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Auschwitz: A History
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Auschwitz: A History

3.7 4
by Sybille Steinbacher, Shaun Whiteside (Translator), Shaun Whiteside (Translator)

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At the terrible heart of the modern age lies Auschwitz, a name that has become synonymous with evil. Here the utopian twentieth-century dream of employing science and technology to improve and protect human life was inverted from the latter part of the 1930s through the end of the Second World War, as the same systems were manipulated in the cause of efficient mass


At the terrible heart of the modern age lies Auschwitz, a name that has become synonymous with evil. Here the utopian twentieth-century dream of employing science and technology to improve and protect human life was inverted from the latter part of the 1930s through the end of the Second World War, as the same systems were manipulated in the cause of efficient mass slaughter. Historian Sybille Steinbacher's powerful and eminently important book details Auschwitz's birth, growth, and horrible mutation into a dreadful city. How it came to be and how what followed was allowed to occur is a story that everyone needs to understand and remember.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In concise and sober fashion, German historian Steinbacher traces the history of Auschwitz from a medieval trading town to the major extermination camp of the Holocaust. Like so many eastern European towns, Auschwitz for centuries had a mixed population of Germans, Poles, Jews, Ukrainians and others, who by and large managed to coexist. After the quick defeat of Poland by Germany in WWII, the Nazis first sought to establish a concentration camp for political prisoners, and Auschwitz's location on major rail lines and with access to mineral resources made it an ideal site. Quickly the camp became the setting for larger Nazi ambitions to establish German domination, which meant the exploitation of Polish labor and the elimination of Jews. The events that culminated in Auschwitz developing into a sprawling complex of human misery covering some 60 square miles are related based on extensive and up-to-date research. Steinbacher carefully depicts the alternate universe of Auschwitz, entering into the lives and the deaths of its inhabitants, including the businessmen and SS officers-who, with no apparent qualms, managed the camp-and their victims. Steinbacher, a visiting fellow for European studies at Harvard, avoids extensive analysis or morality tales; the meaning of Auschwitz is in the details, which she provides with clinical precision. B&w illus., maps. (Aug. 16) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In this concise account of the Auschwitz death camps, German historian Steinbacher (history, Ruhr Univ.) offers a stark examination of the assembly-line extermination of 1.4 million Europeans. She follows the evolution of Auschwitz from a sleepy Polish village named Oswiecim into a complex network of prison camps and factories that marked the fulfillment of two basic tenets of the Nazi ideology: lebensraum (living space) and ethnic cleansing. Significantly, Steinbacher (Dachau) asserts that the Final Solution was not the product of a single directive from the Nazi hierarchy but the cumulative result of regional initiatives issued throughout what she describes as a polycratic regime; Hitler may have legitimized the overriding extermination policy, but culpability permeates the entire Nazi administrative structure. Steinbacher's final chapter, a riveting denunciation of the Holocaust deniers, is indicative of a new generation of German scholars who refuse to turn their backs on the monstrous dimensions of their country's Nazi past. Libraries with Laurence Rees's recent Auschwitz: A New History may be inclined to bypass this work, originally published in Germany in 2004. Yet this dispassionate but poignant study is a worthy addition to any public or academic library collection and is highly recommended.-Jim Doyle, Sara Hightower Regional Lib., Rome, GA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A deceptively slender study of history's most notorious killing ground. As German historian Steinbacher (Ruhr Univ., Bochum) observes, Auschwitz-known as Oswiecim in Polish-was a center of Galician Jewish life long before the rise of Nazism, with a 19th-century population that exceeded that of Polish Catholics. It was also the site of a huge WWI-era camp for Sachsenganger, seasonal workers in the Austro-Hungarian war economy; the camp comprised 90 barracks capable of housing 12,000 workers, and it was this that formed the core of the Nazi-era concentration camp. That version of Auschwitz first served as a prison for Polish political prisoners, then expanded to hold Reich German prisoners who enjoyed special privileges as compared to the Jewish population that would soon fill the camp. Steinbacher notes that Auschwitz was never escape-proof, though only Poles tended to enjoy much success in fleeing the camp, and then only a few of them. Auschwitz expanded dramatically when German industries such as IG Farben established factories behind the barbed wire; Russian prisoners of war were apparently meant to serve as the labor force, though these were killed off quickly and in any event were in shorter supply once the war began to turn against Germany. "When it became clear that Soviet prisoners of war were not going to be supplying the massive numbers of workers expected," Steinbacher writes, "Birkenau camp was transformed, in a sequence of decisions that cannot be reconstructed, into an extermination camp." In that guise, the now-massive Auschwitz complex saw the deaths of an unknown number of Jewish inmates; Steinbacher estimates the number to be between 1.1 million and 1.5 million, thoughthe camp commandant boasted that 3 million had died there. Steinbacher closes with a denunciation of Holocaust deniers such as David Irving, "a falsifier of history, an anti-Semite and a racist" whose unsuccessful libel suit against Deborah Lipstadt is the subject of the latter's History on Trial (Feb. 2005), to which this little book serves as a valuable companion. A thoughtful overview of a place terrible to remember--and one that must always be remembered.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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A History
By Sybille Steinbacher

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Sybille Steinbacher
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060825812

Chapter One

The town of Auschwitz

Centuries as a border town

Germans first moved to the area around Oswiecim in the late thirteenth century. They began a settlement project whose 'completion' almost 700 years later became the impulse for and goal of the Nazis' brutal 'Germanization' policy'. Oswiecim, first mentioned in writing in 1178, lay on the dividing line between Slavs and Germans. Its name, derived from the old Polish swiety, meaning 'saint', points towards the town's early adoption of Christianity.

Medieval colonization of the east arose out of the desire on the part of Poland's rulers to expand, to enhance Slavic culture through social, legal and economic systems, and thus bolster their power. The acceptance of German law -- 'German' being less a national than a legal term -- was a peaceful assimilation process that maintained, respected and promoted Slavic traditions. The settlers introduced German municipal law, because by medieval tradition legal systems were tied to people rather than to territories; they established the laws where they happened to live, and they did just that in Oswiecim around 1260.

The town at the confluence of the Vistula and the Sola soon became a small trade centre; it was the seat of the court and the capital of the duchy that bore its name. Oswiecim switched political allegiances many times over the centuries: in 1348 it was incorporated into the Holy Roman Empire, and German became its official language. But with the first medieval agrarian crisis, the German settler movement came to a stop in the middle of the fourteenth century, the Hussite wars brought the colonization of the east to a halt, and under Bohemian rule Czech became Oswiecim's official language. In 1457 the duchy -- sold for 50,000 silver marks -- came under the rule of the Polish crown, but temporarily maintained Silesian law before finally becoming a feudal possession of the Polish kings in 1565. When Prussia, Russia and Austria broke up the Polish state in 1772 and Austria annexed the areas between the Biala in the west and the Zbrucz in the east, including the great trading and cultural centres of Cracow and Lwow, the competing powers deployed their troops across the region, and in the same year Oswiecim passed into Austrian possession. German became the official language once more, the town bore the name Auschwitz, and it was in the new kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria, within the Habsburg Empire. In the wake of a new revision of the boundaries -- the second division of Poland in 1793 and the third in 1795 did not affect the town -- Oswiecim entered the German Federation after the Vienna Congress in 1815, and remained part of it until the Federation broke up in 1866. The town supported the Habsburgs until the collapse of the monarchy in 1918, and the Emperor bore the title 'Duke of Auschwitz' until the very end.

Catholics and Jews

Attracted by the trade routes leading towards Lwow (Lemberg), Cracow, Wroclaw (Breslau) and Zgorzelec (Gorlitz), Jews first settled in Upper Silesia in the tenth and eleventh centuries. It may also have been at this time that they moved to Oswiecim, which lay at the crossroads of the main routes, but their presence is first recorded in 1457. Unlike the surrounding towns, Oswiecim had no law forbidding Jews to live and trade there. The Catholics did not unleash pogroms or carry out mass executions; they did not force the Jews to live in a ghetto, or drive them out of the city walls. During the first bloody wave of persecution in the modern era, the Chmielnitsky pogrom launched by the Cossacks in 1648-9, Jews were banished from the neighbouring towns, but in Oswiecim, perhaps because they were relatively few in number, they were left unmolested.

Unlike Prussia, which in the nineteenth century subjected the Polish inhabitants of the eastern provinces to unadulterated Prussian rule, Austria -- under the pressure of political defeats abroad, and striving for reconciliation with Hungary -- gave relatively free rein to the Galicians in their efforts to become Polish again and to achieve independent statehood. The Cisleithan crown territory of Galicia was awarded extensive rights of self-administration by the 1866 statute of autonomy. Poles took over the jobs of the Austrian officials, and the Polish language found its way back into the region's schools and administration. Oswiecim reacquired its original Polish name, and the street names became Polish as well.

With the economic revolutions that were taking place at the same time, the 'good Austrian era' began for Oswiecim's Jews. A number of decades followed in which the previously rather insignificant and poor Jewish community developed strongly in demographic and economic terms. The feudal and agrarian social order faded away, and with it went the old intermediary function of the east European Jews. Standing, as small shopkeepers, craftsmen, travelling salesmen, pub landlords and leaseholders, between the landed gentry, the peasantry and the state, they had been exposed to the corresponding social conflicts. This relationship, which had unfairly governed how Jews made a living and had for centuries denied them any economic advancement, disappeared. Jews were able to abandon their uncertain legal position, achieve complete equality as citizens, and exert considerable influence on culture and politics. A flourishing Jewish community emerged, and Auschwitz soon became an intellectual centre of orthodox Jews and also a site of significant Zionist associations. Even contemporaries spoke proudly of their own 'Oswiecim Jerusalem'.

While Galicia remained an agrarian country at the end of the nineteenth century, with almost 80 per cent of its inhabitants making their living through agriculture, and with a great deal of unemployment and poverty, Oswiecim developed into a prosperous town because of its proximity to the newly developed industrial belt of Upper Silesia and north-west Bohemia. The industrialization process gained pace when the town acquired a railway station in 1856. Thanks to its location between the coal-mining area around Katowice (Kattowitz)-Dombrowa and the industrial area of Bielsko (Bielitz), Oswiecim became a railway junction in 1990: three lines of the . . .


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Meet the Author

Sybille Steinbacher is assistant professor in the Faculty of Modern and Contemporary History at the Ruhr University, Bochum. During 2004-5 she was a visiting fellow for European studies at Harvard University. She lives in Germany.

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Auschwitz: A History 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The is in interesting book on past history. History that should be told so that the next generation should be aware of and make sure that it never happens again.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
You get a good sence of the development of the sight, what happened, and a brief review of what happed after the war. The story is clinical but none the less paints a clear picture.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago