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"How was Auschwitz Possible?"

Book Essay on:
Deborah Dwork and Robert-Jan van Pelt,
Auschwitz, 1270-Present
(New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1997), 444 pages

by Julia Jankowski
March 19, 2007

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1900-1945
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2007

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
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About Julia Jankowski

I am a Senior Political Science major and History minor. I am most interested in the time between World War Two and the end of the Cold War. My background is in foreign affairs, the interplay and communication between nations. I have traveled to Germany once. My ancestry is Polish and German. I chose Auschwitz as the topic of my research because it brings together the connection between Germany and Poland in one of the most cruel and significant historical paths.

Abstract (back to top)

Authors Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt describe the transformations at Auschwitz from 1270 to the present that led to its development to become a central symbol of the Holocaust. They look specifically at the connection between old history (from the 13th century to the 19th century) and 20th century events that turned Auschwitz into a Nazi concentration and death camp. They use a variety of historical perspectives in their attempt to answer the question: How was Auschwitz possible? They claim that among several reasons, Auschwitz was possible mostly because of its history as a lost German territory, its economic value because of the barracks that were constructed for industry and labor, its location near railway intersections, and the visions of individuals like Himmler whose imaginations brought its capabilities to life.

Essay (back to top)

Auschwitz is perhaps the best known concentration and death camp of the Holocaust. Many people visit the historic site each year and condemn its existence as a spot of the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent people. However, few understand the origins of the town of Oswiecim, later to be known as Auschwitz, and the historical transformations that changed it from Polish border town to Nazi death camp. Tourists, “too tense on their way to the concentration camp museum, and too shocked afterwards, have no time for the town’s other history” (18). Thus, Robert Jan van Pelt and Deborah Dwork, authors of Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present, attempt to explain the historical transitions of this town and the mechanisms by which it became such a symbol of terror. More specifically, the authors attempt to clarify the mindsets and intentions of the individual agents most responsible for the advancement of Auschwitz and the socio-political circumstances that enabled its development. The authors use several historical perspectives in a generally “structuralist” historical paradigm (meaning they view decisions by Nazi leadership that led to mass execution as responses to situational circumstances and goals, rather than as pre-decided efforts to accomplish an original goal) to attempt to answer the overarching question: How was Auschwitz possible? They conclude that Auschwitz was possible because of its history as a lost German territory (which produced resentment), its economic value because of the barracks that were constructed for industry and labor, its location near railway intersections, and the visions of individuals like Himmler whose imaginations brought its capabilities to life.

The book begins by illustrating the ethnic transitions and different governing orders that affected the town of Oswiecim and the “German East” in general in order to provide a background for the future ethnic and political conflict. The authors explain that:

There is no bridge to link the before of seven centuries of ordinary history with the after of five years of extraordinary suffering, the here of the town of Oswiecim and the there of the konzentrationslager, concentration camp, at Auschwitz… this book examines this missing link.” (18-19)

They begin by examining Auschwitz through a long-term historical perspective with the goal of connecting the ancient past with the events of the Second World War. The most emphatic observation that the authors discuss is the connection between German nationalism during World War Two and a long-existing nostalgia for the German East long ago. The authors discuss that during the Middle Ages, Polish kings, bishops, and landowners had competed to attract German immigrants. They explain the foundation for German nostalgia toward the “lost” East by discussing how “the newcomers had cleared the land, founded towns and villages, and brought their law and culture with them. In return, they had received an inalienable title to the soil which, seven centuries later, was still valid” (21). The authors show that after the town of Oswiecim became Polish territory in 1918 after the First World War, many Germans began to believe that “every trace of Polish culture within Poland was the result of German achievement” (26). They illustrate this discussion of German resentment and describe grounds for later hostility toward the Poles by referencing an SS handbook, which declared that “for centuries the German East has been the German people’s destiny. And in the centuries to come it will remain so” (31).

The authors use a more contemporary historical perspective to examine the political interactions that developed more German interest Oswiecim and bitter feelings toward the Polish. They discuss the more recent territorial changes, such as the development of West Prussia and the unification of Germany that occurred during the 19 th century. The authors explain that these political developments “changed the official attitude toward the Polish minority… German scholarship began to fix the area ideologically as a German East with no room for a Polish element” (48). The authors provide evidence for this fact by citing measures initiated by the newly unified German government “to combat Polish nationalism through a stiff program of ‘Germanization’” (48-49). In doing so, they highlight longstanding animosity toward the Polish and exemplify the early foundations for the later “Germanization” attempts in the German East during the 1930s and 1940s.

