Auschwitz: The Nazis and the 'Final Solution' (2005)
Videos in this documentary
Auschwitz: The Nazis and the 'Final Solution', is a BBC six-episode documentary film series presenting the story of Auschwitz through interviews with former inmates and guards and re-enactments, first televised on BBC One on 11 January 2005. The series prominently featured the music of Gorecki Symphony No 3 , Arvo Pärt's "Spiegel im Spiegel" and Handel's Harpsichord Suite No. 4 In D Minor, HWV 437: Sarabande.
In the United States, this series first aired on PBS television stations as Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State in early 2005 and was released, under that title, in a 2-DVD box set (Region 1), by BBC Warner, on 29 March 2005.
BBC Press Releases
Auschwitz: The Nazis & the 'Final Solution'
BBC TWO, January 2005
With a number of recent high profile Hollywood films such as Schindler's List and The Pianist and iconic books such as The Diary of Anne Frank it is easy to assume that everyone is familiar with the Holocaust and Auschwitz.
Yet a recent BBC survey suggests that almost half the adult population (45%) claim to have never even heard of Auschwitz.
Amongst women and people aged under 35 the figure is even higher at 60%.
Even among those who have heard of Auschwitz, 70% felt that they did not know a great deal about the subject.
Most of them (76%) were unaware of its roots as a concentration camp for Polish political prisoners; the majority (74%) did not know that people other than Jews were killed there and only a few recognised the name of the camp commandant or knew who finally liberated the camp at the end of the war.
The BBC's research informs a definitive new series which has been made to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in January 2005.
Written and produced by Bafta Award-winning producer Laurence Rees, Auschwitz: The Nazis & the 'Final Solution' offers a unique perspective on the camp in which more than one million people were ruthlessly murdered.
"We were amazed by the results of our audience research" says series producer Laurence Rees. "It's easy to presume that the horrors of Auschwitz are engrained in the nation's collective memory but obviously this is not the case.
"We were particularly startled by the fact that less than 40% of younger people have even heard of Auschwitz.
"The research reinforced the importance of making this series and trying to ensure the atrocities that unfolded at Auschwitz are never forgotten."
The series is the result of three years of in-depth research, drawing on the close involvement of world experts on the period, including Professors Sir Ian Kershaw and David Cesarani.
It is based on nearly 100 interviews with survivors and perpetrators, many of whom are speaking in detail for the first time.
Sensitively shot drama sequences, filmed on location using German and Polish actors, bring recently discovered documents to life on screen, whilst specially commissioned computer images give a historically accurate view of Auschwitz-Birkenau at all its many stages of development.
"The name Auschwitz is quite rightly a byword for horror," says Laurence Rees. "But the problem with thinking about horror is that we naturally turn away from it.
"Our series is not only about the shocking, almost unimaginable pain of those who died, or survived, Auschwitz. It's about how the Nazis came to do what they did.
"I feel passionately that being horrified is not enough. We need to make an attempt to understand how and why such horrors happened if we are ever to be able to stop them occurring again."
The BBC will be marking Holocaust Memorial Day (27 January 2005) with a number of other television and radio programmes, including a live event on the day, an international musical performance in and around the museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and a documentary that traces one woman's story of survival told through her grandson's eyes.
Notes to Editors
The research findings were based on a nationally representative postal survey of 4,000 adults aged 16+ conducted by IPSOS RSL as part of their weekly Quest survey.
All respondents recruited were mailed a questionnaire to complete covering a number of topics, with quota controls imposed, within region, by age within sex and social class.
Fieldwork was conducted during February 2004.
The Killing Evolution
The Nazis did not start World War II with a plan to eliminate the Jews. This solution evolved—especially from 1939 to 1941—as they tried different techniques to accomplish their goals. Particularly in Germany and Poland camp commandants experimented with various killing methodologies and consulted with one another on their successes and failures. The ability of a single camp to kill 2,000-3,000 people per hour took years to achieve. At first, though, murder was done at close range-man-to-man, woman, or child.
Death by Firing Squad
In 1941, SS General Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski told his superior Heinrich Himmler that the Nazis had been murdering Jews, including women and children, at close range and in cold blood all summer. Bach-Zelewski was worried about this method's traumatizing effects on his men. Himmler recorded in his diary the General's concerns: "And he said to me, 'Reichsfuhrer, these men are finished for the rest of their lives. What kind of followers are we producing here- either neurotics or brutes?'"
Himmler realized he had to find new methods that would spare his troops the psychological strain of killing human beings at close range.
According to the memoirs of Rudolf Höss, Commandant of Auschwitz, Adolf Eichmann suggested using "showers of carbon monoxide while bathing, as was done with mental patients in some places in the Reich." Instead of leading to water, the showerheads were connected to canisters of carbon monoxide.
The birth of this method had varied sources, including one ironic twist. Artur Nebe, a Nazi-killing squad commander, had come home drunk from a party one night and passed out in his garage with his car still running. The carbon monoxide gas from the exhaust nearly killed him.
As Nebe related the incident to his SS comrades, this near-miss convinced him that gassing could be used effectively against the Jews and other Nazi enemies. Gas would be cheaper than bullets, and no Nazi would directly take a life.
The Nazis' experimented with another methodology using carbon monoxide. Deported Jews from the Lodz Ghetto were led through a basement corridor and then up a ramp to a small windowless room that turned out to be the cargo area of a large van. Once the van was full, the doors were slammed shut, and as it was driven to a nearby forest, exhaust fumes were routed into the back, asphyxiating the trapped victims.
After the van reached its destination, the bodies were buried or burned. Zofia Szalek, a German residing in the Polish town of Chelmno, describes what she witnessed: "We could hear the screams, but we couldn't see the people. They were loaded in and murdered there. It was hell. That's why we called these vans 'Hell Vans.'"
The most effective and efficient technique developed for killing at Auschwitz depended on the same pesticide that was used to kill the lice in prisoners' clothing. The disinfectant, sold under the trade name of Zyklon B, was in plentiful supply. Once exposed to properly heated air, the crystals produced lethal gas.
In the fall of 1941, the basement of cell block 11—the Auschwitz building where some of the most despicable punishments were meted out—was sealed and locked down. August Kowalczyk, a Polish political prisoner on a nearby work detail, witnessed the entire event. He reports that because they were still experimenting, Nazi judgments in error caused the murders to take place over a two-day period, instead of the expected half hour.
Massive Gas Chambers and Crematoria
By the early spring of 1943, four huge crematoria became fully operational at Auschwitz II (Birkenau). They housed eight gas chambers and forty-six ovens that could dispose of some 4,400 corpses per day. Trains would arrive at the camp and those most fit—approximately 10-30 percent of the arrivals—would be selected for a work detail. The remaining prisoners were sent to the gas chambers.
Prisoners assigned to a unit known as the Sonderkommando had to move the bodies from the gas chambers to the furnaces. Several bodies at a time were burned in a single oven. In May 1944 a serious bottle-neck occurred at Auschwitz, because the deportation and extermination of the Hungarian Jews was under way.
Numbering about 725,000, plus thousands more who were Christian converts but still counted as Jews by Nazi racial criteria, the Hungarian Jews were the largest Jewish group that remained alive in Nazi-dominated Europe. Between late April and early July 1944, more than 380,000 of them were brought to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where most were gassed and cremated. When the demand for corpse disposal overtaxed the camp’s ovens, camp authorities, needing to speed up the process, again resorted to burning bodies on pyres, using the huge pits that had been dug behind Crematorium V.
Precise counts of how many people actually were murdered in death camps can never be made because those marched off directly from the trains usually were not registered. However, a calculation that is both conservative and reliable indicates that at least 1.1 million people were gassed to death at Auschwitz—90 percent of them Jews.
Even with all of the death technology, the Germans could not cremate everyone they murdered during the Holocaust. As they retreated from the advancing Allied forces, they blew up the gas chambers and crematoria to destroy the evidence at Auschwitz. But the evidence lingered. In camps throughout Poland and Germany, tens of thousands of bodies remained stacked or spilling out into the cold winter snow.
March 1940 to September 1941
Auschwitz, the site of the largest mass murder in the history of the world did not start out as a death camp. In the spring of 1940, Rudolf Höss, a captain in the SS (Schutzstaffel), the elite defense organization that answered only to Hitler and advanced his plans, became Commandant of a new Nazi concentration camp at the southwestern Polish town of Oswiecim. Auschwitz, as the Germans called it, was in territory that Hitler had invaded the previous year.
Höss was directed to create a concentration camp for 10,000 prisoners, using old Polish army barracks, but as he later wrote in his memoirs, "The task wasn’t easy. In the shortest possible time, I had to create a camp for 10,000 prisoners using the existing complex of buildings which were well constructed but were completely run down and swarming with vermin."
“True opponents of the state had to be securely locked up... Only the SS were capable of protecting the National Socialist State from all internal danger. All other organizations lacked the necessary toughness.”
– Memoirs of Rudolf Höss, Commandant of Auschwitz
Auschwitz I, as the camp came to be called, was built primarily to confine and oppress Polish dissidents whom the Nazis considered to be a threat to their occupation. Polish Jews were confined elsewhere, increasingly in ghettos. Höss adopted the motto of Dachau, another concentration camp where he had previously worked: Arbeit Macht Frei ("Work Makes You Free").
“Watch your bread so that no one steals it. This is what you were preoccupied with, and this was a constant vigilance.”
– Kazimierz Piechowski, Polish political prisoner, Auschwitz
The Polish prisoners were subjected to appalling treatment from the SS. More than 10,000 died within twenty months. The camp received little support from Nazi headquarters and Höss often had to scrounge for supplies.
Jerzy Bielecki was one of the first Polish prisoners at Auschwitz. The SS thought he was with the Polish resistance and sentenced him to “hanging torture,” a brutal punishment where the prisoner carried his full body weight on his arms that were pulled behind his back in an unnatural position:
“He wanted to hang me on the hook. He said, ‘Stand up on your toes. Finally he hooked me and then he kicked the stool away without any warning. I just felt Jesus Mary, oh my God, the terrible pain. My shoulders were breaking out from the joints. Both arms were breaking out from the joints. I’d been moaning and he just said, ‘Shut up you dog. You deserve it. You have to suffer.’”
Writing in his memoirs, Rudolf Höss admits that Auschwitz was a concentration camp where cruel and brutal treatment was routine. Despite this—during the early 1940s—the facility was almost a backwater in Nazi-occupied Poland.
Auschwitz, however, was about to change. The town was situated on major railroad lines. Its surrounding area was rich in natural resources, particularly fresh water, lime, and coal. This made it an excellent location for IG Farben, the German industrial conglomerate, to build a factory that would manufacture war materials.
March 1940 to September 1941
Industrialization interested Heinrich Himmler, Commander of the SS. His dream was that IG Farben's activities would fund the creation of a model Nazi settlement where Auschwitz prisoners would work as slave laborers and the SS would profit by selling coal and gravel as well as labor to IG Farben.
Toward the end of 1940, Himmler visited Auschwitz and ordered the camp tripled in capacity from 10,000 to 30,000 prisoners. Auschwitz would be a backwater no longer, it would become the largest concentration camp in the Nazi empire. Over the succeeding months and years, a series of architectural plans were drawn up, detailing even greater expansion of the Nazi vision for Auschwitz.
While Himmler formulated his ideas for a bigger and greater Auschwitz during the spring of 1941, Adolf Hitler completed plans to invade the Soviet Union. Hitler's plans for Russia would in turn cause a radical change in the function of Auschwitz.
Because it was the home of communism, the Nazis feared and despised the Soviet Union. They also believed that Joseph Stalin's Red Army was made up of inferior human beings and would not be hard to defeat.
“They [the Russians] were—in civilisation terms—not as far on as the West. You just have to imagine the following: France—a civilised nation with flushing toilets. Russia—predominantly toilet behind the house.”
Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Of the three million Soviets troops taken prisoner in the invasion, two million were dead within nine months, either shot, starved, or worked to death.
Jerzy Bielecki, a Polish political prisoner at Auschwitz, watched what happened to the Russian prisoners who were forced to work in gravel pits.
“The prisoner overseers beat them mercilessly, kicked them, clubbed them. They would fall to the ground. It was a macabre scene. I had never in my life seen anything like it. Neither did I later on, even though I remained in the camp for a long time after. ”
– Jerzy Bielecki
“I saw an SS-man, a junior officer, walking around the gravel pit with a pistol in his hand. It was sadism. ‘You dogs! You damned communists! You pieces of shit!’ Horrible words like these. And from time to time he would direct the pistol downwards and shoot: Pow. Pow. Pow.” (Jerzy Bielecki).
“During an evening roll call, we were told that all the sick among us could go away for treatment. Some people believed it.”
– Kazimierz Smolen, Polish political prisoner, Auschwitz
Not only the Soviet prisoners of war suffered as the Germans moved east. Hitler did not want to keep alive any prisoners who could not work.
In the autumn of 1939, Hitler authorized a secret Euthanasia Program, which administered so-called mercy deaths first to handicapped children and later to mentally and physically disabled Germans adults. These people were taken to special institutions where they were gassed with carbon monoxide. Himmler wanted to extend this program to concentration camps, including Auschwitz, to eliminate the need to transport people who could not work. He realized that he had to find a better and more efficient way to murder people—psychologically better for the killers, not for the victims.
March 1940 to September 1941
One of Höss' deputies at Auschwitz developed an efficient method that featured crystallized prussic acid, mass produced under the trade name Zyklon B, and widely used as a pesticide. At Auschwitz it was being used to fumigate barracks and disinfect prisoners' clothes. When the crystals dissolved in air, they created a lethal gas. Block 11, the most feared location in Auschwitz, was chosen for the first Zyklon B experiments.
On a day in late August or early September 1941, the doors and windows in the cellar of Block 11 were sealed.
August Kowalczyk, a Polish political prisoner at Auschwitz, watched what happened the day Zyklon B was first used on Block 11:
“Our attention was drawn by SS men running around with gas masks. The windows of the bunker had been covered up with sand, and in the cellar Soviet prisoners of war were assembled. And it turned out the following day that the SS—actually, it was [Gerhard] Palitzsch in particular who attracted attention because he was running around like crazy. It turned out that the gas hadn't worked properly and that many of the prisoners, the people, were still alive. So they increased the dosage—added more crystals—and finished the job.”
Rudolf Höss later wrote that the experiment with Zyklon B had a calming effect on him: "I was always horrified of executions by firing squads. Now I was relieved to think that we would be spared all these bloodbaths."
But the bloodbaths would continue and grow even larger when a new camp was built a mile and a half from Auschwitz, at a place the Poles called Brzezinka, and the Germans Birkenau. It also became known as Auschwitz II.