On this day in 1945, the Auschwitz-Birkenau
concentration camp in Poland was liberated by the Soviet Red Army. One of the most notorious camps of Nazi Germany, Jews and others persecuted by the Nazi regime were sent to Auschwitz from 1940 onwards. During its years in operation, over one million people died in Auschwitz, either from murder in the gas chambers or due to starvation and disease. As the war drew to a close and the Nazis steadily lost ground to the Allied forces, they began evacuating the camps and destroying evidence of the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed there. The
leader of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, ordered the evacuation of the
remaining prisoners at the camp as the Soviet Red Army closed in on the area.
Nearly 60,000 prisoners from Auschwitz were forced on a march toward
Wodzisław Śląski (Loslau) where they would be sent to other camps; some
20,000 ended up in the Bergen-Belsen camp in Germany. However, thousands
died during the evacuation on the grueling marches, leading to them
being called ‘death marches’. 7,500 weak and sick prisoners remained in
Auschwitz, and they were liberated by the 322nd Rifle Division of the
Soviet Red Army on January 27th 1945. Auschwitz remains one of the most
powerful symbols of the Holocaust and the horrific crimes committed by
the Nazi regime against Jews and numerous other groups.
During the Einsatzgruppen trial in Nuremberg, most of the 24 defendants, which dropped to 22, due to the death of one and suicide of another, denied culpability for murder by claiming they weren’t present for the executions to flat out saying it was the first time they heard Jews were killed, but one man provided an unflinchingly honest testimony that lead prosecutor, Benjmain Ferencz, said was the “best explanation for the justification for what they did.” Forty-year-old Otto Ohlendorf was the commander of Einsatzgruppe D from June 1941 until Reinhard Heydrich’s death a year later. Einsatzgruppe D operated in the southern Ukraine following the 11th Army, and the reports indicate the group was responsible for the execution of 90,000 people, though Ohlendorf stated those numbers were likely exaggerated. He testified that when he first received the liquidation order “that in addition to our general task the Security Police and SD, the Einsatzgruppen and Einsatzkommandos had the mission to protect the rear of the troops by killing the Jews, gypsies, Communist functionaries, active Communists, and all persons who would endanger the security,” he protested it: “I pointed out that these were missions which couldn’t possibly be accomplished. It is impossible to ask people to carry out such executions.” However, his concerns lied with the impact it would have on his men, and he responded to the follow-up question of why with: “Well, I believe there is no doubt that there is nothing worse for people spiritually than to have to shoot defenseless populations.” Prosecutor James Heath countered, “If I may be a little facetious in a grim matter, there is nothing worse than to be shot either, when you are defenseless?“ but Ohlendorf remained unfazed in his reply: “Since this is meant ironically by you, I can imagine worse things, for example, to starve.”
Ohlendorf was repeatedly questioned about the necessity of such an order, and he offered the following explanation: “I was under military coercion and carried it out under military coercion knowing that it was given in a state of emergency, and the measures were ordered as emergency measures in self-defense.” Heinrich Himmler tackled its extension to women and children in a 1943 speech: “Then the question arose, what about the women and children? I decided to find a perfectly clear-cut solution to this too. For I did not feel justified in exterminating the men -that is, to kill them or have them killed- while allowing the avengers, in the form of their children, to grow up in the midst of our sons and grandsons.” Ohlendorf’s response mirrored his when the prosecution asked him what threat women and children posed to the security of Germany: “I believe that it is very simple to explain if one starts from the fact this order did not only try to achieve a security but also a permanent security because for that reason the children were people who would grow up and surely being the children of parents who had been killed they would constitute a danger no smaller than that of their parents.” An earlier piece of testimony expanded on his conviction:
“I have had no cause, and I still have no cause today to think that
any other goal was aimed at than the goal of any war, namely, an
immediate and permanent security of our own realm against that realm
with which the belligerent conflict is taking place.”
Ohlendorf maintained a strict militaristic manner throughout his cross-examination, refusing to view the extermination order through a personal moral lens, which prompted the prosecution to ask if he surrendered his moral conscience to Adolf Hitler. He replied, “No. But I surrendered my moral conscience to the fact that I was a soldier and therefore a wheel in a low position, relatively of great machinery; and what I did there is the same as is done in any other army, and I am convinced that in spite of facts and comparison which I do not want to mention again, the persons receiving the orders - and all armies are in the same position - until today, until this very day.”
Otto Ohlendorf’s role as one of Hitler’s subordinate pawns earned him the death sentence, and he was executed by hanging on June 7, 1951.
The Reichstag fire was an arson attack on the Reichstag building (German parliament) in Berlin on February 27, 1933. The Nazis stated that Marinus van der Lubbe, a young Dutch council communist, had been caught at the scene of the fire, and he was arrested for the crime. Van der Lubbe was an unemployed bricklayer who had recently arrived in Germany. The Nazis stated that van der Lubbe had declared that he had started the fire. Van der Lubbe was tried and sentenced to death. The fire was used as evidence by the Nazi Party that communists were plotting against the German government. The event is seen as pivotal in the establishment of Nazi Germany.
Adolf Hitler, who had been sworn in as Chancellor of Germany on January 30, urged President Paul von Hindenburg (President of the Weimar Republic) to pass an emergency decree, the Reichstag Fire Decree, to suspend civil liberties in order to counter the ruthless confrontation of the Communist Party of Germany; under the decree, most civil liberties in Germany, including habeas corpus, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, the right of free association and public assembly, and the secrecy of the post and telephone were suspended and were never again renewed under the Nazi regime.
After passing the decree, the government instituted mass arrests of communists, including all of the Communist Party parliamentary delegates. With their bitter rival communists gone and their seats empty, the Nazi Party went from being a plurality party to the majority, thus enabling Hitler to consolidate his power through the passage of the Enabling Act, a special law that gave the Chancellor the power to pass laws by decree, without the involvement of the Reichstag; the Nazis devised the Enabling Act to gain complete political power without the need of the support of a majority in the Reichstag and without the need to bargain with their coalition partners.
The measure went into force on March 27, 1933, and, in effect, made Hitler dictator of Germany. [x]
SS-Untersturmführer Werner Wolff photographed with the Knight’s Cross in 1943. Wolff, the battle-tested adjutant to Joachim Peiper (III./SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 2 “LAH"), took over a leaderless company, following the wounding of its commander, and stopped a massive enemy tank attack in which thirty Soviet tanks were destroyed in close combat during Operation Zitadelle in July 1943. Wolff destroyed one tank with hand held explosives and refused to give ground to the Soviet attack. For this he was decorated with the Knight’s Cross on 7 August 1943. Wolff fell in March 1945 near Inota, Hungary, as commander of the 7./SS-Panzer-Regiment 1 “LAH".
A picture of Freddie Oversteegen, a Dutch girl who was the unsuspecting killer of dozens of Nazis. Along with her friend Hannie and her sister Truus, the girls worked with a team from the Dutch Resistance to lure men into the woods for a promised kiss. Once they reached a remote location, the men got a bullet to the head instead.