COMMEMORATION of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army has been marred by controversy.
At the 60th anniversary commemoration a decade ago Russian President Vladimir Putin was the star speaker in ceremonies at the former Nazi death camp in Poland. This year he was not welcome. While world leaders gathered at Auschwitz, Putin presided over a ceremony at a Jewish museum in Moscow where he denounced those trying to write the Red Army out of Second World War history.
In 2004, Russia’s relations with Europe and the US were in relatively good shape. Today these relations are overshadowed by Russia’s sponsorship of Ukrainian separatism, especially its support for Crimea’s secession from the former Soviet republic.
Indeed, Poland’s president used his speech at the Auschwitz commemoration on Tuesday to speak about his country’s occupation by the two totalitarianisms: Nazism and Communism. So, to his extreme critics, Putin is a new Hitler, an authoritarian leader intent on expanding Russian power and territory. Yet to his supporters, Putin’s actions in relation to Ukraine have been defensive and reactive.
Despite these contemporary controversies, the fact remains that it was the Soviet Army that ended the holocaust at Auschwitz, as it did at most other German concentration camps. Putin’s exclusion from this significant commemoration was all the more bitter because his Ukrainian counterpart, President Petro Poroshenko, was invited and present at the ceremony.
Auschwitz (in Polish, Oswiecim) was captured by the Marshal Konev’s First Ukrainian Front at the end of January 1945. Many Ukrainians served in Konev’s armies — including some who were among the first to enter Auschwitz — but the majority of his troops were Russian. It was called the Ukrainian Front since that had been its main area of operations before fighting into southern Poland in early 1945.
Previously it had been called the Voronezh Front. After liberating Auschwitz, Konev’s troops advanced to Prague and took part in the battle for Berlin in April 1945.
Auschwitz was not the first death camp captured by the Red Army. That dubious distinction belonged to Maidenak in Eastern Poland, which was overrun by advancing Soviet forces in July 1944. Maidenak’s “liberation” was followed by that of camps at Belzec, Chelmo, Sobibor, and Treblinka — killing grounds where more than two million victims were exterminated — most of them Jews from ghettos created by the Nazis to concentrate and contain the Jewish populations of Poland and Germany.
Nor were the Red Army’s liberation missions without cost: thousands of Soviet soldiers died in fighting on the approaches to the various concentration camps.
Stories of mass deaths and destruction wreaked by the Nazis were a staple of Soviet war reporting. But when it came to describing Maidenak the Soviet writer and journalist, Konstantin Simonov, warned his readers its horrors were beyond human imagination and comprehension; not simply another scene of atrocities but the site of systematic murder on a massive scale.
When Soviet soldiers advanced on Auschwitz they expected to capture a large prison camp and to be welcomed as liberators. What they found shocked even their battle-hardened sensibilities. Few among the 8,000 survivors were able to talk or move let alone welcome the Soviets. Indeed, many were terrified new persecutors had arrived.
Colonel Anatoly Shapiro recalled: “I had seen many innocent people killed. I had seen hanged people. I had seen burned people. But I was still unprepared for Auschwitz.”
Shapiro remembered, too, the evidence of mass murder: “We discovered mountains of artificial teeth, spectacles and human hair”. In the children’s barracks there were only two survivors, the rest gassed or dead as subjects of horrific medical experiments. Another Soviet officer recalled that when clean-up crews went to inspect the crematorium chimneys, they found human fat deposits on the walls 45in (115cm) thick.
What the Red Army had found at Auschwitz was not one camp but a complex of camps occupying an area of 15sq miles. Many Soviet soldiers were astounded by its size which testified to the scale of the mass murder and to the fact that Auschwitz was originally an SS-run industrial slave-labour camp.
The first prisoners taken there were Polish and Soviet POWs. Most of them died because the Nazis worked them to death producing synthetic rubber for the German war machine, while others were victims of early experiments in mass murder by gassing.
It was at Auschwitz that the Germans perfected their method of mass gassing in chambers disguised as shower rooms. Previous massacres had been carried out by shooting, with high explosives or using carbon monoxide poisoning in specially-designed trucks. But the Nazis had found these methods to be both inefficient and too taxing on the perpetrators.
About 1m people died at Auschwitz. The vast majority were Jewish but many Gypsies, homosexuals, and German communists were victims, too. After 1945, Auschwitz came to symbolise what became known as the Holocaust — the Nazi mass murder of European Jewry, 80% of whom were killed during the war.
Auschwitz was unique among the camps in being the final destination for Jews who had been deported from all over Europe: among them 25,000 Belgians, 75,000 French, 100,000 Dutch, and 300,000-400,000 Hungarians.
Danish Jews survived en masse only because they were secretly transported across the Baltic to neutral Sweden.
What happened at Auschwitz and other camps was horrific beyond words, but the key to understanding the Holocaust is knowing it began in June 1941 on the Eastern Front following the German invasion of the Soviet Union.
Hitler viewed the Soviet Union as a Judeo-Bolshevik state, an utterly loathsome combination because the Nazi führer was as anti-communist as he was anti-Semitic. So the Germans waged a self-conscious war of annihilation in Russia, killing indiscriminately all the Jews and Communists who ran the Soviet state.
At first, SS execution squads killed only captured able-bodied men suspected of being Jews or Communists. But soon the SS perpetrated the slaughter of entire Jewish communities. The most famous atrocity took place in September 1941: The massacre at Babi Yar where 30,000 Jewish men, women, and children were shot in ravine just outside Kiev — an act of revenge for delayed-action timebombs in the Ukrainian capital that had killed a number of German soldiers.
An estimated 1m Soviet Jews were executed in 1941-1942, a massive task in which the SS was aided by the German army and by local anti-Semites and anti-communists, a good number of whom were Ukrainian ultra-nationalists. This mass murder on the Eastern Front was to provide the template for the Nazis’ so-called final solution of the Jewish question in Europe.
Since 1933 when the Nazis came to power in Germany, they had persecuted Jews and forced many to emigrate. After war was declared in 1939, the Nazis rounded up Polish and German Jews, kept them in sealed urban ghettos, and contemplated deporting them to Africa or expelling them deep into Russia — a plan thwarted by their failure to conquer the Soviet Union.
Finally, the Nazis decided to work to death those Jews who were able and to kill the rest. Hence the infamous separation of prisoners arriving at Auschwitz into those deemed able to work and the women, children, sick, and elderly people sent directly to the gas chambers.
Auschwitz and the Holocaust took place in an extraordinary set of wartime circumstances but at their root was a racist ideology and a fanatical leader who presided over a barbarous regime. The Hitler regime was largely destroyed by the Red Army, which suffered millions upon millions of casualties during the war. Without the Red Army and the sacrifices of the Soviet people, above all the Russian people, the Nazi would have been able to complete their attempted genocide of Europe’s Jews.
- Geoffrey Roberts is professor of history at UCC. His latest book is Stalin’s General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov.
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