A New History


By Laurence Rees

Formats and Prices




$14.99 CAD



  1. ebook $11.99 $14.99 CAD
  2. Trade Paperback $18.99 $23.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around January 2, 2005. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

This vivid and harrowing narrative history of the most notorious concentration camp of the Holocaust preserves the authentic voices of survivors and perpetrators The largest mass murder in human history took place in World War II at Auschwitz. Yet its story is not fully known. In Auschwitz, Laurence Rees reveals new insights from more than 100 original interviews with survivors and Nazi perpetrators who speak on the record for the first time. Their testimonies provide a portrait of the inner workings of the camp in unrivalled detail-from the techniques of mass murder, to the politics and gossip mill that turned between guards and prisoners, to the on-camp brothel in which the lines between those guards and prisoners became surprisingly blurred. Rees examines the strategic decisions that led the Hitler and Himmler to make Auschwitz the primary site for the extinction of Europe’s Jews-their “Final Solution.” He concludes that many of the horrors that were perpetrated in Auschwitz were the result of a terrible immoral pragmatism. The story of the camp becomes a morality tale, too, in which evil is shown to proceed in a series of deft, almost noiseless incremental steps until it produces the overwhelming horror of the industrial scale slaughter that was inflicted in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.


In memory of the 1.1 million men, women, and children who died at Auschwitz

There is much in this book that is upsetting, but I still think it is a necessary piece of work. Not just for the obvious reason that surveys1 still show that there is confusion in the popular consciousness about the true history of Auschwitz, but also because I hope it offers something distinctive.
It is the culmination of fifteen years of writing books and making television programs about the Nazis, and is an attempt to show how one of the worst crimes in history is best understood through the prism of one physical place—Auschwitz. Unlike the history of anti-Semitism, Auschwitz has one certain beginning (the first prisoners arrived on June 14, 1940), and unlike the history of genocide, it has one definite end (the camp was liberated in January 1945). In between these two dates, Auschwitz had a complex and surprising history that, in many ways, mirrored the intricacies of Nazi racial and ethnic policy. Auschwitz was never conceived as a camp to kill Jews, it was never solely concerned with the "Final Solution"—although that came to dominate the place—and it was always physically changing, often in response to the constant shifts in fortunes of the German war effort elsewhere. Auschwitz, through its destructive dynamism, was both a microcosm of the Nazi state and the logical consequence of it.
The study of Auschwitz also offers something other than an insight into the Nazis; it offers us the chance to understand how human beings behaved in some of the most extreme conditions in history. From this story, there is a great deal we can learn about ourselves.
This is a book based on unique research—about 100 interviews specially conducted with former Nazi perpetrators and survivors from the camp—and draws on hundreds more interviews, conducted for my previous work on the Third Reich, many with former members of the Nazi party.2 The benefit of meeting and questioning survivors and perpetrators is immense. It offers an opportunity for a level of insight that is rarely available from written sources alone.
Indeed, although since my school days I had always been interested in this period of history, I can trace my own deep fascination with the Third Reich to one moment during a conversation with a former member of the Nazi party back in 1990. While writing and producing a film about Dr. Josef Goebbels, I talked to Wilfred von Oven who, as Goebbels' personal attaché, had worked closely with the infamous Nazi propaganda minister. After the formal interview, over a cup of tea, I asked this intelligent and charming man: "If you could sum up your experience of the Third Reich in just one word, what would it be?" As Herr von Oven thought for a moment and considered the question, I guessed his response would make reference to the horrible crimes of the regime—crimes he freely admitted had occurred—and of the damage Nazism had wreaked upon the world. "Well," he finally said, "if I was asked to sum up my experience of the Third Reich in one word, that word would be 'paradise.'"
"Paradise?" That didn't coincide with anything I had read in my history books. Nor did it square with the elegant, sophisticated man who sat in front of me, and who did not, come to that, look or talk as I had imagined a former Nazi should. But "paradise"? How was it possible that he could say such a thing? How could any intelligent person think of the Third Reich and its atrocities in such a way? Indeed, how was it possible that, during the twentieth century, people from Germany—a cultured nation at the heart of Europe—had ever perpetrated such crimes? Those were the questions that formed in my mind that afternoon all those years ago, and that still sit heavily in my mind today.
In my attempt to answer these questions I was helped by two accidents of history. The first was that I set out to question former Nazis at exactly the point in time at which most of them had nothing to lose by speaking openly. Fifteen years earlier, while holding down influential jobs and standing as pillars of their communities, they would not have spoken. Today, fifteen years later, most of them—including the charming Herr von Oven—are dead.
It often took months—in some cases years—to persuade them to allow me to record an interview. We never will know exactly what tipped the balance and made an individual agree to be filmed but, in many cases, they clearly felt that, nearing the end of their lives, they wanted to put on record—warts and all—their experiences of these momentous times. They also believed that the BBC would not distort their contribution. I would add that I think only the BBC would have given us the necessary support to pursue this enterprise. The research period for these projects was so long that only a public-service broadcaster could have made such a commitment.
The second break I had was that my interest coincided with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of eastern Europe; and it was not just the archives that suddenly became available for research, but the people as well. I had filmed in the Soviet Union in 1989 under Communism and, back then, it was hard to get anyone to speak about their nation's history in any terms other than propaganda slogans. Now, suddenly, in the 1990s, it was as if a dam had broken and all the suppressed memories and opinions came tumbling out. In the Baltic states I heard people say how they had welcomed the Nazis as liberators; on the wild steppes of Kalmykia I learned first-hand about Stalin's vindictive deportations of whole ethnic communities; in Siberia I met veterans who had been imprisoned twice—once by Hitler and once by the Soviet dictator; and in a village near Minsk I encountered a woman who had been caught in the middle of the most vicious partisan war in modern history and, upon reflection, who thought that the Red Army partisans were worse than the Nazis. All of these deeply held convictions would have died with the people who held them had Communism not fallen.
I also encountered something more frightening as I traveled these newly liberated countries, from Lithuania to the Ukraine and from Serbia to Belarus—virulent anti-Semitism. I had expected people to tell me how much they hated the Communists—that seemed only natural now. But to hate Jews? It seemed ludicrous, especially as there were hardly any Jews in the places I was visiting—Hitler and the Nazis had seen to that. Yet, the old man in the Baltic states who had helped the Nazis shoot Jews in 1941 still thought he had done the right thing sixty years earlier. And even some of those who had fought against the Nazis held wild anti-Semitic beliefs.
I remember the question one Ukrainian veteran put to me over lunch. He was a man who had fought bravely for the Ukrainian Nationalist partisans against both the Nazis and the Red Army and been persecuted as result. "What do you think," he asked, "of the view that there is an international conspiracy of Jewish financiers operating out of New York which is trying to destroy all non-Jewish governments?" I looked at him for a second. Not being Jewish myself, it is always something of a shock to encounter naked anti-Semitism from an unexpected source. "What do I think of that view?" I replied finally. "I think it's total garbage." The old partisan took a sip of vodka. "Really," he said, "That's your opinion. Interesting. ..."
What shocked me most of all was that these anti-Semitic views were not just confined to the older generation. I remember the woman at the Lithuanian Airways check-in desk who, after learning the subject of the film we were making, said, "You're interested in the Jews, are you? Well, just remember this—Marx was a Jew." Also in Lithuania, I recall an army officer in his mid-twenties showing me round the site of the 1941 Jewish massacres at a fort in Kaunas and saying, "You're missing the big story, you know. The story isn't what we did to the Jews. It's what the Jews did to us." I do not claim for a moment that everyone—or even the majority—in the eastern European countries I visited subscribes to these views; but that this kind of prejudice is openly expressed at all is disturbing.
All of which should be remembered by those people who think that the history in this book is of little relevance today. It should also be mulled over by those who think that corrosive anti-Semitism was somehow confined to the Nazis or even to Hitler. Indeed, the view that the crime of the extermination of the Jews was somehow imposed by a few mad people upon an unwilling Europe is one of the most dangerous of all. There was nothing "uniquely exterminatory" (to use the current academic buzzwords) about German society before the Nazis came to power. How could there have been, when many Jews fled anti-Semitism in eastern Europe in the 1920s to seek sanctuary in Germany?
Yet there is something about the mentality of the Nazis that seems at odds with the perpetrators who flourished in many other totalitarian regimes. That was certainly the conclusion I reached after completing three separate projects on World War II, each a book and television series: first Nazis: A Warning from History, then War of the Century, an examination of the war between Stalin and Hitler, and finally Horror in the East, an attempt to understand the Japanese psyche during the 1930s and World War II. One unplanned consequence of this experience is that it puts me in a unique position as the only person I know of who has met and questioned a significant number of perpetrators from all three of the major totalitarian powers—Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union. Having done so, I can confirm that the Nazi war criminals I met were different.
