on 26 April 2006
Many documentaries exist regarding the concentration and extermination camps but not many have Sir Ian Kershaw as the script supervisor. To have the world's authority on the Nazi state work on such a project speaks volumes for its quality.
This 6 part series focusses on the emergence of Auschwitz as a detention centre for political prisoners and eventually its transformation as a killing centre for the Jews of eastern europe. It's flawless in its design and presentations. Even the music used at times, for me in particular, the Symphony of Sorrowful songs, really hit home the gravity of the whole thing.
The series used computer technology to recreate the gas chambers and crematoria with striking accuracy. These reconstructions are based around documents only recently found. This part in particular I found fascinating. It is one thing to look at maps of Auschwitz in books, but quite another to be taken on a virtual tour down dimly lit corridors to a huge gas chamber.
Interviews are given from a huge variety of people ranging from SS guards who (allegedly) did not like working at Auschwitz, Polish prisoners, Jewish prisoners, Slovakian guards, gypsies and Soviet prisoners.
Some of the stories the people interviewed tell are genuinly moving, such as the story of the SS guard who fell in love with a Jewish woman (interviewed) and his determination to save her sister for her but unfortunatly could not save the children. The Jewsih woman expresses that she hated the guard but eventually admits she loved him for what he did and gave evidence on his defence at his post war trial. Another story was of a Nazi official who, upon realising the ghetto was to be liquidated, hid as many Jews as he could, and actually risked his life by driving into the ghetto with trucks and simply driving the Jews elsewhere. He is now remembered in the Avenue of the Righteous in Jerusalem. Such acts of humanity among the seemingly endless stories of evil stick with the viewer.
Other stories made me wonder about the mentaility of those telling them. Some, such as the Slovakian guard, show no remorse at their past deeds and even smirk while telling their stories. Their defense 'they were convinced that the Jews deserved it'. Sickening, but nonetheless represents the mentaility of the perpetrators. We will never understand their actions, but their comments show their pattern of thought.
This series also made cry at times. In particular the Jewish woman who claimed the worst part of what she had to deal with was going home. She claimed that the thought that some day she might go home gave her the drive to survive, but when it finally did happen, it was the worst thing she had to deal with as her home was no longer hers, and the town's inhabitants were as hostile to her as the Nazis were. Another story was one of Dr Mengele's twin children used for experimentation who remembered being liberated by the Soviet Army and being given chocolate. She said that they soliders also attempted to cuddle them and that meant more than anything because they had been starved of love for so long.
The footage of tiny children going to the gas chambers, or going to Dr Mengele's labs, was enough to make me sick to my stomach but as one of the Jewish men interviewed said 'this must not be forgotten. What happened must never be forgotten'. He's standing in a muddy field and looks around him, turns to the camera and says "My father and brother are buried here, you know." On a similar note, an ex-SS guard interviewed said a similar thing. That the only reason he was appearing was to emphasise that what happened at Auschwitz must be remembered so that it does not happen again.
What is so refreshing about this particular telling of Auschwitz's story is that almost every party involved has the chance to have their say. Too frequently such documentaries are obviously anti-German but this is not the case. The series looks at many of the countries of Europe in turn and how they gave up their Jewish citizens to the Nazis. It was shocking in particular to hear that the Slovaks had paid the Nazi state to have their Jewish citizens taken away. It was also striking to hear the lengths the people of Denmark went to in order to protect their Jewish citizens. Another area I was disgusted at was being shown a telegram from the British Government who by that point knew the goings on in Auschwitz. They had been offered 1 million Jews in return for military trucks. They refused, believing it to be blackmail. The telegram goes on to mention that they did not want Germans unloading Jews onto Britain (paraphrasing). Horrific. One Jewish lady interviewed stated that the whole world forgot about them. It's sad to say I think she was right.
What struck me the most was the fact that almost every party states what happened so frankly. The Slovakian guard giggles when he tells of the time he helped himself to the Jews' possessions once they had been sent away for "evacuation". A Jewish prisoner just shrugs when he is asked why he smothered an apparent German prisoner during transportation, having spent years in Auschwitz. When confronted about their actions, both act in a similar way. They look away from the camera as if it all happened in another lifetime, to another man. One man interviewed, a Polish political prisoner if I remember correctly, said when describing Auschwitz; "Death. Death. Death. Death in the evening. Death in the afternoon. We lived with death."
Auschwitz is unbiased and broad in terms of verbal sources and also offers insights into the mind of Rudolph Hoess using his journals.
I could go on forever reviewing this series but to be honest, all that needs to be said is this in a very well written and presented piece of work. You will not find a broader ranging source for the development of Auschwitz anywhere. Nor will you find one created around the expert advice of Ian Kershaw.
Absolutely first class and should be mandatory viewing for everyone.
on 23 January 2006
Although I read it second hand, one of the characters in Dante's Inferno is berated for watching two people argue for too long. The problem with evil is that we are often more fascinated with it that the goodness in human nature. However, Auschwitz presents a compelling view not merely of the evil of those who so demonize the other as to show no compassion, but also what such inhumane treatment does to those who have to endure it, and the schizophrenic nature of those who perpetrate such deeds and then happily return home to play with children.
This documentary is part reconstruction, part interview. The computer reconstructions are excellent, the historical reconstructions helpful. Benefitting from recently discovered documents, the series reconstructs the final solution in chilling detail. As John Raulston Saul comments in his book Voltaire's Bastards, it amply illustrates what happens when reason (in this case the logical approach to the final solution with the use of IBM punch cards, methodically planned death machinery, etc) detached from the other human faculties leads to monsterous behaviour. The Auschwitz commandant is shown playing with his kids. He is human, he is real, and yet he can be a monster because Jews are less than human to him. The largely unrepentant nature of former SS guards is no less disturbing, nor are the stories of some of the things that those who suffered did to each other. The dehumanisers dehumanised their victims.
We dare not stare too long lest our fascination be macabre, focussing too much on the mechanics as the Nazis did. It is more a 'lest we forget'view of history. Genocide has continued to occur, happening even as I write. Auschwitz reminds us why we must not tolerate it.
on 4 February 2006
I’d read the book of the same name so I had an idea of what was to come when I bought the dvd but still it a good accompaniment to the book.
The documentary is made up of interviews with SS guards and survivors of the most heinous atrocity ever committed. After reading the book and also reading Rudolph Hoess autobiography, “Commandant of Auschwitz” I thought I was prepared for the total lack of remorse which would be exhibited by the SS guards. I wasn’t. Those interviewed still don’t believe, 60 yrs later, that they did anything wrong. I found those interviews particularly disturbing. The stories of survivors of Auschwitz described in great detail the conditions and treatment that they were subjected to and I can only imagine the rage they must still feel towards those SS guards who are still alive today.
Never having been through anything of the sort most of us could never imagine what it must have been like to be in Auschwitz during the Holocaust. Those there saw evil so often that one survivor even commented that ‘you see death so much that you become immune to it’.
This BBC documentary is a chilling account of Auschwitz but one which everyone should see to ensure that such an atrocity never happens again. The camps are reconstructed using digital imaging and together with the SS and survivors stories and the original footage available this makes for a fascinating mini-series.
One question remains at the end of the documentary……could this really have happened in the 20th century?!
on 10 February 2005
The BBC has worked long at establishing a reputation for historical enquiry and the presentation of intelligent, balanced analysis of the distant and the near past. Auschwitz is near enough to be remembered vividly by millions, but there is something about it which tries to convince you that such barbarism could only be traced to our darkest, primeval past. Surely modern man is not capable of that?
The BBC presents a totally absorbing study of the extermination camp. You begin to watch it feeling guilty, feeling that somehow you will be tainted with voyeurism, that your interest in obscenity points to some essential weakness in your character and soul. Within minutes you are absorbed. It's the blandness which gets to you.
The writer, Hannah Arendt, attended the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the German officer in charge of the 'Final Solution': she expected to look evil in the face - instead, she found an innocuous, bald, insignificant little bourgeois, devoutly sticking to the mantra that he had only been following orders. [ See Hannah Arendt, "Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil".]
Auschwitz was conceived as an industrial complex, exploiting local natural resources, existing railway lines, and the new-found sources of slave labour. Slowly, it evolved into a death camp, its primary industrial objective being the extermination of a race.
Using archive footage, interviews with survivors (from both sides of the wire), and computer animation to reconstruct the camp, the BBC delivers the tale of a bureaucratic nightmare. The commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, was an ambitious Nazi whose management skills were devoted to the task of finding more efficient and cost-effective ways to kill and dispose of the bodies. Morality? It has no place on the balance books.
