I have just finished Auschwitz a New History by Laurence Rees, 2005, Public Affairs, New York. This is a detailed and pretty definitive account of the evolution of Auschwitz and a number of other concentration and death camps. I think most people think, as I always have, that the Nazis constructed the camps and then began killing Jews, Gypsies, and others. In fact, they started killing first and the evolution of the death camps came about by the necessity for them to find better and easier ways to do their dirty business. There were pragmatic reasons for what they did as well as ideological ones. For example, the use of poison gas to kill inmates came about because of the trauma experienced by the soldiers that were forced to kill men, women, and children by lining them up and shooting them: "...as all the leading Nazis focused their attention on the war against the Soviet Union, the decision to kill the women and children in the East was seen as a practical way of solving an immediate and specific problem.
Nonetheless, this particular 'solution' would, in turn create further problems and, as a result, new killing methods would be devised which would enable Jews and others to be murdered on an even greater scale."
This came about because Heinrich Himmler visited Minsk when such killings were taking place. It was obvious that the soldiers ordered to perform these cold-blooded face-to-face murders were terribly traumatized by having done such a horrible thing.
"...SS Obergruppenfuher (lieutenant-general) von dem Bach-Zalewski, who witnessed the same killings, said to Himmler, 'Reichsfuher, those were only a hundred...Look at the eyes of the men in this Kommando, how deeply shaken they are! These men are finished for the rest of their lives. What kind of followers are we training here? Either neurotics or savages!' Subsequently, Bach-Zalewski himself became psychologically ill as a result of the murders, experiencing 'visions' of the killings in which he had participated."
As a result of this experience Himmler ordered a search for a method of killing that would result in fewer psychological problems. This fairly quickly resulted in the use of poison gas that could be administered by just a few individuals dropping the Zyclon B into the death chambers that then had to be created for this purpose. Thus, as a result of mechanical problems, along with problems being created by the ebb and flow of battles, as well as the political considerations, the true death camps emerged.
This is a fine, well-researched account of what transpired, based upon interviews with both surviving victims and active participants. As many of the participants were very old by the time Rees and his aids interviewed them, they had become quite willing to admit what they had done and why. Not surprisingly they mostly acted out of hatred for the Jews they had been taught from childhood. Indeed, many thought even to the end that what they had done was right and proper because "of what the Jews had done to them" (Germany).
The accounts of the surviving victims are not for the faint-hearted, and of course it is a depressing book that makes clear what human beings are capable of given their circumstances. This is not a pleasant thing to think about, but, I suggest, a very important thing to think about.
"The savage in man is never quite eradicated."
Henry David Thoreau