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The Death Camps

LAURENCE REES: We have to see these new death camps in a very different way from the original concentration camps like Dachau, don’t we?

CHRISTOPHER BROWNING: Yes, the concentration camps are to keep people, though the death rates will be high from mistreatment and disease. But certainly Chelmno, the first camp built outside Lodz, which begins operating in December of 1941, Belzec which began operating in March of 1942, Sobibor, which begins operating in May of 1942, Treblinka, which begins in July of 1942, are in fact what some call killing centres. These centres, which some people call factories of death, are designed to treat incoming prisoners as raw materials which were processed on an assembly line basis, to turn live human beings into ashes in a very short time period. They arrive, and are put through a circuit of dressing rooms, shaving rooms and the tunnel that leads to the gas chambers. After the gas chambers they’re then taken out the other side to the crematorium pits. So that is an assembly line for killing people as fast as you can and as efficiently as you can. Now the degree to which this gives an industrial efficiency to killing can be seen in Treblinka.

In the East where the firing squads are operating, each person is pulling the trigger one victim at a time and you need lots of killers. Thousands of people are engaged in day-to-day mass executions. At Treblinka between July 22nd of 1942 and the uprising in early August of 1943, barely over one year, at least 950,000 people are killed there. It has a staff of thirty SS men, a hundred and twenty Ukrainian guards and eight hundred Jewish slave labourers. This is an exponential increase in productivity in terms of the manpower needed to murder hundreds of thousands of people. So the death camp is an extraordinary invention, we might say, in terms of the productivity of killing.

LAURENCE REES: And of course it also deals with the problem perceived by Himmler, of psychological damage to the Germans involved in the killing process?

CHRISTOPHER BROWNING:  Yes, in the sense that many Germans are involved and they’re involved at a distance. The people rounding people up and putting them on trains, confiscating their property, doing all the paperwork, they don’t see the result, and so it’s out of sight, out of mind. The number of Germans who actually witnessed and organised the killing process itself was minuscule: thirty SS men at Treblinka. This is a tiny fraction of the total number of people involved in the infrastructure, but that certainly makes the killing in terms of psychological cause and awareness much less. Awareness of the mass killings in Russia was fairly widespread. A concrete awareness of the death camps and gas chambers is much more limited, and if people weren’t explicitly listening to the particular broadcasts on the BBC or from Switzerland at a particular point in time they’re not likely to get that. Now, that doesn’t mean they don’t know that the people being sent East are never going to come back, but they don’t have to imagine or know why they aren’t going to come back.

LAURENCE REES: There’s a sense in which the German population as a whole can simply think the Jews have gone, and it’s just best not to think what has happened to them?

CHRISTOPHER BROWNING:  Right, it allows you not to go there.