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The Financial logic of the Holocaust


Let me start by laying my cards on the table. I believe that the Holocaust is the most heinous criminal act in all of human history. It is, and will always remain, a dark stain on our collective humanity. Like the scar of an old operation, it will mark us a species until the day of our extinction.But it is sometimes the case that the sheer horror of the act, and the scale of the social, moral and political legacy it has left, can hinder a clear and accurate understanding of what happened, and more importantly why it happened.

And this is the key question. How, in the middle of the 20th century, could a cultured and civilised country in the middle of a modern Europe descend so rapidly and so deeply into barbarism? In the wake of the Holocaust all pledged that it must never happen again, but unless we clearly understand how it happened the first time, how can we prevent it happening a second? Our collective humanity demands, and the victims deserve, a full and proper understanding of what occurred.

Historical Perspectives.

There are broadly two approaches to understanding the Holocaust; the intentionalist and the functionalist perspectives. The intentionalist approach, which was the dominant approach until very recently, argued that the Holocaust was the culmination of a deliberate process that began shortly after Hitler took power, (and may even have been planned before that), and involved a series of deliberate steps all designed to intentionally bring about the desired ultimate goal; the physical extermination of the Jews. Whether reacting opportunistically or planning ahead, Hitler and other senior Nazis always had this ultimate goal in mind.

But beginning in the 1980’s, and initially causing some controversy, the functionalist approach argued that the Nazi extermination program was actually a by-product of other policies they were pursuing. The Holocaust was a means to an end, not a goal in itself. Extermination arose out of the policies and functioning of the Nazi state. From this perspective the Jews were persecuted because their extermination was seen by key actors within the Nazi administration as the best method of achieving certain goals.

Eichmann the SS Colonel - 1943

More recently many historians, including the leading Israeli Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer, have come around to the view that both perspectives are valid, that there were elements of the functionalist and the intentionalist mentality operating in the Nazi regime, or more accurately different actors within the regime were motivated by different factors.

I believe this to be the most useful approach. It was always simplistic to assume that all of those involved in the Holocaust had the same perspective and the same motivations.

Hitler and other senior Nazis such as Himmler and Goebbels, (though probably not Goering), were doubtless motivated by a racist and pathological hatred of the Jews, and the intentionalist explanation is probably most appropriate for understanding their actions.

Others, such Heydrich and Eichmann probably had different motivations, and saw mass murder as the best means of achieving them. Eichmann is an interesting case in point. His trial in Jerusalem in 1963 revealed, not the cloven-hooved and fork-tailed monster expected, but a rather dour and pedantic technocrat, prompting Hannah Arendt’s famous remark about the ‘banality of evil’.

Eichmann the defendant - 1963This talk draws heavily on the functionalist perspective, not because I believe that to be a superior explanation, but in order to correct the balance with what has been until recently the dominant approach, and the one with which people are likely to be most familiar. But as mentioned above, a synthesis of both perspectives is probably needed to fully understand what happened.

Essentially the talks argues that for certain Nazi officials at least, economic factors were a primary motivation for extermination. Other factors, such as demographic planning, eugenics and social engineering, also played a part. For different reasons the economists, the social planners and the eugenicists derived benefit from the exclusion and persecution of Jews, and when the problems caused by maintaining a large, dependant and imprisoned population became pressing, key officials decided that the most rational solution was simply to exterminate them all.

The rabid atmosphere of anti-Semitism created by Nazi leadership and propaganda, and the loosening of moral standards and ethical restraints that characterised their regime, created the atmosphere in which mass murder could be seen as an acceptable solution to an economic problem.

The economics of extermination.

Armies don’t win wars, economies do. Armies win battles, but from the American Civil War to World War 2 and beyond, it is economic might that brings final victory. Thus the restructuring of an economy to make it suitable for the needs of war is of vital importance. In a total war situation the economy of each nation became a weapon in itself, hence the importance each side attached to attacking and degrading the industrial potential of the other. In a conflict between advanced industrialised economies, factories and the workers who operate them are a more important target than enemy tanks, planes or ships.

In 1936 Hitler ordered Herman Goering to prepare the German economy to be ready to go to war by 1940. To do this Goering created the Office of the Four Year Plan. The office was given virtually unlimited powers and was answerable to Hitler alone. Goering was to take whatever steps he needed to achieve this goal.

Two of his most important tasks were to reorganise German industry to put it on a war footing, which involved both getting rid of inefficient operations, and changing efficient but non-relevant operations into operations which served the war machine. He was also to ensure that spending on the civilian population fell, to ensure more was available for wartime industry.

Planners were relying on the deceptively simple Donner Equation; W = N – C, or spending available for wartime needs (W) equals total national production (N), less the portion spent on the civilian population, (C). Thus, to increase resources available for wartime production, one either had to increase national production, or reduce spending on the civil population, and since there was an upper limit on how much national production could be increased, spending on the civilian population had to be kept to an absolute minimum.

This was true for all economies, hence the austerity programs launched by the British government, encouraging people not to make unnecessary car journeys, or to grow their own food, (Dig for Victory!). But Germany had an added problem. Policy planners had looked at Germany’s defeat in World War One and concluded, (probably correctly), that a major factor in the defeat had been the collapse of morale among the civilian population, brought about by the deprivations caused by the Allied blockade.

Herman GoringThis must not be allowed to happen this time around, and so Goering had to somehow ensure that the pain and hardship that would be inevitably caused by the changes he would be introducing did not affect the German population. A tall order, but one for which he had an answer; the Vienna Model.

The Vienna Model.

When Germany assimilated Austria in the Anschluss of 1935 they were saddled with an under-performing economy, which they had to rapidly restructure. In what became a template for later operations, they decided to focus the pain of the restructuring on the Jews. By targeting an already unpopular section of society, radical change could be introduced without affecting the rest of society to such a degree that support for the regime might be threatened.

Viennese Jews - Victims of the Entjudung Program

And so the Nazis introduced a set of laws giving effect to the Entjudung policy; the systematic exclusion of Jews from industry and commerce. The laws prevented Jews from owning a business, and eventually from participation in any form of economic or commercial activity. Jewish-owned factories and businesses were confiscated, and given over to compensate German businessmen. The exclusion of Jewish workers freed up posts to re-employ German workers.

By focusing the negative effects of restructuring on the Jewish population the necessary changes could be made without undermining support for the regime. The same model was used to restructure the German economy, and the economies of occupied countries once the war began.

But this then left the Nazi regime with another problem. They now had a large captive population which their policies had excluded from formal commercial activity, and were thus dependant on the state for subsistence. The Donner equation meant that the more money spent on this population, the less would be available for the war effort.

.The first response was to ‘encourage’, (through increasingly brutal treatment and restrictive laws) the emigration of Jews. The Reich Bureau for Jewish Emigration was set up, run by Adolf Eichmann, to facilitate this emigration, and to generate extra revenue by charging emigrants huge fees for the privilege of being expelled from their own country.

But the program ran into two difficulties. First was the unwillingness of other countries to accept the emigrants. Whereas initially European countries and the US were willing to accept Jews fleeing the regime, as numbers grew policy became more restrictive, and eventually almost all western countries, including the US, closed their borders to them.

Jews register for emigrationA tragic illustration of this was the case of the steamship St. Louis, which sailed across the Atlantic in 1938 with 800 Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. They were refused entry in Cuba and the US, crossed back across the Atlantic to be refused entry into France, sailed back across the Atlantic to be refused entry to America again, and back across the Atlantic where the Belgian government finally allowed them to disembark. Most were rounded up and sent to concentration camps following the Nazi conquest.

A second problem was caused by the exorbitant charges which the Nazis imposed on emigrating Jews, which meant that it was the wealthier Jews, with the money to pay the charges, that were emigrating, leaving the poorer section of the population behind.

To deal with the growing problem their policies had created the Nazis created the ghetto; designated areas of major cities into which Jews were herded, so the costs of maintaining them could be controlled and minimised. Every method was used to keep the costs as low as possible.

Images of the ghetto.

