The Road to Auschwitz

Romola Packard Hill, Dickson College, 2009

The name Auschwitz is firmly associated with images of the most drastic and blatant form of Nazi Germany’s “final solution to the Jewish problem” – a death camp at which gas chambers were used to systematically exterminate millions of European Jews. Indeed, of the six million Jews put to death in camps during WWII, nearly two and half million were killed at Auschwitz alone.[1] The camp is the most terrible example of the Nazi’s efforts at genocide. The expression “the road to Auschwitz” implies that this use of Auschwitz was always uppermost in the minds of the architects of the “Final Solution”, Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich and the other lieutenants in the NSDAP; that they always intended to use this camp in Poland precisely for this single, terrible purpose. However, the history of the camp at Auschwitz is more complex. The uses Auschwitz was put to and the ways in which the Final Solution was enacted changed over time in response to changing pressures of the War, the need to find more efficient methods of mass murder, the natural resources discovered near Auschwitz and the need to hasten the ultimate extermination of European Jews.

The Nazi’s anti-semitism grew out of the long European history of anti-semitism. From the pogroms of the Middle Ages, Jews had been persecuted across Christian Europe for generations.[2] However, Hitler was obsessed with the Jews being defined as a race, not a religion, stating that to define them as a religion rather than as a race was the “first lie” from which “further lies inevitably follow."[3] He believed that Jews would try to “build a state within the state” and thus undermine German sovereignty and the purity of the Aryan race.[4] Hitler became determined to rid Germany of this “Jewish bacillus”[5]

It is important to understand which aspects of “the road to Auschwitz” and the “Final Solution” were deliberate and planned, and which were sometimes hasty reactions to events. Though Jews had been actively discriminated against since Hitler came to power in 1933, it was not a stated policy to wipe them out. However, when Hitler became Chancellor he made a speech to the NSDAP in Wilhelmshaven, openly stating that the Jews were the major source of Germany’s problem and that they had to be “removed”.

Only when this Jewish bacillus infecting the life of peoples has been removed can one hope to establish a co-operation amongst the nations which shall be built up on a lasting understanding.[6]

The next deliberate stage in German anti-semitism was the adoption of the Nuremburg Laws in 1935. These laws excluded German Jews from citizenship and prevented them from marrying or having sexual relationships with persons of “German” blood.[7] Then, when the Nazis annexed Austria in March 1938, they began a deliberate program of deportation of Jews from the country.

There were more than 180,000 Jews in Austria in 1938. Eichmann began deporting Jews as efficiently as possible and by September of 1939, there were only about 60,000 remaining in Austria.[8]

Following Kristallnacht in 1938 when Jewish businesses were vandalised and Jews were terrorised, by December 1939, the Nazis plans for removal of Jews intensified and became more deliberate. Firstly, they started enforcing de facto concentration camps in Jewish areas of major cities by restricting any movement into or out of whole neighbourhoods in a process now known as “ghettoisation”.

The Nazis hope that the wretched ghetto conditions would deplete the Jewish population quickly and naturally through starvation, disease and cold.[9]

At the same time as ghettoisation was taking place, the Nazis were also discussing plans to expel Jews from Germany by forcibly removing them to the island of Madagascar. However, as the island was at the time a French colony, Germany could not put this plan into action. [10] It also was becoming clear that the ghettoes’ form of hastened natural attrition was not quick enough at killing the weak members of the Jewish population, nor was it exploiting the able-bodied ones. In addition, by 1941 a Nazi commander operating in Latvia, Belarus and eastern Poland, SS General Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski had started to note that the effort of shooting large numbers of Jewish civilians was taking a toll on their soldiers. He complained to Himmler that “these men are finished for the rest of their lives. What kind of followers are we producing here- either neurotics or brutes?'" [11] It became necessary for Himmler to create a more efficient and less confronting way of removing Jews. These two needs – on the one hand to use, remove and eradicate Jews more efficiently, and on the other to “spare…troops the psychological strain of killing human beings at close range” [12] led to the Nazis’ plans for the Jews to be finally exterminated. These plans were officially unveiled at the Wannsee Conference held in Berlin on 20th January 1942.

At Wannsee, Himmler’s chief aide and the man credited as the main executor of the “Final Solution to the Jewish question” Reinhard Heydrich, presented a carefully laid out plan. It involved deportation of all European Jews to German-occupied areas of eastern Europe, making use of the camp at Auschwitz and building several others; using able-bodied Jews on road building projects in those areas; underfeeding them with the intention they would eventually weaken and die; the immediate deaths of those who were unable to work or were young or old; and, the eventual deaths for the forced labour workers when their tasks were completed. The Wannsee Conference was a clear and deliberate stage in the Nazis plans to exterminate Jews. It covered, in quite specific detail how their deportation, exploitation and deaths were to be carried out.

The camp at Auschwitz in eastern Poland had been used by the Nazis since they invaded that region in 1939. It has four distinct stages along the road to its use as the most infamous of the extermination camps. Firstly, in April 1940, Auschwitz was designated to be a camp to house Polish political prisoners. Then, towards the end of 1940 it was discovered that Auschwitz was close to sources of lime, fresh water and coal and was on junction of two railway lines. These resources attracted the attention of a major industrial firm in Germany, I G Farben who wanted to use the location for a factory to manufacture war materials. Auschwitz became seen as part of the war effort.

Auschwitz would be a backwater no longer, it would become the largest concentration camp in the Nazi empire. [13]

By late 1941 Auschwitz saw an increase in its prison population from 10,000 to 30,000 as Jews were transported there to work as forced labourers. [14]

The third stage on the road to Auschwitz signaled a very deliberate intensification of the Nazi’s plans to exterminate the Jews. This began in October 1941 with the construction of “Auschwitz II” (also known as Birkenau). Auschwitz II was completed prior to the Wannsee Conference in January 1942 and with it Himmler was able to present a full and thorough solution to the Jewish question. The minutes of the Wannsee Conference show that Auschwitz was part of the Final Solution: “…certain preparatory activities for the Final Solution should be carried out immediately in the territories in question.” [15] By March 1942, only two months after Wannsee, the first Auschwitz gas chambers were operational and, by July, the infamous “selections’ whereby incoming Jews were deemed either able-bodied workers or for immediate gassing had begun.

For roughly a year, this process of deporting, sorting, exploiting and murdering European Jews went on at Auschwitz, constituting the fourth and final stage on the road to the Auschwitz. At its height, each of Auschwitz’s gas chambers could house 2000 people at a time and up to 12,000 people were gassed daily.[16]

However, in the wider war, Germany started to lose the ground it had gained. Following the failure of Operation Barbarossa, when Germany attempted a rapid invasion of part of the Soviet Union, Soviet forces came back at Germany from the east while the British, French and American forces put pressure on them from the west.[17] This now forced a knee-jerk reaction from the Nazis. In August 1944, the SS began liquidating the death camps and in November 1944 Himmler gave orders to stop the gassing at Auschwitz. By 17th January 1945, the evacuation of the camp began. This hasty change in policy was to both remove evidence of the gas chambers and also to supply the “Fatherland” (Germany) all the able-bodied workers available. The forced evacuation began on trains but quickly prisoners were forced to walk on what became known as “Death Marches”.

The largest death marches took place in the winter of 1944-1945…About one in four died on the way.[18]

By the time the Soviet army liberated Auschwitz on January 27th 1945, only 5000 of the nearly 70,000 prisoners remained in the camp.

A number of factors led along and altered the direction of “the road to Auschwitz”. The Nazis gradually developed and amended their plans to deal with European Jews, culminating in 1942 at the Wannsee Conference in “the Final Solution to the Jewish question”. As part of this solution, they made use of the provincial internment camp for political prisoners at Auschwitz in eastern Poland. The two dovetailed – Auschwitz providing both a place to house and murder Jews efficiently while also supplying workers for the German war effort. The “road to Auschwitz” was a road that saw the camp’s use change, moving from political prison to concentration and labour camp to extermination camp until its final abandonment. Eliminating Jews in Auschwitz’s gas chambers was not part of the Nazis original manifesto, but, following Hitler’s rise to Chancellor and the clear commitment of the Wannsee Conference, extermination of the Jews became a deliberate part of their plans.


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Johnson, Paul, 1983, A History of the Modern World, Weidenfeld Paperbacks, London.
Elliott, B.J. Hitler and Germany (2nd ed), Longman, London, 1991
Williams, Hywel, Days that changed the World, Quercus, London, 2006

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  2. ^ Prof. Y Bauer, Background to Nazi Antisemitism;
  3. ^ Adolf Hitler; German Propaganda Archives
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  6. ^ Adolf Hitler, speech in Wilhelmshaven, 1 April, 1939.
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  17. ^ Williams, H. Days that changed the World
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