The Holocaust took place between 1941 and 1945 throughout German-occupied Europe. It was the systematic genocide of European Jews. Keep reading to learn more Holocaust facts.
6 million Jews were killed by Nazi Germans at the command of Adolf Hitler. Various methods were used against the Jews like pogroms, mass shootings, death through work in concentration camps, and also through gas chambers in extermination camps.
After the defeat of Germany in the First World War, Germany had sunk into economic destitution. The victory of Adolf Hitler gave people hope for a better future.
Hitler and his closest associates believed in the ideology that the Germanic race is the most superior and Jews are the true reason for Germany’s economic setback.
Through means of propaganda and the policy of fear and terror, Hitler was able to form armed units that would carry out the isolation of the Jews and their consequent genocide.
Apart from Jews, other minorities like the Slavs, Poles, Roma people, and the disabled people were also targeted.
Various camps were built across Europe to first exploit and then exterminate the Jews.
However, due to the victory of the Allied powers during World War II, only two-thirds of the Jewish population was killed.
The others survived to tell the tale about the horrors that took place in Nazi Germany. In a series of trials called the Nuremberg Trials, many victims came together to bring the perpetrators of the Holocaust to justice.
January 27 is marked as the Holocaust Day in the UK because, on this day in 1945, the Soviet Army liberated the people in the largest concentration camp of Nazi Germany.
Why did the Holocaust Happen?
After Germany’s defeat in the First World War, the Treaty of Versailles was signed which blamed Germany for the war and demanded heavy reparations to all the countries that won.
This led Germans to resent the treaty, they called it the Diktat as they thought it was dictated peace.
They felt humiliated by the defeat and looked for a scapegoat to blame. Poverty spread across Germany and there were not enough jobs for everyone.
The Germans believed that they lost the Great War due to the betrayal of the communists and Jews present in Germany.
The discontent toward the Weimar Republic formed in 1919, became palpable when the public began putting their faith in Nazis.
Nazi, short for National Socialist German Workers’ Party, was a political party that was racist and believed that all people who are not ‘Aryan’ were inferior.
This theory of the Nazis was furthered in Germany by using the works of Charles Darwin. The study of eugenics became common after the publication of the book called ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection’ in 1859.
This gave rise to dangerous notions of superiority among the Germans and discrimination against the minorities of Europe like the Jews, Africans, Poles, Slavs, disabled people, gay people, communists, and other political dissidents.
The rise in antisemitism also contributed to the Holocaust because it propagated the idea that Jews were an inherently inferior race and they had set out to destroy other races.
The rise in nationalism during the Enlightenment Era also contributed to the growth of antisemitism in Europe.
Hitler’s political success was the main reason for the Holocaust. Hitler rode on the wave of antisemitism, anticommunism, nationalism, and racial superiority.
The Wall Street Crash of 1929 had caused great uncertainty and Hitler’s powerful oratory offered hope, political stability, and prosperity.
Nazi became the biggest party in Reichstag by 1932. Soon they began the segregation of different groups giving rise to discrimination and social tension.
Hitler was the mastermind behind how the party was to be structured, what messages are to be used to develop the brand of the party, and what methods the party will use.
The Nazis declared the rebirth of the people’s community or Volksgemeinschaft. They wrote policies that divided the people into national comrades called Volksgenossen and community aliens called Gemeinschaftsfremde.
The people in the Gemeinschaftsfremde were considered enemies and were further divided into three groups. The blood enemies such as the Jews or the Roma, political enemies such as Marxists, liberals, and Christians, and the moral enemies such as gay people and criminals.
While the moral enemies were sent to camps for reeducation, the blood enemies could not live in Germany and had to be removed.
Though Hitler did not involve in the matters of the community aliens directly, he did structure his security forces to carry out his will.
The security forces were led by Heinrich Himmler and were divided into several units. The most important was called Schutzstaffel or SS.
This unit was first created to protect Hitler. But in 1929 with the appointment of Himmler, the duties of the SS dramatically increased.
They became the most ideologically driven of all Nazi state divisions and were in charge of the racial policies.
They were also used to terrorize people and forcefully control them. The people serving in the SS were the organizers and administrators of the Holocaust.
The Sturm Abteilung or SA was in charge of protecting the most important members of the Nazi party and disrupting the meetings of the political opponents.
They were ex-soldiers or unemployed men and often used physical violence. They were formed in 1921 and were called ‘brownshirts’ because of the color of their uniform.
Sicherheitsdienst or SD was a part of the SS and was led by Reinhard Heydrich. It was formed in 1931 and served as the secret intelligence agency for the Nazi Party.
The Nazi Party also began to reform the government in Germany. Several institutions were targeted to include the Nazi ideology in its method.
This process was called coordination or Nazification. The first among the German institutions that were Nazified was the civil service.
The Act of Restoration of the Professional Civil Service legalized the suspension of any person of ‘non-Aryan’ ancestry from the civil service of the nation.
In April 1933, this act targeted the judges who were not aligned with the Nazis and established the foundation to legally carry out persecutory actions against the Jews and other enemies of the state.
Similar coordination was carried out in the other branches of the government. People who were against the Nazis were removed which made all people afraid to speak against the Nazi policies.
This laid the foundation for the increasing persecutory actions against minorities and the slow radicalization of Germany.
Apart from reforming existing institutions, the Nazis created new departments that carried out the same functions as the ones before. This was done to create competition within the government.
Every policy was supposed to be in line with Hitler’s wishes in the Nazi state. Therefore, to outperform one another each of the offices in the government took radical steps to comply with the process called ‘working towards the Fuhrer’.
The radicalization and the internal competition made the Nazi state chaotic. Even though new departments were created and several policy changes had been made, there was a lack of clear lines in accountability.
How did they Conduct the Holocaust?
In 1933, Hitler came to power in Germany and he imposed the Nazi ideology in everyday life resulting in discrimination against the Jews. Various jobs were not available to them, their stores were boycotted and their ancestry was checked.
The Nazis propagated hate against the Jews through several mediums. The historical antisemitism present in many parts of Europe was brought to a boil by spreading information that suited the Nazi agenda.
As soon as Hitler was appointed as chancellor, he took up the task of building the infrastructure to arrest anyone who was against him. His method was to spread fear among the people and rule them with terror.
At first, he issued policies against the Jews which excluded them from entering educational institutes and certain professions. But soon the attack became more direct in the form of the Nuremberg Laws of 1935.
These laws stripped the citizenship of all Jewish people in the Nazi state and declared them enemies of the German people.
This was followed by an antisemitic pogrom planned and executed in November 1938 after the annexation of Austria.
Several buildings and businesses belonging to the Jews were set on fire or ransacked on what became known as Kristallnacht or the night of broken glass.
This event was organized by Joseph Goebbels who was the Minister of Propaganda and one of the closest people to Hitler.
Over 1000 synagogues were destroyed, 7500 shops were looted, 91 Jews were killed and 30,000 of them were arrested.
The Nazi state began setting up ghettos to confine the Jews and other enemies of the state after the invasion of Poland and the start of the Second World War.
The invasion of Nazis into other parts of Europe gave rise to two phenomena. One was the Lebensraum which meant additional space for German-speaking people and the other was detention or concentration camp.
Jews and other enemies of the state were transported in sealed freight trains to various locations in Europe to be worked or beaten to death.
Between 1941 and 1942, the Nazis systematically conducted mass shootings and pogroms killing over 1.3 million Jews.
In 1942 during the Wannsee Conference of Berlin, the senior Nazi officials discussed the ‘Jewish Question’ and devised a policy to exterminate the Jews called the ‘Final Solution’.
The SS under the top leadership of the Nazi party collaborated with the German Army and paramilitary death squads called the Einsatzgruppen to execute the Final Solution.
Important Facts and Additional Context
Before the Final Solution was agreed upon there were other solutions pitched for the Jewish Question.
One was called the Madagascar Plan devised by Adolf Eichman where it was suggested that the Jewish population in Nazi-occupied regions should be deported to the Island of Madagascar. This plan was scrapped in 1940.
Another one called Generalplan OST was a plan to resettle the Jewish population economically and demographically. This plan was also scrapped.
The beginning of the Second World War had intensified radicalization against the Jews. With the invasion of Poland and the creation of ghettos, about 3 million Jews came directly under the control of Hitler.
The ghettos that were created to confine the Jews were dirty, unhygienic, and did not have food resources to sustain the population. Many people died in these ghettos due to disease and starvation.
The Warsaw Ghetto housed over 445,000 people which was about 30% of the population of the city but the ghetto occupied only 2.5% of the area which meant that about 9 people shared a small room at any given time.
During the Holocaust, the property of the jews was stolen, they were forced to do hard labor and those who survived the torture and the diseases were sent to extermination camps.
They were then killed by mass shooting where they were told to lay down in a ditch and the German officers would shoot them.
The entry of America in the Second World War intensified the atrocities against the Jews and various extermination camps were built by the Nazis.
The largest ones were built in Auschwitz II-Birkenau where over 1,082,000 people died, Belzec where about 600,000 people died and few others built-in Treblinka, Chelmno, Majdanek, and Sobibor with almost the same number of deaths in each.
Shooting the prisoners was psychologically difficult for the soldiers. Therefore, vans that could suffocate prisoners with gases were introduced.
However, the van could kill only a handful of prisoners at one time hence they did not reduce the psychological pressure on the soldiers.
As the world drew closer to the end of the Second World War, the Nazis were in a hurry to hide the evidence of the atrocities against the Jews.
The fastest way to kill and burn the evidence was to create large gas chambers that could hold a thousand people at once.
When the Jews arrived at the camps, they were told to strip naked and go into the airtight chambers for a shower. Once the people were locked in, Carbon-monoxide or Zyklon B gas was pumped inside the room and all people would suffocate and die.
Then the bodies would be removed and sent to the crematoria to destroy any evidence of mass murder.
The genocide of the Jews, Roma, Slavs, Poles, and dissidents of the state occurred in various parts of Europe.
The Nazis along with their collaborators carried out mass incarceration and murders in Austria, Yugoslavia, Poland, Ukraine, Russia and France.
When the Germans began retreating in the Second World War, many of these camps were liberated starting with the one in Majdanek on July 23, 1944. Hundreds more were liberated in the following 9 months by the Soviet and the British Army.
Even though freedom had finally come to the prisoners of the Nazi state, many did not survive due to the harsh treatment in the camps. Many more did not have homes nor jobs and were forced to emigrate to other places in the world.
The total death toll of the genocide was 9.7 million people of Jewish descent, about 3.3 million Soviet citizens, about 200,000 Poles, 220,000 Roma people, 1400 political opponents, and an unknown number of gay people and Afro-German people.