The people will more readily forgive the mistakes made by a Government – which, as often as not, by the way, escape their notice – than any evidence of hesitancy or lack of assurance… However one lives, whatever one does or undertakes, one is invariably exposed to the danger of making mistakes. And so, what, indeed, would become of the individual and of the community, if those in whom authority was vested were paralysed by fear of a possible error, and refused to take the decisions that were called for?

Adolf Hitler, 15 May 1942 (ed. Trevor-Roper, Hitler’s Table Talk, p. 483)


The Everlasting Shame of Mankind


Dawn came on like a betrayer; it seemed as though the new sun rose as an ally of our enemies to assist in our destruction.

Primo Levi, If This Is a Man, written in 19461

Although hotly debated by historians, the exact date when Hitler ordered Heinrich Himmler to destroy the Jewish race in Europe through the industrialized use of the Vernichtungslager (extermination camp) is really almost immaterial. Hitler had always been, in the historian Ian Kershaw’s phrase, ‘the supreme and radical spokesman of an ideological imperative’ to destroy the Jews. An unmistakable threat had been made even before the outbreak of war, on 30 January 1939, when he told the Reichstag:

In the course of my life I have very often been a prophet, and have usually been ridiculed for it. Today I will once more be a prophet; if the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevization of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!2

Of course it had been Hitler himself with his invasion of Poland, rather than the mythical Jewish–Bolshevik conspiracy, that had plunged the world into war, but that did not make his warning any the less menacing. He repeated it on several further occasions in public speeches during the war, and was more specific about exterminating the Jews in dozens of private speeches to his Gauleiters and Reichskommissars too. The use of poison gas on Jews had even been mentioned in Mein Kampf in which he had written that in the First World War ‘the sacrifice of millions at the front’ would have been unnecessary if ‘twelve or fifteen thousand of these Hebrew corrupters of the people had been held under poison gas’.3

Hitler and Himmler had no difficulty in recruiting enough anti-Semites to do the work of extermination for them. Anti-Semitism was by no means confined to Germany, but it was particularly virulent there. Although the organized working-class left were not particularly anti-Semitic in Bismarckian and later Weimar Germany, the roots of the phenomenon went deep into much of the rest of German society. The foundation of the League of Anti-Semites in 1879, and the career of the thieving, blackmailing forger (and headmaster) Hermann Ahlwardt, who was elected to the Reichstag in the 1880s on a platform of spewing hatred against Germany’s Jews – who only ever made up 1 per cent of the country’s population – were potent signs of this.4 What an historian has termed ‘the domestication of anti-Semitism’ took place in the 1880s and early 1890s, with novelists such as Julius Langbehn writing about the Jews in terms of ‘poison’, ‘plague’ and ‘vermin’. Richard Wagner’s widow Cosima, who lived until 1930, drew together a group of anti-Semites at Bayreuth, and the writings of the Englishman Houston Stewart Chamberlain at the turn of the century also contributed to the concept of German history as an Aryan-versus-Jewish struggle. If anything it is surprising that it took a full half-century of such propaganda and hatred before Hitler incorporated violence against the Jews into a political platform.

The milieu in which the young Hitler lived in Vienna, as well as the political tracts he read while scraping a living as a hack painter, seems to have drawn him towards a loathing of Jews. ‘Hitler could scarcely ignore the everyday antisemitism of the kind of newspapers that were available in the reading-room of the Men’s Home [the hostel where he lived], and the cheap antisemitic pamphlets he later described reading at this time,’ writes an expert in this field. ‘And his enthusiasm for Wagner, whose operas he went to hundreds of times in this period, can only have strengthened his political views.’5 Yet it was not until Germany’s defeat in 1918 that this anti-Semitism became murderous. The way that Hitler harnessed German anti-Semitism, which was common among small businessmen, shopkeepers, artisans and peasant farmers, was as deft as it was malevolent.

Yet the genocidal killing of lebensunwertes Leben (those unworthy of existence) in Nazi Germany began not with the Jews but with the euthanasia meted out to the mentally and physically disabled, in total around 212,000 Germans and 80,000 others. The mentally ill were also killed in converted shower rooms, which provided the inspiration for what would eventually take place in Auschwitz. It is true that as many as a thousand Jews were murdered in German concentration camps in the six months after the Jewish pogroms of Kristallnacht on the night of 9 November 1938, but it was not until 1939 that the true extent of the Nazis’ plans for the Jewish race in Europe began to become apparent. Fortunately by then over half of the Jewish population of Germany had already emigrated, with 102,200 going to the USA, 63,500 to Argentina, 52,000 to Britain, 33,400 to Palestine, 26,000 to South Africa and 8,600 to Australia.6 Tragically, many also left for places such as Poland, France and the Netherlands that were to afford no long-term safety at all.

With the outbreak of war in September 1939, and especially after their victory over Poland, the Germans adopted a policy of forcing enormous numbers of Jews into ghettos, small urban areas where it was hoped that disease, malnutrition and eventually starvation would destroy them. Over one-third of the population of Warsaw, for example, comprising some 338,000 people, was forced into a ghetto comprising only 2.5 per cent of the area of the city. The penalty for leaving the 300 ghettos and 437 labour camps of the Reich was death, and Judenräte (Jewish elders’ councils) administered them on behalf of the Nazis, on the (often false) basis that they would ameliorate conditions more than the Germans. By August 1941, 5,500 Jews were dying in the Warsaw ghetto every month.7

Another, vaster ghetto – the Vichy-run island of Madagascar – was briefly considered by Hitler in the summer of 1940 as an eventual destination for Europe’s Jews, as was British-owned Uganda and a massive death march into Siberia once the war in the east was won. The unhealthiness of these places – especially given Madagascar’s yellow fever – constituted their principal attraction. When in February 1941 Martin Bormann discussed the practicalities of how to get the Jews to Madagascar, Hitler suggested Robert Ley’s ‘Strength Through Joy’ cruise line, but then expressed concern for the fate of the German crews at the hands of Allied submarines, though of course none for the fate of the passengers.8 Even if they had got through the Royal Navy cordon unscathed, the Madagascar plan, as an historian has pointed out, ‘would still have been another kind of genocide’.9

Instead, by early 1941, when, under Special Action Order 14f13, SS murder squads were sent by Himmler into concentration camps to kill Jews and others whom the Reich considered unworthy of life, an altogether more direct approach was adopted that borrowed the term Sonderbehandlung (special treatment) from the Gestapo, which had used it for extra-judicial killings.10 This policy was applied on a Continental basis at the time of Operation Barbarossa, when four SS Einsatzgruppen (action groups) followed the Wehrmacht into Russia in order to liquidate those considered ‘undesirable’, primarily Jews, Red Army commissars and anyone thought likely to become partisans behind the German lines. They killed out of all proportion to their numbers; together the four comprised only 3,000 people, including clerks, interpreters, teletype and radio operators, and female secretaries.11 By the end of July 1941, Himmler had reinforced this number ten-fold when SS Kommandostab brigades, German police battalions and Baltic and Ukrainian pro-Nazi auxiliary units totalling some 40,000 men complemented the role of the Einsatzgruppen in an orgy of killing that accounted for nearly one million deaths in six months, by many and various methods.12 Far from feeling guilt and shame about this behaviour towards innocents, photographs of shootings were sometimes displayed on walls in SS barracks’ messes, from which copies could be ordered.13

In 1964, a former SS member explained how Einsatzkommando No. 8 had gone about its grisly business in Russia twenty-three years previously: ‘At these executions undertaken by shooting squads,’ he told a German regional court,

it would occasionally be arranged for the victims to lie down along the trench so that they could be pushed in easily afterwards. For the later operations, the victims had to lie face down inside the trench and were then shot in the side of the head. During the shootings at Bialystok, Novgorod and Baranowice, the corpses were well covered over, more or less, with sand and chalk before the next batch was brought up. In the later shooting operations, this was only rarely done so that the next batch of victims always had to lie down on the corpses of those who had just been killed before. But even in those cases where the corpses had been covered with sand and chalk, the next victims often saw them, because body parts would frequently be jutting out of the thin layer of sand or earth.

Some time between mid-July and mid-October 1941, just as the mass murder of Russian Jews was being escalated after Operation Barbarossa, Hitler decided to kill every Jew that his Reich could reach, regardless of the help they could have afforded Germany’s war effort. The exact date is impossible to determine, since the Nazis attempted to obliterate evidence of the Holocaust itself, quite apart from its organizational genesis. On 4 October 1943, for example, Himmler told senior SS officers that the murder of the Jews was ‘a glorious page in our history that has never been written and cannot be written’. It is therefore vain to try to seek a piece of paper from Hitler actually authorizing the Holocaust, despite the wealth of circumstantial evidence that he and Himmler were its architects.

In October 1941 all Jewish emigration from Europe was banned, and deportations of German Jews from the Reich began. The next month, mobile gas vans were used to kill Jews in Łódź in Poland and soon afterwards in Chełmno. The SS had been using gas vans to kill more than 70,000 lunatic-asylum patients since 1939; it was an idea borrowed from Stalin’s purges of the 1930s, during which people had been gassed in specially converted trucks and vans parked outside Moscow, into which the carbon monoxide from the vehicles’ engines was introduced.14 Reinhard Heydrich pioneered the use of these mobile gas chambers for the SS, sometimes disguised as furniture-removal vans. In 1959 one of the chemists involved, Dr Theodor Leidig, explained what happened after victims had been packed into them:

I was told that the people who would be getting into the lorry were Russians who would have been shot anyway. The higher-ups wanted to know if there was a better way of killing them… I still remember that you could look inside the lorry through a peephole or window. The interior was lit. Then they opened the lorry. Some of the bodies fell out, others were unloaded by prisoners. As we technicians confirmed, the bodies had that pinkish-red hue which is typical of people who have died [of carbon-monoxide poisoning].

The process of these local massacres was still very haphazard, but before the end of 1941 the SS were starting to kill Russian POWs and the disabled with Zyklon B gas. In October 1941 the German Army in Serbia also began to shoot Jews under the pretext of ‘reprisals’ against partisan activity.

On 12 December 1941, the day after his declaration of war on America, Hitler spoke to senior Nazi Party functionaries. ‘As far as the Jewish question is concerned,’ recorded Goebbels afterwards, ‘the Führer is determined to make a clean sweep.’ Hitler had referred to his January 1939 Reichstag speech, saying, ‘The world war is here, the extermination of the Jews must be the necessary consequence.’ Six days later Himmler made a note of a meeting he had held with Hitler, which read: ‘Jewish Question. To be extirpated as partisans.’15 The policy was to be changed from killing Jews wherever they happened to be, while moving them eastwards and keeping them living in conditions also likely to kill them, to carrying out the Final Solution in specially adapted camps dedicated to the purpose. Sobibór camp was opened near Lublin in Occupied Poland in May 1942, and work was begun on Treblinka in north-east Poland the next month.

In order for the Nazis to exterminate almost two million Polish Jews in less than two years between early 1942 and late 1943, they needed to use units such as the Reserve Police Battalion 101, which was alone responsible for shooting, or deporting to their deaths, 83,000 people.16 The battalion was mainly made up of middle-aged, respectable working- and middle-class citizens of Hamburg, rather than Nazi ideologues. Peer pressure and a natural propensity for obedience and comradeship, rather than political fervour, seem to have turned these people into mass murderers. Since no fewer than 210 members of the battalion were interviewed in depth in the 1960s, it was possible to ascertain that the recruits of Battalion 101 were not selected for their ideological ardour – only one-quarter were even Nazi Party members – and many joined up largely to avoid active service abroad. They represented a cross-section of German society and no one was coerced into killing Jews or ever punished for refusing to do so. Only a relatively small number of Germans approved of what was happening ‘out east’, yet the rest did not actively disapprove in any way. The vast majority were simply indifferent, and did not want to know. Yet when called upon specifically to help in the genocide, between 80 and 90 per cent of Battalion 101 acquiesced without undue complaint. After some initial squeamishness, recounts the historian Christopher Browning, they ‘became increasingly efficient and callous executioners’.17

Only twelve of the battalion’s 500 members – that is, 2.4 per cent – actually refused to take part in shooting 1,500 Jews in groups of forty in the woods outside the Polish village of Józefów 50 miles south-east of Lublin on 13 July 1942. During the remainder of that seventeen-hour day – interspersed with cigarette breaks and a midday meal – perhaps another forty-five or so members absented themselves for various reasons. The remaining 90 per cent simply got on with the job of shooting Jewish women and children at point-blank range, even though they knew that there would have been no retribution had they refused. Some reasoned that their non-participation would not alter the Jews’ ultimate fate. Although they said they disliked shooting infants and small children, they did it, just as they shot decorated Great War veterans who begged for mercy on account of shared comradeship in the trenches. They found it ‘disturbing’ that none of the mothers would leave their children, and so had to be shot together with them, although ‘It was soothing to my conscience to release [that is, kill] children unable to live without their mothers,’ said a thirty-five-year-old metalworker from Bremerhaven.

Some physical revulsion was shown by the members of the battalion, but not ethical. ‘At first we shot freehand,’ one recalled. ‘When one aimed too high the entire skull exploded. As a consequence, brains and bones flew everywhere. Thus, we were instructed to place the bayonet point on the neck.’ They recalled how the Jews themselves showed an ‘unbelievable’ and ‘astonishing’ composure in the face of death, although the sound of shooting made it perfectly clear what was about to happen to them.18 There was a large number of quite complex psychological reasons why normal people allowed themselves to become mass murderers, and of course fanatical anti-Semitism was present in some people. Most of these reasons – wartime brutalization, societal segmentation, careerism, sheer routine, the desire for conformity, a macho ethos, and so on – do not end at the physical or historical borders of Nazi Germany.

It is untrue that, as has often been suggested, the industrialized mass extermination of the Jews took place as a result of German frustrations on the Eastern Front, or even as a result of the entry of the United States into the war after Pearl Harbor, events which coincided with it but did not trigger it. In fact the Germans were constantly devising new ways to kill more Jews more efficiently, and the use of Zyklon B gas was merely the end of that process of improvisation. In a Führerstaat (dictatorship), career advancement depended on pleasing the Führer, and Hitler – though careful not to append his signature to any documents concerning extermination, and to use only word of mouth in giving directions – was known within the regime to favour whichever policy was harshest towards the Jews. Although he attached his name to any number of Führer directives and Führerbefehlen (orders), such was the criminal magnitude of the Holocaust that he distanced himself as far as possible from personal blame, to the extent that his apologists even attempt to argue that he wasn’t responsible. No German official’s career ever suffered from being over-enthusiastic for genocide and many – such as Obergruppenführer (Lieutenant-General) Reinhard Heydrich – prospered because of their anti-Semitic fanaticism. When in mid-August 1941 SS-Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler and Heydrich gave written instructions to escalate the killing of Jewish women and children as well as men in ever larger pogroms in eastern Europe, it happened, starting in Lithuania.19

Massacres of Jews – often through shooting at the edge of pits that had been dug by the victims themselves or by Russian POWs – took place at Ponary near Vilnius (55,000 killed), Fort IX near Kovno (10,000), Babi Yar ravine outside Kiev (33,771), Rumbula near Riga (38,000), Kaunas (30,000) and many other places. In all, around 1.3 million people died at the hands of the Einsatzgruppen before the more industrialized processes were adopted. We know the numbers because they sent back detailed reports of their massacres, which Hitler certainly saw and occasionally made tangential reference to in his discussions with lieutenants. On 25 October 1941, for example, at dinner with Himmler and Heydrich, Hitler said: ‘Let no one say to me, we cannot send them into the swamp… It is good if our advance is preceded by fear that we will exterminate Jewry.’ This was probably a reference to the SS reports of drowning Jewish women and children by their thousands in the Pripet Marshes.

The Wehrmacht both knew about and actively co-operated in the work of the Einsatzgruppen, despite its post-war protestations of innocence that fooled a number of prominent Western historians, including Basil Liddell Hart. After Babi Yar, Field Marshal Walther von Reichenau issued an order celebrating the ‘hard but just punishment for the Jewish sub-humans’ and Rundstedt signed a directive to senior officers along much the same lines. Equal complicity in genocide was exhibited by Field Marshal von Leeb, Field Marshal von Manstein – who wrote, ‘The Jewish–Bolshevist system must now and forever be exterminated’ – and General Hoepner, who ordered ‘the total annihilation of the enemy’, whom he identified as the Jews and Bolsheviks. The Germans had a long history of dealing viciously and arbitrarily with ‘undesirable’ elements among the domestic population of occupied territories, including suspected francs-tireurs in the Franco-Prussian War, Herero tribesmen in 1904–8 and Belgian civilians in the Great War. In 1940, some 3,000 black African soldiers were massacred after they had surrendered in the fall of France.20

The somewhat haphazard, semi-public mass killings by the Einsatzgruppen had their drawbacks, principally the sheer amount of ammunition expended, the odd escapee and the very occasional distaste felt by the SS men themselves, all of which Himmler wished to minimize. This meant that by the late summer and autumn of 1941 the Nazi High Command were keen to adopt a far more efficient method of conducting genocide. Therefore on 3 September 1941, in the cellars of Block 11 at the Oświęcim barracks to the west of Kraków in Poland – known to history by its German name of Auschwitz – 250 prisoners, mostly Poles, were poisoned using Zyklon B crystallized cyanide gas, hitherto used for anti-lice fumigation of clothes and buildings. Although gas vans, mass shootings and various other methods continued to be employed in the east, the use of Zyklon B in gas chambers became the primary way that the Nazis attempted, in the words of Heydrich, to provide ‘the final solution to the Jewish question in Europe’. In Hitler’s library there was a 1931 handbook on poison gas, which featured a chapter on the prussic-acid asphyxiant marketed commercially as Zyklon B.21

Zyklon (meaning Cyclone) and B for Blausäure (prussic acid) was originally intended by Auschwitz’s camp commandant Rudolf Höss to ‘spare’ a ‘bloodbath’, by which he meant the SS having to kill Jews and others individually. Höss himself was a very early Party member, joining in November 1922; the number on his membership card was 3240.22 In the words of one historian of Auschwitz, ‘the use of Zyklon B alleviated the process of murder’.23 In all, around 1.1 million people were killed at Auschwitz–Birkenau, more than 90 per cent of whom were Jews. Auschwitz was the camp headquarters where 30,000 prisoners were kept, and nearby Birkenau was a 425-acre camp – larger than London’s Hyde Park – where around 100,000 lived, worked and died. The sloganArbeit Macht Frei (work makes you free) fashioned in metal above the front gate at Auschwitz was of course another cynical Nazi lie, as work there was intended to make the inmates die, and no inmate was ever freed by the Germans in the history of the camp.

After they were rounded up in their local communities from all across German-occupied Europe, Jews were transported by train to Auschwitz or one of the other five extermination camps in eastern Europe. Typically they were allowed to take between 15 and 25 kilograms of personal belongings on the journey. This was intended to lull them into thinking that they would be resettled in communities ‘out east’. Such lies were needed in order to keep them docile, and to trick them into entering the gas chambers without panicking, fighting back or trying to escape. On the long journeys, often by cattle truck – those from Greece could take up to eleven days – they were given little or nothing to eat and drink, and were provided with no lavatories.

Once the transports arrived at the siding at Birkenau, there would be the first Selektion (selection), where SS officials would choose the able-bodied men and women – numbering roughly 15 per cent – who would be taken to the camp barracks to join work details, leaving the old, the weak, the infirm, the children and the mothers of children, who would be immediately walked to the gas chambers and exterminated. No fewer than 230,000 children died at Birkenau, almost all within an hour of arriving there, whereas average life expectancy for men who survived the initial selection was six months to one year, and for women four months. Death came in many forms besides gassing and executions, including starvation, punishment beatings, suicide, torture, exhaustion, medical experimentation, typhoid, exposure, scarlet fever, diphtheria, petechial typhus and tuberculosis. Oswald ‘Papa’ Kaduk – his nickname came from his ‘love for children’ – gave Jewish children balloons just before they were squirted (abspritzen) in the heart with phenol injections at the rate of ten per minute.24

Those who were selected to be gassed were walked straight to the underground chambers, and were told that they were going to be given a shower. The word ‘showers’ was written in all the major European languages, and there were even false shower heads in the ceiling of the gas chambers. The victims were also told that if they did not hurry up the coffee that was waiting for them in the camp afterwards would get cold.25 Once in the undressing room, they were told to hang their clothes on the hooks provided, and then they were herded into the chambers and the heavy metal doors were suddenly locked behind them. Green Zyklon B pellets were then dropped through holes in the roof, and within fifteen to thirty minutes – accounts differ – everyone inside was dead.

Much of the physically arduous task of running the gas chambers fell to the Sonderkommandos (special units), prisoners who also had to undertake the work of cleaning and preparing the chambers and crematoria. ‘The only exit is by way of the chimney,’ the Italian chemist Primo Levi was told on entering Auschwitz. ‘What did it mean?’ he wondered. ‘Soon we were all to learn what it meant.’26 Although only SS Sanitäter (medical orderlies) actually introduced the Zyklon B gas pellets into the chamber, theSonderkommandos did almost everything else except locking the hermetically sealed gas-chamber doors. They calmed the prisoners on the way into the undressing room, often speaking in Yiddish, telling them they were going to be given a shower before joining work details and being reunited with their families; they led nervous, agitated or suspicious ‘trouble-makers’ out of sight and earshot and held them by each ear as an SS man shot them with a silencer-fitted handgun behind the crematoria; they helped the elderly undress, and led them towards the gas chambers, sometimes pushing them on with heavy rubber truncheons; while the gassing was taking place they sorted through the belongings, valuables, food and clothes left in the undressing room, looking for jewellery stitched into the lining of clothing; they burnt whatever the Nazis considered worthless, including photograph albums, books, documents, Torah scrolls, prayer shawls and toys; they cleaned out the remnants of the corpses and human excretion from the gas chambers, so the new transport would see no traces of what had happened to the previous one – women’s scent taken from the victims was often used to hide the smell of gas and bodily discharges; they checked the victims’ mouths for gold coins; they shaved the hair off the corpses, ripped off rings and earrings and extracted gold teeth and tight rings with pliers; they detached prosthetic limbs, then they threw the corpses into the metal freight lift ‘like rags’, piling them in fifteen to twenty at a time. Upstairs, using specially adapted pitchforks, Sonderkommandos pushed the corpses into the crematoria furnaces, which they had to keep well stoked (the smoke went up the 50-foot chimneys); afterwards they used large wooden stakes to crush any skulls, bones and body parts that had not been consumed; they removed the vast piles of human ash in wheelbarrows to a pond between two of the crematoria, or by truck to throw into the Sola river, a tributary of the Vistula.27 Typically, in one gas chamber alone – and Auschwitz–Birkenau had six working round the clock – 2,000 Jews could be killed in ninety minutes by a team of ten SS men and twenty Sonderkommando members.28 Many SS men volunteered for overtime in order to obtain rewards such as extra meat and alcohol rations. There were some twenty-four-hour periods when as many as 20,000 human beings were selected, gassed, cremated and their ashes disposed of in Auschwitz alone.

