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Holocaust: The basics

Jewish boy surrenders during the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto, 1943, USHMM # 26543

Between 1941 and 1945 at least 6 million Jews and perhaps 200,000 gypsies fell victim to the Nazi persecution. This incredible crime has been named the ‘Holocaust’.

But why the name Holocaust? Where were the victims killed? Who murdered them? All these questions are answered in this part of the web site.

More about:
What is the Holocaust?
The reasons for the Holocaust
The mass murders
The scenes for the Holocaust
The victims
The perpetrators
Want to know more

What is the Holocaust?

The word holocaust really means ‘burnt offering’ and comes via the Latin word holocaustum from Greek: holokau(s)ton and holokautoma (from ‘holos’ meaning ‘complete’ and ‘kaustos’ meaning ‘burned’).

The Holocaust (usually spelled with a capital ‘H’) has become the preferred name for the Nazis’ systematic genocide of among 6 million Jews during World War II. The Nazis themselves used the euphemism ‘the Final Solution of the Jewish Question’, while ‘Shoah’ is the contemporary Jewish-Hebrew name for the catastrophe.

This online teaching resource uses the word Holocaust (with a capital H) about the over 6 million Jews and many thousand others, who were murdered as part of the Nazis’ Final Solution policies.

Jewish women are murdered by the SD in Latvia, Dec. 1941. USHMM #19124

The word Holocaust was used systematically in connection with the Six Day War in 1967, where Israel went to war with five Arab countries. It was not until 1978, however, that the concept became known world-wide in connection with an American television series. The TV-series was called ‘The Holocaust’. It is widely debated whether Holocaust is truly the right word to use when describing the fate of the Jews during World War II.

The Nazi race policy did not only hit the Jews. Besides the over 6 million Jewish victims, between 100,000-200,000 gypsies were persecuted and murdered. Other non-Aryan victims included Russians and Slavs. Besides these groups, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, anti-socials and criminals were also persecuted. Finally, more than 200,000 physically and psychologically disabled Germans were systematically murdered as part of the notorious “Euthanasia Programme’.

Caricature, USHMM #42034

The reasons for the Holocaust

a) Why did the Nazis direct all their anger and all their accusations against the Jews?

The answer to this question probably lies many years back. Long before the Nazis came into power in Germany there existed a strong anti-Semitic tradition in Europe. This was not a specifically German phenomenon. A widespread hatred of the Jews can be found in the writings of Martin Luther and it was an important part of the self-perception of many Christians.

In a more modern form, at the end of the 19th century, a racist-biological anti-Semitism was developed, where the Jews were perceived as a ‘deformity on the body politic’. The Jews were also increasingly perceived as a specific problem to society, a problem that needed solving if the nation were to survive.

In Germany, Hitler and the Nazis succeeded in segregating the Jews from the rest of the population, despite the fact that German Jews were among the best assimilated in Europe. Jewry was also linked to communism (in ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’), thus making the Nazis capable of presenting the Jews as one the German middle class’s greatest fears.

b) Why did the Nazis murder the Jews?

The answer to this question is highly debated among historians. Some have stated that it had always been Hitler’s plan to exterminate the Jews, while others have perceived the mass murders as a result of a long and curved process, where the Nazi Jewish policy was gradually radicalised.

The Jews’ presence in the German-occupied parts of Europe was seen as a problem and a great annoyance. At best, they were to disappear from the face of the earth, so that the Nazis could reach their goal: a Greater Germany free from Jews. Different solutions were tried: voluntary immigration, forced immigration, and several different plans for deportation. Plans surfaced to deport all the Jews to the east, first to eastern Poland, then to Siberia. Serious plans were also developed that included deporting all European Jews to the island of Madagascar, of the east coast of Africa.

All these plans had to be dropped, however, because of the war. At the same time, the Nazis had gained experience with systematic mass murder in the form of the Euthanasia Programme, where physically and psychologically disabled were killed by the state. This constituted the crossing of an important psychological barrier. Another such barrier was crossed with the beginning of the Germans’ incredibly cruel war of extermination against the Soviet Union, which commenced in June 1941. All usual conventions for warfare were dropped at the beginning of this ‘the final battle against Judeo-Bolshevism’.

The result of the frustrations with the unsuccessful deportation plans, of the experiences with the euthanasia actions, of the war with the Soviet Union, and not least of the wish to find the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question’ – all these elements lead to the systematic mass murder of approximately 6 million Jews.

The mass murders

Jewish women waiting to be executed in the Ukraine, Oct. 1942. USHMM # 17877

The victims of the Holocaust died under very different circumstances.

One of the cruelest methods – and by far the most notorious – was gassing. This took place in an industrialised fashion in the six so-called extermination camps, of which Auschwitz-Birkenau is the best known. These six camps together claimed around 3 million Jewish lives.

Among 1,5 million Jews were shot to death in the most brutal way by different Nazi units. The so-called Einsatzgruppen, which operated behind the front against the Soviet Union, were responsible for many of these mass murders. But other units as well, from the SS, the Waffen-SS, the ordinary police, and the army, also shot many Jews. Apart from German units, many locals from the occupied eastern territories took part on their own initiative.

Three ways of murder are less well-known, but equally important: forced labour in working camps, hunger, and disease. With terrible result the Nazis introduced the concept of ‘working to death’ (Vernichtung durch Arbeit), where Jews and other prisoners worked themselves to death for the German war machine. Thousands of others died of hunger, in the concentration camps or in the Jewish ghettos. Finally, thousands died of disease, among them Anne Frank, who fell victim to a tuberculosis epidemic in the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen in 1945.

The scenes for the Holocaust

As can be seen from the maps, the Holocaust took place outside the very core areas of Germany – and thus far from the eye of the ordinary German. It was mainly the occupied parts of the Soviet Union and Poland that became the scene for this terrible crime against humanity.

> Map of the extermination camps in Poland, 1942
> Map of the range of the Einsatzgruppen

In the Soviet Union, the four Einsatzgruppen – and their local auxiliaries – shot among 1,5 million Jews, especially at mass executions.

In Poland, in the newly created General Government, four of the extermination camps were situated: Belzec, Treblinka, Sobibor and Majdanek. In other parts of occupied Poland (Upper Silesia and Wartheland) the other two extermination camps, Auschwitz and Chelmno, became the scene for the Nazis’ mass murder.

The victims

German Waffen-SS soldiers look on, as a member of an Einsatzgruppe kills a Ukrainian Jew, USHMM #64407.

A total of 6 million Jews and hundreds of thousands of others (primarily gypsies) fell victim to the most radical form of the Nazis race policy, the Final Solution.

The majority of the 6 million Jews who were killed between 1941 and 1945 were of Polish and Russian origin. Approximately 2,7 million (90%) of the Polish Jews, and 2,1 million Russian Jews fell victim to the Nazi persecution. In the late summer of 1944 around 440,000 Hungarian Jews were deported directly to the gas chambers at Auschwitz II (Birkenau). A total of 550,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered by the Nazis.

> Statistics

The perpetrators

Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler, USHMM #05459.

Historians have estimated that at least 500,000 men (soldiers, guards, kapo’s, etc.) participated actively in the murder of the Jews during World War II – at gassings, shootings and similar atrocities. But the figure becomes much higher, if one chooses to include numerous ‘helpers’: train drivers who drove the trains to the extermination camps, artisans who helped build the camps, etc.

The practical implementation of the Holocaust was taken care of by Nazis, especially by the SS – headed by men like
Reinhard Heydrich and Heinrich Himmler. The political responsibility for the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question’ undoubtedly involved the very top of the Nazi hierarchy and thus Adolf Hitler and Hermann Göring.

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