The Holocaust: An Historical Overview
The Rise of the Nazi Party
The most pernicious anti-Semitism arose after World War I in the Weimar Republic. Some opponents of the Republic blamed Jews for the ill-fated Socialist coup of 1919, the demilitarization of the state, and the inflammatory cycle of 1922-23. Some disenchanted Germans joined Adolf Hitler's newly created National Socialist party in 1923. Although the Nazis enjoyed popular support in the 192Os, they announced a program of national regeneration based on the anti-Semitic racial theories of the late nineteenth century. With the Great Depression of the early 1930s and the threat of Communist takeover in Germany, President Hindenburg invited Hitler to become Chancellor in January, 1933. Within months, Hitler had total political power in Germany.
Hitler's view of the Jews was a crude adoption of racial anti-Semitic stereotypes. The Jews were depicted as an anti-race, bent on taking over the world. In this incarnation they were both rapacious capitalists who controlled the world's economy and the architects of the anticapitalist Communist conspiracy. According to Nazi ideology, a Jew was defined as a person having one Jewish parent or grandparent who adhered to the Jewish religion. In the illogical ideology of the anti-Semitism, followers of a certain religion also possessed specific biological attributes that made them racially unfit as citizens of the state.
In the months immediately following Hitler's accession, a series of laws and administrative orders were passed which excluded Jews from public life, including the armed forces, the press, banks, and education. Recent Jewish immigrants were deprived of German citizenship. Some Jews, together with German religious and political opponents and homosexuals, were imprisoned in the first concentration camp, Dachau, in 1933. In 1935, anti-Jewish legislation was legalized in the Nuremberg Laws. The Laws denied citizenship to all Jews, outlawed intermarriage, and defined who was Jewish and who was of "mixed blood," by again applying grotesque religious criteria. Anti-Jewish feeling was whipped up in the popular press and the state-controlled radio.
In the spring of 1938, laws were passed which eliminated Jews from the German economy, and required all German Jewish passports to be marked with a "J" (Jude - German for Jew). The height of anti-Jewish action occurred on November 9-10, 1938. Synagogues were burned, Jewish businesses were destroyed, and 36 Jews were killed. Soon after, 30,000 Jews were sent to German concentration camps. This event, called Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass), presaged the tragedy that was to follow.
World War II (to 1942)
After Germany signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union (the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement) eliminating the danger of a war on two fronts, the Wermacht (German Army) attacked Poland on September 1, 1939. Britain and France declared war on Germany in response to the invasion. Nevertheless, Poland was militarily isolated and was conquered quickly. Western Poland was annexed to Germany; central Poland was under direct German occupation and was termed the General Government; eastern Poland was annexed by the Soviet Union.
In the spring of 1940 Germany invaded Denmark and Norway prior to attacking Belgium, the Netherlands, and France. On June 22, France capitulated and was divided into two zones. The northern one was under direct German occupation; the southern one (Vichy France) was unoccupied, but collaborated with Germany. With western and central Europe in its grasp, Germany attacked Britain by air (the Blitz), but was repelled. Turning to the south and east, Germany occupied part of North Africa and invaded the Balkans, Yugoslavia, and Greece.
On June 22, 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa) in violation of the non-aggression pact. By fall, it had conquered much of the territory between the frontier and Moscow. In the winter of 1941-42, the Soviet army stalled the German advance and then defeated them at Stalingrad. This was the major turning point in the War on the eastern front. Meanwhile, Germany's ally, Japan, attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7,1941, bringing the United States into the conflict.
In the first two years of the war, Germany succeeded not only in capturing territory, but in imposing a "new order" that reflected Nazi racial ideology. Members of "inferior" races were transferred to Germany as slave laborers, their property expropriated and their military, political and intellectual elites murdered. Concentration and forced labor camps were constructed and the first steps of the Holocaust were implemented.
The concentration points for Jewish citizens were called ghettos, a term that originated in 15th century Italy. These ghettos, erected in eastern Europe, were designed for slave labor, systematic persecution, and humiliation and death by starvation and selective murder. Ghettos were established in all major cities and towns. Jews from neighboring villages were rounded up and transported to them.
