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Exploring the role of rail systems in genocide

World Without Genocide will hold a webinar, open to all, on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022, called “The Last Train to Auschwitz.”

The main railway building on the site of the former Nazi German concentration camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau during ceremonies marking the 77th anniversary of the liberation of the camp, in Brzezinka near Oswiecim, Poland, on January 27, 2022.
The main railway building on the site of the former Nazi German concentration camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau during ceremonies marking the 77th anniversary of the liberation of the camp, in Brzezinka near Oswiecim, Poland, on January 27, 2022.
Jakub Porzycki/Agencja Wyborcza.pl via REUTERS

During World War II, the Nazis planned to exterminate the entire Jewish population of Europe, 11 million people. The ‘final solution,’ as it was called, involved rounding up Jews into ghettoes and concentration camps and then transporting them by train to extermination sites primarily in German-occupied Poland.

Trains were the vital link in the plan. Europe’s vast rail network brought Jews from many countries to the killing sites.

Between 1941 and 1944, millions of people were subjected to inhuman deportation conditions in both passenger and freight cars: horrific overcrowding, no sanitation facilities, no food or water, no heat in the winter or relief from stifling heat in the summer, and no air. Thousands of people died on the trains.

Such a massive logistical operation involved huge numbers of personnel in administrative offices throughout Europe to staff, schedule, and coordinate more than 1,600 trains. The train systems were not only those owned by the German government; they included the national railways in nearly two dozen countries within Germany’s vast reach.

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The Belgian national railway was the first one in western Europe to send Jews to their deaths.

In France, the French national railway, the SNCF, transported 76,000 Jews from France to Auschwitz and other murder sites; 73,000 people perished.

The deported Jews and the non-German railway companies had to pay fees to Germany for the deportations. By the war’s end, the German government had received nearly $700 million in payment for the routes to death.

The Holocaust was not the first time that trains were used in carrying out genocide.

An earlier use of railways as a tool to perpetrate mass atrocities occurred in 1915 in the Ottoman Empire’s genocide of the Armenians. Tens of thousands of Armenians were held in concentration camps that were set up near railroad stations, from which people were then deported to death. An early instance occurred when Armenian women and children from the town of Zeitun were deported on the Berlin-Baghdad railway. Many Armenians were subsequently transported and killed through this system that was designed by German engineers and funded by Germany’s Deutsche Bank.

And earlier still, in the first genocide of the 20th century, from 1904-1907, German trains were used to transport indigenous Herero and Nama people in German Southwest Africa, today known as Namibia, to Germany’s African concentration and extermination camps, where more than 80 percent of the prisoners perished.

Some scholars suggest a ‘continuity hypothesis,’ as this German pattern might indicate.

Where should culpability lie – with individuals?  With complicit states? With the railway companies?

In 2008, German railways admitted the role the Nazi government and its railways played in the Holocaust, saying that without the cooperation of the rail network, the systematic murder of millions of people could never have happened.

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The state rail company Deutsche Bahn said the tracks and freight of the Reichsbahn were integral to the Nazis’ extermination plan, reported The Guardian. Three million Jews and Roma, including 1.5 million children, were transported on Reichsbahn railway tracks in cattle wagons to extermination camps.

Ellen J. Kennedy
Ellen J. Kennedy
The French national railway apologized in 2011 and subsequently faced legal challenges in the US that resulted in restitution payments.

Debates over past atrocities raise many issues in transitional justice, the passage from a violent past to a return of the just rule of law: group reparations and individual compensations, reconciliation, retribution and punishment for perpetrators, acknowledgment of guilt, public awareness of the stories of victim-survivors and descendants, historical documentation, and memorialization.

There are no easy answers about culpability or impunity, particularly when the crimes are so egregious. We must consider not only individual responsibility for genocide and other heinous acts, but also the responsibility of organizations entrusted with providing for the public good.

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World Without Genocide will hold a webinar, open to all, on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022, called “The Last Train to Auschwitz.”  Register here.

Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is the executive director of World Without Genocide at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, an adjunct professor of law.