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Rees, book cover

"The Development and Implementation of the Ultimate Death Machine"

Book Essay on:
Laurence Rees, Auschwitz: A New History
(New York: PublicAffairs, 2005), 300 pages.
UCSB D805.5.A96 R44 2005

by Adam Rapaport
March 14, 2008

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in German History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2008

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
at amazon

About Adam Rapaport

I am a senior Business Economics major and History minor. The Holocaust is a subject dear to my heart because my mother’s family is German, and they had to flee in wake of the Nazi rise to power. I have been to Germany, and walked through the camp at Bergen-Belsen, which has resonated with me for years. The mounds of thousands of unmarked graves were a grim reminder of the Nazi atrocities. This is part of the reason I chose to read Rees’s book, because I wanted to understand the camp dynamic, and how a machine of death could develop and function.

Abstract (back to top)Gate of Auschwitz I

The book is about all of the events surrounding Auschwitz from start to finish. The camp began as a relatively small prisoner work camp, and evolved into a large complex of mass murder on a scale the world had never known. This evolution into a place of death occurred for economic, political, and racially motivated reasons. The author’s contention that the killing of Jews at the gas chambers in Auschwitz was not predetermined, but rather created out of various opportunities and advantages by the Nazis, seems to hold much weight in light of the evidence. The evidence shows that Nazi leadership had to deal with self-created problems in dealing with the Jews, as “space” for the Jews ran out in the Reich and surrounding areas during the war. The move to the ghettos and finally to the death and/or concentration camps were the ways that Nazis dealt with their “Jewish Problem.”

Essay (back to top)

Summary Description

Laurence Rees’s Auschwitz: A New History places the infamous death camp in the context of World War II by detailing the way in which the camp developed and how it functioned internally. Although the book examines the international situation and historical implications, the author’s main purpose is to try to explain the nature and evolution of the camp from start to finish. As Auschwitz opened in southwest Poland in June 1940, the author stresses that not even Rudolf Hoss (the camp commandant) could have foreseen the mass murder that would eventually take place there.

The camp initially was designed to hold the basic enemies of the Third Reich: criminals, political opponents, and other “degenerates.” A system of brutality quickly developed and was encouraged by the SS guards. “Block 11” was established as place of torture and death. The “Kapo” system was initiated, where one prisoner was chosen to police others, and very often severely abused this power. Survival often depended on befriending a kapo and avoiding the backbreaking labor by working indoors. As these prisoners were routinely beaten, starved, and utterly dehumanized, the situation for the Jews in Germany was not much different.

The Nuremberg Laws of 1933 began a systematic stripping of Jewish-Germans’ rights, citizenship, and assets. Kristallnacht took place in 1938, dissolving any notion that Jewry in the Reich could have a peaceful coexistence with their “Aryan” neighbors. Furthermore, it was the start of roundups of Jewish men to the camps. As World War II commenced, Poland was conquered and divided by Hitler and Stalin. Under Hitler’s racial plan, in 1940 Himmler began expelling Poles from their homes in order to make room for the ethnic Germans moving west, and simultaneously shipping Jews east. The “problem” of the Jews plagued the Nazi leadership like Goering, Heyrich, and Himmler, who were “running out” of space in the East. Plans for shipping the Jews to Madagascar never materialized, and Himmler authorized Jews to be shot en masse in the East.

Turning to Auschwitz, Himmler realized the economic value of slave labor and ordered the expansion of the camp between 1940-41 to bring the SS profits. Hoss had to make do with scarce materials and untrained labor, and as a result many died. More Jews, Polish Catholics, and “undesirables” were brought into the expanded camp. 1941 then saw the gassing of mentally disabled and sick people from Auschwitz by order 14f13. However, this euthanasia project did not take place at the camp, but at a nearby facility. Though as Soviet POWs were sent to the camp, Zyklon B was first used in 1941 in Block 11 to kill the sick, and Birkenau was built. Meanwhile, the Jewish ghettos were rapidly and dangerously expanding.

