At the terrible heart of the modern age lies Auschwitz. In a total inversion of earlier hopes about the use of science and technology to improve, extend and protect human life, Auschwitz manipulated the same systems to quite different ends. In Sybille Steinbacher's terse, powerful new book, the reader is led through the process by which something unthinkable to any European in the 1930s had become a sprawling, industrial reality during the course of the world war. How Auschwitz grew and mutated into an entire dreadful city, how both those who managed it and those who were killed by it came to be in Poland in the 1940s, and how it was allowed to happen, is something everyone needs to understand.
In concise and sober fashion, German historian Steinbacher traces the history of Auschwitz from a medieval trading town to the major extermination camp of the Holocaust. Like so many eastern European towns, Auschwitz for centuries had a mixed population of Germans, Poles, Jews, Ukrainians and others, who by and large managed to coexist. After the quick defeat of Poland by Germany in WWII, the Nazis first sought to establish a concentration camp for political prisoners, and Auschwitz's location on major rail lines and with access to mineral resources made it an ideal site. Quickly the camp became the setting for larger Nazi ambitions to establish German domination, which meant the exploitation of Polish labor and the elimination of Jews. The events that culminated in Auschwitz developing into a sprawling complex of human misery covering some 60 square miles are related based on extensive and up-to-date research. Steinbacher carefully depicts the alternate universe of Auschwitz, entering into the lives and the deaths of its inhabitants, including the businessmen and SS officers who, with no apparent qualms, managed the camp and their victims. Steinbacher, a visiting fellow for European studies at Harvard, avoids extensive analysis or morality tales; the meaning of Auschwitz is in the details, which she provides with clinical precision. B&w illus., maps.