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Aktion Reinhard and Historical Perspective

Last Update 10 April 2006

By 1945, as outlined in other pages of this website, the Allies had comprehensive knowledge of the murder of the Jews of Europe by the Nazis and their accomplices. What was their response to be in the post-war world? There was a moral imperative that justice be done and be seen to be done, that there be some kind of reckoning for the countless crimes that had been committed. Initially, the parties were unanimous in their views. The Soviet attitude was expressed in a toast proposed by Stalin:
To the quickest possible justice for all German war criminals…I drink to the justice of the firing squad.

At the most, the criminals should be granted some kind of drumhead court martial before being shot, but the it was considered that the guilt of Hitler and his cohorts did not requiring proving in a court of law.

Led by the United States, this view gradually changed. Many of those who had represented the leadership of Nazi Germany – Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, Bormann, et al - were already dead or missing. Increasingly it was realised that some due process was necessary for those who remained. Moreover, a large scale trial presented the opportunity to begin the supposed process of re-education of the German nation, as well as creating a permanent record for posterity. Once the decision had eventually been taken to conduct a trial, the magnitude of the problems involved became apparent. Where was the trial to take place? Who were to be the accused, and of what crimes? In the absence of any competent German legal authority, who was to preside over the trial? The answer to the last question was determined at a conference held in London in August 1945. An International Military Tribunal (IMT), consisting of representatives from the U.S.A., Britain, the Soviet Union, and France, and supported by the agreement of nineteen other nations, would form the court. A reconciliation between the different approaches of the American and British judicial systems as compared to the French and Russian was largely achieved by the Charter attached to the London Agreement.

The choice of venue was relatively simple. The Russians had suggested that the trial be held in Berlin, and in fact the opening session of the Tribunal was held there on 18 October 1945, but Nürnberg was seen as a more attractive option. It was situated in the American zone of occupation, thus ensuring better accommodation, logistical support and, not least, rations. More importantly, although damaged, the Palace of Justice in Nürnberg was the only building of its size still standing in Germany capable of offering adequate facilities. The symbolic importance of the city as the home of the Nazi Party Rallies and the notorious "Nürnberg Laws" of 1935 was incidental.

The answer to the question of who the accused were to be was to a great extent resolved by a combination of availability and notoriety. The British were in favour of selecting a few obvious candidates and trying them quickly. The Americans, however, had something much grander in mind, and it was the American impetus which was to drive the trial forward. Ultimately, it was decided to choose individuals who were considered representative of the various elements of the Nazi hierarchy – Göring and Hess for the Government and Nazi Party, Ribbentrop for the Foreign Office, Kaltenbrunner for the RSHA, Funk and Schacht for the economy, Keitel and Jodl for the army, Raeder and Doenitz for the navy, and so on. These were the “first rank” criminals. The charges against the accused would be under a combination of any or all of four headings: (1) the common plan or conspiracy; (2) crimes against peace; (3) war crimes; and (4) crimes against humanity. Of these, by far the most difficult to prove was the first, which had only been implied in the original Charter. Indeed, had the indictments related solely to the other three charges, there was overwhelming evidence of guilt on behalf of most of the defendants.

The decision to indict all of the accused of participating in a conspiracy stemmed largely from American experience of anti-trust and organized crime cases and was a view literally quite foreign to continental law. It became the main thrust of the American prosecution strategy on the basis that all of the other charges flowed from the alleged conspiracy. The influence of this kind of thinking can be seen in the modern American “Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act” (RICO), which provides for extensive penalties for criminal acts performed as part of an ongoing criminal organization. Since it was agreed that all of the Nazi organizations were criminal, it appeared that guilt on the first count would of itself confirm guilt on the other charges. How unsuccessful this reasoning was can be seen from the verdicts of the judges at the IMT. Although all 22 defendants were indicted under the conspiracy charge, only 8 of them were found guilty of it, a fact all the more extraordinary when compared to the total number of guilty verdicts (44) returned in respect of all other charges levelled against the defendants (52).