In the Soviet Union, the climate of fear under Stalin was pervasive in a way it never was in Germany under Hitler until the last days of the war. The description one former Soviet air force officer gave me of open meetings in the 1930s, when anyone could be denounced as an "enemy of the people," still haunts me to this day. No one was safe from a knock at the door at midnight. No matter how well you tried to conform, no matter how many slogans you spouted, Stalin's malevolence ensured that nothing you did or said or thought could save you if the spotlight picked you out.
In Nazi Germany, however, unless you were a member of a specific risk group—the Jews, the Communists, the gypsies, homosexuals, the "work-shy," and anyone who opposed the regime—you could live comparatively free from fear. Despite all the recent academic work that rightly emphasizes how the Gestapo relied hugely upon denunciations from members of the public to do its work,3 the central truth still holds: The majority of the German population—almost certainly right up until the moment Germany started to lose the war—felt so personally secure and happy that the Germans would have voted to keep Hitler in power if there had been free and fair elections. In contrast, in the Soviet Union not even Stalin's closest, most loyal colleagues ever felt that they could sleep securely.
The consequence of this for those who perpetrated crimes at Stalin's behest was that the suffering they inflicted was so arbitrary that they often did not know the reasons for it. For example, the former Soviet secret policeman I met who had bundled up Kalmyks and put them on trains to exile in Siberia even today still has no clear idea about what was behind the policy. He had one stock response when asked why he had taken part—ironically, it is the one most commonly ascribed to Nazis in popular myth; he said he had been "acting under orders." He had committed a crime because he was told to and knew that, if he failed to do so, then he would be shot; and he trusted that his bosses knew what they were doing. Which meant, of course, that when Stalin died and Communism fell he was free to move on and leave the past behind. It also shows Stalin as a cruel, bullying dictator who has many parallels in history, not least in our own time with Saddam Hussein.
Then there were the Japanese war criminals I encountered who committed some of the most appalling atrocities in modern history. In China, Japanese soldiers split open the stomachs of pregnant women and bayoneted the fetuses; they tied up local farmers and used them for target practice; they tortured thousands of innocent people in ways that rival the Gestapo at its worst; and they were pursuing deadly medical experiments long before Dr. Mengele and Auschwitz.
These were the people who were supposed to be "inscrutable." Upon examination, however, they turned out to be nothing of the kind. The Japanese soldiers had grown up in an intensely militaristic society, had been subjected to military training of the most brutal kind, had been told since they were children to worship their emperor (who was also their commander-in-chief), and lived in a culture that historically elevated the all-toohuman desire to conform into a quasi-religion. All this was encapsulated by one veteran who told me that when he had been asked to take part in the gang rape of a Chinese woman he saw it less as a sexual act and more as a sign of final acceptance by the group, many of whom had previously bullied him mercilessly. Like the Soviet secret policemen I met, these Japanese veterans attempted to justify their actions almost exclusively with reference to an external source—the regime itself.
Something different appears in the minds of many Nazi war criminals and is encapsulated in this book by the interview with Hans Friedrich who admits that, as a member of an SS unit in the East, he personally shot Jews. Even today, with the Nazi regime long defeated, Friedrich is not sorry for what he did. The easy course for him would be to hide behind the "acting under orders" or "I was brainwashed by propaganda" excuses, but such is the strength of his own internal conviction that he makes no excuses. At the time, he personally believed it was right to shoot Jews and he gives every appearance of still believing it today. It is a loathsome, despicable position—but, nonetheless, an intriguing one.
The contemporary evidence shows that Friedrich also is not unique. At Auschwitz, for example, there is not one case in the records of an SS man being prosecuted for refusing to take part in the killings, while there is plenty of material showing that the real discipline problem in the camp—from the point of view of the SS leadership—was theft. The ordinary members of the SS thus appear to have agreed with the Nazi leadership that it was right to kill the Jews, but disagreed with Himmler's policy of not letting them individually profit from the crime. And the penalties for an SS man caught stealing could be draconian—almost certainly worse than for simply refusing to take an active part in the killing.
Thus, the conclusion I reached—not just from interviews but also from subsequent archival research4 and discussions with academic researchers—was that there was a greater likelihood that individuals who committed crimes within the Nazi system would take personal responsibility for their actions, than there was that war criminals who served Stalin or Hirohito would take such responsibility. Of course, that is a generalization, and there will be individuals within each regime who do not conform to that type. And all these regimes certainly had much in common—not least a reliance on intense ideological propaganda imposed from above. But as a generalization it appears to hold, and is all the more curious given the rigid training of the SS and the popular stereotype of German soldiers as automatons. As we shall see, this tendency for individual Nazis who committed crimes to feel more personally in control contributed to the development of both Auschwitz and the "Final Solution."
