By Dr. Catherine Chatterley
Founding Director, CISA
Adjunct Professor of History, University of Manitoba
The Dachau concentration camp display entitled Names Instead of Numbers [currently in Winnipeg] is not a Holocaust exhibit. The victims of the Hitler regime were indeed diverse but the victims of the Holocaust were Jewish.
This is a fundamental distinction and one that requires further elaboration given recent press coverage (see links below). It should be mentioned that the German creators of the exhibit do not promote their display as a Holocaust exhibit but as an exhibit about National Socialism:
Three groups of people were slated for extermination under Nazism: the disabled of Germany from October 1939 throughout the war years with a brief cessation from August 1941-August 1942; the nine million Jews of Europe and of all future German occupied territories (we know today that Hitler promised to annihilate the Jews of the Islamic world as well); and the Romani people (better know by the pejorative term “Gypsy”), whom Himmler added to the already existing extermination campaign against the Jews in December 1942.
Antisemitism was the central motivating factor of Hitler’s racist policies and of his war of aggression against his neighbors. Hitler believed that communism was a Jewish conspiracy, which worked in tandem with other aspects of a larger “International Jewish Conspiracy” to rule the planet and to destroy Germany. His war of annihilation against Stalin was a war against the Jews and what he termed Judeo-Bolshevism. Under the umbrella of World War II, Hitler unleashed a massive racist engineering project upon Europe, in which the Slavic peoples would be reduced to a slave population to work vast tracts of the new Germania, where there would no longer be any Jews or Roma, and where “racially pure” German women would birth perfect “Aryan” soldiers for the Reich.
Before Hitler could unleash a continental war, however, he had to consolidate his power inside Germany. With this in mind, he focused on building his volksgemeinschaft (community of the people) and won enormous support from the German people for his dedication to their social welfare, re-employment, and national pride after the catastrophe of WWI. One of the first things Hitler did to consolidate his power was to create a system of prisons, or concentration camps, and Dachau was the first one to be opened in March 1933.
Dachau was a political prison camp that housed Germans who were arrested and sentenced by the regime for political crimes. The first prisoners were socialists, communists, and the odd monarchist, all of whom were anti-Nazi and about 10% also happened to be Jewish. In 1936, other political prisoners (clergy and Jehovah’s Witnesses) and non-political prisoners (Roma, gay men, vagrants, prostitutes, habitual criminals) were incarcerated in Dachau. Thirty-six thousand Jews were arrested on November 9-10, 1938 during Kristallnacht and 11,000 of them were sent to Dachau, most of whom were released after signing declarations that they would leave Germany. Once the decision was made to exterminate Europe’s Jews, the Jewish prisoners in Dachau and other concentration camps were deported to their deaths in the East. Jewish POWs from Eastern Europe were placed into Dachau and its subsidiary slave labor camps during 1944, and made up about 30% of its inhabitants when the American army liberated the camp on April 29, 1945. Dachau held 206,206 prisoners in its twelve-year existence and 31,591 prisoner deaths were registered. Mass shootings, medical experimentation, and slave labor were features of this particular Nazi camp.
Hitler’s anti-Jewish policies were unleashed within days of his appointment as Chancellor. His tactics evolved over time, beginning with social isolation and enforced emigration for German Jewry from 1933-1939. Once engaged in a war with Europe, and faced with millions of Jews under his control, Hitler planned for their removal, first to the far reaches of the eastern end of the Reich, then to the island of Madagascar. That plan was finally abandoned when he failed to cow the British into submission in September 1940. He forced the large Jewish populations of Eastern Europe into over 1,100 ghettos and sealed them from the outside world. With the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Hitler made the decision to exterminate European Jewry, and this process began immediately with the mobile killing units of the Einsatzgruppen, who followed the German army into Eastern Poland and the USSR.
After experimenting on Jews with a number of killing methods, the Germans settled on an industrialized assembly line process and built six death camps in Poland for the specific purpose of exterminating the Jews of Europe. The most lethal death camp was Auschwitz-Birkenau, which is the largest killing site in recorded history and is a historical novum. Never before or since has a state designed, built, and maintained factories for the deception, murder, gassing, and burning of (Jewish) babies, children, women, and men. Never before or since has the world seen the establishment of a small city of about 45 square kilometers (approximately 1/10th of the size of Winnipeg) surrounded by 45 satellite slave labor camps built for the dedicated purpose of annihilating an entire people. Never before or since has the world seen a human killing facility that at peak capacity (in May of 1944) was murdering 10,000 Jews every day. The clothing and belongings of these individuals were recycled and dispersed among the German population (the mountains of clothing, suitcases, razors, eyeglasses, brushes, children’s toys, prosthetic limbs), their hair was shaven and used to stuff German mattresses, their bones and ashes used as fertilizer. Then there are the Jews who were reserved for so-called medical experimentation, whose body parts were sent back to scientists in Germany.
Between May 1940 and February 1945, just over 1.1 million people were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau, one million of whom were European Jews. The remaining 100,000 include approximately 74,000 Poles; 21,000 Roma; 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war; and 10,000-15,000 members of other European nationalities (Soviet civilians, Czechs, Yugoslavs, French, Germans, and Austrians).
Deaths during the Nazi period for other groups mentioned are as follows: 1.9 million Polish civilians died under German occupation and racial policies; 1,400 Jehovah’s Witnesses died in the camps and 250 were executed by the military; the Nuremberg Trials puts the killings of German disabled people at 275,000; between 5,000-15,000 gay men; and 220,000 Roma.
Over 6.3 million Jews were murdered across Europe by the Nazi regime and its collaborators during WWII.
Ironically, in this case, numbers do tell the story.
With so many cultural and political pressures working today to erode, erase, and distort the very specific history and meaning of the Holocaust, we must re-dedicate ourselves to resisting these trends and to teaching Canadians the truth about the past.
Links to press coverage: