wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Mark Mazower

Dark Continent

The death camps formed part of a larger 'concentration camp universe' in which the SS ruled over hundreds of thousands of inmates in a vast network of camps stretching right across Europe. The boundaries of this 'universe' stretched as far north as Norway, as far south as Crete. By the end of the war, some 1.6 million people had been incarcerated, of whom over one million had died (in addition to those deliberately targeted for extermination). In Europe as a whole there were more than 10,000 camps, including—in addition to the eight extermination camps and the twenty-two main concentration camps with their 1,200 offshoots—over four hundred ghetto camps, some twenty-nine psychiatric homes and thirty children's homes where patients were murdered, twenty-six camps in the occupied eastern territories where mass murder was institutionalized, as well as numerous others housing POWs, civilian workers, juveniles or 'Germarnizable' east Europeans. Some thirty-three nationalities were to be found among the inmates at Dachau, over fourteen in Ravensbruck. The conditions of work were so oppressive that even many so-called labour camps were regarded by the inmates as centres of extermination. Describing the granite quarry at Gross-Rosen, near Breslau, a French doctor who arrived there from Auschwitz noted: 'Nowhere did I see individual murders carried out with such dexterity as at Grossrosen; murder was practised without qualms, by the kapos, by the camp police, by the SS and their dogs. With consummate skill they could kill a man with two or three blows.'

The inmates of these camps provided the basis for the main economic activity of the SS, which by 1944 extended from mining to heavy industry, from land reclamation to scientific 'research.' Four hundred and eighty thousand of the 600,000 prisoners in the camps in late 1944 were termed fit for work. Their tasks included sorting the possessions of dead prisoners for distribution to the Waffen-SS or other departments, building, quarrying and mining, as well as manufacturing in the Buna works and other industrial operations. Like the Soviet Union in the 1930s, the wartime Reich became a slave labour economy.

In February 1944 armaments czar Speer enlisted Himmler's help in 'deploying concentration camp inmates in functions that I regard as especially urgent.' This request inaugurated a rapid expansion of slave labour in munitions, in aircraft construction and particularly in building the underground missile works at 'Dora' and Peenemunde. Death rates here were horrendous: 2,882 of 17,000 workers died on the 'Dora' project within a few months: Speer regarded the project as a 'sensational success.' Overall, some 140,000 prisoners were used by Speer while 230,000 were utilized as slave labour by industrial firms in the private sector. By this point the armaments crisis had reached such a point, that for the first time anti-Semitic ideology was overridden and Hungarian Jews were moved from Auschwitz as additional labourers.

Barbarossa also extended the range of SS responsibilities in other directions. Terror replaced the rule of law in the East, and Himmler was authorized to deal with civilians directly without reference to the courts. The Waffen-SS became Himmler's army, growing from around 75,000 men in 1939-40 to nearly 500,000 by late 1944, part-threat part-partner to the Wehrmacht and as such a key instrument for Hitler in his gradual Nazification of the Army. The SS was given responsibility for policing the occupied territories in the East, while SS-Gruppenfuhrer Bach-Zelewski was placed in charge of coordinating anti-partisan operations.

Needless to say, such operations resulted in enormous destruction and loss of life. The basic strategy was 'to answer terror with terror.' Reprisal ratios were set for attacks on German life or property. As a result thousands of villages were burned down and hundreds of thousands of civilians killed in the course of 'cleansing operations.' Their impact upon partisan activity was almost certainly counter-productive, driving young men into clandestine activity. Efforts at a more sophisticated counter-insurgency strategy would have to wait several decades: after 1945 European colonial powers, and the Americans, studied and learned much from the failures of Nazi retaliatory anti-guerrilla policies.

While the partisans never really posed a significant military threat to German rule, they did obstruct the process of Germanization. Here, too, Barbarossa made Nazi thinking more extreme and more ambitious. Following the conquest of the Ukraine and Belorussia, SS town planners lost no time in drawing up proposals for new small German towns dotted across the Ukraine. 'General Plan East' envisaged a massive settlement programme stretching from Lithuania to the Crimea over twenty-five years. At Auschwitz, inmates dug fish ponds and built barns for model farms where Nazi colonists could be trained before heading east.

In the real world, however, certain difficulties with the entire Germanization idea were becoming apparent. One was corruption, for among the Germans from the Old Reich was a high proportion of 'gold-diggers' (or 'golden pheasants,' as they were known) and carpet-baggers, attracted by the prospects of quick riches and easy plunder. By contrast, few farmers wanted to make the move. Settlers felt exposed in rural areas where their life and property were endangered by the embittered local population.

Ironically—given the regime's obsession with 'living-space'—there did not seem to be enough settlers for the enormous amount of territory which Himmler dreamed of colonizing. 'Well, Kamerad, how are you getting on?' asked the local peasant leader in a Nazi paper of the time. 'Too much land,' is the response, as the unwilling farmer looks helplessly into the distance.' 'The proportions between space and people have been reversed,' commented another critic in 1942. 'The problem of how to feed a great people in a narrow space has changed into that of the best way of exploiting the conquered spaces with the limited numbers of people available.'