‘Many of them knew they were going to their death,’ recalled the former Sonderkommando prisoner Josef Sackar of the Jews he had escorted into the gas chambers: ‘They had an intuition. They were afraid, pure and simple. They were terrified. Mothers held their children tight… They were embarrassed… Some of them cried out of shame and fear. They were very, very afraid. The children behaved like children. They looked for their parents’ hands, hugged their parents. What did they know? They didn’t know a thing.’29 Victims were told to remember the number of the hook on which they had hung their clothes in the undressing room, a passageway 50 by 80 feet long with a concrete floor and wooden benches on each side. This too was intended to lull them into the belief that they were only going to be washed and deloused before getting dressed.

Once inside the gas chamber, the victims had no hope of survival. Rudolf Höss was adamant in the memoirs he wrote between his arrest in March 1946 and his hanging on his own gallows at Auschwitz that April that, compared with carbon monoxide,

Experience has shown that the preparation of prussic acid called Zyklon B caused death with far greater speed and certainty, especially if the rooms were kept dry and gas-tight and closely packed with people, and provided they were fitted with as large intake vents as possible. As far as Auschwitz is concerned, I have never heard of a single person being found alive when the gas chambers were opened half an hour after the gas had been inducted.30

Those thirty minutes were as horrific as it is possible to contemplate. In the state-of-the-art gas chambers of Crematoria II and III at Auschwitz, the pellets were lowered in containers down Drahtnetzeinschieb-vorrichtungen (wire-mesh introduction columns) and the gas was distributed relatively evenly, but in other gas chambers it collected on the floor and rose upwards, forcing the stronger people to climb on top of the weaker ones in a vain bid to avoid asphyxiation. ‘The people there knew that the end was approaching and tried to climb as high as they could to avoid the gas,’ recalled Sackar. ‘Sometimes all the skin on the bodies peeled due to the effect of the gas.’31 The victims clawed at the doors and walls, and their screaming and weeping could be heard even through the thick metal airtight doors. When the Sonderkommandos entered the chambers they encountered a dreadful sight. As their historian records: ‘The purple, fissured flesh; the faces distorted with pain; and the eyes, bulging and agape, attest to the terrible agonies that these people experienced in their last moments.’32

Speaking at Nuremberg, the Auschwitz guard Otto Moll spoke of the fate of the babies whose mothers had left them hidden in discarded clothing in the undressing room: ‘The prisoners had to clean up the room after it had been cleared of people, they would then take the babies and throw them into the gas chamber.’ Elsewhere he was asked to estimate how quickly the Zyklon B gas took effect: ‘The gas was poured in through an opening. About one half minute after the gas was poured in, of course I am merely estimating this time as we never had a stop-watch to clock it and we were not interested, at any rate, after one half minute there were no more heavy sounds, and no sounds at all that could be heard from the gas chamber.’ Q: ‘What kind of sounds were heard before that?’ A: ‘The people wept and screeched.’33 Few other accounts put the time as short as that.

On occasion a Sonderkommando prisoner would recognize family or friends among the dead, and Höss – whose testimony must be seen through the prism of his unrepentant anti-Semitism – claimed that one had to drag his own wife to the furnace, and then sat down to lunch with his colleagues without displaying any untoward emotion. (Conversely, there is another story of a Sonderkommando member accompanying his mother into the gas chamber and then voluntarily remaining with her there to be gassed.) Unsurprisingly the Sonderkommandos were thought of by other Auschwitz inmates as the Nazis’ henchmen, and as ‘especially soulless and savage individuals’.34 Primo Levi wrote that they existed on ‘the borderline of collaboration’ and it is true that the Nazis’ job would have been far more difficult and laborious if the Sonderkommandos had not existed, although they would undoubtedly have found volunteers among the Ukrainian, Baltic or Belorussian auxiliary units to undertake the tasks.

Yet it should be remembered that the Sonderkommandos had no alternative except death, that they provided food for other inmates when they could, and that they were the only group of inmates to rise up against the Germans. When on 7 October 1944 it became clear that the Sonderkommandos of Crematorium IV were about to be selected, they attacked the SS with stones, axes and iron bars. The ‘uprising’ was over by nightfall, and no prisoner managed to escape, but they killed three SS guards and injured twelve, blew up Crematoria IV with hand-grenades smuggled to them by women prisoners, and tried to escape from the camp, with 250 dying in the attempt and 200 executed the next day. The Jewish women who had smuggled the explosives – Ester Wajcblum, Regina Safirsztajn, Ala Gertner and Róza Robota – were hanged after a week of torture.35 Each of the revolts that took place – in Sobibór, Treblinka and Auschwitz – in the six Nazi extermination camps were carried out by the Sonderkommandos, the only inmates with the physical strength to fight back. It was also they who tried to provide evidence of the genocide for the outside world, by burying accounts of it in tin cans in the soil near the crematoria, which have since been discovered and published.36 One of these, written by Zalman Gradowski, asks, ‘Why am I sitting here quietly instead of lamenting, weeping over my tragedy, and why instead are we frozen, numb, drained of all emotion?’ The answer was that ‘The continual systematic death, the only life of anyone who lives here, deadens, confuses and dulls your senses.’37

Several of the eighty Sonderkommando prisoners who survived the war submitted themselves to interview, and they attested that they turned themselves into automata in order to survive and bear witness against the Nazis. A sense of apathy and powerlessness, as well as the use of alcohol, helped push what has been described as ‘the intrinsic moral quandary of the Sonderkommando phenomenon’ into the background for these ‘miserable manual labourers of the mass extermination’.38 Surprisingly, suicide was rare among them. ‘Although they knew what was about to happen,’ records their historian, ‘they could not rescue even one Jew.’ That included the infants thrust into their arms by mothers entering the ‘showers’ who had divined that they would not emerge alive.39

Because the Sonderkommandos were Geheimsträger (bearers of secrets) they had to live together, could not resign their posts and could only hope that the war might end before they were themselves selected. Because they had the first access to parcels that the gassed Jews left in the undressing rooms, they ate better than any other prisoners, which because they were involved in such heavy manual labour suited the Germans. They were allowed to wear civilian clothes rather than prison uniform, had beds with mattresses in rooms over the crematoria, had time to rest and, beyond the daily roll-call, were not constantly overseen by the SS. ‘We never ran short of anything,’ recalled Sackar, ‘clothes, food and sleep too.’40 Their only distinguishing mark, other than their tattooed number, was a red cross on their backs. To differentiate the inmates, and dehumanize them, Jews were made to wear yellow Stars of David, and the rest of the inmates also wore colour-coded strips of fabric sewn on the prison uniform, thus Jehovah’s Witnesses wore purple, homosexuals pink, criminals green, politicals red, Gypsies black, and Soviet POWs had the letters ‘SU’. From 1943 prisoners were tattooed on arms or occasionally legs with numbers.

The utterly debased sadism and crudity of the German SS and their auxiliary-unit henchmen quite literally knew no bounds. Unremarkably representative was SS Staff Sergeant Paul Grot, at Sobibór, who was recalled by one of the only sixty-four survivors of that camp, Moshe Shklarek, for the way that he would ‘have himself a joke; he would seize a Jew, give him a bottle of wine and a sausage weighing at least a kilo and order him to devour it in a few minutes. When the “lucky” man succeeded in carrying out this order and staggered from drunkenness, Grot would order him to open his mouth wide and would urinate into his mouth.’41 As with any factory, the factory of death had shift labour, foremen (known as capos) and a conveyor-belt, time-and-motion attitude towards maximizing efficiency. The SS gave precise orders about what the Sonderkommandos were allowed to tell those about to be gassed, so that the victims went – at least for the most part – unknowingly to their deaths. Since it was unavoidable anyway, theSonderkommandos did not want to terrify the victims more than they already were. ‘I avoided looking them in the eye,’ Sackar recalled of the people he escorted into the gas chambers. ‘I always tried hard not to look them straight in the eye, so that they wouldn’t sense anything.’42 He admitted that he and his comrades had ‘become robots, machines’ but denied that he had been entirely desensitized to what was happening: ‘We wept without tears… We had no time to think. Thinking was a complicated matter. We blocked everything out.’ Sackar survived selection by the SS at Auschwitz by mingling with the other prisoners just as the Red Army was about to arrive in January 1945.

