MEMORIAL AND MUSEUM

AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU

FORMER GERMAN NAZI
CONCENTRATION AND EXTERMINATION CAMP

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New analysis by historians of the Memorial of the origins of Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp.

20-06-2017

The Origins of the Birkenau Camp in the Light of the Source Materials—a new English-Polish publication of the Museum is an analysis of one hundred little-known German documents, the majority of them published for the first time, bearing on the origins of the Birkenau camp and the first phase of its operation. Authors of the analysis are historians of the Research Center of the Museum: Igor Bartosik, Łukasz Martyniak and Piotr Setkiewicz.

 

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'If the history of KL Auschwitz continues to arouse great interest among the public to this day, and if Auschwitz is universally regarded as the symbol of the Nazi genocide, this is mainly as a result of the decision made by the SS leadership in 1941 to found a second, significantly larger part of the camp in the nearby village of Brzezinka/Birkenau. An enormous complex of barracks (over 300) was built there over the following years, where more prisoners were held than in any other German concentration camp (as many as about 90,000), and there too the huge gas chambers and crematoria arose,' said Dr. Piotr Setkiewicz, the head of the Research Center of the Auschwitz Museum.

The authors present many new findings connected with, among other things, the chronology of the chaotic decisions made by the SS leadership at the stage of planning the new camp. They explain the factors that influenced the size of Birkenau, its form, and its spatial layout. They make it clear that the intentions of the planners reflected the exterminatory function of the camp, which they assumed in advance. The authors also draw attention to the harrowing conditions under which prisoners and Soviet POWs labored. Many of the documents bear witness to the significant role played by private German construction companies.

'The basis for establishing the chronological sequence of decisions about the founding of the Birkenau camp—for the whole postwar decades—was the testimony that the former Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss delivered during his trial [...] He maintained there that he learned for the first time about the intention to found a camp in Birkenau for about 100,000 prisoners of war during the inspection of Auschwitz by Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler on March 1, 1941,' we read in the preface.

Nothing indicates that Höss's account of the existence in March 1941 of the intention of building the Birkenau camp can be regarded as credible. Despite extensive searches of the archival items, it has not proved possible to find any information indicating the existence before September 1941 of plans to prepare Auschwitz to receive large numbers of new inmates in the shape of POWs. In the construction documentation of KL Auschwitz there is mention (until mid-September 1941) about the beginning of any activities aiming at preparations to create the POWs camp.

Among documents presented in the book there is a service note taken down on September 26, 1941 by the KL Auschwitz construction bureau after a telephone conversation with a representative of the Hauptampt Haushalt und Bauten SS. The information indicates the taking of a decision to create, adjacent to KL Auschwitz, a camp for prisoners of war with the capacity of 50,000. The note indicates the tremendous haste in the construction of the camp and the lack of any kind of previous planning. The word 'immediately' (sofort) is repeated no fewer than four times in this brief text.

A letter of September 27, 1941 from the Hauptampt Haushalt und Bauten SS to SS-Obersturmfuhrer Wolfgang Grosch, the Chief Plenipotentiary for the Construction of the POW Camp in Lublin contains an order to commence the building in Lublin and Auschwitz of two camps for Soviet POWs, each with a capacity of 50,000. The work is to be undertaken immediately and carried out as expeditiously as possible.

The book The Origins of the Birkenau Camp in the Light of the Source Materials is available in our online bookstore. This publication is a continuation of the series that began with the study The Origins of the Extermination of Jews in KL Auschwitz in the Light of the Source Material.