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The Holocaust
National Archives 111-SC-206397
Emaciated prisoners wedged into a bunkhouse at Mauthausen. May 6, 1945.
The Holocaust
Nazi effort to exterminate the Jews of Europe during World War II. Historians have developed several interpretations of the Holocaust. While some see it as the last, most entry into politics at the end of World War I, Hitler's obsessive, pathological anti-Semitism, its identification with Bolshevism, and a crude social Darwinism became the core of his and Nazism's ideology.

Hitler's overall role and guilt in fostering the persecution of the Jews is clear. After 1934, however, he gradually withdrew from domestic politics, fostering power struggles among various party agencies. In this atmosphere, his lieutenants attempted to anticipate his wishes - a process that led to increasingly radical anti-Jewish measures.

The Nazis' assumption of power in 1933 led to increased random attacks on Jews. The Nazis did not appear to have a coordinated plan to deal with the "Jewish question." Indeed, the years 1933 to 1938 saw a tension between party radicals such as Joseph Goebbels and Julius Streicher and moderates such as foreign minister Konstantin von Neurath and economics minister Hjalmar Schacht, who feared that anti-Semitic actions would damage Germany's international position and economic recovery. Some level of anti-Semitism was common among many Germans, but there is little evidence that most Germans were imbued with an eliminationist anti-Semitism, ready to murder Jews once they were given the opportunity.

The opening of the Nazi attack included a one-day unsuccessful boycott of Jewish stores on 1 April 1933 and the 7 April Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, which dismissed non-Aryans from government service. Although the boycott was unpopular with large sections of the public and the civil service law included exemptions such as World War I veterans, these actions began a gradual process that by 1939 would lead to the exclusion of Jews from German life.

On 14 July 1933, the Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring was promulgated, which by 1937 led to the sterilization of some 200,000 people. Although the Nazi eugenics program was not aimed specifically at Jews, and indeed was influenced by the general European and American eugenics movement, it ran on a parallel track with the anti-Jewish legislation. By World War II, the two tracks would merge in a program of euthanasia and mass murder.

In September 1935, the so-called Nuremberg Laws were passed by a special session of the Reichstag convened during the Nazi Party rally of that month. The laws were drawn up in great haste during the rally itself, indicative of the unsystematic nature of Nazi policy concerning the Jews during the 1930s. Jews became subjects, not citizens; it became illegal for Jews to marry or have extramarital relations with non-Jews. On 14 November, a supplementary law was enacted, defining a "full Jew" (having three or four Jewish grandparents) and the categories of first-degree and second-degree Mischling (mixed race).

In 1938 there was another major escalation of anti-Jewish persecution. In Austria after the Anschluss in March, a wave of humiliations, beatings, and murders occurred that were worse than anything else seen so far in Germany. The Nazis quickly set up agencies to forcibly expropriate Jewish businesses and expedite emigration, the latter effort led by Adolf Eichmann, Zionist expert of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD, Security Service). Some scholars see this sequence of violence, expropriation, and emigration as a model for how the Nazis would later attempt to handle the "Jewish question," with emigration replaced by something far worse.

During the spring and summer of 1938, violent attacks on Jews in Germany increased, culminating in the pogrom of 9-10 November. In retaliation for the murder of the third secretary of the German Embassy in Paris, Ernst von Rath, by Jewish youth Herschel Grynspan, Jews were attacked all over Germany, businesses were vandalized, and synagogues were burned. The streets were so covered with glass they appeared to be made of crystal, hence the term "crystal night" to describe the event. Party, police, and governmental offices all were complicit in the pogrom. Estimates hold that some 91 Jews died, 30,000 were arrested, and a like number were sent to concentration camps. A total of 267 synagogues were burned, and 7,500 businesses were vandalized. The Jews received no insurance payments and in fact were fined more than a billion Reichsmarks.

The period from November 1938 to the outbreak of World War II saw the removal of Jews from virtually all aspects of German society. During a Reichstag speech in January 1939, Hitler made his infamous threat that if international Jewry succeeded in starting another world war, the result would not be its victory but "the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe."

By the time the war broke out, more than half of German and Austrian Jews had departed Germany, the official policy of which still promoted emigration. Emigrants were subject to expropriation and payment of flight taxes. Few countries were willing to increase their quota of Jewish immigrants, however. International conferences such as that held in Évian, France, in July 1938 proved fruitless.

After their conquest of Poland in the fall of 1939, the Nazis found themselves in control of some 2 million Jews. Another million were in the Soviet sphere of occupation. Nazi treatment of Poles and Jews, considered inferior races, was brutal. Western Poland was annexed to Germany, and the eastern part was turned into the General Government under Nazi lawyer Hans Frank. To facilitate the implementation of Nazi policies, head of the Schutzstaffel (SS) Heinrich Himmler on 27 September amalgamated all police and security services in the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA, Reich Security Main Office) under Reinhard Heydrich.

On 21 September, Heydrich issued instructions to Einsatzgruppen (mobile strike forces) leaders in which he distinguished between the "final aim" of Jewish policy and the steps leading to it. Jews were to be moved from the countryside and concentrated in cities near rail lines, implying the ghettoization of Polish Jews. Each ghetto was to elect a Jewish Council (Judenrat) that would be responsible for carrying out Nazi orders. In October, Jews were expelled from the annexed area of Poland, called the Warthegau, into the General Government. In addition, Frank ordered that all Jews must perform compulsory labor and wear a Star of David on the right sleeve of their clothing.

Despite the mention of the "final aim" and the brutality of these measures, most scholars do not believe the Nazis had yet adopted the idea of mass extermination. Their main goals during 1940 were either fostering emigration by Jews or deporting them to a colony in Africa or the Near East.

The first major ghetto was established in Lodz in February 1940. The Warsaw ghetto, the largest, was established in October 1940. Ghettos were in older sections of cities, with inadequate living space, housing, and food. They were surrounded by walls and barbed wire, and attempts to leave were punished by death. Disease and starvation were common. Jewish Councils had their own police forces, which were themselves brutal in enforcing Nazi orders. The Nazi film The Eternal Jew (1940) cynically portrayed these conditions as normal Jewish living habits.

Despite the terrible conditions, Jews secretly practiced their religion, educated their children, and maintained cultural activities. In Warsaw, the historian Emmanuel Ringelblum started the Oneg Shabbat ("in celebration of the Sabbath"), a secret organization that chronicled life in the ghetto. Its records, partly recovered after the war, are an invaluable picture of ghetto life.

In a speech to senior army officers on 30 March 1941 preceding the invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation BARBAROSSA), Hitler maintained that, in contrast to war in the west, the war against the Soviet Union would be a war of annihilation, a brutal campaign to subjugate inferior Slavs and to exterminate Jewish-Bolshevism. Hitler's BARBAROSSA Decree of 13 May 1941 and the Commissar Order of 6 June 1941, as well as orders issued by various generals, called for liquidation of the Bolshevik leadership without trial, reprisals against whole villages for partisan actions, and the freeing of military personnel from prosecution for crimes against civilians. These orders would pave the way for military complicity in war crimes against Russian soldiers and civilians and against the Jews.

After the German invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, four Einsatzgruppen, each numbering 600-1,000 men, swept through the conquered territories in the wakes of the invading armies, shooting Communist Party functionaries and especially male Jews. The Einsatzgruppen were drawn primarily from various security and SS units. The German army provided no obstacles to their actions and in some cases actively cooperated with them. After their numbers were augmented in August, the Einsatzgruppen rapidly expanded their killing of Jews, including women and children. Between June and August the Einsatzgruppen killed approximately 50,000 Jews; in the next four months some 500,000 would perish. On 29 and 30 October at Babi Yar near Kiev, some 33,000 Jews were shot, and their bodies were dumped in a ravine. Hitler had undoubtedly given the overall approval to widen the killing in August, and he regularly received reports of Einsatzgruppen activities.

Collaborators throughout eastern Europe actively aided - and in some cases, outdid - the Nazis. For example, the German invasion of Lithuania was accompanied by horrendous butchery of Lithuanians against Lithuanians. Germany's Romanian allies actively murdered Jews. On 22 October, the Romanian military headquarters in Odessa was blown up and 60 lives were lost. In reprisal, Romanian army units massacred 19,000 Jews and locked another 20,000 in warehouses in a nearby village, which were then set on fire and machine-gunned. Babi-Yar and Odessa were perhaps the two worst massacres of the war.

Although no written order has come to light and although Hitler confined himself to murderous ranting about the Jews, there can be no doubt that the Holocaust proceeded with Hitler's express knowledge and desire. Scholars are divided, however, about when exactly the "final solution" was put into effect. Some authorities place the decision as early as the spring of 1941 during the planning for Operation BARBAROSSA, and others argue that there was a gradual escalation of measures throughout the summer and fall of 1941. Hitler's final decision may have come on 12 December 1941, in a talk to party leaders at the Reich Chancellery, one day after his declaration of war on the United States. Hitler now saw the events he had described in his speech of 30 January 1939 as coming to pass: the Jews had started a world war, and now they would perish.

