Monday, June 23, 2014

What Stalin Knew About Hitler's Barbarossa Plans

Josef Stalin
Josef Stalin (Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin, born Ioseb Besarionis Dze Jugashvili in Georgia) had been the leader of the Soviet Union for about fifteen years in 1941. He was a cold, hard, ruthless man who was not afraid to murder millions of people simply to advance his agenda. He was the type of fellow who would murder a rival for power (Sergei Kirov, for instance), then implicate other people he didn't like in the murder and liquidate them, too (such as Leon Trotsky, who he finally got in Mexico in 1941). What did Stalin know about German invasion plans?

Adolf Hitler.
But Stalin is said to have ignored repeated and vehement warnings from all possible sources short of Adolf Hitler and his cronies themselves about a coming German invasion. He allowed Germany to attack and very nearly conquer the Soviet Union despite these warnings. That seems quite odd.

Molotov and Ribbentrop
Molotov with German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop in 1939.
Stalin knew that Hitler had been fortifying his Eastern frontier for at least six months. It was an issue specifically raised by Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov during his visit to Berlin in November 1940 (and unanswered there). Yet Stalin ignored the military buildup in eastern Europe and some 87 separate, credible intelligence warnings of the German invasion that he received during 1940–41.

Von der Schulenberg
Von der Schulenberg
The warnings came from everywhere: US President Franklin Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the murky Lucy spy ring in Switzerland, the famous Richard Sorge warnings from Tokyo, Japan. Some of the warnings gave the exact day of the planned invasion. Even the German ambassador to Moscow, Graf von der Schulenberg, chimed in. The warnings were impossible to ignore. Hitler even made a rare visit to Gotenhafen (Polish Gdynia) and East Prussia in May 1941, during which time he visited the battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz. That's a lot of interest to show in the East when war was still raging in the West.

David Murphy, a former spy, wrote "What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa," which sheds some light on this issue. Apparently, Hitler was sending secret letters to Stalin explaining away all the intelligence reports as misunderstandings of what Hitler was actually doing. Two secret letters from Hitler to Stalin state that Hitler was only moving troops East to protect them from British bombing. Stalin would have been well aware of such bombing because Molotov had been forced to take shelter from it during his visit to Berlin. Hitler also claimed, a little less believably, that the troop movements were actually preparations for the invasion of the British Isles. Hitler swore “on my honor as a head of state” that Germany would not attack the Soviet Union. If Stalin actually believed Hitler, that would have been very unusual for the ruthless Soviet leader, but it's certainly possible.

General Georgy Zhukov in 1941.
There is another line of argument that claims Stalin was not deceived at all. “Viktor Suvorov,” a pseudonym for a former Soviet staff officer now resident in the West, wrote in the 1980s that Stalin was busy preparing his own invasion of Germany. Suvorov states that the German attack on the Soviet Union only just preempted a planned Soviet attack on the German Reich. The Soviets themselves were building up forces near Germany, a well-known fact, but the strategic objective behind this has been the subject of dispute. They did this pursuant to the “State Frontiers Defense Plan 1941,” which put Soviet troops on the borders. This may help explain some otherwise inexplicable orders by Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov early in the invasion for the Soviet forces to attack Germany rather than defend.

This argument devolves into a series of "Stalin knew that Hitler knew that Stalin knew that Hitler knew" loops that are impossible to resolve. There are the usual backhanded arguments that look at the ultimate victor and provide reasoning in hindsight, which recur after all massive military events, along the lines that Stalin wanted Germany to attack so that he would have a pretext to take over all of Europe (as very nearly happened). Historian Gabriel Gorodetsky has put forward the notion that Stalin did this simply to impress Hitler with his own power, as there had been discussions (such as during Molotov's Berlin trip) about spheres of influence between the two regimes, with Stalin getting British India, Hitler Europe, and so forth. Moving troops ostentatiously forward was an attempt to improve his own bargaining position. It's notable that Stalin and Hitler continued dickering over boundaries well into the war, perhaps as late as September 1943. Nobody knew the Germans would collapse as completely as they did.

German General Franz Halder.
Ultimately, of course, Hitler did attack the USSR on June 22, 1941. There's no question about that. The Soviet Army was found to be in terrible shape. Unlike in Poland, Hitler did not even bother manufacturing any pretexts for his own invasion. As Franz Halder, chief of the German general staff, said, in explaining the rationale for Operation BARBAROSSA, “After all, we cannot expect them to do us the favor of attacking.” Hitler dearly would have loved such a provocation, because he had an obsession with legal pretexts for his own vicious "responses." This apparently "surprised" Stalin, who supposedly did not think Hitler would be rash enough to attack him before finishing off matters in the West.

Mannerheim Hitler
Hitler talking with Mannerheim (right) on June 4, 1942. Part of this conversation was secretly recorded by Finnish intelligence and survives.
Hitler fatally misjudged the Soviet Union. On June 4, 1942, one year after the start of the campaign, Hitler admitted as much to Marshal Carl Gustav Mannerheim, the Finnish military leader. Hitler said on a visit to Helsinki for Mannerheim's birthday:
“We did not ourselves understand— just how strong this state [the ussr] was armed. If somebody had told me a nation could start with 35,000 tanks, then I’d have said, ‘You are crazy!’ . . . [Yet] . . . We have destroyed—right now—more than 34,000 tanks . . . . It was unbelievable . . . . I had no idea of it. If I had an idea—then it would have been more difficult for me, but I would have taken the decision to invade anyhow . . . .”
Stalin did know the facts. Yet he chose to ignore what he knew. Perhaps Hitler did pull the wool over his eyes. However, Stalin was extremely canny. Perhaps he was comfortable allowing Hitler to attack, knowing that the Western Allies would immediately come to his aid if that happened (and Stalin was extremely demanding of aid throughout and even after the war). Stalin may just have figured nobody would be foolish enough to start a two-front war against him while already fighting the rest of the world. If so, he was sadly mistaken.


Thursday, June 19, 2014

French Char 2C, Biggest Tank Ever

The Battleship of Tanks

French Char 2C
The Char 2C.
The Germans are often criticized for the size and weight of their tanks and ordnance. The Tiger Tank comes in for a generous helping of the "they were stupid to build such a big tank" types of remarks. However, there were plenty of other examples by the other Great Powers of weaponry that was as colossally misguided as it was colossally huge.

French Char 2C
For comparison, and to show a more reasonable and practical French tank, here is the French “Char B1” heavy tank “EURE.” It destroyed 13 German tanks during the Battle of Stonne. Sustained 140 hits from anti-tank fire. Commanded by Pierre Billotte. A successful French tank that did not weigh 69 tons.
A French monster tank that actually existed and entered service is largely forgotten, but it served in World War II. The French, not known for their tank development, actually had some fairly good tank models that they had developed during the 1930s. Unfortunately, those tanks were in short supply upon the outbreak of World War II and barely made a dent in the Blitzkrieg. One thing the French did accomplish with their tank effort, though, was to secure the dubious honor of making one of the biggest tanks of all time.

French Char 2C
The Char 2C with its crew (including one extra man).
The Char 2C, also known as FCM 2C, was a French super-heavy tank developed, although never deployed, during World War I. It was produced when little was known about the practicalities of tank development. For what it was, it actually was quite far ahead of its time. However, by World War II it was hopelessly obsolete.

The French Subsecretary of Artillery during the Great War, General  Léon Augustin Jean Marie Mourret, asked shipyard Forges et Chantiers de la Méditerranée (FCM) near Toulon to come up with a heavy tank. The British had developed a few of their own, which Mourret must have heard about. The British tanks were first used at Cambrai, and this officer evidently feared being left behind. There was what can only be described as a tank euphoria amongst the Allies, as the British subsequently swept aside all opposition at Cambrai with their first tanks and appeared about to completely break the trench-warfare stalemate. Mourret then applied pressure to FCM to finish the job quickly. He probably figured a big French tank would sweep the dirty Boches aside and he would become a national hero.

French Char 2C
The French were quite proud of their big tanks.
Renault helped design the project, which just kept getting bigger. The French authorities other than Mourret, who was soon replaced, were a lot less enthused about plans for the big tank, but they went ahead anyway. Partly this was due to the other Allies requiring the French to at least try to make their own tank before they would hand over any of theirs. The public also had become excited by the idea of tanks, which unfortunately were now proving somewhat less than war-winning on the battlefield. The project was delayed past the end of the war in November 1918, but the French plowed on ahead anyway during peacetime. Ten Char 2C tanks were built and delivered in 1921.

French Char 2C
Painting of one of the ten Char 2Cs actually built, the "Alsace."
The monster was 69 tonnes, with 45 mm frontal armor and 22 mm armor at the sides. There were two turrets: the one at the front accommodating three soldiers within it to man a 75 mm main gun, while a turret at the rear had a machine gun. The Char 2C held a crew of 12 in two separate compartments. It was slow and extremely vulnerable to advanced antitank weapons (the frontal armor was later upgraded to a more reasonable 90 mm), but they were fully functional and maintained in readiness throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

French Char 2C
A French Car 2C on a special rail hauler.
Upon the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the ten Char 2Cs were mobilized in their own unit, the 51st Bataillon de Chars de Combat. They were used for French propaganda purposes - look at the mighty French tanks! - but they were not committed to battle. The French destroyed them as the Germans closed in during June 1940, though one may have survived in the Russian tank museum at Kubinka by way of Berlin. It is possible that one Char 2C did fire a few shots, perhaps because it was too slow to stay ahead of the advancing Wehrmacht, but that is not proven.

The Char 2C wasn't even the biggest tank dreamed up by the French - at one point, they even contemplated a 600-ton tank (somewhat akin to the later German Maus). As the Germans closed in, the French even ordered yet another humongous twin-turret monster. It was never built, however, as the Germans quickly overcame France.

French Char 2C tank
A French Char 2C proudly decked out like a battleship, pennants flying high.


The French Char 2C was a classic failure because it represented the age-old case of generals fighting the last war. Well, it's unfair to place the blame on the generals - it was the bureaucrats who pushed through a project that was no longer necessary and a static achievement in a very fluid field of development. It is difficult to answer some questions about the Char 2C tank such as what its intended purpose was supposed to be. That requires getting into the minds of the designer and its supporters within the government. Simply saying that building a massive tank was completely crazy and misguided is not really a satisfying answer because the Germans also seriously considered doing it long after they should have known better in 1943. No, there was a reason, we just have to figure it out.

French Char 2C tank
A captured French Char 2C apparently being used for testing purposes (note the numerous shell holes) by the Wehrmacht.
Fortunately, it is easy to make some educated guesses. World War I was a war of the trenches and tanks were seen as being useful solely for breaking the trench stalemate. A big tank would be able to cross the biggest trenches - so building the biggest tank possible to cross them made sense... sort of. The Char 2C would blitz through everything, over everything, and through everything, clearing the way for the infantry to occupy the next trench line. The theory was logical to a fault because the Char 2C was certainly capable and well-designed - for limited trench warfare. However, being slow and extraordinarily heavy, the tank wasn't mobile, and few bridges could support its massive weight. It could advance a few hundred yards to the next trench line but forget about wide flanking movements against other tanks. The Wehrmacht quickly proved in Poland and the Ardennes that trench warfare was a thing of the past, and this should have been obvious before the war to anyone paying attention (like all of the other great powers). So, the Char 2C was solely suited for a form of warfare that no longer existed. Thus, it was doomed to failure.

Maginot Line
Like the Maginot Line (shown), the French Char 2C was designed for fighting the last war, not the next one.
However, in my opinion, the Char 2C reflected a more fundamental miscalculation. French strategy following World War I invariably followed a "set it and forget it" mentality. The country built a magnificent border fortification at an exorbitant cost in the mistaken belief that once it was built, that would take care of that problem. If tanks were the new thing, well, build colossal tanks and that would take care of that issue - forever. No need to update them, that box on the form is checked off. The French basically assumed that their previous investments in defense work had solved their military problems. The Char 2C also reflected a misplaced French belief in military gigantism, also exemplified by the submarine Surcouf and its two 8-inch guns, two 37 m.m. anti-aircraft guns, four machine guns, and ten 21 .7-in. tubes for the discharge of torpedoes, of which 22 were carried. Looking at another area where they should have known better, the French also focused on battleship construction while the British Royal Navy, United States Navy, and Japanese Navy were developing aircraft carriers (the sole French attempt at an aircraft carrier, the Béarn, was half-hearted at best and it never saw action). The French somehow overlooked the changing nature of warfare which made both border fortifications and World War I technology inadequate to 1940s realities.

French Char 2C tank
A French Char 2C after being destroyed by the retreating French Army. Apparently, they destroyed the tanks by dropping explosives down the hatch, blowing out the sides.


Sunday, June 15, 2014


The Final Solution

Hermann Goering's memo to Reinhard Heydrich mandating the Holocaust. "Endlösung der Judenfrage" in the lowest line translates as "Final solution to the Jewish question." 
The Holocaust is such a huge subject that it is impossible to do it justice in any kind of reasonable space. Every one of the six million victims and many more had a story, and each such story is as important as anyone else's. No matter what is put here, it will never be enough. A few camps attained, shall we say, "celebrity" or perhaps "notoriety" for lack of better words, such as Auschwitz. However, there are many others, such as Sobibor or Maly Trostinets, where countless people died without much notice. Most of those poor souls are barely even remembered except by students of the war. However, it is important that at least some of the camps received enough focus to become household names because they became symbols for all the others.

Let me caution: this page is not for the squeamish.


As the saying goes, never let the perfect be the enemy of the good. While this page can't do justice to such a massive enterprise, a little analysis is better than nothing. Hopefully, this page will stimulate a little thought and remembrance. I get a little deeper into individual camps elsewhere, such as my discussion of Mauthausen, the most brutal concentration camp, but this article will not go into that kind of detail. Instead, it will simply serve as an overview of the machinery of death so that we have a moment to honor the victims.

The paths of the four main Einsatzgruppen operations during Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union.
The Holocaust did not just "happen," like dropping your phone on concrete or getting in a car accident. It was meticulously planned by the best brains in the German administration. It was not just death camps for "undesirables"; the Germans actively sent out teams to hunt down people they didn't want around and liquidate them. The SS would assemble the "undesirable" people of some little nothing village in the middle of nowhere, march them out to a nearby field, have them dig a hole, shoot them in it, then bury them there. That's a lot different than just having a jail and throwing people in it for a reason, however valid or not. The soldiers at the front would move forward, pushing the enemy back, and the Einsatzgruppen eventually would move in silently behind them.

This is not all of the concentration camps - but it shows the main ones in Germany and Poland. The Germans held all of this territory through the end of 1944.
It is important to remember these events. They happened. Remembrance, after all, is what we are after. As a brutal crime against humanity, the Holocaust will live in infamy as long as any other crime by the Axis Powers or anything else done during the 20th Century.


Adolf Hitler authorized and inspired the Holocaust.
The Germans rose to power by appealing to the baser instincts of certain elements of the German population. Deep resentment against successful Jews which had lingered for centuries became intertwined with red-hot anger about the loss of World War I and the peace terms imposed in the Treaty of Versailles (which, in retrospect, were not all that harsh). Hitler managed to combine those two strains of resentment to create an edifice of overwhelming hate, a feeling that "others" were trying to ruin Germany. That the Jews really had nothing to do with the outcome of World War I or the terms of the subsequent peace was irrelevant to Hitler. He just manipulated the fierce emotions toward both targets and managed to fuse them to ignite fanatical devotion in his followers.

Eugenics poster entitled "The Racial Composition of Jews." The German text reads: "The Jews are a mixture of alien Near Eastern, Oriental, Hamite, and Negroid races." This poster is no.55 in a series entitled, Erblehre und Rassenkunde (Theory of Inheritance and Racial Hygiene), published by the Verlag für Nationale Literatur (Publisher for National Literature), Stuttgart.
Discrimination against and murder of Jews had been building for years in Germany when Hermann Goering set forth in a July 1941 memo that there be implemented a "final solution" of the "Jewish question." The order was to his principal deputy, Reinhard Heydrich, who was a back-office type who got things done. The memo is reproduced at the top of this article. This instruction led in due course to Heydrich chairing the so-called Wannsee Conference (named after the Berlin suburb where it was held) in January 1942.

A picture from an Einsatzgruppen soldier’s personal album, labeled on the back as “Last Jew of Vinnytsia.” A member of Einsatzgruppe D is about to shoot a Jewish man kneeling before a filled mass grave in Vinnytsia, Ukraine, in 1941.
The Wannsee Conference was a major link in the chain of the Holocaust, but the systematic extermination of Jews was already underway with the Einsatzgruppen (German for "task forces", "deployment groups," singular Einsatzgruppe; official full name Einsatzgruppen der Sicherheitspolizei und des SD). The Wannsee Conference just began the systematization of the killings, making them more efficient, quicker, and easier for the authorities. This, in turn, enabled the paramilitary Schutzstaffel (SS), who ran the process, to kill more and more people with less and less effort.

Hermann Goering ordered the Holocaust.
There's no point going over the numbers of this or that. The number 6 million was invented, and it works, but the actual figure was likely much higher. It wasn't just Jews, but it was primarily Jews, so we use "Jews" in an inclusive sense to represent all victims.

Heinrich Himmler inspected the camps personally - the only top government official who did - to make sure it was being done right.

This is a pictorial history, and the numbers are cold and lifeless and stupid individually because they are too large to grasp. There was an awful lot of people who perished, more than in your town or city or county.

Canister of cyclon B gas used in gas the chambers. It was a cyanide-based pesticide developed in the 1920s. The British executed one of its inventors, chemist, and businessman Bruno Tesch, in 1946 for his participation in the Holocaust. Zyklon B was used in late 1941 to kill Soviet prisoners of war, then adapted for use in the Holocaust in 1942. It was used to kill about a million people. It leaves behind a distinctive light blue ("Prussian blue") residue which can still be seen in concentration camps where it was used to kill people.
Imagine everyone you ever knew or even saw being slaughtered, and that would barely scratch the surface. Lots of victims, too many for you to ever appreciate any more than you can appreciate the number of grains of sand on a beach.

Reinhard Heydrich organized the Holocaust. Part of it ultimately was named after him internally as a sort of testimonial, "Operation Reinhard" (German: Aktion Reinhard).
Entire libraries have been written on this topic. We are not trying to re-write them. We are trying to present something manageable. Rather than just inundate this page with repetitive pictures - because there are endless pictures of dead and dying people, of killers and sadists, of heroes and villains - we'll just try to give a few representative pictures on each salient point and let them serve as an appropriate marker.

Prologue: Boycott and Ostracization - "Jews Are Our Misfortune"

The Holocaust per se did not begin until the Wannsee conference in January 1942. However, there was absolutely no question where things were headed from the very beginning after the Germans took over. They worked assiduously to separate and dehumanize and destroy the image of Jews from the very start.


The process was not in the slightest bit subtle.

A billboard in France advertising an exhibition about Jews.
Some would say the Holocaust actually began earlier than the 1942 Wannsee Conference, and it is difficult to disagree. That was a major turning point, so it always needs to be highlighted. But skipping over the earlier steps that got the government - and public - to the Wannsee Conference would be a major downplaying of the vicious route that German society took along the way.

An anti-Semitic photomontage entitled, "The Scourge of God, Polish Jews." It was used as a title page for a brochure issued by Der Stürmer. This image was presented as evidence at the Nuremberg trials.
The dehumanization of the Jews took many forms: books, film, billboards, even parades.

Public displays of antisemitism in Germany took a variety of forms, from posters and newspapers to films and radio addresses. This float in the Fastnacht (Shrove Tuesday) parade in Singen am Hohentwiel features workers from the local aluminum cylinder works feeding "Jews," wearing paper noses, to the Judenfresser, or "Jew Devourer," a voracious crocodile with big, pointy teeth. The motto carried by the workers' unit in the parade (not shown) was: "Grumblers and Trouble-Makers go under the Roller."
Kristallnacht ("Crystal Night") was a pogrom (a series of coordinated attacks) against Jews throughout Germany and Austria on 9–10 November 1938.

 The casual and blatant nature of anti-Semitism in Germany just continually astonishes. This is a picture from around the time of Kristallnacht, showing a marching column at the border between Nürnberg (Nuremberg)-Fürth probably 1938. At the right is the building Höfener Straße 91 in Nürnberg. On the street sign (translated literally) is: "City borough of Fürth / Jews are our misfortune." In the middle, children make the Hitler salute ("Hitlergruß"). Also seen (Höfener Str. 91) is a factory building of J.W.Spear (the building was still in existence recently) -- this Jewish business company was "Aryanised" in 1938.
It was carried out by SA paramilitary forces, the SS, the Gestapo, and non-Jewish civilians. It earned the name because of the huge amount of storefront plate glass broken - very expensive glass that was a Belgian monopoly.

