Dr. Bozena Karwowska
June 2, 2014
The Auschwitz Camp System: Why this precise location?
The Auschwitz concentrating camp is one of the most unique monuments and places of memory in the world. It is a monument which symbolizes human cruelty, suffering, sadism, greed and self-interest. Political scientists and historians, when examining such significant historical events such as the Holocaust and the labour camps system around the town of Oswiecim, the question of why such events took in this precise geographic area? This paper concerned itself with answering the complex and multi-dimensional questions of why was the system of Auschwitz concentration camps established precisely near the town of Oswiecim? Why was the town of Auschwitz to be set up as a model city in the Third Reich? And why did the German company IG Farben set up their factories in this region rather than in other locations?
The reason for the construction of the Auschwitz camp system near the town of Oswiecim is not due to chance but rather a culmination of series of historical events. In reality, there are definite reasons for its construction near the town of Oswiecim. Nazism, as an ideology and culture, emerges from traditionalism and the systematic fostering of nationalism within a certain ethnic group - in this case German. Nationalism, as a concept, cannot carry on without the deep examination and often selective emphasis on particular events and manipulation of historical facts. In order to understand Auschwitz, as the city and the camp system under the occupation of Germany during the Second World War and the events which took place, we must go back in history to the early 13th century and understand the political, economic and social basis for the German conquest many centuries later. This paper argues that strong economic potential, strategic location, the resulting historic German settlements and the pre-existing cultural conflicts in the Oswiecim and the Silesian region were the main factors which set the political precedent, the raw material and fuel for the creation of the Auschwitz death and labour camps in the 20th century. We see a cyclical historical evolution because many of the events which took place in Auschwitz in medieval and post-medieval epochs have repeated and culminated in the conquest and atrocities of the Third Reich precisely in this location.
The selection of Oswiecim as the town to construct the Auschwitz extermination camp is rooted in the significance of the town as an economic centre of the Germanic lands in the 12th to early 15th centuries. For the purpose of this essay, it is crucial to explicitly distinguish between the town of Oswiecim during the Polish era, the town of Auschwitz as part of the German-Habsburg era, and the eventual construction of the Auschwitz-Monowitz camp system. The historic city of Auschwitz and its surrounding region was an economically prosperous salt deposit town as part of the Germanic duchy of Teschen. Since the early 13th century, the town of Auschwitz was a major trading post which resulted in an exponentially growing population and increased economic prosperity. It was a town at the centre of the European trading network. Goods from Asia, the Ottoman Empire and Russia arrived from the east and Western European goods travelled Eastward through Auschwitz. Farming was also a major source of income for the local population due to the fertile soil and access to water which provided stable employment for the German settlers at the time (Van Pelt, 21-45). These settlers made up the majority of the population prior to the formal acquisition of the Duchy by the Polish government (Van Pelt, 47).
Precisely due to the economic factors and potential prosperity of this region, the German presence has been significant throughout history prior to 1939. This history, however, has been the political basis of German conquest in Poland during the Second World War. In 1241 AD Silesian German Knights set up Auschwitz as a German town. 175,000 Germans and 1200 villages were constructed within a decade. They settled between the Oder and Vistula river. Auschwitz, in 1270 was a substantial town with 120 houses and in 1300 grew to consist of 200 houses (Van Pelt, 27). Approximately a century later, relatively poorer Polish population began to arrive and settle in Auschwitz in order to involve them self in the agricultural sector (Van Pelt, 45). At the same time, the German population began to decrease rapidly due to Westward migration. German population began to decline in the mid 14th century as wages in large urban areas began to rise quickly and many settlers moved in search of prosperity elsewhere (Van Pelt, 32). This economic mechanism also increased the prices of industrial inputs among entrepreneurs in the Silesian and Galician regions. Newly arrived polish settlers provided the inexpensive labour required for the agricultural industry at the time. Through this economic mechanism, towns in Silesia were Polonized. Inexpensive labour has always been the driving economic factor which brought prosperity for the German town of Auschwitz. Eventually, King Kazimierz IV of Poland purchased the rights to the previously Germanic Duchy of Techen in 1457. During the epoch of King Kazimierz, the town also relied on continuous immigration of labourers for economic prosperity in business and agriculture (Van Pelt, 63). During the era of Germanic decline and simultaneous immigration of Poles, a large wave of immigration of Jewish people occurred from the East (Van Pelt, 60). The event of the purchase by the Polish King was never emphasized or examined by the Nazi-German historians of political sicnetists as it was unfavourable to their national narrative and rather emphasized the German presence prior to the official purchase.