Robert Jackson
Of even greater importance to the post-war perception of Nazi crimes was the manner in which evidence was to be presented. The chief American prosecutor, Robert Jackson, had determined that this would be primarily based on documents, with a minimum of witness evidence, even though there was an abundance of the latter available. Furthermore, the Nazi extermination of the Jews was, if anything, to be played down at the IMT and subsequent trials conducted by the individual occupying powers. There was concern that the persecution and murder of the Jews should not become the central issue of the trials. Although evidence concerning the consequences of the Nazi’s extreme anti-Semitism could hardly be avoided, there was no attempt to recognize the pre-eminent nature of the Jewish fate. Thus the defendants in the British “Zyklon B Case” (Bruno Tesch, Joachim Drösihn, and Karl Weinbacher) in March 1946 were accused “in violation of the laws and usages of war” of supplying “poison gas used for the extermination of allied nationals interned in concentration camps.” No mention was made in the indictment that the overwhelming majority of those murdered were Jews. Nobody spoke for the Jews as a specific victim group, least of all the Jews themselves, for there were to be few Jewish witnesses allowed to provide evidence at the trials. In part this derived from a suspicion that such testimony would be over-dramatized and unreliable, but there can also be little doubt that the inability to grasp the true nature of the tragedy that had overwhelmed the Jewish people, an inability so evident in wartime, still existed, as well as more than a trace of the anti-Semitism that had been so prevalent in wartime political and diplomatic circles.

The case for the prosecution under the four counts of the IMT indictment was allocated to the lawyers of individual nations. The Americans dealt with the conspiracy charge, the British handled crimes against peace, and the French and Russians divided war crimes and crimes against humanity between them. The choice of which actions were to be used to illustrate the nature of the crimes committed were left to whichever nation was responsible for prosecuting the area of responsibility allocated to it. Prominence was given to what were considered “representative” illustrations of Nazi crimes. Furthermore, since the primary thrust of the prosecution case was to accentuate the conspiracy charge, the emphasis was on the perpetrator’s person over the perpetrated event. In other words, the perpetrators became the focus, rather than the actions for which they were responsible and the consequences of those actions.

Neither the French nor the Russians made adequate enquiries into the manner in which the exterminatory policy had been managed, and showed little understanding of the subject. Although the French produced Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier as a witness to testify about conditions at Auschwitz, they chose to make no mention of the Parisian transit camp of Drancy. Almost completely absent from the French and Russian evidence for the prosecution was any mention of Jews. This was no accident. In presenting their case, the Russians omitted to mention that the victims of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Chelmno were primarily Jewish. A single witness was introduced by the Soviets to provide evidence about Auschwitz, Seweryna Szmaglewska. She was not Jewish. There was an underlying flaw in the presentation of evidence before the IMT, in that the victims were not given the stage. As a consequence, few non-German and no Jewish names, faces, or stories entered public consciousness.

Nürnberg Tribunal
Nürnberg Tribunal
Awareness of Nazi crimes was coloured by the experiences of each nation. Thus to the Americans and the British, those concentration camps liberated by them in Western Europe, Dachau, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, and the like, were seen as typical. There was little conception of the distinction between the concentration camps, primarily intended to house political opponents of the regime, at least until near the war’s end, and the extermination camps of Poland. The President of the Tribunal, Sir Geoffrey Lawrence, commented on the evidence of Mme Vaillant-Couturier:
The details of the witness’ evidence as to Ravensbrück seem to be very much like, if not the same as at Auschwitz..
He asked whether it would be possible “to deal with matters more generally, unless there (was) some substantial difference between Ravensbrück and Auschwitz.” There was an assumption that all camps were concentration camps, and that all concentration camps were the same. Even more important was the emphasis paid in American and British media to the notion that the Allies’ principal war aim was the defeat of Nazism. Mention of the extermination of the Jews was made only rarely; reports by BBC correspondents from various captured concentration camps in spring 1945 mentioned Jews incidentally, if at all. The significance of Jews as being the predominant victims of the continent-wide genocide was either ignored or simply misunderstood.

This fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the Shoah is best illustrated by the treatment of evidence concerning Aktion Reinhard by the IMT. This was in part dictated by the thorough Nazi destruction of both documentary and physical evidence concerning Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Chelmno, and the tiny number of survivors of these camps compared to the significantly greater number of survivors of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the “normal” concentration camps.
The preference for documentary evidence rather than what were seen as untrustworthy and possibly exaggerated eye-witness accounts also undoubtedly precluded those few who had survived from testifying. Little was known of Aktion Reinhard before the trial, and the connection between it and the murder of predominately Polish Jews was not made. Moreover, the Aktion was perceived as primarily a matter of economic exploitation, which the surviving documentation seemed to suggest. Importantly, this misunderstanding was perpetuated in the subsequent trial of Oswald Pohl as well as by the first historians to attempt a comprehensive account of the “Final Solution.” This misrepresentation has continued to prove fertile ground for contemporary “revisionist historians”, pursuing their own prejudiced and distorted view of the evidence, for it enables them to insinuate that murder was only a by-product of Aktion Reinhard, rather than its motivator.

There was also another factor involved – the tendency to discount evidence emanating from what had become the Soviet bloc, always regarded with suspicion. In the latter half of 1945, a Polish war crimes report discussing the role of the Einsatzgruppen in the annihilation of the Jews concluded that “one of these groups, the Reinhard group famous for its crimes, dealt with the province(s) of Warsaw, Lublin, Krakow, and Lviv in the Generalgouvernement.” Yet in the proceedings of the IMT, only two documentary sources were used which referred to Aktion Reinhard by name. One was the so-called “Katzmann Report”. The other was the correspondence which passed between Himmler and Globocnik on the winding-up of the Aktion (see The Economics of Aktion Reinhard). Even within these documents there were sufficient clues as to the true nature of Aktion Reinhard. But they were simply overlooked. The misconception concerning the real meaning of Aktion Reinhard was compounded in the subsequent WVHA trial at Nürnberg. The WVHA (Wirtschaftsverwaltungshauptamt) had had no jurisdiction at all over Belzec, Sobibor or Treblinka.
As this limited participation in the annihilation of the Jews became more apparent, it was in the interest of the prosecution to accentuate the economic aspects of the Aktion in order to obtain the conviction of the defendants. Members of the WVHA involved in the spoliation were known as “Special Staff Reinhard”, and the abbreviation “Reinh” appeared in documents pertaining to the theft. In addition, the SS could call on the money stolen from the Jews to support their enterprises; these funds were known as “Reinhardfunds.” This definition of Aktion Reinhard as an economic matter came to be widely accepted. At the later RuSHA (SS Rasse- und Siedlungshauptamt) trial it was described as the “administrative task of collecting and distributing the property confiscated from murdered and enslaved Jews". But although looting was unquestionably an important element of the operation, it was always secondary to the objective of extermination.

Kurt Gerstein
It was not because of a lack of creditable expert German testimony that Aktion Reinhard was not fully examined by the IMT. There were three important potential sources: the evidence of Rudolf Höss, the former commandant of Auschwitz, that of SS judge Konrad Morgen, and the report of Kurt Gerstein, head of the Technical Disinfection Services of the SS. Höss had been extensively interrogated by the Allies, and his cross-examination by the prosecution was restricted to simply confirmation or retraction of statements contained in an affidavit which he had supplied. Regarding Aktion Reinhard, Höss’ evidence was limited to the following:
I visited Treblinka to find out how they carried out their exterminations. The camp commandant at Treblinka told me that he had liquidated 80,000 in the course of one-half year. He was principally concerned with liquidating all the Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto. He used monoxide gas, and I did not think that his methods were very efficient. So when I set up the extermination building at Auschwitz, I used Zyklon B, which was a crystallized prussic acid which we dropped into the death chamber from a small opening… Another improvement we made over Treblinka was that we built our gas chamber to accommodate 2,000 people at one time whereas at Treblinka their 10 gas chambers only accommodated 200 people each… Still another improvement we made over Treblinka was that at Treblinka the victims almost always knew that they were to be exterminated and at Auschwitz we endeavoured to fool the victims into thinking that they were to go through a delousing process.

