Review: Auschwitz A History – Sybille Steinbacher

My version: Paperback
Genre: Non Fiction, Auschwitz, The Holocaust
Penguin Random House
First published: 2004
ISBN: 978-0-141-98748-4
Pages: 168

From the cover:
At the terrible heart of the modern age, lies Auschwitz. in Sybille Steinbacher’s book, the reader is led through the process by which something unthinkable became a sprawling, industrial reality. How Auschwitz grew and mutated and how it was allowed to happen, is something everyone needs to understand.

The first surprise, maybe, is that this is a history of Oświęcim. The Germans, the Nazis, named the town Auschwitz. The book starts with the history of the town, pre-Nazi rule, then, as it can be no other way, details how it went from a small town in, what is now Poland, to being the inescapable symbol for the worst the Nazis were responsible for.

The town was an important centre of commerce from the late Middle Ages onward. Fourteenth century German-speaking merchants called it Auswintz; by the 15th century, its name was changed to Auschwitz. From 1772–1918, Oświęcim belonged to the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria (a semi-autonomous protectorate of the Austrian Empire), and both Polish and German names were in official use. The town was annexed into the Third Reich during World War II and the name Auschwitz was used. It became known as Oświęcim after 27 January 1945, when the Wehrmacht was pushed out by the Red Army.


The town gave, kind of, it’s name to the concentration camp, though that camp was several camps and they were spread over many, many square miles of the local area. If the Nazis had had their way, and won the war, they had plans for massive expansions still.

The book is calm, not hyped up and overly dramatic, content to let the facts, backed up with citations, speak for themselves. Though some of the conclusions, we are meant to draw, by how they are presented. It answers all the relevant questions you might have about Auschwitz and the Holocaust in general – did the people living near the camps know (how could they not? You’d need to be deaf, blind and with no sense of smell, not to notice). Did the people back in Germany know? Did they know what was being done in their name? Well, consider that the trains used to deliver prisoners, later Jews to Auschwitz, went on the return trip to Germany after unloading. That, at the time of its operation, it was a part of Germany. The murders were carried out on German soil.

The fact that passengers rose from their seats and crossed to the windows when Birkenau camp could be seen in the distance suggests that it gave them a certain thrill

Auschwitz A History p77

Consider too, that

the victims themselves (…) had to buy a third-class ticket for the journey to the death camp: 4 pfennigs per person for every kilometre of track; for children under the age of ten, 2 pfennigs. The Reichsbahn granted the SS a group rebate – half-price for transports of 1,000 people or more – and the empty train journeys on the way back were free, surely one of the most breathtaking details of the organisation of mass murder.

Auschwitz A History p76

How did Auschwitz fit in with the rest of the Holocaust? Did the Allies know about it? Of course they did – there were photos smuggled out, ffs. How did German industry use Auschwitz and keep it running? Which companies were they? Are any of them still around today?

The impressive, and perhaps brave, decision to acknowledge the Holocaust deniers in the final chapter(s) is remarkable. I can sympathise with those who would be against it – I once read an article about a historian who refused to go on a TV debate programme, where he was to be faced with someone the production company intended would ‘put the other side’ to the Holocaust history. It is interesting though to see how ineffectually deluded the deniers’ ideas are – even if you haven’t already been convinced by the irrefutable facts presented up to that point.

In essence, in here plain factual way of writing, she isn’t messing about here at all. There’s no place for any inflection other than this is what happened. Auschwitz A History is an astonishing book even for fools like me, who thought I’d read plenty already. Not to be ignored.

You can buy Auschwitz A History from The Book Depository

Photo taken at Auschwitz at the top of the page is by Josh Appel on Unsplash

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