A friend of mine who just returned from a trip to Poland handed me the paperback edition of this book and told me I had to read it. He had picked it up at a bookstore in Poland after visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps.
The author, who is an award-winning filmmaker and author as well as Creative Director of History Programs for the BBC, has written five previous books about various aspects of WWII. He and his researchers dug deep to find both survivors and workers who would sit down for in-depth interviews.
What was most disturbing to me was how coldly efficient the Nazis were. Once the decision was made to eliminate the Jewish population in the areas that they conquered, the Nazis needed to develop a method. They started out shooting people but there were too many bodies to be disposed of, plus the murders offended the SS troops' sensibilities. They tried trucks and carbon monoxide poisoning, then eventually moved on to the fake shower chambers and the crematoria.
Engraved over the entrance to Auschwitz was the slogan "Work Makes One Free." The guards were instructed to calmly greet their victims and invite them to remove their clothes and put them neatly in a pile (to reclaim later) before showering. Attempts were made to keep the new arrivals as ignorant as possible of their terrible fate. Only a small number of SS troops were stationed at each of the camps, manning the guard towers and machine guns. The prisoners themselves were coerced into doing the awful work of killing their fellow prisoners and disposing of them.
We all know that the Nazis killed not only Jews but also gypsies, Catholic clergymen, homosexuals, Soviet soldiers, the disabled and anyone else they abhorred. But they also killed so they could sieze property, resources, and assets of the displaced to support their expansion and war efforts.
It has always been difficult to understand how an advanced Western country such as Germany could descend to such depths. With the problems facing our world due to scarce resources and exploding population growth, one hopes that the mechanized killing techniques developed by Hitler and the Nazis do not rear their ugly head in the future.