In the midst of the more historical accounts of the German East, the authors integrate the societal and economic circumstances and animosities that arose in Auschwitz to show early transformations to the later use of Auschwitz as a Nazi death camp. For example, at the town’s industrial and economic origin within projects to build up the German East, “ Oswiecim was envisioned as the political, economic, and cultural center of this New South Tyrol. To prepare the town for its pride of place, officials hastily renamed the town Auschwitz” (118). The town’s buildup of barracks and industry would later be aimed at economic prosperity with the incorporation of IG Farben in 1942, during which slave labor would be exploited. Furthermore, the authors describe that in the early 20 th century, “ Auschwitz had a population of a little over 10,000 people, of whom 5,000 were Jews” (59). These Jews often lived in poor communities but took part in the economic affairs of Auschwitz. However, with the German vision of a pure, prosperous German town, “the Jews had no [civil or social] place in what had become another town of the Third Reich. Soon after the rechristening of the town and the market, the first 1,000 Jewish inhabitants of German Auschwitz were deported” (119). Those remaining would provide some of the slave labor to produce economic prosperity for the Germans. Thus, the authors explain social and economic conditions that contributed to the development of Auschwitz as a concentration and death camp.

The book also relates events through the perspective of individual agents and personal interactions that developed both inside and outside Auschwitz to provide a background for who was most responsible for its development. Most frequently and as an example, the authors acknowledge the participation of Himmler as one of the most important initiators in the development of Auschwitz. As the head of the “Germanization” of the East, Himmler was most responsible for the transformation of Auschwitz into a Nazi concentration and death camp. However, it was not simply orders that guided Himmler’s behavior. Rather, the authors provide insight into Himmler’s personal agenda based on his speeches and memoirs. They provide not only an account of his interactions with other officers and Hitler, but they use this evidence to show emotions and circumstances that motivated his actions.

An example of this is that while Himmler’s goal was always to “Germanize” the East and get rid of all Jews and Poles, he most likely did not envision Auschwitz as a death camp until the war progressed and specifically, when he was confronted with personal competition and threats to his sovereignty over the German East. The authors discuss that “when Hitler turned to Rosenberg to deal with Russians and Jews in the East, Himmler understood that, if he were to prevail over Rosenberg, he would have to be seen as the more brutal and efficient” (286). The authors delve into their perception of Himmler’s thought-process, discussing that he “could show up Rosenberg as a moral coward in regard to the ‘Jewish Question’… If Himmler were to propose a plan that would take care of all of Europe’s Jews in a truly ‘Final Solution,’ he would transcend the parochialism of Rosenberg (287). In doing so, the authors attempt to answer how individual agents like Himmler came to organize Auschwitz as a death camp through a more personal lens. This structuralist viewpoint depicts Himmler’s individual actions as a response to a series of events that were not originally planned out but rather took place because of a spontaneous decision-making process, in accordance with his long standing goals and overarching vision.

While the book focuses on the development of Auschwitz in particular, it also addresses overarching developments in terms of political doctrines concerning Jews, Poles, and other groups the Nazis considered inferior, and it discusses political relations beyond the scope of Auschwitz in order to provide a background to the decision-making freedoms that Himmler exercised. The book relates the continual presence and evolution of the “Jewish Question.” It discusses the original intentions of Hitler and other Nazi officials to deport the Jews to North and South America, during which Auschwitz became involved in mass transportation efforts because of its location at the intersection of railway lines from the East (mainly Poland and Austria) to the West (Germany) and vice versa. The recurrent reference to the Jews and other perceived threats also provides a structuralist interpretation of the events at Auschwitz. The authors show the buildup of Nazi sentiment and transitions in policies as a background for their specific focus at Auschwitz.

The authors use several primary sources to provide as accurate an account as possible and to convey the attitudes and intentions of the leaders involved in Auschwitz. The authors use articles, postcards, handbooks, photographs, paintings, diaries, statements, memoirs, autobiographies, etc. to convey the scenario at Auschwitz that they attempt to explain. They especially use these to speculate as to the mindset of influential individuals responsible for the development of Auschwitz, such as Himmler. They reference changes in policies during the transformation of the Reich in order to show how Nazi sentiment materialized. While historians have few accounts from earlier centuries, the authors reference later documents, such as the writings and speeches from 20 th century Germans about their resentment toward Poland and sense of longstanding ownership and nationalism of the German East.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book as a whole is that the authors illuminate ominous aspects of the development of Auschwitz. In doing so, they not only explain its progression, but highlight the structural decision-making process that unfolded. The authors provide substantial accounts of earlier significant events that triggered later events and sparked Nazi ideas as to how to answer the “Jewish Question.” An example of this truthful foreshadowing is when they discuss the development of Zyklon B:

Zyklon B (to protect from typhus transmitted by lice), [which] had been introduced in in July 1940, was [also] used to fumigate prisoner’s clothing in primitive gas chambers… Effective as this procedure was, the camp authorities found it irritatingly inefficient. Engineers recommended the installation of many small heatable gas chambers designed to be used with the standard 200-gram tin of Zyklon B. (219-220)

This addition of gas chambers contributed to a chain of events that led to the use of mass murder technology against Jews, Poles, Soviets, and other non-Aryan groups. Additionally, the development of Zyklon B was more than used on the prisoner’s clothing. Before the use of Hydrocyanide and once Himmler’s resolve to finally answer the “Jewish Question” had crystallized, “in the summer of 1941 construction of delousing installations had been given the highest priority, and the lethal potential of Zyklon B was common knowledge... Hoss instructed Fritsch, who was responsible for the liquidation of the Soviets, to carry out a pilot experiment” (292). This experiment was carried out when Fritsch locked the Soviet prisoners into a basement cell and threw Zyklon B pellets into the room, during which all the prisoners died. The authors discuss how “encouraged by his success, Fritsch conducted the first mass execution with Zyklon B on 3 September, 1941” (292). The book exemplifies not only a structuralist interpretation of the goals of the Nazis (from deportation of the Jews to mass extermination), but also a structuralist interpretation of the evolution of physical mechanisms by which brutality and violence became extermination.

view of Auschwitz I gate from above

The book effectively answers the question as to how Auschwitz was possible through historical, socio-political, and individualistic lenses. However, there are a few specific considerations that the authors neglect to address. The authors attempt to explain Auschwitz historically and through the perspective of the German nationalists who changed it from an ordinary town to a death camp. While the book references the writings and diaries of some of those who were victims at Auschwitz, it neglects to put readers in the mindset of those enslaved there on a day-to-day or even progressing basis. Rather, we receive pieces of the victims’ accounts when there was a policy change, a horrendous day, etc. And while we read about the every day aspects of the barracks, the hunger, the murder, the fear, etc, we read little about the specific resistance efforts of victims or the ways in which victims passed the time when it was theirs (which was seldom). In general, I would have rather read more about the victims on a more personal level, in the way that I learned about the Nazis on a more personal basis.

Despite this, I would absolutely recommend the book to friends, historians, or anyone curious in a closer look at the happenings at Auschwitz and the conditions that enabled and led to its development as a Nazi concentration and death camp. It gives a broad range of perspectives, from related history, to specific occurrences at Auschwitz, to the mindsets of the individuals involved in both. It is a useful tool for examining the historical changes that led to Auschwitz, and I would be interested in reading another of the authors’ books on say, Dachau if they had written one. The book provides insight into several levels of analysis that makes it stand out above my prior information about Auschwitz.

As a brief comparison with the book, Laurence Rees, author of “Factories of Death” in Auschwitz: A New History, presents another historical perspective to the happenings at Auschwitz. While he tends to accomplish more of what I found to be missing in Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present (the perspectives of the victims involved and their day to day struggles), his book illustrates more of the common conception of Auschwitz: its role as a Nazi death camp, and not as the culmination of hundreds of years of socio-political buildup. Rees also relates the perspectives of some of the officers involved at Auschwitz, like the book I discuss, which is a useful addition of information on a more individual level. For example, Rees discusses that there “were other German officers, like Albert Battle, who protested the deportation of the Jews during the summer and Autumn of 1942, but they represented only a handful of the Wehrmacht presence in Poland, and their actions did virtually nothing” (155). He relates the mindsets of certain individuals involved on both ends in an almost story-like manner. Again, his depiction fits a more standard interpretation of Auschwitz as a sequence of events with the tone of sympathy toward the victims involved. The book Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present also expresses a sympathetic tone, but tells the history of Auschwitz in a more objective than emotional fashion, without much reference to victims but rather to the leadership that participated in the formation of Auschwitz.

Overall, the book Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present provides a unique combination of historical perspectives that relates aspects of the death camp’s development on historical, socio-political, cultural, and individual grounds. It provides an examination of early history that is usually absent from general knowledge and rhetoric concerning the existence of Auschwitz. The book illuminates the combination of an almost predestined or inescapable process of development (the railway lines, the resentment toward Poland and the location of Auschwitz in the “newly settled” East, the industrial value of the already-built work barracks) with the contribution of individual decision-making (i.e. Himmler’s visions and insecurities) that relates a structuralist answer to the overarching question: How was Auschwitz possible?

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/x/07)

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

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