Programme one - Surprising
"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 is the site of the largest mass murder in the history of
the world - more than one million men, women and children were systematically
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
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
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
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.