What is the holocaust? (2024)

Holocaust or Shoah?

The word ‘holocaust’ comes from ancient Greek and means ‘burnt offering’. Even before the Second World War, the word was sometimes used to describe the death of a large group of people, but since 1945, it has become almost synonymous with the murder of the European Jews during the Second World War. That's why we use the term 'the Holocaust'. Jews also refer to it with the word ‘Shoah’, which is Hebrew for 'catastrophe'.

Causes of the Holocaust

The Holocaust has a number of causes. Its direct cause is the fact that the Nazis wanted to exterminate the Jews and that they were able to do so. But their lust for murder didn't come out of nowhere. The antisemitic Nazi ideology must be considered in the broader context of the age-old hostility towards Jews, modern racism, and nationalism.

Jews in Europe have been discriminated against and persecuted for hundreds of years, often for religious reasons. For a start, they were held responsible for the death of Christ. In the Middle Ages, they were often made to live outside the community in separate neighbourhoods or ghettos and were excluded from some professions. In times of unrest, Jews were often singled out as scapegoats. During the plague pandemic around 1350, Jews were expelled and persecuted. In Russia, after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, there were outbreaks of violence in which groups of Jews were mistreated or murdered. With the rise of racially inspired ideologies in the nineteenth century, the idea arose that Jews belonged to a different race and were therefore not part of 'the people' or the nation.

In 1918, Germany lost the First World War. Right-wing extremists blamed the Jews. They also accused the Jews of being capitalist exploiters who profited at the expense of others. At the same time, the Jews were accused of being followers of communism who were after world domination by means of a revolution.

Yet there is no straight line from the antisemitism of the Nazis to the Holocaust. In his book Mein Kampf and his speeches, Hitler never made a secret of his hatred of the Jews and his opinion that there was no place for them in Germany, but initially, he had no plans for mass murder.The Holocaust can best be seen as the outcome of a series of decisions, influenced by circ*mstances.

Polish Jews were expelled from Germany in 1938 and in 1940 German Jews were sent to occupied Poland and France, but the Nazis were not interested in their fate. Only some time after the outbreak of the Second World War did the Nazi top conceive of the idea and the possibility of murdering the European Jews. Sometimes the initiative came from lower placed Nazis, who were looking for extreme solutions to the problems they faced. Competition between different government departments also led to increasingly radical measures against the Jews. But in the end, nothing went against Hitler's wishes and he was the one who made the final decisions.

Expelling the Jews from Germany

Between 1933 and 1939, the Nazis made life in Germany increasingly impossible for the Jews. Jews fell victim to discrimination, exclusion, robbery, and violence. The Nazis sometimes killed Jews, but not systematically or with the intention of killing all Jews.

At that point, the main goal of the Nazis was to remove the Jews from Germany by allowing them to emigrate. To encourage them to do so, they took away their livelihoods. Jews were no longer allowed to work in certain professions. They were no longer allowed in some pubs or public parks. In 1935, the Nuremberg Racial Laws came into force. Jews were forbidden to marry non-Jews. Jews also lost their citizenship, which officially turned them into second-class citizens with fewer rights than non-Jews.

In 1938, the Nazis organised pogroms all over Germany: the Kristallnacht (Crystal Night). Jewish houses, synagogues and shops were destroyed and thousands of Jews were imprisoned in concentration camps. When the war broke out in September 1939, about 250,000 Jews fled Germany because of the violence and discrimination.

The Second World War: Radicalisation of the persecution of the Jews

The German invasion of Poland in September 1939 heralded a new, more radical phase in the persecution of the Jews. The war had made emigration all but impossible. The occupation of Poland meant that 1.7 million Polish Jews were now under German rule. They were housed in ghettos, Jewish housing estates, which looked more like prisons. Several families often shared a single house. They went hungry and lacked medical care. The Jews were not allowed to leave the ghetto without permission, and they sometimes had to do forced labour. Moreover, during the first months of the occupation of Poland, the Germans executed thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish citizens.

During this period, the Nazis were planning to deport the Jews from the occupied territories to reservations in Poland or to the territory of the Soviet Union after its planned conquest. An alternative plan entailed deporting Jews to the island of Madagascar. It should be noted that the Nazi plans did not include provisions regarding their accommodation or other living facilities, although they did go into the seizure of Jewish property. This suggests that the Nazis counted on high mortality rates among the Jews.

Invasion in the Soviet Union: mass executions of Jews

In June 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Hitler declared a war of destruction on Germany’s ideological enemy, the communist regime. The army command was notified that war crimes would not be punished and that they had permission to execute all criminal suspects without trial. By expelling, killing, or starving the population of the Soviet Union, the Germans want to create Lebensraum: a colony for Germans.

Behind the German military lines, the Einsatzgruppen sprang into action. These were special killing units charged with the task of killing communist officials, partisans, and Jewish men between the ages of 15 and 60. Their actions were officially intended to prevent resistance. From August 1941 onwards, however, the Einsatzgruppen frequently also killed old people, women, and children. Their murders could hardly be considered 'retaliations'.

The Jews in the Occupied Territories were usually ordered to report to a central point, often on the pretext of deportation, or they were rounded up during raids. Then the Nazis would then take them to a remote place where they were executed. In 1941 alone, close to 900,000 Soviet Jews were murdered in this way.

The decision to resort to genocide

Historians disagree about the moment when Hitler decided that all European Jews should be killed. A signed order to do so does not exist. However, based on other sources and events, there is a strong likelihood that the decision was made somewhere in the second half of 1941.