As the regime cast around for volunteers, the screening of potential colonists threw up some knotty problems for the racial theorists: some party hardliners were willing to take any suitable-looking candidates, even if their ties with Germany were tenuous; others insisted that knowledge of language and culture was more important than physical attributes. Some even speculated that if the SS brought home too many racially superior specimens from Russia, the inhabitants of the Reich might develop an inferiority complex and start a race war! On the other hand, of the 35,000 unwilling Slovenes, who were forcibly brought to Germany, only some 16,000 were finally reckoned suitable for Germanization; as most were the relatives of Slovene partisans, it is surprising that the number was so high. The rest, together with others from Luxembourg and Alsace, had to be kept in detention camps for the duration of the war.

The limits imposed by wartime reality on Himmler's demographic engineering were sharply revealed in the case of Zamosc, a town south of Lublin where a special effort was made to create a planned settlement of Volksdeutscbe. In this, the only case where the SS brought its colonization schemes anywhere near completion, over 10,000 Poles were removed from their homes to make way for German settlers. Half the Poles fled into the forests, where they joined the Underground and raided farms and villages; the rest were screened for racial purity and deported. Twenty-five thousand Germans were brought into an area still inhabited by 26,000 Ukrainians and 170,000 Poles. They were, a propagandist boasted, 'the first German cell of the modern eastern colonization, reawakened by this search to a pulsating German colonial life.' But by early 1944, the local authorities were already trying to persuade Himmler to abandon the colony and evacuate the settlers westwards: assaults on their farms were a regular occurrence and their menfolk were sleeping in fields to avoid being killed by the Underground.

Yet Himmler and Hitler stuck doggedly to their vision of a German empire in the East and left the evacuation of their hardy colonists as late as possible. This lack of contingency planning for withdrawal was but one aspect of the basic unreality in their plans. Their racist colonialism was doomed to failure; it was an imitation of Habsburg frontier policy without Habsburg political flexibility. They had created such hatred among the local population that in the absence of 'an overpowering police machine' the numbers of colonists required to hold vast areas of the former Soviet Union for Germany were beyond the grasp of Berlin. Hider's long-term policy had been to see '100 million Germans settled in these territories.' But such numbers simply did not exist. The Nazis wanted to turn Germans into peasants, but most Germans refused. Whether, as Himmler believed, the returning war heroes from the front would have welcomed a farm-stead in Poland or the Ukraine as their reward must be open to doubt.

As the Red Army advanced, the resettlement scheme disintegrated of its own accord. Between August 1943 and July 1944, some 350,000 Crimean Germans were evacuated to western Poland; others followed from the Ukraine and Belorussia. The German scorched-earth policy meant that it became impossible for many colonists to remain even had they wanted to. By early 1945, hundreds of thousands of German refugees were trekking westwards towards the Reich in a vast spontaneous exodus.

At the same time an even grimmer series of forced marches betrayed the dark side of the racial dream. In the last phase of the Final Solution, the extermination camps and concentration camps were closed down and, in some cases, destroyed, and the surviving inmates were driven through the snow on long marches in the general direction of the Reich. Of the 714,211 prisoners still in the camps in January 1941 around 250,000 died on these death marches.

A variety of motives lay behind the marches—including the SS's reluctance to allow prisoners to fall into Allied hands as well as the desire to exploit them as slave labourers. But in some cases, journeys on foot or by train were so aimless that it seems the intention was simply to 'continue the mass murder in the concentration camps by other means.' Marchers were starved, beaten and shot, particularly when they became too exhausted to keep up with tbe others. In addition to the brutality of the guards, the victims often had to contend with the active hostility of the civilian German population they passed through. Instances of help are also recorded. 'In Christianstadt German women tried to give us bread, but the women guards wouldn't
permit it,' recorded one former prisoner. 'One German woman with a human heart cried: "Ihr Elende, Ihr Ungluckliche." The brutal woman guard yelled: "What are you doing pitying Jews?"' It is worth noting that there are no known instances of German bystanders losing their lives for expressing sympathy in the hearing of SS guards. Even so, disapproval and indifference outweighed pity: by early 1945, with the end in sight, many German civilians saw themselves as the prime victims of the war and remained blind to the misfortune of the marchers passing through their midst.

In this terminal phase of Hitler's empire, the barriers which had previously existed between the ordered world of the Volksgemeinschaft and the underworld of the camps now dissolved. The inmates emerged 'like Martians' into the outside world. Their guards were no longer solely SS men, sworn to secrecy; they included retreating soldiers, civilians, Party officials and Hitler Youth members. Random shootings and massacres took place no longer within the camp perimeter, but by roadsides, in woods and on the outskirts of towns and villages in Germany and Austria.

The ultimate technical problem arising from mass murder practised on this scale was how to dispose of the dead. In the extermination camps, corpses were burned on enormous pyres or in ovens. The random, ubiquitous killing of the final months could not be so easily tidied up. As the Germans retreated from the Lublin region, they made hasty and unsuccessful efforts to hide the traces of genocide. Klukowski noted with horror 'the odor of decomposing bodies from the Jewish cemetery' where mass graves had been dug.