The Holocaust

World War II

Introduction to The Holocaust

The Holocaust was the persecution and murder of 6 million Jews and 5 million others.

Before the Holocaust

Up to 1870s, there is evidence of hostility toward Jews long before the Holocaust–even as far back as the ancient world, when Roman authorities destroyed the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and forced Jews to leave Palestine. The Enlightenment, during the 17th and 18th centuries, emphasized religious toleration, and in the 19th century Napoleon and other European rulers enacted a law that ended long-standing restrictions on Jews. Anti-Semitic feeling endured, however, in many cases taking on a racial character rather than a religious one.

Adolf Hitler

Adolf Hitler was born in Austria in 1889, he served in the German army during World War I. Like many anti-Semites in Germany, he blamed the Jews for the country’s defeat in 1918. Soon after the war ended, Hitler joined the National German Workers’ Party, which became the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, known to English speakers as the Nazis. While imprisoned for treason for his role in the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, Hitler wrote the memoir and propaganda tract “Mein Kampf” (My Struggle), in which he predicted a general European war that would result in “the extermination of the Jewish race in Germany.” Hitler was obsessed with the idea of the superiority of the “pure” German race, which he called “Aryan,” and with the need for living space for that race to expand. In the decade after he was released from prison, Hitler took advantage of the weakness of his rivals to enhance his party’s status and rise from obscurity to power. On January 20, 1933, he was named chancellor of Germany. After President Paul von Hindenburg’s death in 1934, Hitler anointed himself as “Fuhrer,” becoming Germany’s supreme ruler.

What is the Holocaust?

In 1933, the Jewish population of Europe stood at over nine million. By 1945, the Germans killed nearly two out of every three European Jews as part of the Nazi policy to murder the Jews of Europe.

Concentration Camps

Concentration camps were an integral feature of the regime in Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1945. A concentration camp is a camp in which people are detain or confined, usually under harsh conditions.

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History of Concentration Camps

The first official concentration camp was opened at Dachau, German in March 1933, and many of the prisoners sent there were Communists. By July 1933, German concentration camps held some 27,000 people in “protective custody.” Beginning in late 1941, the Germans began mass transports from the ghettoes in Poland to the concentration camps, starting with those people viewed as the least useful: the sick, old and weak and the very young. From 1942 to 1945, Jews were deported to the camps from all over Europe, including German-controlled territory as well as those countries allied with Germany. Though the Nazis tried to keep operation of camps secret, the scale of the killing made this virtually impossible. Eyewitnesses brought reports of Nazi cruel acts in Poland to the Allied governments, who were harshly criticized after the war for their failure to respond, or to publicize news of the mass slaughter. This lack of action was likely mostly due to the Allied focus on winning the war at hand, but was also a result of the general incomprehension with which news of the Holocaust was met and the denial and disbelief that such cruel acts could be occurring on such a scale. At Auschwitz alone, more than 2 million people were murdered in a process resembling a large-scale industrial operation. A large population of Jewish and non-Jewish inmates worked in the labor camp there; though only Jews were gassed, thousands of others died of starvation or disease. During the summer of 1944, even as the events of June 6, 1944 and a Soviet offensive the same month spelled the beginning of the end for Germany in the war, a large proportion of Hungary’s Jewish population was deported to Auschwitz, and as many as 12,000 Jews were killed every day.

Nazi Rule Comes to an End, as the Holocaust Continued

By the spring of 1945, German leadership was dissolving amid internal dissent. In Hitler last will and political testament, dictated in a German bunker that April 29, Hitler blamed the war on “International Jewry and its helpers” and urged the German leaders and people to follow “the strict observance of the racial laws and with merciless resistance against the universal poisoners of all peoples (the Jews). The following day, April 30, Hitler committed suicide. Germany’s formal surrender in World War II came barely a week later, on May 8, 1945. German forces had begun evacuating many of the death camps in the fall of 1944, sending inmates under guard to march further from the advancing enemy’s front line. These so-called “death marches” continued all the way up to the German surrender, resulting in the deaths of some 250,000 to 375,000 people.

The End of the Holocaust

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, many of the survivors found shelter in displaced person camps administered by the Allied powers. Between 1948 and 1951, almost 700,000 Jews emigrated to Israel, including 136,000 Jewish displaced persons from Europe. Other Jewish displaced persons emigrated to the United States and other nations. The last displaced person camp closed in 1957. The crimes committed during the Holocaust devastated most European Jewish communities and eliminated hundreds of Jewish communities in occupied eastern Europe entirely.