While the Eastern front in summer of 1941 saw the atrocities of SS units shooting women and children, Hitler saw fit to deport German Jews to the Lodz ghetto. Starvation and disease spread quickly as tens of thousands were made to live in an area meant for hundreds. Working conditions were dire, and abuse was commonplace. The Nazis then developed the policy of killing Jews in the ghetto to make room for the thousands of German Jews flooding in from the West. The Chelmno camp was erected for precisely this purpose of “making space.” Back in southwestern Poland, Hoss was rapidly expanding the Nazi death machine.

In March 1942 Hoss built crematoriums and gas chambers to increase the killing efficiency. Slovakian Jews were some of the first to be sent to Auschwitz and gassed. The selection process singled out those who were to work and those to die in the chambers. Following the Slovaks came the French, Poles, Romanians, and other nationalities of Jews in the summer of 1942. While the death machine of Auschwitz was at full swing, Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka were doing their “part” for the Third Reich by killing 1.7 million people. On January 18, 1943 the Warsaw ghetto was liquidated followed by the first crematorium in Birkenau being opened in March. Conditions in the camp itself and surrounding areas were utterly appalling, as the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele conducted horrific experiments, Jewish women were routinely raped, and lice and tuberculosis were rampant. As the war turned against the Germans in 1944, they tremendously increased their killing of the Hungarian Jews. In January 1945, the Red Army liberated the camp, but with little reprieve for the survivors of the ovens.

Survivors of Auschwitz returned back to their homes, only to find them occupied by new residents. Antisemitism was at a fever pitch after the war, as Europeans did not wish to acknowledge the atrocities to which they were witnesses. Battle-hardened Russians raped and pillaged the survivors, causing overall chaos. For the survivors of the gas chambers, new homes had to be found in America and Israel. For the 1.1 million murdered at Auschwitz, retribution against the perpetrators was terribly lacking and insufficient as many SS slipped through the cracks to escape justice.

Thesis Statement

Laurence Rees’s Auschwitz: A New History addresses many questions about Auschwitz and its development from conception to liberation. The book explains how the Nazis did not have a concrete plan for solving the “Jewish Problem” before World War II, but rather took advantage of opportunities and improvised along the way to end up at the “Final Solution” as the public knows it today. The nature of this path was by no means straight, as Nazi elites constantly debated and argued the fate of European Jewry. From Hitler to Himmler, down to Hoss and Oskar Groening (Auschwitz SS guard) the author places blame on the perpetrators for the terrible atrocities committed in the name of a twisted Nazi ideology. Rees details the day-to-day camp functions and clearly shows the evil humans are capable of inflicting on one another. Drawing on credible sources enables Rees to make his point with more poignancy. The German cable detailing the camp death toll found at the Public Record Office in London (p.164) and the Sonderkammando letters (p.231) are just two examples among the personally conducted interviews, public speeches, personal memoirs and letters, and other material of public record that Rees utilizes to display the horror of Auschwitz in its entirety.

Main Body

The plan for Auschwitz was not predetermined. The Nazis took advantage of situations before and throughout the war to make Auschwitz a camp of extermination. Rees makes his thesis clear that “No one on that first day, and that certainly included Rudolf Hoss, could have predicted the camp would, within five years, become the site of the largest mass murder the world has ever seen” (Rees, 1). The Nazi policy of “racial purity” dictated the hatred of the Jews and the utter contempt of their religion and practices. There is no doubt that before the outbreak of the war, Nazi policy was decisively antisemitic and propaganda-filled, as evidenced by the Nuremburg Law of 1933 and Kristallnacht in 1938.

But while Hitler clearly hated the Jews, and had demonstrably done so since the end of WW, and may, indeed, have privately expressed the desire to see them all die, no Nazi blueprint planning their extermination was yet in existence. (p.12)

Though no blueprint for extermination was yet in place, racial policy dictated the Third Reich to be “Jew free” and that ethnic Germans be “returned” back to the Fatherland. In Hitler’s October 1939 speech, he proclaimed, “the main task is to create a new ethnographic order, i.e. to resettle the nationalities so that in the end better lines of demarcation exist than today” (p.11). This demonstrates that Hitler wanted to restructure the demographics of the Reich under Nazi racial-ethnic policy. Similarly, Heinrich Himmler’s “Some Thoughts on the Treatment of Alien Populations of the East” (1940) explained the context in which Auschwitz was to function as a camp for “unwanted” peoples. So it can be inferred that as of 1940 the Nazi plan was to move millions of people east and west in order to perfect the targeted Nazi demographics. Unfortunately, the Nazis did not care about the thousands who were killed in forced deportations as a result of a total lack of preparation. Goebbels remarked in his diary in January 1940, “Himmler is presently shifting populations. Not always successfully” (p.15). The term “not always successfully” was cover for the simple fact that many were killed in these forced deportations. But the Nazis also kept other possibilities at the forefront, especially transporting the Jews out of Europe. In a Himmler memorandum, he remarked, “I hope to see the term ‘Jews’ completely eliminated through the possibility of a large-scale emigration of all Jews to Africa or to some other colony” (p.18). Though this particular idea never came to fruition, Nazi elites definitely were thinking “out of the box” to rid themselves of Jews.

As Himmler shifted populations around Europe, Jews went east and ethnic Germans west. However, the problem of space in the East became a crucial issue for the Nazis. The Russian campaign opened with rapid success for the Wehrmacht in summer of 1941, leaving millions of Jews and Slavs in Nazi hands, with little infrastructure and food available. Himmler decided to resort to murder. “Now the Nazis had decided to gather together women and children, make them strip, line them up next to an open pit, and shoot them,” comments the author (p. 46). A July 31, 1941 authorization of between Heydrich and by Goering shows Nazi support for still resettling Jews in the East, and killing them only to make room. “The decision to kill women and children in the East was seen as the practical way of solving an immediate and specific problem” (p.51). Murder was to be the solution for an “unnecessary population.” Still however, no explicit extermination was professed in order to deal with Jews entirely, for these decisions were only regarding the East. While the deportations of Jews to the East were taking place, as well as the massive shootings, Auschwitz was taking on a new role.

The decision to expand Auschwitz was based mainly on economic principles. “In September 1940 Oswald Pohl, head of the SS Main Administration and Economic Office, inspected the camp and told Hoss to increase its capacity” (p.23). As Heydrich, Goering, and Himmler contended for power in the Nazi strata, Himmler’s vitality depended on the survival and success of the camp system. Himmler wanted to maintain his portion of control in the Nazi hierarchy, and to keep the camp system afloat, he and the SS had to go into business. The large supply of slave labor was an irresistible temptation to make a profit. An estimated 30 million Reichmarks of pure profit was made from the camp by the end of the war (p.281). A big break for Himmler came in 1940 as Goering agreed for I.G. Farben to build its factory near the camp, and the camp was to provide labor. This expanded the camp from 10,000 to 30,000 prisoners. (p.33) From 1940-41 Auschwitz’s expansion due to economic factors extended the camp to the surrounding countryside, and capitalized on the suffering of thousands of human beings. Himmler’s vision of the camp as an industrial powerhouse serving the German economy was largely achieved. For the Nazis, the expansion of Auschwitz not only served an economic function, but also became a conduit to which they could eventually conduct their mass killings of Jews.

Extermination of the Jewish people became a central part of the Nazi plan after America’s entry into the war following the bombing at Pearl Harbor. Blaming an “international Jewish conspiracy,” Hitler spoke incessantly about the prospect of fighting the United States. On December 13, 1941 Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary:

As far as the Jewish question is concerned, the Fuhrer is determined to make a clean sweep. He prophesied to the Jews that if they once again brought about a world war they would experience their own extermination. This was not an empty phrase. The world war is here; the extermination of the Jews must be the necessary consequence. This question must be seen without sentimentality. (p.74)

As 1941 came to a close, the momentous shift in Nazi policy can be seen as extermination increasingly started to become the “answer to the Jewish question.” On December 18, 1941 Himmler noted “Jewish question, to be exterminated as partisans.” The reference to “partisans” is part of the camouflage language that allowed the murder of Jews to be concealed as necessary security work in the East (p.75). From deportations to the massive expansion of the camp system, to a sinister view of eradication, the Nazis used Auschwitz to fulfill their psychotic desires.