On 20 January 1942, the much-postponed Wannsee Conference held for the purpose of coordinating activities by various agencies with regard to the "final solution" took place. Chaired by Reinhard Heydrich, it included major SS and government agency representatives. Europe's Jewish population was set at an exaggerated figure of 11 million. The Jews - even those not under Nazi control - were to be "evacuated" to the east. This "final solution to the Jewish question" would be implemented first in the General Government. Hitler's hatred of the Jews, the realization that the war against the Soviet Union would not be over quickly, the huge number of Jews in eastern Europe augmented by deportations from the west, and killing actions initiated by local commanders all combined to replace deportation with systematic mass murder.

Since execution by shooting was too inefficient and was stressful for the shooters, the Nazis began gassing victims. The model for mass murder came from the euthanasia program, which had been ordered by Hitler on 1 September 1939 and which officially ended in August 1941 after strong protests from German churches. Known as the T-4 program (named after its headquarters at Tiergartenstrasse 4 in Berlin), it had been responsible for killing some 5,000 children and 70,000 to 80,000 adults, at first by injection and then by carbon monoxide. Several T-4 staff members were transferred to the extermination program of eastern Europe.

In December 1941, Chelmno, near Lodz in the Warthegau, was the first extermination center to begin operation. Between March and July 1942, in connection with Operation REINHARD (the plan to kill the Jews of the General Government), three more death camps were set up: Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. Deportations to these camps from Polish ghettos took place throughout 1942 and into the fall of 1943.

As Jews were rounded up, they were told they were being resettled to labor camps in the east. When the Jews arrived in the camps, their belongings were confiscated and they were then forced to undress and to move down a ramp ("the tube") into gas chambers falsely labeled as showers. The Jews were then killed with gas fed into the chamber. Special units of Jewish prisoners called Sonderkommandos removed the dead from the gas chambers, collected their possessions, and then buried the corpses in mass graves. Eventually, the Sonderkommandos too were killed. Jews from all over occupied Europe, as well as Roma (gypsies), were killed in these camps. Authorities estimate the approximate death toll at 1.9 million.

Majdanek (near Lublin in the General Government) and Auschwitz (in a section of southern Poland annexed to Germany) operated as concentration, extermination, and forced-labor camps. Exterminations in gas chambers began in Majdanek in the fall of 1942 and greatly increased in November 1943, when the Nazis launched Operation HARVEST FESTIVAL to kill off the remaining Jews in the General Government. By the time Soviet forces overran Majdanek in July 1944, some 360,000 people had died.

Auschwitz I was set up as a concentration camp in May 1940. Here the Nazis brutally murdered thousands at the "Black Wall" and carried on gruesome pseudoscientific medical experiments, including sterilization, castration, and hypothermia. Auschwitz II or Auschwitz-Birkenau was essentially an extermination camp. It began operations on 3 September 1941 when 900 Soviet prisoners of war died after being gassed with Zyklon B, crystallized hydrogen cyanide. By 1943, four large gas chamber/crematoria were at work as Jews from all over Europe were brought to Auschwitz. Work to expand the facility continued essentially until the summer of 1944. During the spring and summer of 1944, more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz and gassed. A conservative estimate puts the overall death toll here at 1.1 million Jews, 75,000 Poles, 21,000 Roma, and 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war.

Prisoners destined for the camps were packed into unheated and unventilated cattle cars with no food and perhaps one bucket for a toilet. Many died before reaching the camp. Upon arrival, prisoners underwent "selection": those unfit for work were immediately sent to the gas chambers, which were disguised as showers. Sonderkommandos cleaned the gas chambers, cremated the corpses, and collected valuables.

In the fall of 1941, I. G. Farben decided to build a Buna (synthetic rubber) plant at Auschwitz to exploit cheap slave labor. The so-called Auschwitz III expanded into a 40-square-mile area with numerous subcamps. Periodic selections singled out weak and sick workers for extermination.

Numerous survivors, including Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, have described the brutal Auschwitz camp regime, which was intended to dehumanize its victims. "Kapos" - usually incarcerated criminals - enforced order. Hunger was all-pervasive. Finally, on 27 January 1945, Soviet forces liberated the few remaining prisoners in Auschwitz. Some 60,000 had been forced on death marches to camps in Germany. Many died on the marches or before the German camps were liberated.

Between 1942 and early 1945, the Nazis extended the Holocaust to occupied western, central, and southern Europe. Numerous government agencies including the RSHA, the Transport Ministry, and the Foreign Office lent their assistance. Adolf Eichmann, head of RSHA Jewish Affairs and Evacuation Affairs (coded IV-B-4), coordinated the deportations. The European rail system was taken over and used to move Jews east to the killing sites.

In many places, the Nazis were assisted by collaborationist authorities, but elsewhere, such as in Denmark and in Italian-held areas, they were actively resisted by local officials. The result was that thousands of Jews went into hiding or were assisted in escaping the Nazi dragnet. Although exact numbers will never be known, it is estimated that 3.5 million to 4 million people died in the six death camps. When victims of pogroms, the Einsatzgruppen, and those who died of overwork, starvation, and disease are added, the Holocaust claimed some 6 million lives.

Resistance was made difficult by numerous factors - the impossibility of believing the reality of what was happening, the hostility of local populations, the difficulty of obtaining weapons, the deception of the Nazis, and the decision of Jewish councils to obey Nazi demands in hopes of saving the lives of the remnant Jewish population that worked in defense industries.

Most Jews who were rounded up for execution or transport to a camp went without resistance. In some cases, however, open rebellion broke out. The most famous example is the Warsaw Rising, beginning on 19 April 1943, in which 700 to 1,000 resistance fighters in the Warsaw ghetto held off several thousand heavily armed German and Baltic auxiliaries under SS-Brigadeführer Joseph (Jürgen) Stroop for almost four weeks. Revolts in Treblinka in August 1943 and in Sobibor in October 1943 led to the closing of these camps. On 7 October 1944, the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz revolted, killing several SS men and blowing up one of the crematoria. All were killed in the ensuing escape attempt. In several cases, Jews were able to escape the ghettos and either join or form their own partisan groups that fought against the Nazis.

Allied officials were clearly aware of the Holocaust by late 1942, but like the Jews themselves, they had difficulty believing what they were hearing. In addition, anti-Semitism was still strong in many countries. American State Department official Breckinridge Long worked actively to keep Jewish refugees out of the United States. In the Allied countries, winning the war was the first priority. American Jewish organizations were hesitant to make waves or press President Franklin D. Roosevelt for fear of stirring up even more anti-Semitism. In a still-controversial decision, the Allies refused to bomb the Auschwitz camp or the rail lines leading to it. Not until early 1944 did Roosevelt create the War Refugee Board, after the Treasury Department had exposed the State Department's duplicity.

Some governments or individual diplomats resisted the Nazis. The Danish people ensured the rescue of more than 95 percent of Danish Jews. The Bulgarian government refused to give over its native Jews, although it handed over Jews in occupied territories. The Italian fascist government refused cooperation with the Nazis, and Franco's government allowed Jewish refugees to travel through Spain. Diplomats defied their orders by issuing visas to Jews. The Swede Raoul Wallenberg and other diplomats in Budapest rescued thousands of Jews in the summer and fall of 1944 by issuing false papers and setting up safe havens. Citizens from France to Poland sheltered Jews, in some cases for years, at tremendous risk to themselves. In 1940, Chiune Sugihara, a minor diplomat in the Japanese consulate in Kaunas, Lithuania, quietly defied his government's orders and issued illegal visas to more than 2,000 Jewish families.

In the case of the churches, it was more often individuals than institutions that did rescue work. Numerous Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, and Catholic clergy and laymen intervened to help Jews, whereas others remained silent or backed Nazi actions. Controversy still surrounds the role of Pope Pius XII, who never publicly condemned the Holocaust, even when the Jews of Rome were being rounded up in October 1943.

As the Nazi empire crumbled in late 1944 and early 1945, Himmler and others carried out increasingly desperate negotiations, attempting to trade Jewish lives for ransom. As the Soviet army moved westward, hasty attempts were made to dismantle camps and burn victims' bodies. Prisoners were forced on death marches back to camps within Germany. By May 1945, the last of the camps had been overrun. Some 50,000 prisoners were liberated, but many were so sick and emaciated they died soon after. In his political testament of 29 April 1945, Hitler blamed the war on the Jews and called on Germans to continue the struggle against international Jewry.

The pre-World War II Jewish population of Europe had been approximately 9 million. At the end of the war, 3 million remained. In Poland, some 45,000 survived out of a prewar population of 3 million, many of whom were Hasidic Jews. In the words of the sect's founder, Israel Ba'al Shem Tov: "In forgetfulness is the root of exile. In remembrance the seed of redemption."

Donald E. Thomas Jr.



Bartov, Omer, ed. The Holocaust: Origins, Implementations, Aftermath. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

Bauer, Yehuda. A History of the Holocaust. New York: Franklin Watts, 1982.

Friedlaender, Saul. Nazi Germany and the Jews. Vol. 1,The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.

Hilberg, Raul. The Destruction of the European Jews. 3d ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.

Kershaw, Ian. Hitler. 2 vols. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998 and 2000.

Laqueur, Walter, ed. The Holocaust Encyclopedia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Historical Atlas of the Holocaust. New York: MacMillan, 1996.

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Tucker, Dr. Spencer C.; Roberts, Dr. Priscilla Mary. Encyclopedia of World War II: A Political, Social, and Military History (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. 2005).