“The Final Solution”

Following their escalation of anti-Semitic policies, abuse, violence, and the instigation of World War II, Adolf Hitler and other leaders of the Nazi regime formally agreed that genocide was their ultimate ambition. On January 20, 1942, Nazi leaders decreed at the Wannsee Conference that they would seek to destroy every Jewish person in occupied Europe. They launched the so-called “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem,” which would put existing concentration camps to an even deadlier use and require the construction of new killing centers.

The Nazis’ state-sponsored, systematic mass murder that would result in a devastating death toll of more than six million Jewish people. Even as the Nazis attempted genocide, they also targeted non-Jews who were allegedly “of inferior races” and “undesirable elements,” homosexual, disabled, or ill. They murdered communists, political enemies, and resistors. Slavs, Roma, black people, and Jehovah’s Witnesses were among the groups of people specifically targeted, brutalized, and murdered.

The Creation of Auschwitz

Oświęcim, Poland was annexed by the Third Reich after the German invasion. There, Nazis built Auschwitz, the largest of all of the Nazi concentration and, later, extermination camps. Originally, they built Auschwitz as a concentration camp primarily for Polish political prisoners. But in 1942, the Nazis turned Auschwitz into a site where they could perpetrate the mass extermination of Jewish and Roma people. More than 1.1 million people were murdered at Auschwitz between May 1940 and January 1945. Throughout Nazi operations at Auschwitz, Jews constituted almost 85% of the deportees and approximately 90% of the victims. But they were incarcerated and killed alongside prisoners of almost 20 nationalities, Sinti and Roma (ethnic groups targeted for extermination), Soviet POWs, and other targeted minorities.

The Nazis strategically selected the location of Auschwitz. Approximately 37 miles (60 kilometers) west of Kraków, it was at the confluence of the main railway routes of the Third Reich but was surrounded by forests and marshes—reducing the chances of successful escape, enemy surveillance, or attack.

Before the Nazis established their vast network of concentration and extermination camps, they perpetrated mass shootings and used “gas vans,” committing the murders of nearly 800,000 Jews and Polish prisoners. With the construction of Auschwitz and its gas chambers, murder was more efficient, cheaper, anonymous, and impersonal. This was murder on an industrial—a potentially genocidal—scale.

In a zone of approximately 15.44 square miles (40 square kilometers), the infamous Auschwitz compound contained three main elements. In addition to these, nearly 50 sub-camps and external commands, where prisoners were enslaved and exploited, were established in the vicinity of Auschwitz from 1942 to 1944.

  • Auschwitz I: This concentration camp was established in the spring of 1940. At its foundation were barracks abandoned by the Polish Army artillery in the outskirts of the town of Oświęcim. Auschwitz I was initially established as a camp for approximately 30,000 Polish prisoners. The first transport of political prisoners arrived on June 14, 1940. Prisoners were subjected to forced labor, torture, and murder.
  • Auschwitz II – Birkenau: The construction of Auschwitz II – Birkenau began in the autumn of 1941 nearly 2 miles (3 kilometers) from Oświęcim, in the small village of Brzezinka (Birkenau). Birkenau was divided into more than 12 sections, and it contained crucial machinery of mass extermination: Most of the people who died here were murdered in the gas chambers with Zyklon B—many of them having been deceptively promised a comforting, warm shower. To hide the evidence of the massacre, the SS made their own prisoners (assigned to the Sonderkommandos and the crematoria) burn the hundreds of thousands of people that were gassed—some of whom they recognized as family members, friends, or acquaintances.
  • Auschwitz III – Monowitz: Also known as Buna, Auschwitz III – Monowitz was established in October of 1942 as a labor camp for the IG Farben Buna plant in Monowitz. It functioned as a concentration camp where slave labor was integrated into the Nazis’ policy of extermination. Workers who were weakened by extreme hunger and exhaustion would be sent to the gas chambers—as factory managers ordered their replacements.

Auschwitz became a key element of the Nazi project to annihilate the Jews of Europe, and Kommandant Rudolf Höß ruled this “death factory” with an iron fist. According to Topf and Soehne company records, the “burning capacity” of the crematoria of Birkenau was more than 4,000 corpses per day. In spring 1944, the number of people murdered—and bodies burned—reached 10,000 a day.