Without the power and influence of the German industries in the years before 1939, particularly IG Farben, going to war may not have been possible. In the early 20th century, German chemical firms controlled most of the worlds production and exports.
The industries grew even further at the outbreak of the I World War especially in the production of explosives and warfare gasses. As the Germans were cut off from importing chemicals, research into technological innovation was stepped up with highly progressive results. The creation of acquiring Ammonia from the air by BASF Scientists and the production of gun powder enabled Germany to compete resourcefully during the I World War.
The German industries grew rapidly which had terrible effects in peace time. As the war ended, many of the factories closed down over night. The post war years were extremely tough on the German industries which eventually led to a merger in 1925 of the largest companies in Germany. The conglomerate became known as IG Farbenindustrie Aktiengesellschaft and based their head office in Frankfurt. IG Farben went on to become the largest company in Europe and the 4th biggest company in the world. Only the Wall Street crash in 1929 stopped IG Farben expanding further. Production stalled by around 40%.
The company continued to struggle until the early 1930’s when Hitler came to power. Before this time, IG Farben had no connections or political leanings to the National Socialists Party until a meeting between a representative of the company and Hitler was arranged in 1932.
Hitler explained in detail the development of the Petrochemical company was central to his vision of Germany and especially his expansion programme of the Autobahns. After the meeting, relationships between IG Farben and the Nazi party would only get stronger. The company would make regular contributions to the Nazis and in return, they were rewarded with several army contracts which allowed them to invest more into the research of Synthetic Rubber. This was to prove important in 1940/1 when Germany cut their ties with Russia. By now, the German army were highly reliant on IG Farben for their production of war materials to sustain fighting on two fronts.
Several sub-camps were established around German owned industries in the Upper Silesia areas and Czechoslovakia. The main industries were Chemical, Mechanical, Mining, Power and Steel. Until 1943, the Auschwitz network of sub-camps fell under the administration of Camp I but in late 1943 all industrial armaments and extractive industries (such as coal and quarry work) were subordinate to Auschwitz III.
This was confirmed on the 11th November 1943 when Obersturmbannführer Arthur Liebehenschel took over as the overall Commandant. Auschwitz was divided into 3 main administrations:
Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II Birkenau (that controlled the agricultural sub-camps) and Auschwitz III Monowitz that looked after Jawischowitz, Neu-Dachs, Fürstengrube, Janinagrube, Golleschau, Eintrachthütte, Sosnowitz and Lagischa as well as the Brünn Sub-camp in Czechoslovakia.
SS-Hauptsturmführer Heinrich Schwarz, who had up to that point been the camps first Schutzhaftlagerführer was now appointed Commandant of Auschwitz III. Prisoners under the new administration were still vulnerable to selections by the SS if they were too sick to work. Selected prisoners were sent to Birkenau and killed in the gas chambers. In some cases, there are reports that prisoners were killed at their place of work and their corpse was sent directly to the crematoriums in Birkenau. Sub-camps that were equipped with furnaces such as Trzebinia and Blechhammer would often dispose of prisoners themselves.
The Fürstengrube sub-camp was established in 1943 at a coal mine in the town of Wesoła near Myslowice. The mine was about 30 kilometres from Auschwitz. In February 1941, IG Farben purchased the mine to use the coal for powering their plant being built in Auschwitz III Monowitz. By 1941, IG Farben had already planned for a large scale industrial complex and they knew that labour had to come from the vast resources at Auschwitz. This was also factored into the costs of wages.
Sam Pivnik, a Polish Jew from the town of Będzin in Zagłębie Dąbrowskie by the Upper Silesia area, was sent to the sub-camp after being selected at Birkenau. He described the process:
The desperate tunnels of Fürstengrube were churning out coal to be trained at Monowitz where the production plant carried out the necessary chemical process.(IG Farben) The SS charged four Deutschmarks a day for an unskilled labourer like me; six marks for a skilled man. None of this of course appeared as wages and very little was used to maintain the mine. I suppose the SS attitude was that they had a virtually inexhaustible supply of slave labour and any one of us could easily be replaced.
Infact the inexhaustible supply of slave labour was true to an extent, but the constant changing of prisoners and retraining new people caused delays in the actual output. Any concerns IG Farben may have shown were most likely attributed to increasing production and not for the prisoners welfare. The improvement in conditions for their workers was only considered when there was no other options and the turnover of skilled staff became unmanageable. There is no evidence to suggest that IG Farben had any interest in the living conditions of the prisoners unless it infringed upon the civilians working alongside them. The food at the Furstengrube mine was completely inadequate for the hard labour that was demanded. Sam Pivnik explained further:
(...) breakfast was the usual ersatz coffee, made of barley or acorn that was used to wash down a single slice of bread and piece of sausage. More coffee in the evening when we had the watery soup made from potatoes or turnips.
IG Farben were the largest profiteer from slave labour during the war, but many other industries were encouraged to build factories by the sub-camps to make use of the available labour. Infact, there were 108 companies subcontracted at the IG Farben factory at Auschwitz III and this figure does not include those companies involved in building the IG Farben housing estates.
The Blechammer sub-camp was only second to the Buna Monowitz camp for the amount of prisoners held, and over 4,000 Jews were recorded as imprisoned there just before the evacuation in January 1945. The sub-camp was established 5 kilometres from the Hydrierwerke AG Chemical factory, a German company who knew the prisoners were being badly treated and killed. When the Allied bombing increased, prisoners were ordered to remove unexploded bombs from around the chemical plant, resulting in many causalities. A former inmate described the living conditions at the Blechammer camp in detail:
They beat us whenever they chose, on our naked bodies. but for some, that beating was less painful than the jokes they made about our naked skeletons. Our skin covered our bones, and we really did look hideous, so the Germans often took pictures and laughed. This was moral persecution of us Jews. I will not say anything on the subject of the food. It was perhaps even worse than in other camps. People died of exhaustion, which perhaps speaks for itself. The Germans behaved in a particularly beastly way towards the Jews in this camp. They beat us on the most trivial of occasions, or when there was no occasion at all. They beat us during morning roll call, on the way to work and on the way back from work to the camp. When we were getting food and when we washed...
Living conditions in the industrial sub-camps did not differ too much from those at Birkenau although the work assignments were more varied. Working conditions and the way prisoners were treated were also pretty much the same though. A former prisoner at the Buna Monowitz camp recalled:
We worked without any breaks for rest. Anyone who paused even for a moment was beaten horribly. Every Kapo carried the handle of a broken shovel for administering German justice, We were beaten over the head, across the back and wherever they pleased.
Hard labour and hunger drove many prisoners to give up and commit suicide in the most awful ways imaginable. Prisoners would throw themselves on electrified fence, knowing they may die a slow painful death. Others would throw themselves under the wheels of moving trucks. In Jawischowitz, survivors reported seeing prisoners jump into mine shafts and even cut their own throats. Starving prisoners allowed the raw extraction of their gold teeth in return for a small portion of food. This was a crime in itself as the SS considered prisoners teeth as property of the Reich. It was only a matter of time before the prisoner died, and their teeth would soon be extracted and sent back into Germany. The German companies who owned the coal mines that used labour from the sub-camps, were aware that the SS mainly sent prisoners as a form of punishment. Sam Pivnik described the Fürstengrube sub-camp as a prison inside a prison, and the SS constantly made the prisoners aware they were being singled out for harsh punishment. The SS were not concerned with production, and the Civilian overseers at the camps showed little to no consideration for prisoner welfare.
The vast spatial area that the German industries occupied in the sub-camps is something that is largely ignored. Kitty Hart, who was a prisoner in Birkenau explained to the Auschwitz Study Group in 2015:
Few people nowadays appreciate the vastness of Auschwitz at its operational peak. I didn’t fully grasp it myself until I returned in 1978, since no inmate was ever allowed to wonder freely between the different sections or ask questions. Even in 1978 it was hard to take in its size; little remained of the original industrial complex, but from what I read and what I now pieced together I could conjure up a broad picture. With (over) 40 sub-camps and purpose built factory compounds, it in fact covered some twenty-five square miles.
Despite the need and profitability available for using slave labourers, the main purpose for assigning prisoners to work for German companies was to demoralise and kill them off. Output would have been higher with a skilled healthy work force, but the money saved on paying wages for a civilian worker most probably ensured a much healthier profit overall. The SS calculated that the cost of keeping one prisoner in the camp at less than one tenth the average rate they charged the companies. The prisoners were exploited to the nth degree. Even in death, there was profit to be made. Soap was made from the fat drained from the bodies, fertiliser was made from the ashes and materials created from the hair.