Anti-Semitism reached to extreme levels beginning in 1939, when Polish Jews were regularly rounded up and shot by members of the SS. Though some of these SS men saw the arbitrary killing of Jews as a sport, many had to be lubricated with large quantities of alcohol before committing these atrocious acts. Mental trauma was not uncommon amongst those men who were ordered to murder Jews. The establishment of extermination camps therefore became the "Final Solution" to the "Jewish Question", as well as a way to alleviate the mental trauma that grappled the minds of Nazi soldiers. The following essay will examine various primary and secondary sources to better illuminate the creation, evolution, practices and perpetrators of the extermination camps wherein the horrors of the Holocaust were conducted.
Pridham Noakes maintains that the creation of extermination camps began for two important reasons, the first already being mentioned as a way of soothing the psychological stress imposed upon Nazi soldiers of the Einsatzgruppen ordered to kill Jews with firearms. Fischer discusses the mental consequences which overcame soldiers of the Einsatzgruppen as a result of these brutal murders: "The men were physically and psychologically drained. Some sought refuge in alcohol, some became physically ill, a few committed suicide." The second reason for the creation of the extermination camps was to better conceal "subhuman" extermination from public (and foreign) view while accelerating the process of mass genocide.
The first extermination camp was located in Chelmno, Poland, where gas vans were used to kill the camps' victims. Gas vans had been introduced in Poland in 1939, Noakes maintains, and had initially been used to murder Russian POWs. The gassing of Polish Jews began in 1941 after the Nazis had forcefully gathered the majority of them into ghettoes around Lodz and Warthegau. The process was of crude design: Jews (and other subhuman' subjects) were rounded up and told they were to be sent to a labor camp. Before this, however, they were to strip naked and bathe. After stripping, the victims were herded and locked into a gas van. The driver' started the engine, and the exhaust from the vehicle flooded into the van, killing the victims inside. According to Noakes, "a recent estimate has given a total figure of 215,000 killed in Chelmno." After the creation of the more efficient gas chambers of later created extermination camps, the use of gas vans became less favored by SS officials, and Chelmno closed in 1943.
After the gas vans of Chelmno were phased out, SS officials began devising new methods of extermination that would kill more Jews at an accelerated rate. Fischer notes that the Nazis "decided that execution by poison gas in remote annihilation camps was the most efficient and humane' method of murdering the Jews." Aktion Reinhard (named after Reinhard Heydrich who was assassinated in Czechoslovakia) was the plan aimed to exterminate Polish Jews living within General Government to the East. Because the Jewish population here was high (2.3 million), three major death camps equipped with large gas chambers were established. Jews who were considered unfit for work (including many women and children) were extracted from labor camps to be exterminated. Belzec, located on the southwest border of former Poland, was the first extermination center initially built to kill off Jews from the Galicia and Lublin regions in order to make room for German Jews in the labor camps. Noakes interestingly notes that Belzec was "an experimental solution to a regional problem rather than the start of a Europe-wide extermination programme." In other words, Belzec was designed initially to kill the Jews in the East, while the decision to murder the entirety of Europe's Jewish population had not yet been realized. According to Noakes, diesel exhaust from a tank was pumped into the chambers in order to kill its...