The Holocaust comes from the Greek words for “sacrifice by fire.” But these days, whenever we hear the word “holocaust,” we think of the greatest genocide in history: the murder of 6 million Jews by the Nazis during the World War II. The causes of this genocide are complex, and the scars that it has left behind even more so.
It’s important to note that Jews were not the only targets of the Nazis. Concentration camps were originally established to incarcerate political and religious dissenters, such as Communists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Groups that did not conform to the norms of society, such as homosexuals and the mentally and physically disabled, were also targets.
While imprisoned for trying to stage a takeover of Bavaria, Adolf Hitler wrote the famous Nazi manifesto “Mein Kampf” (“My Struggle”). He predicted a global war which would result in the complete extermination of the Jews in order to give Germans (the supreme race) more space to expand. Along with other anti-Semitic Germans, he blamed the Jews for losing WWI in 1918. After his release from prison, Hitler’s rise to power was meteoric. He became chancellor of Germany in 1933 and then declared himself “Fuhrer” (or supreme leader) in 1934.
Under Hitler’s rule, the Nazis quickly and forcefully began acting on their intention to “Aryanize” Germany. They burned any books written by Jews or dissenters and also enforced the Nuremberg Laws, a system of institutionalized discrimination which deprived Jews of their livelihoods. In November 1938, Jewish synagogues throughout Germany, as well as shops and businesses, were destroyed and many Jews arrested or killed. From 1933-1939, hundreds of Jews left Germany to seek asylum elsewhere.
In September 1930, the Germans invaded Poland and thousands of Polish Jews were imprisoned. At this time, the Germans began the extermination of hundreds of thousands of Europeans who were institutionalized for mental and physical disabilities. Some historians believe that this “Euthanasia Program” served as a pilot for the mass murder of the Jews.
The first concentration camp (Dachau) opened in 1933, followed by many others, the largest and most notorious being Auschwitz. The Nazis also established many “ghettoes” and forced labor camps to help them easily transport and control the population of prisoners. In the concentration camps, killings were performed on an industrial scale: roughly 12000 Jews per day were killed in the gas chambers, and many others died of starvation or disease.
As the war began to draw to a close and the Germans were clearly losing, they continued their progress toward extermination of the Jews by evacuating the camps in vicious “death marches.” The Allies began to liberate prisoners as they found them. Camps for displaced persons were established to shelter the survivors.
The Holocaust left terrible scars on Europe which have been slow to heal. Entire Jewish communities throughout Europe were wiped out. Most survivors were not able to return to their homes, resulting in mass-relocation throughout Europe and to other nations such as Israel and the U.S. The Nuremberg Trials brought to light the horrible atrocities committed by the Nazis and the Allies were pressured to create a Jewish nation-state, which they did through the mandate for the creation of Israel in 1948. Starting in 1953, the German government began to make payments to individual Jews in recognition of German guilt and Jewish loss of life and property.
The Holocaust is infamous in history and will always be remembered as an example of how prejudice can easily lead to unimaginable evil. The scars of such atrocity endure for generations.
- “Introduction to the Holocaust.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2 July 2016, https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005143.
- “The Holocaust.” History.com, 2016, http://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/the-holocaust.