Yesterday was the seventieth anniversary of Pearl Harbor.
Sunday has two anniversaries; one of them is the Nazi declaration of war on the US (and you’ll see the other one on Sunday).
But today is the seventieth anniversary of the war’s most ghastly contribution to human history; it was the opening of a “camp” near the Polish village of Chelmno, on the grounds of a former baronial manor. It was a placid looking place that would add a new word to the world’s vocabulary of evil: the German Vernichtungslager.
We’ll come back to that.
Concentration camps – places to put people who were for whatever reason inconvenient or needed to be held in one place – had existed for quite a while. They got the name from the British during the Boer War, when they “concentrated” the families of Boer fighters in a few easily-guarded locations. They turned out to be ghastly places – not so much because the Brits intended it as through bureaucratic incompetence.
When the Nazis took power in Germany, their agenda bode ill for lots of people – gays, the mentally ill, Romany (“Gypsies”), Jehovah’s Witnesses, political dissidents of all stripes, and especially the Jews. And, following Lenin’s lead, they started straight in with their own Konzentrazionslagern – the Germans called them “KZs” - as a place to put all manner of undesirables. There were hundreds of KZs, starting with Buchenwald in 1937, in Germany and in every corner of the Reich. They served many purposes – holding tanks for political prisoners, forced labor camps, even propaganda facades. And thousands died in the KZs – from disease, malnutrition, overwork exposure, the brutal and capricious “discipilne”, even the whim of the guards; 50,000 at Buchwald and Ravensbrück, similar numbers at Dachau, Nordhausen, Theresienscadt, and Sachsenhausen and many, many more.
But the process of hauling a prisoner off to a KZ, there to die slowly of any number of causes, didn’t serve the goal of ridding the world of Jews (first; the Slavs and other “Lower” races would follow) fast enough. The Nazis, being analytical Germans, experimented with many different means of killing people without all the procedural overburden, and removing impediments like “the human will to survive and endure”, from the equation; roaming teams of SS who’d shoot people in the hundreds were the first method, tried over the previous year and a half since the fall of Poland.
The idea had been broached to make the process more an industrial than military one. The next question was “what sort of industrial process”. The idea of using some sort of poison gas was broached.
Being a nation of engineers, the Nazis thought to prototype a couple of different approaches, to remove all the variables and find the optimal approach before switching into full production. Among the variables to be removed was the pesky issue of “neighbors”; unlike the KZs, which would be tucked in next to towns and factories and farm regions all over Germany and the occupied countries, the new camps, Vernichtungslagern, or “Extermination Camps”, and called “VZs” by the Germans, would be be located in rural Poland – a backward place in those days, far from any potentially friendly borders, away from prying media eyes, and very sparsely populated by European standards.
And it was at Chelmno, seventy years ago today, that the first approach – vehicle exhaust gases piped into the back of a panel van jammed with 60-odd victims.
…followed by burial in a mass grave in a nearby forest, was first tried.
Like any good engineers and scientists, they kept meticulous notes. The exhaust gas -mostly carbon monoxide – was just too slow. And burial was far too labor intensive; at another “prototype” VZ at Treblinka, cremation seemed to work much more efficiently. All of the data points led to the conclusion that carbon monoxide was far too slow and inefficient a means of killing; when the Nazis designed camps to optimize the approach, they settled on Zyklon-B, a form of prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide) in pellet form, which worked twice as fast.
And so both of the “prototype” plants were shut down after relatively short runs in service; about 152,000 Jews, Poles and Gypsies died at Chelmno in the next two years.
We’ll have more on Treblinka later.
If the above seems banal – it’s intentional. The most jarring thing about reading about the Holocaust was its turning of modern industrial methods – the 1940′s equivalents of “Lean Six Sigma” and “Total Quality Management” – to the process of genocide, reducing it to a bean-counting, widget-producing exercise. Genocide – the planned destruction of an entire race of humanity – had always been a brutal, bloody thing.
Seventy years ago today, the effort to turn it into just another waterfall project got underway for real.