SA men singing to encourage a boycott of F.W. Woolworth in Germany, 1933.
Hermann Goering, the administrator of the Four-Year Plan, was furious - he was going to have to come up with an awful lot of hard currency to replace all that broken plate glass.

Police maintain watch outside the "Eldorado" nightclub, long frequented by Berlin's homosexual community. The government quickly closed the establishment down and pasted pro-Hitler election posters on the building. Berlin, Germany, March 5, 1933. Landesarchiv Berlin /UNITED STATES HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM #74554.
Some would say the Holocaust began on Kristallnacht. Any particular date is arbitrary and subject to dispute, 1933 is a good date as well.

A boycott of Jewish businesses, 1933, the year Hitler took over. The Germans wanted to be crystal clear to everyone, thus the weird translation into English for some reason. Oh, the store behind them? It is selling ready-made white children's hats, probably for school or something along those lines.

Kristallnacht was a disaster on multiple levels for the Jews. Ostensibly a retaliation against the Jewish community as a whole for the murder of a German diplomat by a Jew, Kristallnacht, in fact, was Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels' idea derived from his own personal motivations and using the murder entirely as a pretext.

Germany. Burning Synagogue in Bielefeld during Kristallnacht, 10/11/1938.
Goebbels wanted to look good to the Fuhrer because of his own scandalous infidelities (his wife reportedly was cheating on him, too), so he set up the pogrom with the SS and the Gestapo as a kind of bravura act. That's how these folks thought, the ruination of millions of people was nothing if it improved their own position in Hitler's court. Reinhard Heydrich, the Gestapo chief, as usual, was the sinister go-to man when this sort of dirty work was required. A reported 35 people died that night, as did the German soul.

Kristallnacht - cleaning up the next morning.
Ultimately, Kristallnacht backfired on Germany on many levels. The Jewish shopkeepers generally rented their stores and sold on consignment, with non-Jews the ones left holding the financial bag from all the destruction. Everything was insured, so the loss fell on the German insurance industry - also owned largely by non-Jews. Goering stepped in and, to avoid the financial hit to the economy, passed laws fining the entire Jewish community for the diplomat's murder and outlawing them from the economy. It was a crude and huge step down in the spiral toward the Holocaust.

Etty Hillesum was a Dutch Jewish woman who wrote about beauty and meaning and forgiveness. She died in a concentration camp in 1943.

1. Herding the Victims

In a sense, this is the most horrifying aspect of the Holocaust. The Germans and their helpers and enablers went out and rounded people up, as though the victims were little nothings. It was no different than an animal control officer rounding up feral cats or stray dogs. The profound hatred displayed is stupefying.

Jews being rounded up in the Warsaw Ghetto.

A random street sweep of Jews, Warsaw 1941.

German police assigned to controlling open-air markets investigate a Jewish woman, Lublin, Poland, May 1941. They had every right under Nacht und Nebel to just take her in and send her to a camp, without notice to her family or anyone, for any reason they felt sufficient. One wonders what she did that caught their eye - was her shopping bag too full? Maybe just a routine sweep? (Withgen, Federal Archives). 

Measuring the victims was how they thought they could identify Jewish people. Of course, this was absolute nonsense, but they believed in this method.

2. Child Victims

Age was no barrier to execution. Anyone could be killed for any reason or no reason. If there was a system, it devolved to killing the oldest and the youngest first, because they would be less useful in the factories and the quarries.

A 14-year-old Auschwitz victim, Czestawa Kowka, in 1942 or 1943.

Children awaiting their fate.

3. Selection

At some point, the incoming people went before a man sitting at a desk, usually with uniformed SS and perhaps Dobermans behind him. He looked directly into the inmate's eyes - a cold, lifeless stare devoid of humanity or emotion - and then nodded either right or left. One direction led to the barracks. The other direction led to the gas chambers, disguised as showers.

Jews await selection - life or death, though they don't know it - at Auschwitz Birkenau.

4. Humiliation

Part of the sadistic glee with which the captors exercised their power was derived from the humiliation they could inflict on people they identified with various past humiliations against themselves or people they knew. Foreign occupation of the Rhineland under the Treaty of Versailles? A global Jewish stab-in-the-back plot to rob good Aryans of their dignity. Perhaps they lost their savings or homes in the hyperinflation of the 1920s - blame the Jewish bankers. Or, maybe their family business went under or their stocks tanked during the recent Great Depression - those darned Jews who control finance. Lost their job, lost a court case before a Jewish judge, saw a Jewish child do better at school than theirs, saw them dress differently, observed them buy more stylish clothes or not eat what they ate - there is an unlimited supply of fuel for hatred if you want to blame others who are different for your own misfortune.

You hear the same kinds of things today about the bankers and the media and Hollywood. In truth, the German Jews had been disliked and disparaged by the majority non-Jews since the Middle Ages. It was no great leap for Hitler to channel the underlying public hatred that he himself felt and focus it, increasing the intensity like a laser beam. There was no equivalency between what Jews ever did to the Germans and what they did to the Jews under their control, of course, except in the twisted minds of the low-life sadists given unlimited power over others. Public displays of pointless humiliation reveal what was really at work.

Rabbi Moshe Hegerman being abused by amused guards, Olkusz, Poland, July 31, 1940. Shoes have been removed, now he's undressing. Note the line of dead beside him. He's being readied to take his place, but not in his normal clothes.

Klooga, Estonia: cutting of the beard and sidelocks of Jews in captured territory. The quality of some of the most telling photos is poor, they were often found by chance on the persons of dead Germans, kept as mementos.

Women shorn of their hair prior to execution. Human hair has a variety of uses. They wouldn't need theirs any longer.

5. Starvation

Starvation was the norm. Very, very few concentration camp inmates got sufficient food. During the last days of the war, rations became especially rare and inmates either died of starvation outright or perished from diseases that ravaged impaired immune systems. Many of the pictures of skeleton-like inmates were taken right after the liberation, following a period when rations were especially scarce. Many survivors died of their treatment well after the liberation, nothing could be done to return them to health and sometimes even the return to normalcy happened too quickly for their systems to handle.


Russian prisoners of war were treated horribly right from the start because the Soviet Union was not a signatory to the Geneva Convention, which provided for the humane treatment of prisoners. So many millions of Soviet prisoners died from maltreatment that it is not out-of-line to consider them part of the Holocaust, though technically they are not included. Naturally, they were not given much food. The commandant of Stalag 318, Colonel Falkenberg, noted on September 11, 1941:
These cursed Untermenschen [sub-humans] have been observed eating grass, flowers and raw potatoes. Once they can’t find anything edible in the camp they turn to cannibalism.
Hermann Goering saw or heard of this report, found it insanely amusing, and liked to repeat it at dinner parties with certain embellishments - he said something along the lines of, "The poor devils are so hungry they eat anything, including grass, but more seriously, they have eaten a German sentry!"


Children were not exempt from starvation, they were in the same area as everyone else.



Two World War II prisoners of war stare through a barbed wire fence at Buchenwald Concentration Camp near Weimar, Germany in 1945. Privation, of course, went well beyond starvation and included prisoners dressed in rags in winter, unheated and overcrowded barracks and the like. Go past the fence by accident or design and you immediately were shot, of course. These fellows could have been taken from professional jobs where they wore suits and ties, or perhaps they were farmers, or maybe even former Wehrmacht soldiers who crossed the wrong person in the hierarchy - didn't matter. Prisoners were prisoners.

This is an 18-year-old Russian girl, starved beyond recognition.

6. Expropriation

The Jews, like anyone else, had many useful pieces of property. Part of the death camp process was removing anything useful from them either before their death or while gathering up and disposing of the remains. Some victims would be marked on the face before they entered the gas chambers ("showers") to indicate if they had gold teeth. That made extraction afterward easier.

Expropriation went far, far beyond simply taking whatever was on their person. It also involved dissolving and taking over their businesses, stealing their valuables such as money, stock and art, and taking over their land and homes. However, taking what was on their person - their artificial limbs, their gold teeth, their eyeglasses - was the crudest and most devastating part of the process, and often to little purpose. There are rooms-full at some of the former concentration camps of what was taken off the prisoners' persons, such as eyeglasses and suitcases.

The Germans hid stolen artwork all over Europe, some of it still missing. Much was hidden in salt mines in Bavaria and Austria because it was easy to pull trains full of loot into them - they generally had train tracks. Here, General Eisenhower goes down in the mines to take a look. This is an educated guess because my source doesn't identify these folks, but that looks like Generals Omar Bradley and George Patton behind Ike - Bradley was Eisenhower's deputy, Patton led the 3rd Army in Southern Germany. Patton - if that is him - looks a bit dumbfounded. In fact, so do all three.
Many of the valuable items such as paintings appropriated from Jewish victims were never found after the war and remain in private hands, handed down in some fashion from the people who stole them originally. Caches of them are found regularly and restitution of some sort made either to the victims themselves or to the families of the deceased.

7. Working. Them. To. Death.

There are so many good quotes about how the Germans saw the Jews as helping the Third Reich against their will, it is difficult to pick out the best ones. Let's let Heinrich Himmler (Posen speech) speak for them. Himmler is speaking in terms of nationalities, but everyone knew what he really meant when he spoke about 'our own blood':
In Janowska concentration camp the Germans conducted their tortures, beatings and shootings to the accompaniment of music. For this purpose the SS organised a prisoner's orchestra led by the renowned conductors Stricts and Mund. It was used to cover the noise of the tortures and executions with so called “Death Tango”. Shortly before the camp was liquidated, the Germans shot all the members of the orchestra.
One basic principle must be the absolute rule for the SS men: We must be honest, decent, loyal and comradely to members of our own blood and to nobody else. What happens to a Russian, to a Czech, does not interest me in the slightest. What other nations can offer in the way of good blood of our type, we will take, if necessary, by kidnapping their children and raising them here with us. Whether nations live in prosperity or starve to death interests me only so far as we need them as slaves for our culture; otherwise, it is of no interest to me. Whether 10,000 Russian females fall down from exhaustion while digging an antitank ditch interests me only insofar as the anti-tank ditch for Germany is finished.
That just about sums up the entire Hitler philosophy. It also happens to be a key reason why they lost the war, but I get into that elsewhere.

So, in essence, it was a matter of supreme indifference what happened to the Jews, as long as German production goals were met. However, those goals could only be met by forcing the Jews to work until they perished, and killing them outright if the work did not kill them. The labor could involve anything from forced carrying of rocks up hills to no purpose until everyone carrying them was dead, or relatively gentle work in subterranean missile factories.

