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The Holocaust

The Holocaust was the historical episode in which more than six million Jews were killed by the Nazis during the Second World War. It was by far the largest genocide in the history of the world, by numbers of victims.

It had deep roots going far back in European and German history. It followed several years of intensifying persecution of the Jews after 1933, when the Nazis had come to power in Germany.

Historical background

Deep roots

Anti-Semitism has deep roots in European history. Before the mass communications of modern times, it was easy for comparatively isolated communities to feel hostility towards strangers and foreigners – and for centuries groups of Jews, with their alien garb and strange ways (according to their neighbors), had seemed like foreigners within a mostly Christian population.

In medieval and early modern times, when Europe was identified with Christianity, Jewish communities were easy targets for racist attacks as they were widely held responsible for crucifying Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity. Never mind that Jesus was himself a Jew, and all the early disciples were as well, many medieval Christians interpreted the gospel stories as an account of Jewish leaders seeking to kill Jesus, and having the support of the Jewish population (as represented by the crowd in Jerusalem who shouted “crucify him”).

The Church authorities generally tried to stop these persecutions. It was usually unruly crowds of ordinary people who committed the atrocious acts of cruelty against them. These were sometimes incited by kings, princess city leaders keen on laying their hands on the wealth of the Jewish communities in their midst.

Matters were made worse by the Christian ban on usury. This gave Jews a lucrative, but often deeply unpopular, role as money-lenders (they too were banned from usury with regard to co-religionists, but were allowed to follow this practice in their dealings with non-Jews).

In medieval and early modern Europe, therefore, Jewish communities were therefore often regarded with distrust and at times with hatred.

The German experience of the 19th century

The swift and dramatic economic expansion of Germany before World War I brought wealth to many Germans, but some sections of society experienced unwelcome change and even hardship. These pressures gave rise to higher levels of anti-semitism.

Distress amongst peasants and craftsmen

The most affected were the very elements which regarded themselves as the backbone of German society with their values of thrift, hard work and simplicity. Peasants suffered from competition from cheaper imports; craftsmen and small shopkeepers were increasingly frozen out from the new patterns of shopping, especially with the rise of department stores.

For many ordinary Germans the sharp end of the new capitalist currents undermining their traditional way of life was embodied in the local moneylender or corn broker (part of whose function was to led money on interest to his clients). For historical reasons, as noted above, these people were often Jews.

At a higher level, international bankers such as the Rothschilds were regarded as the moving force – the providers of capital – behind the wenching changes which accompanied the shift from an agricultural economy to an industrial one.

Distress amongst the middle classes

In the middle classes, something similar was at work. The educated, professional man – the lawyer, the doctor, the teacher – had had a well-defined and high-status position in traditional German society. As the middle classes expanded with the general economic expansion of the later 19th century, however, their status became less defined. New people entered the professions, and the old middle class families felt a lot less secure than before; and the new man threatening his position was frequently an ambitious and capable Jew. He had only been allowed into the old professions since the 1860s.

This development was accompanied by the rise a new intellectual climate throughout Europe, carrying within it a potent anti-Semitism.

The rise of nationalism

In the mid-19th century the leading intellectual movement in Europe had been liberalism, which valued to rights of individuals. By the late 19th century this had lost much of its attraction. After all, what had it achieved? Had the great historical developments of the time – the unification of Germany and Italy –  been achieved by pious platitudes? No! They had come about by force of arms.

As a result, nationalism had established itself as the dominant intellectual movement.  This held that the “nation” was the supreme manifestation of human life and the rights of the individual should be subordinated to those of the state. 

This mode of thought regarded with suspicion all those elements that did not fit easily into a worldview based on the nation-state. Above all international movements such as marxism, international organizations such as the Catholic Church, and the presence of Jews in many countries who were suspected of having a higher loyalty to the worldwide Jewish diaspora than to the countries in which they lived, were all regarded with a degree of hostility.

In the later case, the emergence of Zionism, which sought a homeland for Jews, seemed to emphasize the non-patriotic nature of the Jews. Many saw in Zionism an international conspiracy which sought to manipulate governments around the world to its own ends.