Of the thousands who contributed to the running of the camps, the vast majority were 'ordinary' people. Jobsworths. The chilling lesson from the study of Auschwitz is that if you demonise people - point to their religion, colour, nationality, or whatever makes them different - you erode their humanity. Jews were brought to Auschwitz in cattle wagons - regarded as little better than vermin, a commodity to be traded on the no-futures market. Their dehumanisation had gathered momentum in the decades preceding the outbreak of war. Bureaucrats and functionaries simply consigned numbers for death. Brutalisation within the camp was echoed by indifference without. People did their jobs, consoling themselves that they were only obeying orders, that if they didn't do it, someone else would.
Evil is a railway timetable. Evil is a clipboard. Evil is a list of names. Evil is the completed requisition, ordering bricks to build an oven. Evil is a million discreet little signatures or ticked boxes or bland memos. The BBC delivers the history of an industrial complex and the bureaucratic-industrial-military machine which sustained it. Bit by bit, mass murder becomes a possibility, an inevitability, a simple process, a production line.
It's a chilly production. You find it very difficult to put your hand on your heart and attest that if it had been you, if you'd been in Germany in the 1930's, that you would have said "No!" You watch this production and you think about our present day world - and note the erosion of civil liberties, the genocide in the former Yugoslavia and in Africa and Asia, you note the need for our political leaders to find enemies and demons to pursue.
"Auschwitz" should be essential viewing. Apparently, something like half the teenagers in Britain had never heard of the place, and had no idea what happened there. Make sure your children watch this, then sit down and talk with them about what happens when ordinary people become too lazy, to scared, too greedy, or too frightened to ask questions or say no.
[For the interested, I'd also recommend the book of the series by Laurence Rees, Primo Levi's "If This Is a Man", the account of a survivor, and Deborah Dwork's "Auschwitz", where she dissects how the town became the centre of death.]
on 30 March 2006
This is an absolute gem of a series! Laurence Rees has certainly done his homework. This series tells you everything you want to know about the place and the people. No stone is left unturned. The reconstructions are brilliant using actors who are speaking in German (I always find this more authentic than them speaking in English with a German accent) and the computer graphics used to recreate the gas chambers and other buildings which no longer exist are awe inspiring. The interviews with the victims and even the perpertrators are also excellent and give us accounts from people who were actually there. This series not only gives you a definitive understanding of what happened but also why it happened.
The most striking thing for me has always been that the killing of almost 1.5M people was carried out in a civilised nation in Europe just over 60 year ago.
I loved this series - it gripped me so much that I went to Auschwitz in Sep 2005 to see it for myself.
If you are interested in the Holocaust then do 2 things - purchase this series and watch it through and then go and see the place for yourself.
on 11 December 2008
This DVD series epitomises the best of the BBC - flawless, direct and watchable documentary film-making.
When John Logie Baird first produced his television many moons ago, this is what he must have dreamed that his invention would be best put to use for - not the detritus in the Big Brother house, nor the sham of X Factor.
However, without coming over all pompous about social tastes, let me underline the main point of this review - this product should be seen by everyone at least once. This, and probably Spielberg's "Schindler's List". The imagination of man cannot reproduce the horror and sheer disgust committed by men and women to their fellow human beings just a little over 60 years ago. This is a monument to those dark deeds, and once seen will never be forgotten.
The BBC should take a closer look at its scheduling and make a promise to transmit this every year - and all schools should show it unerringly. German schoolchildren are constantly taught of those dark awful days, we in this country - as a valiant fighter against the evils of Nazism - should ensure the same practice.
The current rise of the extreme right throughout Europe and the world should serve as a timely reminder of what happened in 1933 and continued through to 1945. Let me put this subtly - anyone who dares contemplate voting BNP or even UKIP should watch this and reconsider their values very carefully. As Srebrenica, Darfur and Kosovo prove beyond doubt, it seems as a race we never learn from the lessons of history.
Watch this, weep, and remember...
on 12 September 2008
Auschwitz should be included on the list of places a person should see before they die. Why? Well, despite it looking inhospitable and at certain times of the year, cold and hostile - it is also the place where one man tried to wipe an entire race of people off the face of the earth and given the number of people he targeted, it could be said he very nearly succeeded.
Yes, there are those out there who say Stalin and Mao killed many many more people but are there monuments to that today? In China, I would doubt it. The Nazis certainly did their best to wipe out the crematoria by blowing them up but what remains is a place where birds will not sing and screams could probably be heard from every place.
The BBC did an incredible job on this programme with their computer enhanced images and the role playing to allow the viewer to become more involved in the story telling. What amazed me was that there were people who actually managed to escape and live to tell the tale. However, was there any retribution to this? Who can say - but it is chilling viewing coupled with excellent research by Laurence Rees. Samuel West's narrative is very well done - how he must have felt reading the text and keeping his emotions in check, I cannot imagine.
My 2nd year history teacher told us of her trip to Auschwitz when I was a 14 year old in 1978. It was she who told us of the lack of birdsong. That image has never left me.
For those who care about man's inhumanity to man - this is a must see.
on 16 February 2005
I'm a student and I was really taken by this BBC production. It's so sad and terrible to think what happened - the simplicity of the programme makes it even more harrowing because you have time to think about what you're seeing. Because it's so well researched you come away feeling you've been given a true, unbiased account of what happened at Auschwitz and this story should be compulsory viewing in all schools everywhere. It's informative as well as unforgettable.
on 30 June 2008
Laurence Rees is one of the BBC's outstanding historical documentary producers and one of his principal interests is the havoc wrought in Europe by Hitler and his henchmen. Ten years ago, he gave us the six-part series "The Nazis, A Warning from History". This series, homing in on one aspect of Nazism, was broadcast on the BBC around the time of the 60th anniversary of Auschwitz' liberation by the Red Army in January 1945. When it was broadcast I was unable to tear myself away from the screen and I seized a copy of the 2-DVD set as soon as I saw it in the shops.
The series mixes actual footage, interviews with victims and perpetrators and computer generated images of the two main camps (the "administration centre" at the confluence of the Sola and Vistula rivers in Auschwitz itself and the later Auschwitz-Birkenau some 3km away, where most of the mass murder took place).
Rees, ably supported by series consultant Professor Sir Ian Kershaw, traces the story of Auschwitz from its beginnings in April 1940 to its liberation in January 1945. They show how its development was a reaction to different Nazi priorities as World War II progressed. It was only after the infamous Wannsee conference in January 1942 that it developed as an extermination camp, but throughout its life it was a centre for Polish political prisoners, Russian prisoners of war and only later did it become a death camp as well.
It is one thing to watch old, blurred black and white pictures and scratched films, but quite another to follow a CGI image through the dimly-lit changing rooms into an underground gas chamber, one of the four that were the final destination for over a million victims of Auschwitz. This is disturbing viewing, definitely not for the faint hearted, but neither should it be ignored if we are to avoid repeating this black episode in recent history.
One thing that struck me was a CGI view of the yard between blocks 10 and 11 of the main camp, the so-called "death yard". I watched the DVD to remind myself of Rees's comments a few days after a visit to Krakow in March 2007. During that visit I took the 60km or so journey to Auschwitz and was able to pause my DVD player at that stage, point to a particular spot on the screen and say "I stood right there a few days ago". That brought it home to me that this is living history.
At times frightening, at times heartbreaking, but always completely riveting.
on 17 January 2006
I bought this book wanting to find out more about the holocuast and the politics behind the 'final solution'. I found it difficult to put down. This is a gut-wrenching read, and there were occassions where I had to stop reading just to absorb what was on the page, re-reading it to make sure I wasn't mistaken. Using eye witness accounts and archives the author offers several personal accounts of both the victims of Auchwitz and the psyche of the SS officers controlling their fate. Upon finishing the book I feel that everyone should read this book to honour the memory of those who suffered. Being a new mum made it harder for me to read, as I could not help but imagine my family being ripped apart and destroyed on the whim of a 'doctor' presiding over the new arrivals at the camp. The most harrowing part of the book is perhaps the persecution of children both in the ghettos (where they were left with no parents or guardians to protect them, some as young as a few months old) and the camps themselves.
In particular I was fascinated to read about the jews from Guernsey who were sent to their deaths without a second thought and the persecution of the jews (including the rape of women by soviet soldiers) following their long awaited liberation.
There is a very good balance between historical and political information and personal individual stories, making it a compelling read.