WW2History.com News

|   9 June 2011

Auschwitz – a complicated history

There was more than one Auschwitz camp.

This month’s competition question for WW2History.com 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.

This vast new camp, capable of holding 100,000 people, was built on a patch of swampy ground near a village that the Poles called Brezinka and the Germans called Birkenau – hence the camp becoming infamous as Auschwitz/Birkenau. It was to be in this camp that the vast majority of the Jews who were gassed at Auschwitz would die. It is this place where the horribly iconic gatehouse was built, through which a railway spur entered right into the heart of the camp and deposited people just yards from several crematoria and gas chamber complexes. It is this place that has come to epitomize the potentially unspeakable nature of the human psyche.

But this was not the first Auschwitz. And nor was it built for Polish political prisoners. And nor, interestingly enough, was it originally built for Jews either. The Nazis planned, in the autumn of 1941, that Auschwitz/Birkenau would hold another category of prisoner altogether – hence the question asked in this month’s competition. It was only later that the original purpose of Birkenau was altered and Jews began to be sent there to die en masse from 1942 onwards.

So who did the Nazis originally intend to send to Auschwitz/Birkenau?

If you think you know, and are a WW2History.com subscriber, then do enter the competition now. The answer, by the way, is very revealing of the nature of the mentality of Nazi planners at the time. (And here’s a clue – the year they decided to build Birkenau, 1941, is hugely significant; what else was happening in 1941 that might have influenced their decision to build such a huge camp?)

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