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Holocaust and Genocide Studies 17.2 (2003) 330-350

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Auschwitz, Capital of the Holocaust

Peter Hayes
Northwestern University

Auschwitz 1940-1945: Central Issues in the History of the Camp, Waclaw Dlugoborski and Franciszek Piper, eds., William Brand, trans. (Oswiecim: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, 2000), 5 vols., 1250 pp., PLN 265.00.
Vol. I, The Establishment and Organization of the Camp, Aleksander Lasik, Franciszek Piper, Piotr Setkiewicz, and Irena Strzelecka
Vol. II, The Prisoners-Their Life and Work, Tadeusz Iwaszko, Helena Kubica, Franciszek Piper, Irena Strzelecka, and Andrzej Strzelecki
Vol. III, Mass Murder, Franciszek Piper
Vol. IV, The Resistance Movement, Henryk Swiebocki
Vol. V, Epilogue, Danuta Czech, Stanislaw Klodzinski, Aleksander Lasik, and Andrzej Strzelecki
Darstellungen und Quellen zur Geschichte von Auschwitz, Bernd C. Wagner, Norbert Frei, Sybille Steinbacher, Thomas Grotum, and Jan Parcer, eds. (München: K.G. Saur, 2000), 4 vols., 1684 pp., €229.00.
Vol. I, Standort und Kommandanturbefehle des Konzentrationslagers Auschwitz 1940-1945, Norbert Frei, Thomas Grotum, Jan Parcer, Sybille Steinbacher, and Bernd C. Wagner, eds.
Vol. II, "Musterstadt" Auschwitz: Germanisierungspolitik und Judenmord in Ostoberschlesien, Sybille Steinbacher
Vol. III, IG Auschwitz: Zwangsarbeit und Vernichtung von Häftlingen des Lagers Monowitz 1941-1945, Bernd C. Wagner
Vol. IV, Ausbeutung, Vernichtung, Öffentlichkeit: Neue Studien zur nationalsozialistischen Lagerpolitik, Norbert Frei, Sybille Steinbacher, and Bernd C. Wagner

We know Auschwitz as a relentless dispenser of death, either immediate or delayed. From the opening of the camp in May 1940 to its evacuation in January 1945, some 1.3 million people were transported to the site, of whom only about 200,000 ever left alive, only 125,000 of these surviving the Third Reich. Of these captives 1.1 million were Jews, about eighty percent of whom succumbed upon arrival or shortly thereafter to the monstrous disassembly line that the SS perfected. Offloaded like cargo from trucks and trains, sheared of what could be turned to further use (baggage, valuables, clothing, [End Page 330] and shoes), and subjected to chemical "treatment" with Zyklon B, they became corpses within hours, then were stripped of marketable components (their hair and the gold and silver from their fingers and mouths), reduced to ashes and bits of bone by incineration, and scattered as landfill or fertilizer.

For the other twenty percent of the Jews and the more than 200,000 non-Jews sent to Auschwitz, admission to the camp complex meant entering a ghoulish discivilization, probably the most fully realized expression of what the Nazi New Order had in store for those who offended the Master Race. Not only factory-like in its flow of input and output, in the smoking chimneys and flaming pits, that at times resembled nothing more closely than a primitive steel plant, Auschwitz also took on the features of an especially hideous, large, and crowded company town. Those culled from the arriving shipments were crammed into rows of scarcely habitable barracks that ultimately spread over a combined area of approximately 350 acres; subjected to the merciless orders of several hundred "block seniors" and "Kapos" (mostly German criminals), and an SS contingent that averaged 2,500 men; and consigned to attrition through disease, hunger, and brutality, often coupled with exhausting labor inside camp confines or on nearby construction projects, in the neighboring coal mines, and at other locations to which prisoners were dispatched. Though the inmate population mounted from approximately 10,000 at the end of 1940 toward some 130,000 in mid-1944, each particular total always contained only a remnant of the previous count. Because of both the toll it exacted and its sheer physical size, Auschwitz became the very capital of the Holocaust—not its decision-making center, to be sure, but the place most indelibly linked with all of its multiple dimensions.

Yet, if the devil lies in the details, he has done so tenaciously at Auschwitz. Until quite recently, large gaps remained in our knowledge of matters such as how the camp came to be, how it evolved and operated, how ramified its reach became, how many it killed, and how people managed to live within, resist, and survive it. 1...


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