Ghetto life was brutal and often ended in death. Since wages were meager, the consuming passion was preventing starvation. In "open" ghettos, provisions were smuggled and sold on the black market. The penalty for smuggling was execution. The main cause of death was a variety of epidemic diseases. In 1941, for example, 10% of the Warsaw ghetto population died from typhus. Nevertheless, there were heroic attempts at creating a "normal" life. Self-help organizations organized soup kitchens, hospitals, and clothing centers. Clandestine religious services were carried on in defiance of Nazi strictures. Observant Jews followed dietary laws and sent their children to religious schools and academies (called yeshivot). Other Jewish children also went to school. In addition, there were underground cultural institutions including libraries and newspapers.
The Final Solution
Persecutions and ghettoization were the initial stages of the Holocaust. The next stage, the destruction of European Jewry, given the code name "Final Solution" by the Nazi leaders, became German policy in the spring of 1941. With the rapid conquest of much of Europe, there were no moral restraints on the Nazi leaders. Eastern Europe was virtually sealed off from the Allies. Hitler's belief that the Jewish race would have to be destroyed, which he articulated on January 30, 1939, became an integral part of Nazi policy.
With the attack on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, two million additional Jews fell under German occupation. Prior to the attack, Heinrich Himmler the head of the SS, ordered that mobile action units, called Einsatzgruppen, were to follow the conquering German army. While the Einsatzgruppen murdered 90% of the Jews in German-occupied Soviet Union, Himmler felt that the "strain" of continual killing was too great for his men. He advocated a more efficient and impersonal form of extermination. He was also under pressure to keep some Jews alive to serve as slave labor for the war machine. Consequently, Nazi administrators, including Heydrich and Adolf Eichmann met at Wannsee, a Berlin suburb on January 20, 1942.
Jews would be forcibly transported from all occupied countries to concentration camps. The camps were designed for forced labor resulting in death or selective murder. Within weeks, trains transporting Jews from all occupied countries were rumbling toward the camps.
When considering the concentration and murder of European Jewry, the issue of armed resistance is problematic. Several significant factors worked against the possibility of organized resistance. First, was disbelief. Few victims actually comprehended their fate. The Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel chronicles disbelief in all the steps to murder, from the towns of Hungary, where Jews were rounded up, to the doors of the gas chamber of Auschwitz. Second was the relative lack of aid by both the local populace, who were themselves brutalized by the occupation and the Allies. Third was the cohesion of the family and the group in the ghettos and the camps. Resistance or flight meant leaving one's parents and friends. Reprisals were swift and severe. In Dollynov, two Jews escaped from the prison and hid in the ghetto where they could not be found. In reprisal, 1,540 Jews were murdered.
Despite the factors that prevented resistance, thousands of Jews were active in armed opposition. Some were able to escape from the ghettos or flee before the round-ups for transport and join underground movements. These partisans often had to hide their Jewish identity from the local population for fear of reprisal. Against all odds, armed Jewish revolts took place in almost every major ghetto, usually after most of the inhabitants had been transported to the camps.
The most famous revolt occurred in the Warsaw ghetto beginning on April 19, 1943. Jewish fighters held out for several weeks. Some were found alive in the rubble six months later. The anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is celebrated by Jewish communities and their non-Jewish compatriots throughout the world. This day is called "Yom HaShoah," literally, the Day of Destruction. It is also the Day of Remembrance for the victims of the Holocaust.
Concentration camps were one of the first features of the totalitarian regime established in Germany in 1933. By 1938 camps had been established in Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Esterwegen, Buchenwald, Ravensbruk (for women), and Mauthausen (in Austria). Initially the camps were for the "reeducation" of political prisoners. Inmates were stripped of all rights and were brutalized physically and mentally. Under the administration of the SS, the camps were widely publicized throughout the Third Reich as a means of instilling fear in the populace. At first, only a tiny percentage of the political prisoners were Jewish. After Kristallnacht in 1938, 30,000 Jews were incarcerated.