For those who survived the initial Selektion on the railway siding – known as the Ramp – there were plenty more. Regular barrack inspections would take place to ascertain whether prisoners still had the strength to work effectively, and those who could not, according to the most arbitrary criteria, were gassed. Selektion also took place in the prison hospital where SS doctors would regularly cull the ‘hopelessly ill’ patients. The historian Gideon Greig has identified seven areas of camp life where the absolutely pitiless phenomenon of Selektion regularly operated, against which there was no appeal.43 Selektion officers would carry canes, which could be used as weapons but were more often used to direct inmates without having to come into physical contact with them. ‘All those able to find a way out, try to take it,’ recalled Primo Levi of the process, ‘but they are in the minority because it is very difficult to escape from a selection. The Germans apply themselves to these things with great skill and diligence.’ 44 Driven by thirst one day, Levi – Häftling (prisoner) number 174517 – opened the window of his hut to break off an icicle to drink, but a guard snatched it away. ‘Why?’ Levi asked, only to receive the reply, ‘Hier ist kein warum’ (Here, there is no why).45 Yet in a sense there was; the SS did not want Levi to drink water because they did not want strong inmates, but rather weak, preferably dying ones as the numbers ‘selected’ could always be immediately replenished. Hearing a fellow prisoner thanking God that he was not selected, Levi recollected thinking: ‘Can Kuhn fail to realize that next time it will be his turn? Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination, which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty, which nothing at all in the power of man can ever clean again? If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer.’46

To visit Auschwitz–Birkenau today is to be brought face to face with sights that bring home the horror as powerfully as any book or academic study ever could. Ladders were required to climb up the mountains of shoes that were taken from the victims. (In 2004, when 43,000 pairs were cleaned, some Hungarian money was found tucked into a pair, having somehow survived the official and unofficial looting of the camp.) Huge piles of shaving brushes, toothbrushes, spectacles, prosthetic limbs, baby clothes, combs and hairbrushes, and one million articles of clothing are displayed there. Most of the Jews’ belongings had already long been expropriated and used by the Nazis, but these were left behind when the guards fled the Russians in January 1945. Seven tons of human hair were left, which otherwise would have been used in the German textile industry. Suitcases, of which there are thousands upon thousands in enormous piles, were chalked with the name and birthdates of their owners, such as ‘Klement Hedwig 8/10/1898’. When the prams were taken away from Auschwitz, in rows of five rolling towards the railway station, it took an hour for them all to pass.47 Writing to SS-Obergruppenführer Oswald Pohl in January 1943 about ‘the material and goods taken over from the Jews, that is, the emigration of the Jews’, Himmler even went into detail about what would happen to the crystals to be found in their watches, because in warehouses in Warsaw ‘hundreds of thousands – perhaps even millions – are lying there, which for practical purposes could be distributed to the German watchmakers’.48 On another occasion he (at least temporarily) saved five Jewish diamond jewellers from extermination because of their expertise in fashioning the Reich’s highest decoration, the Knight’s Cross with oak leaves and diamonds, which was only ever awarded to twenty-seven people.49

On 14 September 1942, Albert Speer authorized 13.7 million Reichsmarks to be spent on building huts and killing facilities at Birkenau as fast as possible.50 Four gas chambers, numbered I to IV, were all fully operational by 1943, and were worked at full stretch by the time 437,000 Hungarians were brought there in the late spring of 1944 and killed in only a matter of weeks. A dozen German firms were used in the construction of the gas chambers and crematoria, and Oberingenieur Kurt Prüfer, representing the contractors Topf & Sons of Erfurt, was so proud of his incinerator system at Birkenau that he even had the gall formally to patent it.51 ‘From the chimneys shoot flames thirty feet into the air, visible for leagues around at night,’ recalled a deportee from France, Paul Steinberg, ‘and the oppressive stench of burnt flesh can be felt [sic] as far as [the synthetic-oil production facility of] Buna,’ which was more than 3½ miles away. When bodies had to be burnt in open pits near by, either because the crematoria were working overtime or because they were being renovated through over-use, Höss recalled that ‘The fires in the pits had to be stoked, the surplus fat drained off, and the mountain of burning corpses constantly turned over so that the draught might fan the flames.’52 At the end of the war 7,500 inmates were liberated, of whom 600 were teenagers and children, mostly orphans who had no way even of discovering their own names.

At Auschwitz between 400 and 800 people could be packed into huts that had originally been designed for forty-two horses. Lice and fleas were endemic, although rats did not survive long because of the protein they provided. The standing cells in Prison Hut 11, which fitted four people at a time in a space 5 by 5 foot square, for up to ten days at a stretch, were used for starvation and suffocation, and the breaking of the human spirit, yet there were examples of great heroism and self-sacrifice. For example, Father Maksymilian Kolbe, a Roman Catholic priest from Warsaw, volunteered to take the place in a starvation cell of another Polish prisoner, Franciszek Gajowniczek, who had a wife and children. Of the ten in the cell, Kolbe was one of those still alive a fortnight later, and so was murdered by lethal injection.53 He was canonized in 1982.

Viktor Frankl was an inmate of Türkheim, a satellite concentration camp of Dachau, between October 1944 and liberation in April 1945, where he was sent after a short stay at Auschwitz. ‘I shall never forget how I was roused one night by the groans of a fellow prisoner,’ he wrote,

who threw himself about in his sleep, obviously having a horrible nightmare. Since I had always been especially sorry for people who suffered from fearful dreams or deliria, I wanted to wake the poor man. Suddenly I drew back the hand that was ready to shake him, frightened at the thing I was about to do. At that moment I became intensely conscious of the fact that no dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the camp which surrounded us, and to which I was about to recall him.54

It was true; for as Primo Levi put it: ‘One wakes up at every moment, frozen with terror, shaking in every limb, under the impression of an order shouted out by a voice full of anger in a language not understood.’

The human nature of even the most noble people was warped in the struggle for existence. ‘Only those prisoners could keep alive who… had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves,’ recalled Frankl. ‘The best of us did not return.’55 Primo Levi, who somehow survived Auschwitz, likewise explained why it was useless to befriend the weak there, because ‘one knows they are only here on a visit, that in a few weeks nothing will remain of them but a handful of ashes in some nearby field and a crossed-out name on a register.’56 This was exemplified by a patient who was wheezing in one of the upper bunks near Levi in the camp hospital:

He heard me, struggled to sit up, then fell dangling, head downwards over the edge towards me, with the chest and arms stiff and his eyes white. The man in the bunk below automatically stretched up his arms to support the body and then realized he was dead. He slowly withdrew from under the weight and the body slid to the floor where it remained. Nobody knew his name.57

Anything approaching human dignity was next to impossible to retain; as Frankl recalled:

It was a favourite practice to detail a new arrival to a work group whose job it was to clean the latrines and remove the sewage. If, as usually happened, some of the excrement splashed into his face during its transport over bumpy fields, any sign of disgust by the prisoner or any attempt to wipe off the filth would only be punished by a blow from thecapo. And thus the mortification of normal relations was hastened.58

It was because of experiences like this that another survivor, Elie Wiesel, later a Nobel laureate, was to say in 1983: ‘Auschwitz defies perceptions and imaginations, it submits only to memory. Between the dead and the rest of us there exists an abyss that no talent can comprehend.’59