Jewish women at work in the Lodz ghetto ghetto currency Jewish workers wall off the Lublin ghetto


In most cases Jews themselves were required to build the walls and fences that imprisoned them. Rations inside were at bare subsistence level to begin with, and were gradually reduced to below starvation levels as time went on. Amazingly, Jews were required to pay for their own rations, to which end the Nazis encouraged the creation of ghetto industries; small scale operations such as tailoring or pot-mending, and introduced a ghetto currency, so that the benefits of any such activity ultimately went to the state.

Poland – The Clean Slate.

Germany invaded and conquered Poland in Sept. 1939, following which the country was divided into three sections; the western region was annexed and became part of the Reich proper, the eastern section was invaded and occupied by the Soviet Union, in accordance with the Nazi-Soviet pact, which left the territory known as the General Government sandwiched between the two.

Map of Nazi-occupied Poland

The Nazis had extensive plans for their new territory. The section annexed to the Reich would be cleansed of ‘inferior’ elements and repopulated by ethnic Germans. The General Government would become a dumping ground for these undesirable elements, not just from the rest of Poland, but from other territories as the Nazis conquered Europe.

Within the General Government all bets were off. Hitler intended the territory to be used to grind the population into the dust, to use his own phrase. Normal legal and ethical standards did not apply, meaning the Government General could be used as a testing ground for eugenic and social planning experiments that would be unacceptable elsewhere.

The man in charge of the General Government was Hans Frank, a Nazi technocrat, and he had his own ideas for the territory.Here was an ideal opportunity to show what rational planning, freed from the constraints of morality or ethics, could achieve.

Hans FrankHe would re-order society, getting rid of the undesirable elements and creating a model of planned order and industry.Teams of social planners arrived, eager to try out what had previously been theoretical ideas. Unlike ‘normal’ society, where their options were constrained, here they could give free rein to their plans and ideas. If a town was in the ‘wrong’ place; destroy it and build another. Too many workers in a particular sector? Exterminate the surplus. Silly notions like worker’s rights getting in the way? Send them to the concentration camp.

The centrepiece of Frank’s plans was Planning District Auschwitz, where Frank and his bureaucrats intended to turn undeveloped land into a model industrial city. The small concentration camp that was already there was supplemented by a second, much larger camp, (Auschwitz B), which was built to house the Polish workers that would build his model complex. As we will see below, Frank’s plans came into conflict with those of other Nazis, and in the event the only major industry to be built there was the IG Farben petro-chemical factory, but Auschwitz B would later put to use for another purpose.

Children selected for Germanisation' are taken from their families

These plans were coupled with notions of eugenics and racialism. Teams of Nazi race-experts arrived to examine the population, which was divided into three categories; racial Germans, (usually children), who were taken from their families and sent to Germany to be ‘Aryanised’ in SS orphanages; ‘superior’ but non-Germanic races; i.e. those deemed to have an element of German blood, or bred from ‘superior’ stock, (e.g. Nordic or other west-European), who would be sent to repopulate and farm the conquered territories.

And finally the rest, given the chillingly clinical designation of ‘surplus population’. Jews automatically fell into the last category.

Checking for 'racial purity'This was all part of a massive program of population resettlement. The newly acquired territories would be cleansed of inferior elements, and repopulated by ethnic Germans, (either from Germany proper or ‘rescued’ from conquered territories), who would be given land to farm and develop with proper Aryan efficiency. To oversee the massive operation a special branch of the SS was established; the Race and Resettlement Main Office, (in German; Rasse-und Siedlungshauptamt, RuSHA) .


Poland - those judged inferior are shipped out. ....Polish families are expelled from their lands.Teams of SS experts roamed occupied Poland, and other occupied territories, sorting populations into the three groups, and supervising a massive program of population resettlement.

This left the problem of the ‘surplus population’, and a tension between this program and Frank’s plans for the General Government. Officials in the SS wanted to use the General Government as a dumping ground, to cleanse Nazi territories of ‘inferior’ elements and dump them on the General Government, who could dispose of them in whatever way they wished.Frank and his administrators tried to resist this policy, since they wanted to control the population influx to allow them to create their model society.While those judged superior are shipped in. .......German settlers arrive to take over

Frank even went as far as to fly to Berlin for a personal appeal to Hitler, but Hitler had no interest in Frank’s plans, and the SS officials won the argument.

