How much does it cost to build the gas chamber

- Auschwitz - History of a Death Factory

Nowhere was the so-called "final solution to the Jewish question" taken to extremes by the National Socialists as cruelly as in the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. More than 1.1 million people were killed here - through gassing, torture and labor.

by Oliver Diedrich,

Rudolf Höß was 39 years old when he became camp commandant of Auschwitz in 1940. The declared animal and nature lover should actually become a priest according to the wishes of his parents. But Höss made a military career. The Germans occupied Poland at the time, and Höß is supposed to set up a concentration camp in Oświęcim in the south of the country. The SS-Hauptsturmführer goes to work with ambition. A horrific place soon emerges under his command. At least 1.1 million people died in Auschwitz by 1945, most of them Jews who were gassed as soon as they arrived. Others are beaten to death, shot and tortured to death. They have to work until they drop dead or starve to death. Auschwitz becomes the "death factory" of the National Socialists.

From the labor camp to the "final solution"

The order to convert a former barracks site in Oświęcim into a concentration camp came from Heinrich Himmler on April 27, 1940. The SS chief is responsible for the rapidly growing number of concentration camps in Adolf Hitler's Reich. Originally Auschwitz was intended as a labor camp for political prisoners from Poland. But in the course of the Second World War it soon became a collection and killing camp for prisoners of war from Russia. It becomes an industrial site with attached slavery. And soon Auschwitz will also be the most important place for the Nazis in their "final solution to the Jewish question".

  • The victims of Auschwitz

    Their number can only be estimated. Many deportees were not registered in Auschwitz, but immediately gassed and burned. After the war, 2.5 to 4 million deaths were initially assumed, as the Nazis themselves had apparently exaggerated the numbers. Today researchers assume that at least 1.3 million people were deported to Auschwitz. 1.1 million of them died. About a million of those killed were Jews. In addition, at least 70,000 Poles, 21,000 Roma, 14,000 Soviet prisoners of war and 10,000 Czechs, Belarusians and other victims were killed.

Criminals from Germany guard the Polish leadership

At the beginning of its construction, the camp is planned for 10,000 prisoners. The prisoners themselves had to build and expand it. First of all, the Nazis deported Poles to Auschwitz: people who supposedly work for the underground, priests, academics. The prison and working conditions are inhumane from the start. Of the 20,000 Poles who are locked up in the camp in the first phase, more than half are dead after less than two years. However, a few prisoners from this period are even released again.

The very first prisoners to arrive in Auschwitz in mid-1940, however, are criminals from Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany. They serve as so-called kapos. These are concentration camp guards whom the SS repeatedly selects from among the prisoners. They are supposed to create "order" and receive discounts for this. Many Kapos harass their fellow prisoners with extreme brutality.

The "system" KZ

Rudolf Höß had already gained concentration camp experience as an SS officer in Dachau and Sachsenhausen. Auschwitz initially "works" in exactly the same way: the prisoners are exposed to constant terror. They often do not know why they are imprisoned, how long they have to stay, whether they will ever be allowed out again. They are crammed together, have to do the hardest work, and are given too little food. And they are exposed to the arbitrariness of their guards. There is a separate building in Auschwitz for punitive actions, interrogations and executions: Block 11. Prisoners hang there tied to the roof beam in such a way that their shoulder bones break. Their tormentors beat them bloody in order to extract "confessions" from them. Death sentences from starvation are also carried out.

Deportation to the gas chamber: pictures from Auschwitz

  • Image: Mary Evans Picture Library / WEIMA

    From 1940 onwards, the Germans set up the largest of their concentration and extermination camps in occupied Poland. By 1945 at least 1.1 million people will die in "KL Auschwitz", about a million of them are Jews.

  • Image: picture-alliance / Mary Evans Picture Library

    The Reichsführer SS, Heinrich Himmler (left front), is entrusted by Adolf Hitler with the organization of the growing number of camps. In 1941 Himmler visited Auschwitz for the first time. Together with camp commandant Rudolf Höß (front right) and a representative of the IG Farben group, he visits the construction site of a chemical plant that the group is building in the vicinity.

  • Image: picture-alliance / United Archives / TopFoto

    In mid-1941 the National Socialists decided on the "final solution to the Jewish question" - the exploitation of Jewish people as work slaves and their murder. As a result, the mass deportation of Jews from the German areas of influence began. The first trains came from Poland and Slovakia. In 1942, as here, the transports with the destination Auschwitz started in France.


  • Image: © picture alliance / Mary Evans Picture Library

    Their belongings are taken from the deportees as soon as they arrive. The SS crew kept part of it to themselves. Today, the victims' pots, shoes and suitcases can be seen in exhibitions at the Auschwitz Memorial.

  • Image: © picture-alliance / dpa

    The "death ramp": In the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, which was established at the end of 1941, those arriving are separated according to sex and "selected". SS doctors decide who will first become a work slave and who should be murdered directly.

  • Image: © picture-alliance / Mary Evans Picture Library

    Those who are initially allowed to live on are living dead. Despite the hardest work, they hardly get any food and are housed in overcrowded accommodations. They starve, succumb to disease, die at work. Many are killed by sadistic guards or in punitive actions, for example in retaliation for attempts by other inmates to break out.

  • Image: © picture-alliance / Mary Evans Picture Library

    Women who are seen as useful for work in the concentration camp have to have their hair shaved. Even people gassed immediately after their arrival have their hair cut off after death. Thousands of kilograms of human hair from Auschwitz are used for textiles.

  • Image: © dpa - Image archive

    When the "death factory" was in full swing from 1942 onwards, around 80 percent of the newcomers to Auschwitz were destined for immediate murder. People are told to be disinfected in the building ...

  • Image: © picture alliance / AP Photo

    ... but the old people and children in these photos are on their way to the gas chamber. In a few minutes they will be locked in a room where the Nazis are introducing Zyklon B, a lethal insecticide.

  • Image: © picture alliance / akg-images

    When the victims are dead, other inmates have to retrieve the bodies from the gas chambers. Before they put the dead in the cremation ovens, they break out gold teeth and shear the women's hair.

  • Image: © picture alliance / Mary Evans Picture Library

    The concentration camp administration has some prisoners write postcards that are sent to their relatives in Jewish ghettos, for example. The text is dictated to the prisoners. Sometimes they have to pre-date the cards. When they arrive at the recipient, the senders have already been murdered.

  • Image: © picture-alliance / dpa

    About 6,500 SS men worked in Auschwitz from 1940 to 1945. Many of them live there with their families. Relax on excursions in the area. Their children attend school or kindergarten in Auschwitz, while their peers are taken to the gas chambers a short distance away.

  • Image: akg-images

    From 1944 onwards, the industrially used Auschwitz satellite camps were repeatedly the target of Allied bombing attacks. In that year, however, hundreds of thousands of Jews, mainly from Hungary, are sent to their deaths in Auschwitz. The World Jewish Congress asks British and Americans to bomb the gas chambers in Auschwitz to stop the killing. It doesn't happen. The background is still discussed today.

  • Image: © picture-alliance / United Archives / TopFoto

    January 27, 1945: The Soviet Army frees the prisoners. "We ran to them and they hugged us and gave us cookies and chocolates," recalls one of the survivors. For the Russian soldiers and for the world public, the moment is not a sensation. Auschwitz initially appears to be just another camp freed from Nazi terror. The extent of the machinery of extermination in this place will only become clear later.

  • Image: akg-images

    While the survivors in Auschwitz are being cared for by Russian military doctors and paramedics, SS troops with 60,000 former prisoners are on their way to the Reich territory in the middle of winter. Those who survived these death marches later say it was worse than the time in the camp.

  • Image: © dpa - Image archive

    But people continue to die there too. Some can no longer be saved despite medical help. And bodies are found in all possible corners of the camp complex. Shortly after the liberation there is a long funeral procession in Auschwitz. The survivors carry coffins to a mass grave.

  • Image: imago stock & people

    Auschwitz was not dealt with on a large scale before a German court in 1963. 22 defendants are on trial in Frankfurt am Main. 17 are sentenced, six of them to life imprisonment. Despite the relatively mild judgments, historians today rate the process as a "turning point in memory": because the Germans were forced to grapple with their hitherto largely repressed history.