Morgen had investigated corruption in the SS administration of the camps, in the course of which he had interviewed Christian Wirth. Morgen testified:
Wirth built up an enormous deceptive manoeuvre. He first selected Jews who would, he thought, serve as column leaders, then these Jews brought along other Jews, who worked under them. With those smaller or medium-sized detachments of Jews, he began to build up the extermination camps. He extended this staff, and with them, Wirth himself carried out the extermination. Wirth said that he had four extermination camps, and that about 5,000 Jews were working at the extermination of Jews and the seizure of Jewish property… Then I asked Wirth how he killed Jews with these Jewish agents of his. Wirth described the whole procedure that went off like a film every time. The extermination camps were in the East of the Generalgouvernement, in big forests or uninhabited waste lands. They were built up like a “Potemkin village”. The people arriving there had the impression of entering a city or a township. The train drove into what looked like a railroad station. The escorts and the train personnel then left the area. Then the cars were opened and the Jews got out. They were surrounded by these Jewish labour detachments, and Kriminalkommissar Wirth or one of his representatives made a speech. He said: 'Jews, you were brought here to be resettled, but before we organize this future Jewish State, you must of course learn how to work. You must learn a new occupation. You will be taught that here. Our routine here is, first, everyone must take off his clothes so that your clothing can be disinfected and you can have a bath so that no epidemics will be brought into the camp.'
After he had found such calming words for his victims, they started on the road to death. Men and women were separated. At the first place, one had to give his hat; at the next one, his coat, collar, shirt, down to his shoes and socks. These places were set up like check-rooms, and the person was given a check at each one so that the people believed that they would get their things back. The other Jews had to receive the things and hurry up the new arrivals so that they would not have time to think. The whole thing was like an assembly line. At the last stop they reached a big room, and were told that this was the bath. When the last one was in, the doors were shut and the gas was let into the room… When Wirth took over the extermination of the Jews, he was already a specialist in mass destruction of human beings. He had previously carried out the task of getting rid of the incurably insane. On behalf of the Führer himself, whose order was transmitted through the Chancellery of the Führer, he had, at the beginning of the war, set up a detachment for this purpose, probably composed of a few officials of his, I believe, the remainder being agents and spies of the criminal police.
Wirth very vividly described how he went about carrying out this assignment. He received no aid, no instructions, but had to do it all by himself. He was only given an old, empty institution in Brandenburg. There he undertook his first experiments. After much consideration and many individual experiments, he evolved his later system, and then this system was used on a large scale to exterminate the insane… This system which deceived the institutions and made them unknowing accomplices, this system which enabled him with very few assistants to exterminate large numbers of people, this system Wirth now employed with a few alterations and improvements for the extermination of Jews. He was also given the assignment by the Führer's Chancellery to exterminate the Jews.
At first Wirth's description seemed completely fantastic to me, but in Lublin I saw one of his camps. It was a camp which collected the property or part of the property of his victims. From the quantity - there were an enormous number of watches piled up - I had to realize that something frightful was going on here. I was shown the valuables. I can say that I never saw so much money at one time, especially foreign money - all kinds of coins, from all over the world. In addition, there were a gold-smelting furnace and really prodigious bars of gold. I also saw that the headquarters from which Wirth directed his operations was very small and inconspicuous. He had only three or four people working there for him. I spoke to them too. I saw and watched his couriers arrive. They actually came from Berlin, Tiergartenstraße, the Führer's Chancellery, and went back there. I investigated Wirth's mail, and I found in it confirmation of all this…
I have already mentioned that Wirth was Kriminalkommissar with the Criminal Police in Stuttgart. He was the Kommissar who investigated capital crimes, particularly murder. He had quite a reputation in following up clues, and before the seizure of power he was known to the general public for unscrupulous methods of investigation which even led to a discussion in the Württemberg Landtag (Diet). This man was now used in order to cover up the traces of these mass killings. It was thought that, on the basis of his previous professional experience, this man was unscrupulous enough to carry this out, and that was true.

Subsequent investigation has proved the accuracy of the great majority of Morgen’s testimony.
By the time of the IMT trial, Gerstein had died in mysterious circumstances in a French prison cell. However, before his death he had written a comprehensive report of a visit he had made to Belzec and Treblinka in August 1942. The visit arose out of research into the possibilities of using Zyklon B as the gassing agent, rather than exhaust fumes. The report was accurate in every respect, save for those details that Gerstein could only surmise, such as his over-estimate of the number of victims. Yet this vital document was not even brought to the attention of the judges at the IMT trial, although both the American and the French prosecutors were aware of it. It has been suggested that the report was dismissed as “gross exaggeration, if not entirely the fabrication of a sick mind". If this is true, it is but one example among many of the cynical Nazi view that few would be capable of believing the nature and enormity of their crimes.

Although the war crimes trials created an initial impact, the public rapidly tired of them. John Wheeler-Bennett, who was one of those responsible for the prosecution of the German generals and diplomats considered that by 1948the British people were bored to death with war crimes trials.
The Spectator journal commented on 2 September 1948: “Public opinion would welcome the end of the business cordially.”
Even Winston Churchill asserted in a House of Commons debate in October 1948 that “the time has come to stop these denazification trials” unless they involved crimes against Allied prisoners. In Washington earlier that year, the secretary of the Army was eager to see the ending of the trials because they were hampering the objective of building a strong Germany as a bulwark against westward Soviet expansion.

With the creation of the Federal Republic of Germany (BRD) responsibility for pursuing Nazi criminals in the zones occupied by the three western allies passed in their entirety to the jurisdiction of the courts of the Federal Republic in 1950. It was a burden the governments of the United States, Great Britain and France were only too eager to pass on. Until that time the crimes dealt with by the judicial system of the BRD had dealt mainly with relatively minor transgressions. Moreover, courts in both the BRD and the German Democratic Republic (DDR) had been empowered by the allies to try only those Nazi crimes that had been committed by Germans against Germans, or against stateless persons. Thus the great majority of Nazi crimes committed against nationals of other countries were excluded from the jurisdiction of German courts prior to 1950.

There was as little enthusiasm in the BRD in the early 1950’s to bring Nazi criminals to justice as there had been among the allied administrations it succeeded. This was understandable, if an abnegation of the high moral principles previously proclaimed by the allies. Throughout Europe countries lay in ruins; people’s lives had been shattered by war and the suffering and hardships it had brought. In the BRD the Wirtschaftswunder, the “Economic Miracle” was underway. Pursuing Nazi criminals was unpopular, and not just in Germany. In the age of Cold War and potential nuclear Armageddon there were many other worries to concern the populace. There were comparatively few cases conducted in the courts of the BRD over the next several years, and there was no attempt to institute a systematic and comprehensive investigation and prosecution of all crimes committed by the Nazi regime, particularly those against Jews, Gypsies and political opponents.

This changed in autumn 1958 with the establishment of the Zentrale Stelle der Landesjustizverwaltungen (Central Office of the Judicial Administrations of the Länder for Investigation of Nazi Crimes – LZL) in Ludwigsburg. In the first year of its existence, the LZL instituted 400 extensive investigations. By the summer of 1986 the efforts of the LZL had led to the commencement of 4,853 official criminal trials. However, in the majority of cases convictions were not obtained. In large part this was due to the nature of the legal principles developed by the judicial system of the BRD. An accused could not be convicted on the basis of membership of a unit or organisation that had taken part in a crime. To be convicted, actual participation in a criminal act had to be proved. In cases that did result in a conviction, but in which the accused had not acted on their own initiative and had simply followed the orders of their superiors (a defence not admitted by the IMT or successor allied tribunals), the courts as a rule concluded that the accused had been accessories to the crime and not actual perpetrators. The requirement to prove the “base motive” of a killer in order that his action be declared outright murder, even though he may have actually fired the fatal bullet, resulted in what many consider judgements of extraordinary leniency on behalf of the courts. Indeed, it has been commented that the majority of those convicted were given the sort of punishments meted out to “second rate cheque forgers”.

There were important trials conducted in the BRD in the 1960’s. In particular, the “Auschwitz Trial” at Frankfurt am Main between 23 December 1963 and 19 August 1965 was the subject of international media coverage. In contrast, the “Belzec Trial” in München lasted only three days, from 18-21 January 1965, an example of the relative prominence given to the two extermination centres. In Düsseldorf, the “Treblinka Trial” ran from 12 October 1964 - 24 August 1965. The “Sobibor Trial” occupied the Hagen court between 6 September 1965 and 20 December 1966.
The numbers tried in the proceedings relating to Aktion Reinhard were modest: 10 in Düsseldorf, 12 in Hagen. The sole defendant in the “Belzec Trial” was Josef Oberhauser, who received a sentence of four and a half year’s imprisonment for his contribution towards that camp’s murderous activities. Of the defendants in the “Treblinka Trial”, four were sentenced to life imprisonment, five were sentenced to between 3-12 years imprisonment and one was acquitted. One defendant at the “Sobibor Trial” committed suicide whilst in custody, one received a sentence of life imprisonment and five others to prison terms of between 3–8 years. The remaining five defendants were acquitted.

It is interesting that all of these major trials occurred within a relatively short period of time. It is also arguable that the impetus for them was derived from the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel in 1961, an event described by David Ben-Gurion as the “Nürnberg of the Jewish people”. It had been the trial of Eichmann that had given widespread prominence to Aktion Reinhard, a prominence denied by earlier courts, although Eichmann’s actual involvement in the Aktion had been peripheral.

To date (2005) no reliable overview exists of the criminal proceedings involving Nazi crimes as conducted by the judiciary in the former Soviet Occupational Zone and - as of 1949 - in the former DDR. What is certain is that, as with the position in the BRD prior to the establishment of the LZL, no systematic attempt was made to prosecute such crimes. Still less can be determined regarding trials in the former Soviet Union and other eastern European countries. Some trials of Ukrainians who had served in the Aktion Reinhard camps were held and some death sentences passed. But the majority of perpetrators were never brought to trial in the courts of any nation.

Particular mention should be made of Austria, which in the post-war world carefully nurtured the idea that it had been the first victim of German aggression and therefore bore no responsibility for the crimes of the Nazi era. Austrians represented a disproportionately large number of Aktion Reinhard perpetrators - Odilo Globocnik, Hermann Höfle, Franz Stangl, and Ernst Lerch, to name only a few. Around 70 percent of Adolf Eichmann's staff were Austrians. Yet the Austrian approach towards its Nazi past has often been characterized by terms such as "Tabuisieren - Verdrängen - Vergessen" - that is: "making into a taboo", "suppressing", and "forgetting". Given this background, Austria’s poor record in the matter of Nazi war crimes trials is hardly surprising. No such trials have been held in Austria since 1975. Successive Austrian governments were notably reluctant to acknowledge their country’s historical responsibilities.
Not until 1961 were Jews recognized as victims, and then only if they had remained hidden in Austria during the war under “inhumane” circumstances. It was only in 1969 that Jewish refugees were recognized as victims, and only in 1991 that the Austrian federal chancellor Franz Vranitzky assumed responsibility for "the harm which Austrian citizens had done to other human beings and peoples". He went on:
We must also not forget that there were not a few Austrians who in the name of (the Third Reich) brought great suffering to others, who took part in persecutions and crimes of this Reich… (some of whom) were in prominent positions. Our citizens cannot distance themselves even today from a moral responsibility for these deeds.
Subsequently the parliament established the so-called “Austrian National Fund” in order to help those victims who had been neglected by restitution and compensation measures during the last decades.

