On 11 April 1945, American soldiers outside of Weimar, Germany were horrified to discover one of the gruesome hallmarks of World War II: the Buchenwald concentration camp. Less than a month later, on 5 May 1945, American troops would also liberate the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp in Austria.
During World War II, concentration camps, or killing machines were crucial to the Nazis systematic genocide of six million European Jews. During the Holocaust, Nazis tried to consolidate the destruction of Jews into a coordinated murder-robbery carried out on continental Europe. The process relied on the bureaucratic organization of both the Nazi regime and Jewish ghettos, and utilized technological advances in three dominant arenas: mass media, transportation, and newly developed killing methods such as the administering of Zyklon B. The combination of modern technology and governmental bureaucracy created an efficient network that rapidly stripped Jews of everythingGerman nationality, all assets and rights, and lifethrough a series of administrative measures and ordinances.
Jewish disenfranchisement, relocation, and murders made headlines in the United States, but it was not until Soviet forces captured Majdanek outside of Lublin, Poland in July 1944 that they became aware of the Nazis final solution to the Jewish question. Americans were familiar with the large-scale production of Nazi propaganda under the direction of Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda in Nazi German between 1933 and 1945. Joseph Goebbels and the Nazis did not invent Anti-Semitic propaganda. Anti-Semitic sentiments were flourishing in Germany by World War I.
Early writers such as Theodore Fritsch, author of The Hammer in 1902, and Houston Stewart Chamberlain who penned the Foundations of the Nineteenth Century in 1899 (and reprinted in 1912), had already utilized turn-of-the-century print technology and racial science as a mouthpiece to justify the annihilation of Jews.
Adolf Hitler, the leader of the Nazi Party, emulated these writers in his political treatise Mein Kampf meaning My Struggle, published in 1925. Hitlers memoir detailed his dream of achieving Lebensraum, for the German people. Roughly translated, this means Living Space. Hitler believed Germanic peoples would flourish with territorial expansion to the East (into areas like Poland) where they would have room to spread out and cultivate the land. He imagined Germans would revive romantic pastoral living. Hitler envisioned the deportation, enslavement, or mass murder of the Jews inhabiting the East could be a self-funding enterprise. Once Jews were removed, German officials could sell their homes, possessions, and businesses, allowing Nazis to fund the Holocaust, exterminate the Jews from the profit of their own labor, and gain land and an agricultural surplus to house and feed German people. He believed “Lebensraum” would engender a political, cultural, and industrial awakening.
Read Mein Kampf as a historical primary source, here.
Hitler looked to history for a model and determined that the use of technology and bureaucracy in the Armenian Genocide of 1915 could be perfected by the German state. He strove to carry out his genocidal plans under the guise of war. In August 1939, Hitler publicly confirmed this by exclaiming no one still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians. He studied how the Armenian Genocide was conducted: village after village was emptied of Armenians without warning, people were summoned to the marketplace and robbed of their possessions simultaneously, and the Armenians had no time to organize defense measures.
Through bureaucratic centralization, the Nazi regime initiated what they called gleichschltung or the equalization of gears. By synchronizing all Nazi agencies under a single goal, and ensuring that all opposition had been ousted with the Reichstag Fire, Enabling Act (1933), and the Night of the Long Knives (1934), SS Commander Heinrich Himmler could easily implement the final solution.
This bureaucratic structure was implemented in the ghettos to streamline order while also psychologically torturing the Jewish people, by instating the Judenrate (German for Jewish council). The Judenrate were Jewish administrative bodies selected by Nazis in each ghetto that mimicked a municipality and were responsible for the ghettos local government. They were internally responsible for providing the names of which specific Jews would go up for relocation to extermination camps or be used for slave labor. After the invasion of Poland in 1939, there were nearly 3.5 million people imprisoned in 260 ghettos. The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest with nearly 400,000 Jews contained within a mere 1.3 square mile radius. In order to be sheltered, at least seven people inhabited every single room in the Poland Warsaw Ghetto.
