Obersalzberg, Bavaria, Germany August 22, 1939

Adolf Hitler’s foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop was just about to affix his signa­ture to the German-Soviet Non­ag­gres­sion Pact (aka Molotov-Ribben­trop Pact) in Moscow, when, on this date, August 22, 1939, the Fuehrer sum­moned the com­manders of his various armed forces and other officers to the Berg­hof, his palatial Bava­rian retreat on the Ober­salz­berg overlooking Berchtes­gaden. There Hitler told his audi­ence that in the coming war with Germany’s eastern neighbor Poland—less than 10 days away—they would see things not to their liking. The war would be “hard and ruth­less,” he pro­phe­sied. “I have sent to the East . . . my ‘Death’s Head Units’ [SS-Toten­kopf­ver­baende, special Nazi Party SS Ein­satz­gruppen death squads] with the order to kill without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of the Polish race and language.”

Two battalions of Death’s Head Units were clan­destinely in place in the mostly German-speaking, semi-auto­nomous city-state of Danzig (present-day Gdańsk, Poland) before Septem­ber 1. (The Danzig enclave under League of Nations protec­tion and the so-called “Polish Corri­dor” were sepa­rated from the German main­land in the east (Pomerania; German, Pommern) following the Versailles Treaty that ended World War I.) Hitler wasn’t worried about inter­national reaction to his inva­sion and subju­ga­tion of Poland: “Who still talks now­a­days of the exter­mi­na­tion of the Arme­nians [1915–1923—ed.]?” Pre­viously he’d stated that “Sal­va­tion Army methods” didn’t win wars, and on other occa­sions he spoke about the bru­tal­ity that lay ahead of Germany as necessary “devil’s work.”

Hitler had planned for devil’s work all along. But the German “house-cleaning” of Polish Jews, intel­ligent­sia, busi­ness­men, clergy, and nobil­ity by SS Ein­satz­gruppen, chiefly using machine guns, sick­ened many German gene­rals as well as others in the Wehr­macht (German armed forces). As house-cleaning was extended east­wards to the Soviet Union in June 1941, when Hitler vio­lated the Soviet-German Non­ag­gres­sion pact by launching Opera­tion Bar­ba­rossa, the Fuehrer’s plan to exter­mi­nate the Soviet Union, Reichs­fuehrer-SS Hein­rich Himm­ler put into place a plan designed to buffer the killers from their victims. These were the infa­mous death camps that would even­tu­ally number over forty. Eight camps were reserved for mass murder and six were built in Nazi-occu­pied Poland, “hidden” from the German popu­lace (see map). During the reign of Nazi terror in Europe, six mil­lion Jews died—about forty per­cent of the world’s Jewish popu­la­tion—and pro­bably five mil­lion more people whom the Nazis deemed “unde­sir­able”: “incor­rigible law offenders,” poli­tical and ideo­logi­cal ene­mies, the physi­cally and men­tally dis­abled, homo­sexuals, Roma (Gypsies), and Jehovah’s Wit­nesses (who refused to swear oaths to Hitler or perform military service), among other classes of people in a long list.

“Death’s Head Units” and the Death Factories and Concen­tration Camps They Staffed: Focus on Mauthausen, Austria

Death’s Heads Units: Nazi death camps, concentration camps, and killing sites in Europe

Above: This map shows all extermination camps (Ver­nichtungs­lager) (bold red), as well as the major concen­tra­tion camps (Konzen­tra­tions­lager in German, or KZ), labor camps, prison camps, transit camps, and killing sites in Nazi-occupied Europe. Between 1941 and 1945 the Nazis established six killing centers in former Polish territory—Chełmno (Kulmhof in German), Bełżec, Sobibór, Treblinka, Auschwitz-Birkenau (part of the Auschwitz complex), and Majdanek. Chełmno and Auschwitz were established in Polish areas incorporated into the Third Reich in 1939. The SS-Toten­kopf­ver­baende, ren­dered in English as “Death’s Head Units,” staffed the camps. These mostly fervent, anti-Semitic “soldiers” of Hitler’s National Socialist (Nazi) Party helped facil­i­tate the “Final Solu­tion,” or Holo­caust (Hebrew, Shoah, or catas­trophe), in col­labo­ra­tion with the Reich Security Head [Main] Office (RSHA), an office within the Ministry of the Interior under Reichsfuehrer-SS Heinrich Himmler.