Following the decline of German population of Oswiecim was not an ethnically homogenous society. Rather, the town was dominated by the two largest ethnic groups - Poles and Jews. Poles and Jews throughout the early 1920s until 1939, according to Josef Jakubowicz, both existed on a legally equal status as citizens of the town . The Jewish culture native to the German town of Auschwitz and later in the Polish town of Oswiecim. King Kazimiers, following the acquisition of the Duchy of Techen, wanted Jews to occupy the middle class as business owners and promote trade. Until 1939, Jewish people in fact belonged to the merchant class and were active in the business sector of the town as it was at the centre of trade in Europe (Jakubowicz, 28). The Jewish community ran its own schools with the use of Yiddish language as their main language and synagogues were attended on regular basis by the vast majority of Jews. The historic synagogues were grand monuments to the Jewish faith and entrenched the culture through the centuries (Jakubowicz, 5-32). The interior decorations and the Torah Bimas were lavish and testifies to the affluence of the community (Jakubowicz, 14). At the same time, many Jewish family in Oswiecim used German in their households. The wide use of the German language among Jews testified to the historic German presence in the town. German-speaking Jews, according to Jakubowicz, were more assimilated relative to Yiddish speaking families. The Polish population was also an affluent community with its own established culture and religious monuments in the town. It was heavily engaged not only in trade but also was relied on agriculture as means of sustenance. In fact , the vast majority of farms around Oswiecim were owned by Poles. This was historically from the epoch of King Kazimiers of Poland. Within the town of Oswiecim, both communities enjoyed an equal legal basis within the Habsburg Empire before 1918 (Van Pelt, 23). The relationship between the two ethnic communities was strenuous. Based on accounts, this strenuous relationship was partly based on historical economic competition between the two groups. This historic economic rivalry, prior to 1939, resulted in distrust and even minor violence between the two communities (Jakubowicz, 25). We must also remember that the Polish population which lived in the town of Oswiencim adhered to the Catholic religion. This was also an area of conflict with the Jewish community. Nazi Germany, when annexing the town of Oswiecim, entered and attempted to develop a city where ethnic rivalry has been existing and became an unfortunate norm for many years prior. For the Germans, and their Nazi agenda, the pre-existing anti-Semitic sentiment in Oswiecim was convenient as it aligned with their own, but significantly harsher, anti-Jewish policies and culture.
Due to the traditionalist nature of the Nazi culture, the notion of repetition of the glory of the prosperous town of Auschwitz became powerful during the campaign of 1939. Germans wanted to resurrect the historical city of Auschwitz as a model city of the Reich, as it was for many centuries previously. The benefit of placing the Auschwitz camp in the region where it stands was part of the greater idea of resurrecting Auschwitz as this "model" Germanic city, which consisted of a strong economy and a "pure" racial demographic makeup. For the Reich government, Auschwitz was an already German frontier which simply needed to be developed socially and economically. Reconstruction of the old Silesian market in 1941 as the symbol of German re-capturing the town. This was part of the greater plan of the Nazi government as stated in an SS handbook that "for centuries the German East has been the German people's destiny" (Van Pelt, 21).
Nazi Germany, through a self-granted right, inherited the title to the land from medieval times when the territory was in fact legally under German control (Van Pelt, page 23). Nazis leaders used historical facts prior to the sale of the Duchy as justification for conquering the lands of Silesia. Nazi Germany highlighted that when Germans occupied the ruling echelon of the town, only then it was truly economically productive and socially progressive. Under their conception, re-occupying the town of Auschwitz was not conquering new territory, but merely reinstating their rule over territories which have already been under the control of the Germanic people in previous centuries. German National Socialist medieval historians in fact claimed that Polish dukes and aristocracy invited German settlers to the region because Germanic settlers were the key to the establishment of efficient farming and industry in South-Western regions of Poland while it was already sold to King Kazimierz. This was further emphasized and highlighted by the Third Reich's Minister of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment Joseph Goebbels. Based on the Nazi narrative, Germanic people had a historic right to settle these lands for themselves.
It is an established fact that the Germans' system of extermination camps was a profitable enterprise. The labour and extermination camps system was an enterprise which financed and fueled the German economy for the duration of the war. Auschwitz is located strategically in the centre of Europe on major trading routes. The Nazis used this strategic location to their advantage as well. The city of Auschwitz was at the heart of Europe - connecting Eastern and Western Europe. This means slave labourers, the prisoners, were easily transported from the Germany as well as the newly conquered German territories of Czech, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, the Baltic and Soviet territories (Setkiewicz, Int). At the same time, Auschwitz was strategically placed for pre-existing railway connection to Asia and Russia which could transport armament, soldiers and non-military goods for the German Reich.
