In early 1941 IG Farben Industrie AG decided to establish a factory for the manufacture of synthetic rubber and fuel near the city of Oświęcim. Although the project was scheduled for completion by mid-1943, it remained unfinished when Soviet forces liberated the area in 1945, despite an enormous investment in money, equipment, and construction materials, and the death of some 30,000 prisoners who had been put to work in building the plant — most of them Jews.
This article discusses the reasons why the construction of this plant, planned to take no more than two years, stretched to four years and was never completed; IG Farben’s responsibility for the loss of so many slave-labor prisoners’ lives; and the company’s involvement in and responsibility for the establishment of the Birkenau extermination camp.
A painstaking review of the sequence of events in the construction of the plant confirms the conclusion that this construction project had been plagued from the outset by appalling engineering blunders in planning and performance. These failures significantly inflated the construction costs, delayed the completion of the project by years, and greatly increased the number of slave laborers that the Auschwitz I concentration camp had to provide the company. IG Farben’s managers, attempting to overcome the delays that their blunders had created, subjected the prisoners to brutal treatment, expended their strength, and quickly turned them into shattered remnants of human beings. Due to the seemingly limitless manpower available to replace prisoners whose strength gave out, the Auschwitz I camp had the resources to provide the company with some 41,000 prisoners during the years in which the plant was under construction.
But the eventual inability of the existing facilities at Auschwitz to furnish so many prisoners for the construction of IG Farben’s enterprise played a significant role in the expansion of this camp and the establishment of the nearby Birkenau camp. Once Birkenau was completed, the Reich leadership assigned it a dual role: to serve as a center for the extermination of Jews who would be brought there from all over Europe and, concurrently, to serve as a central labor pool of Jewish workers for the Reich war industry.