The Holocaust was the systematic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its allies and collaborators. Holocaust is a word of Greek origin meaning "sacrifice by fire." The Nazis, who came to power in Germany in January 1933, believed that Germans were "racially superior" and that the Jews, deemed "inferior," were an alien threat to the so-called German racial community.
During the era of the Holocaust, German authorities also targeted other groups because of their perceived racial and biological inferiority: Roma (Gypsies), people with disabilities, some of the Slavic peoples (Poles, Russians, and others), Soviet prisoners of war, and Black people. Other groups were persecuted on political, ideological, and behavioral grounds, among them Communists, Socialists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and homosexuals.
Explore an interactive timeline of the Holocaust (1933-1945) with "Timeline of the Holocaust" (Echoes and Reflections).
Image Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
The Treatment of Jews in Germany
Between 1933 and 1939, the Nazis made life in Germany increasingly impossible for the Jews. Jews fell victim to discrimination, exclusion, robbery, and violence. The Nazis sometimes killed Jews, but not systematically or with the intention of killing all Jews.
At that point, the main goal of the Nazis was to remove the Jews from Germany by allowing them to emigrate. To encourage them to do so, they took away their livelihoods. Jews were no longer allowed to work in certain professions. They were no longer allowed in some pubs or public parks. In 1935, the Nuremberg Racial Laws came into force. Jews were forbidden to marry non-Jews. Jews also lost their citizenship, which officially turned them into second-class citizens with fewer rights than non-Jews.
In 1938, the Nazis organised pogroms all over Germany: the Kristallnacht (Crystal Night). Jewish houses, synagogues, and shops were destroyed and thousands of Jewish people were imprisoned in concentration camps. When the war broke out in September 1939, about 250,000 Jews fled Germany because of the violence and discrimination.
World War II Ghettos
During World War II, the SS and other German occupation authorities concentrated urban and sometimes regional Jewish populations in ghettos. Living conditions were miserable. Ghettos were often enclosed districts that isolated Jews by separating Jewish communities from the non-Jewish population and from other Jewish communities. The Germans established at least 1,143 ghettos in the occupied eastern territories. There were three types of ghettos:
German occupation authorities established the first ghetto in Poland in Piotrków Trybunalski in October 1939. The largest ghetto in Poland was the Warsaw ghetto. In Warsaw, more than 400,000 Jews were crowded into an area of 1.3 square miles. Other major ghettos were established in the cities of Lodz, Krakow, Bialystok, Lvov, Lublin, Vilna, Kovno, Czestochowa, and Minsk. Tens of thousands of western European Jews were also deported to ghettos in the east.
What was "The Final Solution?"
The Final Solution is the shortened version of what the Nazis called the Final Solution to the Jewish Question. It was the term for the Nazi plan for the extermination and genocide of the Jewish people during World War II.
The code name was for the murder of all Jews in reach but was not restricted to Europe once they had completed their aims within the continent. The program evolved during the first 2 years of the war leading to the Holocaust where the aim was to murder “every last Jew in the German grasp.”
The Final Solution was a policy of the Nazi Party, a policy of deliberate and systematic genocide, and was formulated by Nazi leadership in the January of 1942 at the Wannsee Conference which was held near Berlin. Following this, the Holocaust took the lives of 90% of the Polish-Jewish population, two-thirds of the Jewish European population. That is around six million Jews in total.
Implementing "The Final Solution"
In 1941, the Nazi leadership decided to implement the "Final Solution," the systematic mass murder of European Jewry. The Nazi regime used rail transport as one method to forcibly rearrange the ethnic composition of eastern Europe within the framework of World War II. The German authorities used rail systems across the continent to transport, or deport, Jews from their homes, primarily to eastern Europe. Once they had begun to methodically kill Jews in specially constructed killing centers, German officials deported Jews to these facilities by train or, when trains were not available or the distances were short, by truck or on foot.
1. Deportations on this scale required the coordination of numerous German government agencies and the involvement of SS, police, and local auxiliaries and collaborators.
2. The Germans attempted to disguise their deadly intentions by portraying the deportations as a "resettlement" of the Jewish population in labor camps in the "East."
3. Packed in sealed freight cars and suffering from overcrowding, lacking food and water, many of the deportees died before the trains reached their destinations.
Development of Concentration Camps
The first concentration camps in Germany were set up as detention centres for so-called ‘enemies of the state’. Initially, these people were primarily political prisoners such as communists, but this soon expanded to also include Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, Roma, and so called ‘asocials’. After March 1938, when Germany annexed Austria in an event known as Anschluss thousands of German and Austrian Jews were arrested and detained in Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen concentration camps. The mass detention of Jews on the basis of the Nazis’ racial ideology intensified following Kristallnacht and continued until the end of the Second World War. This imprisonment was an escalation of the Nazis’ previous persecution of Jews. Imprisonment in the Nazi concentration camps was usually indefinite, and whilst (initially) some people were released in just a few days, most endured weeks, months or years of detention. Sanitation and facilities were extremely poor across all camps. Brutal treatment, torture and humiliation was commonplace. Inmates in concentration camps were also usually subject to forced labour. Typically, this was long hours of hard physical labour, though this varied across different camps. Many camps worked their prisoners to death. Approximately one million people died in concentration camps over the course of the Holocaust. This figure does not include those killed at extermination camps.
Nazi leaders met in January 1942 at the Wannsee Conference to coordinate the industrial slaughter - what they called a "final solution to the Jewish question" - killing the entire European Jewish population, 11 million people, by extermination and forced labour.
How many intial death camps were there (example: Poland)?
The 6 death camps, Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau were used to carry out the systematic mass murder of Jews as part of the Final Solution, first in gas vans, and later in gas chambers.
How did a death or extermination camp work (example: Auschwitz)?
People from all over Europe were crammed into cattle wagons without windows, toilets, seats or food, and transported to Auschwitz. There they were sorted into those who could work and those who were to be immediately killed. The latter group were ordered to strip naked and sent to the showers for "delousing" - a euphemism used for the gas chambers.
Guards from the so-called "Hygienic Institute" would then drop powerful Zyklon-B gas pellets into the sealed chambers, and wait for people to die. It took about 20 minutes. The thick walls could not hide the screams of those suffocating inside.
Then Sonderkommandos - other prisoners, usually Jews forced to work for the guards or be killed - would remove artificial limbs, glasses, hair and teeth before dragging the corpses to the incinerators. Ashes of the bodies were buried or used as fertiliser.
Belongings of those gassed and those sent to work were taken for sorting in a part of the camp known as "Canada" - so named because the country was seen as a land of plenty.
As the German Army started to lose the war, they were pushed into retreat towards Germany by the Allies. The Allies then began to liberate the hundreds of camps which the Nazis had constructed across occupied Europe.
On 23 July 1944, Majdanek, in eastern Poland, became the first extermination camp to be liberated by the Soviet Army. Abandoned quickly by the German forces, the camp was almost completely intact.
Over the following nine months, hundreds of camps were liberated across Germany and previously occupied territories, including extermination camps Auschwitz-Birkenau (by the Soviets in January 1945) and Bergen-Belsen (by the British in April 1945).
For many prisoners, liberation was only the beginning of their journey to freedom. The Nazis had stripped survivors of their jobs, their homes, and in many cases, murdered their families. Most had nowhere to go, and many ended up being placed in Displaced Person camps until they could eventually emigrate or settle elsewhere.
The conditions in the camps also took a while to improve because of the poor conditions in post-war Europe. Disease was widespread, and the daily death rate initially remained high. In Bergen-Belsen, 10,000 people died from malnutrition and disease after liberation.
Liberation and Auschwitz
At the end of 1944, facing the reality of the Soviet Army’s imminent arrival, Nazi authorities in Auschwitz prepared to abandon the compound and ordered the destruction of evidence of the crimes they had perpetrated—including the human beings who had been living in the camp.
From January 17 to 21, the Nazis transported nearly all remaining inmates to other camps in what became known as death marches toward the inner Reich. A vast number of people would die on these forced marches due to exhaustion, hunger, and cold. Those who were too weak to keep walking were often shot and killed by SS officers and guards.
When their offensive reached Auschwitz, the Soviet Army found almost 7,000 people—exhausted, ill, and traumatized—in the compound. Despite the efforts of Allied troops and doctors, more than half of these people would die within days of the liberation of the camp.
Survival, recovery, and reckoning with loss would be a lifelong project for those who lived beyond the liberation of Auschwitz.
Holocaust Remembrance Days and Continuing Impact
Holocaust remembrance days, international commemoration of the millions of victims of Nazi Germany’s genocidal policies. The commemoration, observed on different days in different countries, often marks the victims’ efforts at resistance and concentrates on contemporary efforts to battle hatred and anti-Semitism.
A Changed World
The Holocaust was a watershed event in human history. In the aftermath of World War II, the world—from individual nations to the United Nations; from religious leaders to professionals in fields as diverse as law, medicine, and science; from presidents and prime ministers to private citizens—confronted its legacy. Many of the issues raised by this cataclysmic event continue to have an impact on our lives and the world in which we live.