Interpreting the Visual Evidence

The Architecture of Mass Murder

The camp at Auschwitz- Birkenau was the largest of the German concentration camps whose central purpose was the murder of Europe's Jews. Almost 1.1 million people, of whom 1 million were Jews, were murdered in Auschwitz.

Auschwitz-Birkenau was in fact a complex of three camps: an extermination center, a prisoner-of-war camp, and a labor camp built with the cooperation of German industrial firms such as IG Farben. Forty other smaller installations and work camps in the surrounding area were also run by the camp's administration. The construction of the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex occupied thousands of workers and continued throughout the war. When the Soviet Army arrived in January 1945, they found that the Germans had burned the camp archives before fleeing, but they had not burned the construction archive, which was kept separately. Hundreds of technical drawings were found in this archive, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, these drawings became accessible to historians. A further cache of such documents was discovered in an abandoned building in Berlin in 2008. They are now held by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust archive in Jerusalem, Israel.

The discovery of these drawings did not add substantially to what was already known about the murder of Jews and other prisoners at Auschwitz, but they provide an arresting example of the bureaucratic apparatus—and the chilling coldness of the planning—that went into the Nazi extermination policy.

Images

Questions for Analysis

1. Who would have seen these plans and been made aware of their purpose?
2. What do these images tell us about the nature of the effort that went into the Nazi extermination policy?
3. Is there a way to understand the relationship between the careful renderings, the precise measurements, the rectilinear lines, and the ultimate purpose of the buildings depicted?

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