Polish ghettoes began to fill to overflowing. The Nazis adopted increasingly brutal policies to try to deal with the problem. Conditions inside the ghettoes were harsh in the extreme, rations were by now well below subsistence, and the population was squeezed ever tighter to force them to meet the costs of their own imprisonment. Those not lucky enough to find employment in one of the ghetto industries had to try selling possessions on the streets to buy rations. It was an automatic death sentence to be caught trying to smuggle food in, or indeed engage in any trade with those outside the ghetto. Death rates within the ghettoes rose inexorably.


The Warsaw Ghetto.

starving inmates queue for food one of the frequent ghetto sweeps and its victims disposing of the dead



Ghettoes were subjected to frequent raids, to sweep them of ‘surplus population’, those deemed to be of no economic value, who were then sent to the growing number of concentration camps that were being built around Poland. There they would be worked to death, or experimented on, or simply killed. Although the Nazis had not yet adopted a policy of deliberate genocide, an ad-hoc policy existed in concentration camps, (certainly those in Poland), of exterminating batches of prisoners to control the population within the camps. As time went on the criteria for selection for the camps became ever looser, and exemptions fewer and fewer.

The Madagascar Project and Aktion T4 Program.

One solution that was advanced was the possibility of moving the entire population of European Jews and resettling them in Madagascar, then a French colony. This idea may seem bizarre now, but at the time was given serious consideration. The plan was finally scrapped when the Germans were defeated in North Africa, meaning Britain retained control of the Suez Canal, but by this time planning for the program was at quite an advanced stage. The plans that officials had drawn up for the mass transport of Jews across Europe would later provide the logistical basis for the deportations to the extermination camps.

Nazi propoganda portrays the mentally disabled as a burden on societyAnother program that was very much a dry run for the Holocaust, and which gave the Nazis an opportunity to try out different extermination methods, was the forced euthanasia program known as Aktion T4. The logic behind this was very much the same as that behind the Holocaust, and had economic concerns at its centre.

The mentally ‘enfeebled’ were seen as a wasteful and unnecessary drain on limited resources. Those suffering from incurable mental disorders, or those born with congenital mental defects, would never be able to contribute usefully to society. Their continued existence served no purpose, (life not worthy of life as the propaganda put it), and simply wasted valuable resources. An extensive propaganda program was launched to marginalise this group, and soften the population up for the solution that had been decided upon; extermination.

Beginning in October 1939 German doctors, nurses and even nuns participated in a program to systematically kill patients deemed incurably mentally defective. Between then and the program’s termination in August 1941, between 75,000 and 100,000 patients were killed by various means, but mostly by a method that served as a model for the exterminations of the Final Solution; gassing in specially converted shower facilities.

The program began with the existing populations of mental institutions, and later families were invited to bring their disabled relatives to designated facilities for ‘special’ medical procedures. Some objected or tried to resist, but many did not. The program was kept secret, but rumours abounded. Senior officials noted that opposition was sporadic and muted.

When the Final Solution later became official policy the T4 program provided the method, and officials reasoned that if many Germans had not objected to the elimination of family members, would they raise much of a fuss about Jews?

The Invasion of Russia

With the German invasion of Russia in June 1941 the problems brought on by the Nazis policy towards the Jews magnified astoundingly. Not only were Jews from across Europe being transported to the already swollen ghettoes and concentration camps of Poland, (and to other concentration camps across Europe), but now some 5 million Russian Jews were about to come under Nazi control. As German troops conquered Russian territory, in their wake another step towards the Final Solution was being taken.

Einsatzgruppen members in Russia.

Nazi officials had already decided on the physical eradication of as many Russian Jews and other ‘undesirable’ elements as possible, and sent in special units behind the advancing army to conduct these exterminations; the Einsatzgruppen, (Special Action Squads).

The three Wermacht Army Groups that invaded Russia, Army Groups A, B and C, were each followed closely by their respective Einsaztgruppe, designated Einsaztgruppe B, C and D, (Einsaztgruppe A was assigned to the Baltic).

Their job was to exterminate all Jews, and other undesirable groups, in their respective areas.

A group of their victims await execution. Their job was made easier by years of Russian anti-Semitism, which meant that Jews lived in separate Jewish-only villages and districts, surrounded by a hostile population, often only too willing to help the death squads.

Initially extermination was done by mass shootings. The population of the chosen village would be rounded up, usually on the pretext of being relocated, and brought to the designated killing site, usually a tank ditch, trench or purpose built pit. There they would be forced to strip and any valuables confiscated. They would then be taken in small groups of 10 or so, made stand with their backs to the pit, and machine-gunned into it. Once the killing was complete bulldozers would fill the pit in, sometimes with bodies still writhing within it. One of the worst single incidents was the Baba Yar massacre, where over two days in September 1941 33,771 Jews were killed in mass shootings, and buried in a quarry outside the town.

Mobile gassing van.

Later, when mass shootings proved increasingly inefficient, not least because of the mental strain it placed on troops, a more efficient method was found. This involved the introduction of mobile gas vans, into which Jews would be placed and transported to the burial site. The exhaust of the van was directed back into the sealed chamber at the rear, and the passengers would be dead on arrival.

This greatly speeded up the mass killings, and in all it is estimated that the Einsatzgruppen were responsible for the extermination of some one million people in Russia.

As with Poland the Nazis had extensive plans for Russia, of which these mass killings were an intrinsic part.


Finishing off the victims. The exterminations were part of the program of ‘population reduction’ required by the Nazis General Plan East, abbreviated to GPO after its German title; Generalplan Ost. This in turn was part of the wider plan for a new order in Europe.

Essentially the Nazi dominated continent would be divided into four zones. The first would be the enlarged Greater Germany; Gross Deutschland, comprising Germany, Austria, and territories annexed from Poland , the Baltic States and Czechoslovakia. The second zone would be the advanced industrialised states of western Europe; France, Belgium, Italy etc., who would be granted independence following German victory, but in a way that kept them militarily impotent and politically dependant, but encouraged economic and industrial expansion.

The remainder of Europe, especially the southern states such as Bulgaria, Hungary and Greece, would comprise the third zone, which the Nazis intended to turn into the breadbasket of Europe. Here their economies, and if necessary populations, would be transformed into agricultural production units, whose sole task was to feed the remainder of Europe. The final zone was eastern Europe and those western parts of Russia the Nazis intended to seize.

The Nazi New World OrderThese would be settled by ethnic Germans and other selected groups, chosen for their hardiness and industry, who would both farm to supplement the food supplies from Zone 3, but also produce raw materials and natural resources such as oil, coal and metals. The very eastern edge of this zone would be the frontier area with eastern Russia, along with a gigantic security zone would be erected and patrolled by the SS, now transformed into a frontier police force. This zone would be populated by specially selected ‘warrior farmers’, modelled on the frontier settlers of the old west.

Russian POW's after their liberation.

The economic plan for what would follow was modelled on the British empire of old, which Hitler greatly admired.

The advanced economies of Europe would devote themselves entirely to the production of manufactured goods, freed from the necessity of food production, and using cheap raw materials imported from the eastern zones, which they would then turn into manufactured goods for export around the rest of the world.

And just like with the British empire a system of tariffs and trade laws would ensure that the main benefit always went to Germany.

A necessary precursor of the plan was the elimination of the surplus population from those areas of Russia intended for occupation, (planners estimated that about 5-7 million would have to be exterminated), hence the mass killings of the Einsatzgruppen, which served an economic as much as an ideological purpose.

Another method of population reduction was the deliberate mass killing of Russian prisoners of war. As with the Jews these killings began by working the prisoners to death, and giving them starvation rations, and later switched to more deliberate acts of mass shootings and hangings.

Population reduction- mass grave in Russia.In all it is estimated that about 3 million Russian POW’s were deliberately killed in German camps, and they constitute the second largest victims of the Holocaust after the Jews, but a group that is grievously overlooked in most histories.

The Wannsee Conference.

