History of the Holocaust

The Holocaust was the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of approximately six million Jews and five million other persons by the Nazi regime and its collaborators.

The Weimar Republic and the Rise of the Nazis (1919-1933)

As the effects of World War I began to take their toll on German society, unrest fermented. When the decision to opt for armistice was announced, the German public was shocked. Facing deteriorating domestic conditions, Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated on November 9, 1918. Several months of revolutionary turmoil followed. Then, in February 1919, a national assembly was convened in Weimar which would give its name to the new German constitution and republic. 

In June 1919, the Allies imposed the Treaty of Versailles on the German nation. The treaty, known among Germans as the "Dictate of Versailles," blamed the war on Germany's aggression, stipulated that Germany take full responsibility for causing the war, demanded that Germany pay reparations, reduced its pre-war territory and forbade Germany from having substantial armed forces. In addition, the Rhineland was occupied by the Allies and the Saar was placed under League of Nations administration. The treaty was highly resented by many in Germany, and it was widely felt that the otherwise victorious army had been "stabbed in the back" by revolutionaries.

The early years of the Weimar Republic were characterized by both domestic and economic instability, culminating in the economic crisis of 1923. On November 9 of that year, an until then unknown Adolf Hitler would try to lead a coup d'etat in Munich, now known as the Beer Hall Putsch. Though unsuccessful, Hitler used his trial as an opportunity to speechify his radical, ultra-conservative views to a largely sympathetic judiciary. The mid-1920's would see a fragile stability take hold in Germany. The economy slowly began to recover, but the weak Weimar government, with its many competition parties, could hardly exercise its power properly.

The worldwide economic downturn following the crash of October 1929 plunged Germany once again into domestic turmoil. The NSDAP took advantage of the situation to carry out its political attacks on the institutions of the Weimar Republic and rally the people to their cause. The Nazi Party had taken advantage of this political unrest in Germany to gain an electoral foothold and by the end of 1932 was the strongest party in Germany, obtaining 33.1% of the vote in November 1932. During this period, the Nazis incited clashes with the communists, whom many feared and disrupted the government with demonstrations. They conducted a vicious propaganda campaign against their political opponents, the weak Weimar government, and the Jews, whom the Nazis blamed for Germany's ills.

On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler was named chancellor by president Paul von Hindenburg after the Nazi party won a significant percentage of the vote in the elections of 1932. It was thought by Franz von Papen that an upstart Hitler would be contained by other, more senior cabinet members, and on that basis he convinced von Hindenburg to appoint Hitler.

A major tool of the Nazis was propaganda, which included the weekly anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmer [The Attacker]. At the bottom of the front page of each issue "The Jews are our misfortune!" was printed in bold letters. Der Stürmer regularly featured anti-Semitic articles and attacks as well as cartoons of Jews in which they were caricaturized as hooked-nosed and ape-like. The influence of the newspaper was far reaching: by 1938 about 500,000 copies were distributed weekly.

The Nazis Consolidate their Power (1933-1939)

Once he became Chancellor, Hitler called for new elections in an attempt to gain further control of the Reichstag. The Nazis used their new political position to terrorize the other parties, arresting their leaders and banning their meetings. Then, in the midst of the election campaigns, on February 27, 1933, the Reichstag building was set ablaze. A Dutch man, Marinus van der Lubbe, was arrested for the crime. Van der Lubbe swore he acted alone. Though many suspected Nazi involvement in the fire, the Nazis blamed the Communists.

The Reichstag fire would signal the demise of the Weimar Republic. On the next day, the government, invoking emergency powers, abolished individual rights, including the freedoms of speech, press and assembly. When the elections were held on March 5, the Nazis won 43.9% of the vote. With the 8% offered by the DVNP, they now had a majority in the Reichstag.

Hitler moved quickly to consolidate his power. The Reichstag passed the Enabling Act on March 23, 1933. It gave Hitler the ability to legislate without the consent of the Reichstag, effectively making him a dictator. The Nazis further marshaled their propaganda machine to silence any criticism.

By this time the Nazis had developed a sophisticated domestic police force. The Sturmabteilung (SA, Storm Troopers), a grassroots organization, abetted Hitler's efforts to undermine Germany's democracy by aggressively agitating for change and terrorizing political opponents. The Gestapo ( Geheime Staatspolizei, Secret State Police), a force recruited form professional police officers, was given complete freedom to arrest anyone suspicious after February 28, 1933. The Schutzstaffel (SS, Protection Squad) initially served as Hitler's personal guard and, after the Night of the Long Knives, eventually controlled the concentration camps and the Gestapo. The Sicherheitsdienst des Reichsführers-SS (SD, Security Service of the SS) functioned as the Nazi's intelligence service, uncovering enemies and keeping them under surveillance.

With this police infrastructure in place, the Nazis terrorized their opponents or sent them to one of the newly-built concentration camps. These camps were built by the Nazis for the specific purpose of imprisoning their actual and perceived opponents. Dachau, just outside of Munich, was the first such camp built (it opened on DATE). Dachau's purpose changed as time passed and it became one of many brutal camps for Jews.

The Night of the Long Knives would see the end of opposition to Hitler from within the Nazi Party. By the end of 1934, Hitler was then in absolute control of the Nazi Party and Germany, and his campaign against the Jews was in full swing.

The Nazis claimed that the Jews corrupted their "pure" German culture with their "foreign" influence. Contemporary propaganda portrayed Jews as conniving, evil and cowardly, and Germans as hardworking, virtuous and honest. The Jews, it was claimed, had weakened Germany's culture because of their prominence in finance, commerce, the media and the arts. The Nazi ideology had created a new, racial anti-Semitism according to which the Jews belonged to an entirely different (namely inferior) race as opposed to the earlier, religion-based version. According to Nazi thought, the superior race was the "Aryans," of which the Germanic peoples were a part.

War and the "Final Solution" (1939-1945)

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, marking the beginning of World War II in Europe. The following month, the Nazis began establishing ghettos for the Jews of Poland. At that time, the Jews of Poland numbered about 3 million, about 10% of the total population. The first ghetto was established in the town of Piotrkow Trybunalski in October 1939. Over the following several years, the Jewish communities of Poland were systematically ghettoized. Jews were forcibly deported from their homes to live in crowded ghettos, cut off from the rest of the world. The ghettos often lacked the necessary food, water, space and sanitary facilities to support the increasing number of people living within their constricted boundaries. Thousands died in the ghettos from deprivation, starvation and disease.

In June 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union and began their persecution of the Jewish population. Four mobile killing groups, or Einsatzgruppen [special task forces], were formed from Waffen-SS units and called Einsatzgruppe A, B, C and D respectively. The Einsatzgruppen came to each town that was conquered by the Germans, gathered any Jewish residents, marched them outside the town to pre-dug pits, made them to strip, lined them up, and then shot them. The dead and dying would fall into the pits and be buried in mass graves. In the infamous Babi Yar massacre, outside of Kiev, Ukraine, more than 30,000 Jews were killed in this fashion in just two days. By the end of 1942, it is estimated that the Einsatzgruppen had murdered at least 1.3 million Jews throughout Eastern Europe.

On January 20, 1942, 18 officials of the German government met to officially coordinate the military and civilian branches of the Nazi Party in order to organize a system of mass murder for the Jews. This meeting was called the Wannsee Conference.

As a part of Aktion Reinhard, the Nazis established six death camps (also called killing centers) in occupied Poland in 1941 and 1942: Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz. All of these camps were located adjacent to rail lines so that Jews could easily be transported to them on a daily basis. These camps were expressly built for killing: they were equipped with either mobile or stationary gas chambers and crematoria. New arrivals to these camps, if not selected for hard labor, were sent straight to the gas chambers where they were murdered. Selections were also regularly conducted from the forced laborers. Jewish Sonderkommandos were given the grisly task of removing the bodies from the gas chambers and transporting them to the crematoria for cremation.

A vast system of camps (German: Lagersystem) supported the death camps. The purpose of these camps varied. Some were forced labor camps, some transit centers, some simple detention camps and others concentration camps and their sub-camps. Some camps combined some or all of these functions. All the camps were intolerably brutal, and thousands died from the harsh conditions. The major concentration camps were: Ravensbrück, Neuengamme, Bergen-Belsen, Sachsenhausen, Gross-Rosen, Buchenwald, Theresienstadt, Flössenburg, Natzweiler-Struthof, Dachau, Mathausen, Stutthof and Dora/Nordhausen.
In nearly every country that the Nazis conquered, the Jews were forced to wear badges marking them as such. The Jews were then rounded up into ghettos or concentration camps, and gradually transported to the killing centers.

Many, however, were not immediately killed. The German war effort as well as the Final Solution itself required a great deal of manpower. The Germans therefore temporarily spared the lives of some Jews for slave labor. These people were forced to work for various German industries, such as I.G. Farben and Krupp, and wherever the Nazis needed laborers. They worked long hours without adequate food and shelter. Thousands perished, quite literally worked to death by the Nazi war machine.

As the Germans were losing the war and their armies retreated, the Nazis began to march the prisoners who were still alive to camps further from the front. In these death marches, the Germans forced the sick and starving Jews to walk hundreds of miles. Many died or were shot along the way. Approximately 250,000 Jews died in the death marches.

Liberation and the End of War

As the Allies advanced, the camps were gradually liberated. The killing center Majdanek, near Lublin, Poland, was the first major camp liberated by the Red Army on July 23, 1944. The last camp liberated was Theresienstadt, on May 8, 1945.

At the end of World War II, between 50,000 and 100,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors were living in the American, British and Soviet zones of occupation. The next year, that figure had grown to about 200,000, around 90% of whom lived in the American zone. The Jewish DP's (displaced persons) either could not or would not return to their home countries, some of which still held the threat of danger from anti-Semitic neighbors.

The Human Toll

Below are figures for the number of Jews murdered in each country that came under German domination. They are estimates, as are all figures relating to Holocaust victims. The numbers given here for Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Romania are based on their territorial borders before the 1938 Munich agreement. The total number of six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust, which emerged from the Nuremberg trials, is also an estimate. Numbers have ranged between five and seven million killed.

Africa: 526
Austria: 65,000
Belgium: 24,387
Czechoslovakia: 277,000
Denmark: 77
Estonia: 4,000
France: 83,000
Germany: 160,000
Greece: 71,301
Holland: 106,000
Hungary: 570,000
Italy: 8,000
Latvia: 85,000
Lithuania: 135,000
Luxembourg: 700
Norway: 728
Poland: 3,001,000
Rumania: 250,000
U.S.S.R.: 1,500,000
Yugoslavia: 67,122