Adolf Eichmann’s minutes during the Wannsee conference in January 1942 shed more light on the issue of the “Final Solution.” The conference conferred that Nazi leadership wished to eradicate the Jews through forced labor and killings. However, the official declaration for extermination did not come until that summer. On July 19, 1942 Himmler announced, “I herewith order that the resettlement of the entire Jewish population of the General Government be carried out and completed by December 31” (p.146). Himmler had set a target date for the deaths of millions of Polish Jews. Nazis were now going to officially murder the Jews. Auschwitz would be the mechanism for Nazis to accomplish this sadistic aim. “The crematoria/gas chambers of Birkenau were to be the hub of a huge semi-industrial complex. Here, selected Jews could first be sent to work at one of a large number of sub-camps nearby, and then, when they were deemed no longer fit to work after months of appalling mistreatment, they could be transported a few miles to the extermination facilities of Auschwitz-Birkenau” (p. 170). The road to mass destruction of life at Auschwitz was now complete.

Although Rees presents his arguments in a very effective and fact-filled manner, others have refuted the notion that Auschwitz was developed over time and argued that the extermination was planned before the war. Two pieces of evidence seem to support this statement. In Mein Kampf (1925), “Hitler expressed his opinion that it would have been to Germany’s advantage in WWI to use ‘poison gas’ on 10 to 12,000 of these Hebrew destroyers of the nation” (p.11). Clearly, his genocidal tendencies are presented. Though Mein Kampf delves into the inner workings of a madman, it does not outline a specific plan for the annihilation of the Jewish people. Then, the infamous speech by Hitler to the Reichstag on January 30, 1939: “I want today to be a prophet again: if international finance and Jewry inside and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, the result will be not the bolshevization of the earth and thereby the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.” (p.38) Hitler’s remarks pointed to the possibility of Jewish extermination, but it is not warranted to claim that this was his aim before the war, at least what can be deduced from the said quotations. Yes, a persistent mad obsession of antisemitism pervaded Hitler’s crazed mind, but the evidence simply does not factually prove that he had a concrete plan for genocide on a scale that the world had never known.

Laurence Rees’s assertion that Auschwitz evolved into a death camp is convincing. The camp’s beginnings were crude and unsophisticated, and in 1940 no one could have predicted the devastation. For it was even permissible in those early months to be incarcerated in Auschwitz, serve time there, and then be released like many Polish prisoners. The camp grew in stature and size for mainly economic reasons, but it became clear for leaders like Himmler that Auschwitz could be used as a “final destination” for the Jews. The Eastern Front saw mobile death squads shooting men, women, and children to “make space.” But this program quickly turned to a new purpose. “During 1941-42 the extermination program was to create space, but by winter 1943 the Germans were losing and another motivation came to pass which was vengeance” (p.210). By summer of 1943 Auschwitz-Birkenau was an industrial killing plant with four total crematoriums. Nazis no longer preached the position of forced deportations or “making space” but implicitly created a policy of mass murder directed at the Jews.

The memoirs and interviews on nearly every page of Rees’s book illuminate the immense and incomprehensible suffering. The stories of Toivi Blatt, Helena Citronova, Michel Muller and many others illustrate the hardships Jews faced in order to survive, and stressed the importance of personal relationships in surviving and make life worth living. Rees shows that there were courageous peoples like the Danes who helped the Jews in times of peril. Rees presents an overall lesson to be taken away from Auschwitz, that something like this can never be allowed to happen again. We must teach future generations what has occurred, and the terrible evil that human beings are capable of committing if people stand idly by in silence.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/24/08)

Book Reviews:

  • White, J.R. "Rees, Laurence: Auschwitz: A New History."  History: Review of New Books 34.1 (Fall 2005): 19. available on Expanded Academic ASAP. 
    Brief review of the book that gives a good overview of the contents, and comments on some specific omissions made by the author.
  • Brown, Doug. review at Powell’s Books, July 2005. (2 pages) http://www.powells.com/review/2005_07_30.html
    Praiseworthy review that credits Rees with his research on historical evidence, and his avoidance of romanticizing the victims and demonizing the perpetrators.
  • Ascheron, Neal. The Observer January 2005. (4 pages)
    Review that highlights the author’s many digressions from the main thesis, as well as the lack of information about Jewish resistance networks in the camps.
  • "Auschwitz: a New History."  Publishers Weekly 252.2 (Jan 10, 2005): 50.  at amazon
    Review that focuses on Rees’s controversial stances, such as bombing the tracks to Auschwitz would not have saved many Jews, as well as the “ad hoc” theory of the development of the camp.
  • Dave Davies, review of Rees, Auschwitz, NRP.org, Jan. 30, 2005 (link)

Web Sites:

  • Adolf Hitler, “The Nazi Genocide” Updated 2008.
    This website demonstrates the view that Hitler had a clear intention of murdering Jews as early as the 1920s. This claim is backed by quotes from Hitler and top Nazi officials. It is a much touted outlook on the plan of genocide, but one refuted by Rees in his book.
  • Memorial Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau, “The History of Auschwitz Concentration Camp” Updated 2003. http://www.auschwitz-muzeum.oswiecim.pl/html/eng/start/index.html This website contains useful information about the establishment of the camp, the expansion, the crematoria and gas chambers, the number and origins of the many victims, and the liberation of the camp. Detailed historical information is provided as well as many pictures of the camp complex and victims
  • Shoah Education, “Final Solution” Updated 2003. http://www.shoaheducation.com/endlosung.html
    Interesting site that includes discussion of when the Nazis chose to resort to extermination. The opposing views of “predetermined destruction” and “take advantage of opportunities” theories are compared and weighted with evidence. The site’s authors lean toward genocide being formulated by Hitler much before the outbreak of WWII.
  • United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Auschwitz”
    This website is a great tool for learning about the Holocaust in general. It contains very reliable information from an array of sources. Concentrating on Auschwitz, the site gives a detailed overview of the camp and its workings. From the purpose of construction to the description of the death machine, this site provides useful information about the camp.
  • Wikipedia. “Auschwitz Concentration Camp” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auschwitz_concentration_camp
    This website contains basic encyclopedic information of Auschwitz and the Nazi genocide. Its facts and figures are drawn from many worldwide sources.

Books and Articles:

  • Aly, Götz, Architects of Annihilation: Auschwitz and the Logic of Destruction, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002, 378 pages; UCSB Library D804.3.A49 2002.
    This book examines the notion that Auschwitz should be understood not in terms of ‘a totally irrational racial hatred’ but rather as being motivated primarily by ‘utilitarian goals’. They explained the Holocaust as part of a much broader and rationally motivated project, a ‘grand strategy known as “negative population policy.” These views are similar to that of Rees, who stresses the economic considerations and racial policies that formed the basis of the Holocaust.
  • Burleigh, Michael, Ethics and Extermination: Reflections on Nazi Genocide / Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997, 273 pages.UCSB library: D804.G4 B777 1997 
    This series of essays on German racial policy concern three interrelated aspects of Nazi Germany: relations with "the East," "euthanasia," and extermination. This relates to Rees’s many discussions of Nazi policy in the East. Also, the author’s concern to relate the past to contemporary ethical issues fills a void that Rees’s book possesses.
  • Levi, Primo, The Black Hole of Auschwitz (Malden, MA: Polity, 2005), 240 pages. Main Library PQ4872.E8 A8513 2005 
    This book brings together Levi’s writings on the Holocaust and his experiences of the concentration camp. Levis uses his writing to understand why the Holocaust could happen, and it acts as a safeguard against the loss of a collective memory of the atrocities perpetrated against the Jewish people. While Rees’s book touches on some of the personal feelings of the Auschwitz atrocities, Levi’s writings serve to expound on the human emotion felt during that time.

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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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