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auschwitz: inside the nazi state
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Community Guide


As the generation that directly experienced the Holocaust gets smaller and the world becomes more complex and interconnected, it becomes particularly critical to examine the historical record and what it tells us about power, politics, personal responsibility, violence, racism, prejudice, and diversity.

Preparing to Lead a Group Discussion

The following steps will help prepare you to lead a group discussion.

  • Read the Guidelines for Teaching About the Holocaust developed by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It contains important information on how to approach teaching about the Holocaust.
  • Preview the series and tape it off the air. The series has one-year off-air recording rights for educators. You may use these tapes at no cost for one year from the time of broadcast.
  • "The series can be purchased online at ShopPBS or wherever DVDs are sold.
  • A companion book, Auschwitz: A New History by executive producer Laurence Rees (Public Affairs, 2005; ISBN 1-58648-303-X), is available online at ShopPBS, in bookstores, or direct from the publisher (212-397-6666).
  • Determine which portions are most suited to your time availability. To assist you, click About the Series to read brief overviews. See the individual Teaching Guides in Learning Resources to find a segment-by-segment breakdown and time code for each program. Consider also asking participants to view the series (or parts of it) on their own and then come together either for a presentation or discussion.
  • Spend some time reviewing Web Resources. It contains an extraordinary amount of information, and you may want to print out some of it for participants.
  • Review some of the Web Sites of leading organizations involved in Holocaust education.
  • Determine whether your program will include a guest speaker or panel. Arrange opportunities for participants to hear from survivors and scholars.
  • If appropriate, review the period between World War I and World War II in Europe. Here are some issues to explore: What kind of lives did Jews in Europe lead before World War II? Who was Hitler? How did he come to power? What were the goals of the Nazi Party and how was the party organized? What changes had the Nazi Party already instituted in Germany that marginalized the Jews? Who were Germany's allies? Why and when had Hitler already invaded Poland? In what other periods of history were Jews persecuted? By whom? Why?
  • Have available both maps of Eastern and Western Europe from the war period.

Series Background

On January 27, 1945, the Red Army liberated the 7,600 survivors remaining at Auschwitz in southern Poland. Of the more than one million people who had been sent there in the previous four years, most had been killed. At the time of the liberation, little was known about the site or about people's experiences there. Since the fall of communism, significant primary sources have become available to scholars that reveal a detailed four-year history of this Nazi institution. AUSCHWITZ: Inside the Nazi State, a six-hour public television series that commemorates the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the camp (please check local listings), is the result of a three-year collaboration between KCET/Hollywood and the British Broadcasting Corporation to bring this story to audiences worldwide.

The series is a chronological portrait of this site that symbolizes the greatest genocide in history. It focuses on the individuals and nations involved and examines the process that led to the murder—on the basis of race—of approximately 11 million men, women, and children, some six million of whom were Jews. The importance of this series lies in its ultimate message: Unless we try to understand why people believed this was the right thing to do, we are helpless in the face of it happening again.

The series is unique for several reasons:

  • The programs include dramatizations of key decision-making moments that visualize important transitions in policy. The dramatizations are based on primary source documents (minutes of meetings, memoirs from such individuals as camp commandant Rudolf Höss, and testimony from people who were in the meetings). Project scholars have extensively reviewed all dramatizations and computer-generated images for their accuracy. Dramatizations were filmed in German and have English captioning.
  • The series illuminates the evolution of Auschwitz, which began as a concentration camp to isolate Polish and Russian prisoners of war rather than as a death camp to annihilate the Jews. Because of its location, natural resources, and population, it soon became an industrial center and money-making machine for the Nazis, supplying raw materials from the local area and slave laborers from the camp population. Only later did Auschwitz become a purpose-built killing camp.
  • During the 1990s, the entire set of building plans relating to Auschwitz at all of its various stages was uncovered in Russian archives, enabling the series to use the most sophisticated computer technology available to create a visual representation of the very places the Nazis never wanted anybody to see.
  • In addition to interviews with survivors, the series contains extraordinary interviews with Nazi perpetrators, now in their seventies and eighties. These testimonies provide insight into these people's worldview, motivation, and belief systems.
  • The closing segment of each program, hosted by journalist Linda Ellerbee, features interviews with American scholars, writers, and students who discuss the major issues of each program from their unique points of view and provide insight into how different people can examine the same situations and come to diverse conclusions.

Discussion Prompts: Choices and Changes

The series contains some very powerful material and is sure to evoke strong emotions among viewers. Some will want to talk about how they feel immediately, but many may prefer a brief opportunity to process their thoughts privately or discuss them in a small-group setting.

The following discussion prompts are suitable for use in both college and adult education settings and can be used with either a single program or the series as a whole.

