A six-part Holocaust documentary features shocking new interviews with death camp guards

Roundup: Talking About History

'PEOPLE don't know, they just don't know," says Laurence Rees, writer and producer of Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution. "And if they do know about the Holocaust, the folk memory is wrong, surrounded by caricatures."

Rees speaks as a biographer of the most evil place in the world. His acclaimed six-part documentary, first screened on the BBC earlier this year, comes to the ABC this week.

In the spring of 1940, Auschwitz was no more than a neat row upon row of abandoned huts, a dilapidated former Polish army barracks set around a huge horse-breaking yard.

At first, Poles were imprisoned and died in the camp, political prisoners seen as a threat to the German occupation. By the beginning of 1942, it was an industrial killing machine at the service of the modern German state, the site for the greatest mass murder in history.

"People think there was one carpet-biting loony who ordered a load of robots to work his will," Rees says from his BBC office in London, exasperation, and occasionally despair, spilling down the line.

"So they feel there's no point putting themselves through the upset of learning about this because there's nothing to learn. All you have to watch out for, they argue, is that there isn't another carpet-biting loony and a bunch of robots to do it again.

"The purpose of this show is to reveal this is not the case. Too many people were involved and they were not loonies."

Rees, who heads the BBC's history unit and has made award-winning documentaries on the events of World War II, has good cause to be concerned.
When the broadcaster conducted a series of polls to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the death camps, almost 50 per cent of respondents did not know what Auschwitz was. This research startled Rees, who had presumed that the horrors of this focal point of Nazi genocide were ingrained on Britain's collective memory, and resonant with global significance.

The series was built on three years of in-depth research, drawing on authorities such as David Cesarani, Britain's leading specialist in Jewish history, and Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw, whose magisterial two-volume life of the dictator redefined reflection of that darkest of times.
Historians no longer see Auschwitz as an aberration within the Nazi state, but its logical conclusion. Rees, 48, and his research team interviewed almost 100 survivors and perpetrators, many of whom spoke in detail for the first time of how the process of genocide, at first improvised, proceeded by grisly trial and error to efficient assembly-line slaughter.

In this week's first episode, Beginnings, Rees describes the development of the camp, and how, between March 1940 and September 1941, violence increased against all opponents of the Nazi state. New evidence emphasises the harshness of the German army's struggle in their "crusade" against the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941....

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