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University of Bucharest

Political Science Department



Explaining Auschwitz:

From Nazi Ideology to Genocide

This attempt at the systematic destruction of an entire people falls like a shadow on the history of Europe and the whole world; it is a crime which will forever darken the history of humanity.”  

(Pope John Paul II, Auschwitz commemoration

January 28th, 2005)

After the German troops occupied Poland, during the Second World War, the name of the city of Oswiecim was changed to Auschwitz, which became the largest Nazi concentration camp. Auschwitz had been originally designed for the Poles who were considered enemies of the occupation German authorities (the political, civic and spiritual elites, members of the intelligentsia or the resistance movement), but later on, different types of prisoners from the states occupied by the Nazis were sent to this concentration camp1. Auschwitz was greatly expanded in 1941 with the addition of a much larger camp at nearby Birkenau. All in all, Auschwitz-Birkenau and its sub-camps held 400,000 registered prisoners including 205,000 Jews, 137,000 Poles, 21,000 Gypsies, 12,000 Soviet POWs and 25,000 others (including a few British POWs). In this largest of all the Nazi concentration camps, 210,000 prisoners died of starvation and abuse.2

What is important, however, for the purpose of this paper which aims at explaining Auschwitz is that this camp has become the symbol of terror, Holocaust and of genocide3. Auschwitz represents for most people the evilness and unprecedented brutality of the Nazi regime. Nonetheless, an exhaustive explanation of the Auschwitz phenomenon is difficult to non-existent. The complex and paradoxical nature of the Holocaust, reflected in Auschwitz, as well as in other concentration camps, can be related to several approaches, from ideology and totalitarianism to manipulation, terror and control. The purpose of this paper is to identify the logic of the Auschwitz phenomenon (other than the general statement that its goal was to get rid of the Jew), on the assumption that Holocaust was not irrational-as some of the historians claimed, but rather a part of a rational Nazi plan. However, one cannot explain Auschwitz and the Holocaust without trying to have a general image of the Nazi regime and Hitler’s coming to power, as well as about the circumstances which were essential for the development of the racial ideologies and the terror and genocide which occurred under the Nazi rule.

One of the most important reasons put forth for the rise of Nazism is linked to the ‘humiliating’ peace settlement that the Germans had to sign at Versailles, at the end of the First World War. Germany lost approximately 10% of its European territories; however, these losses were perceived as more symbolically than they were in practice. Some historians have also suggested that Germany was ripe for Nazism due to the economic damage caused by the payment for the war reparations, but by the time Hitler had officially suspended payments in the 1930s, the German state regularly failed to make payments.

It is important to stress that the Nazi ideology didn’t explicitly prescribe the system of camps established by the Nazi regime. One can state that the functioning of the camps and especially of Auschwitz did reflect essential aspects of the Nazi ideological thinking. At the basis there were two fundamental principles, which shaped Hitler’s perception of the world: the expansion of German territory and the need for the purification of the Aryan race. The development of the camps over the twelve years of Nazi regime followed several pragmatic aspects that had to be adjusted in time. The Germans used the first concentration camp (Dachau, 1933) for the political enemies (communists, social democrats and dissidents) but soon after, their targets included homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, prostitutes, homeless, Gypsies, groups of people that the Germans tended to exclude. In 1938, the first Jews were sent to camps.

Germany annexed territories in 1938 and 1939 from Austria and Czechoslovakia and built new camps in these areas. Starting with the beginning of World War II, the German conquests led to construction of all kinds of camps in Poland, the Netherlands, France, Greece, Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union. These included POW camps for captured enemy soldiers, labor camps for conquered people, ghettos for Jews, camps for Gypsies, and starting in late 1941, death camps equipped with the means to murder thousands of people-almost always Jews-each day.

A brief analysis of the functioning of Auschwitz and similar concentration camps reflects another feature of Nazi ideology: the ‘divide et impera’ principle, as the Germans managed to divide and rule over their enemies by pitting people against each other. So as to maximize public support, this way of acting meant, within the borders of the German state, picking on the least popular elements of the population and, within the conquered territories, it included turning ethnic groups/social classes against each other.4

However, all these arguments manage to prove that the Nazi ideology is nonetheless important in explaining the Holocaust; however, from another point-of-view, one can state that the ideology was not central in implementing the Nazi program, as it was used mainly to motivate most of the German actions. For example, Götz Aly’s and Susanne Heim’s Architects of Annihilation is a translation of the authors’ Vordenker der Vernichtung. Auschwitz und die Deutschen Pläne für eine neue Europäische Ordnung. This book appeared in 1991 and it is worth mentioning due to the focus on the argument that there was a rational purpose behind the Holocaust. Up until the moment of the publishing, the existing interpretations of the Holocaust claimed that it was rationally and historically inexplicable and a lot of emphasis was put on the irrationality of Nazism. Aly and Heim state that Auschwitz should be understand not in terms of a ‘totally irrational racial hatred”, linked to the racist views of Adolf Hitler, but rather motivated by ‘utilitarian goals’. They claim that the Holocaust was pretty much part of a larger, rationally motivated project, known as ‘negative population policy’.

At the beginning of the 20th century, German sociologist Max Weber called attention to the dominant process underlying western culture - rationalization. In Weber's opinion, the economic revolution and the Industrial Revolution combined to produce the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. The driving force underlying both was rationalism - a quest for and the implementation of the most rational means for goal achievement. In order for capitalism and industrialization to reach their goals, a system of production and organization would emerge based on the principles of efficiency, predictability, calculability and control. The emergent result of this driving force is the bureaucracy. While Weber certainly recognized the importance and the positive potentialities of rationalization, he also recognized its dangerous potential to erode individual liberties and to dehumanize. Weber feared the long range consequences of a process which focused exclusively on means-end rationality to the exclusion of any concern with the human element of social organization. He expressed these fears in his concept of the "Iron Cage of Rationality", a process so rational that it is irrational and it creates an inevitable cage from which there is no escape.

The purpose of the Nazi regime was the creation of a German-dominated Europe, whose economic basis had to be reorganized so as to maximize its productivity. In order to fulfill the goal of an efficient, hence modernized economy, the Nazis aimed at obtaining a population of an optimum size, therefore by certain methods, they wanted to eliminate the population groups that were considered unproductive and so constituted a surplus. From this point-of-view, the Jews were just one among the targeted groups, which needed to be eliminated due to their demographic or economic background. They were, however, given priority during the Second World War because their elimination was, from the German point-of-view, the easiest to implement.5

The choosing of the Jews was supported by racist motives, even-thought behind this decision was the idea that the Jews represented a major economic barrier to modernization. The ‘Aryanisation’ program (the take-over of Jewish businesses by ‘Aryan’ Germans or Austrians during 1938-1939) was not motivated mainly by anti-Semitism but by the need to eliminate the Jews from the German economy in order to improve the position of German retail trade.

In order to explain Auschwitz, Aly and Heim analyze the situation in Poland from 1939 to 1943 and claim that the measures taken against the Polish Jews (economic isolation, ghettoization, deportation and extermination) were in fact part of a complex program, whose goal was the modernization of the Polish economy. In the agrarian field, the economy of Poland was inefficient and needed a solution for the over-population. Getting rid of the unproductive elements (Jews) was, hence, from the Nazi perspective, a way of rationalizing the agriculture and solving the problem of the numerous, small, Jewish businesses, that burdened and dominated the agrarian sector. 6

On the basis of the demographic/economic reform plans, the Final Solution occurred during wartime, as a consequence of the crisis situation created by the resettlement measures which had to be implemented in Poland. However, if one takes into consideration the essential argument of the two authors (that the Holocaust was primarily motivated by economic priorities), it is quite difficult to explain the immense resources in terms of manpower and transport that the Nazis used in order to bring Jews from all over Europe to the concentration camps. The value of this approach stands in its capacity to recognize the latent dangers of modern culture and the way they could turn out to be real in the context of modern totalitarian regimes. But, when applying this theory to the case of the Holocaust, the circumstances responsible for the occurrence of these phenomena in a particular, specific historical context (the Second World War) are ignored or severely underestimated. Moreover, the role of non-utilitarian based ideas is not taken into account (in this case, anti-Semitism, which is considered by some historians the essential factor which lead to the extermination of millions of Jews).