The “Aryan” myth

This hostility was sharpened by the advent of pseudo-scientific racial ideas based on a distorted interpretation of Darwinism which claimed that the Nordic and Germanic races of northern Europe were the most evolutionary advanced branches of humanity. They were (according to this belief) of pure “Aryan” stock – the Aryan, or Indo-European, race being held to be the most evolved branch of humanity.  Negroes and Jews were viewed as being the least evolved.

One person who came to hold such ideas was the young Adolf Hitler, while in Vienna before the outbreak of World War 1.

Nevertheless, Jews, who before World War I formed about one percent of the German population, were a prosperous element in German society. They were disproportionately well-educated and middle-class, and although anti-semitism was part of the world-view of many Germans, it was not a major factor in politics.

Germany after World War I

The years immediately following World War I were chaotic, with extremists of both right and left seeking power by whatever means came to hand. It was in this atmosphere of anxiety and threat that such groups as the Nazi party were born.

For a time, however, they remained on the fringes, and as things settled down, from the mid-1920s, and a measure of prosperity returned to Germany, people became even more indifferent to their message. This is not to say that anti-Jewish views found no echo amongst other Germans – indeed, what support the Nazis did get in these years was down to their anti-semitism more than anything else. But Germans were more interested in getting on in the world: extremist political parties were an insignificant force in the country.

As it often does in difficult times, anti-Jewish feeling rose after the Great Depression hit and people were looking for scapegoats. Hundreds of thousands of Germans began to listen more attentively to what the Nazis were saying, and to wonder whether Germany did not have a “Jewish problem” after all.


An immediate deterioration

The coming to power of Adolf Hitler and his Nazis marked a real turning point in the fortunes of the Jewish population in Germany. Conditions deteriorated for them immediately: in just a few months after the Nazis became the party of government, many Jews were sacked from local government employment, and purged from the state radio organization. Nazi activists attacked Jewish doctors’ surgeries, and law courts where Jews were presiding as judges or acting as prosecutors.

This was normally done without any sanction from above. At this stage, German society was unprepared for such violent anti-semitic acts; they disgusted millions of Germans and weakened support for the Nazi regime. Nevertheless the Nazi government did little to stop them, as they knew that the rank and file of the SA would have been dangerously disgruntled had they done so. 

Legal anti-Jewish measures

More “legal” measures, however, were much more effective. A series of laws were enacted which placed various key professions under direct Nazi control: the law, teaching in both schools and universities, journalism, and the cultural scene (art, music, theatre and cinema). Jews were purged from all these.

(Amongst those purged were twenty past and future Nobel prize-winners. Eleven of these were physicists, including Albert Einstein. One of the ironies of Nazism is that if Hitler had not targeted such brilliant scientists for their ethnicity, he might have had an atom bomb before the Allies!)

University and school places were also severely restricted for Jews.

Concentration camps

By the end of 1933 about 80,000 people had been imprisoned in concentration camps scattered around the country.

The original concentration camps were small, local affairs, run in a ramshackle if brutal way by the SA. They were originally filled with communists and other opponents of Nazism, as well as elements of society with whom the Nazis had no tolerance for – homosexuals, Jehovahs Witnesses, gypsies, and other “undesirables”. A fair percentage of them Jews, especially those prominent in the professions and the arts, were also placed in them.

In 1934 the SS took over the running of the concentration camps from the SA, and the SS Death’s Head formation was established – the concentration camp guards.

The small camps were now closed, and fewer much larger ones took their place. This was the start of the concentration camp system for which Nazi Germany is justly notorious – and would be the precursor to the later death camps.

The mid 1930s

In the course of 1934, local Nazi party activists organized boycotts of Jewish businesses and violence against Jews and their property. This seemed as much as anything to be an expression of frustration by grass-roots Nazi activists with the government’s lack of action against the Jews. Such actions were leading to public places such as baths and spas, and in some cases whole villages, to put up notices, “Entry forbidden to Jews”.

The Nuremberg Laws

In 1935, the government banned Jews from joining the army.

In September the Nazis announced a series of anti-Jewish laws at that year’s Nuremberg rally. The principle effect of these “Nuremberg Laws” was to prohibit marriage between Jews and Germans, as well as sexual relations outside marriage between Jews and Germans.

This of course raised the question, who is a Jew? Do all four grandparents have to be Jewish? – or maybe three, or perhaps only two or even one?

The Interior Ministry sought to clarify matters by dismissing all people who had three or four grandparents who were full Jews (defined as of Jewish religion). In November a supplementary decree defined Jews as being those with at least three Jewish grandparents, and stated that no Jew could vote or fill public office.

The Nuremberg Laws also states that no Aryan (i.e. non-Jewish German) under 45 years old was to act as a servant to a Jew. Jews were also forbidden to display flags with the swastika on it.


After the Anschluss

For a time, there were no more measures against Jews, but in March 1938, the Germans annexed Austria (the Anschluss) and this was followed by the brutal mass takeover of Jewish property and businesses by local Nazi party officials.

That same month the SS in Austria set up an office of Jewish emigration, and started carrying out a policy of forced emigration. The operation was partly financed by confiscating Jewish property. Forty-five thousand Jews are deported within a six-month period – a quarter of all Austrian Jews.

These events seem to have triggered a much more aggressive Jewish policy.

Economic restrictions

In the spring and summer of 1938 a series of anti-semitic measures were enacted.  Pressure was placed on Jewish businesses to ‘voluntarily’ sell up at below market prices. Jewish companies were banned from being awarded public contracts. Jews were required to register all their property, both at home and abroad, with the local authorities. In future they would have to seek permission to sell any of it.

A little later Jewish doctors were prohibited from treating non-Jewish patients, and similar bans were soon affecting Jewish lawyers, dentist and vets. Jews were banned from a range of commercial occupations, including traveling salesman. Some 30,000 Jews lost their jobs.

From this time on Jews were required to bear only Jewish, names; Aryan (i.e. German) names were prohibited to them.

In September 1938 Hitler launched a bitter attack on them at the annual Nuremberg Rally.

In October 1938, 17,000 Polish Jews were expelled from Germany.


In November 1938, a German diplomat in Paris was shot by a young Jew. In retaliation, on the night of 9th November, SA men throughout Germany ransacked Jewish businesses, fired synagogues, desecrated Jewish cemeteries, beat up Jewish men, women and children, arrested 20,000 Jewish men and killed about a hundred of them.  This episode was known as Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass.

Insurance companies were allowed to pay out on damage done by mistake to “Aryan”-owned property; the Jews were required to quickly repair their own property, at their own expense. The Nazi economics minister, Herman Goering, added insult to injury by requiring the Jewish community to pay one billion reichmarks to the German government as a punishment for the episode.

The Nazis claimed this was a spontaneous outpouring of anger by the German people on hearing of the death of the diplomat. Everyone knew differently, and the world reacted with horror. For a while, German goods were boycotted by other countries. 

The persecution gets worse

That same month (November 1938) a decree was published warning that all Jews would be banned from owning shops, market stalls and other kinds of sales outlets from January 1939. They could no longer be managers in factories and other commercial premises.

In December 1938 Jews were not allowed to use sleeping cars and dining cars on trains, or hotels and restaurants used by Nazi party officials, and many public baths and spas. Jews were required to live only in registered houses. Jewish pupils were expelled from schools.


Emigration policy

In January 1939 the SS set up an office for Jewish emigration to encourage the emigration of Jews by all possible means.

The process required the cooperation of the Jewish community itself, and the government ordered that all Jewish organizations be merged into the ‘Reich Association of the Jews in Germany’. This was made responsible for the welfare and education of the remaining Jews in Germany.

The supervision of this body was put into the hands of the SS, thus effectively establishing SS control over the Jews.

Mass arrests

In March 1939, the first mass arrest of Jews occurred, when some 30,000 male Jews, men and boys, were herded into concentration camps. In May 1939 Ravensbruk concentration camp was opened for women and children.

The brutality of the system is shown by the fact that this camp was originally built for 6,000 prisoners, but would later house 42,000.

Increasingly, too, the inmate population was exploited for economic purposes. Mauthausen concentration camp, for example, was set up near Lintz in Austria; it was located near stone quarries where the inmates could be put to productive use, essentially as slave labor. Other concentration camps, such as Buchenwald, Dachau and Malthausen, would supply forced labor to nearby industries.

In April 1939 all valuables belonging to Jews – jewelry, watches, artworks – were confiscated.

The coming of World War 2

For much of the German population, the outbreak of World War 2 was followed by a period of ‘business as usual”, lasting a year or so.