At the start of the Holocaust there was a good deal of confusion over the treatment of the people whom the Nazis eventually wished dead. At one moment Hitler wanted the Jews sent to south-east Poland, then it was earmarked as an area for Lebensraum for ethnic Germans to live in. Some German experts feared that allowing the Jews to die of starvation might mean that Germans might catch their diseases. Improvisation, rather than any solid blueprint, was the general rule, at least until a day-long conference held in a villa on the banks of Berlin’s Lake Wannsee in January 1942. This did not inaugurate the Holocaust, as the mass killings at Auschwitz–Birkenau had been going on since the autumn. Nor was it simply a logistics meeting, as no railway or transport people were invited. Nor was it to discuss the fate of the Mischlinge (mixed blood) – such as half-Jews (who were to be vetted) and quarter-Jews (who were to be sterilized, if ‘lucky’) – although the last issue was indeed discussed. Instead its purpose was to place the thirty-seven-year-old Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Security Police or SD, at the centre of the process, while also establishing undeniable collective responsibility. Afterwards, no department of the Reich could plead ignorance that genocide was official government policy, despite the sinister euphemisms employed in the circulated minutes, known as the Wannsee Protocol. These were not used at the meeting itself, however, for as Adolf Eichmann recorded in a 1961 memoir, ‘one spoke openly, without euphemisms’. The historian of the conference Mark Roseman describes its Protocol as ‘the most emblematic and programmatic statement of the Nazi way of doing genocide’.60

‘Approximately 11 million Jews will be involved in the Final Solution of the European Jewish question,’ the Protocol read, before listing every country where they were to be exterminated, from the Ukraine’s 2,994,684 – the Nazis were nothing if not precise – down to the 200 who lived in Albania. Ireland’s neutrality did not prevent Heydrich from adding her 4,000 Jews to the list, which is perhaps an indication of how seriously Nazi Germany would have taken Irish claims to sovereign independence in the event of their successful invasion of the rest of the British Isles. The Protocol also went into great detail about who exactly constituted a Jew, with paragraph 6 of section IV stating with regard to ‘Marriages between Persons of Mixed Blood of the First Degree and Persons of Mixed Blood of the Second Degree’ that ‘Both partners will be evacuated or sent to an old-age ghetto without consideration of whether the marriage has produced children, since possible children will as a rule have stronger Jewish blood than the Jewish person of mixed blood of the second degree.’61

Genocide was industrialized rapidly after Wannsee, known at the time merely as the Conference of State Secretaries. The minutes of the meeting taken by Eichmann suggest that, although there were twenty-seven men present, Heydrich did at least three-quarters of the talking. Afterwards they drank brandy and smoked cigars. Wannsee, writes Roseman, was ‘a signpost indicating that genocide had become official policy’. Before Wannsee, only 10 per cent of the total number of Jewish victims of Hitler had so far been killed, but in the next twelve months a further 50 per cent were liquidated. ‘Not only did everybody willingly indicate agreement,’ Eichmann testified in 1961, ‘but there was something else, entirely unexpected, when they outdid and outbid each other, as regards the demand for a final solution to the Jewish question.’ The experts discussed how the policy was to be carried out with minimum disruption to the war effort, and these bureaucrats were just as guilty as the medical orderlies who poured the Zyklon B crystals into the gas chambers. Conventional morality bypassed both sets of people, even though a majority of the state secretaries were cultured, educated men with academic doctorates who could hardly claim to have been desensitized by a brutal society. The Holocaust could not have been carried out without the willing co-operation of scientists, statisticians, demographers and social scientists supporting this ‘radical experiment in social engineering’, all operating in an utter moral vacuum. Here was an amoral caste of technocrats presenting learned papers that advocated ‘population adjustments’, the ‘resettlement’ of ‘useless mouths’ and the removal of ‘inferior persons’.62 It culminated in the Generalplan-Ost, a general plan for an eastern Europe populated according to Hitler’s dream of German settler–farmer–warriors, with a servile workforce.

Although Hitler spoke ceaselessly of the two millennia of European civilization and culture that were threatened by the Jews, by far the most central aspect of that culture – indeed its fons et origo – was anathema to him. Goebbels recorded in his diary entry of 29 December 1939:

The Führer is deeply religious, though completely anti-Christian. He views Christianity as a symptom of decay. Rightly so. It is a deposit [Ablagerung] of the Jewish race. Both have no point of contact to the animal element, and thus, in the end, they will be destroyed. The Führer is a convinced vegetarian, on principle… He has little regard forhomo sapiens. Man should not feel so superior to animals. He has no reason to.63

The destinies of Europe were therefore being run by a man who – when alone with his closest colleague – predicted that both Christianity and Judaism ‘will be destroyed’ because of their lack of regard for animals, and who had ‘little regard’ for the human race. For those Christians who looked the other way during the Holocaust, or who tacitly supported it because of the supposed collective guilt of the Jews for the death of Christ – who was anyway crucified by Gentiles, in the shape of the Romans – there is some irony in the fact that, had Hitler prevailed, Christianity would eventually have faced its worst purges in Europe since the days of Ancient Rome. (As for Hitler’s love of animals, some half a million horses died during his Operation Barbarossa.)

Himmler visited Auschwitz on 17 July 1942, telling SS officers openly that evening that the wholesale massacre of European Jewry was now Reich policy. Two days later he ordered the death of all Poland’s Jews, with the exception of those few who were ‘fit for work’, who would be worked to the verge of death, and then gassed. ‘The occupied Eastern zones are being cleansed of Jews,’ wrote Himmler on 28 July. ‘The Führer has laid the implementation of this very difficult order on my shoulders.’ He certainly had an efficient and enthusiastic lieutenant in Reinhard Heydrich, whom Hitler called ‘the man with the iron heart’, meaning it as a term of praise. His victims called him ‘the man with the icy stare’. His blond good looks, undoubted intelligence and utter fanaticism helped him to a position in the Third Reich whereby he might eventually have been Hitler’s successor as the next Führer if he had survived and Germany had won the war.

Born in Halle of musical parents, and a gifted violinist himself, Heydrich was an able sportsman and seemingly model student. Yet, despite his cultured background, he joined the thuggish proto-Fascist organization the Freikorps in the 1920s, where he acquired a taste for street violence. In 1922, aged eighteen, he met the future spy chief Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, and through him joined the German Navy, rising to chief signals officer by 1930. Yet his naval career came to a sudden halt due to a sex scandal: he refused to marry the daughter of a steel magnate whom he had made pregnant, because he was engaged at the time to Lina von Ostau, whom he subsequently did marry. Dishonourably discharged in February 1931 for conduct unbecoming a German officer, Heydrich secured an interview, through Lina’s help, with Heinrich Himmler, who had become head of the SS two years previously. Himmler was quickly impressed by Heydrich’s cold efficiency, and offered him the chance to set up the SS’s intelligence and security service, the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), which soon became feared for its utter ruthlessness.

In July 1934 Heydrich became a key figure in the Night of the Long Knives, thus bringing him to the admiring attention of both Hitler and Goebbels. By 1939, when the SD, Gestapo and Kripo (criminal police) were amalgamated as the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA), it was Heydrich who was appointed its first director. Hitler then entrusted him with creating the wholly invented ‘border incident’ at Gleiwitz which triggered the invasion of Poland. Once war had begun, Heydrich took charge of the brutal so-called housekeeping operations in Occupied Poland, with mass deportations of freezing victims in the dead of winter. After Germany had invaded Russia in June 1941, he was promoted to Obergruppenführer, and it was he who created theEinsatzgruppen.

Gaining the nickname the Hangman, Heydrich used the services of lieutenants such as Adolf Eichmann and Odilo Globocnik to kill the maximum numbers of Jews, and on 31 July 1941 he received written instructions from Göring to undertake the Final Solution. This was his prized chance to prove to the Führer that he rather than Himmler – whom he privately despised for weakness – would be the principal architect of the genocide programme. In September 1941, Hitler appointed Heydrich acting Reich protector of Bohemia and Moravia, that is dictator of the occupied Czech territories. Of course instead of ‘protecting’ anyone there, he ruled the region through torture and terror, sending hundreds of thousands to the concentration camps that he was busily converting into extermination centres. He soon earned the new soubriquet the Butcher of Prague.