By the end of 1941 the problems caused by Nazi policies were becoming critical. Camps and ghettoes were filled to overflowing, and despite barbaric methods of keeping costs low, were proving a constant drain on resources. In January 1942 Goering, in his capacity as Director of the Four Year Plan, authorised a meeting of senior Nazi officials to come up with a ‘final solution of the Jewish question’; endlosung der judenfrage.

And so on the 20th January senior Nazi official met at a chateau at Wannsee, outside Berlin, to consider how the Jewish question could be resolved.

.The Wannsee Villa outside Berlin.The conference was chaired by Reinhardt Heydrich, deputy head of the SS, and organised by his right hand man, Adolf Eichmann.

Present were senior figures from the Foreign Ministry, Ministry of justice, Race and Resettlement Main Office, Interior Ministry and of course, the Office of the Four Year Plan.

Eichmann began the conference by briefing all present on a list he had compiled of the Jews remaining in Nazi-occupied territories, and those in territories they intended to take over, including Ireland, (see part B of the list on the right).

List of Jews broken down by countryHaving been briefed by Eichmann on the scale of the problem the group considered solutions, and arrived at the conclusion that the most rational and logical solution was the murder of every Jew in Europe. From this simple conclusion they went on to discuss the method and technicalities.

The gas showers of the T4 program were the chosen method, and the logistical plans done for the Madagascar project were dusted off to be used to organise the mass transports.

It has often been seen as essentially irrational and counterproductive for the Nazis to waste resources killing Jews, at a time when they were desperately needed to fight the war, but seen from this perspective the decision was coldly logical and mercilessly rational. Valuable resources were being expended keeping these captive Jews alive, much better , they reasoned, to use those resources to exterminate them, after which they would be available for the war effort.Eichmann had calculated that each inmate of the ghetto was using his own weight in transport resources twice a month in food supplies, whereas transporting him for extermination used that resource only once, after which it was free for other use.

Seen in this light one of the most seemingly irrational acts of the Nazi regime becomes brutally logical. The crash program to exterminate Hungarian Jews was undertaken in a frenzy in 1944, at a time when the allied armies were poised to invade Europe and the Russians were advancing steadily westwards. So rapid was the program that within a year over 60% of Hungarian Jews were dead. This act has often been seen as epitomising the irrationality of the Holocaust; wasting valuable resources at a time when they were desperately needed elsewhere, but from a functionalist perspective it can be seen, not as an irrational act motivated by blind hatred, but a coldly rational act motivated by ruthless logic, an attempt to free up resources, and complete the restructuring of the Hungarian economy, ready for the demands ahead.


And so Nazi policy officially moved from oppression to extermination, and from 1942 on all the resources that a modern industrialised state can muster were deployed to commit mass murder.

Six camps were designated as killing sites; extermination camps.

These differed from concentration camps in that their sole purpose was to kill people as quickly and efficiently as possible.

There would be no workers or forced labourers in these camps, beyond those needed to run the camps themselves.

The six camps were Treblinka, Sobibor, Majdanek, Chelomo, Balzec and of course Auschwitz, the largest and most notorious of them all. All across Europe the Nazis moved in to liquidate the ghettoes.

No more exemptions, no distinction between essential and non-essential workers, the ghettoes would be cleared of every living soul.

A massive transport operation swung into action as trains began departing from all corners of the Nazi empire, pulling cattle-trucks filled with Jews heading for extermination.

The camps were run as models of murderous efficiency, designed to ‘process’ as many ‘units’ as quickly and efficiently as possible. The procedure in Auschwitz in particular was an exemplar of assembly line mass murder.

The transport arrvies in Auschwitz.

Trains would arrive on the specially built spur line that brought them right inside the camp. There prisoners would be disembarked and marched towards the processing officer, who would quickly decide if they were to go to the right, (to the old Auschwitz A, still used as a concentration camp, and a chance at least of some more time on earth), or to the left, (to Auschwitz B, where they would be dead in about 15 minutes).

Those sent to Auschwitz B were then told that they first had to report for bathing and de-lousing. Every precaution was taken not to alarm the prisoners, to avoid panic. Prisoners were given soap and towels to allay their fears.

Crematorium 4. There were five built.They were advised to tie their shoes together and label their clothing so it didn’t get lost. They were then herded into large sealed ‘shower’ rooms, bare except for the shower heads set into the ceiling at regular intervals. As the naked prisoners huddled together, (men in one room, women, children and babies in the other), an SS guard would open a special vent in the roof and pour through the Zyklon B gas, which was then pumped through the shower heads.




Auschwitz scene from the film Schindler's List.

The time taken for the prisoners to die varied depending on how full the shower room was; the fuller the quicker, but usually took about 15 minutes. When workers opened the large double doors at the other end of the room they usually found the bodies piled in pyramid, as prisoners clambered on top of the dead to try to avoid the heavy gas which would settle on the floor. Babies and small children were often at the very top of the pile, as desperate mothers held them above their heads for as long as possible.

Specially selected teams of prisoners; sonderkommando, then took the bodies piled on handcarts to the nearby crematorium where they were burned in furnaces. The furnaces operated 24 hours a day seven days a week, as thousands passed each day through Auschwitz’s gates to spend their last 15 or 20 minutes on earth. The sondrkommando themselves were liquidated every 6 months, and the first job each new sonderkommando had was to dispose of the bodies of their predecessors.

The camps operated around the clock from late 1942 until the end of 1944. They were supplemented by more small scale killing programmes carried out in some of the concentration camps, particularly Belsen and Dachau, but it was in the six extermination camps that the bulk of the Nazis victims met their fate. Best estimates are that upwards of 1,500,000 people were murdered in Auschwitz alone.

Towards the end of 1944, with the allied armies closing on all sides, Himmler gave orders for the exterminations to cease, the remaining inmates to be disposed off, and measures taken to try to cover up the crime they had committed. The crematoria in Auschwitz were blown up but most of the rest of the camp was left more or less intact. Treblinka was the most thoroughly destroyed, and today little is left apart from foundations and rail sidings.

As the allies liberated the concentration camps one by one the full horror of what humans are capable off was revealed for the first time. Many of the soldiers involved in liberating camps continue to suffer the effects today.


The scene at Buchenwald after its liberationSo how could the Holocaust have happened? Many explanations have been offered at different times; anti-Semitism, racism, Nazi ideology and more. From the functionalist perspective, which seeks to offer at least a partial explanation, or an explanation for the motivation of some of the key actors, three factors were crucial;

  • The pursuit of an expansionist utopia.
  • The prioritising of rational efficiency over common humanity.
  • The existence of a marginalised target group.

The Nazis sought to restructure the societies and economies that came under their control in pursuit of their utopian aim of creating a new world order. In doing so they believed that the need for rational and efficient use of resources justified the abandonment of the normal standards of morality and common humanity. This allowed them to then focus the adverse consequences of their policies on a particular group.

Put another way, Nazi officials saw resources such as roads, factories, rail links and human beings as being of equal value, to be used, changed or eliminated as the needs of efficiency and productivity required. The usual response where one was faced with a surplus of workers over jobs would be to increase jobs, the Nazi response was to decrease workers, ultimately by extermination.

The requirements of economic efficiency then chimed perfectly with those motivated by Nazi racial ideology and notions of superiority. The technocrats wanted to eliminate the Jews because they were an economic burden, the Nazi ideologue because they were seen as inferior, the Aryan expansionist to clear territories for German settlement. All three roads converged at one destination; Auschwitz.


Satchel belonging to Boris Kacel, who escaped from Buchenwald. Now in the Illinois Holocaust Museum

The Challenge of Remembering.

I want to end with a personal appeal. We are now living in a time when the last person alive who has personal experience of the Holocaust will die. With him or her will go our last living link with that event. Once that happens, the Holocaust will necessarily pass from our collective experience, and exist now only in our collective memory.

As with other such milestones there is a danger that the further we get from that connection, the easier it will be to forget. Those of us alive today have a moral duty to each do what we can to ensure that this never happens.

This is not just because of the duty we owe the victims of the Final Solution, but it is for the safety and security of future generations, because ultimately the only guarantee we have that such events can never happen in the future, is the horror we feel when we remember what happened in the past.



The End