Slave labor at Mauthausen-Gusen Concentration Camp (1938 - 1945) in Austria. Unlike many other concentration camps, which were intended for all categories of prisoners, Mauthausen was mostly used for extermination through the labor of the intelligentsia. These were educated and members of the higher social classes in countries subjugated by the regime. Hot day, cold day - didn't matter. Out they went to haul rocks.

Women's Slave Labor at Ravensbruck Concentration Camp.

Women prisoners at work in the shoe repair workshop of Ravensbruck. Holocaust Research Project. These were the lucky ones.

8. Disposal

Disposal was the fundamental constraint upon extermination. Early in the process, the SS didn't know what to do with all the bodies. You could only dig so many mass graves - that was hard work! The institution of ovens made the whole thing a lot easier.
The result of one day of killing in Buchenwald, April 25, 1945. The ovens were fired until the camps were liberated.
Soviet soldiers inspecting a pile of human ashes, Majdanek, 1944.

Former inmates use a dummy to demonstrate how corpses were brought to the ovens.

A rare photo of a burning camp oven being tended.

9. Special Execution Squads

As mentioned earlier, Einsatzgruppen were sent out to track down whoever the Party bosses wanted to be eliminated: Jews, Poles, Gypsies, whoever it was. These SS death squads generally worked alone, without the help of regular army units (though sometimes, despite the denials of many, the regular army did help - it depended upon the local commander). They were "special" detachments sent into occupied territories to cleanse the newly recovered territories of undesirables.

While the Einsatzgruppen are a truly horrible concept, the number of people they could kill was small compared to later, in the camps, when things were systematized and operated with assembly-line precision. But this killing was up close and personal.

A typical Einsatzgruppe would cover a territory, within which it would visit the towns. The Jews of a town would be identified, rounded up and brought out into a field. There, they typically would be given shovels and told to dig a huge hole. Sometimes, the hole was already dug, or it was simply a ravine that could be filled in. Then... well, the pictures show what happened then.

In mid-December, 1941, the edge of the ditch is the killing site on Skede beach, near Liepaja, Latvia. Once shot in the back of the head, the victims fall into the mass grave.

10. Retribution

The war came to a close, and the camps were liberated. Those inmates who survived often were given a chance to exact vengeance on their tormentors. It was hardly equivalent to what had been dispensed by the guards, but it was something.

The first step was to eliminate the conceit that the locals "knew nothing," as Sergeant Schultz from "Hogan's Heroes" would say. The villagers who lived basically just down the street from the camps were brought in and shown what had been going on - as if they hadn't known all along. General Dwight D. Eisenhower thought this would be instructive, and it was one of the smarter things that he ever did. It was very difficult later to deny the facts when you saw them up close and personal and, more impressively, smelled them.

world war II concentration camp
The battered Mayor of the Belgian town of Olloy-sur-Viroin, captured by the Belgian Resistance group Front de l'Independance Namur (FIN), is forced to pose for a photograph following the liberation of the town. During his term in office under German occupation, he worked for the Gestapo and was responsible for the arrest of Belgian youths who were sent to labor and concentration camps. Olloy-sur-Viroin, Namur, Belgium. September 1944.
But the retribution did not stop there. Oh, no. People took out their feelings in a quite personal fashion.

world war II concentration camp
Russian slave laborer among prisoners liberated by 3rd Armored Division points out a former guard who brutally beat prisoners. Germany, April 14, 1945, possibly Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp, Nordhausen, Germany. 

I have different dates for this photo and the one above, but the German looks awfully similar. This picture apparently was taken on April 29, 1945, the day of liberation at Dachau Concentration Camp. The man on the ground is an SS guard moments away from being executed by the inmates standing near him. During his time as a guard, he brutalized and murdered untold numbers of innocent men, women, and children. Only at the point of death does he show remorse. He was executed with the shovel in the hand of the inmate on the left. An Allied soldier turns his back, refusing to intervene, while another inmate taunts him, perhaps spits on him. In the background, other SS guards, shot outright by US troops, lie along a wall. The execution drew an official inquiry that was allegedly quashed by General Eisenhower personally.
Some concentration camp officers just disappeared upon liberation - the Americans may have just given them over to the inmates, then put the bodies in with the victims and never notified anyone of anything.

Dachau concentrtion camp
A freed Jewish prisoner expresses his rage and beats down a German guard at the liberated Dachau Concentration Camp. An American soldier looks on and does not interfere. Germany, 1945
That was almost certainly the case now and then. But that's just supposition, nobody kept records of any such occurrences.

world war II concentration camp
One of the first punishments for the SS prison guards was to force them to load victims of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp into trucks for burial in mass graves. Note the British troops in the background with Sten submachine gun and Lee-Enfield rifles. The photo was taken on April 17, 1945, in Germany.
There were many female concentration camp guards, presumably to tend to the female prisoners (but not always). They were not given leniency. Anyone who assumes that women are automatically kinder and more compassionate than men when in a position of ultimate power should look up Ilse Koch and Jenny Wanda Barkmann and think about it.

SS Guard at Buchenwald, April 1945.
Usually, there weren't any trials. The guard was taken to a wall, stood up, and shot without any formality. Or, perhaps the GIs let the released inmates do whatever they liked to them, in which case the guards would probably wish they had been shot outright. The guards' families were left to wonder what happened to them, just as with all the people taken away without notice under Nacht und Nebel, some of whose bones the now-dead camp guards joined.

These are Buchenwald concentration camp guards who received a beating from the prisoners when the camp was liberated by the Americans. The picture was taken in April 1945, by the U.S. military photographer Elizabeth Miller.

Unknown Buchenwald concentration camp guard, beaten and hanged by the prisoners upon the liberation of the camp. The picture was taken by the American military photographer Elizabeth Miller.

Ilse Koch, Witch of Buchenwald.

Prison camp guards executed at Dachau by US GIs.

Many, many people were completely messed up by the Holocaust, and this lasted for years, decades... forever. Peter Chemy, a Polish national liberated from a concentration camp in May 1945, spent the first few months of his freedom adrift in Germany. [H]e found refuge in the home of a German family: husband, wife, and daughter. After they had gone to sleep, Chemy found a hatchet and murdered them in their beds. He was tried by an American tribunal, sent to Landsberg, and executed by firing squad in January 1947. [Source: Williams, Lt. Joseph H; Captor-Captive, Jacksonville, Girtman Press, 1986.]

11. Escape

Some Jews escaped before the Holocaust in the 1930s, some escaped after. Nobody really wanted to stick around, one way or the other. Very few escaped from concentration camps themselves, though it happened now and then. That's one reason the camps were such a surprise to the Allies upon the invasion of Germany.

Jewish refugees aboard St Louis, 1939. Some refugees made it - and some ships were turned back. It's not as if the whole world was anxiously awaiting shiploads of Jewish immigrants.

Jewish survivors of Buchenwald arrive in Haifa, 1945. An extremely uncertain future awaits, but they sure weren't staying in Germany.

12. Liberation

The liberation of Dachau. This picture looks perfect - perhaps a touch too perfect. The Americans had a tendency to stage some of these 'liberation' shots shortly after the real thing, when you wouldn't have had the huge crowds and arms upraised and all that. If you look carefully, you can spot quite a few people looking up at the camera. But, it does capture the spirit of the event. Somewhat ironically, this appears to have been taken from a guard tower.
The Allies had plenty of information about the death camps well before their liberation from several different sources. They even intentionally placed at least one agent inside of a camp, who escaped and gave a full report. However, the grunts in the field certainly did not know what to expect, and they rightly were horrified by what they found.


The Germans were still fighting, and there were still (incredibly) guards at the camps who did not have the good sense to scram as the Allies approached. Those who remained until the camp was captured lived to regret it - though often not much longer than that.

Mauthausen, Austria, The camp inmates welcoming the US Army, 06/05/1945. The soldiers are from the 65 Infantry Division of the US Army. The soldier on the tank, on the left, is Maurice Handelman, a Jewish soldier in a patrol unit, who was the first to open the camp gates and enter it on that day. According to P. Serge Choumoff, a historian and survivor of Mauthausen, this event was recreated one day after the actual liberation, at the request of General Eisenhower.

Liberators pushing liberated concentration camp inmates on swings. Outwardly, life returned to normal, but for many, the emotional scars never left.

Bergen Belsen, Germany, Survivors, and liberators watching the camp burning, after liberation, May 1945. British soldiers hung a photograph of Hitler on barrack 44 before setting it on fire. He was already dead, and they were alive. A small victory.

13. Dead Bodies

It may seem redundant - dead bodies at an extermination camp - but in fact, the camps were kept very neat and tidy until the very end. Himmler would inspect them personally. They had to be in order or, you know, he might get upset or something.

Liberation or no liberation, the dead bodies remained. The camps were full of dead bodies when the Americans and Russian arrived, which actually was not the normal state of affairs at the camps. The Germans had organized the system so that dead bodies were quickly burned or buried. However, epidemics broke out in the closing days, and food ran out or wasn't dispensed to incarcerated inmates, causing sudden mass starvation to already deprived prisoners. The German defendants at Nuremberg attempted to use that as some kind of justification for the deaths, but that argument went nowhere.

Plus, the Germans killed as many inmates as they could right before liberation, and they couldn't all be disposed of in time. Thus, there was an unusually large disposal problem upon liberation, which the liberators happily had the former German concentration camp guards help with before prosecuting or simply hanging them outright.

A British Army chaplain holds a service over a massed grave before it is filled in at Bergen-Belsen

14. A Day at the Movies

General George Patton was in charge of the US Third Army that liberated many of the concentration camps in Southern Germany. He had this to say about the Holocaust, with remarkable foresight:
"Document everything, leave nothing to chance... because one day, some cockroach will crawl up out of the latrine and deny all this ever happened, Damn Them." - Gen. George Patton, spoken during visit to Buchenwald.
The documentation that the General spoke of came in handy very quickly, at the Nuremberg trials held during the late 1940s. However, it has had continuing usefulness down through the years, both as a way to remember what occurred and as an educational tool for those who, well, needed an education.


German soldiers, in an American prison, were forced to watch a film of a German concentration camp. The same films helped convict the German leaders at the Nuremberg trials. These fellows were lucky; the Soviets would not have bothered to show them the films. Instead, they would simply have mistreated them until 95% were dead, with the rest released with no job, no home and no future.

Picture of the funeral for inmates of Auschwitz who could not be saved or were killed by the SS as the liberating Soviet army approached.
Map of the Holocaust in Europe during World War II, 1939-1945. This map shows all extermination camps (or death camps), most major concentration camps, labor camps, prison camps, ghettos, major deportation routes, and major massacre sites. Did you know that there was a concentration camp directly across from England?