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.