From the time Adolf Hitler became the dictator of Germany in January 1933, until the surrender of his Third Reich at the end of World War II in May 1945, Hitler’s Nazi-led government engaged in two wars. One was a declared war of military expansion against the nations of Europe, which began with the 1939 invasion of Poland and reached its peak in mid-1942 when German armies occupied much of the continent and had penetrated deep into the Soviet Union. The other was a war against the Jews of Europe, the persecution and mass murder, hidden at first from the rest of the world that came to be known as the Holocaust.
Even when the tide of war turned against Germany in 1943, and became clearly hopeless with the mid-1944 Allied invasion of Europe, the mass killing of Jews continued with increased ferocity, eventually claiming six million lives. In addition, the Nazis also put to death an estimated five million Gypsies (or Roma), Slav peoples, homosexuals, mentally retarded people, and people with handicaps, all of whom were considered “inferior” to the pure “Aryan” race. The term “holocaust,” however, which means “destruction by fire,” refers specifically to the Nazis’ systematic destruction of Jews. As Elie Wiesel puts it, “Not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims.”
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Hitler’s horrifying scheme was foreshadowed by his denunciation of “the Jewish conspiracy” in his 1923 book Mein Kampf and fueled by German economic hardships that tapped deep currents of anti-Semitism, but to carry it out required the active, deliberate involvement of hundreds of thousands of people, both within Germany and in the occupied countries. It also required the silent acquiescence of millions of people throughout Europe, people who saw what was happening and either did nothing to stand in the way or else took part by turning in neighbours or joining the rush to take over Jewish homes and possessions.
The first Nazi concentration camps were established early in Hitler’s regime, at the German towns of Dachau (1933) and Buchenwald (1937), and used primarily as prisons and a source of forced labour. But the conquest of Poland in 1939 brought new development, as that country’s Jews were herded into ghettos at such cities as Krakow, Warsaw, and Lodz in a first step toward transporting them all to concentration camps. By 1940, mass murder and “euthanasia” in special “gas vans” was in progress, and with the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Nazi Einsatzgruppen (“strike squads”) began mass killings of Jews in the captured territory, such as the machine-gunning of 33,000 Jews at the Babi Yar ravine near Kyiv in September 1941. Systematically, the ghettos in Poland and elsewhere were brutally liquidated, and the survivors sent to special extermination camps, such as Auschwitz and Treblinka. Then, in January 1942, at the infamous Wannsee Conference, the Nazi high command sanctioned the so-called “final solution,” a plan for the total destruction of all European Jews in the extermination camps’ gas chambers.
Nazi leaders tried to keep the mass killings secret, but words leaked out quite early in the scheme. The United States government, for example, had confirmed reports of atrocities by 1942. For the most part, however, the outside world paid little attention. American and British officials met to discuss the matter in Bermuda in 1943 but accomplished little. It was not until early in 1944 that the United States even established a special War Refugee Board (which eventually did help in the rescue of approximately 200,000 Jews).
In July 1944, the Red Army liberated the Majdanek concentration camp, and within the next sixth months, all the Nazi extermination camps were liberated by Soviet or American troops, many of whom, although hardened by years of battle and death, were shocked by what they encountered there. Only then did the world begin to learn the full extent of what the Nazis had been doing over the past 12 years.
The results: not counting millions of civilian deaths from “regular” military actions, some 12-14 million human beings were murdered by the Nazis, including six million Jews-more than two-thirds of Europe’s prewar Jewish population, and more than had been slain in anti-Semitic pogroms during the previous 18 centuries.
Hitler is appointed chancellor of Germany (as leader of the largest political party) by President von Hindenburg, the head of the Government-decreed boycott of Jewish business. The concentration camp for “undesirables” established at Dachau. Jews banned from courts and government agencies. Jewish quota established for schools and colleges. Jews banned from college teaching posts. Jews banned from cultural enterprises (music, film, theatre, etc.). Jews banned from journalism. Jewish food preparation rituals prohibited.
Marriage and extramarital relations between Jews and non-Jews prohibited. Jewish citizenship and civil rights revoked. Jews was forbidden to display the German flag.
Jews required to report all financial interests and property.
Jews was forbidden to practice law or medicine. Jews required to carry identification cards at all times. Jews required to assume the names “Israel” if male, “Sarah” if female. Jews required to turn in passports so they can be stamped to identify them as Jews. Jewish religious institutions placed under government control.
Thousands of Jewish men arrested and sent to forced labour camps. Kristallnacht (November 9, 1938): Government-sanctioned night of anti-Jewish riots – synagogues burned, homes looted and businesses destroyed, Jews was beaten, tortured, arrested or killed. Jewish newspapers and journals outlawed. Jewish children expelled from schools. Jews prohibited from public places – theatres, concerts, museums, etc. Jewish businesses closed and Jewish business activity prohibited. Jews taxed to pay for Kristallnacht property damage.
Administration of Jewish affairs placed under Gestapo control. Detailed procedures established for government resale and reuse of confiscated Jewish property. Conquest of Poland: Jews systematically rounded-up and relocated to urban ghettos; Jewish businesses, homes, and property confiscated; Jews required to wear the Star of David; many Jews moved from ghettos to forced labour camps.
Invasion of Russia: Jews systematically executed as villages come under German control. Gas chambers for mass execution constructed near Polish ghettos – Auschwitz Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Majdanek, and Treblinka.
Wannsee Conference completes planning for the “Final solution.” Jews rounded up for mass execution in Nazi gas chambers in Germany and German-controlled countries: France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy, Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Greece, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania.
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