The Holocaust is generally regarded as the systematic, state-sponsored persecution and slaughter of approximately 6 million Jews — two thirds of the total European Jewish population, and two-fifths of the Jews in the entire world — but also millions of other victims, by the Nazi regime and its collaborators under Adolf Hitler.
While the Jews were the primary target, there were many other ethnic, secular, religious, and national groups that suffered during the Holocaust, including Poles, Czechs, Greeks, Gypsies, Serbs, Ukranians, and Russians, as well as homosexuals, mentally and physically handicapped persons, trade unionists, prisoners of war, Jehovah's Witnesses, and uncounted others. All were targeted because of their perceived "racial inferiority."
The roots of Hitler's hatred
Disagreements persist about the precise origins of Hitler's anti-semitism. His hatred of the Jews was so unrelenting that the political testament he signed on April 29, 1945 — just one day before his suicide and fewer than 10 days before German surrender — ended by ordering "the government and the people to uphold the race laws ... and to resist mercilessly the poisoner of all nations, international Jewry." As early as 1919, in his first definite anti-Jewish writing, Hitler stated that "rational anti-semitism must lead to a systematic legal opposition and elimination of the special privileges which Jews hold... Its final objective must unswervingly be the removal of the Jews altogether."
Modern anti-semitism in Germany was boosted in the 1880s when an influential nationalist historian, Heinrich von Trietschke, published a series of articles in which he wrote, "The Jews are our misfortune." That slogan would later be written on banners at Nazi rallies. Another anti-Jewish German writer, Wilhelm Marr, coined the term anti-semitism.
Anti-semitism was not unique to Germany. Hitler was only exploiting anti-semitic feelings that had been endemic in Europe for centuries. Germany was in terrible shape economically after World War I, and Hitler and his ideals made it easy for the German people to lay the blame on one particular group. Hitler led many to believe that the Jews had been the source of defeat during the war, as well as for the economic depression during the 1930s.
At the heart of Hitler's political creed stood the ideal of racial purity. Above all else, German, or "Aryan," blood must be kept vital and strong. Neither Hitler nor any of his contemporaries was the first to practice what has sometimes been called "the longest hatred." Hitler was born into a world, and into an environment, in which anti-semitism was already present. His time spent in Vienna, Austria, as a young man, fueled his notions of racial superiority.
Hitler joined, and soon became the leader of, a small right-wing political group that called itself the National Socialist German Workers Party (Nazi). The Nazis attempted to take over the German government in November 1923, but were unsuccessful, and Hitler received a five-year prison sentence for his involvement in the uprising. He served nine months of his sentence in a suite of rooms at the prison, during which time he wrote Mein Kampf (My Struggle), which declared that some races create civilization and others corrupt it. By 1945, his book had sold more than 6,000,000 copies.
The Nazis gained in popularity as Hitler promised a better life for the German people. By 1932 the Nazis were the largest political party in Germany. They soon gained total control, and called their state the Third Reich. Hitler's speeches — typically delivered from rough notes and sometimes lasting two hours — drew crowds that often numbered in the tens of thousands.
Hell on Earth
In 1933, the Jewish population of Europe was more than 9 million. Most European Jews lived in countries that the Third Reich would occupy, or at least influence, during World War II. By 1945, close to two out of every three European Jews had been killed as part of the "Final Solution," or the policy to slay all the Jews of Europe.
The Holocaust had essentially been underway since the enactment of the 1935 Nuremberg Race Laws, which proclaimed Jews to be second-class citizens and excluded German Jews from Reich citizenship, as well as prohibited them from marrying or having sexual relations with persons of "German or related blood." German Jewish athletes were not allowed to participate in the 1936 Olympics.
As soon as Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933, he implemented his scheme to conclude the struggle between the "master race" and the "inferior races." Anything in the media that opposed the Nazi Party was censored and removed. All forms of communication, whether newspapers, magazines, books, art, music, or radio, were controlled by the Nazis.
Soon, laws were instituted against Jews that forced them out of public life — civil service jobs, university positions, and numerous others. Jewish businesses were boycotted, and all Jews were compelled to label their exterior clothing with a yellow Star of David with the word "Juden" (Jew).
Eventually, Jews were more and more segregated, until finally, they couldn't go to public schools, theaters, or resorts, and were even banned from walking in certain parts of Germany.
When World War II erupted on September 1, 1939 and Germany gained victory over Poland, the Nazis began to enslave the Poles and destroy their culture. The first step was to eliminate the leaders and intelligensia. Many university professors, politicians, writers, and Catholic priests were murdered. Polish people were dislocated to make room for the "superior" Germans.
Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Einsatzgruppen, or mobile killing units, carried out mass-murder operations. On September 29 and 30, 1941, for example, more than half of the 60,000 Jews living in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev were marched into a ravine and shot.
More than 1.3 million men, women, and children were murdered in such outdoor massacres. Hitler also authorized an order to exterminate institutionalized, handicapped patients deemed incurable. The practice went on throughout the war. During the war, the Nazis created ghettos, or city districts (often enclosed), in which the Germans forced the Jewish population to live under miserable conditions. More than 400 ghettos were established, the largest of which was the one in Warsaw, Poland, where approximately 450,000 Jews were crowded into an area of 1.3 square miles.
By the middle of 1941, 4-5,000 Warsaw Jews perished every month from hunger and disease brought on by malnutrition. Between 1942 and 1944, Germans decided to eliminate the ghettos and deport their populations to "extermination camps," or killing centers equipped with gassing facilities, in Poland. That was known as the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question" — implemented after a meeting with senior Nazi officials in January 1942.
Between September 1939, when Nazi troops invaded Poland, and Germany's surrender in May 1945, Hitler and his army essentially waged two wars. One was against Allied forces on three continents and the other was against the Jews and other unfortunate civilians.
Deportations of Jews from the ghettos commenced from west to east. Jews by the trainloads arrived in Poland from Germany, Holland, and Belgium. A lucky few managed to jump from the "death trains." People were deposited directly into the death camps, and one ghetto after another was destroyed. By the beginning of 1945, Jewish communities, in continuous existence for nearly a thousand years, ceased to exist.
Six "killing centers," or extermination camps, were organized in Poland: Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor, Treblinka, and the most infamous, Auschwitz. The camps were chosen according to their proximity to rail lines, which was essential for transporting the victims.
Railroad freight cars and passenger trains brought in the victims. Upon arrival, men and women were immediately separated. Prisoners were stripped of their clothing and valuables, then they were divided into two groups. Those too weak for work were forced naked into the gas chambers, disguised as showers, where carbon monoxide or hydrogen cyanide asphyxiated them.
The bodies were then stripped of hair (used for rugs, socks, and mattresses), gold fillings, and teeth, and burned in crematoriums or buried in mass graves. Those who were allowed to live were chosen for medical experiments or slave labor.
Camp living conditions were wretched. Inmates were crammed into windowless, non-insulated barracks — up to 55 in one building. There were no bathrooms available — a bucket served as the only waste control. Food was scarce, malnutrition made prisoners easy targets of disease and dehydration.
Besides the "extermination camps", whose sole purpose was to annihilate the Jewish population and all other enemies of the Nazis, there also were "concentration camps" established throughout Germany, where inmates were placed under harsh working conditions and starvation.
An end to the nightmare
In late 1944, the tide of war had turned and Allied forces moved across Europe in a series of offensives on Germany. The Nazis decided to evacuate outlying concentration camps. In the final months of the war, SS guards forced inmates on death marches in an attempt to prevent the Allied liberation of large numbers of prisoners.
Those death marches passed directly through many towns, and many died literally at the front doors of townspeople. Many died from starvation, disease, exhaustion, and cold, and thousands more were shot along the way. It is estimated that 250,000 concentration camp prisoners were murdered or died in the forced death marches that were conducted during the last 10 months of World War II.
Allied forces began to encounter and liberate concentration camp prisoners in the late spring and early summer of 1945. Many of the freed prisoners were so weak that they couldn't eat or digest the food they were given and died shortly after liberation.
The Third Reich collapsed in May 1945. SS guards fled and many of the concentration camps were turned into displaced person camps. Between 1948 and 1951, nearly 700,000 Jews emigrated to the new state of Israel. Approximately 140,000 Holocaust survivors came to America after 1948, most settling in New York.
Many Nazis were put on trial at Nuremberg, and found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Nazi medical doctors were accused of involvement in the horrors of human experimentation. One such doctor was Karl Brandt, Hitler's personal physician. He was sentenced to death, along with dozens of other Nazi leaders.
Current estimates, based on Nazi war records and official government documents from various countries, place the death toll of the Holocaust at anywhere from 10 million (a conservative figure) to 26 million people.
The sobering fact about the Holocaust is how close the Nazis came to total victory. In such countries as Poland, which, before World War II, still included parts of the Ukraine and Belarus, the Jewish death toll surpassed 90 percent.
It is important to note, however, when looking at this atrocious event in world history, that the Jews were by no means the only victims of the Holocaust. Other ethnic groups suffered heavy losses. For instance, there were nearly as many non-Jewish Poles killed (approximately 3 million) as there were Jewish Poles.
Many survivors have expressed disgust that the Holocaust happened in full public view, and reached its awful results because people were content to be bystanders and look the other way. Although the full extent of what was happening in German-controlled areas was not known until after the war, there were many rumors and eye-witness accounts throughout Europe that indicated that a great number of Jews were being killed.
The German Rail Company, which was used to transport prisoners to various concentration camps, had more than 1 million employees, and had to be fully aware of the reality of life in the camps. British historian Ian Kershaw has written: "The road to Auschwitz was built by hate, and paved by indifference." Some also have questioned why the prisoners didn't revolt, since the inmates vastly outnumbered the soldiers stationed at the camps. There were uprisings, but one has to remember that the prisoners, for the most part, lacked any kind of organizational or military experience. They came from various European countries and therefore spoke different languages. Most importantly, they were extremely weak because of their living conditions.
The 1961 trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann, the coordinator of the Final Solution, set off an angry debate about Jewish honor and resistance. Why didn't victims put up more of a fight? The real mystery is not why the Jews failed to resist, but how anyone managed to survive at all.