Death’s Heads Units: Himmler at Mauthausen, Austria, April 1941Death’s Heads Units: Prisoners await disinfection in Mauthausen camp

Left: SS Reich Leader Heinrich Himmler visiting Mauthausen con­cen­tra­tion camp, April 1941. Situated on the northern bank of the Danube in Upper Austria, the camp was near the city of Linz, where Hitler had spent most of his youth. The site was per­son­ally chosen by Himm­ler. The Maut­hausen camp opened on August 8, 1938, a few months after the Anschluss (union) of Austria and Germany on March 12, 1938. Even­tually Maut­hausen and the near­by Gusen camp together operated more than 101 camps, including 49 major sub­camps (Aussenlager), in Austria and Southern Germany. The only Category III camp in the German Reich, Maut­hausen-Gusen was reserved for “seriously com­pro­mised” inmates likely inca­pable of rein­te­gra­tion into the peo­ple’s com­mu­nity (Volks­gemein­shaft): Jews of course, Soviet POWs, com­munists, Roma (Gypsies), homo­sexuals, and other ene­mies of the state. The camp was noto­rious for the harshest living con­di­tions for prisoners and the highest mortality rates.

Right: New prisoners await disinfection in Maut­hausen’s garage yard, undated photo. Maut­hausen-Gusen rented inmates out to local busi­nesses as slave laborers, espe­cially as more and more Austrian males were drafted into the Wehr­macht. Alto­gether, 45 Ger­man and Austrian com­panies of varying sizes took part in making Maut­hausen-Gusen one of the most profit­able com­plexes in the vast gulag of Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camps. Roughly 85,000 inmates were rented out to gran­ite quarries, muni­tions fac­tories, mines, arms and vehicle fac­tories, and an under­ground Messer­schmitt Me 262 fighter jet assembly plant, among others.

Death’s Heads Units: Himmler at Mauthausen granite quarry, Austria 1942Death’s Heads Units: Mauthausen’s juvenile inmates exercise

Left: Himmler (right of center) visited Mauthausen-Gusen in 1942 and is shown in this photo visiting the gran­ite quarry. The gran­ite mined in the quarry had pre­viously been used to pave the streets of Vienna, but the Nazi autho­ri­ties envi­sioned a com­plete recon­struc­tion of major German towns in accor­dance with plans of Albert Speer and other archi­tects of Nazi archi­tec­ture, for which large quantities of granite were needed.

Right: Arbitrary terror, routine violence, and grueling phy­sical exer­cise were some of the methods of wearing down camp inmates. Here a group of young pri­soners (“deviant youths”) is forced to play leap­frog in Maut­hausen’s roll-call yard until they collapsed.

Death’s Heads Units: Soviet POWs in Mauthausen camp, AustriaDeath’s Heads Units: Mauthausen-Gusen survivors after liberation, June 1945

Left: SS “Death’s Head Units” provided guards for con­cen­tra­tion and death camps. They were known for their brutal and inhu­mane tactics, the result of their doc­trine of “no pity.” Even when camps were not dedi­cated death camps, they took a heavy toll on inmate lives (“exter­mi­nation through labor”). The Nazi camp system expanded greatly after the inva­sion of the Soviet Union in 1941, when large num­bers of Soviet sol­diers were cap­tured. This undated photo shows skele­tonized Soviet POWs (most pro­bably Soviet offi­cers) standing before a bar­racks in Maut­hausen. Most Soviet POWs were kept in huts sepa­rated from the rest of the camp and were a major part of the first groups to be exterminated in the newly built Mauthausen gas chamber in early 1942.

Right: Emaciated survivors of the Mauthausen-Gusen con­cen­tra­tion camp shortly after their liber­a­tion in June 1945. The esti­mated total death toll in the four main camps of Maut­hausen-Gusen ranges from 55,000 to 60,000. Inmate deaths in the subcamps may have reached 240,000.

Contemporary Scenes of Mauthausen Concentration Camp Shortly After Liberation

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