On Wednesday, 27 May 1942, four British-trained Czech resistance fighters – Josef Valčik, Adolf Opálka, Jan Kubis and Josef Gabčik – who had been parachuted into Czechoslovakia especially for the attempt, ambushed Heydrich’s dark-green Mercedes at the bottom of the Kirchmayerstrasse in Prague. Although Gabčik’s Sten gun jammed, Kubis managed to hurl a grenade which blew a hole in the car’s bodywork. The Czech anaesthetist who tended him recalled that Heydrich’s spleen had been punctured and his rib pierced by metal splinters and that horsehair from the car upholstery had entered his back on the left side above the diaphragm.64 It took Heydrich seven days and twelve hours to die from septicaemia.

Heydrich received a state funeral in Berlin on 8 June; the city’s Philharmonic Orchestra played a funeral march from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung and Hitler laid a laurel wreath, although privately he blamed Heydrich’s ‘damned stupidity, which serves the country not one whit’ for having driven publicly through the streets of Prague.65 The four assassins of Heydrich were betrayed to the Germans, but none was captured alive, each fighting bravely to the death or committing suicide sooner than surrender. ‘The Gestapo arranged for the identification of the dead in a particularly gruesome manner,’ records Heydrich’s biographer, ‘the corpses being decapitated and the heads impaled on a stake, the relatives and friends then being invited to file past the display.’66 It was a touch of which Heydrich would have been proud.

On the morning of 10 June 1942, units from the SD and Wehrmacht Field Police surrounded the mining village of Lidice, outside Prague. The entire population was rounded up. The 173 men and boys over the age of fifteen were shot there and then, and the 198 women and 98 children were taken off to extermination camps for subsequent execution. All the buildings in the village were burnt to the ground, and the village’s name was erased from all records. Thirteen children were allowed to survive because they had blond hair; they were taken to Germany to be brought up as Aryans. In another village, Ležáky, seventeen men and sixteen women were shot and fourteen children gassed. An official statement was made to the effect that Lidice had been punished ‘to teach the Czechs a final lesson of subservience and humility’.

At 06.00 hours on Monday, 19 April 1943, some 850 soldiers of the Waffen-SS entered the Warsaw Ghetto, intending first to ‘evacuate’ the remaining Jewish population there, and then to destroy it, under orders from Himmler. The Jews had been warned by the arrival of Ukrainian, Latvian and Lithuanian auxiliaries of what was about to happen, and the Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa (ZOB, or Jewish combat organization) took up positions around the Ghetto, ready to make the SS pay as dearly as possible. The Ghetto Uprising came as a surprise to the Germans. On the first day they lost twelve killed as the ZOB threw grenades and Molotov cocktails at their attackers, managing to set one tank alight. So serious a reverse was it that the chief of the SS in Warsaw was replaced, and SS-General Jürgen Stroop took over. ‘The Jews and bandits defended themselves from one defence point to the next,’ Stroop reported of one attack soon afterwards, ‘and at the last minute escaped via attics or underground passages.’67 It was to continue like that for nearly four weeks, as the SS and their auxiliary allies, as well as the German police and Wehrmacht and even the Jewish Ghetto police, had to fight hand to hand and street by street.

Vastly outnumbered in terms of fighters and outgunned in equipment, the Jews fought with a furious determination born of utter desperation, as Stroop slowly made his way into the centre of the Ghetto. ‘One saw constant examples of how, despite the threat of fire, the Jews and bandits preferred to return into the flames than to fall into our hands,’ Stroop reported to SS-Obergruppenführer Krüger in Kraków on 27 April. ‘Yelling abuse at Germany and the Führer and cursing German soldiers, Jews hurl themselves from burning windows and balconies.’68 The leader of the Uprising, Mordechai Anielewicz, and his closest comrades refused to surrender to the SS, which surrounded them in a bunker at 18 Mila Street; instead he and his comrades committed suicide on 8 May. Eight days later the Uprising reached its terrible denouement when at 8.15 p.m. on Sunday, 16 May Stroop blew up the Warsaw synagogue. By then he had captured or killed 55,065 Jews, and those Poles (‘bandits’) who had fought alongside them, who were executed on capture. Stroop had lost only sixteen men killed and eighty-four wounded, but Warsaw was a signal for Jewish resistance in Lvov, Częstochowa, Białystok and, on 2 August, even Treblinka and then twelve days later at Sobibór. With the huge preponderance of armaments enjoyed by the Germans, little useful militarily could be achieved, but much was won in terms of the pride of the Jewish people.

The deportation of Hungary’s Jews to Auschwitz began in March 1944. SS-Obersturmbannführer (Lieutenant-Colonel) Adolf Eichmann led the special task force that deported 437,000 of them there over eight weeks. He later boasted to a crony that he would ‘jump laughing into his grave’ for his part in the deaths of four million Jews.69 In a 1961 diary entry after his conviction in Israel of genocide, Eichmann wrote:

I saw the eeriness of the death machinery; wheel turning on wheel, like the mechanisms of a watch. And I saw those who maintained the machinery, who kept it going. I saw them, as they re-wound the mechanism; and I watched the second hand, as it rushed through the seconds; rushing like lives towards death. The greatest and most monumental dance of death of all time; this I saw.70

The trial and subsequent execution of Eichmann was very much the exception, however. The numbers of SS camp guards (Lagerschützen) at Auschwitz varied: very roughly in 1944 there were only 3,500 guarding the 110,000 inmates. There were also usually around 800 Sonderkommando prisoners at any one time. Out of the estimated 7,000 men and 200 women guards who served at Auschwitz during the war, only 800 were ever prosecuted. The rest merely disappeared into private life, and very many must have been able to escape with valuables stolen from the inmates. As the Russians advanced, Auschwitz was evacuated westwards in a terrible ‘death march’ of more than 50 miles in sub-zero temperatures. Those who could not keep up were shot and in all around 15,000 died. Nor was the horror over even when the camps were liberated. Despicably, Polish villagers even killed some Jews after the end of the war in Europe when they returned to reclaim their property, as happened at the village of Jedwabne.

The issue of whether the Allies ought to have bombed Auschwitz will long be with us. Although it was logistically possible by early 1944 – the USAAF and RAF were to supply the Polish Home Army during the Warsaw Uprising by air from Italy that summer – the decision was nonetheless taken not to bomb a camp that the Allies had known since 1942 was being used for the systematic extermination of Jews and Poles. While it was true that the unmarked underground gas chambers and crematoria might well have escaped, it is argued that it might have been possible to bomb the railway lines running to and from the camp, and would anyway have been worth the attempt. French railway lines, stations, depots, sidings and marshalling yards were principal targets during the pre-D-Day bombing operations, after all. The possibility of dropping arms to the inmates in the hope of an uprising, or even of landing paratroops there, was considered by the US War Refugee Board in its Weekly Report of 10 to 15 July 1944, but not passed on to the military.71

The fear of killing large numbers of inmates was a major consideration, of course, but a much more regularly used argument at the time was that the best way to help the Jews was to defeat the Germans as quickly as possible, for which the RAF and USAAF needed to bomb military and industrial targets instead. On 26 June 1944, the US War Department replied to a request from American Jewish organizations for the bombing of the Košice–Preskov railway line between Hungary and Auschwitz by saying that it ‘fully appreciates the humanitarian importance of the suggested operation. However, after due consideration of the problem, it is considered that the most effective relief to the victims… is the early defeat of the Axis.’72 By then the opportunity to save the remainder of Hungary’s Jews had telescoped to only fifteen days, since all deportations were over by 9 July 1944 and photo-reconnaissance, weather analysis and operational planning would together have taken longer than that. Moreover, there were no fewer than seven separate railway lines which fed into the Lvov–Auschwitz route, of which Košice-Preskov was only one. (Auschwitz had initially been chosen precisely because it was a nodal point for eastern and southern-eastern European railway junctions.) ‘Even if it had been successfully bombed,’ concludes an historian of these various schemes to save the Hungarian Jews, ‘Jews would simply have been transported over a different route.’73 As the section covering the Holocaust in the modern Obersalzberg Documentation Centre’s exhibition states above its entrance: Alle Wege führen nach Auschwitz (All roads lead to Auschwitz).

