A brief history of Auschwitz

Auschwitz was the most deadly site of the Holocaust and witnessed the largest single mass murder in the history the world. Ahead of the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation, expert Laurence Rees explores its history and considers its significance today…

Child survivors at Auschwitz

Where was Auschwitz and why was it created?

Auschwitz was in southern Poland, just over 30 miles west of Krakow. It was in an area of Poland that the Germans decided to incorporate into the Reich. As part of this process of ‘Germanization’ they wanted ethnic Germans to populate the area, but because this was a heavily industrialised part of Poland – the major manufacturing centre of Katowice is less than 20 miles to the north west – the Germans needed substantial numbers of Poles to remain, in order work in the factories and coal mines.

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The original concentration camp at Auschwitz was designed to strike terror into the hearts of these indigenous Poles. If they caused any trouble for the Germans – or even looked as if they might possibly cause trouble – then they risked being shipped to Auschwitz.

The first prisoners arrived in June 1940, and until well into 1942 the vast majority of inmates at the camp were Polish political prisoners. Though this was not yet a place of mass extermination, huge numbers of these Poles perished in the camp from various kinds of ill treatment – including starvation, beatings and execution. So much so that more than half the 23,000 Poles first sent to Auschwitz were dead within 20 months.

Why was it called Auschwitz?

It was called Auschwitz because that was the German name for the Polish town of Oświęcim, where the camp was built. The original camp – the ‘main’ camp – was established in a group of buildings that had been Polish army barracks, around a horse-breaking yard, not far from the centre of Oświęcim along the bank of the Sola river.

Who was in charge at Auschwitz?

Rudolf Hoess (Höss) was the commandant for most of the time that Auschwitz existed. He was 39 years old when he was first appointed to the job in spring 1940. A committed Nazi, he had been trained at the concentration camp in Dachau, north of Munich. Though utterly heartless when it came to the suffering of the inmates – and responsible for overseeing the murder of more than a million people – his personality was far from the slavering, red-faced caricature of the SS guard. Instead, his demeanor, according to an American lawyer who interrogated him after the war, was that of a “normal person, like a grocery clerk”.

Rudolph Hoess
A photograph of Rudolph Hoess during his trial in Warsaw in 1947. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Who was sent to Auschwitz? When did people start being murdered in gas chambers?

Initially, as discussed above, the inmates were mostly Polish political prisoners, but that began to change when Auschwitz started to take Soviet Prisoners after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Many of these prisoners in the summer of 1941 were commissars – Soviet Political Officers – and they had been sent to the camp to be worked to death. Any commissar captured in combat by the Germans was to be murdered, and those who were not detected as commissars on the front line were subsequently sent to concentration camps like Auschwitz to be killed.

Then, in the autumn of 1941, construction began on a vast new camp, a mile and a half away from Auschwitz main camp, at a place the Poles called Brzezinka and the Germans, Birkenau. Auschwitz Birkenau was destined to play a key role in the extermination of the Jews. But that was not why the camp was built. Instead it was supposed to hold large numbers of Soviet Prisoners of War (PoW)– not the commissars, who were still to be killed, but ordinary soldiers. Some 10,000 Soviet PoWs arrived that autumn to build the camp, but conditions were so horrific that by the spring of 1941, 9,000 were dead.

Meantime, in Auschwitz main camp the SS were looking for a more efficient method of killing unwanted prisoners than working them to death. Hoess’s deputy experimented with a powerful insecticide called Zyklon B, used for killing lice, and discovered that releasing crystals of Zyklon B in a sealed, confined area would also kill human beings. During the second half of 1941, in a series of experiments conducted on sick prisoners and Soviet PoWs, the SS tested the power of this new method of murder. Initially, gassing experiments were conducted in the basement of one of the prison blocks, but the SS soon discovered that a sealed room in the crematorium of the main camp was a more effective place to kill people. By the early part of 1942, Jews from the local area no longer thought fit to work had also been gassed in this new killing chamber.

Zyklon B
A container of Zyklon B. (Photo by National Archives/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)

Meantime, 1942 also brought a change in function for the new camp at Auschwitz Birkenau. The Soviet PoWs were needed elsewhere for work, and so the Nazis decided that Birkenau could be a place to send Jews from all over Europe. With the development of the Nazis’ so called ‘Final Solution’ – the extermination of the Jews – Birkenau found its infamous and murderous purpose.

