The Holocaust was the genocide of European Jews during the Second World War, which saw some 6 million Jews exterminated between 1941 and 1945 in Nazi occupied Europe. The Holocaust decimated the European Jewish population, around two-thirds, and impacted society in the systematic murder of those deemed ‘undesirable’ in society. The Nazis did not solely target Jews, but those regarded a threat to the ‘Aryan race’ and the Reich, including Gypsies and Slavs, political opponents, homosexuals and those regarded as mentally disabled.
Genocide is the deliberate murder of a large number of people from a particular nation or ethnic group with the aim of destroying a nation, ethnic group or race. Genocide was not unique however to Nazi Germany, as seen in the Turkish massacres of Armenians during the First World War, the Turkish War of 1921-22 or the ethnic killings in the Baltic region. The industrial nature of the Holocaust, with the work and extermination camps however, means the Holocaust had unique qualities that differed from previous genocides.
Eugenics is a form of ‘pseudo-science’ that studies and promotes ‘desirable’ characteristics in a population. Eugenics was an important factor in The Holocaust, and helped form an empirical basis for the extermination of the Jews and those deemed ‘undesirable’. Sir Francis Galton, scientist and cousin of Charles Darwin, coined the word ‘eugenics’ in 1883. Eugenics was to be ‘the study of the agencies under social control which may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations physically and mentally’. The study and implementation of Eugenic policies, such as sterilisation and forced imprisonment in asylums, was rising in popularity and was operated in some way across Europe. In 1912, the first International Congress of Eugenics was hosted by London University to discuss populations and changes. The aftermath of the First World War also promoted the science of Eugenics, and affected social and welfare policies relating to citizens, with some attempting to improve life for societies ‘desirables’.
Anti-Semitism, namely the hatred of Jews, was not unique either in the period. Preceding the Second World War, there were numerous attacks on Jews and denunciation in the media, highlighted in the Russian Pogroms and Aliens Restriction Acts of 1905 and 1919 in Great Britain. Jewish refugees were not always welcomed and there were many discriminatory measures against Jews, including the Nuremburg Laws introduced in Germany in 1935 that undermined their ‘citizen’ status and demoted Jews to subjects. Anti-Semitism was a major feature in Hitler’s addresses and Nazi policy, though it is unclear how planned the Holocaust and Final Solution were. Anti-Semitism was one part of policy to create a racially homogenous, focused, national community – the Volksgemeinschaft.
To what extent were the German citizens willing executioners? Did the German citizens agree with the policies or fight against them? Research about consent, coercion and willingness in Nazi Germany.
The Final Solution
The term ‘Final Solution’ (Die Endlösung) was a euphemism. The Final Solution refers to the Nazi ‘solution’ to the ‘Jewish Question’, and was a Nazi plan for the genocide of Jews during the Second World War. The Final Solution was likely impacted by the war and occupation of Europe, which saw the acquisition of many European Jews. As the Nazi regime invaded regions and nations for ‘lebensraum‘ (living space), the Jewish Question grew. In Western Poland, ethnic Germans were expected to be repatriated to the Reich, which required the expulsion of a million Poles and Jews, who were driven east to the Nazi-controlled satellite of Poland known as the Generalgouvernement (General Government).
Although several notable high-ranking Jewish and Polish officials were murdered, the policy of genocide was not yet on the agenda, rather moving the Jews to temporary ghettos and proposing they were re-patriated to Madagascar. It was not until 1941 was the Madagascan plan quelled, not long after hundreds of Jews had already perished in the ghettos. Moreover, resettlement was still the preferred method, and using the Jewish population as a form of slave labour. The Nazis accepted more deaths in the march to new settlements and while in work, but had not necessarily co-ordinated the death camps or Final Solution.
Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the U.S.S.R, likely contributed to the violence of the Nazi Regime and development of the Final Solution. The Einsatzgruppen followed the army into the Soviet Union, a select military squad that murdered Jews and Russians, including women and children. Sometimes the army soldiers were also involved in the ‘race war’ (Rassenkrieg) on the Eastern Front and contributed to the killings. The soldiers would typically use guns and gas-vans to carry out their executions, though concerns grew of the efficiency of this process, as well as the impact on the morale of soldiers.
Mass shootings by soldiers and Einsatzgruppen and the use of the mobile gas vans took time and energy. Towards the end of 1941, before the Wannsee Conference, the Nazis begun construction on purpose built camps that incorporated large gas chambers. Belzec was the first ‘death camp’ and came into operation in February 1942, killing people with carbon monoxide. The extermination still appeared slow, and the ‘Jewish Question’ was further exacerbated by orders to exterminate all Jews in the General Government of Poland before the end of 1942. After the slowness of killing, and issue relating to disposing of the remains, the bulk of killing was moved to Auschwitz, where people had been killed since September 1941. Auschwitz comprised of four ‘crematoria’ buildings which incorporated the gas chambers and incineration chambers.
People identified for extermination in official Nazi documents were listed as those to be given ‘special treatment’ (Sonderbehandlung), sometimes abbreviated to ‘SB’, and from roughly mid-1943 the term ‘special lodging’ (Sonderunterbringung) was also used. Records are difficult to ascertain, however it is believed roughly two-thirds of the arrivals at Auschwitz-Birkenau were classified as ‘unfit for work’ and were marched straight to the gas chambers. It is possible there were as many as 1,334,700 victims: 1,323,000 Jews; 6,430 Gypsies; 1,065 Soviet prisoners of war; 3,655 others, mainly Poles.
Was the Holocaust planned? Have a look at the evidence and plans and determine if you believe the Nazis planned for the Holocaust, or, if they reacted to the European Jewry. ‘Intentionalists’ stress Hitler’s ideology and vision of the Holocaust evident in policies, however ‘Functionalists’ place less emphasis on planning and more a reaction to the regimes issues during the war.
Have a think and try to imagine those responsible for the killings? What image do you conjure? Have a think in a group about the type of people you believe responsible, such as; Were they hard-line Nazis? Were they obsessed with the military? Were they anti-Semitic?
Now it’s time to look at those doing the killings. You’ll be surprised to know that those responsible for murdering the Jews and ‘undesirables’ were not what you expected.
- Former Prisoner-of-War Camp veterans. Usually comprised of Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Latvians, those seen as racially inferior, but not as inferior as the Jews. They were trained by the SS, and had the brutal work of driving Jews from their home and killing the weak and infirm. Some worked in death camps where they outnumbered the German veterans.
- Career policemen too old to go to the front or some young men, some avoiding conscription. Like the Reserve Battalion 101, which saw career policemen who volunteered as ‘Order Police’ get trained for the role. Some of these men had average lifestyles and upbringing, some were working or middle class, and had little or no affiliation to the Nazi Party.
- Bureaucrats who kept a distance from killing. There were a number of people involved in the bureaucratic filing and reporting on the deaths, people who were away from the violence, but participated in it. They could have co-ordinated forces or ranks, or simply created reports about the deaths or distributed information.
Notably, the German veterans, such as those of the Battalion 101, were given a choice to participate in the killings, which included women, children and the old – whereas such men were accustomed to killing able-bodied men or soldiers. Those who refused were subsequently given tough or unpleasant tasks to act as a deterrent, though some suffered no repercussions. Some men could not cope with the killing and the morale of men was noted, and they were moved to other duties. However, many agreed to the murder of the Jews and followed orders, becoming desensitised over the repeated actions. Later on, some of those responsible would leave the work to the ‘Hiwis’, Hilfswilliger or auxiliary volunteer.