With the Allied Chiefs of Staff still concentrating on the aftermath of the Normandy invasion – Caen did not fall until 9 July – the bombing of Auschwitz was not likely to get high-level consideration. Nonetheless, the camp inmates – many of whom would have been killed – desperately wanted the camps to be bombed. When the nearby IG Farben factory was attacked and forty Jews and fifteen SS were killed, the inmates inwardly celebrated, despite the nearly three-to-one ratio of deaths between oppressed and oppressor. The War Refugee Board officially called for the bombing of Auschwitz on 8 November 1944, drawing a comparison with the RAF Mosquito precision bombing of Amiens prison that February, during which 258 inmates had escaped, although 100 had died. By then it was almost too late, as the last gassings in the camp took place on 28 November, a mere twenty days later. With the autumn weather in southern Poland providing only patchy opportunities for bombing from bases many hundreds of miles away, good visibility was necessary for the kind of precision attacking that would be needed, very far removed from the kind necessary merely to bomb the nearby industrial plants. The post-war suggestion that de Havilland DH-98 Mosquito bombers should have attacked Auschwitz – no one came up with any such scheme during the war – has been exploded by a United States Air Force Historical Research Center archivist, Dr James H. Kitchens III, who has pointed out that ‘flying over 620 miles in radio silence, crossing the Alps in some semblance of cohesion at low altitude, then sneaking through German air defenses with enough fuel to make a coordinated precision attack on five [gas chambers and crematoria] targets and return home beggars belief.’74

What might well have happened, given the inaccuracy of even so-called precision bombing – only 34 per cent of bombs dropped by the USAAF fell within a thousand feet of their targets – was that the gas chambers would have survived whereas thousands of innocents in the nearby huts would have perished. For this reason, some Jewish groups in Britain and America specifically opposed the bombing of the camps.75 The decision not to attack was thus not a war crime, or a culpable moral failure – as some allege – nor even the dismal failure of the imagination that it might seem to modern eyes. For the past three decades aerial photographs of Auschwitz have been published which were taken by an Allied air crew on 25 August 1944 and which clearly show, once enlarged, the positions of the gas chambers and crematoria and even a line of people making their way to their deaths. It is therefore widely assumed that the Allied air forces could have destroyed the facilities with relative ease. In fact, however, these photographs were printed from the negatives for the first time only in 1978, and during the war the technology was not available to enlarge the photographs to the extent that the group of people would have been identifiable. The leading expert on Second World War photo-intelligence, Colonel Roy M. Stanley, has stated that ‘This 1978 photo analysis contains an understanding and correlation of what was happening on the ground that would have been impossible for a 1945-vintage interpreter.’76

The supply of the Warsaw Uprising by air had been costly to the RAF: in twenty-two missions over six weeks to mid-August 1944, thirty-one out of 181 aircraft had failed to return. The British Foreign Office, as one of its officials minuted, was opposed to operations that ‘would cost British lives and aircraft to no purpose’.77 Various Foreign Office officials had reason to be ashamed of their notes on files, such as that of Armine Dew, who wrote of the Red Army’s treatment of Romanian Jews in September 1944: ‘In my opinion a disproportionate amount of the time of the Office is wasted on dealing with these wailing Jews.’78 Nor was that an isolated example.

The American Assistant Secretary of War, John McCloy, rejected an appeal to bomb the gas chambers and crematoria on the grounds that it ‘could only be executed by the diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations elsewhere and would in any case be of such doubtful efficacy that it would not warrant the use of our resources’. Far less convincingly, McCloy also argued that any such action ‘might provoke even more vindictive action by the Germans’.79The synthetic-oil and -rubber plant at Monowitz was bombed by the Fifteenth US Air Force on 20 August 1944, from Foggia in southern Italy, with the loss of only one out of 127 Flying Fortresses. Much damage was done, and the morale of the prisoners of Auschwitz–Birkenau was boosted, for as one of them, Arie Hassenberg, put it: ‘We thought, they know all about us, they are making preparations to free us, we might escape, some of us might get out, some of us might survive.’ He also declared: ‘To see a killed German; that was why we enjoyed the bombing.’80

Rationality might have dictated that, once the war looked as if it might be lost, the rail, military and human resources put into the Holocaust ought to have been immediately redirected to the military effort instead, and the Jews who could have been forced into contributing to the war effort ought to have been put to work rather than exterminated. Yet a quite separate, entirely Nazi, rationale argued that the worsening situation on the Eastern Front required if anything an intensification of the Holocaust, rather than a winding down. ‘Whipping up anti-Jewish frenzy was, in Hitler’s imagination,’ writes Saul Friedländer, ‘one of the best ways to hasten the falling apart of the enemy alliance,’ because in his diseased imagination ‘the Jews were the hidden link that kept Capitalism and Bolshevism together’. 81 Furthermore, if Fortress Europe was about to be invaded, the supposed domestic danger posed by the Jews needed to be eradicated as soon as possible.

Speaking at the Sportpalast on 18 February 1943, only days after Field Marshal Paulus’ capitulation at Stalingrad, perhaps Germany’s greatest single defeat of the war, Goebbels made a Freudian slip during his harangue against the supposed ‘Jewish liquidation squads’ that he claimed were stationed ‘behind the onrushing Russian divisions’ (a neat inversion of what the Einsatzgruppen had done behind the onrushing German divisions). ‘Germany in any case has no intention of bowing to this threat,’ Goebbels told his enormous, carefully chosen and wildly appreciative audience, ‘but means to counter it in time and if necessary with the complete and radical extermin— [Ausrott—]’ – he then corrected himself and said instead – ‘elimination [Ausschaltung]’. This was greeted with applause, shouts of ‘Out with the Jews’ and laughter.82 Broadcast live to tens of millions of Germans, the speech was Goebbels’ best known, and was delivered under a huge banner stating: ‘Totaler Krieg = Kürzester Krieg’ (Total war = shortest war). Across the Reich, the man closest to Hitler could be heard hastily correcting ‘Ausrottung’ to ‘Ausschaltung’. Germans took note.

Because Hitler did not spell out his thinking in regard to the relative importance of the Holocaust and victory on the Eastern Front, we can only surmise. It is not impossible that the reason that the Holocaust was intensified when defeat seemed likely, rather than halted as logic might imply – albeit to be reinstated after victory was won – goes to the heart of Hitler’s view of his own place in history. Even if Germany lost the war, he believed, he would always be the man responsible for the complete extermination of the Jewish race in Europe. That would be his legacy to the Volk, even if the Allies managed to defeat the Reich. Putting his dream of a Judenfrei (Jew-free) world even before the need for victory was a measure of Hitler’s fanaticism. He knew that German Jews had fought bravely for the Kaiser in the Great War, winning many Iron Crosses and producing impressive officers. Indeed it was largely down to the efforts of the Jewish adjutant of his own regiment, Second Lieutenant Hugo Gutman, that he received his own Iron Cross First Class. A Hitler who in 1933 had ditched anti-Semitism once he had come to power might have been able to harness millions of the brightest and the best-educated Europeans to the German war effort by 1939, including its award-winning nuclear scientists. A conservative nationalist German might possibly have achieved that, but Hitler’s Nazism meant that he never wanted to.

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