Not so for Jews, however. The outbreak of war was the signal for the campaign against them to be stepped up. A strict curfew was imposed on them immediately. 

The Ghettos

The German occupation of Poland added three million more Jews to those already under Nazi control. This put a policy of “encouraging” emigration, which the Nazis had been trying to pursue for the past year or so, out of the question.

Unlike in Germany, many Polish towns and cities had Jewish ghettoes. These were now surrounded by barbed wire fences and put under guard, and German Jews transported there.

The inhabitants were fed starvation rations. In the Warsaw ghetto alone 500,000 Jews were to die from hunger and disease.

As the Nazis conquered much of Europe, persecution of Jews was extended to the occupied territories. Many were forced to register with the authorities, and many lost their jobs.

Even countries allied to Germany but not under German occupation, such as Romania and Bulgaria, enthusiastically instituted their own anti-Jewish measures.


In November 1939 the Waffen-SS was created by merging various SS armed units together. These divisions (by the end of the war the Waffen-SS numbered 500,000 men, a large proportion recruited outside Germany) fought alongside and as a part of the regular army, but in internal matters (personnel, discipline and so on) were subordinate to the SS leadership.

This meant that they could carry out functions (of repression and extermination) which regular army units could not generally be given. Most notoriously, after the German invasion of Russia in June 1941, special units of SS soldiers, the Einsatzgruppen, operate behind the front line troops with the job of shooting all Jews who fell into German hands.

The aim was to eliminate Jewish life in these conquered regions altogether. 

These killings were often assisted by local collaborators, especially in Lithuania and the Ukraine. In some parts the killings were not carried out by Germans at all but by locals or allied personnel such as Romanians. The Third Reich had become a truly multinational extermination machine.

The murders took place within hours of a community being overrun. In large cities the scale of the slaughter was staggering: in Kiev, 33,000 men, women and children were killed in three days. Almost every village, town and city had its mass executions. By the end of 1941, the SS Einsatzgruppen had shot some million Jews.

Final Solution: the Death Camps

In September 1941, all Jews throughout German-dominated territory were forced to wear the yellow Star of David badge.

In January 1942 top Nazi officials met at a villa in the Wannsee area of Berlin for a conference on the “Jewish question”.

At the conference they decide on the Final Solution. Jews were to be herded from all parts of the German empire into death camps where all those who were not put to work in the most punishing conditions were to be gassed straight away.

This plan was immediately put into operation and death camps were built in Poland, at Majdenik, Treblinka and Auschwitz.

The operation of transporting Jews to them from all towns and cities in Poland began that spring. By the end of 1942, Jews were being rounded up from all parts of occupied Europe, herded into cattle trucks, transported for days and days in the most appalling conditions to the death camps in Poland, where most of them were immediately gassed. Those that still had the strength were worked to death in the factories nearby. 

Half a million European gypsies had shared this fate by the end of the war, as too had millions of Russian prisoners of war, thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other groups: homosexuals, criminals, ‘a-socials’.

In some camps, especially Auschwitz and Dachau, the SS conducted many cruel medical experiments on inmates, usually fatal to the guinea pigs.

The Warsaw Ghetto uprising

In January 1943, the Warsaw Ghetto erupted in revolt when a German operation to round up Jews for deportation was driven out. Ten German soldiers were killed.

The Germans took four months to crush this revolt. They sent in over 2,000 troops. The Jewish fighters numbered over 1,000, but they only had 17 pistols between them. They also had home-made explosives, and killed more than 300 German soldiers before they were crushed. In the confusion many Jews fled, and found refuge in the Christian part of Warsaw. The rest were either killed or transported to Treblinka.

Death marches

As the forces of the Soviet Union closed in on Poland, those Death Camps near the border were evacuated and the inmates forced to march hundreds of miles on foot to new camps to the west. The suffering of the marchers was, if possible, worse than it had been in the camps as they endured exhaustion, cold, hunger and disease. They were forced to walk on relentlessly to the point of collapse. At this point they were shot – some quarter of a million died in this way.

Many prisoners had to endure several of these marches to escape the oncoming Russians.

Eventually, of course, there was no where else to go, and the few survivors were liberated by the Soviet troops. By that time the full horror of the Holocaust was becoming apparent to the world.