Holocaust Concentration and Death Camps
Horrors and Heroes of the Holocaust
I admit that I'm no scholar about the Holocaust. None of my relatives died in a concentration camp at the hands of the cruel Nazi party. My family was neither Jewish nor German, and I wasn't alive during World War II to have any personal recollection of events.
In fact, most of my awareness of the horrible events that took place in Nazi death camps is comfortably limited to photos, university history class, the Diary of Anne Frank, and a scattering of other stories along the way.
What I do know well is human nature. I've studied it, analyzed it, read about it, questioned it, and absorbed it for a few decades now. In this article, I'll be discussing how everyday people like you and I allowed the Holocaust not only to happen, but to do so with little resistance. I'll describe what made some people passionately embrace Hitler's attempt to eradicate an entire culture of people, and most notably, the heroes who fought against his horrors and how.
I found myself confused when trying to understand more. So many things were happening at once in Nazi Germany, and unraveling the complex events is no simple task! For this reason, I'm writing this as a story that is simplified. I'm leaving out many names, dates, and events in order to tell a story that should brand important lessons upon our awareness.
It's been said that if we do not learn from the past, we are doomed to repeat it. I believe this is true, whether we're talking about a person's love life or global social and political issues. In recent years, the Holocaust and Nazi concentration camps have been resurrected as comparison to political events in the U.S. Are they accurate? Could history repeat itself? You'll have to decide for yourself.
What Do You Know?
How familiar are you with events that led up to the Holocaust?
How Did Hitler Rise to Power?
The story of the Holocaust and Adolph Hitler's role in bringing about the greatest tragedy of the 20th century started long before the world saw Hitler's rise to power. To understand it, it's important to recognize important facts about the way World War I ended.
Although wartime has traditionally boosted a country's economy by ensuring manufacturing will provide the supplies needed for the war, losing can have quite the opposite effect. Germany's experience highlights this exquisitely well. At the conclusion of World War I, Germany was forced to pay reparations to France and Great Britain - an equivalent of about $64 billion in today's U.S. dollars - based on the premise that the terrible war was entirely Germany's fault. (This amount was later reduced.)
Worse, the Treaty of Versailles rubbed salt in the wound of Germany's humiliating defeat despite controversy about its unfairness:
- Germany surrendered about 13% of its territory, including about seven million taxpayers and the companies that employed them.
- Germany surrendered all of its foreign possessions.
- The size of the German army was severely restricted.
- German shipping was limited.
These events demoralized German citizens and disrupted the government's ability to maintain its budget. Although Germany tried to keep people working by spending on projects designed to keep people working and tax revenues coming in, about 40% of all government spending went toward interest due on reparation loans. Unemployment continued to rise. Tax revenues fell off. Germany's trade was severely restricted, and the country experienced hyper-inflation.
Let's make this a little more real for a moment:
Imagine how your life would be different if you took a 15% pay cut at work just as you suddenly got forced to turn over almost half of your remaining pay to pay interest on a loan without actually reducing the loan. Would you be angry? Of course you would be! But now, just to keep things even more interesting, imagine that the price of... everything... doubled a few months later.
How would you feel when someone offers you a....
Hitler represented a second chance. He pledged hope for people who had been branded terrorists by the rest of the world. People who had been driven into poverty, who had lost family members to a war and then took the blame for it, and who were desperate for relief.
Perhaps you can imagine it. Adolph Hitler wasn't even a German when he fought in the German army after getting special permission to enlist. His own return from the war was plagued with challenges as he struggled without friends or family support, and no job.
To the unhappy populace, he must have seemed a hero when he rose within the German Worker's Party to become an education officer - a public political speaker. After all, he was a soldier, returning from a war that had landed him in the same intolerable conditions they faced on a daily basis.
How would you react to this speech, offered with English subtitles, if you'd been through fifteen years of financial hardship?
Hitler's Public Events Gained Followers
Adolph Hitler was a mastermind at staging public events. Prior to his imprisonment, his first followers consisted largely of violent, unhappy former soldiers. As he gained popularity, many elite Germans saw him as an almost comic figure, a bit charming for his eccentricity.
His power grew as he capitalized on certain techniques:
- He increased anticipation by keeping the audience waiting.
- He used fanfare to increase momentum when his appearance was imminent, blaring music and using uniformed men with huge banners, shouting, "Heil!" at his appearance in the small theaters where he spoke.
- He started his speeches with low volume, as if he was hesitant and seeking reassurance from the audience, then gradually escalating to a near hysterical state as he continued.
- He capitalized on the audience's emotions by making vague promises that spoke to their needs without offering details of his solutions.
Nazis celebrated his election by wreaking havoc on Jewish shopkeepers - smashing windows and creating destruction in their ebullient turn of fortune.
Although Hitler had a knack for public speaking and provoking emotional responses from his audiences, his political career nearly came to an end soon after it began. By becoming a martyr for his cause, however, he gained widespread German support.
After building a base of support, consisting of disenchanted soldiers and anti-Marxists, Hitler led a march into Munich that resulted in three police officers' deaths and seventeen slain Nazis. Hitler himself was nearly killed, but his bodyguard was riddled with bullets instead as he protected his charge.
Hitler was brought on trial for treason. Instead of defending himself, he used the courtroom as a political platform. He admitted that he wanted to overthrow the German government, and newspapers dutifully reprinted what he said. "Pronounce us guilty a thousand times over." Although he spent time in jail, it wasn't long - nine months of a five-year sentence that could have been a life sentence had the judges not sympathized with him.
While imprisoned, he dictated Mein Kampf, My Struggle, which forecast his hatred of the Jewish people. Released in 1925, it sold poorly. Hitler flew under the radar, so to speak, while he remained on parole, and worked within the political system until he was elected chancellor in 1930, and two years later, Führer of Germany, gaining more than 13 million votes in a runoff election that displaced the aging incumbent. (The words "der Fuhrer" translate as "head" or "leader".)
How Would You React?
If a newer political party suddenly gained a high popularity and celebrated victory by smashing windows, would you:
Stones from the River
Stones from the River is a fiction book that manages to convey the profound confusion and chaos of the Nazi party's early days - something that is rarely touched upon in the huge amount of information on the Holocaust and Nazi Germany.
Although Trudi Montag is a German girl who, as a dwarf, is an outsider in both the Jewish community and her own because of her condition. She lives and works alongside her father, the librarian in the small town of Burgdorf.
Through Trudi's eyes, readers glimpse the power-hungry youths who signed on to be Hitler Youth - the impressionable teens and young adults who craved the kind of authority and prestige offered by the Nazi party. They come to feel the angst and fear German citizens experienced as Nazism gained increasing control and struck down their friends and family members. Readers challenge themselves to discover whether they would be like the characters who directly confront soldiers, who comply with the new political regime, or who secretly oppose it.
The Concentration Camps
As Chancellor, Hitler was able to use the media to develop misinformation communist plots to persuade President Hindenberg to issue an emergency order that read:
"Restrictions on personal liberty, on the right of free expression of opinion, including freedom of the press; on the rights of assembly and association; and violations of the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications and warrants for house searches, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed."
This decree paved the way for events to come.
Hitler's death camps first appeared in 1933, shortly after Hitler gained absolute power.The Nazis capitalized on psychological warfare and violence nearly immediately:
- German police forces were replaced with an auxiliary force of 50,000 Nazi supporters who were instructed to be brutal to any opposition of Hitler or Nazism.
- Known communist party members and social democrats were killed, or arrested and tortured.
- Public political meetings and Nazi opposition were struck down and made illegal.
- Special courts tried political offenders without benefit of jury or representation.
- Rallies, parades, and the news media constantly barked Nazi propaganda.
Hastily established barracks and holding pens cropped up to hold thousands of people arrested for their unfriendliness to the Nazi regime.
Selection of Concentration Camp Locations
Mauthausen consisted of 49 camps altogether.
Forced Labor at the Concentration Camps
Concentration camps were established in old and abandoned factories and military barracks. They held political dissidents at first, and although Hitler enjoyed financial support from companies like Volkswagen, BMW, and other well-known corporations, Germany's economic woes were far from over. The new dictator seized the opportunity to put political dissidents to work.
It's unclear exactly when the brutal Nazis turned their attention to outright genocide. Certainly the seeds had long been nurtured in Hitler's mind, since he'd already made his views clear in Mein Kampf. Before long, Jews and others who didn't fit into his idea of the ideal, "Aryan" human joined the political prisoners and were labelled with colored tags:
- Political inmates (red)
- Criminals (green)
- Jews (yellow)
- Homosexuals (pink)
- Jehovah Witnesses (purple)
- Others (black)
They were underfed and forced to do a variety of work ranging from construction to coal mining to manufacturing. Many prisoners died before arriving at the camps. They were often transported in trains under inhumane conditions. Dehydration, starvation, and denial of necessary medical care for existing health problems claimed the lives of prisoners like these who suffered for days or weeks in sweltering boxcars.
Skilled Laborers Were Forced to Work Too
This Jewish doctor tells his firsthand, harrowing account of the work he was assigned to perform at Auschwitz - autopsies and experiments on his fellow Jews - as part of Hitler's dream to create an Aryan world.
Types of Concentration Camps
Concentration camps were not unique to Nazi Germany. The United States, Spain, and Great Britain had both employed concentration camps since at least sixty years earlier, and used again by the U.S during the first world war.
Nazi internment camps were set up for a variety of reasons:
- Transit camps - collecting and sorting Jews
- Labor camps - to oversee slave labor
- Rehabilitation - to Nazism, of course
- Camps for women
- Camps for children
- Other hostage and POW camps
Nobody knows exactly how many concentration camps were established. Estimates range from 3,000-15,000. Some were temporary, while others remained active throughout Hitler's reign of terror. Some were used for dual purposes.
Location of Death Camps
Extermination Camps and Death Camps
Death camps were established when Hitler's quest to purify the Aryan race targeted people for extermination. Although the earliest Nazi concentration camps employed torture and murder on a regular basis, from 1933 through 1938, Hitler passed a variety of laws to prevent Jews from practicing business, forcing them to undergo mandatory sterilization, and to prohibit them from marrying Germans. Mobs attacked Jews, sometimes spontaneously, as if the German public blamed them for their own fear and terror or were devoutly committed to Nazism, though Nazis themselves encouraged these pograms in some instances. As late as 1938, mass deportation was considered an option for eradicating Jews from Germany. Clearly, anti-Semitism had established a firm hold within Germany's borders before the war officially began.
In 1939, at the brink of World War II, Hitler declared that if the Jewry of Germany or elsewhere introduced war again, then a "Final Solution" would begin - mass extermination of the Jewish peoples.
By June, 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, virtually guaranteeing that the populace would blame the Jews.
Auschwitz and other locations were developed as death camps for the purpose of mass genocide. Jews were led directly from train cars and told they would get deloused, and might receive a towel, soap, and instructions to remember where they put their belongings as they entered rooms where the door would be locked and noxious gases released into the room by vents. Estimates claim it took just twenty minutes to kill everyone in the room, but removing the bodies afterward could take four hours.
Nazis distinguished between concentration camps and death camps, noting a separate purpose for the two types of camps, but in practice, sites like Dauchau could be used for both.
Most of us have heard of Auschwitz or Dauchau. Fewer of us realize that a camp's name could refer to a main headquarters and dozens of smaller camps. Auschwitz, for example, contained three large facilities and forty-five satellite camps.
World Governments Ignored Hitler's Nazi Germany
The United States entered the war in 1941, ending an attempt to remain neutral.
By 1942, news of Nazi concentration camps had been smuggled out of the country, reaching London. In February, 1942, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt heard and squelched the news and claimed he did this to prevent people from thinking of Hitler's war as just a Jewish problem.