If the approach of courts sitting in judgment materially influenced ensuing perceptions of the Holocaust, of equal importance was its historiography. In contrast to the last three decades, there were few meaningful books published on the Shoah in the immediate post-war years. Those authors who attempted to do so were reliant to a great extent on the documentation produced before the IMT and at subsequent trials. What should have been the primary source, the memoirs of survivors, were few in number. This was to be expected.
Most survivors had no wish to either describe in person or to recreate in print the nightmare they had lived through, and they found a world reluctant to listen when they did. There were, of course, exceptions. Anne Frank’s diary and the writings of Primo Levi, and Elie Wiesel became among the most significant works of 20th Century literature. But none of these distinguished authors were typical of the great majority of victims of the Shoah, 50% of whom were Yiddish speaking Polish Jews murdered in, or in close proximity, to the towns and shtetls in which they had lived. Perhaps a further 25% of the victims had resided in what was at that time the Soviet Union. This is not to contrast degrees of suffering, or indeed to make odious comparisons, for all were equal in their anguish. Rather, it is to state the obvious - that the experience of Jews incarcerated in ghettos or labour camps, starving, disease-ridden, forced to work in intolerable conditions, subject to execution on a completely random basis even before a final selection, could not be likened to the ordeal of Anne Frank in Holland, Primo Levi in Italy or Elie Wiesel in Romania / Hungary, harrowing though the tribulations of these individuals were. But it was the experiences of these atypical authors which were to shape many people’s understanding of the Holocaust.

Nor should the influence of cinema and television in perpetuating this perception of the Shoah be overlooked. It has been suggested that the single greatest impact on global awareness of Nazi genocide was the television screening of the American mini-series “Holocaust” in 1979. As with the diary of Anne Frank, and films such as “Schindler’s List” and “The Pianist”, the ability to identify with the victims was a fundamental requirement in attracting popular interest. To the extent that these films and programmes stimulated interest in the subject of the Holocaust they were to be commended. However, the picture they presented was far from complete.

Central to Holocaust awareness was the focal point of Auschwitz-Birkenau, which was to become the totemic symbol of the Shoah. There were several reasons for this. The Auschwitz camps had been captured in a relatively intact state. As has been already mentioned, there were many more survivors of the Auschwitz complex than of the Aktion Reinhard camps, and thus a much greater volume of eventual eye-witness testimony. Another legacy of the IMT was the evidence of Rudolf Höss, the former commandant of Auschwitz, who based upon information that he stated was supplied by Adolf Eichmann, initially claimed an inflated figure of 2.5 million people gassed under his stewardship, with a further 500,000 dying from starvation and disease. This figure was exaggerated even further at various Allied trials to 4 million and even 7 million victims. The effect these figures had on public consciousness in the wake of the horrific images of the liberated camps of western and central Europe can be imagined. Last, but by no means least, unlike most of the camps in eastern Poland, Auschwitz was in a populous area, easily accessible by road, rail and air by an increasingly curious international public. As a consequence of these factors, to many Auschwitz is not just as an essential component of the Holocaust - it is the Holocaust. As the Israeli ambassador to Poland, David Peleg, has suggested "The focus on Auschwitz has diverted public attention from other death camps." The prominence afforded to Auschwitz has, to a considerable extent, been at the expense of those other camps, the importance of which has, until recently, gone largely unrecognized. At the Treblinka death camp there is not even a public bathroom, still less a museum. An impressive memorial was established there at the beginning of the 1960’s, but since then nothing has been done. If there is a small museum at Sobibor, it is quite inadequate for the purpose of commemorating that camp’s probable 250,000 victims.

Most recent research places the total number of those killed at Auschwitz at approximately 1,100,000, of whom more than 90% were Jews, figures corroborated by Höss’ remarkably accurate subsequent estimates. While this probably makes Auschwitz statistically the largest camp complex, both physically and in terms of the number of victims, the combined fatalities of the three Aktion Reinhard camps were significantly greater than those of Auschwitz. Overall, the numbers shot by the Einsatzgruppen, Police Battalions, Wehrmacht and Auxiliaries at least matched the figure for Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka.
It is unlikely to ever be able to arrive at an estimate of those who died of privation in the ghettos and labour camps, but they clearly numbered many hundreds of thousands. This should not be viewed as simply a matter of unsavoury statistics. Acknowledging the relative significance of these disparate elements is fundamental to an understanding of the Shoah.