  • What are some of the themes that emerge from the films? Encourage viewers to state what specific things they observed and/or heard that led to their conclusions.
  • Who was involved in the Holocaust (e.g., victims, perpetrators, rescuers, bystanders, collaborators, national leaders)? Develop a list of descriptors for each of these groups. Compare the lists. Do some words appear repeatedly? If so, how would you explain this?
  • In addition to Jews, the Nazis persecuted other groups (e.g., homosexuals, Gypsies, the disabled, and Jehovah's Witnesses). In general, their reasons for discriminating against people in these groups differed from the reasons they persecuted the Jews. Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, would not salute Hitler; Aryan homosexuals did not procreate. Do the differences between biological and political or religious enemies matter if the victims were murdered? Why or why not?
  • Antisemitism and racism were key elements in Nazi ideology. How did the Nazis perceive Jews and Russians? How did they dehumanize the victims? How did this dehumanization affect behavior toward these groups?
  • History is not inevitable; it emerges from a series of choices made by individuals and groups, and each choice leads to a consequence or series of consequences. What are the particular choices made in any particular episode and who makes them? For each example, ask, What is the basis for the choice? What was the result of the choice? What other choices were possible and what might have been the result of these alternatives? This discussion will be most useful if it includes choices made by individuals with different points of view (e.g., Nazi leaders, victims, SS guards, bystanders, etc.).
  • Among the major Nazis involved in Auschwitz were Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich, Adolf Eichmann, and Rudolf Höss. What do you learn about these men through these programs?
  • Another theme that resonates through the series is the incremental nature of the steps leading to the Auschwitz genocide. Although an overall ideology was clearly present, the changes primarily occurred step-by-step. Ask for examples of these incremental changes (e.g., taking away freedoms, moving Jews into ghettos, increasing the population in the ghetto, transporting them to concentration camps, sending them to death camps; the Euthanasia Program affecting adults, then adults and children, then small scale-gassing experiments, then large-scale extermination). Examine the moments of change and consider whether there might have been alternatives. Again, strive for precision regarding different points of view.
  • Do you think at any point the Holocaust might have been avoided or stopped? If yes, when, how, and by whom? If not, why not?
  • Throughout the series, both Nazi leaders and individual perpetrators provide justification for their crimes—from stealing prisoners' jewelry to mass murder. Identify some of these justifications. Which stem from a personal morality and which relate to ideology? Is there a difference between the personal and the ideological?
  • Why did some nations collaborate with the Nazis and others refuse their cooperation and/or actively deceive the Nazis?
  • Should people always do as they are ordered? Should people refuse to obey orders when they feel they are morally wrong? What are alternative actions can they take under such circumstances? What does it mean to "respect authority but question information," as Professor Edward Kissi says? Develop some scenarios that would illustrate the difference.
  • Develop a working definition of corruption. People often use the term slippery slope when discussing corruption. Identify corrupt actions seen in the films and organize them from relatively minor to major along such a slippery slope. Other categories you might use for sorting are degree of risk and degree of payoff. Discuss: Is it any less corrupt to be involved in a minor action than it is to perpetrate major corruption?
  • What forms of resistance do you see in the program? What other forms of resistance do you think might have been available to prisoners? Perpetrators? Nations? When do we say 'No" to the prevailing winds in a society we believe are wrong? What actions are available to us to resist situations we feel are morally wrong?
  • Why do you think some Nazi perpetrators are able to look back with fondness at this period in their lives? What would you expect to be the long-term effect of their behavior on those Germans who served their country at concentration and death camps?
  • In the last dozen years, particularly as the life span for many survivors is running out, numerous agencies have taken up the question of reparations. The German government and industry, for example, have a fund that would pay approximately $3,000 to each person who was made a slave laborer by the Third Reich. Swiss banks also have created a fund to compensate survivors whose property was confiscated by the Nazis and stored in the banks of the otherwise neutral Swiss. Can reparations right an old wrong? Should people who receive restitution "forgive and forget"? How would you determine who is eligible? What factors would you take into consideration? Who should represent the survivors?
  • Michael Berenbaum urges viewers to "Try not to be a perpetrator. Try not to be a bystander. Try not to be a victim." What does this mean to you in terms of your own life and behavior?
  • What symptoms of genocide are you seeing today? Who are the perpetrators? Who are the victims? What steps are being taken to end these genocides? What steps do you believe could be taken?
  • Are there lessons to be learned from the Holocaust and if so, what are they?

AUSCHWITZ: Inside the Nazi State has received major funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Public Broadcasting Service, and the British Broadcasting Corporation. Additional funding by Peter and Helen Bing, The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, and The Wasserman Foundation.