While the camps were at first a temporary measure, Himmler persuaded Hitler that they should be administered by the SS. In 1939, there were 25,000 inmates; 1945, there were 715,000 prisoners. Until 1939, aside from political opponents, the camps held clergy critical of the regime, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, and prisoners of war. During the war the population swelled with civilians from occupied countries who were deemed racially "unfit," especially Poles and Gypsies.
The main purpose of the camps in prewar Germany as instruments of terror changed with the onset of war as the camps became associated with slave labor for the war effort. Larger camps such as Dachau had a whole system of sub-camps which formed an industrial base. Major German corporations such as I.G. Farben, Krupp, Slemens, and Daimler-Benz either built factories within the camp complex or leased slave laborers from the camps. The most chilling example was the Monowitz Camp -- one of the three camps at Auschwitz which was a slave labor center for the chemical producer I.G. Farben. Slave laborers were also used for German munitions productions in monstrous underground factories safe from Allied bombing.
Slave labor increasingly became one form of deliberate mass murder. In Mauthausen, almost one hundred thousand inmates died working in the stone quarries. In Auschwitz, up to one-quarter of each work detail died every day. While there was a need for cheap labor to fuel the demands of war, the considerations of the Final Solution for the Jews and the brutal and inhumane treatment of non-Jews was more pervasive.
Concentration camps were the main feature of Nazi dehumanization policies until 1941. With the onset of the Final Solution, plans were made to systematically deport Jews from all parts of Europe that were either directly occupied, or administered collaborators with Germany. Jews were to be sent to the concentration and extermination camps in the east. In western Europe, transit camps were established as collection points for Jewish residents. The first Jews to be deported were those who had migrated to the west in the prewar years from Germany and Poland. As the demand for the destruction of all European Jewry intensified, Jewish nationals were also rounded up.
Near Paris, Drancy was the transit camp for deportations to the east. From March 1942 to July 1944, 80,000 French Jews were sent to their deaths. Twenty-five thousand Belgian Jews were deported from the transit camp of Malines. One hundred thousand Dutch Jews, including Anne Frank and her family, were concentrated at Westerbork and Fught for expulsion to Auschwitz and Sobibor.
Deportations also began in southeastern Europe in 1942. Jews from Greece and Yugoslavia were sent to the camps. In Romania, 185,000 Jews were deported to the provinces of Transnistria and Bessarabia, where they died in slave labor. From May to July, 1944, Budapest was the center for the last major deportations of the Holocaust. Under the command of Adolf Eichmann, 437,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz.
From December 1941 to July 1942, six camps were designed specifically as centers for the extermination of European Jewry. Located in occupied Poland they were: Auschwitz-Birkenau in Silesia; Chelmno near Lodz; Treblinka near Warsaw; Sobibor and Maidanek near Lublin; and BeIzec near Lvov. An estimated 200,000 Jews were murdered in Chelmno and Maidanek; 250,000 in Sobibor; 500,000 in Belzec; and 840,000 in Treblinka.
The most widely used method of murder was by gassing the victims. This method was first employed in the euthanasia program. Approximately 100,000 German civilians who were deemed as "unworthy of life" such as people with physical and mental handicaps were killed in the first two years of the war. Despite the protests of the population, another 175,000 were killed before the end of the war. Eventually this program was stopped due to the protests.
In the murder of European Jews, vans filled with carbon monoxide as the agent of death were used in Chelmno, the first extermination camp. In BeIzec, Treblinka, and Sobibor, the victims were gassed in sealed buildings. Eventually a more deadly gas, Zyklon B, replaced carbon monoxide.
The Polish town of Oswiecim in the industrial heartland of Silesia was renamed Auschwitz after the German conquest. In 1940 it became the site for a concentration camp for Poles. Later Soviet prisoners of war and gypsies were interred there. In 1942 it became the main death camp for Jews. By 1943 the original camp had grown into a complex of three camps: Auschwitz One, the main camp and administrative center, had one gas chamber: Auschwitz Two or Birkenau, a much larger camp with four gas chambers: Auschwitz Three. or Monowitz, the slave labor camp controlled by I.G. Farben. The camp was liberated by Soviet troops in January 1945- two months after Himmler ordered the demolition of the gas chambers and crematoria, the evacuation of thousands of inmates to German camps, and the hasty emptying of the warehouses containing the personal effects of the Jews.
Most of the victims on the transports had been deceived into thinking that they were being "resettled in the east." They had no idea of their impending fate. Upon arrival they saw the arch over the entrance at Auschwitz One - "Arbeit Macht Frei" - work makes one free. They were herded out of the trains, dazed, confused, hungry, and clinging to their loved ones who survived the ghettos and the transfers. They stood in lines on the rail platforms waiting to be examined by SS officers. Within seconds they were selected for either immediate death, almost a certainty for children, the elderly, and the sick, or for slave labor. Those who were chosen to die went directly to the gas chambers. Their bodies were burned in adjacent crematoria. The others went through a process of dehumanization. They were separated by gender, relieved of all their possessions including their names, tattooed, hair shaved and sent to barracks.
Inmates were immediately immersed into a world that they could not comprehend. They had to stand for hours during the appel (roll call), exist on meager rations, contend with the extremes of the climate, and sleep with up to eight others on a three-tiered bunk. Work was designed to extinguish life. The more fortunate inmates were assigned to the warehouses where they could hide provisions. These details worked in "Kanada," the term used by inmates to describe the warehouse containing the victims possessions. Some inmates, the musselmans, walked in a daze, awaiting imminent death. Others, the sonderkommando or special units, were forced to clean the corpses out of the gas chambers and burn them in the crematoria.
The ultimate manifestation of Nazi racial ideology was created in this camp. Medical experiments were conducted where the prisoners were reduced to the status of laboratory animals. They were supervised by trained doctors, scientists, and academics such as Dr. Josef Mengele, who also headed the selection process on the railway platform.
A Polish historical commission has estimated that of the approximately four million persons who passed through the gates of Auschwitz-Blrkenau, perhaps 60,000 were alive at the end of the war. While many victims possessed an indomitable will, survival was dependent upon chance and luck. There was no proscribed method or psychological predisposition that allowed one to survive. At any moment the whim of a guard, an infection that would not heal, or fatigue, could mean death.
Resistance in the camps had its own meaning inside the gates. Individual resistance required daily survival and the attempt at maintaining any shred of personal dignity. On a moral level it might have entailed sharing one's provisions or observing religious practices. Despite the difficulty of armed resistance, Sonderkommandos in Treblinka and Sobibor revolted in 1943. In 1944 the "sonderkommandos" in Birkenau revolted and destroyed one gas chamber. These revolts were among the very few in all the camps throughout Europe.
The Progress of the War 1943-1945
While the first three years of World War II witnessed the ascendancy of the Third Reich over much of the European Continent and North Africa, the second half of the war was marked by the demise of Germany and her Allies. Some of the most significant military turning points occurred in the following order: the defeats at Stalingrad in the Soviet Union and at El Alamein in North Africa; the collapse of Italy; the invasion of Normandy. Meanwhile, Japan was losing decisive battles in the Pacific. By the summer of 1944, Germany was subject to a pincer attack by Britain, the United States, France, the British dominions from the west, and the Soviet Union from the east. As Soviet armies pressed forward, the final stage of the Holocaust was unveiled.
Forced Marches and Liberation
In November,1944, the mass murders at Auschwitz-Birkenau ceased and the camp was evacuated. When the Soviet Army entered two months later, there were only several thousand inmates left. The remainder, together with the prisoners in scores of labor camps in Poland, were sent on forced marches westward toward Germany, in response to Himmler's order. The brutality of the marches rivaled that of the camps. Many prisoners simply dropped dead on the road from starvation and fatigue. Stragglers were shot. The German historian Martin Broszat estimates that 1/3 of the 700,000 inmates of the camps died on the marches. Two hundred thousand of these fatalities were Jews.
The forced marches terminated in concentration camps in Germany. In the winter of 1945, their population swelled to unmanageable numbers. Thousands of inmates died every day of typhus, starvation, and shooting. There was no time to cremate all the bodies in the face of the advancing Allies. The Americans liberated Buchenwald on April 11, Dachau on April 29, and Mauthausen on May 3. British troops, together with Canadian forces, entered Bergen-Belsen on April 15. Soviet troops liberated Thereinstadt on May 9. When the Allied armies opened the camp's gates the world learned conclusively of the last stage of the Holocaust.
While the rotting bodies and walking skeletons provided overwhelming confirmation of the Holocaust, it did not reveal the enormity of the catastrophe. The thousands who died in the German camps in the last months were a fragment of the millions who perished in the ghettos, forests, and extermination camps of eastern Europe. Many victims died even after liberation. At Bergen-Belsen, the British reported that 37,000 died in the three months prior to liberation. Despite the best efforts of Allied doctors, another 14,000 perished.
Return and Displacement
Two-thirds of the nine million Jews in Europe in 1939 were killed during the Holocaust. Approximately two million survivors were in the Soviet Union away from German occupation. Of these, 200,000 were Polish nationals who were allowed to return to Poland in 1946. Thousands of Jewish survivors returned to their former homes in Poland and other countries. For the majority, the return was a shattering experience. They found that their families had not survived and their former homes had been destroyed or appropriated by their non-Jewish neighbors. Many experienced outright hostility.
Because of the experiences of the returning survivors in their former homes, many sought refuge in displaced persons (D.P.) camps administered by the Allies. In 1946, approximately 300,000 Jews had gathered there. Most wanted to emigrate to Palestine, which was under the British Mandate. Others wanted to move to countries in the Western Hemisphere. With few exceptions, their desires were not granted for two years.
Response and Responsibility
From 1933 to 1940, the Third Reich conducted a program of discrimination, persecution, and selective murder of German Jewry. From 1941 to the last day of the War, this program had escalated to what the historian Lucy Dawidowicz termed "the war against the Jews," the attempt to murder all Jews in German occupied territory. The question of who was responsible for the Holocaust begins with the Nazi hierarchy, but does not end there. From 1933 to 1945, the Nazis received help from nations, organizations, and individuals who were active collaborators, apathetic accomplices. or mute bystanders.
Broadly speaking, there were five groups of countries in Europe during the war. In each group there are examples of collective and individual collaboration and complicity with the Nazis in the Holocaust, but also of aid to Jews.
The first group consists of countries that were militarily destroyed and occupied by Germany, most notably Poland, the Baltic countries, and western Soviet Union. The brutality suffered by the peoples of this group was unmatched in the rest of Europe. Some six million Poles, half of them Jews, were killed. Sixty percent of the five million Soviet prisoners of war who were captured died in custody. Millions of civilians also perished in the German invasion of the Soviet Union. While these actions severely limited the aid that Soviet and Polish citizens could offer their Jewish neighbors, there were attempts at help. Most civilians, however, were indifferent, and a minority were accomplices in the murder of their countrymen.
The second group of nations consists of those which were occupied, but not destroyed. In the Netherlands, three-quarters of Dutch Jews were deported and killed, partly due to the existence of local Nazi collaborators and the SS troops. Nevertheless, many Dutch citizens were active in the attempt at hiding Jews. A smaller proportion of Belgian Jews perished partly because there was little collaboration with the occupying army. Most French Jews were deported. The French citizenry was divided between collaborators, accomplices of the German authorities, and partisans who helped in saving Jews.
The third group of countries consists of conquered nations which were given autonomy. Of these, the regime in Vichy, France actively aided in the deportations, while Denmark defied German orders to round up its Jews and managed to smuggle them to freedom in neutral Sweden.
The fourth group consists of satellite countries and German allies. The response in this group was mixed. Italy, Germany's major ally, saved most of its Jews by not obeying deportation orders. The Vatican, however, was complicit in the Holocaust by not actively opposing the steps that led to the Final Solution. It did intervene, however, in the deportation of Roman Jews. Some Catholic clergy including the future Pope John XXIII helped to save Jews. Bulgaria was a German satellite that also did not comply with deportation orders so that virtually all Bulgarian Jews were saved. Hungary, however, fell under Nazi sympathizers who helped Eichmann orchestrate the deportations of almost half a million Jews. These deportations occurred despite the heroic efforts of a Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg. Local Nazi groups assisted the Germans in murdering most of the Jews from Slovakia and Croatia.
The fifth group consists of neutral countries. Switzerland accepted some German Jews prior to the War, but then declared that it was too full for subsequent refugees. Moreover, international organizations situated there, such as the Red Cross, refused to send aid to Jews or to systematically lobby the Allies for help. Spain and Portuagal allowed some Jews to pass through on their attempt to find refuge elsewhere. Sweden tried to aid Jews through diplomatic channels.
While responsibility for the Holocaust extended to most European countries, it did not terminate on the continent. Britain and the United States also shouldered some of the responsibility. Prior to the war both countries were reluctant to admit German Jews who wanted to emigrate. Finally, each country took in 50,000 Jews. At the Evian Conference in 1938 they diverted attempts to allow refugees a haven. The United States refused boats full of Jewish refugees such as the "St. Louis" to land in its ports. They were forced to return to Germany.
While Britain played a central role in saving civilization from Nazi terror, it was hesitant in responding to pleas to bomb the rail lines to Auschwitz or to allow Jewish refugees to enter Palestine. Its policy in Palestine was steadfast until the end of the Mandate and the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
The United States officially closed its gates to Jewish immigrants in 1940. In 1943 it maintained this policy at the Bermuda Conference on the refugee situation.
In 1944 it created the War Refugee Board which aided the surviving remnant in Europe, but its immigration policy regarding Jews was not substantially revised until 1948. Several factors account for Allied response to the Holocaust. First, even though Churchill and Roosevelt had conclusive proof of the Final Solution by the end of 1942, they could not truly comprehend the enormity of the catastrophe. Second, prior to the outbreak of war, economic considerations were most prevalent because of the Great Depression. Third, during the war the fate of the Jews was submerged in the global contest. The overriding priority was the military defeat of Germany and its allies. Fourth was the existence of overt and concealed anti-Semitism, especially in the United States, where polls revealed, even after the disclosure of the Holocaust, that the majority of Americans were opposed to the entry of Jewish immigrants.
The Nuremberg Trials
As the Allies marched through German territory in 1944 and 1945, they liberated the concentration camps. They found letters, diaries, and documents concerned with the plans and practices of the Final Solution. The Nazis had kept careful records of their victims. The Allies felt a need to make the extent of the Nazis' persecutions known to a stunned world. They wanted to prevent the recurrence of another Holocaust by bringing those responsible to trial. For the first time, leaders of a government were brought to an international court of law as symbols of aggressive militarism, of attempted genocide, and of the misuse of power.
In August of 1945, representatives of France, Britain, the USSR, and the USA agreed to an international military tribunal to be held in Nuremberg, Germany, the site of the Nazi mass rallies. Twenty-two (one in absentia) high ranking Nazi officers were charged with four crimes newly defined: a) Conspiracy, b) Crimes against Peace, c) War Crimes, d) Crimes against Humanity. Hitler had committed suicide in April, 1945. Among those left to be tried were his close aides Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess, Julius Streicher, Alfred Jodl, and Albert Speer. A common plea of the defense maintained that these were soldiers following orders without choice. Thus a major question raised by the Trials is the extent of personal, moral responsibility during wartime. In the face of overwhelming evidence, the Nazis, once viewed as the enemy, now came to be seen as barbarous throwbacks from civilization. Nineteen defendants were convicted; twelve were sentenced to death; seven were sentenced to imprisonment; three were acquitted. After six years of war, the western world turned to a courtroom to condemn the systematic persecution of human beings.
The Nuremberg Trials can be viewed as a landmark precedent in the struggle for human rights. Winning nations claimed the jurisdiction to dictate how the losing nation should have treated its own subjects. The world-wide press coverage received by the Trials served as a condemnation of totalitarianism. There were (and still are) those who believed in the Nazi cause; to them the Trials established the martyrdom of great leaders by an illegitimate, vengeful victor.
Based on a piece by Frank Bialystok. Education Consultant, Toronto, Ontario.