The Holocaust refers to the killing of as many as six million European Jews at the hands of Nazi Germany during the period of the Second World War. It also includes the mass murder of other groups, such as the homosexuals and the gypsies, in millions. Nazi leader Adolf Hitler considered the Jews an inferior race, and a threat to the purity of the German race. During Hitler’s regime, Jews were constantly persecuted. The Holocaust was Hitler’s “final solution” to the “Jew problem”.
Hitler’s Ideology and Anti-Semitism
The resentment towards the Jews did not begin with Hitler. In fact, the hostility was deep-rooted and can be traced back to the ancient times. Roman authorities destroyed the temples of the Jews and made them leave Palestine. The Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries helped in calming down the anti-Semitic sentiments. Nonetheless, the hate towards the Jews persisted.
Hitler’s roots of anti-Semitism are not crystal clear. However, for one, he believed that the pure German race was superior. He labeled it as the ‘Aryans’ and was obsessed with its expansion. Like other Germans with anti-Semitism ideologies, he also attributed the country’s defeat in 1918 in the First World War to the Jews. During his imprisonment, he wrote a propaganda tract, Mein Kampf (My Struggle), in which he predicted the extermination of Jews in Germany following a war in Europe.
Within a decade of his release from prison, he managed to enhance the status of his party and rise to power. He became the Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933. Following the death of President Paul von Hindenburg in the following year, he became Germany’s supreme ruler – the ‘Fuhrer’.
1933-1939 – Nazi Revolution
Hitler’s domestic and foreign policy from 1933 onwards was fundamentally driven by his goals to spatially expand and maintain racial purity. In the beginning, Nazis only kept the harshest persecution for Social Democrats and Communists, their political opponents. In March 1933, the first concentration camp was opened near Munich, at Dachau. The Communists were the first prisoners.
The Dachau was overseen by Heinrich Himmler who was the Schutzstaffel (SS) and the head of the elite Nazi guard. The concentration camps gradually grew in number. By July 1933, around 27,000 people were in custody in the concentration camps. At several Nazi rallies, there were hate-driven acts like the public burning of books written by foreigners, Jews, liberals, and Communists. This sent across a clear message of the strength of the Nazi regime.
Jews were only 1% of the total population (525,000 in number) in Germany in the year 1933. For the next six years, Nazi’s Germany set out on a mission to ‘Aryanize’ Germany. During this period, they liquidated businesses of Jews, stripped the clients of all the Jew doctors and lawyers, and dismissed anyone from the civil service who was not ‘Aryan’.
As per the Nuremberg Laws, people with two Jewish grandparents were considered half-breeds (Mischlinge) and those with three or four grandparents were designated as Jews. Under this law, Jews became a frequent target of persecution and stigmatization. This culminated in the year 1938, when around 100 Jews were killed, their shop windows smashed, and synagogues set to fire. From the year 1933 to 1939, hundreds of thousands of Jews were forced to flee from Germany. Those who remained lived in a constant state of fear and uncertainty.
1939-1940 – The Beginning of War
In September of the year 1939, the western half of Poland was invaded by the German army. The German police started forcing the Jews out of their homes, moving them into ghettoes and giving their houses to the ethnic Germans and also to the Germans belonging to Polish or Reich gentiles. The ghettoes were more like captive city-states, surrounded by barbed wire and high walls. The overpopulation, hunger, and poverty soon turned the ghettoes into disease-stricken regions.
In the fall of the year 1939, history witnessed 70,000 Germans put to death in the Euthanasia Program. Many historians believe this was the first glimpse of the Holocaust. These people had been admitted to institutions for disabilities and mental illness. However, the program was officially ended in 1941, in response to protests from German religious leaders. But the killings continued clandestinely. By the year 1945, around 275,000 handicapped people were killed in Europe.
1940-1941 – The “Final Solution”
In the year 1940, the German army conquered France, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, and Denmark – extending the empire of Hitler over European territory. Gypsies and Jews in Europe were moved to the Polish ghettoes. However, a new level of brutality was unleashed in the June of 1941, when the Germans occupied the Soviet Union. Over 500,000 Soviet Jews were shot dead during the course of the German invasion.
In 1941, a memorandum, sent by Hermann Goering (the top commander of Hitler) to Reinhard Heydrich (the chief of the security service SD), mentioned “Endlösung”, that is the final solution to the ‘problem of Jewish people’. In August of that year, Soviet prisoners were gassed to death with Zyklon-B, a pesticide. Soon, a huge order was placed for the gas at a German pest-control firm – signaling the impending Holocaust.
1941-1945 – Holocaust Camps
Towards late 1941, Germans began transporting people to the concentration camps from Poland’s ghettoes. This was followed by mass gassing at the Belzec camp, beginning March 17, 1942. More killing centers were built in Poland. Between the years 1942 and 1945, Jews from all over Europe were moved to these camps. The biggest deportations happened in the fall of 1942 – transporting over 300,000 people. Over two million people died at Auschwitz alone. This figure also included deaths from disease or starvation.
The enormity and brutality of the mass killings brought camps’ operations into the spotlight. A few eyewitnesses reported the atrocities to the Allied governments in Poland. However, the Allied didn’t take any action, probably because of the ongoing war at that time. Some believe the inaction could also be due to the sheer disbelief at such atrocities happening in Europe on such a large scale. The governments were later severely criticized for not responding to the situation.
1945 – Nazi Rule Comes to an End
In the spring of the year 1945, Himmler and Goering both wanted to grab power, and proceeded to distance themselves from Hitler. The internal dissent led to the dissolving of the German leadership. In his last political statement dictated on April 29, 1945, Hitler asked people to follow “the strict observance of the racial laws and with merciless resistance against the universal poisoners of all peoples (the Jews)”. The very next day he committed suicide. Hardly a week later, on May 8, 1945, came Germany’s formal surrender to the Allied forces, ending the Second World War.
The Aftermath of the Holocaust
The Holocaust was perhaps the biggest human tragedy of all times. It resulted in a large-scale displacement of population, prisoners of war, and refugees towards the late 1940s. Those who somehow survived the concentration camps lost their families, along with everything else, and thus couldn’t return home. Nazi atrocities came to the attention of the Allies for good, which then held Nuremberg Trials in the year 1945-46. The German government in 1953 took responsibility for the crimes and strived to pay compensation to the Jews. There was also a huge pressure on Allied powers to establish a homeland for the survivors of the Holocaust. This led to the migration of a significant population of the Jews to Israel.