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Surprising Beginnings


AUSCHWITZ: Inside The Nazi State
Surprising Beginnings: Episode 1

This is the site of the largest mass murder in the history of the world—Auschwitz. 1.1 million people died here. More than the total British and American losses in the whole of the Second World War.

This is the story of the evolution of Auschwitz and the mentality of the perpetrators. It's a history, based in part on documents and plans only discovered since the opening of archives in Eastern Europe, and informed by interviews with people who were there, including former members of the SS.

Oskar Gröning: "And if you ask yourself if this is really necessary you say to yourself, "Yes, of course, we have been told that these are our enemies and there is a war on."

But the horrors of Auschwitz did not occur in isolation. The camp evolved alongside the Nazi plan for the conquest of Eastern Europe. A war of destruction unlike any other in modern times. One in which innocent civilians were murdered by special killing squads.

Hans Friedrich: "The order said—they are to be shot." "And for me, that was binding."

As the war developed Nazi decision makers conceived one of the most infamous policies in all history. What they called the 'Final Solution'—the extermination of the Jews. And at Auschwitz they journeyed down the long and crooked road to mass murder to create this—the building which symbolised their crime—a factory of death.

Dario Gabbai—Jewish prisoner, Auschwitz 1944-45: "They were, the people screaming—all the people, you know—they didn't know what to do, scratching the walls, crying until the gas took effect. If I close my eyes, the only thing I see is standing up—women with children in, in their hands, there."

What follows is the surprising story of the birth of Auschwitz, and the Nazi policy of mass extermination. With Auschwitz initially built for an altogether different purpose than the gassing of the Jews. And the Nazis evolving their wider policy of killing in ways that defy the popular myth of the SS as robotic killers who simply acted under orders.

AUSCHWITZ: Inside The Nazi State
Surprising Beginnings: Episode 1

In the spring of 1940, Captain Rudolf Höss of the SS journeyed through Poland to take up the job of Commandant of a new Nazi concentration camp. Höss was travelling to the outskirts of the town of Auschwitz. In the midst of territory snatched by Hitler during his invasion of Poland the previous year. Here Höss would create this concentration camp. The very first Auschwitz, which was later known as the Stammlager or Auschwitz 1. But when Höss first arrived in April 1940 few of these buildings existed. This infamous concentration camp began life as a collection of dilapidated former Polish army barracks set around a huge horse breaking yard.

Words from "Commandant of Auschwitz" by Rudolf Höss: "The task wasn't easy. In the shortest possible time, I had to create a camp for 10,000 prisoners using the existing complex of buildings which were well constructed but were completely run down and swarming with vermin."

And this first Auschwitz was built not to hold Polish Jews who were to be confined elsewhere in ghettos, but chiefly Polish political prisoners, anyone the Nazis considered a threat to their occupation.

Rudolf Höss: "True opponents of the state had to be securely locked up. Only the SS were capable of protecting the National Socialist State from all internal danger. All other organisations lacked the necessary toughness."

The Nazi occupation of Poland was to be brutal. They wanted to make the Poles a nation of slaves and it was to help them achieve this aim that the Nazis first built places like Auschwitz, modelled on concentration camps they'd already established in Germany. Höss who had worked in concentration camps since 1934 knew that his task was to create a place that would strike terror into the Poles. But the gas chambers for which Auschwitz was to become infamous were not yet conceived.

Höss even adopted the cynical motto of Dachau concentration camp in Germany—Arbeit Macht Frei—"Work makes you free"—and emblazoned it on the new gates of Auschwitz. The Polish prisoners now arriving at the new camp were subject to appalling treatment from the SS. Over half the 23,000 Poles first sent to Auschwitz were dead within twenty months.

Jerzy Bielecki was imprisoned in Auschwitz because the Nazis suspected he was in the Polish resistance. Once there the SS sentenced him to hanging torture, a punishment favoured in other concentration camps as well, where the prisoner was made to carry his full body weight on arms pulled back into an unnatural position.

Jerzy Bielecki—Polish Political Prisoner—Auschwitz: "He wanted to hang me on the hook, he said stand up on your toes. Finally he hooked me and then he kicked the stool away without any warning. I just felt Jesus Mary oh my God the terrible pain. My shoulders were breaking out from the joints, both arms were breaking out from the joints. I'd been moaning and he just said shut up you dog you deserve it, you have to suffer.

