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The Department of History, University of Northampton & The Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team






Why is Auschwitz frequently considered a symbol of the Holocaust?

Is such a view justified?


by Stacy Kerslake


Auschwitz is frequently considered by many historians and scholars to symbolise the Nazi attitudes and policy towards the Jews. It typifies the most extreme of these attitudes and shows how they took a practical form. Auschwitz is the crescendo of Nazi policy and capabilities. However, this view is not wholly justified. It fails to realise that Auschwitz was used for the extermination of the Jews alone and ignores other persecuted groups. It also fails to highlight that Auschwitz was one amongst many extermination camps also used to murder large numbers of people that did not fit into Hitler’s Third Reich. 

Auschwitz has made its way into the public perception as the biggest symbol of the Holocaust; a view that is frequently backed up by the media. For the purposes of this essay the author will be borrowing Michael Marrus’s definition of the Holocaust which is “the systematic mass murder of European Jewry by the Nazis.”[1] The Holocaust was such a momentous event in human history that it redefined the limits of human capability. As such memorials to the Holocaust began to be constructed immediately after the liberation of many Nazi camps; within days of their liberation the inmates of Bergen-Belsen were putting together temporary memorials using the ruins of their camp as materials.[2]Auschwitz has come to be viewed as the biggest permanent memorial to the Holocaust. Auschwitz has been represented in almost every form of media: from films such as Anne Frank’s Diary to the testimony of survivors such as Primo Levi and has been represented in art. However, as Rubenstein and Roth point out in their book: 

“no medium has done more than film- both still photos and moving pictures- to spread awareness of the Holocaust.”[3]  

The Holocaust has been represented in films such as Schindler’s List and The Pianist as well as in numerous television documentaries. These media are widely available to the general public and easy to understand; the facts are presented and an attempt is made to contextualise them in a short period of time so that it holds people’s attention. Although the information is not presented in a scholarly way this media coverage is nonetheless the key to Auschwitz’s success as a symbol of the Holocaust: the facts are made available to the general public and disseminated amongst a wide group of people rather than being confined to learned academics. The issues surrounding the Holocaust are reduced to their simplest forms so that one does not have to be a learned historian to grasp what went on.  As a result of this television has widely influenced public perception on the Holocaust and elevated Auschwitz to its symbolic level. 

The main issue that the media focus on and one of the reasons that Auschwitz has been brought to the forefront of public thinking on the Holocaust is its size; it was physically the biggest of all the Nazi extermination camps and oversaw the most deaths. In an age when people seem to adhere to the philosophy that “bigger is better” it seems only logical that the camp at Auschwitz should therefore be singled out for special attention. The camp was like a little community not only housing the victims of the Nazi regime but also the perpetrators within dozens of sub-camps contained within the same complex. The total number of deaths, around 1.1 million, at this camp also constitute a figure big enough to arouse public attention even within the context of Nazi genocide. The fact that the number of deaths is so concentrated within one small geographic area and that Auschwitz oversaw more deaths than any other extermination or labour camp holds a morbid fascination in people’s minds and ensures that Auschwitz is a name that sticks in their minds.  

The amount of media attention given to Auschwitz is supported by the fact that it is still there: there is both a museum and a memorial on site that people can visit. Auschwitz has had around thirty million visitors to date and averages around a million visitors a year.[4] Other Nazi extermination centres like Sobibor, Belzec and Treblinka have memorial centres but they do not have museums and the camps themselves are no longer standing. Those in charge at the Auschwitz memorial have a policy of preserving the camp just as the Allies found it in 1945[5] . This gives visitors the opportunity not only to hear about the events of the Holocaust but to see the evidence for themselves; giving the experience a dimension of reality they would not obtain from the television. The fact that most of the other extermination camps have been destroyed also makes it harder to find evidence of what happened there. Even concentration camps like Belsen were destroyed by the Allies after liberation in the hopes of preventing the spread of disease.[6] Auschwitz stands as a symbol of the Holocaust and as the evidence is there, it cannot be refuted. The arguments of Holocaust deniers such as David Irving and Arthur Butz fail to stand up when presented with the evidence at Auschwitz. Camps such as Sobibor, Belzec and Treblinka do not present such clear evidence and the ruins now seem far removed from the events that happened there; they seem to belong to another time and place. 

Although Auschwitz is seen to be the biggest symbol of the Holocaust this view is not wholly justified. It is only a tiny part in the much larger story of Nazi racial policy and the Holocaust. In the public eye it is the Auschwitz camp that has come to symbolise the mass gassing of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis, however, this is incorrect. Auschwitz I was a concentration camp where inmates were worked to death; whereas the camp at Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz II, was the main gassing centre. Birkenau has become a symbol for the killing of the Jews but, like Auschwitz I, this is only a very small part of the Holocaust. It was not only Jews that suffered at the hands of Hitler’s regime but the Nazis also targeted groups such as: gypsies, criminals, homosexuals, the disabled, mentally handicapped, political opponents and a group that the Nazis called ‘a-socials’. An estimate of deaths in Nazi extermination camps stands at 6 million Jews; 500,000 Gypsies and 9 million Slavs[7]. 

 The Holocaust actually begun with the systematic murder of Germans inside Hitler’s Third Reich. These people were the mentally and physically disabled from all echelons of society, ranging in age from young children to the elderly. They were seen by the Nazis as “life unworthy of life”[8] and “useless eaters” as they were perceived to drain society of the resources needed to care for them but contributed nothing back. As the Nazis worked towards creating a war economy in Germany they had to reduce government spending in certain areas and so removing these people from society would allow funds to be directed elsewhere, towards the war effort. It was during this “T4” campaign to remove these undesirable elements from society that the Nazis first perfected the methods of systematic killing that would later be used on a much larger scale and towards many more unwanted groups. 

At the same time the Nazis were perfecting the method of incarcerating their victims by setting up concentration camps; this began in the years after they first took power and was a policy directed mainly at political opponents. The first of these camps was in Germany itself; at Dachau near Munich. Dachau was opened as the first official concentration camp by Himmler on 20th March 1933[9]. It housed political opponents of the Nazi regime, mainly Communists, and was meant to keep these people from having an influence on the rest of society. Inmates of this camp were worked hard and often beaten. Many died but that was not the ultimate goal of this camp, the Nazis had not yet decided to exterminate “undesirables. Inmates at Dachau served an economic purpose because they provided cheap labour for the Nazis war effort.[10] One of the biggest symbols of Auschwitz II, the gates that can be seen on entry to the camp with the slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei” ,work makes you free, did not originate from Auschwitz but actually came from Dachau; however in Dachau it was true. The phrase was meant to remind prisoners on entry to the camp what was expected of them; incarceration in Dachau was never permanent and prisoners were expected to spend their sentence carrying out hard labour. If they conformed with these orders then they were released when their sentence had been served in full. In Auschwitz prisoners were worked until they were no longer fit and then sent to Auschwitz II to be gassed.  

However systematic gassing in camps was not the only way the Nazis exterminated their victims. There were also many people killed by the Nazis during the period when their policy was one of random and repeated shootings. After the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1942 the Nazis found that the problem of the “Jewish question” was greatly increased and there were now vast numbers of Communist opponents to be removed. The Nazis changed their policy from one of forced resettlement to that of physical extermination. Four special divisions of the SS, called Einsatzgruppen were enlisted to carry out this mass destruction. Jews and political opponents were rounded up and taken to specially selected extermination sites. These were usually natural ravines, antitank ditches or pits dug specifically for the efficient burial of a large number of bodies.[11]  It is not known how many victims died in mass-shooting but several scholars have estimated the figure at more than 1 million people[12]. Overcrowding, neglect and the privation of basic necessities also claimed lives, killing its victims slowly through dehydration, disease and starvation.[13] When seen in this light Auschwitz’s position as symbol of the Holocaust can no longer be justified as many of the most horrific killings took place outside the context of a systematic and regimented camp with a policy and a goal of extermination: these ad-hoc killings and deaths through depravation are rarely marked and their victims more often than not forgotten. As such a large part of the Holocaust goes unmarked and is not covered by the maintenance of Auschwitz as the definitive symbol of Nazi genocide. 

