Auschwitz: Ultima ratio of the modern age
The concentration camp Auschwitz was created in 1940 by the order of Heinrich Himmler, the chief of the Waffen-SS (an armed wing of the Nazi Party’s SS organization). A former Polish garrison in the town of Oświęcim was chosen for the location.
A construction management group within the Waffen-SS was responsible for the camp’s construction. Its head was Karl Bischoff, an engineer and high-ranking SS officer; two Austrian architects and SS men, Walter Dejaco and Fritz Ertl, were commissioned as project chiefs. Their project office employed almost a hundred prison inmates with architectural knowledge who prepared many drawings for the project. The construction group’s defining logic was that the forms of the buildings at Auschwitz needed to be absolutely subordinated to their function as instruments of mass killing. Even in the construction phase, this architecture was purely dictated by its functional outcome.
Today, beyond the gigantic collection of the archives, there are more than 150 buildings, 300 ruins and countless other objects located at the Auschwitz memorial. This is an important testament to the industrial character of the genocide that occurred in the concentration camps of the Third Reich.
According to the famed photographic duo Bernd and Hilla Becher, the form of industrial construction is determined only by its function. The defining logic of the architecture in the concentration camp was that the forms of the buildings were solely a function of their use for industrial-scale genocide. This architecture is a pure realization of the American architect Louis Sullivan’s famous principle: “form follows function.”
Today, the structures’ former function “legitimizes” the existence of these buildings in the present day. Usually, when a structure loses its original function, it becomes unnecessary and sooner or later will be demolished. There are two possible exceptions: one is to transform the site and give it a secondary function. The second, as in this case, is to raise a site to protected status as a monument, museum, or memorial. The “Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum” was established in 1947. Of the ten units forming the main camp complex in the neighborhood of Oświęcim, two, which comprised the main camp, are now a part of the museum.
My typological examination of the buildings and the objects at Auschwitz enable the spectator to compare rationalization methods in an architecture designed, specifically, for efficient mass killing. To avoid narrative content, and to allow an objective analysis of the subject material, I made these photographs with consistent lighting conditions and a uniform composition. The use of black and white was intentional, making the resulting image more abstract and eliminating the emotional, symbolic expression of color. Conscientious viewers will notice that the consequences of these photographic methods (and the images themselves) paradoxically reflect the horrendous rationale of the illustrated architecture.
Roland Barthes wrote, “the photo allows [us] to take a part in the [past] events.” This is possible because photography is, at once, an instrument for reflection in the present time and an object that was created in (and by) the past. In the case of this project, photographic media accompanied the Nazi crimes, at the time they were committed, in the name of documentation. For example, at Auschwitz, Wilhelm Brasse, prisoner number 3444, was a photographer commissioned to document his fellow inmates. To him we owe the thousands of photodocuments which have given the sufferings of the victims a face.
Today‘s photographic documents from Auschwitz, such as my own work, show not only the cruel artifacts of modernity, but a modern-day museum itself. They document the present condition of these structures, which were originally created to exterminate humankind. These structures would not still exist without protection and arduous conservatory work. This “here and now” could not become what it is without the “there and then” (Walter Benjamin) that preceded it.