The number of 3.5 million represents the conservative estimate of those who were killed in the Nazi concentration camps, out of which most were European Jews, sent to death for no reason than the fact that they were Jews. It can be said that this process was rationalized by the Nazi ideology of racial superiority, officially and legally sustained by the Nuremberg Laws (1935). If one were to simplify the events and the explanations behind them, one could state that the greatest crime in human history was carried out due to a combination between the Nazi ideology (the quest for Lebensraum, ‘living space’) and the goals of dominating Europe from all points of view, in the context of the Second World War.


  • Bartov, Omer, Genocide in World War Two: Who Were the Guilty?, BBC, Dec., 15th, 2004;

  • Cesarani, David, From Persecution to Genocide: The Radicalisation of Nazi Policy Towards the Jews, BBC Wars and Conflict Archives, Dec. 12th, 2004;

  • Lipstadt, Deborah, Denying the Holocaust, BBC, Jan. 4th, 2004;

  • Longerich, Peter, The Nazi Racial State, BBC, Dec. 12th, 2004;

  • Pencak, Therese, Who Were the Five Million Non-Jewish Victims, Schwartz, 2002;

  • Rees, Laurence, Rudolf Hoss, Commandant of Auschwitz, BBC Wars and Conflict Archives, Jan. 11th, 2005;
  • Rosenthal, George, The Evolution of Tattooing in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp Complex, Trenton, Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies;

  • Siebert, Detlef, Historical Accuracy and the Making of 'Auschwitz', BBC, Jan. 1st, 2005;

  • Is Forgiveness Possible? A Jewish Perspective -

  • Adolf Eichmann: The Mind of a War Criminal -

  • Churchill and the Holocaust -

  • The Vichy Policy on Jewish Deportation -


1 Over the years, the camp was expanded and consisted of three main parts: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and Auschwitz III-Monowitz. It also had over 40 sub-camps.

2 In the spring of 1942 gas chambers were built at Birkenau and mass transports of Jews began to arrive. The gassing operations were greatly expanded in the spring of 1943 with the construction of four purpose-built gas chamber and crematorium complexes, which could handle each 2,000 victims daily. (Steve Paulsson, A View of the Holocaust, BBC History, 01.01.2003).

3 Genocide is an organized and deliberate attempt often on the part of a state or groups of people acting on behalf of a state to completely wipe out a group of people from the face of the earth. It happens through a combination of factors: ethnic prejudice, racism; fear of the other; extreme forms of nationalism; radical ideas of social change; myth-making-constructing the group as the embodiment of all evil; extreme propaganda against the group so as to motivate large numbers of people to go out and destroy the group.

4 Inside the camps, ‘divide and rule’ meant using prisoners to torture each other. The prisoners of different categories were marked with colored badges and a hierarchy was established, that reflected the Nazi racial hierarchy, which put “Aryans” on top and Jews at the bottom. In order to control the prisoners, some higher-ranking, brutal groups were in charge of the others.

5 In support of their statement, the two authors draw attention to Nazi plans for the conquest of the Soviet Union, which envisaged millions of Russians dying of starvation, the death of three million Russian POWs during 1941-42 and the ‘General Plan East’, formulated during 1941-42, which included the removal of tens of millions from the Soviet Union and Poland over a period of some 25 years.

6 The authors’ approach is based on the assumption that policy for the occupied territories, including Jewish policy, was coordinated by a group of demographers and economists, who worked together through a network of contacts between the various agencies in which they were employed.

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