The Guardian • Issue #2086

Death camps, slaves and profits

Auschwitz – the main entrance.

Auschwitz – the main entrance. Photo: Paul Arps. – flickr.com (CC BY 2.0)

27 February will mark the liberation of the Nazi death camp at Owicim. Although located in the Polish province of Galicia, the site will forever be known by its German name of Auschwitz.

Estimates of the total number of people who perished at Auschwitz vary from 1,000,000 to 2,500,000. What proportion were Jewish also varies from half to two thirds, but whatever it was it is surely horrific.

But while various European government leaders and newspaper editorial writers all over the world were busy denouncing anti-Semitism and expressing their abhorrence of the Holocaust, certain basic facts were glossed over, distorted, or just plain ignored.

Mostly glossed over was the fact that Auschwitz was liberated, on that wintry 27 January in 1945, by the advancing Red Army, which at colossal cost in men and materiel had destroyed the Nazi war machine.

The Red Army found only 7650 survivors still in the camp. The Nazis had removed the other remaining prisoners ten days earlier to Dachau, Mauthausen, and other camps in Germany.

Ignored is the fact that Nazi extermination was not limited to the Jews. They began by murdering the Communists, Socialists, and trade union activists.

They went on to kill Gypsies, and the mentally ill. Then the Jews, and then the “Bolshevik submen” of Eastern Europe.

In fact, taking account of the activities of the Nazis’ special punitive units employing mobile gas chamber vans, flame throwers for burning alive populations of entire villages, and other such refined barbarisms, millions of Slavs – Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Byelorussians – were also systematically exterminated by Hitler’s brown plague.

It is not downplaying the appalling genocide against the Jews to ask why the simultaneous genocide against so many Slavs and others is passed over.

The Nazis regarded their “non-Aryan” victims as sub-human, and therefore as undeserving of any pity or humanitarian concern. The bestiality that German military and police were encouraged to practice could be given free rein with such “creatures.”

Ignored most assiduously, too, is the fact that the death camps were not only about killing people, about the “final solution.” They were about profit and big business.

Auschwitz was in fact a complex of three neighbouring camps. Auschwitz I was the smallest and built first (opened in April 1940). It was used mainly for political prisoners.

Auschwitz II is the well-known death camp near the village of Birkenau, opened in October 1941. Auschwitz III, near the village of Dwory, was from May 1942 a slave labour camp.

Auschwitz III supplied slave workers for the large chemical and synthetic-rubber works of IG Farben conveniently located nearby. IG Farben also made lots of money supplying the German government with the poison gas used in the extermination chambers of Auschwitz II and other camps.

Prisoners arriving at Auschwitz were separated into those who were fit for work and those who were not. The old, the ill, and children were put in the latter category.

These were sent off to be starved, hanged, shot, or gassed to death, their clothes, hair, gold teeth, and other meagre possessions appropriated to swell the coffers of the Reich.

The others, the “lucky” ones, were sent to the forced labour camp. Here, as with all the unfortunates (especially those from the East) forced to do slave labour in Germany or the occupied territories, they were officially “worked to death” (in accordance with a protocol of 18 September 1942, between Himmler and Minister of Justice Thierack).

The Nuremberg indictments rightly described this exploitation as being based on “the concept of extermination.”

An order issued by Germany’s Plenipotentiary General for Manpower, Sauckel, said that all foreign workers assigned to forced labour “must be fed, sheltered and treated in such a way as to exploit them to the highest possible extent at the lowest conceivable degrees of expenditure.”

Quintessential capitalism, really. They would introduce such a system everywhere if only the workers wouldn’t object.

All the big German corporations clamoured for access to slave labour – whether the slave labour of the camps or the shipments of slave workers provided direct from occupied countries to German employers.

Making the link between exploitation and genocide quite clear was a special order issued on 12 June  1944: “Army Group Centre has the intention to apprehend 40,000 – 50,000 youths at the ages of ten to fourteen who are in the army territory and to transport them to the Reich.

“It is intended to allot these juveniles primarily to the German trades as apprentices to be used as skilled workers after two years’ training… . This Action is aimed not only at preventing a direct reinforcement of the enemy’s military strength but also at a reduction of his biological potentialities as viewed from the perspective of the future.”

“A reduction of [the enemy’s] biological potentialities” – as neat a description of genocide as you could find.

Auschwitz was not the only German death camp. And if the Soviet Army had not beaten the crap out of the Nazi war machine, the Hitlerites had plans for even bigger death camps across the USSR.

The blueprints were already drawn up for camps that would dwarf Auschwitz, both in numbers exterminated and – above all – in the number of slave labourers who would be put to work there.

The Soviet people and their Army put paid to these nightmarish schemes, at an unimaginable cost.

When they liberated Auschwitz, they liberated us all.

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