Anti-Semitism had been around in Europe for hundreds of years. Pogroms, attacks on Jewish communities, took place long before the Nazis took power.
The Nazis opened Dachau concentration camp near Munich, on March 22, 1933, to be followed by Buchenwald near Weimar in central Germany, Sachsenhausen near Berlin in northern Germany, and Ravensbrück for women. At first intellectuals were targeted for deportation, and then “undesirables” like the retarded or criminally insane.
The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 prevented a diverse group of people from holding government jobs, teaching in schools and universities, or owning or operating businesses. This group included Jews, homosexuals, communists, socialists, evangelical Christians, Gypsies, and those critical of the Nazis. The laws defined who was “racially” pure.
Germans got used to the disappearance of their neighbors. Many Germans supported the deportations as a necessary part of reclaiming German national pride. Thousands were sent to concentration camps between 1933 and 1939. Jews were deported after Kristallnacht on November 9, 1938. At first these deportations did not mean automatic death. The camps were holding areas for political prisoners.
After the fall of Poland in September 1939, SS Chief of the Reich Central Security Office (RSHA) Reinhardt Heydrich questioned his subordinates about the future of Polish Jews. Already some of the SS had murdered Polish Jews by gunfire. Heydrich decreed on September 21, 1939, that Jews would be rounded up and forced into urban ghettoes, the largest of which were the ghettoes of Warsaw and Lodz.
The Ghettoes were infested with vermin and disease, and the Germans kept cramming more and more Jews into them. Some were taken to slave labor camps, while the rest were put on half rations. Synagogues were wrecked, and Jews were forced to dance around the burning Torahs.
Also in 1941 the Germans set up the Vernichtungslager (Death Camps). Unlike the slave labor camps, where prisoners worked until they died, the Death Camps sole purpose was to dispose of human life.
The largest camp was in Auschwitz, Poland. Unlike any other camp because it was both a labor and a death camp, Auschwitz was set up on January 25, 1940. By 1943, 6,000 people were dying each day. By 1944 the camp’s death apparatus was expanded to 12,000 a day. Other Death Camps included Treblinka, Maidenek, Sobibor, Belsec, and Chelmno. The camps were all in Poland, which had a large Jewish population and well-built rail system. With the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, many more untermenschen (subhumans) fell under the domination of the Third Reich. Without a written order, following verbal instructions, the SS set about wiping out Soviet Jewry with Einsatzgruppen (Action Groups) roving bands of executioners that shot all the Jews they could find. In Babi Yar, Ukraine, Jews were shot and killed over two days and covered with dirt in a ravine near Kiev. Without any idea of what was in store for them, the Germans sent out notices for Jews to come to the ravine. Expecting 4,000 Jews, the Germans were stunned when 35,000 showed up. All were killed.
Other camps were set up so the Germans could separate potential slave labor from people who were killed immediately to reduce the need for food. Forced marches were killing hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Jewish Poles, as they were sent around Occupied Europe to slave labor factories. Thousands more died as they were marched away from the Red Army.
On January 20, 1942, RSHA officials including Heydrich and Adolf Eichmann met in a suburb of Berlin called Wannsee. The Wannsee Conference set up what Hermann Goering termed the “Final Solution”-the destruction of all of European Jewry. Plans were drawn up to move 11,000,000 people through the death camps to be killed-“treated accordingly” according to the official minutes recorded by Adolf Eichmann, who took notes at the conference and set up the mass deportations.
The conference reflected a grim reality among the Einsatzgruppen. The SS soldiers tasked with shooting Jews in mass executions were experiencing debilitating post-traumatic stress and some were refusing to continue. Even Heinrich Himmler himself, chief of the SS, was reported to have vomited when he attended a mass execution in the Soviet Union in 1941. He ordered the exhumation and cremation of all Einsatzgruppen victims to prevent anyone from learning of the Action Groups’ effectiveness.