American, British, and Polish governments, as well as popular media outlets, continued to hear about the unthinkable conditions facing Jews and other opposition. Jan Karski, a Polish Catholic who escaped from a P.O.W. train, reported conditions regularly throughout 1942, but his claims were discarded. His audiences did not simply think of such conditions as unthinkable - they were unimaginable! Surely the product of exaggeration!
Karsk was a lucky one. After the war, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen and lived out his days in peace. He died of natural conditions in 2000. Although his claims were disregarded when he revealed the Nazi "secret state," another Holocaust hero was neither ridiculed nor lucky.
Even before the gas chambers existed, Captain Witold Pilecki of the Polish Home Army was also a member of the Polish underground - people who did what they could to help refugees escape. Pilecki volunteered to be sent to Auschwitz in 1940!
While there, he worked to create a network that gathered information and planned a rebellion. Although the rebellion plans were abandoned due to being likely to fail, the detailed reports managed to escape with Pilecki a couple years after he'd gone in. He provided detailed information to the British government in 1943, but was executed as a Polish spy when he returned to his homeland.
Everyday Heroes of the Holocaust
Nobody knows for certain how many people died in concentration camps. As many as 26 million people may have fallen victim to the Nazis - roughly equal to the entire populations of America's top ten most populous cities!
Can you imagine what America would be like if every single person in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Houston, Philadelphia, San Antonio, Dallas, and San Jose stopped existing within the next ten years? Neither can I, but that was the German experience between 1933 and 1944.
They say history is written by the victorious. Fortunately, a handful of everyday people helped ensure that survivors would exist to tell the story.
Social worker Irena Sendler persuaded other young women and priests to help her smuggle Jewish children to safety - a crime worse than speaking out against Hitler. Indeed, she was captured, tortured, and sentenced to execution. Good fortune smiled on her heroic deeds, and she was able to escape while being led to her death because a friend bribed a guard. She lived until 2008.
Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz joined the Nazi party. He performed his duties in occupied Denmark, but managed to persuade Sweden's Prime Minister to allow 6.000 Danish Jews to escape the Nazi Regime.
Diplomats and other officials often helped forge paperwork to help Jews immigrate to new countries. Catholic officials could evade arrest because Nazis did not dare risk the Pope's displeasure.
Many of these everyday heroes would probably downplay what they did and claim it was the right thing to do, and they'd be right. It was the right thing to do. However, they did it at great risk to themselves and their efforts changed history.
Liberating the Concentration Camps
Between summer, 1944 and spring of the following year, Soviet, American, and British troops discovered and liberated most of the concentration camps constructed by Nazis. Many of the prisoners they held had been moved or killed before they arrived, yet thousands of inmates had been left behind.
Several of the camps were destroyed by Nazis ahead of the advancing troops. By the time soldiers arrived, they found charred remains and little else.
Compare the Holocaust to Other Historical Events
1864- 1964 (Post Civil War)
Japanese Interment Camps (1914-1917)
Government influenced media
Government influenced media
Hitler's public speaking methods
U.S. Presidential Campaigns
Hitler concealing ulterior motives while using the political system to gain influence
Halliburton (and others)
U.S. Great Westward Expansion (1800s)
Is the U.S. at Risk?
Take a look the intriguing video below. It reveals how easily rational, competent adults can be swayed to hate others within a very, very short period of time.
In this famous experiment, Jane Elliot first performed this experimented with children to demonstrate how easily their opinions could be swayed. Within a short time, the children turned against each other. The group that was targeted became despondent, angry, and ineffective within minutes.
Later, the Department of Corrections invited Elliot to perform a similar experiment on corrections officers in order to train them to be sensitive to cultural differences within the prison environment. Within minutes, she was able to alienate people from their coworkers and friends based on their eye color!
What did you think about this exercise? How did people try to oppose Elliot's propaganda? What happened whenever they made attempts? Do you think this happened because Elliot is perceived as an authority, or are there other reasons?
Each individual must determine for himself or herself when and how to take a stand on discrimination. Is it ok to distinguish who can get married based on their sexual preference? Skin color? Their ability to speak a language? Eye color? Where they were born?
Please let us know what you think! (I will delete comments that are disrespectful, however.)