Total annihilation: The death factories
by Claudia Moscovici
Hitler’s explicit goal, formulated as early as Mein Kampf in the mid 1920’s, was to annihilate the Jewish people. What did total annihilation mean for the Nazis? It wasn’t enough to deport the Jews from Germany and other German-controlled countries to concentration camps. It wasn’t enough to isolate them in ghettos. It wasn’t enough to take their property and assets. It wasn’t enough to send them to labor and death camps in Poland. It wasn’t enough to shoot them in the back of the head and pile them up, dead or alive, into mass graves. It wasn’t enough to burn their corpses, after gassing them, in crematoria. The Nazi regime wanted to destroy the evidence that their victims had ever existed. To do so, they had to hide or cover up their immense crimes against humanity. Each shred of evidence of Jewish existence—even the victims’ hair–was either destroyed or transformed and reused by German industry.
To accomplish the goal of exterminating millions of innocent civilians, the Nazis had to first invert the concepts of right and wrong: not only in their ideology, but also in the minds of party members. Hitler used the phrases “the Jewish question” and “the Final Solution” to outline his plans for mass murder. He rarely issued written orders concerning the fate of the Jews. Instead, he allowed his subordinates—Heinrich Himmler, the Nazi Minister of Interior; Reinhard Heydrich, the Chief of Police and of the Gestapo; Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda, and Oswald Ludwig Pohl, the Financial Administrator of the SS in charge of the concentration and labor camps–to state explicitly, as well as to carry out, his implicit yet crystal clear orders of deportation and extermination of the Jews.
The concentration camps became, quite literally, death factories. The existence of these camps had to be kept, for the most part, secret from the German public, who might disapprove of it. Hitler had learned a lesson from the vocal protests against Action T4, the “euthanasia” program he instituted in 1939 in several German mental hospitals. While being more or less hidden from the German public, however, the extermination of the Jews was also loudly proclaimed as a point of pride for the initiated SS soldiers. Addressing SS leaders at Posen in 1943, Himmler describes acts of cowardice and of unspeakable cruelty against defenseless civilians—men, women, children and even babies–as acts of great civic courage, “decency” and heroism:
“We can talk about it quite frankly among ourselves and yet we will never speak of it publicly. It appalled everyone, and yet everyone was certain that he would do it next time if such orders should be issued…. I am referring to the Jewish evacuation program, the extermination of the Jews. … Most of you will know what it means when a hundred corpses are lying side by side, or five hundred or a thousand are lying there. To have stuck it out and to have remained decent, that is what has made us tough. This is a glorious page in our history that has never and can never be written.” (see Jeremy Noakes and Geoffrey Pridham, Eds., Nazism 1919-1945, volume 3: Foreign Policy, War and Racial Extermination, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, University of Exeter Series, 2001).
Due to the demands of the German economy during the war, the question arose how to make maximal use of Jewish prisoners before killing them. Oswald Ludwig Pohl came up with the solution of doubling the role of some of the extermination camps—including the largest, the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex–as labor camps. This generated Monowitz-Buna, also called Auschwitz III, a slave labor camp established in October 1942 in collaboration with the German chemical company I. G. Farben. The company produced butadiene-based synthetic rubber (in Buna Works) as well as, more notoriously, Zyklon B, the toxic chemical used to gas millions of victims. Rewarded for his ingenuity, Pohl rose to power in the Nazi regime, serving as the financial administrator of the SS in charge of 20 concentration camps and 165 labor camps.
Although supportive of Pohl’s utilization of Jewish slave labor for the German economy, Himmler insisted that the Nazis must never subordinate their main goal—the eradication of the Jewish race—to economic objectives: not even during the war, when there was a labor shortage. The solution, for the Nazi regime, became the infamous death factories: selecting (most) prisoners deemed unfit for work for immediate extermination in the gas chambers, while working to death those deemed capable of labor. Even those who were chosen for immediate extermination were exploited to the very last. The Nazis extricated from their victims every possession: even the clothes on their backs, which were given to other prisoners, and their hair, which was shaved or cut off and used as stuffing for mattresses. The death factories thus fulfilled their intended role of total annihilation: by exterminating the Jewish people while also removing the last trace of their existence from the face of the Earth.
Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory