Auschwitz: The similar and the unique characteristic aspects of the largest German-Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp

Auschwitz, besides being the biggest Nazi-German concentration and extermination camp, has become a symbol for the Holocaust in general, and for the "Final Solution" in particular. In order to understand why Auschwitz, of all the extermination camps, has become the most known as well as a symbol for the Holocaust, it may be helpful to have a closer look into the special role of Auschwitz among all six extermination camps. This article describes the uniqueness of Auschwitz by comparing it to the five other extermination camps: Chelmno, Belzec, Treblinka, Sobibor and Majdanek. Because Auschwitz and the other five extermination camps have many common denominators, we should mention these aspects in the first part of this article.

Auschwitz was established by the Germans in 1940 as a concentration camp for the local Polish population. Later it expanded and its first sub camp, Birkenau, was built, as a huge POW camp for Soviet Prisoners of War.  In autumn 1941 the main camp, Stammlager Auschwitz, began to function also as the site where the "Final Solution" – the annihilation of the Jewish People - was implemented. The death installations were moved in the beginning of 1942 to Birkenau, which from that year on was the biggest extermination camp of Nazi Germany. During 1942 the murder took place in two relativly primitive installations ("The Bunkers"), later, in spring 1943, four modern gas chambers and crematories started to operate. Thus Auschwitz-Birkenau became the biggest extermination camp in Europe, working in the patterns of a production line.

Parallel to it, from 1941 Auschwitz also became an industrial center, manufacturing for the military and civilian needs of Germany. Many firms, like IG-Farben, Siemens, Krupp, Volkswagen and others had their branches in the area of Auschwitz, employing thousands of slave-prisoners.

In its five years of existence, Auschwitz, which in 1943 became an imperium containing no less than 44 sub-camps, had altogether 5 different functions: a concentration camp, a slave labor camp, a transit camp, a POW-camp for Soviet Prisoners, and an extermination camp.

The Red Army liberated the camp on 27 January 1945.

The common denominators between Auschwitz and the other extermination camps are:

  1. State within a state. The camps were ruled and managed by the SS solely and exclusively and no outer institution was allowed to intervene or supervise. The lack of supervision enabled staff members of the camps to execute their cruelest tendencies and ambitions and never have to pay for their crimes.
  2. Total loss of sanctity of life. As an extreme contradiction to the external world in the Nazi camp system, human life had no value. It can even be said that death was developed into an art and an ideal.
  3. Inhumane policy toward the prisoners. A policy of a inhumane attitude toward the prisoners, which robbed them of minimal human dignity, minimal living, nutritive and sanitary conditions, ruining their inner spiritual capability, exploiting their bodily power and killing them by various methods, prevailed in all extermination camps.
  4. Inversion of values. The ideology of the SS behind ruling the camps was to create a completely different scale of values, most of them opposite of the normative values known before the Holocaust.
  5. Humiliation. Humiliating and degrading the prisoners was permanently enacted and perpetrated in order to remove the human identity of the prisoners, male and female alike.
  6. Secrecy. There was a policy of deceit in order to hide the traces of the crimes and to remove all evidence. Before evacuating the camp, the authorities utilized the work of the prisoners in order to try to eliminate all evidence of criminality. Secrecy was also enacted in order to minimize the suspicion of the people sentenced to death in the killing installations (showerheads, undressing halls, etc.)
  7. Chaos. Introducing a chaotic reality was a method used to undermine the feeling of stability and regularity and to produce stress and uncertainty.
  8. Worst situation for the Jews. In any situation and constellation, the Jewish inmates always had the worst conditions and were treated in the most sadistic and cruelest manner.
  9. Criminality and punishment without limits. The SS personnel and the functionaries were authorized to do whatever they wanted to the prisoners, including severe bodily punishment and murder.
  10. Slave labor. Each prisoner without exception had to work. Most of the camps had a real industrial production for the war machinery of Nazi-Germany and its army, the Wehrmacht, or for the civilian industry.
  11. Functionaries. A common phenomenon in the camp system was the delegation of authority to prominent prisoners, who were responsible for several functions and received substantial privileges. These functions included: supervision, observance, inspection and control in the barracks and at work squads.
  12. Forcing Jews to be included in the death industry as slave laborers. Compulsion of Jews to do the "black work" of the killing machinery, by creating units of Jews who were forced to work as slaves in the gas chambers and crematories, was a permanent ingredient in the extermination camps. In Auschwitz-Birkenau this unit was un-officially called “Sonderkommando.”
  13. Total robbery. All goods brought in by the prisoners were confiscated, especially valuables. Prisoners were not allowed to hold any personal property. The confiscated items were sent to banks in Berlin, sold, distributed or given as presents to party or military dignitaries.
  14. Crimes of the medical staff. The medical staff participated in the killing and torture perpetrated in the camps, including the “selection” at the ramp and the so-called "medical experiments."
  15. Cynicism and mockery. Cynicism and mockery were perpetrated for the amusement of the staff and was part of the dehumanization of the prisoners and those sentenced to death.
  16. Majority and Minority. Averages of 75 to 90 percent of the deported Jews under the framework of RSHA-transports, were sent to their immediate death, and murdered a few hours after their arrival. Only a small percentage, of between 5 and 15 percent, were selected to become prisoners (actually slaves) in the camp. The amount of new prisoners varied from day to day according to the need of laborers and other factors.

The special characteristics of Auschwitz in comparison to the other extermination camps are the following.

  1. A modernized death industry. Compared with other extermination camps, the "death factory" called Auschwitz underwent a constant process of modernization and increasing efficiency. It used the products of leading factories in Germany for the gassing and cremation functions, and the murder operations were less improvised than at the other camps. Auschwitz also had the largest number of murdered people. The estimated number of those murdered is between 1,300,000 and 1,500,000, most of them Jews. 
  2. The process of the killing industry was modernized in three stages. The first stage was the gassing and cremating in the old crematory, at the Stammlager, which lasted from September 1941 to May 1942. The second stage started when the killing industry moved from the Stammlager to Birkenau, with the establishment of the Bunker I or the Rote Häuschen (The Red Hut) in mid-May 1942. One month later, in mid-June, a second mass killing installation, the Weiße Häuschen (The White Hut), was opened. Those killing installations were active until the next, third stage. The third stage started in April 1943, to be completed in June of that year, when four modern killing installations in Birkenau were completed, namely: gas chamber and crematory number 2 and its twin number 3, and gas chamber and crematory number 4 and its twin number 5. The four new killing centers were based on a new principle, which was aimed to solve the clumsiness of the previous stage. At stage 3, everything was under one roof: The undressing; the gassing; the removal of valuables and gold teeth; and the cremation of the corpses. Altogether the four installations exhibited 46 cremation ovens, produced by the firm Topf und Söhne from Erfurt, and had a capacity to cremate at least 10,000 corpses per day. In the big crematoria, up to 2,500 men, women and children could be gassed in one action while in the two others (the small ones), between 1,500 and 1,800 could be gassed in one action. 
  3. This factory functioned similarly to any other enterprise, with two basic differences: 1) the raw material consisted of human beings; and 2) the factory worked as long as human beings reached its platform. The end product was one and the same, human ashes. Like any other factory, the factory called Auschwitz had the following ingredients: assembly line, workers, machines, two working shifts, simple and senior workers and a general director. The workers of this factory, however, were mostly Jews; their squad, the Sonderkommando, was steadily enlarged until it reached, in the spring of 1944, almost 900 members. All of its members were automatically sentenced to death when recruited, and only by a miracle did 80 to 100 survive Auschwitz.
  4. A Multifunctional Camp. Auschwitz has developed into a multifunctional camp, which had five non-simultaneous functions: 1) concentration camp; 2) slave labor camp; 3) transit camp; 4) Soviet prisoners of war camp; and 5) extermination camp. Two of the aforementioned functions were connected to historical developments that happened outside Auschwitz. These two were the Barbarossa Operation, i.e. the war against the Soviet Union, and the decision on the "Final Solution." Only after Barbarossa was Birkenau destined to become a large camp for Soviet prisoners of war. Later on, prisoners of war were left in camps near the places where they had been captured and were not deported to Birkenau. This lead directly to the decision to make Birkenau part of the killing project of the European Jews, known as the "Final Solution,” instead of becoming a huge camp for Soviet prisoners of war. 
  5. Extreme Dehumanization. In Auschwitz alone, prisoners were tattooed with personal numbers on their left arm. The number was given to Jews as well as to non-Jews. All together, about 400,000 prisoners were tattooed, mostly in order to make them feel like animals and not like human beings. Another method of dehumanization was the compelled nudity which was also aimed at humiliating the prisoners. In addition to the tattoo and forced nudity, we can count the following ways of humiliation: 1) public flogging; 2.) public hanging; 3) long enduring roll-calls (Appelle); 4) prevention of regular use of toilets and the limitation to stay there only for two minutes maximum; 5) exploitation of human bodies as raw material for industrial products (hair, gold teeth, bones, skin and even blood); 6) numerous other punishments and tortures, described in detail in the thousands of testimonies given by survivors of Auschwitz. One of the most degrading "jobs" was the Scheißkommando, members of which were responsible for carrying the excrements from the Latrinen, the "toilets."
  6. Becoming an Imperium. The first plans to create a camp in Auschwitz were made on March 27, 1940 and the camp was officially opened on May 20, 1940 as a large prison for parts of the local Polish population which were under suspicion of being open to resistance or which exhibited hostility to the Germans. Auschwitz underwent rapid development which made the site a huge complex, consisting of 44 sub-camps in addition to the main camp, the Stammlager. The sub-camps formed the 40 square kilometer Interessengebiet (Area of Interest).
  7. Export of Prisoners. Auschwitz, among others, also was a big transit camp for dozens of thousands of prisoners who were the slave reserve for the military and civil industry within the boundaries of the old Reich. After the turnaround in the war, thousands of prisoners were shipped into Germany to help the collapsing military to overcome their defeats and to strengthen the chances of Nazi-Germany to win the war by entering the war economy. Examples of such sub-camps are Mittelbau Dora, and Penemünde. Thousands of prisoners were sent from Birkenau to comb the ruins of the demolished Warsaw Ghetto.
  8. Personnel. In Auschwitz most of the guards, inspectors, and female inspectors (Aufseherinnen), were Germans or Volksdeutsche, whereas in other extermination camps such as like Belzec or Treblinka, most regular guards were from Latvia, Ukraine or Lithuania, whereas the number of "real Germans" was limited. In Auschwitz especially the SS men and Aufseherinnen became infamous because of their unlimited cruelty. The following names personify the inhumanity of Auschwitz: Dr. Josef Mengele, Prof. Carl Clauberg, Dr. Horst Schumann, Hans Aumeier, Otto Moll, the commanders Rudolf Höß, Arthur Liebehenschel and Richard Baer, Wilhelm Boger, Maximilian Grabner, Maria Mandl, Margot Drechsler (or Drechsel) and many others.
  9. Organized Robbery. Only in Auschwitz was robbery institutionalized and officially organized at such a scale in order to confiscate and sort all property stolen from the deported and prisoners. Many SS members of the personnel, no matter of which rank, were intensively involved in organized theft. A special sector of the camp and a special commando were created in order to perpetrate the robbery. This sector of the camp was called Effektenlager and the commando Effektenkommando, but it was generally known in the camp as Kanada-Lager and Kanada-Kommando due to Canada’s reputation of prosperity. From time to time, huge trains transported the looted property into Germany, where it was deposited in Germany’s National Bank, sold or given as presents to soldiers, SS or to party-members. Some of the prisoners of the Kanada-Kommando also "organized" items from the looted property and exchanged them for food, underwear and shoes.
  10. Bureaucratic Regulations and Management. Auschwitz was the most organized and orderly extermination camp. Prisoners who had been in more than one camp emphasized that Auschwitz was "organized," whereas other extermination camps were characterized by chaos and disorder. The prisoners had a clear daily routine, with only slight changes between winter and summer. In the five years of the existence of Auschwitz, thousands of documents were compiled in these offices, under several categories such as Standortbefehl, Rapporte der Arbeitseinsätze and Telegramme. Some parts of the official documentation made by the SS have been preserved, despite attempts to destroy all the evidence before evacuating the camp. The central archives of the camp included the names of each prisoner and also movements of each prisoner according to the work sites and the sub-camp in which each prisoner was imprisoned. In November 1943, Auschwitz underwent an organizational reshaping under which the Stammlager became Auschwitz I, Birkenau became Auschwitz II and Monowitz became Auschwitz III. After this division, each part of the camp had its own management. The administration of the whole Auschwitz complex was based in three big buildings in the eastern part of the Stammlager.
  11. Industry and Productive Work. In 1941, the Auschwitz authorities, following an initiative of the central SS, decided to create an industrial center as part of the Auschwitz complex. It was established in the area of the village Monowitz (Monowice) and many German firms built branches in this area (e.g. Siemens, Krupp, Volkswagen, IG Farben, Messerschmidt and the Hermann Goering Werke). These factories and plants used the manpower of tens of thousands of Auschwitz prisoners. Many of them died during the slave labor because of maltreatment and bad working conditions. Many of the slaves were Jewish prisoners.
  12. "Frauenlager." Auschwitz was the only extermination camp where there was a separated part for women supervised by women. The personnel in other extermination camps were mostly male. The commander of the Frauenlager was Maria Mandl and her staff counted some dozens of women, most of them brutal, sadistic and wicked.
  13. Sexual Abuse. In Auschwitz, sexual abuse was official and organized. In Block Number 24, there was a brothel, and the misuse of children (the "Pipel") and relations between SS men and Jewish prisoners also occurred. Using the brothel was a reward given to senior prisoners, and was forbidden to SS personnel. Young boys were misused by the functionaries, who took them as personal slaves. In the history of Auschwitz, there were also cases of romantic relationships between SS men and Jewish prisoners. For example, there is the case of Hindju Citron and SS man Franz Wunsch, who saved her sister from the gas chamber. Hindju (in Israel later Zippora) testified in favor of Wunsch during his trial in Vienna, which ended on June 27, 1972.
  14. Underground, Combat and Escape. In Auschwitz, Treblinka and Sobibor there were Jewish uprisings. Unrest in Treblinka occurred in 2 August 1943, in Sobibor on 14 October 1943 and in Birkenau on 7 October 1944. The other three extermination camps did not have Jewish underground movements or uprisings. The uprisings in the three camps were exclusively Jewish and can be seen as moral and military successes. In Auschwitz, the Jewish underground cooperated with the non-Jewish combat group, the Kampfgruppe Auschwitz (Battle Group Auschwitz, also known as the Internationale Widerstandsbewegung or International Resistance Movement), planning a joint uprising. Later on, this decision to participate in a joint uprising was changed and the Jewish underground headquarters placed at the Sonderkommando headquarters decided to plan and execute their own uprising. In the scripts of the Sonderkommando, there are severe complaints about the treachery of the Polish members of the general underground and their hostility towards the Jewish underground. The main achievement of the Sonderkommando uprising is the mere fact that it happened and that it destroyed Crematory Number 4 by fire or explosives, the killing of four SS men (among them the Unterscharführer Rudolf Erler, Willi Freese and Josef Purke), and the wounding of 25 - 30 SS members. In comparison to all other extermination camps, Auschwitz had the largest number of prisoners who tried to escape. Most of these were caught and severely and brutally punished, mostly by hanging. But several hundred successfully escaped. The most famous escapees from Auschwitz were two sets of Jews, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, and Arnost Rosin and Czeslaw Mordowicz. The Vrba-Wetzler report delivered by the escapees is a very important historical source on Auschwitz (see document XX).
  15. Jewish Documentation. Besides the official SS documentation, Jewish prisoners themselves created a lot of textual documentation in order to eternalize the agony of the dying Jewish people in Auschwitz and to describe their own torturous job in the killing industry. Auschwitz was the only camp in which the Jewish prisoners succeeded in writing and hiding historical scripts. The so-called Auschwitz scrolls are an invaluable source of historical documentation on the extermination camps. Most of the writings, which were buried in the grounds of Birkenau, remain unearthed. Only about eight to ten percent of this precious documentation has been exposed and partially published in several languages. The main authors were mostly religious or ultra-religious Jews, for example Slaman Gradwosky, Salman Lewenthal, Marcel Nadjari and Chaim Hermann.
  16. The Dictionary of Auschwitz. Only in Auschwitz did the first prisoners invent an independent vocabulary, non-officially called the Auschwitz dictionary. This includes hundreds of terms which relate to the daily life in the camps. Some of these terms became famous and include words like: Kapo, Kanada, Sonderkommando, organisieren, koja (Pritsche or bunk bed), Pipel, etc. The dictionary also includes the word Muselmann, a term that refers to a terminal condition of the bent-over body which is still alive but does not function anymore and is close to its collapse. The so-called Lagerspracha was a hybrid of Polish and German, having a German prefix and a Slavic suffix.
  17. The Dictionary of the SS. Cautious not to mention the real crimes committed by them, the SS used euphemisms to describe the mass killings of Jews and others. Among these terms were: Sonderbehandlung (SB – special treatment, i.e. execution), ablegen (lay aside), Zugänge (arrivals) and karteimässig (according to the filing system).
  18. Division of Prisoners. In order to prevent unity among the prisoners who always were a majority in relationship to the number of their guards, the camp authorities initiated the triangle marking system. The triangles divided the prisoners into sub-categories: red triangles were used to identify “political prisoners;” green triangles identified “criminal prisoners;” black triangles identified “a-social prisoners;” purple triangles identified “Jehovah’s Witnesses prisoners;” and pink triangles identified “homosexual prisoners.” Jewish prisoners who belonged to any of these categories were identified by the addition of another yellow triangle, which formed a Star of David.
  19. Auschwitz Always at the Center of Denial. Holocaust Denial always tries to negate the reality or minimize the outcome of the Holocaust, the intention of which was to wipe out all Jews. However, Auschwitz almost exclusively stands at the center of the Holocaust denier's attacks because it has become a symbol of the Holocaust in general, being the largest of the extermination camps. The main claim of the deniers is that in Auschwitz not a single Jew was gassed and that the number of dead people (they usually mention a few hundred) died of "natural" causes such as hunger and disease.
  20. Estimation of Murdered People. One of the few controversial points concerning Auschwitz has always been the number of the murdered. In 1993, the official number was 4,500,000 people. However, in 1993 this calculation was radically changed to 1,500,000 due to the newest, reliable and authentic research results. This number comprises about 1,300,000 murdered Jews, about 70,000 to 150,000 murdered Poles, about 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war and about 22,500 Sinti and Roma. These statistics are accepted by most historians in the world although some have calculated independently a total number of those murdered at 1,300,000 of which 1,100,000 were Jewish victims.