When the Nazis did begin their policy of extermination they built several centres for this purpose, not just Auschwitz; indeed Auschwitz-Birkenau was the last of such centres to be built. The first of such centres was the “Operation Reinhard” camp Belzec opened in 1942 and closely followed by Sobibor and Treblinka. There were also extermination centres at Chelmo and Majdanek. These camps were specifically designed for speed and efficiency. The Nazis used all of their previous experience to this end, indeed many of the staff in these camps had previously been a part of the “T4” euthanasia campaign. Very few inmates were selected for work at these camps inmates were expected only to die. Those that were selected to work were allowed to do so only for a couple of days before they were gassed and replaced by workers from the latest transport. The Jews at Belzec were not killed with the pesticide Zyklon B as at Auschwitz- Birkenau but with canned carbon monoxide[14]. It is estimated that 540,000 Jews were killed at Belzec and 763,000 at Treblinka; the exact figure for Sobibor is unknown[15]. Overall more than a million Jews died in the “Operation Reinhard” camps and this is a substantial proportion of the total Holocaust victims. This devalues Auschwitz’s status as symbol of the holocaust as when it is seen in the wider context it represents only a small part of Nazi policy and is only the visible tip of the victims’ suffering. 

In conclusion, although Auschwitz has come to be seen as the biggest and most significant symbol of the Holocaust this view is not entirely justified. Auschwitz does present us with clear and undeniable evidence of the Holocaust by the very fact that it is still standing and it is possible to go and visit the museum there. However it highlights only the last phase, namely that of planned and systematic extermination, in the Holocaust and does not show the wider picture. It gives evidence only of the persecution of the Jews; which ignores the thousands of gypsies, homosexuals, disabled, criminals and even ordinary Germans that were victimised and killed under Hitler’s regime. 





ARAD, Yitzhak, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987).

FRANK, Otto (eds), Anne Frank 1929-1945: The Diary of a Young Girl (Harmondsworth: Viking, 1997).

HOCHSTADT, Steve (eds), Sources of the Holocaust (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

RUBENSTEIN, Richard L. and ROTH, John K, Approaches to Auschwitz: The Holocaust and its Legacy (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003).

WOLFE, Robert, Holocaust: The Documentary Evidence (Washington DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1990).

YOUNG, James E, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (London: Yale University Press, 1993).



SNOWMAN, Daniel, (2005) Monument, Memorial or Museum? BBC History Magazine 6 (1). 

REES, Laurence, (2005) Auschwitz. BBC History Magazine 6 (1). 

ANON, (2005) Belsen Survivors Mark Liberation Anniversary. The Guardian. 15 April.







Schindler’s List (1993) Steven Spielberg. Universal Pictures. 195 mins.  

The Pianist (2004) Roman Polanski. United Pictures. 150 mins.


[1] M.R. Marrus, The Holocaust in History (London: Penguin Books, 1987), p1

[2] J E. Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (1993), p49.

[3] R. Rubenstein & J. Roth, Approaches to Auschwitz: The Holocaust and its Legacy (2003), p292.

[4] D. Snowman, (2005) “Monument, Memorial or Museum?” BBC History Magazine. 6 (1), p20.

[5] D. Snowman, (2005) “Monument, Memorial or Museum?” BBC History Magazine. 6 (1), p20.

[6]“Belsen Survivors Mark Liberation Anniversary” in the Guardian, 15 April.2005, online at:


[7] R. Wolfe (eds), Holocaust: The Documentary Evidence (1990), p14.

[8] Dr K. Binding, “Permission for the Extermination of Life Unworthy of Life” in S. Hochstadt (eds) Sources of the Holocaust (2004), p29.

[9] S. Hochstadt (eds), Sources of the Holocaust (2004), p41.

[10] L. Rees, (2005) “Auschwitz” BBC History Magazine. 6 (1), pg16.

[11] Y. Arad, Belzec, Sobibor,Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps (1987), p7.

[12] R. Wolfe (eds), Holocaust: The Documentary Evidence (1990), p15

[13] “Belsen Survivors Mark Liberation Anniversary” in the Guardian, 15 April.2005, online at guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,3604,809267,00.html

[14] Y. Arad, Belzec, Sobibor,Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps (1987), p26.

[15] Y. Arad, Belzec, Sobibor,Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps (1987), p128.



Copyright: 2007 Stacy Kerslake & H.E.A.R.T


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