The Holocaust was a genocide that happened during the Second World War. During this event Nazi Germany, aided by local collaborators in various European countries, systematically murdered some six million Jews from 1941 to 1945. During this era other groups were also persecuted and murdered, such as the incurably sick, Slavs, the Roma people, homosexuals and various religious and political dissidents.
Although hotly debated by historians, the exact date when Adolf Hitler ordered Heinrich Himmler to destroy the Jewish race in Europe through the industrialized use of the extermination camp is really almost immaterial. Hitler had always been, in the historian Ian Kershaw’s phrase, ‘the supreme and radical spokesman of an ideological imperative’ to destroy the Jews. Even before the war, Jews were persecuted in Nazi Germany, and Hitler made numerous threats against the Jewish population.
Hitler and Himmler had no difficulty in recruiting enough anti-Semites to do the work of extermination for them. Anti-Semitism was by no means confined to Germany, but it was particularly virulent there. Although the organized working-class left were not particularly anti-Semitic, the roots of the phenomenon went deep into much of the rest of German society. The foundation of the League of Anti-Semites in 1879, and the career of the thieving, blackmailing forger and headmaster Hermann Ahlwardt, who was elected to the Reichstag in the 1880s on a platform of spewing hatred against Germany’s Jews, were potent signs of this. This was the groundwork for the anti-Jewish Nazi policies of the 1930s.
The most militant of the many disparate anti-Semitic sects that mushroomed in the aftermath of the First World War was the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP, or Nazi Party for short), founded in Munich in 1919. Its official party program of 24 February 1920 stood for ‘the uniting of all Germans within one Greater Germany’ on the basis of national self-determination. Between 1919 and 1924, it remained confined to Bavaria, appealing mainly to ex-soldiers, anti-Communists and anti-Semites. Nevertheless, its leader, Adolf Hitler, had already attracted some national attention in 1923 during a failed putsch in Munich.
Following his arrest after the failed Munich putsch, Hitler managed, with the help of a sympathetic judge, to turn his trial into a harangue against the ‘traitors of 1918’, a public indictment of Weimar democracy, and a platform for his own extreme nationalist and anti-Semitic views. Though guilty of high treason, he was sentenced to a mere five years’ imprisonment, of which he served just nine months in Landsberg prison, where he wrote Mein Kampf (My struggle). This book was to become the bible of the Nazi movement and a core anti-Semitic text as well.
To what extent, if any, did paranoid anti-Semitism help Hitler to win power? It is probably impossible to measure its impact on Germans in any convincing way. We do know that the consequences of the First World War encouraged many disillusioned former soldiers not only to despise the postwar republic and its democratic politicians but also to blame the Jews for the debacle. Among the lower classes, many did indeed believe that Jews had profiteered from the war or the reparations. There were others, too, who resented Jewish immigration from the east or believed that the stock exchange and banking capital were mainly in the hands of Jewish financiers. Such arguments were hardly new. On the other hand, throughout the 1920s the Nazi vote remained modest. Even in the 1928 Reichstag elections, they obtained only eight hundred thousand votes and a mere twelve seats in parliament. National Socialist success in using anti-Semitism seemed limited outside of regions where there was a pre-existing historical tradition or local factors favoring it. Nazi penetration of the countryside and of urban middle-class groups just as the Great Depression began to bite in Germany after 1929 helps to explain the remarkable increase in popularity after 1930. Anti-Semitism in this political context was a crucial policy adjunct, but it was not decisive.
It was the backstage maneuverings of authoritarian conservative politicians, wealthy industrialists, and army leaders that unexpectedly opened the door to Hitler. This conservative camarilla hoped to manipulate the Nazis for their own narrow purposes and dreamed of dealing the deathblow to the Weimar parliamentary system and finally smashing the left-wing parties. Especially naïve in this respect was the former chancellor and Catholic Center Party politician Franz von Papen. He desperately needed Hitler’s electoral appeal to further his ambitions, since he lacked any popular support himself. He persuaded the ageing President Paul von Hindenburg to accept this coalition. On 30 January 1933, Hitler became chancellor and Papen his deputy in a cabinet that contained eight conservatives and only two Nazi ministers. But in the new age of mass politics, such cabinet arithmetic counted for relatively little. Hitler’s accession to power marked the end of Jewish emancipation in Germany. In the next six years, a whole century of Jewish integration into German society and culture would be comprehensively and brutally reversed.
The Nuremberg Race Laws of September 1935 were the next step in the Nazi anti-Semitic campaign. The laws ‘for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor’ formally stripped the Jews of their remaining rights as citizens. They also forbade marriages and extramarital sexual intercourse between Jews and subjects of the state ‘of German or related blood’; they prohibited Jews from employing female German servants under forty-five years of age (presumably out of fear that Jewish men might seduce younger German women); they forbade Jews from flying the national flag or Reich colors. The Reich Citizenship Law also provided a new definition of who was, and who was not, a Jew.
The spectacular extravaganza of the 1936 Berlin Olympics encouraged the hopes and delusions of German Jewry for a little while longer, as the worldwide attention led to a toning down of the more vicious abuse and a halt to more blatant acts of anti-Semitic terror. The Nazis even permitted the token participation of a few Jewish athletes on their Olympic team to appease international criticism. But Hitler was only biding his time. Indeed, in a secret 1936 memorandum on his Four-year Plan, he made it clear that German Jewry would be expropriated in the event of the Reich going to war, an eventuality for which he was already planning.
Toward the end of 1937, with full employment achieved, the drive to completely eliminate Jews from the German economy was noticeably accelerated. By this time Hitler had rid himself of the last remaining representatives of aristocratic conservatism in high positions, thereby gaining full control over the armed forces and foreign policy. A month later, Hitler annexed his former Austrian homeland. Vienna, with its prosperous community of nearly two hundred thousand Jews, quickly became a model for the rapid forced emigration of Jewry from the Reich.
In October 1938, seventeen thousand Jews of Polish origin residing in Germany found themselves expelled en masse by the Nazi authorities. Dumped along the Polish-German frontier in appalling conditions, they were refused entry by the Polish government. Among the Polish Jews who were suddenly abandoned in no-man’s-land was the Grynszpan family. Their seventeen-year-old son, Herschel, then living alone as an illegal and stateless immigrant in Paris, was outraged by the treatment of his parents and of the Jews in general. In an act of revenge, he shot Ernst vom Rath, the third secretary at the German embassy in Paris. The German diplomat died of his wounds on 9 November 1938. In response, the Nazis unleashed an unprecedented act of anti-Jewish violence and terror, referred to as Kristallnacht (Crystal Night) after the crystal-like shards of glass from the shattered windows of Jewish shops across the land. At least one hundred Jews were murdered, many more injured, and thirty thousand summarily packed off to concentration camps.
The Nazi T4 euthanasia program, which began in July 1939, killed German and Polish inmates of psychiatric units, categorised as ‘unfit for further existence’, at a rate of some 5,000 a month by 1940. Most were gassed, though some were shot, under Gestapo and SS supervision with assistance from doctors; between four and five thousand of the 70,000 victims were Jewish.
With the outbreak of war in September 1939, and especially after their victory over Poland, the Germans adopted a policy of forcing enormous numbers of Jews into ghettos, small urban areas where it was hoped that disease, malnutrition and eventually starvation would destroy them. Over one third of the population of Warsaw, for example, comprising some 338,000 people, was forced into a ghetto comprising only 2.5 percent of the area of the city. The penalty for leaving the 300 ghettos and 437 labor camps of the Reich was death, and Judenräte (Jewish elders’ councils) administered them on behalf of the Nazis, on the often false basis that they would ameliorate conditions more than the Germans.
It is sometimes forgotten that Jews were not the primary target of the Nazis in the first eighteen months after the invasion of Poland. The Nazis, having decided in agreement with the Soviet Union on the destruction of the Polish state, proceeded to eliminate its elites, to ‘transfer’ parts of its population eastward, to extinguish any manifestation of its national identity, and to reduce the mass of its people to serfdom. In 1939 and 1940, close to ten thousand Polish intellectuals, members of the nobility, and clergy were killed by the Einsatzgruppen in a deliberate effort to crush resistance.
By early 1941, when, under Special Action Order 14f13, SS murder squads were sent by Himmler into concentration camps to kill Jews and others whom the Reich considered unworthy of life, an altogether more direct approach was adopted, which borrowed the term Sonderbehandlung (special treatment) from the Gestapo, which had used it for extra-judicial killings.
The policy of mass killings was applied on a continental basis at the time of Operation Barbarossa, when four SS Einsatzgruppen (action groups) followed the German Wehrmacht into Russia in order to liquidate those considered ‘undesirable’, primarily Jews, Red Army commissars and anyone thought likely to become partisans behind the German lines. By the end of July 1941, Himmler had reinforced their number ten-fold when SS Kommandostab brigades, German police battalions and Baltic and Ukrainian pro-Nazi auxiliary units totalling some 40,000 men complemented the role of the Einsatzgruppen in an orgy of killing that accounted for nearly one million deaths in six months, by many and various methods.
Some time between mid-July and mid-October 1941 Hitler decided to kill every Jew that his Reich could reach, regardless of the help they could have afforded Germany’s war effort. The exact date is impossible to determine, since the Nazis attempted to obliterate evidence of the Holocaust itself, quite apart from its organizational genesis. In October 1941 all Jewish emigration from Europe was banned, and deportations of German Jews from the Reich began. The next month, mobile gas vans were used to kill Jews in Łódź in Poland and soon afterwards in Chełmno. The process of these local massacres was still very haphazard, but before the end of 1941 the SS were starting to kill Russian POWs and the disabled with Zyklon B gas.
In mid-October 1941, mass deportations of Jews from the Reich began, with people being dispatched variously to Łódz, Riga, Kaunas and Minsk. Among the designated victims there were more than a few suicides, and in the light of events it is hard to suggest that those who took this course were ill-advised. All their valuables were seized at the departure stations, where body searches were conducted and passengers were required to pay fares. In the winter of 1941-42, a large number of Jewish deportees from Germany were shot immediately on their arrival at eastern destinations. These killings were carried out at the discretion of local SS commanders; no general order was issued, decreeing either their preservation or their extinction.
In order for the Nazis to exterminate almost two million Polish Jews in less than two years between early 1942 and late 1943, they needed to use units such as the Reserve Police Battalion 101, which was solely responsible for shooting, or deporting to their deaths, 83,000 people. The battalion was mainly made up of middle-aged, respectable working- and middle-class citizens of Hamburg, rather than Nazi ideologues. There was a large number of quite complex psychological reasons why normal people allowed themselves to become mass murderers, although of course fanatical anti-Semitism was present in some people. Most of these reasons – wartime brutalization, societal segmentation, careerism, sheer routine, the desire for conformity, a macho ethos, and so on – do not end at the physical or historical borders of Nazi Germany.
It is untrue that, as has often been suggested, the industrialized mass extermination of the Jews took place as a result of German frustrations on the Eastern Front, or even as a result of the entry of the United States into the war after Pearl Harbor. These events coincided with it but did not trigger it. In a Führerstaat (dictatorship), career advancement depended on pleasing the Führer, and Hitler – though careful not to append his signature to any documents concerning extermination, and to use only word of mouth in giving directions – was known within the regime to favor whichever policy was harshest towards the Jews.
The Wehrmacht both knew about and sometimes actively cooperated in the work of the Einsatzgruppen, despite its post-war protestations of innocence. For example, after the Babi Yar massacre, Field Marshal Walther von Reichenau issued an order celebrating the ‘hard but just punishment for the Jewish sub-humans’ and Gerd von Rundstedt signed a directive to senior officers along much the same lines.
The somewhat haphazard, semi-public mass killings by the Einsatzgruppen had their drawbacks, principally the sheer amount of ammunition expended, the odd escapee and the very occasional distaste felt by the SS men themselves, all of which Himmler wished to minimize. Therefore on 3 September 1941, in the cellars of Block 11 at the Oświęcim barracks to the west of Kraków in Poland – known to history by its German name of Auschwitz – 250 prisoners, mostly Poles, were poisoned using Zyklon B crystallized cyanide gas, hitherto used for anti-lice fumigation of clothes and buildings. The use of Zyklon B in gas chambers became the primary way that the Nazis attempted, in the words of Heydrich, to provide ‘the final solution to the Jewish question in Europe’.
At the start of the Holocaust there was a good deal of confusion over the treatment of the people whom the Nazis eventually wished dead. Improvisation, rather than any solid blueprint, was the general rule, at least until a day-long conference held in a villa on the banks of Berlin’s Lake Wannsee in January 1942. Afterwards, no department of the Reich could plead ignorance that genocide was official government policy, despite the sinister euphemisms employed in the circulated minutes, known as the Wannsee Protocol. These were not used at the meeting itself, however, for as Adolf Eichmann recorded in a 1961 memoir, ‘one spoke openly, without euphemisms’. The historian of the conference, Mark Roseman, describes its Protocol as ‘the most emblematic and programmatic statement of the Nazi way of doing genocide’.
Out of all the concentration camps founded by the Nazis, the Auschwitz complex has become the most potent symbol of the Holocaust. In all, around 1.1 million people were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau, more than 90 percent of whom were Jews. Auschwitz was the camp headquarters where 30,000 prisoners were kept, and nearby Birkenau was a 425-acre camp where around 100,000 lived, worked and died. The slogan Arbeit Macht Frei (work makes you free) fashioned in metal above the front gate at Auschwitz was of course another cynical Nazi lie, as work there was intended to make the inmates die, and no inmate was ever freed by the Nazis in the history of the camp.
Unsurprisingly the Sonderkommandos were thought of by other Auschwitz inmates as the Nazis’ henchmen, and as ‘especially soulless and savage individuals’. Holocaust survivor Primo Levi wrote that they existed on ‘the borderline of collaboration’ and it is true that the Nazis’ job would have been far more difficult and laborious if the Sonderkommandos had not existed, although they would undoubtedly have found volunteers among the Ukrainian, Baltic or Belorussian auxiliary units to undertake the tasks. Yet it should be remembered that the Sonderkommandos had no alternative except death, that they provided food for other inmates when they could, and that they were the only group of inmates to rise up against the Germans.
For those who survived the initial Selektion on the railway siding, there were plenty more. Regular barrack inspections would take place to ascertain whether prisoners still had the strength to work effectively, and those who could not, according to the most arbitrary criteria, were gassed. Selektion also took place in the prison hospital where SS doctors would regularly cull the ‘hopelessly ill’ patients. To visit Auschwitz-Birkenau today is to be brought face to face with sights that bring home the horror as powerfully as any book or academic study ever could. Ladders were required to climb up the mountains of shoes that were taken from the victims. Huge piles of shaving brushes, toothbrushes, spectacles, prosthetic limbs, baby clothes, combs and hairbrushes, and one million articles of clothing are displayed there.
Himmler certainly had an efficient and enthusiastic lieutenant in Reinhard Heydrich, whom Hitler called ‘the man with the iron heart’, meaning it as a term of praise. After being dishonorably discharged from the Navy, he joined the SS and quickly ascended the ranks of that organization. Once war had begun, Heydrich took charge of the brutal operations in Occupied Poland, with mass deportations of freezing victims in the dead of winter. After Germany invaded Russia in June 1941, he was promoted to Obergruppenführer, and it was he who created the Einsatzgruppen. After being appointed director of the occupied Czech territory he was assassinated by members of the Czech resistance in 1942.
In the spring of 1942, Himmler refined a scheme to exploit concentration camp labor for both armaments production and the private profit of the SS. However, systemic incompetence and corruption ensured that little of value to the Reich was produced under SS auspices; on the contrary, the camp program was a drain on Germany’s transport, manpower and general economic resources. At the beginning of June 1942, amid further mass deportations from the districts of Lublin and Galicia, the SS extended the policy of dispatching victims immediately on their arrival in camp reception areas.
In April 1943 some 850 soldiers of the Waffen-SS entered the Warsaw Ghetto, intending first to ‘evacuate’ the remaining Jewish population there, and then to destroy it, under orders from Himmler. The Jews had been warned by the arrival of Ukrainian, Latvian and Lithuanian auxiliaries of what was about to happen, and the Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa (ZOB, or Jewish combat organization) took up positions around the Ghetto, ready to make the SS pay as dearly as possible. It was to continue like that for nearly four weeks, as the combatants had to fight hand to hand and street by street.
The deportation of Hungary’s Jews to Auschwitz began in March 1944. SS Obersturmbannführer (Lieutenant-Colonel) Adolf Eichmann led the special task force that deported 437,000 of them there over eight weeks. He later boasted to a crony that he would ‘jump laughing into his grave’ for his part in the deaths of four million Jews.
The issue of whether the Allies ought to have bombed Auschwitz will long be with us. Although it was logistically possible by early 1944, the decision was nonetheless taken not to bomb a camp that the Allies had known since 1942 was being used for genocide. While it was true that the unmarked underground gas chambers and crematoria might well have escaped, it is argued that it might have been possible to bomb the railway lines running to and from the camp, and would have been worth the attempt anyway. The fear of killing large numbers of inmates was a major consideration but a much more regularly used argument at the time was that the best way to help the Jews was to defeat the Germans as quickly as possible, for which the RAF and USAAF needed to bomb military and industrial targets instead.
Rationality might have dictated that, once the war looked as if it might be lost, the rail, military and human resources put into the Holocaust ought to have been immediately redirected to the military effort instead, and the Jews who could have been forced into contributing to the war effort ought to have been put to work rather than exterminated. Yet a quite separate, entirely Nazi, rationale argued that the worsening situation on the Eastern Front required if anything an intensification of the Holocaust, rather than a winding down.
If the Nazis bore responsibility for the Holocaust, they were assisted in their crimes by some, if not most, of the regimes of occupied Europe. Anti-Semitism, albeit less homicidal than in Germany, was commonplace. The Nazi empire lacked resources to cleanse the occupied territories without the assistance of indigenous bureaucracies and law-enforcement agencies. Among the explicit purposes of the German government was to ensure that as many foreign regimes as possible were complicit in the massacre of Jews. In this, it achieved considerable success. Countries like Romania, Ukraine, Lithuania, Croatia, Hungary, and Vichy France were all complicit to a certain degree.
There were, as we have seen, countries that preceded or even rivaled the Germans in their brutal treatment of Jews. But there were also opposite cases where the ‘Final Solution’ was partially or wholly sabotaged. There were governments or resistance movements in occupied countries, who refused the Nazi Final Solution. These include Bulgaria, Denmark, Sweden, and the Dutch and French resistance movements, among others. The Italian sabotage of the Holocaust was at first sight all the more astonishing given that Italy was the leading ally of Nazi Germany in Europe.
So many prominent Nazis spoke openly about their intentions towards the Jews that it remains remarkable that the Allied national leaderships were reluctant to accept their words at face value. Informed citizens in both Britain and America, and even a few in Germany, drew appropriate conclusions about what was happening, reinforced by eyewitness testimony from eastern Europe. Within some Allied nations there was ambivalence or worse, in defining attitudes to the greatest of all Nazi persecutions. Anti-Semitism was etched deep into Russian and Polish history and attitudes. In Soviet correspondents’ wartime dispatches, all references to explicit Jewish suffering were excised by the censor.
Although Winston Churchill decried in the most passionate terms reports of the Nazi extermination program, his government – like that of Franklin Roosevelt – was unwilling to accept large numbers of Jewish refugees, even if the Germans could be persuaded to release or trade them. Anti-Jewish sentiments were certainly not just a German characteristic.
While a vast number of Germans were directly or indirectly acquiescent in the massacre of the Jews, a small minority displayed high courage in helping the persecuted, at mortal risk to themselves. Such extraordinarily courageous people preserved a shred of the honor of German civilization.
The German war in the east involved much more than exterminating the Jews: the Roma were also earmarked for destruction. Between 250,000 and half a million Roma were sent to their deaths between 1939 and 1945, at the same time as the Jewish Holocaust. The Roma people did not, of course, hold the same place either in Christian consciousness or in the Nazi worldview as did Jews or Judaism, but prejudice and hostility toward their nomadic way of life was nonetheless widespread.
Hitler inflicted more misery on his fellow human beings than anybody in the history of the human race. He may not have been more vicious than some great evil-doers in the past but he had more terrible means at his disposal. Yet it is more than naive - it is dangerous to see Hitler as uniquely guilty. His ideology came in forms which seemed attractive and right to millions of his fellow countrymen. His resentments were theirs; his prejudices and preferences like their own. He used the engines of a modern state to murder and enslave millions, and that engine functioned smoothly almost to the very end.