Between 1933 and 1945, the Nazi regime and their collaborators murdered six million European Jews and five million non-Jews. The terms "Shoah" and "Holocaust" are used to label the persecution and extermination of European Jews at the hands of Nazis. The Shoah, meaning “calamity” in Hebrew or “destruction” since the middle ages, has been widely adopted since the 1940s to describe the genocide and persecution of European Jews specifically. However, the definition of the term “Holocaust” has been contested, in particular as to whether or not it should include the persecution of the other victims of Nazi Germany. The Holocaust often refers to the non-Jewish victims of Nazi Germany and is sometimes even extended to describe other genocides (for example, "Rwandan Holocaust"). Organizations such as Yad Vashem strictly limit the definition to include only the Jewish victims considering the intentionally specific targeting and elimination of European Jews.
The Holocaust was not limited to Germany, nor was it inevitable. Historians and social scientists have asked why the Holocaust happened—what were the structural and social conditions that made it possible? Historical and contemporary antisemitism was one of many factors that lead to the murder of the Jews during World War II. As is the case with all historical events, there were many complex factors, such as the rise of nationalism, world economic depression, the aftermath of World War I, the failure of democracy in Germany, and the lack of will by world governments to take in Jewish refugees.
Adolph Hitler and Nazi Ideology
Adolph Hitler was born to an Austrian family in 1889 and moved to Germany in 1913. He served in the German army during WWI and soon after became heavily involved in German politics. He was attracted to ideas of German-Nationalism, antisemitism, anti-capitalism, and anti-marxism.
Adolph Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany on from 1933-1945, and Fuhrer from 1934-1945.
Nazi ideology was based on a set of racial ideals which were founded on the “scientific” principles of “Social Darwinism.” This Nazi ideology ranked society through purity of blood, establishing a hierarchy wherein the top were the “purest,” and all others were increasingly polluted through years of race mixing. Utilizing this hierarchical structure, Jews were least ideal and were placed on the bottom, labeled the enemy of the “State.” The Nazis put forth ideas based on centuries-old concepts of antisemitism, including religious and economic forms of discrimination. They connected these historical ideas with contemporary concerns, blaming the Jewish people for German and European societal problems, including Germany’s defeat in WWI.
After Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, the Nazi party immediately began passing anti-Jewish laws with the goal of removing Jews from Germany. Originally, the idea was simply to get Jews to leave, but emigration was not an easy task, as Jews were asked to give up their homes, livelihoods, and businesses, charged exorbitant fees, and had few places of escape open to them.
Nazi policy shifted to direct violence against Jews and their property. A pivotal moment for this change took place on the nights of November 9 and 10, 1938, when Nazis and their supporters took to the streets of Germany and Austria, burning and looting Jewish shops, homes, and synagogues, and arresting an estimated 30,000 men who were sent to the German concentration camps Dachau and Sachsenhausen. Known as Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), the state-sponsored pogroms signaled to the world that Jewish life in Germany would never be the same.
By 1942, the German army occupied most of Eastern and Western Europe. Anti-Jewish laws were passed in all occupied countries. Jews were removed from the general populations and placed in ghettos, or were murdered by the Einsatzgruppen (Himmler-lead death squads that made their way East towards the Russian front). At this time, the number of Jews inherited with each occupation became overwhelming, and the murder of innocent civilians, including women and children, upon the SS killing squads was taking its toll and a new solution had to be put in place.
On January 20, 1942, the Wannsee conference was convened by SS General Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Reich Security Main Office, and attended by 15 high-ranking Nazi and German officials at a villa in Wannsee—a city on the outskirts of Berlin. They gathered to discuss and coordinate the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question,” which is code for the use of death camps to exterminate all 11,000,000 Jews of Europe.
Auschwitz-Birkenau (Auschwitz II) began gassing operations in January 1942. The Auschwitz camps (I, II, and III), which have now become the ultimate symbol of the Holocaust, were responsible for the death of 960,000 Jews between 1940-1945. The more devastating number of deaths were sustained at the hands of the Einsatzgruppen and collaborative efforts of citizens in the occupied countries, as well as deaths in the ghettos and other concentration camps throughout Europe. Auschwitz was liberated on January 27, 1945, by the Soviet Red Army. On May 8, 1945, the war was over but the aftermath of the events that took place continues to affect the present. This is especially the case as scholars and people continue to struggle with how this could have taken place and how the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis and their collaborators have been repeated through acts of mass violence and other genocides throughout the world.
The Jewish population of Germany prior to WWII (as of 1930) was 505,000 people out of a total population of 67 million, making them less than 0.75% of the total population. By the end of the Holocaust, six million European Jews were murdered.
In addition to the murder of European Jews, the Nazi government was responsible for the persecution of several other groups of people. Poles, Sinti, and Roma were viewed as racially inferior to the Aryans and were subjected to death and labor camps. They persecuted church leaders and Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused to salute Hitler, served in the German army, or opposed Nazism in general. Homosexuals, specifically men, were viewed as a hindrance to the preservation of the German nation and were therefore subjected to concentration camps. People with mental and physical disabilities were also killed as part of a “euthanasia program.” In addition, Nazis also persecuted political opponents, revolutionary authors and artists, Red Army political officers, and Soviet prisoners of war, amongst many other people. In total, five million non-Jews were killed.
The first Holocaust deniers were the Nazis, who utilized veiled language, secret operations, and covered up their mass murders by burning bodies and destroying evidence. Their main purpose was to keep victims in the dark for fear of revolt and other factors that would hinder their goals for annihilation. Himmler, in his speech to his troops at Posen in October 1943, said, “I shall speak to you here with all frankness of a very serious subject. We shall now discuss it absolutely openly among ourselves, nevertheless we shall never speak of it in public. I mean the evacuation of the Jews, the extermination of the Jewish race… This is a glorious page in our history that has never been written and shall never be written.”
Holocaust deniers maintain that events did not take place as they were written, and that Jews have propagated the myth in order to advance Jewish interests. In other words, Holocaust denial is a form of antisemitism as much as it is a part of the genocidal process—to deny the deaths of those murdered acts as a double-dying, as it seeks to erase the victims from history.
Deniers will try to establish that there is no evidence to support the gas chambers or the numbers of dead. They will also cite the lack of orders in writing from Hitler. However, the Nazis left behind enough documentation to confirm their acts. Deborah Lipstadt, noted Holocaust scholar, wrote about her trial against British Holocaust denier David Irving in her book The Eichmann Trial: “Though they [the Holocaust survivors] inundated us with offers to testify, we eschewed their testimony for strategic reasons. Survivors would have constituted ‘witnesses of fact,’ attesting to the facts of what had happened. Because the Holocaust has the dubious distinction of being the best-documented genocide in history, we considered such testimony unnecessary. We did not want to suggest to the court that we needed witnesses of fact in order to ‘prove’ the event.”