As in previous centuries, the prosperity of the city of Auschwitz was heavily reliant on the use of inexpensive labour. For the Germans, Auschwitz and its industry was a true "gold rush" profit. During the era of the Third Reich, just as it was centuries previously, Auschwitz and its surrounding region was the home of one of the most industrialized regions in Central Europe with a prospering coal and salt mining industry and progressive synthetic material production. The German chemical company Interessen-Gemeinschaft Farbenindustrie (IG Farben) was interested in the construction of plants for synthetic rubber in Upper Silesia for the German war efforts. IG Farben was directed by Adolf Hitler to invest resources in the production of synthetic materials for the German war efforts. The company required a site with excellent railway connections and abundance of water as a critical supply for the production of synthetic rubber. For the German company, the area surrounding the town of Auschwitz was ideal. The Auschwitz-Monowitz industrial complex was planned as a modern industrial complex with abundance of physical space, natural resources and renewable slave labour. By 1943, the number of inmates who worked on projects within IG Farben was close to 30,000. The labour was a small expense because unskilled inmates received 3 Reich Marks and skilled workers received 4 Reich Marks per day (Van Pelt, 225). This was not an expense for IG Farber with its extreme profit margin. "Reichfuhrer-SS Himmler and the KL Auschwitz Kommendant Hoss were poring over maps of Auschwitz to determine the contours of an agricultural estate" (Van Pelt, 197). The German leadership had a strong desire to reconstruct the old traditional German farms which existed in the Germanic period of Auschwitz under the Habsburg Empire and even during the medieval German settlements (SS-Hauptampt-Schulungsmat, 41).
As its predecessor historical (Germanic) city of Auschwitz, the town under the Nazi rule would be the home to the "pure" Aryan population. With a prosperous economy and favourable to them political environment, German settlers began to settle in the Nazi-annexed city of Auschwitz. For Germans to settle this area, Pole and Jews, which historically constituted the majority of the population prior to 1939, had to be removed. The area was de-Polonized and the native Jews were deported from the town (Van Pelt, 37). The German settlers arrived in order to benefit from the growing economy. New infrastructure was built to accommodate the new settlers, which were part of the greater idea of realizing the ideal German city.
The placement of the concentration camp of Auschwitz was convenient for the German government from a security perspective due to its demographic homogeneity. After de-Polinization and the forced removal of Jews, we must remember that the population was ethnic German. The German population was strictly loyal to the Nazi regime, because it provided them with good economic opportunities and an ideological backing (Setkiewicz, Int). There were hundreds of escape attempts throughout the existence of the Auschwitz camp system. If a prisoner planned an escape, he or she would have to organize a safe house following the escape to avoid re-capturing. The vast majority of the prisoner population in the camp could not communicate in the German language. They would not be able to create a conspiracy with any of the German residents of Auschwitz nor could they easily blend with its population.
The German town of Auschwitz, under the occupation of Nazi Germany, is a unique area of study for Political Scientists. The town encapsulates potential areas of study for anthropology, history, international relations and many other fields of humanities. In order to answer questions such as why was the system of Auschwitz concentration and labour camps established precisely near the town of Oswiecim? Why was the town of Auschwitz to be set up as a model city in the Third Reich? And why did IG Farben set up their factories in Monowitz rather than in other locations? We must use examine history. The selection of the city of Oswiecim is not due to chance. There are precise reasons why the leadership of Third Reich selected Auschwitz. The town and its surrounding has had a significant German-speaking population as part of the Habsburg Empire. This fact was highlighted by Nazi Germany as a self-granted right of re-occupying their historically lost territories. At the same time, it has been a place of cultural conflict throughout its history with Germans, Jews and Poles confronting each other over economics and cultural values. The dislike of Jews based on these factors also became a focal point for the German commanders. The presence of Germans and the economic prosperity which they have experienced in the town was a core reason for the Nazi selection of the town of Oswiecim, later renamed to Auschwitz, as a location of interest in the construction of the labour. It was at the centre of Europe with labour being easily transported from anywhere on the European continent. As a result of researching the city of Oswiecim, and attempting to answer all of the complex and multi-dimensional questions, it is safe to conclude that Auschwitz and the atrocities which were committed in this region by the Third Reich was not a sudden anomaly, but rather due to the factor of cyclical history, repetition and buildup of pre-existing factors which culminated in Oswiecim and Auschwitz being the site and symbol of human cruelty, suffering, sadism, self-interest and greed.
Jakubowicz, Josef. Auschwitz is also a city: a survivor of the Shoah tells his story. Rothenbach: Graf, 2005. Print.
Setkiewicz, Piotr. Personal interview. 18 Mar. 2014.
SS-Hauptampt-Schulungsmat, Der Kampt um Die Deutsche Ostgreze. (Berlin: SS-Hauptampt, 1941), 41ff.
Van Pelt, R. J. . Auschwitz, 1270 to the present. New York: Norton, 1996. Print.