What is the holocaust? (2023)

Holocaust or Shoah?

The word "Holocaust" comes from ancient Greek and means "burnt sacrifice". Even before World War II, the word was sometimes used to describe the killing of a large group of people, but since 1945 it has become almost synonymous with the murder of European Jews during World War II. This is why we use the term “Holocaust”. The Jews also refer to it by the word "Shoah", which in Hebrew means "catastrophe".

Causes of the Holocaust

The Holocaust has several causes. Its immediate cause lies in the fact that the Nazis wanted and succeeded in exterminating the Jews. But his bloodlust didn't come out of nowhere. Nazi anti-Semitic ideology must be seen in the broader context of ancient anti-Semitism, modern racism and nationalism.

Jews in Europe have been discriminated against and persecuted for hundreds of years, often on religious grounds. First, they were guilty of Christ's death. In the Middle Ages, they often had to live outside the community in separate neighborhoods or ghettos and were excluded from some professions. In times of unrest, Jews were often singled out as scapegoats. During the plague epidemic around 1350, Jews were expelled and persecuted. In Russia, after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, violence broke out, with groups of Jews being mistreated or murdered. With the advent of racially inspired ideologies in the 19th century came the notion that Jews belonged to a different race and therefore were not part of the “people” or nation.

In 1918, Germany lost World War I. Right-wing extremists blamed the Jews. They also accused Jews of being capitalist exploiters profiting at the expense of others. At the same time, Jews were accused of being supporters of communism who wanted world domination through revolution.

But there is no straight line from Nazi anti-Semitism to the Holocaust. In his book Mein Kampf and his speeches, Hitler made no secret of his hatred of Jews and his belief that they had no place in Germany, but initially he had no plans for mass murder. Only after the outbreak of World War II did Nazi leaders have the idea and opportunity to murder European Jews. The Holocaust can therefore best be seen as the result of a series of decisions influenced by circumstances. Sometimes the initiative came from low-ranking Nazis looking for extreme solutions to their problems. Competition between different government agencies also led to increasingly radical measures against Jews. But in the end nothing went against Hitler's will and it was he who made the final decisions.

Expulsion of Jews from Germany

Between 1933 and 1939, the National Socialists made life in Germany increasingly impossible for Jews. Jews were victims of discrimination, exclusion, theft and violence. The Nazis sometimes killed Jews, but not systematically or with the intention of killing all Jews.

At this point, the Nazis' main goal was to expel Jews from Germany, allowing them to emigrate. To encourage them, they deprived them of their livelihood. Jews were no longer allowed to practice certain professions. They were no longer allowed in some pubs or public parks. In 1935, the Nuremberg Race Laws came into effect. Jews were forbidden to marry non-Jews. Jews also lost their citizenship, officially making them second-class citizens with fewer rights than non-Jews.

In 1938, the National Socialists organized pogroms across Germany: the Kristallnacht. Jewish homes, synagogues and shops were destroyed and thousands of Jews were imprisoned in concentration camps. When war broke out in September 1939, an estimated 250,000 Jews fled Germany because of violence and discrimination.

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World War II: Radicalization of the Persecution of the Jews

The German invasion of Poland in September 1939 marked a new, more radical phase in the persecution of Jews. The war had made emigration almost impossible. With the occupation of Poland, 1.7 million Polish Jews were under German rule.They were housed in ghettos, Jewish housing complexes that looked more like prisons. Several families used to share a house. They were starving and lacked medical care. Jews were not allowed to leave the ghetto without permission and sometimes had to do hard labor. Furthermore, in the first months of the occupation of Poland, the Germans executed thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish citizens.

During this period, the Nazis planned to deport Jews from the occupied territories to reservations in Poland or, after the planned conquest, to the territory of the Soviet Union. An alternative plan called for the deportation of Jews to the island of Madagascar. It should be noted that Nazi plans did not provide for accommodation or other housing options, although they did assume that Jewish property would be confiscated. This indicates that the Nazis expected high death rates among Jews.

Invasion of the Soviet Union: Mass shootings of Jews

In June 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Hitler declared a war of extermination against Germany's ideological enemy, the communist regime. The army leadership was told that war crimes would not be punished and that they were allowed to execute all suspected criminals without trial. The Germans want to create by expelling, killing or starving the population of the Soviet Unionhabitat: a colony for the Germans.

Behind German military lines, theoperational groupswent into action. These were special killing units tasked with killing Communist officials, partisans and Jewish men between the ages of 15 and 60. Your actions must officially stop the resistance. From August 1941, however, theoperational groupsoften the elderly, women and children were also killed. Their murders could hardly be considered "retaliation".

Jews in the occupied territories were usually sent to a central office on the pretext of deportation or arrested in raids. Then the Nazis took them to an isolated place where they were executed. In 1941 alone, nearly 900,000 Soviet Jews were murdered in this way.

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The decision to resort to genocide

Historians disagree about when Hitler decided that all European Jews should be killed. There is no signed order for this. However, based on other sources and events, there is a high probability that the decision was made sometime in the second half of 1941.

Mass murder appears as an extreme alternative to previous deportation plans. The war made the deportation of Jews to Madagascar impossible, and the plan to push the Jews further east could not be carried out, as the victory over the Soviet Union did not materialize. And so the "final solution of the Jewish question" took the form of genocide. During the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942, Nazi officials discussed carrying out the planned murder of eleven million Jews living in Europe.

Reinhard Action:The first death camps

In late 1941, the Nazis began preparing to murder over two million Jews living in 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 was considered less "aggravating" for the patient.SSpolice officers involved than shooting people.

under the code nameReinhard Sharethe Nazis built several death camps: Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka. Here the victims were murdered in gas chambers with diesel engine exhaust immediately upon arrival.

The only purpose of the death camps was to kill people. Only a small number of Jews were left alive to help in the killing process. November 1943,Reinhard Sharehas been finalized. The camps were dismantled and the victims' bodies disinterred and burned. The Nazis then planted trees on the site to put an end to their crimes. At least 1.75 million Jews were murderedReinhard Share.

Deportations from all over Europe to Auschwitz

In mid-1942, the Germans began to deport Jews from the occupied territories of Western Europe. The decision-making process and dynamics varied from country to country, as did the number of victims. 104,000 Jews were deported from Holland; in Belgium and France, the numbers were lower in relative and absolute terms. There are several reasons for this difference.

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Jews were crammed into overcrowded cattle cars and transported to Eastern Europe. Most of them ended up in Auschwitz-Birkenau, but there were other concentration or extermination camps as well. Of the 101,800 Dutch Jews murdered, 34,000 were murdered in Sobibor.

Auschwitz-Birkenau was both a forced labor camp and a death camp. Jews were screened on arrival according to their age, health and ability to work. Those who weren't fit were immediately gassed. The others had to do forced labor in barbaric conditions. The work was very hard, the food that was scarce was of poor quality, hygiene was poor, and Jews were often mistreated. This program is therefore also known as "annihilation through work".

Jews were brought in from other occupied parts of Europe. In 1943 and 1944 deportations from the occupied territories in Italy, Hungary, Greece and the Balkans began. Only with the approach of the Allies, at the end of 1944, did the persecution of the Jews slowly stop. In the final months of the war, thousands of Jews and other prisoners died during "death marches" after the Germans evacuated concentration camps to prevent prisoners from falling into Allied troops. Even after liberation, people died from malnutrition, disease and exhaustion.

The other victims of the Nazis

The Nazis didn't just kill Jews during the war. His political opponents, Jehovah's Witnesses, the disabled, homosexuals, Slavs, Gypsies and Sinti were also murdered on a massive scale. However, the murder of European Jews occupies a special place. Numerically, they were the largest group of victims. Furthermore, the Nazis wanted to exterminate all Jewish people.

The only other group they wanted to eliminate completely were the Gypsies and the Sinti, although the Nazis were a little less fanatical in their pursuit. They murdered 200,000-500,000 Gypsies and Sinti from Germany and the occupied territories. The gypsies and sinti call the massacreporajmos, "the devourer".

Who were the perpetrators?

The main perpetrators of the Holocaust were the Nazis, who planned and carried out mass murder. But without the support and help of millions of Germans and others, they would never have made it. Almost all government agencies were complicit to some degree. There were few protests from the population, although it should be noted that the Third Reich was a dictatorship without free speech.

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

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There were numerous collaborators in the occupied territories who reported Jews to the Germans or helped the Germans find Jews in hiding. State authorities often followed German instructions and participated in the arrest and deportation of Jews. Sometimes they did this to prevent worse things from happening, but their actions often had fatal consequences for the Jews. In Eastern Europe, some people allied with the Germans to fight with them against the hated Soviet regime. The Germans sometimes recruited death camp personnel from among Soviet prisoners of war, for whom it was their only chance to escape death.

People collaborated with the Germans for many reasons. Antisemitic ideas often played a role, but not always. Some people had personal scores to settle. Others reported Jews out of greed in hopes that they might confiscate their belongings. Fear of the Germans sometimes stopped people from helping Jews.

Who knew about the Holocaust?

It is difficult to determine how many people knew that Jews were murdered during the war. Few will have realized the full extent of Nazi crimes. But in many cases the population knew at least part of it.

In Germany, the plan to murder all Jews was officially a secret, but rumors soon began to circulate due to the large number of people involved. Soldiers stationed in the east wrote about the executions in their letters home and took photographs. Many others were involved in processing Jewish property that was left behind after the deportations.

The Germans didn't know much about the death camps. Its existence was deliberately kept secret from the outside world. Still, local people close to execution sites, 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 so-called "labor camps" did not bode well for Jews.

Reports of the murder of Jews reached the Allied countries from 1942 onwards, but with limited effect, also because they were often based on "rumors" and reached the other side of the ocean with great delay. Furthermore, the Nazi crimes were so unimaginable that few could believe that the reports were not exaggerated. It was not until the Allies liberated the concentration and extermination camps that the world realized the magnitude of the crime that had taken place.

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2. Why Did the Holocaust Happen?
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