On 27 January 1945 – 75 years ago this year – advance units of the Red Army, fighting their way into Germany in the final stages of the war, reached the vast camp complex of Auschwitz, located on the eastern fringes of the Greater German Reich. It was a cold, sunny winter’s afternoon. Hearing the noise of a grenade being detonated, some of the prisoners came out to greet the soldiers, holding aloft pieces of wood with fabric attached, or waving their scarves in welcome. The troops lowered their weapons as the inmates went forward to greet them. One of the prisoners described the “mad rush” to shake the Soviet soldiers by the hand. Some of the troops shouted, “You are free!” In the huts and the camp hospital, prisoners who were too ill to move found it hard to believe they had been liberated until more Red Army units arrived. Many inmates were too sick, weary and starved to feel much elation.
The Germans had hurriedly abandoned Auschwitz as the Red Army approached. Ten days earlier, the SS had begun to march long columns of prisoners away to other camps further west. Some 60,000 had joined what would become known as the ‘death march’, on which at least a quarter perished as guards shot stragglers or would-be escapees. When they arrived at the new camps designated to accommodate them, they found conditions drastically overcrowded and under-supplied, unhygienic and filthy. There, thousands more succumbed to malnutrition and disease. Meanwhile, more than 7,000 – mostly those judged unfit for work – remained at Auschwitz, unsupervised by German forces. In the intervening period before the liberation, they tried to organise themselves, and broke into the SS facilities for food and supplies.
All over Germany in the winter of 1944–45, similar scenes were repeating themselves. Auschwitz was only one, if the best known, of the camps set up by Hitler’s Third Reich in the years following the Nazi seizure of power. Altogether, 1.1 million people had been killed in the camp, the vast majority of them Jews transported from all over Europe. More than 430,000 had been Hungarian Jews, arrested after the German occupation of their nation in the early summer of 1944. Almost all were taken straight to the gas chambers, where they were murdered by exposure to the hydrogen cyanide compound known as Zyklon B.
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Aware of the fact that the outside world would rightly regard what they had done as a crime so terrible as to be almost beyond belief, the German authorities had tried to destroy all traces of the machinery of extermination that had killed more than 5 million Jews. (The number rose even after the liberation, as thousands of prisoners succumbed to the diseases they had contracted, reaching in the end around 6 million.) Some camps, notably Treblinka, Sobibór and Bełżec, had existed purely for the purpose of killing and nothing else; they had been dismantled in 1943 when their murderous purpose was fulfilled. Another, at Majdanek, had combined the function of a killing centre with that of a concentration camp, like Auschwitz. It was at Majdanek that the Soviets first discovered the true dimensions of the Nazi murder machine, and it was on the crimes committed by the Nazis at Majdanek rather than at Auschwitz that they concentrated when they broadcast to the world what they had found.
How many people died during the Holocaust?
The extermination camps killed more than five million Jews, with the number rising after their liberation, as thousands of prisoners succumbed to the diseases they had contracted – reaching in the end around six million
The birth of the camps
Hitler’s regime had originally set up a network of concentration camps as part of its establishment in 1933. Up to 200,000 opponents of the Nazis, chiefly German Social Democratic and Communist party members, had been imprisoned, beaten, brutalised and intimidated, and released after a few weeks or months on the condition they would refrain from political activity. The camp system went through a temporary decline, however, and by the mid-1930s, the repressive machinery of Nazi rule had been passed over to the regular police, the judiciary, and state prisons and penitentiaries. These held 23,000 registered political offenders, while the concentration camps contained fewer than 4,000.
But in the second half of the decade, the camp population had begun to rise again, as Heinrich Himmler’s SS began to target so-called ‘asocials’ – alcoholics and vagrants – along with petty criminals, the ‘work-shy’ and gay people. After the war had begun, the camps expanded ever more rapidly as they became centres of forced labour. By August 1943, they held more than 230,000 people; a year later, more than half a million; and in January 1945, some 715,000. By this time, the proportion of Jews among the prisoners had risen from 10 per cent to about a third – those deemed by the SS to be capable of work. The rest had been murdered.
The wartime expansion of the camp system took place mostly by the establishment of sub-camps or satellite camps, administered centrally by major concentration camps such as Auschwitz or Dachau but located outside, sometimes quite a long distance away. These could be very large, with thousands of inmates – like, for example, Ebensee, a sub-camp of Mauthausen, in Austria – or quite small, consisting of a few score forced labourers located at factories and production centres and living under guard in makeshift, temporary barracks. But whatever the size of the facility, the prisoners were abused, starved and treated by the SS guards as less than human. Of the 60,000 men forced to work on the construction of the V-2 rocket and V-1 flying bomb in the complex of tunnels known as Camp Dora, 20,000 died; of the 715,000 people in all camps in January 1945, half were dead by the summer. The Nazis had a special term for this: ‘annihilation through labour’, a system of murderous illogicality in which the usefulness of the labourers to the economy was undermined by the intention that overwork and malnutrition would lead eventually to their death.
The liberation of the camps in 1944–45 thus took place at hundreds of sites across the Third Reich. One of the most dramatic scenes to occur was at Ohrdruf in central Germany, a sub-camp of Buchenwald, where 10,000 slave labourers had been engaged in digging out underground bunkers. Discovered by advancing US troops on 4 April 1945, the camp contained thousands of dead bodies, buried in shallow graves or piled up in sheds (the SS had evacuated the majority of inmates a few days before). It so shocked the GIs that they invited Generals Bradley, Eisenhower and Patton to see for themselves: Patton, hardened though he was to the sight of death, was physically sick.
In some of the camps, able-bodied prisoners wrought their revenge on the few SS guards remaining after the bulk had left in the ‘death march’ evacuations. More common were revenge attacks on ‘kapos’: prisoners, often common criminals, who had been used by the camp management to discipline and control the inmates. Notoriously brutal and corrupt, they bore the brunt of the survivors’ anger; hundreds were beaten or kicked to death. At Ebensee, around 50 kapos were killed by enraged inmates. In some cases, Allied soldiers stood by watching; in a few they shot SS guards themselves. But by and large, more humane counsels prevailed. One prisoner at Buchenwald told his fellow inmates that they should not behave as the Germans had, otherwise they’d show themselves to be no better.
In 1945, all across Germany, the occupying military authorities were faced with the immense task of clearing up the camps and trying to rescue as many of the liberated inmates as they could. The Allies, including the Soviets, were not well prepared to deal with the terrible conditions they discovered. Medical teams were moved in, and food and drink supplies brought to the survivors – many of whom, however, were in too poor a state to benefit, or died because the rations with which they were supplied were too rich for them to digest. Gradually, the emergency medical teams were augmented by doctors and nurses from the International Red Cross and other relief agencies.
And then there was the massive psychological damage and trauma suffered by the surviving inmates – mental wounds that it proved all too difficult to heal. Fear and anxiety prevailed. For people, not least the children, who had spent months or even years living a life that was regimented and controlled far beyond anything experienced on the outside world, finding their feet and living an independent life posed serious challenges.
Many former inmates, especially from western European countries, were able to return relatively quickly to their homes and families, but for many Poles and other eastern Europeans, and for Jews especially, there was nothing to go back to: everything had been lost, families murdered, homes and properties destroyed. They were classified as ‘displaced persons’ (DPs) and had to remain in camps until the Allied authorities worked out what to do with them. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) was faced with the immense task of dealing with more than 7 million of these individuals, mostly forced labourers of one kind or another. German army barracks, now empty with the disbandment of the German armed forces, were commandeered, along with some hospitals, hotels and even former concentration camps. Conditions in many DP camps were poor, with strict controls imposed by the camp administration, bad rations and unhygienic conditions that took some time to improve.
More than 6 million DPs were repatriated by the end of 1945, but up to a million either could not or would not go home, for reasons including the takeover by Stalin of their homelands (the Baltic states, for example), or lingering anti-Semitism (most notably in Poland). A huge effort got under way to find host countries, but for many Jews the destination of choice was British-run Palestine – though immigration restrictions imposed by the British meant many of them had to find ways of getting there illegally.
Reprisals and memorials
Some of the camps were used again in the years immediately following the war. Dachau, for example, was initially utilised to contain SS personnel awaiting trial, and then to house German refugees and expellees from eastern Europe (of whom there were nearly 11 million). The camp facilities at Neuengamme, just outside Hamburg, Germany’s second city, were remodelled to be used as a state prison. Especially controversial was Buchenwald, which fell into the Soviet occupation zone. In August 1945, it became a special camp of the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, housing more than 28,000 former Nazis, along with a substantial number of anti-communists. Conditions were so poor that more than 7,000 died. Under the Nazis, Buchenwald had housed a large number of German communists who had played a controversial role in managing the inmate population in tacit agreement with the SS. As a result, the camp’s memorialisation became a site of conflict and dispute between former communists imprisoned under the Nazis, and former Nazis imprisoned under the communists.
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In most of the former camps, prisoner organisations began the process of creating appropriate memorials to the victims – a responsibility also taken on by the Christian churches. Some found this problematic, given the number of non-Christian victims – not only Jews, but others as well. In 1947, the Polish authorities set up a museum in Auschwitz, and educational and memorial displays were gradually opened at Dachau and the other main camps. It often took a long time – the museum in Dachau was only established by the Bavarian state in 1965, after intensive lobbying by ex-inmates. Camp sites in the communist state of East Germany were generally neglected, and everywhere until the 1960s the prominence of Jews among the victims was underplayed. The Catholic church’s role in memorialising Auschwitz proved particularly controversial.
In the immediate postwar years, many Germans denied knowledge of the camps and the conditions that had prevailed in them, despite the fact that in a number of cases, outraged Allied troops had dragooned ordinary German citizens into clearing up the camps immediately after their discovery and burying the vast numbers of bodies they found there. A thousand people were rounded up by US troops in Weimar and marched off to Buchenwald, where they were shown the dead bodies, the emaciated survivors and the crematorium and reminded of their responsibility in no uncertain terms. Meanwhile, a large-scale effort got under way to arrest SS officers, kapos and others involved in running the camps and bring them to justice. A thousand individuals were put on trial at Dachau alone. There were numerous mass trials in other countries, notably Poland, where Auschwitz was located following the war’s end.
Former commandants denied responsibility, claiming that they had just been ordinary soldiers, or that prisoners had never complained. Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, was a rare exception: his confessions, notable for their almost complete moral blindness, were genuine, though not always accurate. He was condemned to death and hanged in the camp he had run. Others suffered a similar fate. But there was no disguising the fact that most of the perpetrators escaped justice, either by killing themselves, going underground, or – like Franz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka – secretly emigrating to South America (Stangl was ultimately arrested). Although the trials received huge publicity, the mass of ordinary Germans quickly retreated into a state of amnesia, from which they only began to emerge towards the end of the 1960s.
The liberation of Auschwitz was just the beginning of a long, painful and only partially completed process of coming to terms with the human destructiveness of the camps and the regime that established and managed them. The legacy of their brutality, sadism and murder on an unprecedented scale took a long time to confront. Auschwitz has come to stand for the whole camp system because, uniquely, it combined on one huge site all the main functions of the camp system: a labour camp (Auschwitz-I), an extermination camp (Auschwitz-II, at Birkenau) and a factory (the IG Farben chemical works at Auschwitz-III, Monowitz). This allowed many inmates of the Nazis’ forced labour programme to observe at close quarters what was happening at the extermination camp, in contrast to the other centres of mass murder, such as Treblinka, where almost no one survived.
But this has also tended to obscure the other sites of Nazi genocide – not just the other camps and sub-camps, but also the ghettos where so many Jewish victims perished, and the shooting pits behind the eastern front where the killings began in 1941. Beyond this, too, Nazi anti-Semitism found its expression along a sliding scale of violence, beginning with physical attacks on Jews even before 1933, and going on through discrimination, expropriation, expulsion, dispossession and eventually death. As we remember the gas chambers of Auschwitz, we should not let these other facets of racist persecution, violence and murder escape our attention.
Richard J Evans is a historian and author. His books include The Third Reich in History and Memory (Abacus, 2016)
This article was first published in the February 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine