The Holocaust also known as Shoah’, was the mass murder or genocide of approximately six million Jews during World War II, a programme of systematic state-sponsored murder by Nazi Germany, led by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, throughout the German Reich and German-occupied territories. Of the nine million Jews who had resided in Europe before the Holocaust, approximately two-thirds were killed. Over one million Jewish children were killed in the Holocaust, as were approximately two million Jewish women and three million Jewish men. A network of about 42,500 facilities in Germany and German-occupied territory were used to concentrate, hold, and kill Jews and other victims. Some scholars argue that the mass murder of the Romani and people with disabilities should be included in the definition, and some use the common noun “holocaust” to describe other Nazi mass murders, including those of Soviet prisoners of war, Polish and Soviet civilians, and homosexuals.
Recent estimates, based on figures obtained since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, indicate some ten to eleven million civilians and prisoners of war were intentionally murdered by the Nazi regime. Historian Rudolph Rummel estimates the number of civilians and jews murdered by the Nazis at 20,946,000. The occupiers required Jews and Romani to be confined in overcrowded ghettos before being transported by freight train to extermination camps where, if they survived the journey, most were systematically killed in gas chambers. Every arm of Germany’s bureaucracy was involved in the logistics that led to the genocides, turning the Third Reich into what one Holocaust scholar has called “a genocidal state”. Extermination camps
The use of camps equipped with gas chambers for the purpose of systematic mass extermination of peoples was a unique feature of the Holocaust and unprecedented in history. Never before had there existed places with the express purpose of killing people en masse. These were established at Auschwitz, Belzec, Chełmno, Jasenovac, Majdanek, Maly Trostenets, Sobibór, and Treblinka. Medical experiments
A distinctive feature of Nazi genocide was the extensive use of human subjects in “medical” experiments. According to Raul Hilberg, “German physicians were highly Nazified, compared to other professionals, in terms of party membership.” Some carried out experiments at Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald, Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen, and Natzweiler concentration camps. The most notorious of these physicians was Dr. Josef Mengele, who worked in Auschwitz. His experiments included placing subjects in pressure chambers, testing drugs on them, freezing them, attempting to change eye color by injecting chemicals into children’s eyes, and various amputations and other surgeries. Subjects who survived Mengele’s experiments were almost always killed and dissected shortly afterwards. He worked extensively with Romani children. He would bring them sweets and toys, and personally take them to the gas chamber. They would call him “Onkel Mengele”. Vera Alexander was a Jewish inmate at Auschwitz who looked after 50 sets of Romani twins: Legal repression and emigration
Nazi policies about repression divided people into three types of enemies, the “racial” enemies such as the Jews and the Gypsies who were viewed as enemies because of their “blood”; political opponents such as Marxists, liberals, Christians and the “reactionaries” who were viewed as wayward “National Comrades”; and moral opponents such as homosexuals, the “work-shy” and habitual criminals, also seen as wayward “National Comrades”. The last two groups were to be sent to concentration camps for “re-education”, with the aim of eventual absorption into the Volksgemeinschaft, though some of the moral opponents were to be sterilized, as they were regarded as “genetically inferior”. Peukert quotes policy documents on the “Treatment of Community Aliens” from 1944, which showed the full intentions of Nazi social policy: “persons who … show themselves unable to comply by their own efforts with the minimum requirements of the national community” were to be placed under police supervision, and if this did not reform them, they were to be taken to a concentration camp.
One of the first, camps was Dachau,which opened on 9 March 1933. Initially the camp contained primarily communists and Social Democrats. Other early prisons—for example, in basements and storehouses run by the Sturmabteilung and less commonly by the Schutzstaffel —were consolidated by mid-1934 into purpose-built camps outside the cities, run exclusively by the SS. The initial purpose of the camps was to serve as a deterrent by terrorizing those Germans who did not conform to the Volksgemeinschaft. Those sent to the camps included the “educable”, whose wills could be broken into becoming “National Comrades”, and the “biologically depraved”, who were to be sterilized, were to be held permanently, and over time were increasingly subject to extermination through labor, i.e., being worked to death. On 1 April 1933, there occurred a boycott of Jewish businesses, which was the first national antisemitic campaign, initially planned for a week, but called off after one day owing to lack of popular support.
In 1933, a series of laws were passed which contained Aryan paragraphs to exclude Jews from key areas: the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, the first antisemitic law passed in the Third Reich; the Physicians’ Law; and the Farm Law, forbidding Jews from owning farms or taking part in agriculture. In 1935, Hitler introduced the Nuremberg Laws, which: prohibited “Aryans” from having sexual relations or marriages with Jews, although this was later extended to include “Gypsies, Negroes or their bastard offspring”, stripped German Jews of their citizenship and deprived them of all civil rights. At the same time the Nazis used propaganda to promulgate the concept of Rassenschande to justify the need for a restrictive law. Hitler described the “Blood Law” in particular “the attempt at a legal regulation of a problem, which in the event of further failure would then have through law to be transferred to the final solution of the National Socialist Party”. Hitler said that if the “Jewish problem” cannot be solved by these laws, it “must then be handed over by law to the National-Socialist Party for a final solution”. The “final solution”, became the standard Nazi euphemism for the extermination of the Jews. Early measures
In German-occupied Poland
Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939 increased the urgency of the “Jewish Question”. Poland, was home to approximately three million Jews, in centuries-old communities, two-thirds of whom fell under Nazi control with Poland’s capitulation. Reinhard Heydrich, Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia, recommended concentrating all the Polish Jews in ghettos in major cities, where they would be put to work for the German war industry. The ghettos would be in cities located on railway junctions in order to furnish, in Heydrich’s words, “a better possibility of control and later deportation.” During his interrogation in 1961, Adolf Eichmann recalled that this “later deportation” actually meant “physical extermination.” In September, Himmler appointed Heydrich head of the Reich Main Security Office . This organization was made up of seven departments, including the Security Police, and the Gestapo.
They were to oversee the work of the SS in occupied Poland, and carry out the policy towards the Jews described in Heydrich’s report. The first organized murders of Jews by German forces occurred during Operation Tannenberg and through Selbstschutz units. The Jews were later herded into ghettos, mostly in the General Government area of central Poland, where they were put to work under the Reich Labor Office headed by Fritz Sauckel. Here many thousands died from maltreatment, disease, starvation, and exhaustion, but there was still no program of systematic killing. There is little doubt, however, that the Nazis saw forced labor as a form of extermination.Although it was clear by late 1941 that the SS hierarchy was determined to embark on a policy of killing all the Jews under German control, there was still opposition to this policy within the Nazi regime, although the motive was economic, not humanitarian. Hermann Göring, who had overall control of the German war industry, and the German army’s Economics Department, argued that the enormous Jewish labor force assembled in the General Government area, was an asset too valuable to waste, particularly with Germany failing to secure rapid victory of the Soviet Union. Ghettos
After the invasion of Poland, the Nazis established ghettos in the incorporated territories and General Government in which Jews were confined. These were initially seen as temporary, until the Jews were deported out of Europe; as it turned out, such deportation never took place, with the ghettos’ inhabitants instead being sent to extermination camps. The Germans ordered that each ghetto be run by a Judenrat consisting of Jewish community leaders, with the first order for the establishment of such councils contained in a letter dated 29 September 1939 from Heydrich to the heads of the Einsatzgruppen. The ghettos were formed and closed off from the outside world at different times and for different reasons. The councils were responsible for the day-to-day running of the ghetto, including the distribution of food, water, heat, medicine, and shelter.
The Germans also mandated them to undertake confiscations, organize forced labor, and, finally, facilitate deportations to extermination camps. The councils’ basic strategy was one of trying to minimise losses, largely by cooperating with Nazi authorities, accepting the increasingly terrible treatment, bribery, and petitioning for better conditions and clemency. Overall, to try and mitigate still worse cruelty and death, “the councils offered words, money, labor, and finally lives.” The ultimate test of each Judenrat was the demand to compile lists of names of deportees to be murdered. Though the predominant pattern was compliance with even this final task, some council leaders insisted that not a single individual should be handed over who had not committed a capital crime. Leaders such as Joseph Parnas in Lviv, who refused to compile a list, were shot. On 14 October 1942, the entire council of Byaroza committed suicide rather than cooperate with the deportations. Adam Czerniaków in Warsaw killed himself on 23 July 1942 when he could take no more as the final liquidation of the ghetto got under way.
Others, like Chaim Rumkowski, who became the “dedicated autocrat” of Łódź, argued that their responsibility was to save the Jews who could be saved, and that therefore others had to be sacrificed. The importance of the councils in facilitating the persecution and murder of ghetto inhabitants was not lost on the Germans: one official was emphatic that “the authority of the Jewish council be upheld and strengthened under all circumstances”, another that “Jews who disobey instructions of the Jewish council are to be treated as saboteurs.” When such cooperation crumbled, as happened in the Warsaw ghetto after the Jewish Combat Organisation displaced the council’s authority, the Germans lost control.
The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest, with 380,000 people; the Łódź Ghetto was second, holding 160,000. They were, in effect, immensely crowded prisons, described by Michael Berenbaum as instruments of “slow, passive murder.” Though the Warsaw Ghetto contained 30% of the population of the Polish capital, it occupied only 2.4% of the city’s area, averaging 9.2 people per room. Between 1940 and 1942, starvation and disease, especially typhoid, killed hundreds of thousands. Over 43,000 residents of the Warsaw ghetto died there in 1941, Pogroms
A number of deadly pogroms by local populations occurred during the Second World War, some with Nazi encouragement, and some spontaneously. This included the Iaşi pogrom in Romania on 30 June 1941, in which as many as
14,000 Jews were killed by Romanian residents and police, and the Jedwabne pogrom of July 1941, in which 300 Jews were locked in a barn set on fire by the local Poles in the presence of Nazi Ordnungspolizei, which was preceded by the execution of 40 Jewish men at the same location by the Germans. – Such were the final finding of the official investigation conducted in 2000–2003 by the Institute of National Remembrance, confirmed by the number of victims in the two graves examined by the archeological and anthropological team participating in the exhumation. Earlier higher estimates based on hearsay were disproved. Death squads
The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 opened a new phase. The Holocaust intensified after the Nazis occupied Lithuania, where close to 80% of the country’s 220,000 Jews were exterminated before the end of the year. The Soviet territories occupied by early 1942, including all of Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Moldova and most Russian territory west of the line Leningrad-Moscow-Rostov, contained about three million Jews at the start of the war. Hundreds of thousands had fled Poland in 1939. Members of the local populations in certain occupied Soviet territories participated actively in the killings of Jews and others. Ultimately it was the Germans who organized and channelled these local participants in the Holocaust.
