Auschwitz: A Historyby Sybille Steinbacher, Shaun Whiteside, Shaun Whiteside
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.
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By Sybille Steinbacher
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The town of Auschwitz
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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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.
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.