Appallingly violent as life was at Auschwitz, the camp itself was not yet a major priority in the Nazi scheme of things, so much so that in those early days Höss was forced to go scrounging for basic supplies.

Rudolf Höss: "Since I could expect no help from the inspectorate of concentration camps, I had to make do as best I could and help myself. I had to drive as far as 60 miles to Zakopane and Rabka just to get some kettles. I didn't even know where I could get 100 metres of barbed wire, so I just had to pilfer the badly needed barbed wire."

After a day of pilfering Höss returned home to a house on the edge of the concentration camp. Here he lived as he thought a Nazi conqueror should and treated the prisoners as his serfs.

Józef Paczynski—Polish Political Prisoner, Auschwitz: 'Every week and a half or so, a junior officer from the guard company would come and take me to his house and I would cut Höss's hair, "kein Wort". He wouldn't say a word to me and I wouldn't say a word, because I was afraid, and he despised inmates.'

Interviewer: "Weren't you ever tempted to stick the scissors in his neck?"

Józef Paczynski: "It could have happened. I had a razor in my hand I could have grabbed him and slit his throat. It could have happened. But I'm a living, thinking being. Do you know what would have happened? My whole family would have been destroyed, half of the camp would have been destroyed, and in his place someone else would have come."

While Höss lived in comfort the prisoners struggled to survive. Deprived of adequate sustenance they evolved their own code of conduct, and one of the worst crimes an inmate could commit was to take another's food.

Kazimierz Piechowski: "What was done to get rid of such people? They were liquidated. The prisoners killed them at night. They put a blanket over his face and kept it there until he stopped breathing. And no one would ask questions. In the morning the block elder would report—so many dead. Fair enough."

Interviewer: "And you didn't feel anything? This was normal"

Kazimierz Piechowski: "Absolutely. It was completely normal. Except for a kind of flash—subconscious perhaps: God, and still things such as this are happening. And still things such as this. But these things couldn't be helped. In other words, "don't think about it. It's been and gone. Now think about where to go to work, to survive the following day, just to survive the following day. Watch your bread, so that no-one steals it, so that you get to eat some breakfast. Go to work and try to find a lighter job." This is what you were preoccupied with, and this was a constant vigilance. 'Be vigilant. You have to survive.'"

Presiding over the horror of prison life at Auschwitz in 1940 were Höss and around 300 members of the SS. They held comradeship evenings for themselves and their families to foster a sense of solidarity. But as Höss reveals, it was a charade.

Rudolf Höss: "Palitzsch, the roll call leader, was the most cunning and slippery creature I had ever got to know and experience during my long and diverse service in various concentration camps. He literally walked over bodies to satisfy his hunger for power. Fritzsch, the first camp officer, was short-witted yet stubborn and always quarrelsome, even though he was trying to present himself as a good comrade and also talked a lot about comradeship when he was off duty. His behaviour was, in reality, anything but comradely."

Höss' memoirs reveal him to be a hard-hearted, petty-minded man, always wanting to shift responsibility for his mistakes onto others. And in his own admission Auschwitz was, from the first, a concentration camp where great brutality was practised.

Despite this, during 1940 the camp he ran was almost a backwater in Nazi occupied Poland. All that was about to change. The crucial reason for the transformation of Auschwitz was simple—its location.

The area around the camp was rich in natural resources. This part of Poland possessed a plentiful supply of fresh water, lime and most importantly of all for what was to come, coal. Within 20 miles of Auschwitz lay a network of mines with access to some of the richest coal seams in Europe.

Towards the end of 1940, these were just the resources that scientists at IG Farben, the giant German industrial conglomerate, were looking for. They'd been experimenting for years in how to make synthetic rubber and fuel, essential raw materials for the German war effort. Water, lime and coal were the most important ingredients they needed. Now they found that Auschwitz was just the right place to site their new factory in the East.

Heinrich Himmler, Commander of the SS, now visited Auschwitz for the very first time. He had heard the news that IG Farben with its huge financial resources was interested in coming to the area. Himmler was accompanied on his tour of inspection by Höss, the regional Nazi leader—the Gauleiter -, and other senior members of the SS. Himmler told them that he wanted Auschwitz tripled in capacity from 10,000 to 30,000 prisoners—the camp would be a backwater no longer, but the biggest concentration camp in the Nazi state. But as Höss witnessed, the local Nazi leader had problems with Reichsführer Himmler's plans.

"The Gauleiter raised objections and the County President tried to put a stop to the plan by pointing to the unresolved drainage issue. But the Reichsführer would have none of it."

Subtitles: Get the experts in this field and your problem resolves itself. Gentlemen, the camp will be expanded. My reasons for it are far more important than your objections.

Unsurprisingly, Himmler got his way.

A whole series of plans was drawn up over the succeeding months and years, detailing the grandeur, almost megalomania of the new Nazi vision for Auschwitz. Hidden for decades, the detailed drawings surfaced only shortly before the death of the original German architect.

The Nazi dream was that the money IG Farben were bringing to the area would fund the creation of a new town of Auschwitz, a model German settlement in the East. Ethnic Germans would now live here, with those who currently lived in the town thrown out of their homes and deported. Plans were made for a gigantic Nazi party headquarters and a host of other new buildings. And nearby, down the Sola River, the concentration camp itself was to be transformed.

Prisoners would work as slave labour at the IG Farben factory nearby, the SS would sell IG Farben raw materials and a huge new 'Kommandantur', a central administrative building, would be built. A special apartment was even to be constructed for Himmler himself. Auschwitz was to be his home away from home. Plans were drawn up for suitable furniture for the Reichsführer. From his sofa to his occasional table, from his armchair to the hangings on the wall.

Himmler's vision for the new Auschwitz was certainly grandiose. But it was the epic plans that Adolf Hitler was working on at the same time which would transform Auschwitz in ways that dwarfed anything Himmler had contemplated. Hitler intended not just to reorganise a concentration camp and a town, but to reshape entire countries. For, during the spring of 1941, Hitler worked on plans to invade the Soviet Union. This decision would in turn act as the catalyst for radical change in the function of Auschwitz.

Before the end of 1941 Hitler expected German troops to be parading through Moscow's Red Square. The Nazis hated the Soviet Union. It was the home of Communism—an ideology they both feared and despised. The Nazi's believed that it ought not to be hard to defeat Stalin and his Red Army.

Hans Friedrich—1st SS Infantry Brigade: "They were—in civilisation terms—not as far on as the West. You just have to imagine the following: France—a civilised nation with flushing toilets. Russia—predominantly toilet behind the house."

In Berlin that Spring of 1941, this view that the Soviet Union was peopled with inferior human beings, pervaded Nazi strategic thinking. Nazi economic planners worked out how the German army could be fed once the invasion was launched. And in the process they thought it legitimate to plan mass starvation. Every word spoken here is taken from Nazi memoranda and minutes of economic committees held just before the war against the Soviet Union began.

Subtitles: If we want to get anything out of Russia we need to reduce consumption. Poverty, hunger and thrift have been the lot of the Russians for centuries. Their stomachs are elastic, so let's have no misplaced pity. And let's face it: millions of people will die of starvation if we take what we need from the country. We have no other choice. The war can only be continued if the whole of the Wermacht is fed from Russia.

So even before the war started, the Nazis envisaged the extermination of large sections of the Soviet population. This was to be a war of annihilation.

In the weeks after their invasion of the Soviet Union the Germans took 3 million Soviet prisoners. Within 9 months 2 million of them were dead, many starved to death in German captivity. Any Soviet political officers, or commissars, found amongst the Red Army prisoners on the front line were to be shot.

But some who slipped through were sent to concentration camps—which is how Auschwitz first became involved in the war in the East. On this spot in July 1941, Soviet prisoners were forced to work in gravel pits. From behind a nearby fence, a Polish inmate of Auschwitz, Jerzy Bielecki, watched what happened to them.

Jerzy Bielecki—Polish political prisoner, Auschwitz: 'The Prisoner Overseers beat them mercilessly, kicked them, clubbed them; they would fall to the ground, it was a macabre scene. I had never in my life seen anything like it. Neither did I later on, even though I remained in the camp for a long time after.

I saw an SS-man, a junior officer, walking around the gravel pit with a pistol in his hand…It was sadism. 'You dogs! You damned communists! You pieces of shit!' Horrible words like these. And from time to time he would direct the pistol downwards and shoot: pow… pow pow."

It wasn't just the Soviet prisoners of war who were to suffer as the Nazis moved East; it was the Soviet Jews as well. The Nazis, hardened anti-Semites, believed that the combination of Slavs, Jews and Communism was particularly dangerous.

Hans Friedrich: "There were connections between Jews and Bolsheviks, there was sufficient evidence for the fact that there were connections between the two."

The Nazis spouted any number of similar prejudices about the Jews. Even claiming there was an international Jewish conspiracy against them and that the Jews had somehow lost Germany the 1st World War. Their delusions knew no bounds.

Subtitles: These are the types of Eastern Jews who flooded Europe's cities after the last war. Small parasites, undermining their host countries threatening thousand-year-old cultures and bringing with them crime, corruption and chaos.

From the moment the Germans first invaded the Soviet Union, Nazi special units operating throughout the countryside and towns had shot many male Jews including Communists, civic leaders and even those just of military age. They'd also encouraged locals to rise up against the Jews as is happening here in this rare footage from the Ukraine in July 1941.

After a series of meetings between Hitler and Himmler in the summer of 1941 there was an escalation in the persecution of the Soviet Jews. New units were committed to special duties in the East, among them the 1st SS Infantry Brigade. In a typical action, they approached the town of Ostrog in the western part of the Ukraine on August 4th 1941, where over ten thousand Jews from the surrounding area had been gathered together. Among them were 11 year old Vasyl Valdeman and his family. They were now at risk. The Nazi killing squads in the East had now began to target Jewish women and children as well as men.

Vasyl Valdeman—Jewish resident, Ostrog: We knew something would be done to us here. When we saw people hit and driven along here with spades, even small children realised why people were carrying the spades.

One of the members of the 1st SS Infantry Brigade at the time was Hans Friedrich. He claims not to recall exactly which actions he took part in that summer, but he does admit to participating in killings like the one in Ostrog.

Hans Friedrich—1st SS Infantry Brigade: "They were so utterly shocked and frightened, you could do with them what you wanted."

Vasyl Valdeman: "Kids were crying, the sick were crying, the elderly were praying to God. Not on their knees but seated or lying down. It was very tough to go through it all, hearing all this wailing and crying. Then they had everyone get up and said 'Go', and as soon as people started moving, they selected people for shooting, for execution."

The selected Ukrainian Jews were taken out to this spot and a pit was dug. In scenes which were repeated right across the areas of the Soviet Union occupied by the Nazis, men, women and children were ordered to strip and prepare to die.

Hans Friedrich: "Try to imagine there is a ditch, with people on one side, and behind them soldiers. That was us and we were shooting. And those who were hit fell down into the ditch.

Interviewer: "Could you tell me what you were thinking and feeling when you were shooting?"

Hans Friedrich: "Nothing. I only thought, 'Aim carefully' so that you hit properly. That was my thought."

Interviewer: "This was your only thought? During all that time you had no feelings for the people, the Jewish civilians that you shot?"

Hans Friedrich: "No."

Interviewer: "And why not?"

Hans Friedrich: "Because my hatred towards the Jews is too great. And I admit my thinking on this point is unjust, I admit this. But what I experienced from my earliest youth when I was living on a farm, what the Jews were doing to us—well that will never change. That is my unshakeable conviction."

As he grew up in the 1930's in an atmosphere of vicious anti-Semitism, Hans Friedrich came to believe that local Jewish traders had cheated him and his family.

Interviewer: "What in God's name did the people you shot have to do with those people who supposedly treated you badly at home? They simply belonged to the same group! What else? What else did they have to do with it?"

Hans Friedrich: "Nothing, but to us they were Jews!"

Vasyl Valdeman: "Though I was a small boy at that time, I understood what Nazis were. I had no idea before but afterwards I was thinking all the time—what makes those people be so cruel, what makes them beasts?"

The killings went on into the evening. Vasyl Valdeman and his mother managed to escape and hide in a nearby village. But the SS killed his father, grandfather and two uncles.

Vasyl Valdeman: "That's how it was—the first execution—the most horrible one. It wasn't the last one. There were three more large executions after that with 2000 to 3000 people shot at every one of them. More people were executed afterwards in smaller scale ones and this is how the Jewish community of Ostrog was annihilated."

At the same time as the mass shootings of Jews in the Soviet Union, there was also an escalation in the killing of Auschwitz prisoners. For the first time inmates of Auschwitz were to be killed by gassing. But not in the way for which the camp was eventually to become notorious.

Höss received news that doctors from the so called Adult Euthanasia Programme would visit the camp. They were looking for those prisoners who could no longer work. Members of the Nazis' Adult Euthanasia Programme had up to now been targeting the mentally and physically disabled. A section of the population who had long been demonised by Nazi propaganda.

Subtitles: The German people are unaware of the true extent of all this misery. They are unaware of the depressing atmosphere in these buildings, in which thousands of gibbering idiots must be fed and nursed. They are inferior to any animal. Can we burden future generations with such an inheritance?

In 1939, Hitler had authorised a scheme by which severely disabled children could be murdered. Then once the war began, this killing was extended to disabled adults as well. The selection was straightforward. A doctor would examine a report on the patient and then if he thought they were suitable candidates for the scheme, he would mark the form with a red cross. Two other doctors separately marked identical forms and a majority vote decided the patient's fate. The doctors met neither each other, nor the patient, before reaching their verdict. Those selected to die were taken to special institutions inside Germany like this one, the Sonnenstein Clinic near Dresden.

There were six centres like this spread throughout Germany. And in them, a new method of killing had been devised using a subterfuge that would eventually be adopted at Auschwitz. The disabled were told they were going to have a shower. They were taken into a room from which hung pipes and showerheads. But the pipes were not connected to water. They led out through the walls to bottles of carbon monoxide gas. Once the room was sealed, the carbon monoxide was turned on and the patients murdered. Around 70,000 disabled people had been killed in this way by the summer of 1941.

Himmler wanted the Adult Euthanasia Scheme to be extended to concentration camps, which is why a special unit came to Auschwitz that summer.

Kazimierz Smolen—Polish Political Prisoner, Auschwitz: "During an evening roll call, we were told that all the sick among us could go away for treatment... that they could leave to be cured, and that they were to sign up. Of course, it was said that they would be going for treatment. And, in the camp, some people believed it..."

So the first Auschwitz prisoners to be gassed were not killed in the camp but transported to gas chambers in Germany. And they were selected not because they were Jews but because they could no longer work.

Kazimierz Smolen: "There were 575 people and they walked like some kind of funeral procession, because some walked, others were carried on stretchers—a kind of melancholy march. And the inmates standing nearby were saying farewell to their relatives and friends. All of them were worn out prisoners. There were no healthy people among them. Male nurses carried some on stretchers. It was terribly macabre. It was a procession of spectres."

Two weeks after the sick were taken from Auschwitz, Heinrich Himmler visited the Soviet Union. A visit that was to be of great significance in the development of the Nazis' Extermination Programme. The discovery in the 1990's of Himmler's appointment diary for this crucial period allows his precise movements to be tracked. He drove to the outskirts of Minsk and on the morning of Friday, August 15th 1941, he watched an execution of Jews and alleged partisans. The sight must have been similar to this execution, filmed around the same time on the sand-dunes of Liepaja in Latvia. After the shooting, SS General Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski told Himmler there was a problem with the SS killers.

Subtitles: Reichsführer, these were only 100. What do you mean? Look at the eyes of the men in this commando. These men are finished for the rest of their lives. What kind of followers are we producing here? Either neurotics or brutes.

Bach-Zelewski knew that all over the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941 the Nazis and their collaborators were murdering women and children at close range and in cold blood. Himmler realised he had to find a better way of killing—better for the murderers, not their victims.

Which is why SS Lieutenant Dr. Albert Widmann of the Technical Institute of the Criminal Police travelled into Eastern Europe. Widmann and his colleagues had been involved in the experiments which had led to the use of bottled carbon monoxide to kill the disabled. But he knew that it would be expensive and difficult to send canisters of carbon monoxide all the way to the new killing locations far from Germany. So he had to find a new way forward, which is why he drove into the Soviet Union followed by a truck carrying boxes of high explosive. Widmann reported to Artur Nebe, commander of one of the killing squads, at his headquarters in the Lenin House in Minsk.

