Lebensraum and Judenrein. These were Hitler’s dreams. Years of preparation brought him to that day – June 22, 1941 when his now powerful army attacked the Soviet Union. The plan was to create Lebensraum – living space – by deporting, enslaving and killing the residents – Gentiles and Jews. Fertile farm land would ensure plenty of food and cities for the multiplying Aryans. Jews would simply be moved elsewhere – far away, thus making the lands Judenrein – free of Jews.
Moving all these Jews and Gentiles was a pipe dream. There were just too many people and nowhere to put them. Even Madagascar was considered as a dumping ground for the Jews of Europe.
The June 22, 1941 attack was so successful that the Soviet army was quickly overrun. The Germans took hundreds of thousands of Soviet prisoners of war. Sam Goldberg was one of those Soviet soldiers captured in June of 1941, but he miraculously escaped the POW camp. But that story is for another blog post.
Many Soviet POWs were killed in the field or in makeshift POW camps. But swarms were transported to concentration camps. Because of the overcrowding, orders were quickly issued to build more camps and to kill the Soviet POWs. The first order to kill POWs was issued in August of 1941 at Sachsenhausen by Theodore Eicke, Commander of SS Deaths Head Division. Eicke’s core values were “brutality, racism, and ruthlessness.” At a meeting at Sachsenhausen, Eicke announced the new program to murder Soviet POWs. All in attendance agreed that a new method of mass execution was needed.
The euthanasia program taught the SS that deception makes the killing easier – just a spoon full of sugar! So, after telling the POWs at Sachsenhausen that they were going to a “better place” they were taken to a special execution barrack that resembled a doctor’s office. Ordered to undress, they were given fake medical exams by white coated SS officers. After passing the exam, the POWs were escorted to a “bathroom” where they were ordered to stand against a measuring stick. The measuring stick had a hole in it just the right size for a bullet. An SS officer stood on the other side of the wall and shot a bullet through the hole to the nape of the victim’s neck – instant death.
Then, there was the first experiment with asphyxiation by gas at Auschwitz. Block 11 was sealed. Two hundred and fifty infirm patients and 600 Soviet POWs were gassed with Zyklon B. The experiment was declared a success. “Now, I was relieved indeed,” said Rudolph Hoss, the commandant of Auschwitz “that all of us would be spared these bloodbaths.”
Other killing experiments were conducted on Soviet POWs at Sachsenhausen. A van pumped its own gas from the exhaust pipe into the passenger cab – asphyxiating them with carbon monoxide.
Now, the numbers begin to get staggering. Between October and December 1941 an estimated 300,000-500,000 POWs died each month.
As the concentration camps became places of enslavement and mass execution for Soviet POWs, Hitler made loud pronouncements about the destruction of the Jewish people. Hitler’s order for the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” was issued in the summer of 1941. Official German policy – deportation of the Jews – became unrealistic. There was nowhere to send them. So Hitler ordered the construction of “vernichtungslager”– annihilation camps. On October 17, 1941, Hitler said, “we are getting rid of the destructive Jews entirely.” Two months later, the Americans entered the war and Hitler stated, “the world war is here . . . the annihilation of word Jewry must be the necessary consequence.”
The machinery was in place – or nearly – to carry out the task. All that was left was to build the death camps and move the Jews en mass from the towns to the city ghettos and from the ghettos to the concentration camps and death camps. The machinery of deception, transportation, brutality, and mass murder were well oiled and ready for the genocide to come.
- Wachsmann, Nikolaus. kl: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps. New York. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2015.
- Snyder, Timothy. Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. New York, NY. Basic Books. 2010.
- Fritzsche, Peter. Life and Death in the Third Reich. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. 2008.