The camp's original mission was to be a regional prison for Poles who opposed German rule. That purpose made Auschwitz a deadly place for tens of thousands of non-Jewish Poles who were killed by slave labor, disease, and execution. In the months and years ahead, Auschwitz would expand into a network of labor and killing installations that would destroy more than a million people. Ninety percent were Jews. They came not only from Poland but from every part of Nazi-controlled Europe. Eventually, Auschwitz revealed the logic of Nazi racism to such an extent that Auschwitz became nearly synonymous with the Holocaust itself.
Nazi racism emphasized German superiority as much as it stressed the inferiority of Poles and Jews. Especially in the spring of 1940, the German spirit of superiority ran high. Having spent several months consolidating their gains in Occupied Poland, German military forces launched a series of quick and successful strikes in Western Europe. Following the invasions of Denmark and Norway on April 9, the Wehrmacht attacked France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands on May 10. Only the massive sea evacuation of some 338,000 British, French, and Belgian armed forces from Dunkerque, France, at the end of the month prevented the Germans from decisively destroying the main military forces that opposed them in Western Europe.
On June 5 the Germans launched their final assault against France. Paris fell on June 14. Two days later Marshal Philippe Pétain, the aging French hero of World War I, took over as head of the French government. He quickly asked for an armistice, which was signed on June 22.
The armistice resulted in a two-zone division of the country. The Nazis occupied the northern two-thirds of the country, including Paris. Southern France, with governmental headquarters at the resort town of Vichy, remained unoccupied until early 1942. Under these arrangements, the Germans allowed a collaborationist French government, led by Pétain and then by Pierre Laval, to remain in place in exchange for its cooperation, which included financial exploitation that benefited Germany, labor brigades sent to work in German industry, and punitive measures against Jews.
The total Jewish population of the Western European countries conquered by the Germans in the spring of 1940 was considerably smaller than Poland's alone, but the numbers still were large. In a matter of weeks, more than a half-million Jews in Western Europe, including thousands who had fled from prewar Germany and Central Europe, found themselves under the domination of Nazi Germany and its collaborators. Eventually, these innocents would be rounded up and deported to the East. Many transports sent Jews from France, the Netherlands, Norway, and other Western European states to their deaths at Auschwitz.