After the Reichstag fire in January, 1933, a decree was issued by German President Hindenburg that severely limited German civil rights (free speech, free assembly, freedom from unwarranted search, etc.), all done in the name of national security and peace. That decree allowed the Nazi Party to round up political opponents, ransack their headquarters, interrupt their meetings, and create general havoc in anticipation of the national election to be held on March 5. With the help of the Nationalists, the Nazi party won a majority by 17 seats out 647. In the days following the election, the Nazi Party brutally manhandled their political enemies and imprisoned them in abandoned army barracks, factories, and various remote sites.
That was the beginning of concentration camps. Most initial camps were close to Berlin, but others soon sprang up across Germany. Used at first to imprison political opponents, they soon hosted a spectrum of Communists, Socialists, Social Democrats, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and persons accused of “asocial” or socially deviant behavior, as well as Jews. All were viewed by Hitler as enemies of the German people. Jews were added because it was generally accepted that they had helped engineer the disgraceful surrender of Germany at the end of WWI.
During the Third Reich, the persecution of Jewish people had four general phases. The first phase was legalized discrimination, where laws were passed demanding that Jews publicly self-identify, that Jewish businesses be openly marked, that Germans were forbidden to buy Jewish goods, that Jewish citizens were forbidden to go into public places, forced to wear the infamous yellow Star of David, not go to certain locations, report their finances and property, and other public humiliations. There was considerable pressure for Jews to leave their homes and emigrate outside of Germany.
On the night of November 9, 1938, Krystallnacht took it into a second phase. Jewish businesses were broken into, looted, and burned, while Jewish citizens were drug into the streets and beaten. Synagogues were burned. German citizens endorsed and participated in gangs, rallies, and open violence, resulting in Jews being killed, degraded, arrested, confined, and their businesses, property and money confiscated. Wanton killings of Jews were carried out, typically at the moment of perceived disobedience, or in groups to align with strategic political visions. Those suspected or arrested were taken to concentration camps.
The invasion of Poland in 1939 brought on a third general phase of Jewish persecution: Jews in Poland were systematically forced into ghettos, as were Russian Jews after the invasion of Russia. It soon became obvious that ghettos were not meant to be permanent places of settlement, but round-up centers to make it more convenient to move the occupants to forced labor camps, concentration camps and extermination camps.
Researchers at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum have found that the Nazis established 42,500 camps and ghettoes between 1933 and 1945. The count includes 30,000 slave labor camps; 1,150 Jewish ghettoes; 980 concentration camps; 1,000 POW camps; 500 brothels filled with sex slaves; and thousands of other camps used for euthanizing the elderly and infirm. Berlin alone had nearly 3,000 camps.
In addition to the creation of ghettos, the third general phase included mass killings, primarily those of Jewish descent, but also including Poles and Slavs, Soviet POWs, and isolated groups of civilians in conquered countries.
For example, when the German army invaded Poland in 1939, twenty-six hundred members of an SS task force followed behind the regular army and carried out “security activities” in the conquered areas. That translated into taking groups of typically Jewish men, women, and children into the countryside, making them dig large pits, and then standing in the pits as they were shot. The preferred target was the back of the head so the firing squads would not see their faces.
When the German army invaded Russia in 1941, four major groups of three thousand men each followed the army to hunt down Russian Jews wherever they could find them. Typically, they would round up Jews in the larger towns, march them outside the town, and shoot them alongside ditches or antitank trenches. They also massacred groups of Russian civilians.
The culmination of mass shootings came in 1941 at Babi-Yar on the outskirts of Kiev where thirty-three thousand Jews were murdered in a single event. It is estimated that a total of 700,000 Jews died in mass killings.
However, the men of the special killing units were physically and psychologically affected. Many became alcoholics, or chronically ill, while others committed suicide. The Reich leadership sought a better method for maintaining the pace of the killing and even to expanding the eradication of the remaining European Jews using more efficient and less personal methods.
On January 20, 1942, Reinhard Heydrich, second in command to Heinrich Himmler, called a meeting of fifteen high-level Nazi leaders in a villa in a posh Berlin suburb located on Lake Grosser Wannsee. Briefing them of recent developments, he posted a graphic that summarized the intent of Operation Reinhard, an effort that had begun the previous fall that was regarded as the “final solution” needed to address the “Jewish problem.” The graphic had two lists of names, each followed by a number.
The first list had the names of countries over which the Third Reich had command, followed by the estimates of the number of Jews in each country. For example, Germany proper had 131,800; Austria had 43,700; the General Government portion of Poland had 2,284,000; Occupied France had 165,000; and so on.
Those numbers were the estimates of the Jewish population in each country, the population that Reinhard Heydrich had been sanctioned by Hitler to exterminate. Operation Reinhard was created to develop the means and then carry out the killings.
Six special extermination camps had been, or were going to be, created exclusively for the purpose of killing people on a large scale: Chelmno, Belzec, Sobidor, Treblinka, Majdanek, and Auschwitz-Birkenau, all located in central Poland, which had the largest Jewish population in Nazi-controlled Europe.
When all six were operating at full capacity, the Reich would be able to kill twenty-five thousand people every day. The purpose of meeting with the high-level Nazi leaders was to initiate the coordination of the pickup and delivery of Jewish men, women and children to the killing centers, plus the materials, troops, trains, and schedules to meet the needs of the program.
Chelmno had been used in Hitler’s euthanasia program. The camp developed the techniques and procedures for using poisonous exhaust fumes in killing large groups of people, using the physically and mentally disabled as test patients. Started in 1939, the program would eventually result in the deaths of 70,000 people.
For Operation Reinhard, Chelmno, Belzec, Sobidor, and Treblinka would use exhaust fumes from internal combustion engines to poison its prisoners, while the killing centers of Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau would use the new cyanide-based Zykon-B capsules. Bodies would be disposed of either by burying or cremation.
When it became apparent that Germany might lose the war, the SS made considerable effort to disguise or hide the purpose of the extermination camps. Excavations were done to find buried bodies and burn them on funeral pyres made from oil-soaked railroad ties; they even created a machine to grind up the bones. Afterwards, the ashes were scattered across fields.
The SS also destroyed large amounts of camp records, making it now impossible to know the exact number of deaths caused through Operation Reinhard. It was, no doubt, a large percentage of the quoted WWII total figure of six million Jewish deaths.
Remember that there were two lists on Heydrich’s graphic? The second list was of countries in Europe not under Nazi control, with the estimated number of Jews in each. For example, he listed:
England – 350,000
Ireland – 4,000
Italy – 58,000
Portugal – 3,000
Spain – 6,000
Switzerland – 18,000
USSR – 5,000,000.
How he expected to exterminate the Jews in those countries, I don’t know. Regardless of the reality, Reinhard Heydrich’s vision was such that he (and the Third Reich, in general) had been sanctioned to eliminate 11,000,000 Jews from Europe, and he was quick to take up the challenge.
He was assassinated a few months later.
William H WillmonIt's a hard story to even read
1/31/2022 06:00:43 am
It's a hard story to even read
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Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.