Mass murder seems an extreme alternative to the previous plans for deportation. The war made it impossible to deport Jews to Madagascar, and the plan to push the Jews back further to the east could not be carried out because the victory over the Soviet Union was not forthcoming. And so, the 'final solution to the Jewish question’ took the form of genocide. During the Wannsee Conference, on 20 January 1942, Nazi officials discussed the execution of the planned murder of the eleven million Jews living in Europe.

Aktion Reinhard: The first extermination camps

In late 1941, the Nazis began preparing for the murder of more than two million Jews living in the General Government, the occupied part of Poland. The Nazis also experimented with mass murder in other occupied and annexed areas of Eastern Europe. In Chelmno, they introduced the use of gas to kill Polish Jews. This method was faster and considered less ‘aggravating' for the SS officers involved than shooting people.

Under the code name Aktion Reinhard, the Nazis built several extermination camps: Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. Here, the victims were murdered in gas chambers with diesel engine exhaust fumes immediately upon arrival.

The only purpose of the extermination camps was to kill people. Only a small number of Jews were kept alive to help with the killing process. In November 1943, Aktion Reinhard was terminated. The camps were disassembled and the bodies of the victims were excavated and burned. The Nazis then planted trees on the grounds to wipe out their crimes. At least 1.75 million Jews were murdered during Aktion Reinhard.

Deportations from all over Europe to Auschwitz

In the middle of 1942, the Germans began deporting Jews from the occupied territories in Western Europe. The decision-making process and dynamics differed from one country to the next, as did the numbers of victims. 104,000 Jews were deported from the Netherlands; in Belgium and France, the numbers were relatively and absolutely lower. There are several reasons for this difference.

The Jews were crammed in overcrowded cattle wagons and transported to Eastern Europe. Most of them ended up at Auschwitz-Birkenau, but there were other concentration or extermination camps. Out of the 101,800 Dutch Jews who were murdered, 34,000 were killed in Sobibor.

Auschwitz-Birkenau was both a labour camp and an extermination camp. And so, upon arrival, the Jews were selected according to their age, health, and ability to work. Those who were not fit enough were gassed immediately. The others had to do forced labour under barbaric conditions. The work was extremely hard, the little food was of poor quality, hygiene was poor, and Jews were often maltreated. This programme is therefore also referred to as ‘extermination through labour’.

Jews were brought in from other occupied parts of Europe. In 1943 and 1944, deportations started from the occupied regions in Italy, Hungary, Greece, and the Balkans. Only when the Allies were drawing near, by end of 1944, did the persecution of the Jews slowly come to a halt. In the last months of the war, thousands of Jews and other prisoners died during the 'death marches' after the Germans had evacuated the concentration camps to prevent the prisoners from falling into the hands of the Allied troops. Even after liberation, people still died of malnutrition, disease, and exhaustion.

The other victims of the Nazis

The Nazis did not just kill Jews during the war. Their political opponents, Jehovah's Witnesses, the handicapped, hom*osexuals, Slavs, and Roma and Sinti were also murdered on a large scale. Nevertheless, the murder of the European Jews takes a special place. Numerically speaking, they were the largest group of victims. Moreover, the Nazis set out to exterminate the entire Jewish people.

The only other group they intended to wipe out as a whole were the Roma and Sinti, although the Nazis were slightly less fanatical in their persecution. They murdered 200.000 - 500,000 Roma and Sinti from Germany and the occupied territories. The Roma and Sinti call this massacre porajmos, 'the devouring'.

Who were the perpetrators?

The main perpetrators of the Holocaust were the Nazis who planned and carried out the mass murder. Still, they could never have done this without the support and help of millions of Germans and others. Virtually all government agencies were complicit to some extent. There was little protest from the population, although it should be noted that the Third Reich was a dictatorship without free speech.

The allies of Nazi Germany were often guilty of killing Jews themselves or of deporting them to Germany. In some cases, they succumbed to German pressure, in others, they did not deport their own citizens, but only Jews with foreign passports.

Throughout the occupied territories, there were numerous collaborators, who reported Jews to the Germans or helped the Germans to find Jews in hiding. Government agencies often followed the orders of the Germans and cooperated in the arrest and deportation of Jews. Sometimes they did so in order to prevent worse from happening, but their actions often had fatal consequences for the Jews. In Eastern Europe, some people sided with the Germans to join them in the fight against the hated Soviet regime. The Germans sometimes recruited personnel for the extermination camps among Soviet prisoners of war, for whom this was their only chance to escape death.

People collaborated with the Germans for a variety of reasons. Antisemitic ideas often played a role, but not always. Some people had personal scores to settle. Others reported Jews out of greed, hoping that they would be able to seize their possessions. Fear of the Germans sometimes kept people from helping the Jews.

Who knew about the Holocaust?

It is difficult to determine how many people knew that the Jews were being murdered during the war. Few will have realised the full extent of the Nazi crimes. Yet in many cases, the population was aware of what was going on, at least to some extent.

In Germany, the plan to murder all Jews was officially a secret, but due to the enormous number of people involved, rumours started circulating before long. Soldiers stationed in the east wrote about the executions in their letters home and took photographs. Many others were involved in processing the Jewish possessions that were left behind after the deportations.

The Germans did not know as much about the extermination camps. Their existence was deliberately kept secret from the outside world. Still, the local population near places of execution, ghettos, and camps knew what was happening. In the rest of the occupied territories, this knowledge was less public, although it was clear that deportation to the so-called 'labour camps’ did not bode well for the Jews.

Reports on the murder of Jews reached the Allied countries from 1942 onwards, but the effect was limited, partly because they were often based on ‘hearsay’ and they reached the other side of the ocean with great delay. Besides, the Nazi crimes were so inconceivable that few could believe that the reports were not exaggerated. Only when the Allies liberated the concentration and extermination camps did the world fully realise the extent of the crime that had taken place.

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