The Holocaust – 1939-1945

Number of casualties: approximately 6,000,000 dead

Classification: recognized genocide

Motives for the crimes: race, color, ethnicity, religion, political beliefs, and social conditions

The actors

The Jews who were descendants of Joseph were living in Egypt when the pharaohs began subjecting them to slavery. Led by Moses, they fled their situation and crossed the Red Sea. Their fate is recounted in the Bible.

When God gave Moses the tablets of the law (the Ten Commandments), the alliance was forged and the Jews became the “chosen people”. Their 40 years of desert wandering came to an end in 1420 BC, with their arrival in the “Promised Land” or “Holy Land”, an area they called Judea, which roughly corresponds to the territories now known as Israel and Palestine.

In 586 BC, Judea was destroyed by the Babylonians and the Jewish population was deported to Babylon. The Jews, however, would manage to return to their lands.

Three centuries later, conquered by Rome, they were forced into a new exile in the Roman Empire, mainly into the Mediterranean area.

Over the following centuries, the Jews would disperse themselves throughout Europe and the Muslim empires, without ever possessing their own land. This diaspora (dispersion) would simultaneously nourish both Jewish identity and anti-Jewish racism (anti-Semitism) in the West. The Bible’s “chosen people” would become the “pariah people” (in the words of Max Weber, 1864-1920).

During the Middle Ages, Christian authorities would increase their persecution of the Jews using professional restrictions and discriminatory laws aimed at reducing them to miserable conditions and making them vulnerable to unspeakable massacres, including the pogroms (murderous assaults) in Czarist Russia, between 1881 and 1917.

In a Germany weakened by the First World War and shaken by political turmoil, anti-Semitism would reach a level hitherto unknown in the history of this persecuted people.

Adolf Hitler, the Führer (Leader) promised a “new Germany”, the 3rd Reich, which would live for a thousand years.

The causes

The Nazis and their leader, Hitler, would exploit the traditional hatred against the Jews to make them appear responsible for Germany’s problems, including the country’s defeat in the First World War in 1918. They would soon succeed in scapegoating the Jews for all of Germany’s woes.

At that time, Jews were well integrated into German society, and thriving. Hitler considered their influence to be excessive and in order to curtail it, began invoking so-called scientific theories proving the superiority of the “Germano-Nordic Aryan race”. The Nazi party’s platform was unequivocal: “Only citizens may benefit from civil rights. To be a citizen, you must be of German blood, religion aside. Therefore no Jew can be a citizen.”

In his book Mein Kampf (1925-26), Hitler compared the Jews to parasites to be rid of. He purported that there was “German blood” and “Jewish blood", a “master race” and “an inferior race.”

After the Nazi party’s ascension into power in 1933, democracy was dismantled and the state’s racism gave rise to legislation aimed at isolating the Jews from the rest of German society and encouraging them to leave the country.

In 1935, the Nazis who were gathered in Nuremberg, voted in laws that allowed them to revoke the citizenship of the half million Jews living in Germany, seize all of their property and force them into ghettos:

“The Jews are banned from attending theatres, cinemas and other entertainment venues [...] The Jews are banned from using swimming pools, or playing tennis, or other sports [...] The Jews are banned from mingling with Christians [...] All Jews must attend Jewish schools ...”

This policy of segregation was the first step of the Nazi plan to eradicate Jews.

The crimes

The attack on a counsellor at the German Embassy in Paris, Ernst vom Rath, by a young Polish Jew, provided the pretext for organized violence against Jews. Immediately, the German Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, denounced a “Jewish conspiracy” against Germany.

On the night of November 9 until the morning of November 10, 1938, the Nazis smashed in the windows of Jewish shops and set fire to the synagogues. That is what history would refer to as the “Crystal Night” (Kristallnacht).

The invasion of Poland by the Third Reich (the New Nazi Germany) in September 1939, triggered the Second World War. Within months, the Germans occupied twenty European countries.

They began applying anti-Jewish policies would spearhead the program they had developed at a secret conference in Wannsee (Austria): the internment and extermination of the 13 million Jews in Europe. This was their “final solution to the Jewish question.”

In 1942, when mass executions and gassings in mobile killing units proved insufficient for the task at hand, the Nazis began constructing modern gas chambers fed with Zyklon B, completing the installations with crematoriums for mass disposal of the bodies. Concentration camps became industrial-type “death camps” where Jews, “racial enemies” (Gypsies and Slavs) and opponents of the regime were deported by the millions to be exterminated.

In all, nearly 6,000 work, concentration or extermination sites (Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Majdanek, Treblinka, etc.) were functioning throughout occupied Europe at the time.

In Poland alone, of the 7.5 million people who were imprisoned in these camps, about 6.7 million perished in gas chambers or died of exhaustion, hunger, disease, gruelling labour, torture or abuse.

On May 8, 1945, in Europe, the most terrible conflict in the history of mankind was finally over. The Nazis were defeated by a coalition formed by the Western Allies and the Soviet Union.

In the wake of racist and antisocial laws, many other groups were also victimized by Hitler’s “purification” policy:

  • Anti-Nazi Germans
  • Inherited disease carriers
  • Socials misfits
  • Criminals
  • Jehovah’s Witnesses
  • Homosexuals
  • Unionists
  • Liberals
  • The stateless
  • Political Prisoners
  • Gypsies.

The practice of Nazi eugenics alone resulted in 70,000 German victims. Nearly 50 million people perished during this six year period of war, making it the costliest conflict in terms of human lives in the history of mankind.

Justice and memory

On April 30, 1945, in his bunker, surrounded outside by the Soviet army, Adolf Hitler took his own life.

In order to escape the legal ramifications, other Nazi leaders committed suicide as well, among them Joseph Goebbels (Propaganda Minister) and Heinrich Himmler (head of the Gestapo).

After the capitulation of the German armed forces, a massive hunt for war criminals would ensue, in order to bring them to justice. Simon Wiesenthal, nicknamed the “Nazi hunter”, helped track down and apprehend more than a thousand Nazis.

The International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, which wrapped up its case in 1949, revealed the countless atrocities committed by the Nazi regime and established, without any doubt, that Hitler had created a criminal state. Of the 24 accused, 12 were sentenced to death, including the regime’s second in command, Hermann Goering.

On the heels of Nuremberg, several national trials took place, leading to the condemnation of doctors who engaged in medical experiments on prisoners, judges who committed crimes under the guise of judicial proceedings, SS officers (storm troopers) who ran the concentration camps and enforced racial laws, and industrialists who participated in the looting of occupied countries and abused the forced labour programs.

For their part, the German courts waited until 1963 before judging and condemning 19 heads of the extermination camp in Auschwitz.

The majority of surviving European Jews went into exile after the end of the war, especially in North and South America and Palestine, which in 1948 was proclaimed a new Jewish state, Israel. Thus, the Jews recovered a portion of Judea, their biblical “promised land”, nearly 2000 years after being driven out.

On 27 September 1951, Konrad Adenauer, Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, presented the country’s official apologies to Israel for all crimes committed by the Nazis, accompanied by an offer of moral support and material compensation.

In the 1990s, requests for compensation or restitution were directed at other countries that despoiled the Jews during the Second World War, including France, Austria, and Switzerland, among others.

To designate the largest massacre in their history, Jews most often employ the term Holocaust, or the more religiously descriptive word Shoah, (Hebrew for “catastrophe,” referring to the suddenness of the onslaught and the fear it induced).