Himmler’s conflicting impulses to document and conceal were evident in his famous October 4, 1943, speech to high-ranking SS functionaries [Gruppenführer] in Posen. About two-thirds of the way into his speech (which lasted more than three hours), Himmler raised the subject of the Final Solution – something that the SS was never supposed to discuss publicly. Moreover, he went one step further and tape-recorded the speech. The recording survived the war.
Another incriminating document vanished for a time, but is now available to scholars. On October 11, 1943, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Heydrich’s successor as head of the Reich Security Main Office, sent a coded radio message with a pointed order to SS-Sturmbannführer Herbert Kappler, Commander of the Security Police and the Security Service (SD) in Rome. Kaltenbrunner ordered Kappler to carry out the deportation of Rome’s Jews, despite the political and logistical difficulties of which the latter had previously warned. The order survived because British intelligence intercepted and decoded it. This intercept, however, was only declassified in 2000. It was not used as evidence to prosecute Kaltenbrunner during the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. (He was nonetheless convicted and hanged.)
Nazi efforts to destroy the Jewish race in Europe led to countervailing Jewish efforts to record what was done to them. One of the most famous and most detailed accounts was compiled by two Slovak Jews, Alfred Wetzler and Rudolf Vrba, who escaped from Auschwitz-Birkenau on April 7, 1944. While hiding out in Hungary, they authored a lengthy report describing what they had witnessed during nearly two years of imprisonment. This report quickly reached American authorities in Switzerland in June 1944 and was made public, with some delay, by the American government agency known as the War Refugee Board (23). Although this document contains some factual errors, it represents an impressive feat of memory and testimony (24).
Numerous factors make it difficult to reconstruct how many people were murdered at Auschwitz: most Jews, for example, were sent to the gas chambers without having been assigned numbers, most corpses were burned in the crematoria, and most camp records were destroyed. Wetzler and Vrba’s estimate that approximately 1,765,000 Jews were killed at Birkenau, one of six major extermination camps, is now regarded by scholars as too high, but it was conservative compared with the figure of 2.5 million given by Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss (1900-1947) in postwar testimony.
The massacre of the Jews, the Roma, and numerous Soviet POWs at Auschwitz-Birkenau was only one dimension of SS policies in the Auschwitz complex. Scholars have recently shed light on Auschwitz’s role as an important source of slave labor for German corporations. They have also stressed the significance of SS efforts to create an outpost of German settlement on the edges of an expanded Reich (25). Auschwitz was to be a symbol of a brave, new German world. Instead, it has become a metaphor for technologically sophisticated evil.
(23) See David S. Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945 (New York: Pantheon, 1984), p. 289, p. 324.
(24) The copy of the report that was given to (and annotated by) the Office of Strategic Services in April 1945 is the one reproduced here.
(25) Peter Hayes, Industry and Ideology: IG Farben in the Nazi Era (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt, Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present (New York: Norton, 1997); Sybille Steinbacher, “Musterstadt” Auschwitz: Germanisierungspolitik und Judenmord in Ostoberschlesien (Munich: ADD, 2000).