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1270 to the Present
By Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt

Chapter One: An Ordinary Town

(Entire book: 443 pages)
Auschwitz used to be an ordinary town. ordinary people lived there, and tourists visited to see the castle, the churches, the large medieval market square, and the synagogue. After a nice day that perhaps included a light lunch in Hotel Zator, they wrote postcards to family or friends while enjoying a cup of tea in Hotel Herz. In the early twentieth century there were cards for all tastes. One depicts a peacock with sights of the town on its spread tail. This relic of local pride is captioned with the cheerful words Pozdrowienie z Oswiecima and Gruss aus Oswiecim--"Greetings from Auschwitz,"

In the late 1940s a very different postcard was sold in Auschwitz. The bird that had framed the earlier views had disappeared, as had the pictures of the medieval monuments and the bilingual greeting. Captioned in Polish, Russian, French, and English, the text reads, "Model of crematorium section." It depicts a plaster model of crematorium II, with plaster people descending a staircase into an already overcrowded underground space: the center of the "concentrational" city of silence.(1) For many people, it represents the more than one million human beings killed in the suburbs of the town of Auschwitz between May 1940 and February 1945. For others, it is the Holocaust of six million Jews. For Poles, it stands for the death of six million of their compatriots: three-million gentile and three million Jewish Poles. For still others, it signifies evil.

Most people who know of Auschwitz think of it as a concentrational city, a place closed in upon itself, its victims, and its executioners. Its sole connection to the outside world was the infrastructure of genocide Raul Hilberg has described in his magisterial The Destruction of the European Jews--a technology centered on the spatial-temporal-financial grid of the European railway system, with its timetables and special group fares for transports of over 400 Jews. For most of us, this necropolis of night and fog with its terminus that received trains from all over Europe has very little connection to an ordinary town named Oswiecim--the prewar Oswiecim and the Oswiecim of today. Now a moderately prosperous city in south-central Poland, Oswiecim has become one of the most important tourist sites in the country, but few if any of these visitors pay much attention to the castle or other monuments. Too tense on their way to the concentration camp museum, end too shocked afterwards, they have no time for the town's other history. And so the camp remains imprisoned in its own universe. There is no bridge to link the before of seven centuries of ordinary history with the after of five years of extraordinary suffering, the here of the town of Oswiecim and the there of the Konzentrations-lager, concentration camp, at Auschwitz.

This book examines that missing link. Our focus is the wartime history of Auschwitz, when an ordinary town with an ordinary 700-year-old history evolved into an extraordinary killing center with unique mechanisms for death. Our aim is to reconstruct the historical and ideological context that shaped the views of those who were interested in the history of Auschwitz and its future: men like Heinrich Himmler, who wanted to mold the town and surrounding region, and the architect Hans Stosberg, whose job it was to design German Auschwitz. Stosberg sent a New Year's greeting card to friends in December 1941, and the four lines he wrote illuminate the mythology and ideology that framed his vision. "In the year 1241 Silesian knights, saviors of the Reich, warded off the Mongolian assault at Wahlstatt. In that same century Auschwitz was founded as a German town. Six hundred years later [sic] the Fuhrer Adolf Hitler fends off the Bolshevik menace from Europe. This year, 1941, the construction of a new German city and the reconstruction of the old Silesian market was planned and initiated."(2)

This idea of historical repetition originated in the early 1920s when, pariahs shunned by the Western world, Weimar Germans turned to the East, where they had achieved great victories during World War I and where, they believed, they had suffered grave injustice afterwards. The notion of repetition became even more powerful after the Polish campaign of 1939, when western Poland had been either annexed to the Reich or occupied. As Franz Ludtke, the head of the main section responsible for the German East in the National Socialist Leadership Congress, explained in 1941, in the Middle Ages Polish kings, bishops, and landowners had competed to attract German immigrants. The newcomers had cleared the land, founded towns and villages, and brought their law and culture with them. In return, they had received an inalienable title to the soil which, seven centuries later, was still valid. National Socialist Germany had inherited their legacy and would complete what the medieval settlers had begun.(3)

The principle of repetition was transformed into a rhetoric of repetition, officially sanctified by Josef Goebbels's propaganda apparatus. In January 1941 Goebbels instructed the press to eschew the word "colonization" in their articles about the Germanization of the East, and to adopt a terminology that stressed the concepts of recovery, restoration, reclamation, and retrieval.(4) Conducted by Goebbels, the refrain was sung with different voices and in different settings, but it was always the same: the Germans had taken it upon themselves to complete the project of their ancestors. Their turn to the East was a return. An SS handbook repeating this theme delineated some of its consequences.