From 1942 until the liberation of Auschwitz in January 1945, Jews from a variety of countries, starting with Slovakia, suffered and died in Birkenau. Initially the Jews were murdered in make-shift gas chambers in converted peasant cottages at Birkenau – this was considered a more secluded killing location than the crematoria in the main camp. But in 1943 the first of four brick-built gas chamber/crematoria complexes opened at Auschwitz Birkenau. These killing factories streamlined the murder process still further.

Max Faust and Heinrich Himmler
Engineer Max Faust shows SS commander Heinrich Himmler plans for part of the Auschwitz complex in 1942. (Photo by Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images)

Did Auschwitz have the same function as other death camps?

Auschwitz had an unusual role in the Nazi system: it was both a death camp and a concentration camp. There is often confusion about the contrasting roles of each today. A concentration camp, like Dachau, had existed since 1933 and its function was not a secret. It was a place that those the Nazis considered their enemies were sent for a brutal process of ‘re-education’, in the course of which a number were killed. But though the treatment of prisoners in these concentration camps was appalling, the majority of the inmates in the pre-war camps survived the horrendous experience.

Death camps, on the other hand, only came into existence during the Second World War and their location and function was a state secret. Jews were sent there to be murdered immediately on arrival – only a tiny number were selected to work within the camp and assist the SS with tasks like the sorting of the belongings of murdered Jews. Over time the Nazis intended these Jews to perish as well.

Children at Auschwitz
Child survivors at Auschwitz show their tattooed arms, 1945. (Photo by Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images)

Auschwitz was more complicated. The selection process, for instance, was conducted on a larger scale. Jews in each transport were selected either for a temporary chance to live – and likely be worked to death in one of the many industrial concerns nearby – or to be murdered immediately in the gas chambers of Birkenau.

Children were almost invariably sent to their deaths during the selection process. Only in the most exceptional circumstances – such as selection for medical experiments – did any of them survive more than a few hours. Dr Josef Mengele, for instance, conducted a notorious series of experiments at Auschwitz on twin children. Infamously, most of the children died during the process.

Josef Mengele
German Nazi doctor Josef Mengele standing at a train window in his SS uniform, c1945. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The reason we can see the vast area of Auschwitz Birkenau today, with its row upon row of wooden barracks, is because the Nazis planned on keeping selected Jews alive, albeit temporarily, in order to be used as workers. By 1944, part of Birkenau’s function was to act as a vast sorting area for human beings, with the Nazis keeping selected Jews at Birkenau alive for several weeks before subjecting them to further selections – either to be sent elsewhere for work or to be killed. Jews were often sent from Birkenau to camps close to industrial concerns in the surrounding area and then returned to Birkenau to be murdered once they could no longer work.

In death camps like Treblinka, on the other hand, there was no need for this kind of space or this number of barracks. The vast majority of Jews arriving there would be dead in a matter of hours.

What is the significance of Auschwitz today?

Auschwitz is the site of the largest single mass murder in the history the world. Some 1.1 million people died there, the vast majority of them Jews, though others were murdered as well. Not just Polish political prisoners but other groups like Sinti and Roma. That fact on its own is enough to ensure its lasting significance. But there’s more. It’s that the method of killing – in brick buildings resembling factories, where human beings would enter in one door and then emerge just hours later as ashes through another – encapsulates a particular kind of modern-day horror. This was mechanized extermination, the likes of which the world had never seen, organised by people from a cultured nation at the heart of Europe who knew exactly what they were doing.

The entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp. (Photo by Bettmann via Getty Images)
The entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp. (Photo by Bettmann via Getty Images)

I vividly recall one prisoner saying to me, that at Auschwitz Birkenau he once heard “the camp’s orchestra playing masterpieces by German, Austrian and Italian composers. SS men were sitting by the crematorium where children, mothers, women and men were burning, but they were just sitting there. Now I think that they were pleased to have properly completed their work and were due for a cultural entertainment. They had no dilemmas. The wind from Birkenau blew the smoke from the death camp in but they were just sitting and listening to Mozart and others. This is what a human being is capable of…”

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Laurence Rees is a historian, author and documentary film-maker, whose series have included The Nazis: A Warning from History; Auschwitz: The Nazis and ‘The Final Solution’; and Horror in the East. He is also the author of The Holocaust: A New History (Viking, 2017), which was a Sunday Times top 10 bestseller, and Their Darkest Hour (Ebury, 2007). In 2009 he launched the website WW2History.com, a multimedia resource on the Second World War.