A Week in Books: a short guide to Auschwitz

As parades of gross hypocrisy go, it made an especially grim start to the year. Newspapers whose pages routinely crackle with incendiary claptrap about gypsies, asylum seekers and many other groups of outsiders decided that a foolish young man deserved to be pilloried for wearing a stupid outfit at a party. Independent readers will not normally trawl these fetid waters, so let me quote a few of the scores of headlines that have topped hate-mongering stories in just one paper (the Daily Express) over recent months: "The gypsy tricksters"; "Gypsy invasion"; "One law for the gypsies, another law for us"; Victory of Middle Britain as gypsies are kicked out". If he does that remedial course in Holocaust studies, let's hope that Harry Windsor learns about the Roma-Sinti genocide that claimed up to half a million lives. In Auschwitz-Birkenau alone, 21,000 gypsies were murdered. One peculiarity of their fate was that many were killed not in the gas chambers but by phenol injections to the heart.

That catch-up course need not last too long. To coincide with the 60th anniversary of its liberation, Penguin has published a truly outstanding short guide to the deepest circle of hell. Auschwitz: a history by Sybille Steinbacher (translated by Shaun Whiteside; £7.99) comes from a German historian based in Bochum. Over 170 laconic but fact-crammed pages, it tells its desolating story with a punctilious caution that might be called, in the best sense, "Germanic".

The respectful flatness of Steinbacher's tone as she explains how, when and where the 1.1-1.5m. victims of Auschwitz (90 per cent of them Jewish) died makes her brief flares of attitude all the more memorable. Thus one senses a tiny flicker of satisfaction when she records that, since the Deborah Lipstadt libel trial, "it has been permissible to speak in public of Auschwitz-denier [David] Irving as a falsifier of history, an anti-Semite and a racist". And when the vast IG Farben plant had to be cleared before the Red Army arrived, she drily names it "the greatest ruined investment of the German Reich".

Steinbacher's Auschwitz will illuminate the way the complex operated as an industrial centre even to readers who already know the litany of transports, selections and executions. As pure killing machines, other camps did worse, faster. Laurence Rees's excellent book to accompany his current BBC2 series (Auschwitz: the Nazis and the "final solution"; BBC Books, £20) mentions a newly-discovered decrypt. It reveals that 713,555 murders took place in Treblinka alone in 1942.

Auschwitz meant, above all, big business and big profits in the service of extermination. Not only IG Farben but Siemens, Krupp and a dozen other major combines rushed in to make a quick mark out of unpaid, unfed slave workers who conveniently died after a few weeks or months.

What happened to the managers of companies which profited from Auschwitz? A few copped short prison terms. Many others, their skills in demand, rebuilt German industries after the war.

Rees calculates that only 750 out of the 6500 SS personnel who served in Auschwitz ever came before a court. And Steinbacher shows the lottery of location, fortune and politics that resulted in justice for some high-level perpetrators, but utter impunity for many more. Military tribunals in the British zone seem to have acted decisively. Bruno Tesch and his manager, who sent Zyklon B gas to the camp from their Hamburg firm, were hanged in March 1946. For a host of other culprits, the luck of the devil held. Ernst Wolfgang Topf, the co-owner of the Auschwitz oven-builders, gave himself up to the Americans while his brother committed suicide. Nothing happened to Ernst. He went back into business in Wiesbaden in 1947. His new company made ovens for crematoria.

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