Dr. Gideon Greif


Recommended Reading


Auschwitz 1940-1945. Central issues in the history of the Camp. Vol. I-V.

Edited by Wacław Długoborski, Franciszek Piper. Auschwitz-Birkenau State 

Museum, Oświęcim 2000

Andrzej Strzelecki, The Deportation of Jews from the Łódź Ghetto to KL

Auschwitz and their Extermination. Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum,

Oświęcim 2006

Andrzej Strzelecki The Evacuation, Dismantling and Liberation of KL

Auschwitz. Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, Oświęcim 2001

Franciszek Piper, Auschwitz Prisoner Labor. Auschwitz-Birkenau State

Museum, Oświęcim 2001

Franciszek Piper, Die Zahl der Opfer von Auschwitz aufgrund der Quellen und der Erträge der Forscung 1945-1990, Oświęcim 1992

Franciszek Piper, Die Rolle des Lagers Auschwitz bei der Verwirklichung der nationalsozialistischen Ausrottungspolitik. Die doppelte Funktion von Auschwitz als Konzentrationslager und als Zentrum der Judenvernichtung, in: Ulrich Herbert, Karin Orth, Christoph Dieckmann (eds.), Die nationalsozialistischen Konzentratinslager Entwciklung und Struktur, Göttingen, 1998.

Fritz Bauer Institut, Auschwitz. Geschichte, Rezeption und Wirkung, Frankfurt-New York, 1996

Gideon Greif, We wept without tears: Testimonies of the Jewish Sonderkommando from Auschwitz, New Haven and London, 2005

Gerald L Posner, John Ware, Mengele. The Complete Story, New York, 1986.

Danuta Czech, Auschwitz Chronicle, 1939-1945. Henry Holt & Co. 1997

Sybille Steinbacher, "Мusterstadt“ Auschwitz. Germanisierungspolitik und

Judenmord in Ostoberschlesien. Saur, München 2000

Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp. Edited by Israel Gutman and Michael Berenbaum. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis 1994

Robert Jan van Pelt, The Case for Auschwitz. Indiana University Press.

Bloomington and Indianapolis 2002

Lucie Adelsberger, Hermann Langbein, Auschwitz, Topographie eines Vernichtungslagers. Köln, 1961

Laurence Rees, Auschwitz: The Nazis & the Final Solution, New York, London, 2005

Jean-Claude Pressac, Auschwitz: Technique and operation of the gas

chambers. The Beate Klarsfeld Foundation, New York 1989

Bernd C. Wagner, IG Auschwitz. Zwangsarbeit und Vernichtung von Häftlingen des Lagers Monowitz 1941-1945. K. G. Saur Verlag, München 2000

Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945 Auschwitz pp. 203-276. Edited by Geoffrey P. Megargee. Indiana University Press. Bloomington and Indianapolis 2009