Holocaust History: Auschwitz – Evolution of a Killing Factory

In Claude Lanzmann’s famous documentary film Shoah he interviewed SS guard Franz Suchomel who called Auschwitz a “killing factory.”[1] There could not be a more adequate description of the hell that was Auschwitz-Birkenau. However as with most events of the Holocaust its purpose as a killing center did not emerge overnight. Rather, it evolved in response to circumstances and the whims of the Nazi leadership.

When Rudolf Höss was appointed commandant of Auschwitz in April 1940 it was in his own words a ramshackle of old Polish Army barracks that “were filthy and teemed with lice, fleas, and other bugs” and “far off the beaten track in the backwoods of Poland.”[2] Initially the camp was intended to be what Höss called a “transition camp” that would house 10,000 prisoners.[3] A few months later while the camp was still in its initial phases Höss and SS Chief Himmler, both former farmers, talked of turning Auschwitz into an agricultural research facility however this turned out to be a whimsical fantasy.[4] In early 1941 the Nazi government struck a deal with the German chemical concern, IG Farben, for the construction of a large synthetic rubber and fuel factory near Auschwitz. The SS would provide slave labor to construct and later work in the IG Farben factories for which they would receive three Reichsmarks (RM) per unskilled worker and four Reichsmark per skilled worker daily.[5] This was the beginning of a relationship between the SS and various businesses that eventually “employed” more than 40,000 slaves in dozens of Auschwitz subcamps and which brought the SS around 30 million RM in profit.[6] This development was due to the lost access to fuel and rubber imports from foreign sources after the onset of hostilities. 

(L to R in front row) Heinrich Himmler, IG Farben engineer Maximilian Faust, and camp commandant Rudolf Höss tour IG Farben factory at Auschwitz, July 1942. Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum

The war against the Soviet Union brought with it more developments. According to Höss, sometime in 1941 Himmler decided to use Russian POWs as slaves and ordered the commandant to prepare Auschwitz to receive 100,000 of them.[7] Eventually thousands of Russian POWs arrived at the camp, however most were already starving and by summer 1942, according Höss’s own words, there were only a “few hundred” left alive that were employed as an “elite” mobile work commando whenever a task had to be accomplished quickly.[8] The war in the East also brought the first mass executions to Auschwitz when several hundred Red Army political commissars were weeded out of regular POW camps and sent to Auschwitz for execution under Hitler’s infamous Commissar Order. Up until 1942 the two main groups of prisoners in Auschwitz were Polish political prisoners and Russian POWs, both of whom were kept in brutal conditions on starvation rations and used as slave labor.

Jews undergo selection on the train ramp at Auschwitz (1944), visible in the background is the entrance to the infamous Auschwitz II-Birkenau killing complex. Smoke rises in from crematoria chimneys in the distance. Public Domain

Things at Auschwitz however were about to take on new dimensions of terror. Hitler and the Nazi leadership planned to remove the Jews of Central and Western Europe to conquered lands in the East where they would be exterminated once the war was over and won.[9] However in August 1941 it appeared to everyone, Germans and the world alike, that the Soviet Union was done for. Hitler believed that it would all be over by the end of the year. This belief, combined with the fact that the mass murder of the Jews living in the East was already underway by Himmler’s personal army of Einsatzgruppen killers, caused some high-ranking Nazis including Himmler to suggest the German and other Western Jews be sent East immediately.[10] They decided to move the Jews into the Ghettos of Poland and other conquered Soviet lands. It was around this time that Himmler summoned Höss to Berlin and informed him that “The Führer has ordered the Final Solution of the Jewish question. We, the SS, must carry out this order. The existing extermination sites in the East are not in a position to carry out these intended operations on a large scale. I have, therefore, chosen Auschwitz for this purpose.”[11] This led Höss to tour the Operation Reinhard death camps to observe their methods and to experiment with the use of prussic acid gas to murder large numbers of people. Consequently, Auschwitz-Birkenau was transformed into a dual-purpose killing center where Jews incapable of slave labor were murdered upon arrival while those who were able to work received a slower death sentence. Himmler’s second in command, Reinhard Heydrich, articulated it at the now infamous Wannsee Conference – Jews would be worked to death on starvation rations.[12]

By the end of the war 1.1 million innocent people had perished in the death factory of Auschwitz. After the war Rudolf Höss was captured, tried, convicted, and executed at Auschwitz in 1947.

Rudolf Höss is led to his execution; the gallows was erected next to one of the former gas chambers. Public Domain


[1] Shoah, dir. Claude Lanzmann (France: Parafrance, 1985).

[2] Rudolf Hoss and Steven Paskuly, Death Dealer: The Memoirs of the SS Kommandant at Auschwitz (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1992), 118.

[3] Ibid. 118.

[4] Laurence Rees, Auschwitz: A New History (PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition, 20005), Kindle Locations 698-701.

[5] Ibid. Kindle Locations 883-888.

[6] Ibid. Kindle Locations 3276-3279.

[7] Hoss, 125.

[8] Ibid. 134.

[9] Rees, Kindle Locations 1268-1275.

[10] Ibid. Kindle Locations 1275-1277.

[11] Hoss, 27.

[12] Rees, Kindle Locations 3259-3262.