  • Image: © dpa Photo: Jacek Bednarczyk

    The Auschwitz camp has been a memorial site since 1947. Today more than 1.2 million visitors come every year. Horror spreads when in December 2009 the words "Arbeit macht frei" were stolen from the entrance gate. The thieves are later caught and sentenced to prison terms. The exact background of the crime remains unclear, one of the perpetrators is a Swedish former right-wing extremist. A duplicate of the lettering hangs over the Auschwitz Gate today. The original is in the museum.

Russian prisoners of war

With the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the structure of Auschwitz changed considerably. The Nazis kidnapped prisoners of war who are considered political commissars. They are so brutally mistreated and poorly cared for that many of them soon die. By this time, SS men and Kapos had already murdered and executed a number of prisoners. But now a planned and massive killing begins. In September 1941, the Nazis first used the poison gas Zyklon B, a means of killing vermin.

The industrial exploitation of the prisoners

Months before the attack on the Soviet Union it had already become clear that Auschwitz would develop on a larger scale than originally planned. At the end of 1940, IG Farben, the world's largest chemical company, decided to build a new plant for synthetic gasoline and rubber. The choice of location falls on Auschwitz. There are good rail connections, raw materials and lots of cheap labor: The Nazi leadership promises the company forced labor. Construction of the Monowitz sub-camp began in 1941. In the course of time, a total of 47 Auschwitz sub-camps and external commandos were created to supply mines, industrial plants and farms with slave labor.

As in other German concentration camps, targeted medical experiments with inmates are also carried out in Auschwitz. The doctor Josef Mengele became particularly notorious. He kills numerous people in his experiments. Mengele, for example, has identical twins infected with typhus bacteria. For his experiments, he amputated prisoners' limbs, cut organs from their bodies or killed them.

Birkenau: From the ramp to death

In autumn 1941 the Birkenau satellite camp was built. It will be the largest of the entire complex - and soon also the largest of all Nazi extermination camps. There they bring the Jews who they want to "wipe out" from Europe. In the spring of 1942 the first gas chamber, the "red house", was built in a remote part of the camp. The other inmates should not hear the death screams. Later, several chambers and crematoria are in operation at the same time, and several trains full of people roll in every day. Many newcomers to Birkenau are led straight from the "Judenrampe", as the Nazis call the platform, into the gas chamber. It is mainly women and children and old or weak men who, in the view of the SS, are unsuitable as work slaves.

Around one million Jews died in the Auschwitz camps by 1945. The murder machinery reached its climax in 1944, when the Nazi leadership had long been aware of the impending German defeat in the war. Within two months, more than 400,000 Jews from Hungary are deported to Auschwitz.

Cruel revenge for attempted escape

There are always attempts to escape in the camp. But only a few succeed - prisoners who work in external detachments have the best chances. The Nazis are taking cruel revenge for this. They have family members and friends of the escapees executed or indiscriminately kill other inmates. Out of desperation, many prisoners throw themselves at the barbed wire fences of the camp, which are deadly charged with high voltage.

As far as is known, there has been only one armed uprising: In October 1944, a few dozen prisoners attacked their SS guards. They try to destroy the crematorium building with self-made grenades. But after a few hours, SS units put down the campaign that had been prepared for months. 451 prisoners are immediately executed.

  • © picture-alliance / United Archives / TopFoto

    Russian soldiers liberate Auschwitz on January 27, 1945. The remaining prisoners are so weakened that many still die.

The Liberation

The horror did not end until January 27, 1945 with the invasion of the Red Army. Before that, the Germans had murdered 10,000 prisoners and destroyed gas chambers and other evidence of their actions in a single night.

They send tens of thousands of transportable survivors on death marches to the west. About 7,000 prisoners were still in Auschwitz when it was liberated. Many do not survive the rescue long. They are so weak that no one can help them.

Höss ends on the gallows - in Auschwitz

Nazi leaders like Hitler, Himmler and Göbbels took their own lives towards the end of the war or like Göring in captivity. Adolf Eichmann, one of the main organizers of the Holocaust, was caught later and finally executed in Israel in 1962. Auschwitz commander Rudolf Höß was also able to go into hiding after the war. But on March 11, 1946, British military police tracked him down near Flensburg. Höss comes to court in Poland, he is sentenced to death. The execution took place on April 16, 1947, on a gallows in Auschwitz.