Journal Article

Not Just a ‘Dating Game’: Origins of the Holocaust at Auschwitz in the Light of Witness Testimony

Michael Thad Allen

in German History

Published on behalf of German History Society

Volume 25, issue 2, pages 162-191
Published in print April 2007 | ISSN: 0266-3554
Published online April 2007 | e-ISSN: 1477-089X | DOI:
Not Just a ‘Dating Game’: Origins of the Holocaust at Auschwitz in the Light of Witness Testimony

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Historians now view Auschwitz as marginal to the origins of the Holocaust. In a surprising volte-face from a generation ago, Historians now accept what can be called a ‘transformation narrative’. That is, most accounts cast Auschwitz, not as first mover, but as late comer to the destruction of the European Jews. This fits a much larger historiographical movement attributing the Final Solution to a local initiative within a disorganized, even ‘debureaucratized’ German state. Once again, this departs completely from, say, Raul Hilberg or Hannah Arendt, who defined the Holocaust as a crime unique to modern, organized society. Thus, in the case of Auschwitz, what some have come to ridicule as the ‘dating game’—the almost obsessive attempt to identify a precise microchronology of the final solution—has larger implications. It cuts to the heart of whether we see the Holocaust as a crime of a modern, dynamic industrial state or as a haphazard initiative.

This article uses testimony from the three most relevant professional groups that built the genocidal factories of Auschwitz to reassess the current consensus. Contrary to the ‘transformation narrative’, little evidence supports the argument that the SS and its independent contractors were somehow divorced from efforts to mechanize genocide from Minsk to Lublin to Oswiecim in the autumn of 1941. The testimony as a whole—drawn from civilian managers, SS architects, and prisoner-engineers—leaves little doubt that the new crematoria of Birkenau were intended from the beginning (that is, from October 1941) as gas chambers. The ‘transformation narrative’, ironically enough, finds support in only one account: the internally contradictory and almost desperate testimony given by one former SS architect at his own trial. To put a fine point on it, the ‘transformation narrative’ hews most closely to a dubious defence narrative given by a perpetrator, in which neither his lawyers nor his fellow defendants placed much credence.

Keywords: Holocaust; Auschwitz; survivor testimony; technology; Topf & Söhne; Schutzstaffel (SS)

Journal Article.  0 words. 

Subjects: European History

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