Columnist

Bruce Kauffmann is a historian, syndicated columnist, author, and speaker.

Prior to Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland in September of 1939 there had been a series of “concentration camps” for the Jews that were located in Germany proper, but these “concentration camps” were mostly labor camps in which some Jews were killed, but most died because they were horribly undernourished, ceaselessly overworked, and susceptible to life-threatening diseases – diphtheria, typhus, etc. – due to their weakened immune systems and the unsanitary conditions in which they lived and worked.

By contrast were the Nazi death camps, most of which were in Poland, where prisoners were murdered by shootings, beatings, gas chambers, purposeful starvation, and so on.

Such cruelty was bound to affect the psyches of the camp guards charged with administering it, and even in the German-based concentration/labor camps, Nazi Party officials had heard of camp guards becoming sickened by how they were treating the prisoners. Some guards broke down, others became alcoholics, others became undisciplined. If that was occurring in camps in which the guards merely watched prisoners die, Nazi Party officials wondered, how would the guards react when ordered to murder them?

One solution to that problem was to indoctrinate the German army and the death-camp guards into believing that Poland was not a real country and its army was not a real army. Thus, when Polish soldiers fought back against the German invasion of Poland, they weren’t fighting a battle, but committing a crime, and every Polish soldier who killed a German soldier was guilty of murder.

“Close your hearts to pity,” Nazi leader Adolf Hitler told his officers in a memorandum he issued this week (August 22) in 1939, because the rules of war did not apply to Poland, its soldiers, or the Polish people who aided and abetted their crimes.

Therefore, murdering Poles, citizens as well as soldiers, became an act of vengeance, but also justice. At one battle, after 300 Polish soldiers were taken prisoner, they were ordered to disrobe, thus removing all evidence that they were soldiers. They were then shot. At the Polish death camps – including Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor and Chelmno – both the Jews and prisoners of war, the vast majority of whom were Poles, were also stripped of their clothing before being shot or sent to die horribly in the gas chambers.

In one Polish town a German soldier ordered a young Polish boy to fetch him some water. When the boy ran away in fear the soldier shot at him but missed, killing instead a fellow German soldier. In retaliation the Germans rounded up the townspeople – who, following the logic of Hitler’s August 22 memorandum, were by their mere existence murderous criminals or aiders and abettors – and shot them all dead.

Bruce G. Kauffmann’s email address is bruce@historylessons.net.

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