It is worth trying to understand why so many of the former Nazis I have met over the last fifteen years appear to find an internal justification for their crimes ("I thought it was the right thing to do") rather than an external one ("I was ordered to do it"). One obvious explanation is that the Nazis carefully built upon pre-existing convictions. Anti-Semitism existed in Germany long before Adolf Hitler, and plenty of other people blamed the Jews—falsely—for Germany's defeat in World War I. In fact, the whole of the Nazis' initial political program in the early 1920s was virtually indistinguishable from those of countless other nationalistic right-wing parties. Hitler brought no originality of political thought—what he brought was originality of leadership. And when the Depression gripped Germany in the early 1930s, millions of Germans voluntarily turned to the Nazis for a solution to the country's ills. No one in the elections of 1932 was forced at gunpoint to vote for the Nazis, and the Nazis went on to gain power within the existing law.
Another clear reason why the belief system among so many Nazis was internalized was the work of Dr. Josef Goebbels, who was perhaps the most effective propagandist of the twentieth century.5 In popular myth he is often dismissed as a crude polemicist, infamous for Der ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew) film in which shots of Jews are intercut with pictures of rats. But, in reality, the vast majority of his work was much more sophisticated and much more insidious. It was Hitler who was more keen on obvious hate-filled films like Der ewige Jude; Goebbels disliked that rudimentary approach, preferring the much more subtle Jud Süss, a drama in which a beautiful Aryan girl is raped by a Jew. Goebbels' own audience research (a science he was obsessed with) revealed that he was right; cinemagoers much preferred to see propaganda films where, as he put it, "they cannot see the art in it."
Goebbels believed that it was always preferable to reinforce the existing prejudice of the audience rather than to try to change someone's mind. On those occasions when it was necessary to attempt to alter the views of the German people, his technique was to move "like a convoy—always at the speed of the slowest vessel"6 and constantly to reiterate, in subtly different ways, the message he wanted the audience to receive. And in doing so he rarely tried to tell the viewers anything—he showed images and told stories that led ordinary Germans to reach the conclusion he wanted, while leaving them thinking that they had worked it out for themselves.
During the 1930s, Hitler—to Goebbels' approval—did not often try to impose policies on the majority of the population against its wishes. This was a radical regime, of course, but one that preferred the consent of the majority and, to a large extent, relied upon individual initiative coming from below to generate the dynamism it so desired. All of which meant that, when it came to the persecution of the Jews, the Nazis progressed gingerly.
Central though the hatred of the Jews was to Hitler, it was not a policy he overtly pushed in the elections of the early 1930s. He did not hide his anti-Semitism, but he and the Nazis consciously emphasized other policies, like their desire to "right the wrongs" of the Versailles treaty, get the unemployed back to work, and restore a sense of national pride. In the immediate aftermath of Hitler becoming Chancellor, there was an outpouring of violence against the German Jews, orchestrated to a large extent by Nazi storm troopers. There was also a boycott of Jewish businesses (supported by Goebbels, an ardent anti-Semite), but this only lasted for one day.
The Nazi leaders were concerned about public opinion both at home and abroad—in particular they didn't want their anti-Semitism to make Germany a pariah state. Two more anti-Semitic upsurges—one in 1936 with the advent of the Nuremberg Laws withdrawing citizenship from German Jews, and the second in 1938 with the burning of synagogues and the imprisonment of tens of thousands of Jews at the time of Kristallnacht—marked the other significant pre-war moments in the Nazi persecution of the Jews. But, overall, the pace of Nazi anti-Semitic policy was gradual, and many Jews tried to stick out life in Hitler's Germany during the 1930s. Nazi propaganda against the Jews (with the exception of fringe fanatics like Julius Streicher and his outrageous anti-Semitic rag Der Stürmer) proceeded at Goebbels' speed of the slowest vessel in the convoy, with neither of the overtly anti-Semitic films, Der ewige Jude or Jud Süss, shown until after the war had begun.
This notion that the Nazis proceeded incrementally against the Jews goes against the understandable desire to point to a single moment when one crucial decision was made for the "Final Solution" and the gas chambers of Auschwitz. But this history is not so easily resolved. The decisions that led to the sophistication of a killing technique that delivered families to their deaths by a railway link which stopped only meters from the crematoria, took years to evolve. The Nazi regime was one that practised what one historian famously called "cumulative radicalization,"7 whereby each decision often led to a crisis which led to a still more radical decision.
The most obvious example of how events could spiral into catastrophe was the food crisis in the Łódź ghetto in the summer of 1941—a situation that led one Nazi functionary to ask whether the most "humane solution might not be to finish off those of the Jews who are not fit for work by means of some quick-working device."8 Thus, the idea of extermination is offered up out of "humanity." It should be remembered, of course, that it was the policies of the Nazi leadership that had created the food crisis in the Łödź ghetto in the first place.
This does not mean that Hitler was not to blame for the crime—he undoubtedly was—but he was responsible in a more sinister way than simply calling his subordinates together on one particular day and forcing the decision upon them. All of the leading Nazis knew that their Führer prized one quality in policy making above all others—radicalism. Hitler once said that he wanted his generals to be like "dogs straining on a leash" (and in this they most often failed him). His love of radicalism, plus his technique of encouraging massive competition within the Nazi leadership by often appointing two people to do more or less the same job, meant that there was intense dynamism in the political and administrative system—plus intense inherent instability. Everyone knew how much Hitler hated the Jews, everyone heard his 1939 speech in the Reichstag during which he predicted the "extermination" of the European Jews if they "caused" a world war, and so everyone in the Nazi leadership knew the type of policy towards the Jews to suggest—the more radical the better.
Hitler was massively preoccupied with one task during World War II: trying to win it. He spent much less time on the Jewish question than on the intricacies of military strategy. His attitude to Jewish policy is likely to have been similar to the instructions he gave to the Gauleiters of Danzig, West Prussia, and the Warthegau when he told them he wanted their areas Germanized, and once they had accomplished the task he promised to ask them "no questions" about how it had been done.
In just such a manner it is not hard to imagine Hitler saying to Himmler in December 1941 that he wanted the Jews "exterminated" and that he would ask him "no questions" about how he had achieved the desired result. We cannot know for sure whether the conversation went this way, of course, because during the war Hitler was careful to use Himmler as a buffer between himself and the implementation of the "Final Solution." Hitler knew the scale of the crime the Nazis were contemplating and he did not want any document linking him to it. But his fingerprints are everywhere—from his open rhetoric of hatred to the close correlation between Himmler's meetings with Hitler at his East Prussian headquarters and the subsequent radicalization of the persecution and murder of the Jews.
It is hard to convey the excitement that leading Nazis felt at serving a man who dared to dream in such epic terms. Hitler had dreamt of defeating France in weeks—the very country in which the German army had been stuck for years during World War I—and he had succeeded. He had dreamt of conquering the Soviet Union, and in the summer and autumn of 1941 it looked almost certain that he would win. And he dreamt of exterminating the Jews—which in some ways would prove to be the easiest task of all.
Hitler's ambitions were certainly on a grand scale—but they were all ultimately destructive, and the "Final Solution" was the most conceptually destructive of them all. It is of huge significance that, in 1940, two Nazis—who would subsequently become leading figures in the development and implementation of the "Final Solution"—each separately acknowledged that such mass murder would go against the "civilized" values to which even they aspired. Heinrich Himmler wrote that "physically exterminating a people" was "fundamentally un-German," and Reinhard Heydrich recorded that "biological extermination is undignified for the German people as a civilized nation."9 But, step by step, within the next eighteen months "physically exterminating a people" was just the policy they would be embracing.
Tracing how Hitler, Himmler, Heydrich, and other leading Nazis created both their "Final Solution" and Auschwitz offers us the chance to see in action a dynamic and radical decision-making process of great complexity. There was no blueprint for the crime imposed from above, nor one devised from below and simply acknowledged from the top. Individual Nazis were not coerced by crude threats to commit murders themselves. No, this was a collective enterprise owned by thousands of people, who each made the decision not just to take part but to contribute initiatives in order to solve the problem of how to kill human beings and dispose of their bodies on a scale never attempted before.
As we follow the journey upon which both the Nazis and those whom they persecuted embarked, we also gain a great deal of insight into the human condition—and what we learn is mostly not good. In this history, suffering is almost never redemptive. Although there are, on very rare occasions, extraordinary people who act virtuously, for the most part this is a story of degradation. It is hard not to agree with the verdict of Else Baker, sent to Auschwitz as an eight-year-old child, that "the level of human depravity is unfathomable." If there is a spark of hope, however, it is in the power of the family as a sustaining force. Time and again heroic acts are committed by those sent to the camps, for the sake of a father, mother, brother, sister, or child.
Perhaps above all, though, Auschwitz and the Nazis' "Final Solution" demonstrate the overriding power of the situation to influence behavior. It is a view confirmed by one of the toughest and bravest survivors of the death camps, Toivi Blatt, who was forced by the Nazis to work in Sobibór and then risked his life to escape:


On Sale
Jan 2, 2005
Page Count
368 pages

Laurence Rees

About the Author

Laurence Rees is an award-winning historian and documentary film maker, and author of Auschwitz, and Holocaust, both published by PublicAffairs. He lives in London.

Learn more about this author