The Wannsee Conference and the Creation of Concentration Camps
The Allied Forces were aghast as to how a systematic forced migration and murder of millions of people was coordinated. Behind the barbed and electrified fences of the liberated concentration campus, Allied soldiers discovered thousands of documents and internal transcripts detailing the process, which began at the Wannsee Conference. The was a meeting of senior officials of at least fifteen government agencies including: the Reich Ministries for the Occupied Eastern Territories, Interior, and Justice, as well as the Main Offices of Race and Settlement and Security. The meeting was held in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee on 20 January 1942 with the aim of coordinating all government entities whose involvement was required for the extermination of Jews. The Nazis debated the exact definition of a Jew in relation to the Nuremberg Laws (1935) so that local deportations would be uniform throughout German territory from the top-down, and serve as a base for the absolute solution of the Jewish problem. The foundation for the wide scale administrative deportation and murder was already in place at the time of the conference due to Aktion T4, a euthanasia program which systematically killed between 75,000 to 250,000 people with mental or physical disabilities.
Before 1942, the Holocaust was carried out by the German einsatzgruppen, or local mobile killing military units that seized and killed entire towns. These death squads gunned Eastern European civilians in conquered territories into mass graves but they were seen as barbaric by the German civilians and too psychologically traumatic for German soldiers. The Einsatzgruppen squads were also expensive as it required enough ammunition rounds to individually shoot each town member. By the Wannsee Conference in 1942, they were deemed inefficient. This need for speed and cost efficiency was the primary motivation for the birth of the extermination camps. At the Wannsee Conference, Himmler discussed how best to transition from the ghetto system to extermination camps, while maintaining a healthy level of slave labor in order to build the new German utopia after the war. The conference highlighted how extermination and the use of technology and pseudo-science to perfect it became a national government priority. Doctors, scientists, and medical experts became crucial actors in the birth of concentration camps.
With the shift away from mobile military units towards stationary camps, Nazis needed to orchestrate the mass transportation of millions of people. The sheer mechanics of relocating the entire Jewish population required the joint efforts of multiple government agencies. Adolf Eichmann, who oversaw the German railroad system, ensured the removal, registration, and destruction of Jews could become a self-sustaining economic system. By having the federal governments of annexed or conquered countries now under German rule bring Jews and their belongings to an extermination camp by rail, all belongings could be confiscated and sorted in one place and recycled back into the Reich to both fund the extermination solution and aid needy German civilians. The extermination camp itself also used technology for harrowing purposes. The use of a cyanide based gas, Zyklon B, as perfected on site with I.G. Farben, ventilation systems, conveyer belts, and mass crematoriums, allowed the destruction of both Jews and their physical remains by the thousands, in under an hour, with no harm to the killers.
The combination of these technological and bureaucratic methods American soldiers encountered during concentration liberations were startling, as they provided hard evidence of the systematic deportation and murder of six million Jews.
Below are oral history testimonies of United States Veterans who were eye witnesses to history when they participated in the liberation of the World War II concentration camps. These are their stories…
Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Birth of the Third Reich: A Timeline Through Film
The Reichstag Fire (February 27, 1933) and the Enabling Act (March 1933)
Night of the Long Knives (June to July 1934):
The Death of Hindenburg and the rise of Adolt Hitler as both President and Chancellor (Summer 1934)
The Nuremberg Laws (September and November 1935) which included
- The Reich Flag Law forbidding Jews from flying the German national flag
- The Reich Citizenship Law in which all German government officials and soldiers had to prove through both blood and conduct their ability to serve as Germans
- The Law for Protection of German Blood and Honor
The Annexation of Austria (the Anschluss) (March 1938): The annexation of Austria was widely welcomed with parade and fanfare. It was not seen as an invasion, but a reunification of the Germanic people forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles. With this, an additional 200,000 Jews fell under Hitlers control.
Kristallnacht or The Night of Broken Glass (November 9, 1938):
The Nazi-Soviet Pact (September 1939):
For more information:
- Visit the U.S. History Scene reading list for World War II