Widmann reported to Artur Nebe, commander of one of the killing squads, at his headquarters in the Lenin House in Minsk.

Subtitles: I hope you've got enough explosives with you? You ordered 250 kg, I've brought 450 kg with me. You never know. Very good.

Nazi eyewitness account of murder experiment with explosives: "The bunker had totally collapsed, there was total silence. Body parts were scattered on the ground and hanging in the trees. And the next day we collected the body parts and threw them back into the bunker. Those parts that were too high in the trees were just left there."

After this horror, Widmann and his SS colleagues tried another method of mass murder—this one suggested by what had happened to Artur Nebe of the SS earlier on in the year. Nebe had driven home drunk from a party in Berlin and passed out in his garage with the car engine still running. As a result the carbon monoxide from the exhaust gasses had nearly killed him. Learning from Nebe's experience, Widmann and his colleagues now conducted experiments in the Soviet Union, like this one.

This film is believed to show patients from a Soviet hospital being locked in a room which was connected to the exhaust pipes of a car and a lorry. The Nazis had now developed a cheaper method of killing people with carbon monoxide than that previously used in the adult euthanasia scheme.

Around the same time as these gassing experiments were being conducted in the East, the authorities at Auschwitz were innovating new ways of murder as well. Whilst Höss was away from the camp, his deputy Karl Fritzsch had a radical idea, one of the most significant in the history of Auschwitz. With the SS in the camp still relying on shooting to kill Soviet prisoners unable to work, maybe, he thought, another method of killing lay right in front of him. In Auschwitz, clothes infected with lice and other insects were disinfected with crystallised prussic acid, mass produced under the trade name Zyklon B.

Subtitles: Zyklon B is used for pest control and thus protects our national economy and its assets, in particular the health of our people.

Once released from their sealed container, Zyklon B crystals dissolved in the air to create a lethal gas.

Fritzsch chose Block 11 in Auschwitz to conduct his first experiment with Zyklon B. This was the most feared location in the camp. A prison within a prison. The place where the SS sent inmates to be punished—interrogated, tortured, even executed. In Block 11 were standing cells where prisoners would be crammed together scarcely even able to breathe and starvation cells where inmates would be locked up, deprived of food and left until they died. Everyone in Auschwitz knew of the reputation of Block 11.

Józef Paczynski —Polish political prisoner, Auschwitz: "I personally was afraid of walking past Block 11. Personally, I was afraid. Although it was closed off, I was really scared to walk past there. Whether it was the avenue when I was walking there, or what… I was afraid. Block 11 meant death."

On a day in late August or early September 1941, Fritzsch ordered that the basement of Block 11 be prepared for the use of Zyklon B. Doors and windows were sealed—the whole block locked down.

August Kowalczyk—Polish political prisoner, Auschwitz: "Our attention was drawn—many of my colleagues saw this—by SS men running around with gas masks. The windows of the bunker had been covered up with sand, and in the bunker—the cells of the bunker, in the cellar—Soviet prisoners of war were assembled. And it turned out the following day that the SS—actually, it was Palitzsch in particular who attracted attention because he was running around like crazy. It turned out that the gas hadn't worked properly and that many of the prisoners, the people, were still alive. So they increased the dosage, added more crystals and finished the job.

The prisoners dragged it all away on carts known as Rollwagons. They took them to the crematorium, because the crematorium was already being used, you could see smoke from the chimney… So it was… an open secret."

Józef Paczynski: "How does a person feel? One becomes indifferent in the midst of all that. Today it's your turn, tomorrow it will be mine."

Once Höss came back to the camp, he learnt about the experiment.

Rudolf Höss: "When I returned, Fritzsch reported to me about how he had used the gas. He used it again to kill the next transport of Russian prisoners of war."

As Höss returned home to his wife and four children in his house on the edge of the camp, he felt pleased.

Rudolf Höss: "I must admit that this gassing had a calming effect on me, I was always horrified of executions by firing squads. Now, I was relieved to think that we would be spared all these bloodbaths."

Höss was wrong. He was about to oversee an even greater bloodbath. By building a camp here on this patch of swampy ground a mile and a half away from the town of Auschwitz at a place the Poles called Brzezinka and the Germans Birkenau.