This weighted interpretation has continued to the present day. In January 2005, quite rightly, there was global coverage by the world’s media of the events surrounding the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. In Britain, prominence was given in April 2005 to the similar commemoration of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, even though that camp was of comparatively little consequence to the Holocaust until the final days of WW2, and whose victims were almost all the result of starvation and disease rather than premeditated execution. Yet few countries outside of Poland acknowledged the remembrance of the liberation of Majdanek six months earlier. It was only in November 2004, on the anniversary of the Aktion Erntefest, that a commemorative event was held for the first time at Poniatowa, a camp which has scarcely received attention in the West. Although concentration camps such as Dachau, Buchenwald, Mauthausen, and many others in western Europe house important museums and memorials, until recently the only camps in Poland to be home to similar meaningful institutions were Auschwitz, and Majdanek.
It has taken the opening of the Memorial and Museum at Belzec in June 2004 to provide the first steps in rectifying this anomaly. Even now there are no tangible plans for similar structures at Sobibor, and Treblinka, still less at other camps and execution sites of enormous importance. At places like the Flugplatz-Lager (Airfield Camp) in Lublin, and at Poniatowa, the buildings are in an advanced state of decay. Within a short space of time they will disappear. Many of the places connected with Aktion Reinhard do not even bear a basic memorial plaque.

In his masterly and indispensable analysis of the formation of Holocaust history and memory, Donald Bloxham suggested that the decision not to document the murder process known as Aktion Reinhard resulted in a certain posthumous triumph for Nazism. He continued:
The cynical prediction that in the absence of obvious physical evidence no one would believe the survivors proved substantially true. There was a distinct failure at any of the Nürnberg trials to confront the murder of Polish Jews. Belzec, and Sobibor barely received a mention in the proceedings of the trials, despite much anecdotal evidence as to their existence and role. Treblinka appeared scarcely more often, with the exception of the eyewitness accounts provided by the Soviets at the IMT trial…The popular record of the ‘camps’ which the trials helped to form consisted of a mixture of inflated accounts of the better-known establishments and, in as far as Auschwitz was described, uncertainty about the numbers killed there or the identity of the murdered…The failure to differentiate between Dachau and Treblinka or between Auschwitz I and Birkenau was a failure to distinguish murderous persecution from outright genocide, the Nazi oppression of political opponents from the decimation of European Jewry. And while capable historians could make the distinction, as they could cut through most of the veil of secrecy surrounding Aktion Reinhard, it is in the vagaries of popular perception that such potential confusions find their most fertile soil.

Much has changed in the course of the last six decades. If our knowledge of the evolution and organization of the Shoah is still far from complete, awareness of the centrality of Aktion Reinhard to the exterminatory process is certainly more widespread than was the case in the immediate post-war years. But much remains to be learned – and understood.
Yehuda Bauer wrote that the Holocaust can either be a warning or a precedent. He concluded:
“It should be the former, so that it may not be the latter.”
As recognition of the significance of Aktion Reinhard within that genocidal programme grows, it is a statement the world would do well to heed.


Gutman, Israel, ed. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1990.
Bloxham, Donald. Genocide on Trial – War Crimes Trials and the Formation of Holocaust History and Memory, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2001.
Arad, Yitzhak. Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka - The Operation Reinhard Death Camps, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1987.
Tusa Ann and Tusa John. The Nuremberg Trial, MacmillanPublishers Limited, London,1984.
The Trial of German Major War Criminals: Proceedings of the International Military Tribunal sitting at Nuremberg Germany, Part 20. His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1947.
Wyman, David S. ed. The World Reacts to The Holocaust, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1996.
Bauer, Yehuda. The Significance of the Final Solution (in Cesarani, David, ed. The Final Solution – Origins and Implementation), Routledge, London, 1996.

© ARC 2005