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24 September 2014
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A general view of Auschwitz

BBC TWO unravels the secrets of Auschwitz

Programme one - Surprising Beginnings

"I saw an SS man, a junior officer, walking around the gravel pit with a pistol in his hand… It was sadism. 'You dogs! You damned communists!' And from time to time he would direct the pistol downwards and shoot." Jerzy Bielecki, Polish political prisoner, Auschwitz

Auschwitz is the site of the largest mass murder in the history of the world - more than one million men, women and children were systematically killed there.

Yet its genesis is surprising, because although the vast majority of its victims were Jews, it was not built to deal with what the Nazis called 'the Jewish problem' at all.

Based partly on documents and plans only discovered since the opening of archives in eastern Europe, Auschwitz: The Nazis & the 'Final Solution' is the story of the evolution of the camp and the mentality of the Nazis who created and ran it.

In Surprising Beginnings, camp commandant Rudolf Höss arrives in the Polish town of Oswiecim to create a new concentration camp, its role being to imprison and terrorise anyone who resists the Nazi occupation of Poland.

Within 20 months more than half of the 23,000 Poles first sent to Auschwitz are dead.

Yet despite its obvious brutality, Auschwitz is almost a backwater in Nazi-occupied Poland.

But Auschwitz is destined for more ambitious things. Its proximity to rich seams of coal, lime and a plentiful water supply draws the interest of the giant German industrial conglomerate IG Farben.

Soon SS-Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler agrees to a massive expansion of the camp to provide the necessary slave labour for synthetic rubber production, and ultimately for the creation of a new model German town.

Hitler's and Himmler's plans for the total 'Germanification' of the East gather momentum with the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, and soon hundreds of Soviet prisoners of war are arriving in Auschwitz.

As the German army advances into the Soviet Union, Jews, including women and children, are ruthlessly executed by special SS killing squads.

But Himmler discovers that killing large numbers of people by firing squad is both bloody and psychologically damaging for many of his troops.

A search is launched for a more efficient means of mass killing. An experiment using explosives to detonate groups of prisoners proves disastrous.

In the end it is found that exhaust fumes from vehicles, if piped into confined spaces, kill those trapped inside.

In fact, the Nazis' Adult Euthanasia Programme has been killing mentally ill and physically disabled people in Germany with carbon monoxide since the beginning of the war, but it is too expensive to transport the bottled gas to the East.

However, a team from the euthanasia programme now visits Auschwitz to 'clear' the camp of those who cannot work.

Ironically, given what is to happen, there is nowhere in Auschwitz to kill them without disturbance. So the first prisoners to be gassed are transported back to the 'old Reich' in Germany to be murdered.

In autumn 1941, the first gassing experiments in Auschwitz itself take place, using Zyklon B, a powerful disinfectant used to delouse clothes.

The experiment is carried out on Russian POWs and, after a shaky start, proves - from the Nazis' point of view - to be the solution to the problem.

The journey towards the mechanised extermination of millions gathers pace.

Surprising Beginnings includes shocking testimony from Polish political prisoners speaking about the harshness of life in the early days of the camp; Jewish survivors of Nazi executions; and an SS member who was responsible for murdering Jews by firing squad.

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