Hillgruber maintained that the slaughter of about 2.2 million defenseless men, women and children for the reasons of racist ideology cannot possibly be justified for any reason, and that those German generals who claimed that the Einsatzgruppen were a necessary anti-partisan response were lying. Army co-operation with the SS in anti-partisan and anti-Jewish operations was close and intensive. In mid-1941, the SS Cavalry Brigade commanded by Hermann Fegelein, during the course of “anti-partisan” operations in the Pripyat Marshes, killed 699 Red Army soldiers, 1,100 partisans and 14,178 Jews. The large-scale killings of Jews in the occupied Soviet territories was assigned to SS formations called Einsatzgruppen, under the overall command of Heydrich. These had been used to a limited extent in Poland in 1939, but were organized in the Soviet territories on a much larger scale. Einsatzgruppe A was assigned to the Baltic area, Einsatzgruppe B to Belarus, Einsatzgruppe C to north and central Ukraine, and Einsatzgruppe D to Moldova, south Ukraine, Crimea, and, during 1942, the north Caucasus.
According to Otto Ohlendorf at his trial, “the Einsatzgruppen had the mission to protect the rear of the troops by killing the Jews, Gypsies, Communist functionaries, active Communists, and all persons who would endanger the security.” In practice, their victims were nearly all defenseless Jewish civilians . By December 1941, the four Einsatzgruppen listed above had killed, respectively, 125,000, 45,000, 75,000, and 55,000 people—a total of 300,000 people—mainly by shooting or with hand grenades at mass killing sites outside the major towns. The most notorious massacre of Jews in the Soviet Union was at a ravine called Babi Yar outside Kiev, where 33,771 Jews were killed in a single operation on 29–30 September 1941. The decision to kill all the Jews in Kiev was made by the military governor, the Police Commander for Army Group South, and the Einsatzgruppe C Commander Otto Rasch. A mixture of SS, SD and Security Police, assisted by Ukrainian police, carried out the killings. Although they did not participate in the killings, men of the 6th Army played a key role in rounding up the Jews of Kiev and transporting them to be shot at Babi Yar. New methods of mass murder
Starting in December 1939, the Nazis introduced new methods of mass murder by using gas. First, experimental gas vans equipped with gas cylinders and a sealed trunk compartment, were used to kill mental care clients of sanatoria in Pomerania, East Prussia, and occupied Poland, as part of an operation termed Action T4. A need for new mass murder techniques was also expressed by Hans Frank, governor of the General Government, who noted that this many people could not be simply shot. “We shall have to take steps, however, designed in some way to eliminate them.” It was this problem which led the SS to experiment with large-scale killings using poison gas. Christian Wirth seems to have been the inventor of the gas chamber. Wannsee Conference and the Final Solution
The Wannsee Conference was convened by Reinhard Heydrich on 20 January 1942 in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee and brought together some 15 Nazi leaders which included a number of state secretaries, senior officials, party leaders, SS officers and other leaders of government departments who were responsible for policies which were linked to Jewish issues. The initial purpose of the meeting was to discuss plans for a comprehensive solution to the “Jewish question in Europe.” Heydrich intended to “outline the mass murders in the various occupied territories . . . as part of a solution to the European Jewish question ordered by Hitler . . . to ensure that they, and especially the ministerial bureaucracy, would share both knowledge and responsibility for this policy” A copy of the minutes which were drawn up by Eichmann has survived, but on Heydrich’s instructions, they were written up in “euphemistic language.” Thus the exact words used at the meeting are not known.
However, Heydrich addressed the meeting indicating the policy of emigration was superseded by a policy of evacuating Jews to the east. This was seen to be only a temporary solution leading up to a final solution which would involve some 11 million Jews living not only in territories controlled then by the Germans, but to major countries in the rest of the world including the UK, and the US. There was little doubt what the solution was: “Heydrich also made it clear what was understood by the phrase ‘Final Solution’: the Jews were to be annihilated by a combination of forced labour and mass murder.” The officials were told there were 2.3 million Jews in the General Government, 850,000 in Hungary, 1.1 million in the other occupied countries, and up to five million in the USSR, although two million of these were in areas still under Soviet control – a total of about 6.5 million. These would all be transported by train to extermination camps in Poland, where almost all of them would be gassed at once. In some camps, such as Auschwitz, those fit for work would be kept alive for a while, but eventually all would be killed.