Why Nazi death camps were all in Poland

Now Eastern Europe is very much in the news again, it’s time to cast another retrospective glance at the ‘Final Solution’, otherwise known as the Holocaust.

As we know, the Nazis and the Soviets were allies until 22 June, 1941. And allies freely exchange useful information.

When Hitler took over in 1933, Germany had no concentration camps. Russia, on the other hand, had already created a vast network of them under the auspices of the State Administration for Camps (known by its Russian acronym GULAG).

The project was by no means straightforward: the logistics involved were intricate, and the capital investment vast. Hence, when Germany felt an acute need for such installations, the Soviets were happy to share their experience.

However, once the two allies occupied Poland, their needs diverged. True, more millions of people died in the Soviet camps, but that wasn’t their explicit purpose.

For a whole economy was erected on the inmates’ bones. Timber, gold, metals, coal, later uranium were produced by those walking skeletons; great canals and whole cities were built by them.

The skeleton didn’t remain walking for long: after at best a few months they keeled over their wheelbarrows and died. When that led to a shortage of work force, a new wave of arrests would repair the deficit.

This confluence of punitive and economic needs also appealed to the Nazis. But not where Jews were concerned. They had to be exterminated to the last man, woman and child.

Some, not many, could still be useful. Those were sent to the camps similar to their Soviet analogues. Jews didn’t last long there either, but their demise wasn’t the sole purpose of those institutions.

For the six extermination camps, it was. Chelmno. Belzec. Sobibor. Treblinka. Majdanek. Auschwitz-Birkenau. Those camps (interestingly, ‘camp’ is the same word in Russian and German, lager) didn’t care about their inmates’ productivity, only about their death.

They were all sited in Poland, in the heart of what used to be the Jewish Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire. That’s where most European Jews lived.

Millions of them lived in the Soviet Union, and until 22 June, 1941, they didn’t know they were slated for extermination. The Soviets only deigned to inform them of that possibility on 24 August. By then it was too late: the Nazis had already occupied the Baltics, Moldavia, Byelorussia, most of the Ukraine and a great part of western Russia.

No attempt had been made to evacuate Jews before the Nazis got to them. Clearly it was impossible to save all, but a few thousand children could have been evacuated without much trouble. Stalin saw no need.

About three million Jews were left behind: 220,000 in Lithuania, 800,000 in Byelorussia, 250,000 in Moldavia, 1.5 million in the Ukraine. Of these, 2,825,000 were murdered. Most of them didn’t even make it to the death camps: they were either machinegunned in ravines or gassed in special trucks (another Soviet invention graciously shared with the Nazis).

Now, the Nazis put together three Einsatzgruppen, mobile killing units trained to achieve the Final Solution on Soviet territory. Technical personnel apart, their combined strength was 2,400 men.

Given the technical means at their disposal, it’s reasonably clear that, even at their most industrious, those Germans wouldn’t have been able to murder millions by themselves. But they didn’t have to.

The local population made up the personnel shortage with alacrity, murdering their former friends and neighbours in their thousands. To be fair, only a few per cent of the locals were enthusiastic supporters.

There were also many heroes hiding Jews and risking (often losing) their own lives for it. But neither monsters nor heroes are ever thick on the ground. Most of the locals looked on the massacres with indifference. It was none of their business, let the Krauts and the Yids sort it out between them.

Hence over 90 per cent of all Jews were killed throughout the occupied parts of the Soviet Union, 96 per cent in the Baltic republics. And the denizens of Lvov, the capital of Ukrainian Galicia, brutally murdered 10,000 Jews in the couple of days of the interregnum, when the Soviets had already left the city, but the Nazis hadn’t yet moved in.

All knowledge, according to Descartes, is comparative. Thus France lost less than a quarter of her Jewish community. A third of the Czech and Serbian Jews survived the war. In Holland and Belgium, a quarter survived – which is astonishing, considering those countries’ terrain and population density.

There was no mass extermination of Jews in either Hungary or Italy until they were occupied by the Nazis. Denmark managed to save practically all her Jews. But in Poland, 98 per cent of the Jews were murdered.

Since one can observe a direct, iron-cast link between the killing rate and the behaviour of the ambient populace, this should answer the question in the title. The Nazis couldn’t build death camps in Western Europe because the populations of those countries en masse wouldn’t have responded to such savagery with enthusiasm or even indifference.

That’s why the Nazis built the death camps in Poland, creating numerous bottlenecks in their rail network to transport European Jews to the gas ovens.

For example, in the summer of 1944, when the Nazis were hanging on by their fingernails, they deported 440,000 Hungarian Jews by rail. How many trains? How many carriages? Thousands, and they were all desperately needed to transport military personnel and supplies. But first things first.

I’m not suggesting that any possible war in (or over) Eastern Europe would produce a similar outcome. It is, however, useful to remember that evil regimes perpetrate evil deeds – not sometimes, not occasionally, not sporadically. Always.

13 thoughts on “Why Nazi death camps were all in Poland”

  1. As someone who lost an untold number of relatives, both Polish (maternal) and Russian (paternal), in the Holocaust I commend you for this sobering article.

  2. Everything old is new again. And it repeats because this kind of real history is never taught. Fifty years ago I was friends with someone whose parents escaped Poland but only because their family was able to buy their way out. That is all I ever knew. I wish I could go back and talk to Mrs. Fischer about what it was really like.

  3. The older I get the more I am in awe of those heroes you mention. People who exhibit an almost pathological altruism. The willingness to sacrifice their today for someone else’s tomorrow. I suspect that such people are incapable of being decent, respectable fellows. If they hadn’t been trying to rescue Jews they may well have joined the mob.

    I myself find myself unable to cast stones at the Pols. What would I have done? Pointless and perhaps vain to think about, I know, but the question lingers.

    Is it any wonder that so much of Europe’s culture became so nihilistic?

  4. A history teacher I know attempted to teach the Holocaust chapter in a High School in the main Muslim suburb of Sydney. The class stood up as one and informed the teacher that “it never happened”. The pervading tone of the room and her own safety helper her decide to move on to the next chapter.

      1. … or if she’d displayed a cartoon depicting the wedding.

        There were many supporters of Hitler who didn’t approve of the murder of Jews. Insofar as they didn’t support the murder of Jews, they were bad Nazis.

        Today, there are many adherents of Mahomet who don’t approve of the murder of Jews. Insofar as they don’t support the murder of Jews, they’re bad Mahometans.

  5. “the Nazis put together three Einsatzgruppen, mobile killing units trained to achieve the Final Solution on Soviet territory. Technical personnel apart, their combined strength was 2,400 men.”

    I am not sure if it is three or four special action groups. And it is said that the commanders of three of the four [if there were four] had doctorates. Alex knows if a doctorate in Germany is the same as a PhD in the USA?

  6. “Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland” by Christopher Browning chronicles the work of just such a unit.

    “IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation” by Edwin Black describes how IBM helped keep all those Hungarian trains (and others) on schedule. Seems there are always those willing to help, especially if a dollar is to be made.

      1. Whenever the topics of Ford or Hitler come up, my boss usually says, “Hitler was just Henry Ford’s stooge.” Few know of his virulent antisemitism (see “The International Jew”).

        1. And just that. Here’s an excerpt from my book How the West Was Lost:
          Ford had been financing Hitler’s movement since before the Putsch, which was first reported by the New York Times in December, 1922. In recognition of this support, Hitler had a wall of his private office decorated with a portrait of Ford. In 1928 Ford merged his German holdings with I.G. Farben, a chemical cartel that also financed Hitler from the start and whose impressive product range later included the Zyklon B gas custom-made for the needs of Germany’s growth industry. Ford’s holdings in Europe prospered during the war, thanks in part to extensive use of free labour generously supplied by Auschwitz. In 1938 Henry Ford was awarded the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, the highest Nazi decoration for foreigners, which, incidentally, had been turned down by Francisco Franco. But Ford’s greatest reward was the opportunity to profit from the war on both sides of the conflict. His plants in Germany and France assisted the Nazi war effort as much as his Detroit facilities helped the Allies. The war was to Ford an opportunity, not a threat. There is even evidence that the US Air Force spared American holdings in Germany, including Ford’s factories. Either the RAF Bomber Command operating against targets in France was not party to that arrangement, or else Sir Arthur Harris got carried away, but in March 1942 RAF hit the Ford plant at Poissy. Justice was done, however, when the Vichy government paid Ford 38 million francs in compensation, with profuse apologies for having been lax in their anti-aircraft defences.

          1. I hate to admit that after purchasing your book I have not made the time to read it. You’re in some pretty good company in that respect.

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