Posts Tagged ‘Auschwitz’

WW2 Anniversary

|   24 March 2012

Foreigners to Auschwitz


Seventy years ago this week an event of enormous significance took place. The first Jews from outside Poland were deported to Auschwitz.

It’s significant not just because these Jews were from another European country – the first of many – but because of the deal under which they were sent. It was a shocking arrangement – one which reminds us that the Holocaust was far more than a solely ‘German’ crime.

These Jews came from the neighbouring country of Slovakia, and were only deported to Auschwitz after high level meetings between the Germans and the Slovaks the previous month. In February 1942 the Prime Minister of Slovakia, Vojtech Tuka had met with Major Dieter Wisliceny of the SS. After further reflection in Berlin, a deal was finally done whereby the Slovaks agreed to pay the Germans 500 Reichsmarks for every Jew deported. But on condition that the Germans guaranteed that these Jews would ‘never come back’. That way the Slovaks knew that they could steal the property of the Jews with impunity.

Silvia Vesela, then a young Jewish women, remembers how non-Jewish Slovaks turned on her. ‘I thought about it several times,’ she says. ‘Human material is very bendable. You can do anything with it. When money and life are involved, you seldom meet a person that is willing to sacrifice for you. It hurt, it really hurt when I, for example, saw my schoolmate shouting with her fist raised, ‘It serves you right!’ Since that time I do not expect anything of people.’

Silvia Vesela was transported with thousands of other Slovak Jews to Auschwitz 70 years ago.

Today, as well as their suffering, let’s also remember the negotiations which sent them there. And a deal which meant that a European state, Slovakia, ‘paid’ to have its Jews taken away.

WW2 Relevance

|   18 September 2011

Arbeit Macht Frei

Arbeit Macht Frei inscribed on the main gate of Dachau concentration camp

‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (‘work makes you free’) must be one of the most infamous phrases in the world. But, I thought, as I filmed at the site of Dachau concentration camp this week, the origin of this phrase is often misunderstood.

The words are almost exclusively known because the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoess, placed them on a giant iron banner above the entrance to Auschwitz main camp. Here they were to take on the meaning of a black, cynical joke, since ‘work’ most certainly did not make the vast majority of the Auschwitz inmates ‘free’ – in fact, work or the gas chambers killed more than a million of them.

But what a visit to Dachau reminds us, is that this was not necessarily how the Nazis originally saw the meaning of this phrase at all. ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’, which was emblazoned on the gates of Dachau in 1936, four years before Auschwitz main camp was constructed, was the title of a nineteenth century novel by Lorenz Diefenbach about the idea of redemption through work. And this notion of the power of work to reclaim ‘degenerates’ was what the most powerful commandant of Dachau, Theodore Eicke, saw as the purpose of concentration camps before the war.

Close up of Arbeit Macht Frei at Dachau

The concentration camp of Dachau, outside Munich in southern Germany, established shortly after the Nazis came to power in January 1933, was not designed to murder people en masse – nor were most people who were sent there in the Nazis’ early years Jewish. Most were political prisoners, and though a minority of people sent to Dachau before the war did die there – often after appalling mistreatment by the SS guards – the majority did not. They went into the camp and were, as the Nazis saw it, brutally ‘re-educated’ and then released back into society.

Eicke, one of the most gifted sadists who has ever lived, devised a routine designed to break the spirit of the prisoners. Yes, there was physical brutality, but often the worst form of torture was mental. For example, if you were sent to Dachau you were never told when – or if – you might be released. Most prisoners served a sentence of around eighteen months, but some were there for less time and some never regained their freedom. Rudolf Hoess, who trained under Eicke at Dachau, later wrote how this uncertainty played with the minds of the inmates.

As a result, Hoess, I believe, thought that the phrase ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ was almost a ‘help’ – an ‘inspiration’ of you like – to concentration camp prisoners (and remember that Auschwitz was a concentration camp before it became a death camp). Hoess, who had been imprisoned for an act of appalling political violence himself before the Nazis came to power, always remembered how it was the chance to work as a prisoner that had helped get him through his period behind bars. And since concentration camp prisoners were forced to work, then this ‘distraction’ would, Hoess thought, make them ‘free’ inside their minds. There was also, of course, the more obvious meaning to the phrase – if you ‘worked’ as the Nazis wanted in Dachau, behaving as a good German National Socialist Worker, then you did stand a chance, before the war, of being released and ‘free’ from the camp.

Arbeit Macht Frei above the gate of Auschwitz main camp

However, I think Eicke wanted the inmates of Dachau to read something else into the iron sign ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ which he placed on the gates of Dachau. I think it was another attempt to cynically eat into the minds of the inmates. Each day they saw the sign and thought ‘will I be free today?’ and ‘will I ever be free?’

It’s a reminder that the Nazis were not just brutal thugs. Many of them were extremely clever thugs as well.

WW2 Relevance

|   27 August 2011

The Somme and Auschwitz

Graveyard on the Somme

This week I was flying in a helicopter over Germany and France filming material for my next TV series, which will transmit in Autumn 2012. And I was most affected by a place I have been many times before – the battlefield of the Somme. (And before you ask the relevance of the Somme to WW2, I should say that I was there because Hitler was wounded at the battle of the Somme in 1916). (more…)

WW2 Anniversary

|   27 July 2011

70th anniversary of a dark day in history

The gate to the main camp at Auschwitz, through which the sick prisoners marched.

Exactly 70 years ago tomorrow, on 28 July 1941, an event of great tragedy and great significance took place. The very first Auschwitz prisoners were selected to be gassed. But in a piece of history which symbolizes the complex history of the camp, these prisoners were not selected because they were Jews, and they were not murdered in Auschwitz, but transported back to Germany to be killed. (more…) News

|   9 June 2011

Auschwitz – a complicated history

There was more than one Auschwitz camp.

This month’s competition question for subscribers is proving very interesting. Not because lots of people have got the answer correct so far but because of the reverse – no one who has entered the competition has got the correct answer yet.

This is the question:

The camp at Auschwitz/Birkenau was not originally intended to hold large numbers of Jews. Who did the Nazis first think would be sent there once it was completed?

And I’m not giving too much away when I say that the answer is not ‘Polish political prisoners’ which many people seem to think it is. Polish political prisoners were indeed the first people incarcerated at Auschwitz – but at Auschwitz main camp in 1940 not at Auschwitz/Birkenau, which was not in existence in 1940. The main camp was on the banks of the Sola river near the town of Auschwitz (as the Germans called the Polish town of Oswiecim) but the Nazis only decided to build this new camp, about a mile and a half away from the old one, the following year in 1941. (more…)

WW2 Relevance

|   9 February 2011

How nice are Doctors?

How easily can Doctors be corrupted?

We’ve just added onto the site for subscribers the testimony of Ken Yuasa who was a military doctor serving in the Japanese Imperial Army in China during the war. He describes in horrifying detail the medical experiments which Japanese doctors conducted on innocent Chinese civilians. He witnessed, for example, two Chinese men being shot and then operated on – without any anaesthetic – in an attempt to take out the bullets under ‘field conditions’.

But the corruption of doctors didn’t just occur in Japan during WW2. In the Soviet Union and Germany doctors also threw away any compassionate principles they may have possessed and did the bidding of their masters. And they not only ‘followed orders’ – in many cases they relished the new opportunities for ‘research’ that these totalitarian regimes offered. At Auschwitz, for instance, Dr Mengele pursued his own research into genetics by torturing children, and Dr Clauberg performed hideous experiments on women in order to develop new methods of sterilization.

And what’s important to understand is that few of these doctors showed any signs of their capacity to commit these crimes before the opportunity was offered to them. Almost certainly, if the regimes concerned had not given them the chance to do these things then they would have remained ‘normal’ doctors.

As I wrote in ‘Their Darkest Hour’, ‘we like to think that doctors are somehow different from the rest of us; that they are selflessly devoted to our care; that the Hippocratic oath they swore ‘not to harm anyone’ actually means something. But what the history of doctors like Ken Yuasa demonstrates is how easily large numbers of them in Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union were corrupted.’

WW2 Relevance

|   16 September 2010

The Barrier of Death.

Who can imagine their own death?

We’ve just been interviewing a variety of veterans for the site, and I’ve been struck again by the fundamental problem I have faced in the last 20 years of research into this subject.

Not the difficulty of convincing former Nazis to talk, or the time consuming task of checking that interviewees are actually who they say they are. Difficult as those tasks can be, they are all surmountable. But there’s a much bigger conceptual challenge that lurks behind all of this. Which is that we cannot interview the dead.

Yes, I know that’s a truism. But it represents a tremendous barrier to our understanding of the experience of war. I’ve met and interviewed, for example, survivors from the Nazi extermination centres of Auschwitz, Sobibor and Treblinka. But I have never met an individual sent to any of those camps who had the ‘normal’ and ‘average’ experience – because the majority of people the Nazis sent to those camps were murdered. What that means is that we are denied a personal insight into what, in a way, is the fundamental horror the Nazis created – the last moments in the gas chamber. We also, and this worries me more, can sometimes create an impression, by interviewing survivors, that if the viewers were to be in a similar situation then they too would survive – when they almost certainly wouldn’t.


WW2 Relevance

|   19 August 2010

No First World War – No Second World War

The WWI cemetery at Verdun.

Newspapers here in Britain are full of articles about 1940 and the various 70th anniversaries that fall this year. But what almost no one seems to emphasise is how the Second World War – including the key events of 1940 – existed in the shadow of the First World War. The anxieties of the German General Staff, for instance, just before the invasion of France in 1940 were largely the result of fear of a repeat of the trench warfare in Flanders.

Indeed, one of the most important insights I gained from meeting many former Nazis over the last twenty years is that it’s almost impossible to over-exaggerate the importance the First World War played in shaping the Second. Not just in the obvious way – the defeat of Germany and the perceived injustice of the Treaty of Versailles – but in an emotional, visceral way.