Poland was defeated after an 18-day military campaign. This was the reward for centuries of German work on this eastern soil. What German diligence had created in the course of time returned to its original purpose, and once again became part of the German Lebensraum. The battle had to pull down much, had to break and destroy. The reconstruction will consolidate the gains of battle, and make it into an enduring part of the Greater German space. For centuries the German East has been the German people's destiny. And in the centuries to come it will remain so. . . .

The new ordering of the space of the East not only affects the German-Polish problem and that caused by other ethnic minorities but, because in the East Jewry can be found in its most concentrated form, also raises the Solution to the Jewish Problem. The Jews did not go to the East as colonizers, but as parasites. . . . Europe's East became a reservoir and launching pad of Jewry. New hordes of Jews repeatedly descended from the East on the world. The hordes of Jews who overflowed Germany and Austria after the World War also came from the East. . . .

The problem of fighting epidemics in the East is closely connected with the solution to the Jewish Problem. Epidemics have always been more frequent and stronger in eastern Europe than in other areas of the continent. . . . These originated from the ghettos. To gain control over this curse we had to launch a total war in the East against epidemics. This involved inoculation and other sanitary measures. . . . Jewry was one of the chief causes of the rotten situation in former Poland, and the cooperation of Jewry and Poles produced the notorious "Polish State of Affairs. " During the Polish campaign even the simplest German soldier discovered for himself the nature of this Polish State of Affairs. In the regained areas in the East a comprehensive reconstruction takes place which aims to overcome this Polish State of Affairs and to replace it with German order and German culture, to lift up the suppressed and enslaved Germans from the East, and, finally, to link this soil now and forever with the German nation.(5) The relationship between the reconstruction of Poland as a land of German destiny, the creation of a New Order, and the so-called Final Solution to the Jewish Problem was clear and unequivocal: if Poland was to take its place in the German living space as "the German people's destiny," the Jews would have to leave.

National Socialist Historians of medieval German settlement provided people like Stosberg, Ludtke, Goebbels, and the hacks in the SS Education Department with the ammunition that transformed a not necessarily vicious thesis of an ideological symmetry between the Middle Ages and the twentieth century into a genocidal weapon. Historians played a major role in forging a seamless unity between the immutable power of the past and the irresistible force of ideology. This combative history began with an appropriately mythic Golden Age, when the area occupied today by southern Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, and Poland was settled by Germanic tribes. For the National Socialists, this millennium of Germanic settlement was a Nordic paradise of blood and soil in which a racially pure people lived in harmony with the land that Providence had given them. But then, as was inevitable, paradise was lost. Hun raids forced these Germanic peoples to withdraw to the west. Slav tribes followed in the wake of the Huns, and they eked out a marginal existence in the vacated lands. According to the National Socialists, the cultural regression of the area under the Slavs proved that the Germans were entitled to that land--indeed, that they had never lost the title to the area between the Elbe and the Vistula.(6)

Their interpretation of the subsequent history of the region substantiated their own claims. To the National Socialists, the next seven hundred years were a political and economic wasteland until Polish dukes in the thirteenth century invited Germans to establish independent German towns within their domains.(7) Realizing German immigration was key to the development of their duchies, they competed to attract German clergymen who were comparatively well educated and committed to a stable government, German knights whose disciplined training compensated for the lack of mobilizable manpower, German craftsmen who brought better production techniques, German merchants who exploited the economic potential of roads and waterways, and, most important of all, German Cistercian monks and German farmers whose agricultural knowledge was superior to that of their Polish counterparts. Hundreds of thousands of Germans moved to the East. In Silesia alone, 175,000 Germans settled between 1200 and 1335, where they established 1,200 villages, 130 towns, and twelve major monasteries. By the mid-fourteenth century, Silesia, Pomerania, and East Prussia were thoroughly Germanized; the eastern border of continuous German settlement had reached a line that roughly coincided with the eastern border of the German Reich in 1937. The systematic settlement of Germans led to their dominance over the area, which twentieth-century Germans applauded.

There is no doubt that the Germans made a great contribution to the development of the area between the Oder and the Vistula, but National Socialists transformed a legitimate chronicle of past achievement into a pernicious caricature of German-Polish relations. To them every field, every farm, every village, and every town in Poland was the product of German toil. Ewald Liedecke, the chief planner of the newly (1939) created province of Danzig-West Prussia, dismissed the very possibility that anything the Poles had built was worth his attention. He declared unequivocally that every trace of culture within Poland was the result of German achievement: the remains of a German cottage testified to a higher culture than a newly built Polish government palace.(8) This sentiment was expressed even in the stamps issued in the occupied Polish territories. Portraying buildings such as the famous Cracow gate in Lublin, the town hall of Sandomierz, and the Wawel castle in Cracow, the architectural iconography was officially explained as a celebration of "German sensibility, German power, German creativity, German will. [The depicted structures] prove that everything in this land that is beautiful and noble, powerful and enduring, meaningful and magnificent is of German origin and a symbol of the German hold over this space."(9)

Auschwitz was neither beautiful nor noble, meaningful or magnificent, but it was German, and it was relatively prosperous.(10) Established in 1270, it had become a midsize market town of 120 to 200 houses by 1300. It was the regional center of the eastern part of the duchy of Teschen, and the duke granted the town the right to become a lead and salt depot. With this economically important privilege, Auschwitz acquired local significance. The duke also granted the town the right to levy a toll on the two most traveled bridges over the Vistula and Sola Rivers. Located directly on one trade route (Vienna-Olmutz-Ostrau-Cracow) and slightly off another (Leipzig-Breslau-Oppeln-Cracow-Lemberg), Auschwitz was well placed to profit from the economic boom of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries.

When the duchy of Teschen was divided in 1316 and the area east of the Biala River became the independent duchy of Auschwitz, the town of Auschwitz had 1,300 inhabitants, with another 700 in the immediately adjacent Polish villages of Babitz, Birkenau, Dwory, Harmese, and Rajsko. Neustadt, along the lower Skawa, was slightly larger, with a population of 1,400. The two small market towns upstream, Liebenwerde, along the upper Sola, and Frauenstadt, along the upper Skawa, were much smaller, with 400 and 285 inhabitants respectively. These towns comprised the four corners of German settlement; to the north and west were older Polish villages. However prosperous its towns, the new duchy was too small to maintain itself politically. A pawn in a power struggle between Poland, Bohemia, and Hungary, Auschwitz joined the Reich in 1327. Paradoxically, the official absorption of the duchy into the Reich coincided with the decline of the German presence there. Arable land had begun to run out, and the duchy of Auschwitz ceased to be attractive to newcomers. The Black Death (1349) and a series of other epidemics led to a massive decrease in the population of Europe, and German emigration from the west to the east came to a complete halt.(11) Furthermore, throughout Europe the collapse of prices of agricultural products arid a rise in urban wages initiated a protracted agricultural depression. Farmers left the countryside for the towns. In Upper Silesia, German farmers abandoned the homesteads their ancestors had carved out of the wilderness. Many returned to the west, where opportunities beckoned.

Poland, however, weathered the plague better than did other nations, and had a population surplus. As Germans left the villages, Polish peasants moved in. The towns too were Polonized. In the duchy of Auschwitz the five erstwhile German urban centers were known from then on by their Polish names: Oswiecim (Auschwitz), Kety (Liebenwerde), Zator (Neustadt), Wadowice (Frauenstadt), and Zywiec (Saybusch). But they did not prosper. Too small to profit from the boom economy of the larger cities, these market towns shared the economic decline of the countryside.

By the early 1400s criminals roamed the abandoned countryside. The duke of Oswiecim did not have the resources to defend his interests and, placing himself under the Polish Kirg Jagiello's protection, he initiated Oswiecim's political turn to the East. This move was consolidated by King Casimir IV of Poland, who bought the rights to the duchy in 1457. Now separated from the other Upper Silesian duchies and from the Reich, Oswiecim drifted towards full integration into its neighbor. The increasingly loud Polish call for unity also encouraged the unification of Oswiecim with Poland, as did the acquisition of land and positions of power by Polish noblemen. The duchy was incorporated in the province of Cracow in 1564, completing the almost universal Polonification of this area.(12)

Oswiecim prospered during the first years of Polish rule, despite four large city fires which damaged most of the town and the castle. The duties on salt and the bridge tolls over the Vistula and the Sola remained the major source of income. An important border crossing between Poland and Silesia, Oswiecim grew into a town of five hundred houses. Two hundred craftsmen made a living in the town, and the income derived from trade and industry generated enough money to build a new town hall on the Ring, restore the parish church and the Dominican church, and build a new synagogue. Jewish settlement had begun in the mid-fifteenth century, and by the time of Oswiecim's incorporation into Poland its Jewish population was so numerous that King Zygmunt II Augustus felt obliged to issue a decree to prevent further growth. Nevertheless, until 1941 Jews would form the majority of the population of Oswiecim.

The Jews had emigrated from western and central Europe at the invitation of the Polish kings, who hoped they would form an entrepreneurial middle class. Many Jews had come. The Crusades (1095-1215) had encouraged violent pogroms, and a small number had sought a new future in the East. The Black Death had led to new pogroms--350 Jewish communities were destroyed in Germany alone--and the rivulet had become a large stream. While the Jews enjoyed communal autonomy and the freedom to engage in While the Jews enjoyed communal autonomy and the freedom to engage in all trade and industry throughout Poland, they could not participate in the political life of the towns, cities, or the nation. They were powerless in the ensuing struggles between the monarchy, the church, the nobility, and the town burghers, arid their weak situation worsened as time progressed.

As it transpired, Poland too was weak, and her situation also worsened. Russian-Cossack forces laid waste to northeastern Poland in the mid-seventeenth century and, as the east of the country burned, the Swedish king grasped the opportunity to destroy Polish power in the Baltic. The Swedes invaded Poland and a garrison occupied Oswiecim on 30 October 1655. After an unsuccessful uprising by the local population, the Swedish soldiers burned the town.(13)

Oswiecim never recovered from the Swedes, punishment. At the end of the seventeenth century a little over three hundred people eked out a meager existence in the twenty or so habitable houses that remained. The cataclysmic impact of the war could not be overcome in Oswiecim, or indeed in the majority of Polish towns. Poland collapsed and in 1772 was partitioned by of its population were appropriated. In Ludtke's opinion the neighboring powers were not at fault. "Poland, the oppressor of its citizens and peasants, the promotor of Jews, the strangler of German civilization, the toy of the Jesuits, the playground of self-seeking aristocratic factions, was condemned to destruction. . . . Poland was to blame for its own death."(14)

History provides the raw material for nationalism, and German nationalists like Franz Ludtke interpreted the decline and ultimate disappearance of Poland in the second half of the eighteenth century as not only a result of particular circumstances but the reflection of an innate inability of the Poles to take care of themselves. They were guilty of, as the nineteenth-century nationalist historian Heinrich von Treitschke put it, "the wild doings which we colloquially call `Polish inn-keeping.'"(15) Hitler used precisely this rhetoric to justify the German occupation of Poland. In his Reichstag speech of 6 October 1939, Hitler reminded his audience that in 1919 Poland had taken German lands developed over many centuries. In less than twenty years these fertile lands had been reduced to wasted prairies, and the main waterway, the Vistula, had become, depending on the season, either an unruly stream or a dried-up rivulet. Towns, villages, and roads had fallen into a state of disrepair. The situation in Poland had become a paradigm of " Polish inn-keeping."(16) In short, the country needed a firm German hand to set things right.

In the five years that followed, National Socialists proved conclusively that they had little in common with their ancestors six centuries earlier. If the medieval farmers and merchants had brought a measure of prosperity to the Polish lands, their descendants brought poverty: between 1939 and 1944 the real wages of the average Polish worker dropped to 8 percent of the prewar level. And while the early German settlers lived peaceably with their neighbors, the twentieth-century German invaders would not tolerate their existence. As an expensively produced, richly illustrated government-sponsored magazine about life in German-administered Poland boasted in 1944, "Millions of Jews lived amidst other ethnic groups in the territory of today's Government General. Here, in the breeding ground of modern World Jewry, the Jewish Problem reached its zenith. . . . We had a moral obligation to wipe out the breeding places of the most horrendous, the most inhuman, and the most beastly vice that, arising from Poland, infested the whole world. It was a task which, in its fulfillment, was meant to bring salvation to the whole of humanity."(17)

© 1996 Deborah Dwork & Robert Jan van Pelt


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