Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp was a network of German Nazi concentration camps and extermination camps built and operated by Nazi Germany in annexed Polish areas during World War II.
It consisted of Auschwitz I (the original camp), Auschwitz II–Birkenau (a combination concentration/extermination camp), Auschwitz III–Monowitz (a labor camp to staff an IG Farben factory), and 45 satellite camps.
Auschwitz I was first constructed to hold Polish political prisoners, who began to arrive in May 1940. The first extermination of prisoners took place in September 1941, and Auschwitz II–Birkenau went on to become a major site of the Nazi Final Solution to the Jewish Question.
From early 1942 until late 1944, transport trains delivered Jews to the camp’s gas chambers from all over German-occupied Europe, where they were killed en masse with the pesticide Zyklon B. An estimated 1.3 million people were sent to the camp, of whom at least 1.1 million died. Around 90 percent of those killed were Jewish; approximately 1 in 6 Jews killed in the Holocaust died at the camp.
Others deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp included 150,000 Poles, 23,000 Romani and Sinti, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, 400 Jehovah’s Witnesses, and tens of thousands of others of diverse nationalities, including an unknown number of homosexuals. Many of those not killed in the gas chambers died of starvation, forced labor, infectious diseases, individual executions, and medical experiments.
In the course of the war, the camp was staffed by 7,000 members of the German Schutzstaffel (SS), approximately 12 percent of whom were later convicted of war crimes. Some, including camp commandant Rudolf Höss, were executed. The Allied Powers refused to believe early reports of the atrocities at the camp, and their failure to bomb the camp or its railways remains controversial.
One hundred forty-four prisoners are known to have escaped from Auschwitz successfully, and on 7 October 1944, two Sonderkommando units—prisoners assigned to staff the gas chambers—launched a brief, unsuccessful uprising.
As Soviet troops approached Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in January 1945, most of its population was sent west on a death march. The prisoners remaining at the camp were liberated on 27 January 1945, a day now commemorated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In the following decades, survivors, such as Primo Levi, Viktor Frankl, and Elie Wiesel, wrote memoirs of their experiences in Auschwitz, and the camp became a dominant symbol of the Holocaust.
In 1947, Poland founded the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp State Museum on the site of Auschwitz I and II, and in 1979, it was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Background of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp
The ideology of Nazism brought together elements of anti-Semitism, racial hygiene, and eugenics, and combined them with pan-Germanism and territorial expansionism with the goal of obtaining more Lebensraum (living space) for the Germanic people.
Immediately after the Nazi seizure of power in Germany, acts of violence perpetrated against Jews became ubiquitous. The Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, passed on 7 April 1933 excluded most Jews from the legal profession and the civil service.
Similar legislation soon deprived Jewish members of other professions of the right to practise. Harassment and economic pressure were used by the regime to encourage Jews to leave the country voluntarily. Their businesses were denied access to markets, forbidden to advertise in newspapers, and deprived of government contracts. German Jews were subjected to violent attacks and boycotts.
In September 1935, the Nuremberg Laws were enacted. These laws prohibited marriages between Jews and people of Germanic extraction, extramarital relations between Jews and Germans, and the employment of German women under the age of 45 as domestic servants in Jewish households. The Reich Citizenship Law stated that only those of Germanic or related blood were defined as citizens.
Thus Jews and other minority groups were stripped of their German citizenship. The laws were expanded on 26 November 1935 to include Romani people and Afro-Germans. This supplementary decree defined Gypsies as “enemies of the race-based state“, the same category as Jews.
By the start of World War II in 1939, around 250,000 of Germany’s 437,000 Jews had emigrated to the United States, Palestine, the United Kingdom, and other countries.
Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. German dictator Adolf Hitler ordered that the Polish leadership and intelligentsia be destroyed. Approximately 65,000 civilians, who were viewed as being inferior to the Aryan master race, were killed by the end of 1939. In addition to leaders of Polish society, the Nazis killed Jews, prostitutes, Romani, and the mentally ill.
SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, then head of the Gestapo, ordered on 21 September that Polish Jews should be rounded up and concentrated into cities with good rail links. Initially the intention was to deport the Jews to points further east, or possibly to Madagascar.
Two years later, in an attempt to obtain new territory, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, intending to deport or kill the Jews and Slavs living there.
Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp
After this part of Poland was annexed by Nazi Germany, Oświęcim (Auschwitz) was located administratively in Germany, Province of Upper Silesia, Regierungsbezirk Kattowitz, Landkreis Bielitz.
It was first suggested as a site for a concentration camp for Polish prisoners by SS-Oberführer Arpad Wigand, an aide to Higher SS and Police Leader for Silesia, Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski. Bach-Zelewski had been searching for a site to house prisoners in the Silesia region, as the local prisons were filled to capacity.
Richard Glücks, head of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp Inspectorate, sent former Sachsenhausen concentration camp commandant Walter Eisfeld to inspect the site, which already held sixteen dilapidated one-story buildings that had once served as an Austrian and later Polish Army barracks and a camp for transient workers.
Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, head of the Schutzstaffel (SS), approved the site in April 1940, intending to use the facility to house political prisoners. SS-Obersturmbannführer (lieutenant colonel) Rudolf Höss oversaw the development of the camp and served as the first commandant.
SS-Obersturmführer (senior lieutenant) Josef Kramer was appointed Höss’s deputy. Auschwitz I, the original camp, became the administrative center for the whole complex.
Local residents were evicted, including 1,200 people who lived in shacks around the barracks. Around 300 Jewish residents of Oświęcim were brought in to lay foundations. From 1940 to 1941, 17,000 Polish and Jewish residents of the western districts of Oświęcim were expelled from places adjacent to the camp.
The Germans also ordered expulsions of Poles from the villages of Broszkowice, Babice, Brzezinka, Rajsko, Pławy, Harmęże, Bór, and Budy to the General Government. German citizens were offered the concessions and other benefits if they would relocate to the area.
By October 1943, more than 6,000 Reich Germans had arrived. The Nazis planned to build a model modern residential area for incoming Germans, including schools, playing fields, and other amenities. Some of the plans went forward, including the construction of several hundred apartments, but many were never fully implemented. Basic amenities such as water and sewage disposal were inadequate, and water-borne illnesses were commonplace.
The first prisoners (30 German criminal prisoners from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp) arrived in May 1940, intended to act as functionaries within the prison system. The first mass transport to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, which included Catholic prisoners, suspected members of the resistance, and 20 Jews, arrived from the prison in Tarnów, Poland, on 14 June 1940.
They were interned in the former building of the Polish Tobacco Monopoly, adjacent to the site, until the camp was ready.
The inmate population grew quickly as the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp absorbed Poland’s intelligentsia and dissidents, including the Polish underground resistance. By March 1941, 10,900 were imprisoned there, most of them Poles.
By the end of 1940, the SS had confiscated land in the surrounding area to create a 40-square-kilometre (15 sq mi) “zone of interest” surrounded by a double ring of electrified barbed wire fences and watchtowers.
Like other Nazi concentration camps, the gates to Auschwitz I displayed the motto Arbeit macht frei (“Work brings freedom“).
Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp
The victories of Operation Barbarossa in the summer and fall of 1941 against Hitler’s new enemy, the Soviet Union, led to dramatic changes in Nazi anti-Jewish ideology and the profile of prisoners brought to Auschwitz. Construction on Auschwitz II-Birkenau began in October 1941 to ease congestion at the main camp.
Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, head of the Schutzstaffel (SS), intended the camp to house 50,000 prisoners of war, who would be interned as forced laborers. Plans called for the expansion of the camp first to house 150,000 and eventually as many as 200,000 inmates.
An initial contingent of 10,000 Soviet prisoners of war arrived at Auschwitz I in October 1941, but by March 1942 only 945 were still alive, and these were transferred to Birkenau, where most of them died from disease or starvation by May. By this time Hitler had decided to annihilate the Jewish people, so Birkenau was repurposed as a combination labor camp/extermination camp.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum estimates that 1.3 million people, 1.1 million of them Jewish, were sent to the camp during its existence.
The chief of construction of Auschwitz II-Birkenau was Karl Bischoff. Unlike his predecessor, he was a competent and dynamic bureaucrat who, in spite of the ongoing war, carried out the construction deemed necessary. The Birkenau camp, the four crematoria, a new reception building, and hundreds of other buildings were planned and constructed.
Bischoff’s plans called for each barrack to have an occupancy of 550 prisoners (one-third of the space allotted in other Nazi concentration camps). He later changed this to 744 prisoners per barrack. The SS designed the barracks not so much to house people as to destroy them.
The first gas chamber at Birkenau was the “red house” (called Bunker 1 by SS staff), a brick cottage converted into a gassing facility by tearing out the inside and bricking up the windows. It was operational by March 1942. A second brick cottage, the “white house” or Bunker 2, was converted some weeks later. These structures were in use for mass killings until early 1943.
Himmler visited the camp in person on 17 and 18 July 1942. He was given a demonstration of a mass killing using the gas chamber in Bunker 2 and toured the building site of the new IG Farben plant being constructed at the nearby town of Monowitz.
In early 1943, the Nazis decided to increase greatly the gassing capacity of Birkenau. Crematorium II, which had been designed as a mortuary with morgues in the basement and ground-level incinerators, was converted into a killing factory by installing gas-tight doors, vents for the Zyklon B (a highly lethal cyanide-based pesticide) to be dropped into the chamber, and ventilation equipment to remove the gas thereafter. It went into operation in March.
Crematorium III was built using the same design. Crematoria IV and V, designed from the start as gassing centers, were also constructed that spring. By June 1943, all four crematoria were operational. Most of the victims were killed using these four structures.
Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp
After examining several sites for a new plant to manufacture buna, a type of synthetic rubber essential to the war effort, chemicals manufacturer IG Farben chose a site near the towns of Dwory and Monowie (Monowitz in German), about 7 kilometres (4.3 mi) east of Auschwitz I and 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) east of the town of Oświęcim.
Financial support in the form of tax exemptions was available to corporations prepared to develop industries in the frontier regions under the Eastern Fiscal Assistance Law, passed in December 1940.
In addition to its proximity to the concentration camp, which could be used as a source of cheap labor, the site had good railway connections and access to raw materials. In February 1941, Himmler ordered that the Jewish population of Oświęcim should be expelled to make way for skilled laborers that would be brought in to work at the plant.
All Poles able to work were to remain in the town and were forced to work building the factory. Himmler visited in person in March and decreed an immediate expansion of the parent camp to house 30,000 persons.
Development of the camp at Birkenau began about six months later. Construction of IG Auschwitz began in April, with an initial force of 1,000 workers from Auschwitz I assigned to work on the construction. This number increased to 7,000 in 1943 and 11,000 in 1944.
Over the course of its history, about 35,000 inmates in total worked at the plant; 25,000 died as a result of malnutrition, disease, and the physically impossible workload. In addition to the concentration camp inmates, who comprised a third of the work force, IG Auschwitz employed slave laborers from all over Europe.
At first, the laborers walked the seven kilometers from Auschwitz I to the plant each day, but as this meant they had to rise at 03:00, many arrived exhausted and unable to work.
The camp at Monowitz (also called Monowitz-Buna or Auschwitz III) was constructed and began housing inmates on 30 October 1942, the first concentration camp to be financed and built by private industry.
In January 1943 the ArbeitsausbildungLager (labor education camp) was moved from the parent camp to Monowitz.
These prisoners were also forced to work on the building site. The SS charged IG Farben three Reichsmarks per hour for unskilled workers, four for skilled workers.
Although the camp administrators expected the prisoners to work at 75 percent of the capacity of a free worker, the inmates were only able to perform 20 to 50 percent as well.
Site managers constantly threatened inmates with transportation to Birkenau for death in the gas chambers as a way to try to increase productivity.
Deaths and transfers to the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp reduced the prisoner population of Monowitz by nearly a fifth each month; numbers were made up with new arrivals. Life expectancy of inmates at Monowitz averaged about three months.
Though the factory had been expected to begin production in 1943, shortages of labor and raw materials meant start-up had to be postponed repeatedly.
The plant was almost ready to commence production when it was overrun by Soviet troops in 1945.
*This article was originally published at en.wikipedia.org