainly cremated but also burned in open pits, were scattered in the streams and fields of the surrounding area. The final phase of the camp from the summer of 1944 on was marked by attempts to eradicate all traces of what occurred here. Gas chambers and crematoria were blown up by the SS. The bulk of files and documents were also destroyed.

For Steinbacher, one impartant aspect of the post-history of ‘Auschwitz’ is the confrontation with those who have denied and relativized the crimes committed there. The author devotes a full chapter to this topic. Comparable phenomena can be found not only in connection with ‘Auschwitz,’ but also in cases of atrocities where fewer victims lost their lives and which are not as subject to critical international attention. This raises more general question of why atrocities are denied by some contemporaries and those born after even generations after the events, as is the case with the Turkish genocide of the Armenians or Japan’s criminal actions in occupied China. In Poland, which has a long tradition of collective consciousness of victimhood, until today substantial segments of public opinion deny responsibility of their own ethnic group for the pogroms in 1941 (in Jedwabne and elsewhere) and 1945/46 (in Kielce and elsewhere). In this area the presentation of the facts and their widest diffusion continues to be necessary.

In her conclusion, Steinbacher deals with the unsatisfactory legal prosecution and punishment of the crimes in Auschwitz and describes several court cases in Poland and Germany. She is correct in stressing the great importance of the Frankfurt am Main Auschwitz trials in the 1960s for the subsequent ‘coming to terms with the past (Vergangenheitsbewältigung)’ in (West) Germany. The 1990s saw the end of the use of Soviet inspired and exaggerated figures for the number of victims in the camp. Steinbacher gives a total number of around 1.3 million victims in Auschwitz, of whom some 200,000 died of starvation, disease and the inhuman working conditions. Of the approximately 1.1 million murdered, 438,000 Jews from Hungary and about 300,000 from Poland formed the largest groups; the number of ethnic Poles (Polish Gentiles) who died in the camps is estimated by Steinbacher at 70,000-75,000 (p. 134).

Steinbacher notes that the efforts of the Nazi occupiers to Germanize the area were oriented ‘to usher in the victory of the ‘Aryan’ race over Jews and Slavs’ (p. 79). It should be recalled here that Poles usually used the concept ‘Aryan’ as synonymous with ‘non-Jewish.’ Several assertions in the book are mistaken and should be corrected. For example, Steinbacher mistakenly assigns the then-Prussian province of East Prussia to the ‘western Polish territories’ (p. 17). The author varies in the way she describes Auschwitz in terms of geographical and ethnic categories. At one point, she correctly stresses the Polish character of the town, at another she states that it was ‘on German soil’ or in Silesia (pp. 17, 74). She notes that the police border disappeared in 1941, although according to the map on p. 18 it existed down to 1945. Moreover, the Nazi occupiers in the ‘eastern territories incorporated into Germany’, where millions of Poles continued to live, were not able to manage without Polish administrative employees. In this regard Steinbacher makes an incorrect assertion. The indiscriminate murder of the Jewish population by Nazi units did not commence in Lithuania in July 1941 but several weeks later.

Significantly, Steinbacher does not make use of any source materials or research literature in Polish. It is likely for this reason that an important aspect of the post-history of the Nazi camp was not illuminated. Anyone who wishes to understand the specific Polish way of dealing with this legacy, beyond a few court trials against Nazi criminals in the wake of World War II, will be disappointed. Jonathan Huener recently was able to show how the prerequisites developed which underpinned the long and complicated ‘Auschwitz convent controversy’ in the 1980s, and more generally fuelled the dispute over claims to Auschwitz between Polish Catholics and Jewish representatives. 2 In most Polish underground papers from the Generalgouvernement, whose reports Steinbacher does not take into account, the National Socialist concentration camps and killing centers were regarded as places where mainly Poles were confined, and in which the occupiers sought the ‘annihilation of the Poles’: ‘the German camps are a huge, coolly calculated and well-organized, monstrous murder,’ proclaimed a paper of the Polish Peasant Party (Stronnictwo Ludowe) in the summer of 1942. It went on: ‘Hundreds of thousands of our brothers have been murdered.’ Auschwitz was regarded as ‘the main camp, and to a certain extent the symbolic camp, for the Poles.’ 3

Likewise in the post-war period, the push to ‘Polonize’ Auschwitz was not linked simply to an affiliation with ideological or political camps. A resolution of the Polish Sejm elevated the former camp grounds in 1947 to a secular ‘monument for the martyrdom of the Polish people and other peoples’ (Pomnik Meczenstwa Narodu Polskiego i Innych Narodów), and that same year, the Oswiecim State Museum (Panstwowe Muzeum Oswiecim) was opened. The organs of the communist regime and the non-communist press all expressed the conviction that the camp was part of a ‘Polish martyrdom.’ Even then it symbolized for Polish society a ‘centre of blood and immortality,’ to which numerous visitors made a pilgrimage. The Kraków Catholic weekly Tygodnik Powszechny advanced the view that ‘the majority of those tormented to death in the camp were Catholics,’ and advocated erecting a ‘monumental house of God’ there, ‘in which we can […] pray for our tormented fathers, brothers and sons’ (No. 24, 13 June 1948). Writing in the Wroclaw periodical Odra, Jan Pawel Gawlik pleaded for creating a ‘forest of crosses’ on the former camp grounds (No. 40, 3 October 1948). 4

The attitude toward the Nazi Judeocide, which encompassed some 90 per cent of those murdered in Auschwitz, remained entangled in ambiguities. It was never appropriately represented in the constructions of memory. Rather, the concentration on an ethnic Polish perspective contributed to a false understanding of Polish-Jewish relations and to a ‘competition in victimhood’ in which the ethnic Poles and Jews found themselves embroiled. In 1945, the unreserved recognition of the sheer monstrousness and horror of the Shoah would have eclipsed the ethnic Polish victims of the war and occupation. 5 Over the longer term, those whom the Nazi occupiers and their minions had murdered solely because they defined them as Jews were added to the ‘magic number’ (Feliks Tych) of a supposed total of six million Polish victims.

As the rapidly changing versions of the exhibition in the museum make clear, during Stalinism the fraternal population of the GDR was in a sense ‘exculpated,’ while the early Federal Republic and its Western allies were made responsible for ‘Auschwitz’ by means of a crude and extremely politicized propaganda. At the same time, and renewed since the 1960s, the Polish policy of memory found a further image of the enemy in Zionism and Israel. If one looks more carefully, one can recognize the intellectual matrix undergirding the antisemitic excesses of 1968 quite specifically in clichés of attitude that were prevalent already in the Second Polish Republic. In the years of occupation, these clichés were also propagated by important underground organizations, promoted by a persistent antisemitism which did not diminish in spite of the Nazi mass murder. Yet it was that very antisemitism, paradoxically, to which a change was owed in the museum at the time: in 1968, along side the national exhibition halls established by various countries, the persecution and murder of the Jews of Poland was now also made a central thematic focus in Block 27 of the Auschwitz main camp. Why? Faced with international protests against the open ‘anti-Zionist’ campaign, the regime was interested in silencing that criticism by setting a sign of recognition. The result was of course perceived as highly tendentious, and for many foreign visitors constituted an irritation.

In addition, one should not forget that prisoners in Auschwitz often had quite formative negative experiences with their fellow Polish inmates. Benedikt Kautsky, a leading Austrian Social Democrat who was not Jewish even in the eyes of the Nazis, reports that his relation with them was rendered difficult because of their ‘antisemitism, even among most of the Poles who were leftist.’ Most came from western Poland and all were nationalists. Here Kautsky encountered ‘fascists who were recruited mainly from the intelligentsia, and from among members of the underworld […]. Here the hatred for the Germans and Jews fused with contempt for all other nations, the Slavic brothers and those of the ‘rotten’ West, combining into an incarnation of chauvinism that could not be outdone, coupled with genuine fascist crudity and corruption.’ 6

Knowledge of these conditioning elements in the politics of memory on the one hand, and feelings of resentment springing from painful personal experiences on the other, would make it easier for today’s reader to put conflicts in Polish-Jewish relations which are unresolved and continue to erupt into a broader historical context which will make it easier to understand their underlying causes.

Klaus-Peter Friedrich (Marburg) Institut für Zeitgeschichte München – Berlin
Translated from the German by Bill Templer

1See also Sybille Steinbacher, „Musterstadt’ Auschwitz. Germanisierungspolitik und Judenmord in Ostoberschlesien, Munich: K.G. Saur Verlag 2000.
2Jonathan Huener, Auschwitz, Poland and the Politics of Commemoration, 1945 - 1979 (Polish and Polish-American Studies Series) Athens/Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2003.
3Przez walke do zwyciestwa, No. 17, 30 June 1942.
4See in greater detail on this: Klaus-Peter Friedrich, ‘Frühe Bestrebungen zu einer ‘Katholisierung’ des ehemaligen NS-Lagers Auschwitz,’ Zeitschrift für Ostmitteleuropa-Forschung 54 (2005), 2, pp. 217-243.
5See in greater detail Klaus-Peter Friedrich, ‘Die Legitimierung ‘Volkspolens’ durch den polnischen Opferstatus. Zur kommunistischen Machtübernahme in Polen am Ende des Zweiten Weltkriegs,’ Zeitschrift für Ostmitteleuropa-Forschung 52 (2003), pp. 1-51.
6Benedikt Kautsky, Teufel und Verdammte. Erfahrungen und Erkenntnisse aus sieben Jahren in deutschen Konzentrationslagern, Zürich 11946, Vienna ²1961, pp. 146 ff. Benedikt Kautsky (1894 - 1960), son of Karl Kautsky, was an economist and reformist Marxist thinker, and he influenced the German Social Democrats’ “Godesberger Programm” of 1959. He spent seven years in concentration camps. His classic early post-war study-cum-memoir on the camps (Devil and Damned) has never been translated into English.