The Nazis also believed they were not killing Jews and their other enemies fast enough. Gassing with Zykon-B, adapted from an insecticide, began in January 1942. More efficient than the Einsatzgruppen, the gas chambers set up at many concentration camps meant more people could be killed and the bodies disposed of by cremation or mass burial.
During 1942 the mass deportations began. From every occupied country in the Reich Jews and other Nazi enemies were sent to slave labor camps or killed in the gas chambers.
News outlets in the west were aware of the camps and the mass death early in the war.
In the camps, the prisoners were stripped of clothes, glasses, and personal possessions. Hair was shaved off and used to make mattresses for the U-boats. Gold was extracted from teeth. Souvenirs were made out of tattoos, skulls, and soap was rendered out of human fat. The prisoners were bathing in their fellow prisoners’ remains.
At many camps, prisoners were subjected to degrading experiments. Women were subjected to new methods of forced sterilization. Dr. Josef Mengele, the camp doctor at Auschwitz, arrived in 1943 and conducted hideous experiments on creating Aryan traits using pairs of twins.
The victims sometimes resisted. At Sobibor, three hundred survivors led a revolt that saw only fifty survive to escape into nearby woods. Sobibor was destroyed and planted over with trees. 250,000 died at Sobibor before it was closed.
The most famous resistance was the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of January 18 – May 16, 1943. Some 650 lightly armed Jews attacked SS guards with sniper fire and killed forty. One thousand Jews were executed in reprisal but resistance grew most intense. For four months, as many as twenty resistance cells fought individual battles with the Nazis and their Polish and Ukrainian allies. The Germans even withdrew for a time. Holding a perimeter that continually shrank, they used underground tunnels for passage between city blocks. On Passover, April 19, 1943, Brigadeführer Jürgen Stroop and 2,000 men invaded the last stronghold, systemically leveling every block with dynamite after four days of bitter and vicious fighting. On May 16, Stroop reported to his superiors that the Ghetto had been leveled and 56,000 Jews were dead. The “Stroop Report” contained photographs of the reduction of the Warsaw Ghetto. Only two copies survived the war; one was captured by the Americans, and one is in Poland.
United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt decried German and Japanese “crimes against humanity” in 1944. The term “genocide” was coined to describe the Nazi mass slaughter.
As 1944 ended, the advance of the Allies forced the closure of many camps, including Auschwitz. Thousands of prisoners died as they were marched into the interior. Corpses were burned three or four at time to speed up the destruction of the evidence. As the Allies and the Soviets advanced on Germany’s borders, thousands were shot or gassed in mass executions. When the Allies liberated the camps, they were unprepared for the horror that awaited them. The British described the road leading to Bergen-Belsen as “paved with human bodies and excrement.” The prisoners continued to die despite emergency treatment by medical staff. There was simply no way to stop the starving and exhausted prisoners from succumbing to disease and hunger.
Outraged prisoners killed SS guards and their Capos. Some SS men tried to hide among the prisoners, but the Allies had the prisoners pick them out. SHAEF commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, touring Ohrdruf concentration camp, was shocked and ordered the local German population to be turned out to view the horror. Germans everywhere near the camps claimed to not know their true purpose.
After the war, the millions of people held by the Germans in camps became part of the great migration of Displaced Persons (DPs.) Trying to get home, trying to find if their loved ones survived, the DPs carried the news of the Holocaust all over the world.
The Nuremberg War Crimes Trials after the war executed many of the surviving Nazis who had organized the camps and run the Einsatzgruppen. Others escaped to South America. In 1962, Israeli agents kidnapped Adolf Eichmann and put him on trial. At his death he was said to be unrepentant for his participation in the deaths of six million Jews and five to six million others.
The Holocaust is the lasting legacy of Nazi Germany. Reparations were paid to Holocaust survivors, and the Holocaust was still an issue into the 1990s as millions in Nazi gold and art taken from Holocaust victims was discovered in European bank accounts.